Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Australian Prime Minister and Evidence Based Public Policy

This post continues my series on the application of evidence based approaches in professional practice.

The new Australian Prime Minister has been placing great emphasis on the role of evidence in policy development. This is not just a matter of rhetoric.

At a Commonwealth-State officials meeting a week back, Commonwealth officials stated that with the new Government they were in a position to consider new things. However, they also commented on the PM's demand for evidence to support new policy proposals.

This type of demand is not, of course, new. A wide range of approaches have in fact been developed by Governments and researchers to try to improve decision making within the public sector.

Cost-benefit analysis is an early example, becoming popular during the fifties and sixties. This approach attempts to measure the costs and benefits expected from a project expressed in present value terms, allowing judgements to be made as to value.

Program evaluation is a second example. This discipline evolved in the US during the sixties because of the need to assess outcomes from major social programs introduced by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Program budgeting emerged during the same period, coming out of the US Defence Department. This approach attempted to express Government activities in terms of programs with sets of defined, measurable outcomes. Widely accepted, it forms the core of the input-output-outcome approaches so common now in public administration.

While evidence based approaches are common in public administration and in the professions surrounding public administration, it is not clear to me as a sometimes practitioner in the area that they actually work very well. In fact, I would argue that they are now having adverse effects on the efficiency and effectiveness of Government policy and programs.

There are a number of reasons for this.

To begin with, public policy involves more than simply measurable outcomes. Most policies and supporting programs involve a mix of objectives, some of which are not capable of easy quantification.

Then, too, the range of variables involved is wide, the interactions between variables uncertain.

But there is also, I think, insufficient focus on the effectiveness of various professional practices and their supporting tools. Put simply, we do try to measure outcomes from programs, but we do not assess the relative effectiveness of different ways of developing policies and programs. In this sense, public administration is a little like medicine before the development of evidence based medicine.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Clients are people too - looking after the client

In my last post I spoke of the need to recognise that clients are people to with their own needs, personalities and places within the organisation.

I now want to extend this analysis, focusing on the needs of clients as people working within organisations.

The management and business related professions as a whole face a problem. Too few of us have actually worked in management roles within organisations, too many of us have spent our whole careers in particular professional slices. Among other things, this can make us insensitive to the practical and political problems faced by our clients.

All organisations have their own structures, processes and cultures. We know this. In fact, many of us advise on ways of changing structures, cultures and processes.

Yet in all this, we can forget that our clients as people have to operate within organisations. To them, the structures, processes and cultures are a daily reality. Their ability to operate in an effective fashion depends critically upon the way that they are perceived within the organisation.

To illustrate by example.

A well recognised individual usually has power and influence extending well beyond their formal position. This makes it easier for them to do things.

Conversely, a poorly regarded individual's power and influence will normally be less than that notionally attached to their position. Their ability to do things is consequently reduced.

As consultants, we generally notice this because it affects our ability to do a job. If our direct client is well regarded, things become easier. Poorly regarded, and we strike delivery obstacles and road blocks.

How does this relate to our role? At one level, these are just things that we have to work around if we can. At a second level, we should never forget that that what we do affects the position of our direct personal client within the organisation.

If we do well, then the position of the individual client will improve. If we stuff up, then their position is likely to be damaged. So over and beyond but still subject to our professional obligations, I think that we have a responsibility to look after our clients. We need to be sensitive to the fact that failure on our part affects not just us, but also the client as a person.

This does not mean breaching professional standards. Rather, the requirement to be sensitive to the needs of and and to look after the client should be seen as one element in those standards.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Clients are people too - Introduction

It is sometimes easy to forget that clients are people too with their own personal needs and drives. This may sound dumb, after all we all know this. But failure to recognise this simple fact is a major cause of failure in consulting assignments.

The client-professional relationship is first and foremost a professional relationship. As professionals, we are hired to do a particular job in the best way that we can. Our formal client is usually an organisation, the person or people we deal with represent the organisation.

In all this, we forget the personal element at our peril.

The people that we deal with have their own personalities that affect the way we interact with them, as well as the way that they interpret our advice. We have to take this into account in the way we phrase things, in the processes that we follow in managing the assignment.

We also need to recognise and understand internal structures and relations within the organisations since these affect both decision processes and the people we deal with directly. While this, too, may seem self-evident, it is remarkable how often a simple question to consultants reveals that they do not in fact know anything about internal decision processes and structures affecting the assignment and the individuals they are dealing with.

This does not usually matter with straight forward assignments, although it may affect chances of getting follow up work since this can depend upon broader and positive exposure within the organisation.

