How to Quickly Build Trust in Project Teams

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Trust is a critical component of a successful project team. Traditionally, however, trust takes time to develop and grow, and if the team is not co-located, it can take even longer for that trust to be established and normalized. But what if you don’t have time to let trust develop organically? What if the trust doesn’t develop at all – how long can you wait to find out? Is there an alternative? What can you do as a leader to accelerate the trust-building process?

Allowing trust to develop naturally is a passive approach. With projects having limited time and limited resources, the passive approach is just not enough. Instead, you must take specific action to facilitate trust among the team. One approach to consider is the Swift Trust Model. As it applies to project teams, the basic idea is that the project team is established with the assumption of trust, with the understanding that this initial trust will be validated through the actions of the project team. For this approach to be successful, the project manager must account for the activities and communications necessary to validate the trust in planning the project. What activities are these? Specifically, they are activities that accelerate relationship building among team members. It is through this relationship building that trust is strengthened.

Among project teams, particularly teams that are virtual, trust is measured almost exclusively in terms of reliability. Project team members know that project tasks are interdependent, and that their success depends on their colleagues’ completion of assigned tasks. In other words, can I trust you to complete your task correctly so that I may be successful in my task? If the team has worked together before, they will have experience with who is reliable and who is not. But if the team has come together for this project, they will need more information. How can the project manager support the team in learning?

Plan for trust-building activities. Team members, particularly on technical teams, respect what they see and experience. Trust is built by successfully working together. Don’t wait for the project tasks to be complete to demonstrate success – that takes too long. Find ways for team members to communicate their abilities and successes up front. Use the project plan to schedule ways for individuals and workgroups to present their work to the team. This could include such activities as technical progress reports, presentation of research findings, technical exchanges, Q&A sessions, and trainings. Plan opportunities early on for individuals to demonstrate their abilities to their team mates. For example, if you have a specialist on your team, assign her to give a 1 hour tutorial explaining her expertise and how it applies to this project. You can also assign tasks to temporary work groups. Assign two or three people a task to work on for a week, giving them a chance to work together. Then re-group team members to other work groups. This is particularly useful during the technical planning and analysis period of a project. What activities you plan depends on the project and the team; the point is to consciously plan trust-building opportunities as early in the project as possible.

Enforce the assumption of trust. Start by walking the talk. Demonstrate your trust in your team by your own actions. Also, explain to the team up front the assumption of trust, and that it is necessary to a successful project, and that there will be opportunities to verify this trust. Don’t try to be tricky – confide in your team that this is the approach that you are taking, and that you need their support. Also, watch out for cliques. This can occur if some of the team has worked together on past projects, or can form from common backgrounds or styles. Make sure that your communication plan takes into account appropriate media and frequency to allow for all team members to participate equally. The project manager must act as “vibe-watcher” and promote inclusion and belonging among all team members. The trust-building activities should support this.

Promote the shared vision of the project. As part of establishing the team, the project manager must confirm that all team members understand the goal of the project, their role on the project, and what is expected of them. In addition, each project team member must commit to the plan for the project. The shared vision of the project is the foundation on which the team relationships will be built, and if any team members are not committed to the shared vision, then it will be difficult for the team to trust. Regularly promote the shared vision, check in with team members to determine if they have concerns, and address these concerns immediately.

Spare everyone the “team building exercise.” I know, among some this may be heresy, but no team I’ve ever worked with really came together over bowling, paint ball, or Pictionary. Some members of the team may enjoy it, but there will be others who hate it. Besides, it never works out the way you think it will, and if it’s after hours, people feel obligated to come, even if they’d rather be somewhere else. And if you team is partly or all virtual, it can backfire on you, setting up uneven relationships where locals are more privileged than remote workers. Look instead for opportunities to recognize team members and work groups for project related achievements. But if your team is all in one place, feel free to buy them a pizza for lunch on a rainy day. That would probably be ok – just ask them what kind they like.

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Surviving a Difficult Conversation

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As leaders, an important part of our job involves navigating difficult conversations. It may be delivering bad news to a customer, addressing inappropriate personal or professional behavior, or negotiating a challenging agreement. Whatever the situation – our professional success, as well as the success of our projects and our businesses, depends upon how well we manage these situations.

