Black Bears and Brown Boxes, or Fall Storage

The topic of storage when discussed in New Hampshire, landed quickly upon acorns and chipmunks: specifically, how you find acorns in funny places. In Montana, where we organized a family wedding brunch earlier this months, it was apples and black bears. The bears are actually quite timid, says my uncle the cattle rancher, and they’d much rather be up in the mountains keeping to themselves. They come down to human-tended apple trees in order to fatten up for the winter, and in doing so thrill the daylights out of many a dude ranch visitor or Yellowstone tourist.

Here in Boston, buttoning up our storage means reviewing paper files, digital folders, photos, and well-labeled boxes. Like many businesses, we are reducing, but not eliminating, our holdings of paper files this fall, having recently increased our use of cloud-based storage services. One signs up for a one-hour technical workshop with the starry-eyed hopes of organizing a lifetime of family photos. Alongside all storage successes, we inevitably reconsider the business, identifying opportunities and pruning out old categories. There follows better organization of the mind.

We fully intend to have a library someday for the company. It can’t be where we work or live now, so we have started boxing up books by categories that correspond to our areas of expertise. The brown boxes full of books are “interleaved” or “void-filled” with newsprint (technical terms courtesy of the Uline catalog) for safekeeping in case it takes awhile to get the right space.

Why save hardcover and paperback books at all? Do they have a place anymore in our precious real estate, whether homes or offices, urban, suburban, or rural? The best answer comes from Harvard Librarian John Overholt via Twitter: “The highest purpose of the library is to serve as the armory of the truth, to defend it against lies that serve the powerful.”

In business, of course, we want to be powerful at times, but in the course of our negotiations, we must be above all fair and truthful. Planning a library is imagining being able to pluck just the right book off the shelf in the home office library and answer any question at all! This fall, orderly brown boxes are comfort enough, and putting them away opens the door to planning for what’s next in life and in business.

Qualifying Leads Quickly and Passionately

How can you get to the heart of the matter quickly and thoroughly when facing a great design opportunity? I wrote about lead qualification for design firms here not too long ago and here I expand the list of questions that are often helpful to bring up — the earlier the better.

1. Is this a transformational opportunity for the client?

2. Is this a transformational opportunity for our firm?

3. Do we have an advocate inside the client organization?

4. Will our portfolio resonate with the client? Which projects, specifically?

5. Can we meet the basic requirements of the RFP, such as the right number of built projects in a certain sector?

6. Do we have the right internal team to bring to the interview? (It’s wise to think thoroughly about roles and responsibilities from the client standpoint early on.)

7. Are the right subconsultants available?

8. Do we have a unique approach or other differentiator given the likely competition?

9. Is there enough lead time to get the proposal done?

10. What would you add to this list?

Quips from Fred Allen, Senior Editor at Forbes

Found these gems in a notebook. (I heard Fred Allen speak at a workshop of the Association of Management Consulting Firms earlier this year.)

1. It’s 2013, nobody pays for ideas, they pay for execution. (On the many freelance consultants employed by his online magazine)

2. CEO’s are generally curious people. (On his main type of interviewee)

3. Headlines should be crystal-clear, accurate, and provocative. (We humble marketers don’t have the platform that journalists do, but nonetheless, we can use this advice.)

3 Assignments for a New Leader

1. What inspires you about the brand or firm you have inherited? Write a short visionary statement.
2. What aspect of the business most troubles you? Draft a chapter on this topic for a new and improved version of your firm’s personnel handbook.
3. Say you work 50 hours a week. How might you reassign 10 of those hours to better align with your vision for change in the firm? This change in how you spend your time will model new behaviors throughout the organization.

Charm, or You Had Me at Hello

I received a few questions after a talk last week. Any excuse to work charm into an answer is very welcome.

Q: So many times I have been in interviews where my teammates seem to feel that they need to present their level of related knowledge, rather than make the effort to connect the dots. 

A: A facilitator – such as a marketing expert or the CEO/President – is in the best position to gently move people away from displaying knowledge and toward the promised land of making three compelling points that are properly supported. This in turn comes from our understanding of the client, the project, and the competition, which requires research beforehand.

Q: How to get around this expectation of the interviewers to see “THE” solution in 30 minutes from people they’ve never spoken to before. What is wrong with these people and how can we get around that barrier in the first three minutes?

A: This is where charm comes in. Often a way to ease your way into their hearts is to make sure you understand the problem correctly. Literally: “We would like to start by reframing the problem you’re having here at XYZ campus. It’s entirely possible that things have changed or that we don’t have the complete picture, so with your permission [this is key, you want to get them nodding along], let’s review the acute facilities situation at XYZ campus.”

A Simple Guide to Interview Confidence

The prospect of giving a client presentation can give anyone a case of the willies, and in the case of an interview, the stakes are very high. The team wants to win the job, but can they make a persuasive 30-minute case to the decision-makers? Here is the perspective of one marketer who enjoys helping teams identify their own best advantage in the face of tough competition.

