Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Service Excellence Myth

Is it time to be honest about the balance between service quality and cost of customer service?

We are all familiar with the exhortation to achieve service excellence. We know that price is extremely important in determining a first purchase, but that great service is also important in achieving repeat business and maximising customer lifetime value. But how many of us know where the quality/cost balance lies in our own businesses?

Of course there are lots of strategies to improve service and yet still reduce cost. Reducing problems in the first place. Making products simpler to use. Providing self-service options. Building service communities.

Yet we need some brutal honstesty here. Just as it is possible to kill a business through poor service, a business can die from service costs that are too high. I have worked with businesses that had to retreat from service excellence. That had to remove great service for all and replace it with tiered service where the best customers get the best service, but ordinary customers get 'standard' service.

Look at the airline industry. An industry where the encumbents were forced by new entrants to totally re-examine their approach to cost and service.

These are tough times. We all need to take a close look at delivering the right service at the right price.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Taking the helm - your first 100 days as a new leader

Taking up a new leadership position is a major challenge, but it can be the most interesting and exciting time in any job. So how should you approach the vital first 3 months in your new role? Firstly you need to recognize that as a new leader you are in a special situation that carries with it some advantages and disadvantages.  For example:
  • Many people will give you the benefit of the doubt. You have some time to craft results and nobody expects success on day one.
  • Most people will be somewhat wary and respectful.   You are an unknown quantity and they will not be sure how to interact with you or what your expectations of them will be.
  • Most people will assume that you have excellent capabilities and a good track-record.
  • There will be less trust that you would like.  Trust takes time to be earned.
  • You will have few, if any, ready-made supporters, but some will be keen to impress and become supporters.
  • Some people will be sitting on their hands and waiting to see you fail.
  • The organization will expect change.  Expectation of change is healthy but it also generally breeds fear.
  • There will be pre-defined expectations of what you may do…but those expectations may be incorrect.
Building trust and commitment is essential…and that takes a huge amount of communication. Your priorities should be based around engaging with stakeholders and your people, building relationships, learning and beginning to build /test ideas on strategies and key actions.  Of course there will likely be some uncomfortable fire-fighting and it is always good to identify and secure some small quick wins to build confidence in every quarter.  Key to success will be:
  • Meeting as many people as possible from your team, the business as a whole, customers, partners and other stakeholders.
  • Beginning the process of communicating who you are and some of your fundamental beliefs and approaches.
  • Setting examples of how you approach the resolution of problems.  Being careful to match your approach to the situation.
  • Demonstrating your management style and approach to delegation / team-working.
  • Finding internal allies (but not with the intent make enemies of others!)
  • Learning as much as possible about the good things and the bad things that are happening (SWOT!).
  • Making an assessment of culture and morale and beginning the process of improvement.
  • Ending any practices that are clearly wrong or inappropriate.
  • Testing assumptions and building ideas on new strategies and plans for change.
  • Building a reputation for following through on what you say you will do.

Above all, resist the temptation to make too many sweeping changes too quickly.  Your initial assessments may be incomplete and you run the risk of alienating your people, stakeholders and potential allies.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

10 Values to Underpin Successful Projects

All project team members need some values to guide their behaviour.  Here are some values that I have found useful on my projects.
  • Honesty, integrity and consistency in all things.
  • Open and transparent communication.
  • Team cohesiveness. Come together, stay together and support each other.
  • Do not impose your own agenda on a project.  Project managers need to stay away from 'agendas'.  Your project will have enough agendas belonging to stakeholders without you introducing your own personal agenda.
  • Celebrate success. Learn from both success and failure.
  • No blame (where people are open and honest about what has happened).
  • Humility.
  • Mutual respect for people, their abilities and their points of view.
  • Listen first, take appropriate time to consider, act decisively, and communicate promptly.
  • Green wherever possible. Do not waste resources of any kind.
Be sure to let me know your ideas for project values.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Project Management Ebook Launch Offer - Free Download

My new ebook, the Quick But Essential Guide to Project Management, is now available for download at Smashwords.  Designed for reading on all common ebook readers...ipad/iphone/kindle/sony...even your good old fashioned pc/mac!

Full of practical advice, hints and tips, this ebook is available free to blog readers until 10 November 2011. Follow the link below and at checkout enter this coupon code: ME62T

I hope you enjoy the book and do write a few review comments to let me know your thoughts.