Let’s face it. No one enjoys these conversations. They can stress us out, keep us up at night, and make us dread going to work. While nothing is going to make these conversations easy, following these four steps will improve the outcome of these conversations for all involved, and hopefully reduce some of the dread as well.

  1. Determine the goal of the conversation. Why does this discussion need to occur? Does it need to happen now? Before any conversations occur, you must be very clear on the reason for the conversation, what result you are looking for, and what action you want the other party to take. If you don’t have a specific outcome in mind, how can you know if you have been successful? For example, let’s say you have a team member that consistently arrives later in the morning than the rest of the team. If you meet with that person and tell them that this behavior concerns you, but don’t have an expected outcome, how can this person meet your expectations? Have you set a specific time schedule for your team? Have you communicated it? People are not mind readers – be prepared to specify the action or correction you want. Know what you are going to say, be clear on the reason for the conversation, and determine what outcome you want before you meet. If it’s a negotiation, figure out in advance what you want and what you are willing to give up.
  2. Focus on a clear, concise message. Once you understand what the goal of the conversation is, you must craft a clear concise message to deliver. By developing the message in advance, you avoid detours. You will avoid getting tongue-tied and talking more than you need to. I once had to let go of a consultant in my practice, as the work for his particular specialty was drying up. I had prepared for the conversation, outlined the facts for the consultant, what the company was prepared to do for him, and what the next steps were. The conversation went about as well as it could have, and the consultant being let go was accepting and felt we had treated him fairly. As we were completing the conversation, a senior VP came in and proceeded to talk for 45 minutes about how bad he felt about it and how there was nothing we could do, etc. Not only did it totally unravel my outcome, but made the consultant feel bad, and could have put the company in a difficult legal position. “Winging it” has no place in a serious business conversation. Be clear, be brief, and be fair. State the situation, the relevant facts, and the options if there are any. Conclude by clarifying and confirming the agreed upon outcome.
  3. Work from facts, not feelings. As you determine the goal of the conversation and develop the message, you must gather and validate all relevant facts. Document these facts clearly and completely, and if appropriate, be prepared to provide the other person with the relevant documentation. If this is a company personnel matter, most organizations will require you to provide documentation to the HR department as well (often referred to as “papering the file”). Regardless of how you feel about the situation, or your opinions of the people or actions involved, your focus should be on communication based solely on relevant facts. If you are discussing a performance issue, be clear on the facts of the behavior, how it deviated from what was expected, and the specific impact the behavior had on the team and the project. If you are preparing for a negotiation, or for delivering bad news to stakeholders, the more details you have at your disposal, the more you can work from facts rather than emotions.
  4. Use specific language. Finally, prepare to communicate the message and the facts in a clear, specific way. This means don’t generalize, paraphrase, or use softening language when presenting your message. If you aren’t specific, or try to “talk around” the issue, and expect to successfully achieve your desired outcome it won’t happen. Instead you will leave a large “conversational space” for the other person to challenge your version of the facts or change the subject. Your message will likely be lost.

When you need to have a difficult conversation, preparation is everything. Successfully handling these situations requires you to be clear, concise, and specific. You must document any relevant facts and present them in a specific focused manner. When the time comes for the conversation, focus on working toward the desired outcome you identified in your planning, rather than spending a lot of time on blame or complaints. This preparation will help you stay calm, focused, and business like – giving you the best chance at a successful outcome.

Is Your Team Ready To Succeed?

People on IslandIn my career as both a practicing project manager and as a leader of project managers, I see a lot of patterns in how project managers develop. One common thread is that we spend a lot of time focusing on the technical practice of project management, and less on the leadership skills necessary to successfully complete projects.

As project managers, we spend a lot of time studying our scope statements, our work breakdown structures, and our schedules. We develop our project plans and project measurement programs, and we use these metrics to determine the “health” of our projects. But is this enough? Do you really have a team, or just an assembled group of people with competing agendas?  Have can you develop your team? How well do you even know your team?

As project managers we identify skills that we need for a project, and assemble project teams to complete planned tasks. Then off we go to project execution, tracking completion of tasks and publishing performance metrics. Things go smoothly until something goes wrong, and then we start our project assessment. I maintain that we can head off a lot of potential problems if we conduct an analysis of our team – as a team – up front before the project execution starts. This assessment will allow us to address potential issues before project execution begins.

