Charting Your Course: A Lesson From The Titanic

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The world recently commemorated the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, one of the worst and certainly the most familiar maritime disasters of all time. The conclusions of the investigation into the sinking provide a valuable lesson for professional services leaders.

The sinking of the RMS Titanic is one of the most infamous tragedies in modern history, not only because the ship was considered in its day to be “unsinkable”, but more importantly because most experts today believe that its sinking was completely avoidable.  The Senate investigation into the Titanic1 concluded that one of the primary causes of the sinking and resultant loss of life was excessive speed.  The ship was going too fast, considering the iceberg warnings that had been issued in the area.

But why was the ship going so fast?  The 1997 blockbuster movie “Titanic” (currently re-released in 3D) includes a dialog between J. Bruce Ismay, the chair of the White Star Line to which the Titanic belonged and ship’s captain, Captain Edward John Smith2:

Ismay: So you’ve not yet lit the last four boilers?
Smith: No, I don’t see the need. We are making excellent time.
Ismay: The press knows the size of Titanic. Now I want them to marvel at her speed. We must give them something new to print! This maiden voyage of Titanic must make headlines!
Smith: Mr. Ismay, I would prefer not to push the engines until they’ve been properly run in.
Ismay: Of course, I’m just a passenger. I leave it to your good offices to decide what’s best. But what a glorious end to your final crossing if we were to get to New York on Tuesday night and surprise them all! Make the morning papers. Retire with a bang, eh E.J.?
Ismay: [Smith nods reluctantly] Good man.

There is no historic evidence that this conversation ever took place, but the question remains…why was Captain Smith pushing the Titanic so hard?  Perhaps he had been pressured to hasten the ship’s arrival into the port of New York, as the dialog above suggests.  Perhaps the iceberg warnings were ignored from overconfidence, because the ship was considered to be unsinkable. Or perhaps it was out of sheer negligence.  Whatever the reason, I believe that he would never have been moving at such speed had he understood the purpose of the Titanic and used that purpose to guide his decisions.

According to RMS Titanic, Inc., curators of the relics retrieved from the Titanic, one of the stated purposes of the Titanic was “To carry first-class passengers in great luxury, second-class passengers in great comfort and third-class passengers with great economy.”  The purpose was to provide an adventure in luxury for the passengers (in particular those in first class) far beyond anything they would have experienced on any other sailing vessel of their time.  The purpose was to be found in the journey, not in reaching the destination.  Any other trans-Atlantic steamer could have gotten them there — but none like the Titanic.  If Captain Smith had understood this, he likely would have gone slower, not faster!3

Charting Your Course as a Professional Services Organization

In the article “Who Do You Think You Are?”, I stress that service organizations within product-based companies must define their purpose in light of the objectives of that larger product-based business.  In “Defining the PS Charter”, professional services veteran Thomas Lah advocates the creation of a charter graph4 to help document this purpose.

To properly create a charter graph, agreement must be reached among key stakeholders on the importance of the following services objectives in helping to achieve corporate goals (somewhat paraphrased from Lah’s article):

  1. Services revenue
  2. Margin from services
  3. Customer satisfaction
  4. Driving company market share

I have found that the best way to gain consensus is to host a focus session.  The session should include the CEO (or GM/division VP, depending on the scope of the services organization) and leaders from various departments within the company such as sales, marketing, and product management.  The outcome of the session should be a forced ranking of these objectives according their importance in driving corporate performance.

Once this ranking has been done, a charter graph can be created.  The charter graph to the right is the work product from an actual session that I championed a few years back. While our focus group insisted on a slightly different rating system than Lah advocates (hence a scale from 0-5 instead of 1-4), the net effect is essentially the same.  The graph shows that the most important objective of our services organization was overall customer satisfaction, followed by driving market share.  Services revenue came in a distant third and margin from services ranked lowest.

