the how

How we work is as important as what we do.  Looking back on the last couple of days, there were a number of meetings (some great, some not great), a bunch of informal conversations (part project related, part witty team banter), one very brief perusal of a management memo, and some sweet time for independent analysis and writing. All in all a good week made up mostly of activities I like or, at least, don't make have to muffle my screams in my cup of half-caff.

I believe the frustration (or exasperation some weeks) we all have from time to time is less about what we're working on and more about feeling not in control of how we spend our days.

I made this super simple model to think about percentage-wise how I've been spending my time at work.  The categories are intentionally broad and the percentages are rough guesses.  Precision wasn't the goal here.

the how.png

I propose a quick exercise for next week.  On Sunday night or Monday early, take a look at your calendar and assign rough percentages of anticipated time to the major categories-- meetings, informal communications, formal communications, and independent work. Proactively, make any adjustments you can to get the week more in line with your ideal "how." 

Then, at the end of the week, do the same thing retrospectively. Where did obligations pop up, when did meetings take less or more time, were there more extra off-the-record chats with colleagues, etc. Any observations stand out? This first step in building personal awareness.  The second is taking back some control of how we spend our time and better navigate the inevitable waves.

So, we all know this happens to us on a personal level but the same dynamic happens on our project teams-- with the impact magnified. Once we have a chance to observe the "how" for a little while, the alternations needed become more obvious and might look like a commitment to have fewer meetings, spend less time fooling with executive memos, more time tapping into informal communication challenges, and fencing off quiet, uninterrupted time for independent thinking.

can you really manage change?

Creating a service offering called change management has to be one of the most brilliant consulting moves ever.  It's like selling fresh air.  Clients everywhere perk up when it's mentioned.  For a moment, they can imagine a time and place where the team expertly pulls levers and pushes buttons at just the right points during implementation.  Everyone gets in line and is delighted with the new policy, technology, seating arrangement, whatever.

There are some interesting dynamics at play.  One is the belief that everyone else (other agencies in this case) have an easier time because they have more money, more leadership support, more homogeneity, more control. 

Other organizations projects generally look rosier from afar-- the farther the better.  (Shhh, they're not.  They're actually just as messy if not more.) Another is a belief that communications can fix just about anything.  If we just tell the "stakeholders" again, they'll get it and stop acting like toddlers. Yet another is that implementation was never supposed to be this hard-- everything looked so straightforward during the demo!

The desire to manage the chaos and move forward is, of course, a great goal.  And, much of the change management stuff won't hurt but we can overestimate the degree to which it can help either.  

Instead, finding an easier path should be about two things-- 1) going with the grain-- using your organization's strengths and 2) sticking to it. 

compatible beats consistent

Every time.

Consistent communication is often tossed out as "should" for executive leaders, program directors, division chiefs, parents, and other bossy-types. Whether we're talking to our staff, our teams, or our clients, part of the idea is that we hit the same points over and over again-- so, consistent messaging. The other part of the idea is that we build expectations around when and how-- so, consistent delivery.

The rationale is that repetition (especially when the message is coming from a variety of sources) increases both understanding and the perception that the team has it's act together. Maybe but...

I met a prospective client recently who was looking for some advice on how to revamp their communications strategy. From their own admission, they have been recycling the same PowerPoint slides for years. Over time, their message has been refined and edited and polished to perfection.  Except, at almost every turn, they get pushback from "the field".  So the response to date has been-- tell 'em again.  They have achieved consistency! Unfortunately, consistency does little to increase resonance-- especially with a broad, diverse audience like many of our federal clients address through their programs. 

By picking only one message and one delivery mechanism, we certainly check the box on consistency but we're likely to reach a portion of the audience at the exclusion of others.  We miss the opportunity to shape the message to meet multiple perspectives and use all available channels. 

Instead, message compatibility has a far better chance of moving an audience to action or changing beliefs.  The goal is to create messages that share a common platform but are free to take whatever shape needed to be most compelling.  So, instead of striving for consistency, an alternative approach would be to:

  1. Take a quick but honest look at communication efforts to date.  Where have there been missed opportunities to reach someone because we were afraid to veer off message and lose consistency?
  2. Next, create a handful of personas that represent the various viewpoints within our target audience. 
  3. Consider each one and craft messages around our key points that best address their issues. In some cases, the message might be similar but require greater variety in delivery.  In other cases, the messages might be wildly different. 
  4. Get immediately comfortable with running multiple related but unique messages simultaneously through every available channel. (Pssst, this is happening anyway!)
  5. Periodically test capability by reaching out to a couple of recipients.  Nothing fancy, just call and ask.

Message compatibility has a much greater chance to change minds or compel action-- especially for a diverse audience-- because we're proactively addressing the viewpoints they care most about.

standing meeting

Every week for me starts with a mix of excitement and dread. When it comes down to it, the stir comes from reviewing at my calendar*. It's perpetually populated with a mix of standing meetings (most) and a handful of one-offs such as project kick-offs, coffee catch-ups, performance check-ins, and interventions from our editor on my addiction to hyphens (fewer).

Studies report we spend about 50% of our time in meetings.  In a 60 hour work week, that's 30 hours. (I didn't even need Excel for that math.)  Many of us feel that's about 30 hours (or more if you count the time spent bitching about the meeting with colleagues) wasted.