What does a team assessment look like? Here are some questions to start with.

  • What skills and experiences does each team member bring to the project? (Don’t just focus on their assignment, but on who they are professionally, and who they have relationships with in the organization.)
  • Does each team member and stakeholder fully understand their role on the project and what work products are expected from them? What is their level of confidence that they can succeed?
  • Does each team member and stakeholder have the skills and capacity to complete the work assigned to them? Do any team members have competing assignments or priorities that may interfere with performance?
  • Does each team member and stakeholder understand, support, and willingly commit to the project plan? Are they enthusiastic about the project?
  • Does each team member and stakeholder understand how their responsibilities affect the project success and the other project team members?
  • Does each team member have confidence in the team as assembled?
  • What are the specific risks (per person) that would affect each team member’s ability to succeed?
  • What support (i.e. training, tools, and approaches) will each team member need to succeed?

With this information you can look at your team as an entity, its strengths and weaknesses, risks and opportunities. You will also have confirmed with each team member an understanding of what is expected, how they will accomplish their tasks, and the level of confidence each team member has in the plan and the team’s ability to accomplish goals.

While this sounds like a lot of extra work, it isn’t. It’s talking to your team members and stakeholders in a substantive way about the project and their participation in it. It’s about establishing an understanding with each team member, and about developing the fundamental knowledge necessary to successfully lead them as a team. This isn’t about letting team members off-the-hook for their performance, but about confirming that everyone understands what needs to be done, and is prepared to work together to accomplish the goal. This information is critical to developing a strong, high-performing project team, and to providing the leadership needed to bring the project to successful completion.

What If You Just Can’t Leave

If You Dont Like

I just received a call from a colleague. She was calling me from the cafeteria in her office complex, nearly in tears. She had to leave the office, she said, before she had a complete meltdown. “I can’t handle the negativity any more. This job isn’t what I was hired to do – and the politics are downright toxic.” I felt her pain. I remembered that environment, and it sounds like it hadn’t changed much since I left. I told her I was surprised that she was still there, as I knew she was as unhappy as I was. As we discussed her options, and what she should do, it became clear that she needed to leave, but could not just pick up and quit. “Take this job and shove it” is a wonderful idea, but it just isn’t practical for most people. Mortgage payments, health insurance, tuition, professional standing – it doesn’t matter why you can’t leave. But that just doesn’t make you feel any better. So what should you do if you want to make a change, but need to stay where you are for now?

Don’t just endure, but endow.

What does this mean? It means that you take specific steps to endow the time you spend in a difficult but temporary situation with positive value. Have you heard the saying, “Grow where you are planted”? While the sentiment is similar, it implies a more permanent acceptance. So while you are enduring your current situation, here are 7 steps you can take to endow your time with meaning while you develop your change strategy.

  1. Identify what it is you love about your profession. Sometimes the daily challenges, the office politics, and the tyranny of the urgent clouds our view. We get so caught up in the problems that we completely lose what it is that attracted us to the job in the first place. Spend some time actually writing down on a notepad the elements of your profession that you really enjoy. Then see if you can identify within your current role a way to focus on those elements as much as possible. This is akin to practicing gratitude – it reminds us what is important.
  2. Find someone to help or connect with. One of the best ways I know to feel better is to help someone else. Is there a junior member of staff that you can mentor? How about someone who is struggling in their role that you can pitch in and help get through the heavy load? Make new friends – find someone in another office or division that you don’t know well and invite them to eat lunch with you. When we are struggling, so many of us withdraw and isolate ourselves. Resist the urge to hunker down in silence.
  3. Set and enforce your boundaries. Are you burned out?  Is your job demanding more and more of your time and energy? Are you the first one in and the last one to go home? Constantly working in crisis mode saps your energy and lessens your ability to perform at your best. It also makes you feel taken advantage of and used. But remember, you give people permission to treat you that way. Take back your boundaries. Focus on doing your best work, not the most work. The work of the entire organization is not your responsibility. And if it is, let go of some demands or hire more staff!
  4. Develop a new skill. Take advantage of your organization’s training, or learn from someone else; spend some of your time each day learning or advancing your skills. By improving yourself and your marketability, your remaining time in the role will feel more successful. Learning and development are as important to our self-care as good nutrition and exercise.
  5. Make an action plan. Create a specific plan to find a new situation. For example, this plan could include updating a resume or website, reaching out to previous colleagues, and attending industry events. Include real dates on your plan. The satisfaction of successfully checking off tasks on your plan will provide you with positive feedback, and bring you closer to changing your situation.
  6. Take care of yourself. Don’t let your health deteriorate. Don’t self-medicate with junk food or alcohol. Make sure you get your exercise. Eat your veggies! Meditate. Play. Hug your children or your pets. Find sources of joy outside your work. Taking better care of yourself will allow you to survive your unpleasant situation with your spirit intact.
  7. Create a daily positivity affirmation. As good as it feels in the moment, avoid the temptation to complain, bitch, moan, and commiserate at work. When you are actively expressing negative emotions, it affects your own decision-making and impacts those around you. By actively inserting positivity into your thoughts, you can elevate our mood and make the day easier to bear. Each morning, before your day begins, spend a few minutes reminding yourself of the items above. Vow to banish negativity and focus instead on the positive steps you want to take each day.