This ranking is quite typical of a solution provider, that is, a services organization whose services are primarily offered in support of the underlying product (in our case enterprise software).  I would say this is typical of most services organizations within a product business.  Some notable exceptions are companies like IBM, whose services organizations (e.g., IBM Life Sciences, for instance) offer services to any prospective customer regardless of whether or not they are using IBM products.  IBM Life Sciences would in this context function more as a pure services business.5

So while it may be interesting to understand who we are as a services organization within a product-based company, what do we do with this new revelation?  The purpose of the charter graph is to help us to make better decisions.  Based on the charter graph above, we may decide to sacrifice some revenue (i.e., give away services) if we believe this would result in a referenceable customer for the product.  During annual planning, we may choose to set lower margin targets for services to give room for strategic use of services to help grow market share.  In a pure services business, these decisions would be made differently.

So the charter has been defined and documented through the charter graph, and decisions may now be made based on this charter.  The next step is to use it.  David Maister points out in his book “Strategy and the Fat Smoker” what he calls the “Knowing-Doing Gap”.  There is a gap between what we know we need to do and what we actually do. We may even know why we should do it and how to do it, yet we still struggle to do what we know we should do.  The “Knowing-Doing Gap” is a real danger for the charter graph as well.  We cannot create a charter graph, feel good that we’ve created it, and then file it away. What is critical at this point is that we integrate the charter graph into everyday decision-making.

To aid in this, we developed a charter statement — an elevator pitch, if you will — that was consistent with what our charter graph told us.  Ours went as follows:

“The charter for the services organization is to ensure that our existing customers are satisfied with our products (software, support, services) and to introduce new and existing customers to the capabilities of our product portfolio by offering solutions that meet their needs. The services function will be profitable, but not at the expense of customer satisfaction.”

We then created laminated wallet-sized cards that had the charter graph on one side and the charter statement on the other.  These were distributed not only to professional services staff and leadership, but also to the key stakeholders who were involved in the creation of the charter graph, and to other people within the company who were involved in making decisions regarding services.  These cards then served as a reference when critical decisions were being made. It was used to validate decisions made that were consistent with the charter, and to defend against decisions made that were not aligned with the charter.

A Charter Graph Card for Captain Smith

Let’s return to our case study from 1912.  I can imagine a similar focus group being assembled at White Star Line to discuss and agree to the charter of the Titanic.  Maybe instead of revenue, margin, customer satisfaction and market share, the objectives to be ranked would have included passenger experience and time to destination (speed), among others.  I’m nearly certain that the charter graph would have listed heavily towards passenger experience. Perhaps had Captain Smith pulled that charter graph card out of his pocket and reflected on it a moment, he would not have made the decision to move full steam ahead. Rather, he would have cut back the engines to let his passengers savor the cold salty air of that serene, starlit night.

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If you are part of an embedded services organization within a product-based company, does your organization have a charter?  If so, are you more a solution provider or pure services business?  What are your priorities and how do they guide your daily decision making?  Leave a reply and join in the discussion!

 

  1. “Titanic Disaster Hearings: The Official Transcripts of the 1912 Senate Investigation”
  2. Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
  3. Some of its other stated purposes may have benefited from speed; still, traversing the Atlantic quickly was not a primary goal.  In fact, the ship was an Olympic class vessel that was built for size over speed.
  4. Also discussed in his 2005 book, “Mastering Professional Services”
  5. Of course, IBM Life Sciences offers solutions to their customers.  The point is that their purpose is not solely to offer solutions around IBM’s own products.

From Blind Expectation to Great Expectations

Everyone has expectations, from family & friends to colleagues, and most vitally to any professional services business, customers.  Most of the time, however, we understand the expectations of others incompletely.  We approach relationships from the perspective of our own expectations, but don’t often take the time and effort to understand the other person’s expectations.  This is complicated by fact that people often aren’t willing or able to verbalize their expectations; some even actively attempt to hide them.  And not understanding the other person’s expectations always leads to trouble.

The classic Indian fable “The Blind Men and the Elephant” humorously demonstrates the dangers of having only a partial understanding of a truth.  (If you’re not familiar with the story, watch the video above for a wonderful spoken rendition.)  In our case, the elephant represents client expectations.  The moral for us is that we need to take the time to fully explore and understand the elephant — client expectations — before we make judgments and formulate our plans to engage with the client. And when the elephant is client expectations, that elephant may be constantly changing.