However, it can matter greatly where the assignment links directly or indirectly to sensitive internal strategic or political issues that the consultant is simply unaware of. Here disaster may follow.

Knowledge of internal workings may not prevent this. However, it does increase your chances of at least identifying and managing the problem.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

On saying no to clients 2 - the importance of a discipline of practice

My last post dealt with the problems we all face in saying no to clients at the time we are seeking the assignment. In this post, I want to talk about how to say no to the client during the assignment itself.

This one is really hard. You have worked to get the job. Now, mid-way through delivery, the client may be demanding changes to scope, changes that add to costs. Sometimes the changes may only be small, yet the aggregate effect can be significant.

In fixed price charging, you see your profit margin shrinking. In time based charging, you see the client's bill blowing out.

As a second example, what do you do if it becomes clear that the assignment won't deliver the expected results? When and how do you explain this to the client? What do you do if a better approach emerges, but this requires changes to approach that will cost more?

A final example, one especially relevant to those working in a public policy environment. You have done the work, prepared a draft report. Now the client demands changes to the report. These may be a series of minor drafting changes that do not add to the substance, but simply reflect different drafting styles. But they can also involve requests to alter conclusions and arguments.

Management of these types of problems requires an effective and professional discipline of practice.

To begin with, you need to know job costs. If you are not keeping and/or monitoring your time records, then costs can blow out before you realise.

How often have I heard my independent colleagues suddenly complain towards the end of a job that they are losing money, essentially working for nothing? How often have you heard clients complain about the unexpected size of bills, or seen monthly performance reports suddenly show substantial write-downs?

If you know your costs, then you are in a much better position to manage client client requests. If the job is within budget, then you normally don't have to think about saying no. If the job is running or may run out of budget, you have to information you need to at least discuss the matter with the client.

Good cost records are a subset of a broader issue, the need for an effective and professional project or assignment management approach.

As a professional, you want to do the job in the most cost-effective way, given the specific client requirement. This includes identifying and resolving problems as early as possible. As a general rule, clients hate surprises. Jobs often blow up where a client is faced with a sudden, unexpected, problem.

A good project management approach also includes a process for agreeing variations to the scope of the assignment. I am not talking here so much about formal agreements, but rather a standard approach that ensures that you and the client are aware of and agree on the significance of changes.

This does not have to be complicated. A simple email noting agreed variations or actions is normally sufficient.

The key point to note is that you are the professional. You know or should know what is and has to be done, how much it is likely to cost. The client cannot be expected to know this. So, at least as I see it, you are responsible for alerting the client where a proposed change or action is likely to have significant effects on cost or outcomes.

Friday, November 09, 2007

On saying no to clients

In my recent post Professional Services - the importance of the diagnostic I talked about some of the reasons why consulting assignments failed. There is a linked issue, when to say no to clients.

Several years ago I was walking back from a meeting with a colleague. I took a call on the mobile from a client wanting me to bid on a job. I was polite, but indicated that I might not be able to do it.

After I finished the call, my colleague expressed surprise that I appeared not to want the work. I explained that I had had problems with this particular client before, that in my judgement the assignment was unlikely to be worth the effort involved.

As it happened, the client was insistent and, against my better judgement, I put in an expression of interest. I should not have. The job did not proceed, and I wasted a fair bit of time.

Knowing when to say no and indeed how to say it, is an area that I have wrestled with across the full spectrum from marketing through award to completion. The problem is especially acute in those areas of professional services dominated by project based work, most acute for the smaller independent professional. It is very hard to say no when you really need the work.

Again, there is no magic bullet. Perhaps the most important thing that I have learned is that the process of getting the assignment is not just a marketing exercise, not just persuading the client to give us the work, but also an interview process during which the client has to be assessed.

This assessment should take place at two levels.

At the first level, do you actually want to do this task or even to work with the client full stop? If your antennae are picking up danger signs, then it may be best to exit gracefully.

At the second level, you have to decide how best to work with the client. Here you have to be prepared if necessary to lay down your own ground rules, not just accept those put forward by the client.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Work Coach - a useful blog

A search that found this blog on managing up, my post here, led me to the work coach blog.

Subtitled advice from the trenches about jobs, the blog seems to have some rather useful information and advice that would benefit staff, managers and boards.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Creation and Use of Case Studies

This post continues my practice of tidying up past posts to make the material more accessible.

Most professionals use case studies. However, the practice is especially important in training. For that reason, I ran an earlier short series on the creation and use of case studies. You will find the introductory post here.