Endow each day with purpose and meaning, in spite of the difficult situation you are enduring. These seven steps will help you develop a plan to find this meaning and keep a positive demeanor.

Don’t Sell Things – Create Experiences Instead

Concert On Tuesday, I wrote about how experiences contribute to happiness more than objects ever can. How we can improve our happiness and quality of life by focusing on acquiring experiences rather than buying more stuff. This subject often comes up when I’m talking with someone thinking about making a career change. Moving the decision away from defining success in terms of only money to understanding the experiences that enhance your life can help to identify career and lifestyle elements to focus on. But what if your company’s success, and your career success, depends on selling products to customers? What if you are a maker or an entrepreneur looking to build your customer base?

Start by building a community of people rather than a list of customers. Focusing on experiences does not necessarily mean we shouldn’t buy things. We need objects in our life – to live, to work, and to have fun. But we can focus on providing great experiences for our customers that improve the overall value of the objects that our customers do buy. Allow our customers to focus on the experiences in their lives, and how your products enhance that experience.

Give your customer a memorable experience.

While sitting in a restaurant a couple of days ago, I couldn’t help but overhear a man at the next table talking to several work colleagues. He was telling the story of his experience with the service and support he received from Apple. He didn’t just say he got good service, but told a very detailed story – going through the experience step by step. It was clear that he had told this story any number of times before. The experience was important to him, and stayed fresh in his memory. As he spoke, you could tell he felt valued as a customer, and that he felt good about not only the original purchase, but about the past and future interactions with the company and any future products he would surely buy.

Build a community for your customers.

Not only would this man very likely be a future Apple customer, he would also be a part of the Apple community. People don’t line up outside of Apple stores when a new Apple product comes out just to buy a new phone. There are much easier ways to buy a new phone. They come to be part of the event, part of the community. They share their experiences, take photos, and have a great time. They’re part of the club. They love to be the first to get the devices, to try out the new features and then they become “thought leaders” among the customer community.

Of course, Apple is legendary when it comes to its customer experience and the loyalty it drives. But anyone can build a meaningful customer experience. At the Pioneer Nation 2015 entrepreneur conference last month, I really enjoyed listening to a speech by Marcus Harvey, founder and owner of Portland Gear (@Portland, portlandgear.com). His company makes T-shirts and other clothing with Portland logos on them. But what he really makes is community. As he said in his talk, “anyone can sell T-shirts.” What his company sells instead is an “in-person experience” designed around the company’s Portland identity. His customers are part of the Portland community, whether they live there or not. He holds meetups and events to sell his shirts. He uses Instagram and Twitter to encourage his customers to post photos of themselves wearing the shirts. His customers meet each other at these events, and they become evangelists for Portland, and for his company. His customers even came to his rescue when his Instagram account was hacked! Now that’s loyalty.

Build loyalty by maintaining and enhancing the customer experience.