D-I-M: A NEW MODEL FOR MANAGING EXPECTATIONS

In a well written, two part article on managing client expectations1, David Alev introduces the S-M-I model: Set, Monitor, and Influence.  I like the model, but think that starting with expectation setting falls into the very trap that I point out above — we haven’t first taken the time to discover the preconceived expectations of the client.  Expectation setting is selfishly motivated; it is centered on what we want to accomplish, not on understanding and delivering what the client wants.

I would like to propose a variation on the S-M-I model: Discover, Influence, and Monitor, or D-I-M.  (I know, the name is not very complimentary, but I think the model is smarter than the name implies!)  Discovering the client’s expectations at the start of a new relationship or new engagement helps in understanding the client better.  Only then will you have a chance to deliver what the client wants.  Only then can you successfully monitor and influence their expectations.

I can hear some of you thinking…”sometimes what the customer wants is not what they need”.  This is often true, and one of the primary value adds of an effective consultant is to understand what the client needs and then help them satisfy that need.  But when what a client truly needs is not aligned with what they expect, it becomes the job of the consultant to influence the client’s expectations and bring them in line with the need.  Only then will the need and any solution to that need be embraced by the client.  So we see that once again, this process of aligning expectations to underlying need starts by first discovering the mis-aligned expectations.

DISCOVERING CLIENT EXPECTATIONS

So how do you discover the expectations of your clients?  Here are my Four “C”s for Discovering Client Expectations:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.  The only way to discover client expectations is to engage.  Make sure you do more listening than talking.
  • Carefully observe.  Most of human communication is non-verbal.  The client’s body language, tone and actions should be consistent with what is being said.  If they are not, keep digging.  You may also learn things from observation that you simply won’t get from what is being said.
  • Confirm.  When you think you understand the client’s expectations, share your understanding with them and get their confirmation.  This validates your perceptions, and builds trust and intimacy as the client realizes that you are genuinely intent on understanding them.
  • Clarify.  If you cannot confirm your client’s expectations, or if you get confirmation, but from a client who has a glazed look in their eyes (non-verbal cues again!), then work to clarify your understanding through more dialogue.

Only once you’ve gotten validation of the client’s expectations are you ready to move into influencing the client’s expectations to help meet their needs and monitoring their expectations as progress is made towards a solution.  (The second part of David’s article contains helpful tips for influencing and monitoring expectations.)

IGNORE CLIENT EXPECTATIONS AT YOUR OWN PERIL

“Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

— “Great Expectations”, Charles Dickens

Mostly likely at one point or another in your career, you have experienced the pain of failure due to misaligned expectations.  One day you found yourself sitting in the rubble of a failed project or a ruined client relationship.  Like this fitting quote from Dickens, you may very well be able to reflect back to that first instance where you felt a tug of uneasiness that you were not on the same page as the client.  Perhaps you had been so consumed with your own expectations for the relationship that you simply ignored the client’s expectations.  Or maybe you understood the client’s expectations at the onset, but stopped listening altogether as you became embroiled in an always hectic business environment.

If you have experienced this pain in the past, take heart! It is possible to manage expectations. Commit to invest the time required to fully discover, influence and monitor your clients’ expectations.  Refuse to blindly engage customers, and help your clients realize their great expectations of success!

What do you think of the D-I-M model for managing expectations?  Can you think of an example from your own career where discovering client expectations led to a successful outcome?  Where a lack of understanding of expectations led to failure?  Leave a reply below and share your experiences!

Do You Practice Elephant Leadership?

A Rat, traveling on the highway, met a huge elephant, bearing his royal master and his suite, and also his favorite cat and dog, and parrot and monkey. The great beast and his attendants were followed by an admiring crowd, taking up all of the road. “What fools you are,” said the Rat to the people, “to make such a hubbub over an elephant. Is it his great bulk that you so much admire? It can only frighten little boys and girls, and I can do that as well. I am a beast; as well as he, and have as many legs and ears and eyes. He has no right to take up all the highway, which belongs as much to me as to him.” At this moment, the cat spied the rat, and, jumping to the ground, soon convinced him that he was not an elephant.

