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Building reliability in your firm

November 2012 » Columns » AEC COACH
Mark Goodale

It's a fact: Firms in the design industry are project driven. And since projects are a network of commitments – or promises – it stands to reason that mastering the skill of securing them leads to greater success for your clients and for your business. Here's how it works.

There are five elements to a promise, and they are deceptively simple.

One, there has to be a customer; and two, there has to be a performer. It sounds simple, but often during conversations, the pronoun "we" is used when the person speaking really means "you" – as in I am the customer, and you are the performer. It can create confusion right out of the gate.

The customer is the person making the request – whether internal or external. The performer is the person who makes the promise to deliver.

There also must be clear conditions of satisfaction. What, specifically, is being delivered? Conditions of satisfaction are the outcomes only – they don't include directions for how to execute. And bear in mind that being too descriptive can actually add confusion. If I want pickles on my hamburger, I likely won't say I want green pickles, or worse yet, really green pickles.

The fourth element of a promise is a deadline. There needs to be a finish line – a day and a time. "Soon," for example, isn't a deadline. "Soon" to a performer might mean two weeks from now, but "soon" to a customer might mean in 20 minutes. It's up to the customer to be clear.

And the fifth and final element is that it has to happen in the future. Some folks have a bad habit of saying they are working on things that have already been done, so they either look busy or can get out of making a true commitment. It can't be a promise if it already happened.

If you are missing just one of these elements, you have a hope, you have a good intention, but you don't have a commitment.

The five elements themselves do not guarantee reliability. A customer also must determine if the performer:

a) has the competency, or access to the competency, to perform the task;

b) understands how long the task will take to complete;

c) has the time available;

d) has allocated capacity to the task (a fancy way of saying the performer has blocked out time on his or her schedule to perform the task); and

e) understands and accepts the conditions of satisfaction.

The final step is determining sincerity – an inexact science at best. The last question you should ask the performer before the work starts is, "What unspoken conversation are you having about what we just discussed?" This is a much different question than, "Do you understand?" Most folks want to please, so they'll say yes even if they haven't the slightest clue as to what you want, when you want it, or why you want it. They just want to be liked. So try to get them to let you know exactly what they grasped and what escaped them. Of course you'll have to have a platform of trust to achieve this kind of open and honest dialogue, but that's a subject for another article.

In the meantime, try this: Listen – really listen – to at least 20 conversations in your office. Jot down what elements are present and which ones are missing from the discussion. I can almost guarantee you'll start to see a pattern and, as an added benefit, you'll start becoming a far more observant listener.

Understanding and observing the five elements of a promise is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to securing reliable commitments. But there's no better place to start.

Mark Goodale is principal with Morrissey Goodale LLC in Newton, Mass. Morrissey Goodale LLC is a management consulting and research firm that serves the AEC industry. He can be contacted at mgoodale@morrisseygoodale.com.

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