Marcus creates customer meetups around a specially decorated vintage microbus. These meetups are like reunions – people come for more than just a shirt. Be creative with your customer experiences. There are many ways you can maintain your relationship with your customers before and after they purchase a product. Provide events, contests, and freebies. Send out newsletters or provide customer only websites. Tell stories about customers who use the products to enhance their life. But don’t try “engineer” something to go “viral”. That never seems to work, and can backfire. Focus instead on creating an experience that will be meaningful, that will enhance and improve the lives of your customers. Most importantly, it must be an authentic experience that represents you, your company, and your customers’ values. Don’t lie about your products to your customers, or make promises you can’t keep. Instead, isn’t it better to really want to improve your customers’ lives? Then you can engage your customers and build experiences through your products and services that really do make a difference.

The Best Things In Life Aren’t Things

photo-1421986527537-888d998adb74I think it’s safe to say that we all want to be happy. We seek out relationships and careers that make us feel happy and fulfilled. We have our secret (or not so secret) bucket lists of all the things that will make us happy. But what is happiness?

Defining happiness is elusive. Researchers study it. Some scientists believe that the search for happiness is a sign of a healthy society. But happiness manifests uniquely in each of us. Ultimately we choose what makes us happy. But do we always choose well? Does what we think will make us happy actually succeed in advancing our happiness? When you ask people about their pursuit of happiness and satisfaction in their life, they often focus on lifestyle. A nice house, a new car. If only I made more money, I’d be happy.

I know when I’m feeling down, a shopping trip to the local mall is hard to resist. And we know that comparing ourselves to others results in “keeping up with the Joneses”, which ends in dissatisfaction and unhappiness. There is always someone better off than you are to compare yourself to. Are you feeling frustrated that you can’t afford that beautiful new handbag your friend just carried into the office?  Do you long for the new sports car your colleague just parked next to your old car in the lot? Or do you feel that you would be happy if you could just pay off all your credit cards?

Psychologists have suggested that too many people focus their happiness pursuit on acquiring possessions, believing that since physical objects last longer, the happiness will as well. In fact, the opposite is true. Research has shown some interesting facts about happiness as it relates to possessions. Most of the happiness actually comes from the act of purchasing.  Once an item is purchased, and shown off a few times, the satisfaction wears off quite quickly, and we need another object to get it back. Research has also shown that the rise in happiness that comes with increased salary levels off sharply at around $75,000. There is also ample evidence that extreme wealth, especially sudden wealth, like a lottery win, introduces significant stress and burdens that decrease happiness.

So what does bring us happiness? Research consistently shows that we achieve higher and more persistent levels of happiness from our experience and our relationships that we can ever get from procuring more stuff. This is great news. By remembering this fact, we have two powerful strategies to improve our happiness. First, many experiences are free and available to all. Take the time to strengthen relationships – having fun with our friends and family increases our happiness. Volunteer in your community – helping others improves our happiness. When deciding how to spend your time, evaluate your options in terms of how they will contribute to the happiness and well-being of yourself, your friends, and your family. The second decision-making strategy says that when deciding where to spend your money, focus on experiences rather than things. Learn a new skill, travel, attend the theater or a sporting event.

Why do experiences bring us happiness? Experiences engage our brain and connect us to our world more than objects do. Also, while we rarely daydream about our past purchases, we often relive our experiences, both as memories and as stories we share with others. When my husband and I travel, we long ago stopped buying silly cheap souvenirs. They ended up in some dusty old box taking up space. Then, on a trip to Iceland we purchased a piece of original art. We had never purchased original art from the artist before. While it was technically an object, it was the experience that we remembered and talked about over and over. Now, when we travel, we try to attend arts and crafts venues. We enjoy this activity together; in addition, if we do buy a new piece, it hangs in our home and provides a frequent reminder of our experiences. On the other hand, my mother in law loves to buy magnets. But she displays them on her wall, and she can remember where she bought each and every one. So the point is not to never buy anything, but to buy mindfully, and focus on the experiences first.

Practicing gratitude is another way to use experience to maximize happiness. Instead of “keeping up with the Joneses”, practice gratitude for what you have, and pause for a moment in thought for those struggling, and who have less. Regularly examining all the wonderful relationships and experiences that you have in your life lets you experience them again, adding to your happiness column.

So how can you “buy” happiness? By maximizing life’s experiences rather than looking for happiness in a shopping bag.