Because we are like the great in one respect we must not think we are like them in all.

— Aesop’s Fables: The Rat and the Elephant

 

Elephants have been admired, revered, and even worshiped from ancient times, particularly in Eastern cultures and religions.  In Buddhism1, the elephant is a symbol of physical and mental strength, steadfastness and responsibility. Strong and powerful, they are able to overcome any obstacles that are placed in their way.  Hindus worship the elephant for what it represents to them — obedience to the master’s call, the ability not to repeat past mistakes, and respect and care towards their peers.2

Studies of elephant behavior prove this reputation to be well-deserved.3  Elephants are very intelligent and have been shown to have exceptional long-term memory, rivaling that of dolphins and primates.  They also have strong individual personalities and exhibit excellent social skills.  They are able to communicate, learn from others, work cooperatively as teams, and problem-solve.4  Over time they build large, complex social networks.

The matriarch, typically the oldest and largest adult female, is the leader of the elephant herd.  There are wise matriarchs whose leadership is acknowledged by the deference of the other members of the herd, and then there are poor matriarchs whose leadership role is tentative at best or even under challenge.  As with humans, some elephants are natural born leaders who show strong leadership qualities from a young age, and others learn to lead slowly and steadily as they mature.

A wise elephant leader has strong leadership qualities in addition to the social and cognitive qualities of elephants in general as discussed above.  Elephant leaders are confident and well-connected.  They have earned the respect of others based on their wisdom, charisma, and track record of wise decision making in times of crisis. While they are the final decision maker in important matters, they do not typically micromanage and even when faced with making critical decisions are open to the suggestions of others, often even from junior members of the herd.  Elephant leaders are compassionate towards and deeply care for the members of their extended family.  They show courage in crisis and wisdom in difficult situations, and work extremely hard to maintain the bonds of their social network.

If you wondered when you started to read this article what elephants have to do with professional services leadership, I trust that you’ve caught on by now.  Wise matriarchs are a perfect case study from nature in leadership excellence.  I could have easily been talking about leadership in professional services, or the qualities of a strong leader in business, public service, spiritual leadership, or just life in general.

So do you practice elephant leadership on a daily basis?  Do you exhibit the characteristics of the wise matriarch?  If not, don’t be discouraged.  Remember that some elephant leaders are natural born but that some, perhaps most, hone the skills they need to lead others through years of learning and experience.  If upon reflection you can say that you are practicing elephant leadership, that you are an elephant leader, then fantastic!  This should be evidenced by those who look to you regularly for leadership, by the circle of influence that you maintain and continue to grow.

In either case, we all need to remind ourselves that leadership is a process, not an end state.  Take a lesson from the rat…simply exhibiting one or two of the characteristics of an elephant leader does not in itself make us elephant leaders!  But if we diligently and continually strive to integrate more of the attributes of the wise matriarch into the fiber of our own leadership, we will gradually transform ourselves into elephant leaders.

Professional Services by Design (PSbD)

Applying Quality by Design practices to your professional services offerings results in predictable margins, on time delivery, lower risk and more happy clients!

Quality by Design (QbD) has been embraced most fully by the automotive industry as well as others such as electronics and semi-conductor manufacturers.  It was more recently endorsed by the FDA in its guidance to drug makers (Pharmaceutical Quality for the 21st Century: A Risk-Based Approach).

I am a big proponent of lean and six sigma practices for improving and maintaining quality, both in my own organization and for improving and optimizing customer business processes.  Practitioner Michael L. George has written Lean Six Sigma for Service, an excellent book on applying lean six sigma to services. It is highly recommended reading for professional services leaders who want to get the most out of their organizations.  While lean six sigma is great for optimizing services and speeding service delivery, it assumes an existing process that needs improvement — that is, these are reactive techniques.  QbD is a proactive approach that seeks to build in quality from the start.

What does poor quality look like for a services business? The age old challenge for professional services is delivering projects on time, on budget, within scope and with minimal defects.  We’ve found ways to mitigate these risks, such as time boxing, applying agile techniques, and actively managing customer expectations.  But often times these efforts are not enough, and the end result is missed deadlines, busted budgets and the unplanned “firefighting” needed to salvage endangered client relationships.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to confidently predict delivery dates and project margin, and consistently make customers happy?