Repeat Thrice
Humans do pretty well remembering three things. For this reason, I break our unique selling proposition (USP) into three simple ideas whenever possible. When getting ready for an interview, we forge three main points to offer up to the decision-making body. What three things do we want them to remember about us so they select us as the winning team?
Another way to look at this is to remember the five-paragraph essay format you may have learned in middle school or junior high:

  • Introduction
  • Body paragraph 1
  • Body paragraph 2
  • Body paragraph 3
  • Conclusion

Great orators reiterate the structure when giving an oral presentation, because recalling it helps the listener stay oriented. Try this formula next time you are called upon to give a pitch or persuasive speech:

  • Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em; then
  • Tell ‘em; then
  • Tell ‘em what you told ‘em.

Team & Strategy
Due to our work on proposals, marketing professionals know how essential it is to pin down the team and the strategy. Likewise, interview preparation goes very smoothly when two things are clear: (1) what are the speakers’ roles and responsibilities and (2) what is the strategy to win?

Getting clear on the team is a process of understanding why exactly each person is in the room. Normally to an interview we can only bring a handful of people, and at first the choice might seem simple, for example, we are bringing the principal-in-charge, the project manager, and a key specialist. However, during discussion it often turns out that the people were chosen to participate for more unique reasons, and these reasons can be real differentiators against the competition. For example, the interior designer might have deep experience in senior living, which could be highly relevant to the project and a weak line of business for the competition.

Very often I see interview preparation bog down when people are drafting the slide deck. The natural instinct for designers to collect a million visual aids is not necessarily a bad thing, but we have to recognize it for what it is: the research phase. In sixth grade, when I wrote my first big paper –on Martin Luther King, Jr. –I was taught to put each fact or idea on a separate notecard and then lay them all around the room to organize my thinking about his life and speeches. I have a dream …

I have worked with many frustrated graphic designers who turn to me and say at this moment, “This deck has two hundred slides in it! How am I going to format and clean these up in time?” When I hear that, I know it’s time to talk to the top person on the team about their strategy, because they may not have whittled it down far enough. What effect do they want to have on the decision-makers, what are the three most important points, and then, which slides best support the three important points, and in which order?

Where Is the Love?
If the top person on the team is bucking like a bronco and not getting very far with strategy, we look for the love. Some call it passion, others call it a nexus of energy. Whatever the term, it is difficult for a project team immersed in preparation to recognize, yet easy for a facilitator. When the group is struggling to identify their best angles or most relevant work and then suddenly pivot, all pointing to something while speaking excitedly, they have found the love. It happens a few more times, typically during discussion, and these moments are what the facilitator must jot down. Very likely, these points can be arranged into a winning outline.

In Conclusion
With true love found, team and strategy identified, and a promise of working to a simple three-part outline, it’s time to return to that terribly long deck of slides and cull, cull, cull. When all the waste is removed, elegance remains. The visual aids now support the presentation, not the reverse.

BONUS video: Here is Nancy Duarte via the Harvard Business Review on very simple slides:

A wise plant ma…

A wise plant manager once told me that he didn’t want his foremen to do anything except to keep their department and the machines in it spotlessly clean, always to schedule work three days ahead, to insist on the newest equipment available and to replace tools before they gave out.

Peter Drucker, 1955

Database Administrator or Minister of Culture?

Many keepers of corporate culture complain: how can we “force” (their word choice) project managers to log data points and narratives at various milestones and thereby keep good records that enable marketing and business development staff to field new client inquiries about relevant work? The answer is simple and can be found in the Lean framework so popular today. Hire a marketing manager to keep a marketing database that is driven by the marketing department’s needs, and tie it to client billing.

I have known three firms within the last few years that struggle with maintenance of a marketing database. All three lack a marketing manager, or marketing database administrator. A fourth firm that boasts a healthy, well-utilized database, as well as high retention in marketing staff, has a different process. This firm requires all project management staff to send client setup forms and project initiation forms — information that typically goes straight to the billing office — to a marketing manager first.

The marketing manager examines the project data carefully for quality, records it in the database, assigns the root project number, sets up files per protocol, and then passes the form along to accounting. Essentially he or she is responsible for the marketing project database, which requires 1-2 hours per day to maintain. The rest of his or her day is spent utilizing this rich database. This marketing output work provides feedback to the job of quality-checking the input data that comes from those responsible for profit and loss and their project managers. The marketing manager is the link between what clients require — the “pull” in Lean-speak — and what information the project staff provide about current and recent projects. As it grows in size, quality and relevance, the database serves all marketing staff very well, so they in turn can serve internal and external clients very well. Several goals are achieved: the marketing database facilitates nimble and thorough responses to new inquiries, while corporate culture keepers can breathe easier knowing that the firm’s intellectual property records are alive and well.

To be clear, I …

I am not saying that outbound cold calling is a “new” strategy, but I am shocked at how many people have proclaimed that using the telephone to source opportunities is dead. We have proven this model to be extremely successful, and have tied incentives to ensure that we are promoting the right behavior. For instance, we reward our inside sales team for setting up qualified appointments and provide an additional bonus if their appointments turn into closed deals. Lists on the internet are in abundance, and should be leveraged to their fullest capacity. In my experience, if you are calling a prospect with genuine intent to uncover whether a problem or pain exists, and are respectful and intelligent in your dialog, you will uncover great opportunities at every turn.

From Russell Sachs at WorkMarket, via Fred Wilson of