Making Friends With Fear

photo-1431578500526-4d9613015464Go for it! What are you afraid of?

I have been having regular conversations with someone who has been struggling for the past year with a very difficult work situation that shows no signs of improvement. While I deeply respect the loyalty and sense of responsibility she feels toward her organization and its mission, we have frequently discussed the impact this job is having on her health and well-being. During our discussion she became frustrated by her own inability to act. Why she couldn’t leave, but how could she stay?

I asked her what she was afraid of.

She insisted that she wasn’t afraid at all. She was just really committed to the work. But I’m not so sure. No matter how bad things get, or how many opportunities pass us by, we can find all sorts of rationalizations that keep us deep in the status quo. But if you dig deep enough into an inability to make a change, you will usually find fear at the heart of the issue.

Why fear? Fear is defined as a negative emotion related to perceived threats, danger, or pain. Fear is ultimately a protective device. Change is risky; better to stick with the “devil you know”. But unless we confront and understand our fears, we severely hamper our ability to grow in our careers and in our lives.

Some fears are clearly our friends. They help us make good decisions, keeps us safe, and even keep us alive. It’s smart to be afraid of fire, dark alleys, and strangers. It allows us to put up our guard and make choices about how to manage those situations.

But there are other fears. Fears we keep hidden away, often from ourselves. These are the fears that make us feel negatively about ourselves, feel not good enough, feel that we will fail. But we don’t like these fears, so we deny them, don’t admit we have them, even to ourselves. Other times, we allow them to take control of us, giving up our autonomy to fear’s grip.

Although individuals may share particular fears, the collection of fears and how they manifest are unique to each person, as a result of their life experiences, learning, and culture. If we all have fears, and our fears exists to protect us, why do we wish we didn’t have them?

Imagine a person who had no fear. Was your first reaction envy, or sympathy? If you reacted with envy, remember that someone with no fear has no protector. They are able to take very foolhardy and dangerous action with little though and less precaution. They likely wouldn’t live long. We would be better served to feel sympathy toward such a person, and not wish that fate on anyone.

Courage is not the opposite of fear, but the ability to act in spite of fear.

So how do we achieve courage? By learning to walk with your fear. Make friends with it. Give it a place in your life, without letting it control your life. Do you feel stuck or anxious? Acknowledge the fear. Are you afraid to be wrong? To make the wrong decision? Identify the fear. Recognize that your brain is working overtime to keep you safe and secure. But also remember what it is that you really want, and that with reward comes risk. Do the best you can to reduce the risk, but know that you will go forward despite the fear.

When you become comfortable around your fear, it cannot take you by surprise. You are ready for it. You know that you can take action. The fear is still there, but so is your ability to move forward.

Unexamined fear can hold tremendous power over you. It can paralyze you, take away your ability to act. “If only I wasn’t so afraid of everything, I would be so much more successful.” Thinking like this can make us feel inadequate and hopeless. Somehow we don’t have what it takes to be successful. We can’t possible live how we really want to live. But understanding and owning your fear disarms it.

It is not our fear that holds us back. It is our relationship with fear. If you wait until you have overcome all your fear before you take action, you may never act at all. By learning to live with our fear, to accept it as a part of us, we can confidently take action in spite of your fears. It’s OK to be afraid. It just makes you stronger.

How Well Do You Really Know Your Customers? Three Questions You Should Be Asking

As consultants, we spend a lot of time solving our customers’ problems. We come armed with processes and systems, tools and techniques. We propose solutions and sell our products. But when was the last time you just sat down and talked to your customer?

Last weekend I attended Pioneer Nation 2015, a conference for independent entrepreneurs and all-around awesome people, held each year near Portland Oregon. It’s a small conference, allowing for more meaningful interactions with other attendees as well as presenters. This means that you learn not only from the stage, but from the other attendees as well. One big theme came up over and over again – don’t build your company on what you want, but on what your customer needs.

On a regular basis, you should be checking in with current and future customers to make sure your product, service, or campaign is still serving them in the way you intended. Instead of looking at market surveys, listening to experts, or sending out surveys, try the coffee method.  Invite a past or current customer, or a possible future customer, for a cup of coffee. Be upfront with them that this is not a sales call. Tell them instead that you are asking them to share their expertise with you. Few people can resist being the expert. When you get together, focus the conversation around three basic questions.