INTRODUCING PROFESSIONAL SERVICES BY DESIGN

The solution that I propose is what I call Professional Services by Design, or PSbD.  PSbD means designing services from the start, by offering repeatable processes and pre-configured, targeted products and solutions that drastically increase the probability of success and decrease overall risk.

The traditional services engagement starts with a scoping study, where you identify unique requirements and then plan and estimate an engagement that is unique to that client.  But most likely you service customers in a small number of markets, who for the most part do the same kinds of things.  This repeatability from customer to customer is rarely leveraged by professional services firms, and is the key to successful PSbD.

A PHARMACEUTICAL CASE STUDY

Let’s take a look PSbD in action.  A number of years ago, my team was struggling with the large, risky enterprise software deployment projects that we were undertaking with our customers in pharmaceutical manufacturing.  While the configuration of the software was often very similar from customer to customer, each engagement was started from scratch and treated as unique.  This led to implementations that were subject to scope change, cost overruns, and unnecessary risk of dissatisfied customers.
Upon analysis, we determined that these customers were mostly doing the same things in the same or very similar ways, from sample tracking to chemical analysis to product release.  Not only that, but all of these companies were using the same ICH methods for chemical analysis, and were under the same FDA mandates for validating their regulated systems.  They were not so unique after all.
Our consultants combined had decades of experience working with pharmaceutical manufacturing customers, so we decided to package a common, pre-validated configuration of the enterprise software and a repeatable engagement methodology (service offering) to go with that configuration.  The result was a combined product and service offering that we were able to demonstrate saved the customer more than 75% of the cost and time to deploy as opposed to a traditional implementation project.  At the same time, we were able to drastically increase our confidence in project profitability, predictably allocate resources, practically eliminate the chance for project failure, and quickly create ecstatic reference customers. 

STILL ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

There will always be the need to improve the quality of your service offerings.  There will always be value to applying lean six sigma and other techniques to your existing service portfolio.  But you should start by applying PSbD to new service offerings, creating them with quality in mind from the start.  The additional work up front will result in happier customers, who will be more likely to serve as reference customers and help to drive your business success.
What do you think about PSbD?  Do you have an example of PSbD in action at your professional services firm?  Post a comment and share your thoughts!

Leaving a Legacy

Grandpa Walter.  He was a WWII veteran, a surgeon technician at Omaha Beach on D-Day.  He returned to his parents after the war, became a father to three children and grandfather to many more.  In his seventies, his wife passed away and he remarried my wife’s grandmother, as her husband had passed away as well.  Although he was not biologically their ancestor, Walter Hartsock was the only great grandfather that my children have ever known.

Grandpa Walter was special.  Why?  Because he was a man of integrity.  He spoke softly, but his word was his word…you could depend on it.  When he spoke, you were confident in the truth of the words spoken.  He was absolutely loyal — to his family, his community and his country — and for that he was loved by all.

This man of integrity passed away recently at the admirable age of 101.  His funeral was a celebration of a rare, extraordinary life.  One of his grandsons spoke at the funeral; he is an all-Ohio high school football player, Ohio State University national champion and eight year NFL veteran.  To this grandson, Walter was simply “grandpa”. His conclusion in considering his grandpa’s life was that he had left the most important legacy of all…his family and the integrity and values that he had instilled in them through the example of his life.  The grandson’s wish, with tears in his eyes and a quivering lip, was that he would leave the same legacy for his children and grandchildren when his life was at its end.

What is true in life is also true in business and in professional services.  As John Maxwell writes in his excellent book Developing the Leader Within You, “Image is what people think we are. Integrity is what we really are.” Furthermore, and with respect to leadership he says, “Everything rises and falls on leadership. The secret to rising and not falling is integrity.”

Everyday as professional services leaders, we are faced with numerous decisions.  Our goal should be to lead with integrity, and to make these decisions with that same integrity.  Let us lead such that we are creating a legacy.