Saturday, 8 October 2011

Accountability, Blame and Performance Management

All leaders want to build and foster a high performance organisation. We expect people, at all levels, to be accountable for their actions.  We want them to fulfil their responsibilities and care about outcomes. In short, we want them to do their best for customers and the organisation. But what happens when things go wrong? Does being accountable mean taking the blame?  Blame has an emotive subject at the best of times, so let's step back before we talk about blame.

When something goes wrong what is most important?  Firstly, the organisation needs to minimise the impact of what has happened and put things right.  If customers are affected they come first. Quick corrective action involves speedily identifying the problem in the first place and then fixing it as soon as possible. In most cases, any delay usually makes the impact of problems far worse. So leaders need to encourage people to put their hands up when something goes wrong. Owning up to a problem is the fastest route to fixing it.

Now we all know that a culture of blame does not encourage people to own up to problems - so that needs to be avoided at all costs. But does a 'blame free' culture reduce accountability. The answer is 'no', but only if you counter-balance a blame free culture with a 'performance management culture'.

We also need to remember that although individuals play a part in causing problems, there are also other factors at work.  Maybe processes are poorly designed.  Maybe systems need improving. So we need to take care not to blame people without considering the need to learn from what goes wrong and improve the infrastructure that we leaders are responsible for.

So, this is how I explain my approach to team members:
1. If something goes wrong, tell me as soon as you are aware of the problem. Problems need to be fixed quickly and effectively.  You need to be a part of fixing problems and I will view your performance positively if you can demonstrate success in identifying problems and resolving them.
2. Hiding problems will negatively impact my evaluation of your performance.
3. If one thing goes wrong that does not make you a low performer.  Bad things can happen to the best of us.  But over the longer term, continued problems will likely negatively impact the evaluation of your performance.
In other words I do not blame people for individual events if they own up and help to fix things, but I do let them know that, over the long term, good performance matters.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

We can all recognize leaders

Ask anyone to name a great leader and you will seldom be disappointed in the answer. Whether it is someone famous, or a personal acquaintance like a schoolteacher, pretty much everybody can name a great leader without taking a great deal of time to think up an answer.  This is a really important, I would say most fundamental observation about the nature of leaders: 'you know one when you see one'.

Ask people what makes a great leader and suddenly things become much less clear.  You will get some blank responses and also a whole list of different kinds of answer.

There is a good reason for this. 

Human beings are social animals and, for the most part, live out their lives through participation in (and identification with) numerous social groups: family, friends, work colleagues, project teams, sports clubs, sports supporters, local communities, national communities, customers of retailers, voters etc etc etc. And in participating in all these groups we come across leaders.  Wherever there are groups, there are leaders.  Sometimes the leadership role is formal, sometimes it is informal.  Sometimes it is permanent or a long-lasting role, at other times it lasts for five minutes.

Parents are leaders, grandparents are leaders, older brothers and sisters can be leaders…sometimes younger brothers and sisters can be leaders.  Our whole lives are shaped in a context of leadership.  We have grown up that way and have learnt from the moment of our birth how to recognize and interact with leaders.

So is it is hardly surprising that we know how to recognize a leader.  Because, in many ways, leaders are defined by that fact that people follow them. A leader who has no followers is not a leader.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Projects are a people thing

I have worked on projects for far too many years.  When I started out I was keen to learn about the technical aspects of project management.  How to create a plan.  How to estimate.  How to measure progress.  What project methodology (approach or system) to use.  What project software to use and how to use it.  These are, of course, all good things to know. 

But what I gradually came to realize was that all these technical aspects are just one, rather small, part of the art of managing projects.  Pretty much all the rest is about people. It is the things that people do that make projects succeed or fail.  And when I look at the big project management methodologies (such as the mighty edifice that is PRINCE 2) I come away with the feeling that despite all the good stuff that we are exhorted to do, they somehow are missing the point.

Take, for example, something as simple as measuring progress. Check out what PRINCE 2 has to say here:
Leaves me cold I'm afraid.  Plus it sidesteps the fundamental question: How do you as a Project Manager interact with your fellow human beings on the project team in order to get an accurate and honest view of where the project is at?  What questions should you ask team members and how should you evaluate their response.  How can you see through any bluster?

I strongly believe that project managers should spend just as much time improving their people skills as learning about methodologies.

And those methodologies have suffered from bloat and scope creep worse than any government project. They need to be simpler, more approachable and more accessible.  After all, they are intended for use by human beings and not robots (I think?).