How are your customers seeing the marketplace?

While we spend a lot of time analyzing our markets in terms of our customers, how much do we understand our customers’ markets and how they perceive them? By having a better understanding of the customers’ world, we can better understand who they are, what they buy, and why they buy it.

 What problems or frustrations do your customers face? 

When you understand your customers’ business better, ask them about what’s really giving them heartburn. Look particularly for missing functions, gaps in service, or tasks that are not working for them. Focus on understanding what is keeping your customer from providing the best possible products and services for their customers.

What does your customer need from his vendors and providers?

This is not about asking what the next product or service your customer needs to buy. This is about understanding what the customer values. On the service, it is usually cost that comes up first. But if you really get deeper into the discussion, you will find other, more important issues. It could be speed of delivery, reliability, flexible inventory, other shipping options, etc. You discussed what issues your customer faces, now understand how you can tailor your offerings in a way that helps the customer do his business better.  Note that you didn’t ask what product they want, because they may not know. No one knew they wanted an iPhone before it was released. Understand what problem, need, or desire you are developing toward instead.

These particular questions focus more on B2B relationships, but it applies to B2C as well. We can have conversations with our retail customers and clients as well, understanding how they see the available market, what issues they are trying to solve, and what they need from providers.

If you are struggling to find new clients, or to sell your amazing new product, consider sitting down with your customers and talking with them. Don’t try to sell them anything – you are not the seller in this conversation. Ask the right questions, and then be sure that you have designed your product or service to be something the customer needs and wants rather than something you wanted to build.

If you build it for yourself, it will stay at home with you. If you build it for others, only then will they come.

Don’t Know Where to Start? Reverse Engineer It!

photo-1433840496881-cbd845929862We’ve all heard the old trope “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (Lao Tzu in case you’ve forgotten.) While this is true, sometimes we struggle to know what that first step should be. When working with someone preparing to tackle a big goal, one of the most common things I hear is “I don’t know where to start”, coupled with frustration and a bit of embarrassment. Yes, it is frustrating, and don’t be embarrassed. Starting is actually the easy part; knowing what to do first is where it can get difficult.

I often struggle with this challenge myself. As I begin to define a new project, either so many tasks or options present themselves that I become mired in analysis paralysis, or I stare at the proverbial (and sometimes literal) blank sheet of paper. So how do you figure out where to start?

There are two ways to approach this problem. One method is to adopt a bias toward action, and do something. Anything. The idea is that any step toward your goal, even if it’s an indirect route, is progress. You adjust as you go, and you learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t along the way. This method works – and can result in some serendipitous discoveries along the way. On the down side, it can take longer, and requires more resources – especially time and effort. I find this is particularly useful for writing – blog posts, proposals, and articles. Sometimes I start in the middle, and by the time I get to the “end” I know what I am writing about and go back and write the beginning. But for larger projects, or projects that involve producing, building, or managing external resources, this approach just doesn’t work. You need a real plan, and a method for producing one.

Many people, particularly “makers” have told me that they struggle with planning and how to build a plan. The best way I know to start, particularly if you don’t have a template, is to reverse engineer the problem. What is reverse engineering? Taking something apart to understand how it works, and figuring out how to duplicate or improve its construction. 

Funny thing about starting. You can spend a tremendous amount of time starting. And not get anywhere. So let’s focus on the end instead. The “end” we understand, right?  It doesn’t necessarily have to be the final end, just a point at which a major milestone will have been reached and a product, service or result can be clearly defined. What are you working toward? Can you define it? In detail? If you can’t, then no wonder you’ve had trouble starting. If you don’t know where you want to go, how do you know which road to take?

Once the goal is clearly defined, we start asking questions. 

What will it take to get there? What tasks are critical – the project can’t be successful without them? What tasks are “nice to have”? Make sure to identify those tasks that you think you should do because someone else did it that way, and determine if you really need to do those things. As you continue on this analysis, you are taking apart the end result until you have a set of component parts that can be studied, evaluated, and measured. The next step is to figure out how to put all those pieces back together again. Which steps, in which order, will give you the result you are looking for. This is your plan, and now you have the first step. 

Start.