In my experience, one-off meetings are typically less bad.  It's the standing meetings that kill me.  Standardized agendas lack sparkle and most people (if they show up) are only paying attention when it's their turn to report. Little is accomplished. Time slips away. Stevie Nicks is singing Landslide in your head.  Not good.

Standing meetings are deeply rooted in how we work that canceling them all at once might cause some disruption in the universe.  Instead, one by one you could convert these standing meetings to standing meetings- literally. 

A tip I found all over the web to increase office productivity is to host meetings in common areas with sufficient space for people to gather-- standing up.  The idea is that people are more fully engaged, the meeting is shorter, and no one risks overturning a chair if they have the urge to flee. Just ignore the eye-rolling and sarcastic comments and give it a shot.

*Warning:  Looking at the week ahead too early on a Sunday has the potential to ruin your weekend... and I actually love my job!

Book Report: Rock Your First Job

My friend, Andrew Lavanway, recently wrote and published his first book, Rock Your First Job.  Actually, he's my husband's friend officially but I want to be his friend too.  I'll admit to an itty bitty bias but you know what?  It's really good!  Seriously.

In less than 100 pages, Andrew managed to capture the spectrum of big to small (but all important) behaviors that make a difference early in one's career. Rock Your First Job is easy to read and follow and even pull out as a reference from time to time.

With practical points, I could see this book helping recent grads or folks entering new career fields.  I'd even go as far to say that it could help managers be more clear and objective with their feedback. Now, we could all be better at that!

So obviously I think its a great read.  However, I'm also fascinated by the process of someone saying they're going to write a book, actually writing it, then publishing (in this case through Amazon) for the benefit of many.  So, that part is really cool. 

Knowing the author, the other thing that struck me was that he hit the sweet spot by picking the perfect time in this career to write THIS book.  He's experienced enough in management that he credibly brings the corporate perspective.  But, he's also young enough to recall what it's like to land that first job and struggle to adapt.

It got me thinking that we're all, today, at that sweet spot for something-- bringing the fresh but not raw and experienced by not dusty viewpoint to an issue.  What's yours?

beat this

The root of my frustration with federal procurement is its inherent wastefulness.  No, I didn't douse myself in patchouli this morning to rant about energy wasted running laptops late into the night before a submission deadline or wasted paper printing out multiple copies of technical and pricing volumes or even the wasted water from flushing the toilet after drinking so much crappy office coffee.

No.  The procurement process wastes effort and ideas. 

Every day, thousands of hours are spent chasing work that will never materialize.  Of course, someone will win but far more will bid and lose. With a loss, all of the effort invested in preparing the RFP response is lost like heat to the universe.  Waah.  Of all of the time spent, a portion was spent in thoughtful consideration of the client's problem. (A bunch more was likely spent in silly internal color team meetings that boil down to wordsmithing and formatting but I'll save that rant for another day.)

On the contracting side, we know that clients often have someone in mind long before they issue a competitive RFP.  Well-intentioned contracting regulations, however, make it difficult-- or impossible-- for clients to save everyone else the hassle and just say this.

A more upfront, transparent approach would be better.  How about this process instead? 

A federal client identifies a need. During the course of trying to address this need, they encounter someone who pitches a solution they like and think just might work.  Instead of then going through the motions of a competitive RFP, the client would issue a "beat this" notice.  Specifically, they'd describe the need, the end goal, the approach they're strongly considering, the solution provider (oh yeah, you'd have to name names), and the price they were willing to pay.  The "beat this" notice would invite others to do just that... try to beat it.

As a contractor, you could then determine whether or not you could offer a better approach, a lower price, faster timeline, or whatever. Then you'd put a counter offer for consideration.

This alternative procurement strategy ensures that the government still gets a good-- or even better-- deal.  The client need and favored approach is cracked open for all to see.  Armed with this information, contractors could do a little sole-searching to figure out whether or not they really had a better, cheaper, faster offering. Time and effort is saved on both sides.  Federal clients don't have to review proposals that don't meet their needs and contractors chase work with better awareness of the competition and their win probability.

all about that

Need a little inspiration for your next project status meeting? 

Look no further than Meghan Trainor's hit "All About That Bass".  It's crass, catchy, completely inappropriate, and, coincidentally, just what I'm in the mood for on this sticky Tuesday. 

How does this relate to management consulting? 

First, you probably heard this in the car about 45 times while driving between client meetings today. Second, Meghan is working those communications best practices.  Her message is simple, clear, and memorable because she repeats it, and repeats it, and...  No one would leave a meeting with her wondering, "what's she all about?"  It's that bass!

Because you know I’m
All about that bass
‘Bout that bass, no treble
I’m all about that bass
‘Bout that bass, no treble
I’m all about that bass
‘Bout that bass, no treble
I’m all about that bass
‘Bout that bass
— Meghan Trainor, All About That Bass

Call it a comeback

On Memorial Day this year, our third child dropped into our lives and, boy, was he in a hurry. At home for the last couple of weeks, I spent the time getting to know our littlest addition and tending to more domestic responsibilities-- our garden, cooking, online shopping, and trying to keep up with all 45 of Guy Fieri's shows on the Food network.  

So, I'm back and all of the worn out clichés apply. I just can't believe how the time flew by. As I shift back into professional mode, I'm looking forward to getting caught up on client issues, what's been done-- or not--, and other industry happenings. I hope to see you back here soon.