“Behaviour is the mirror in which everyone shows their image”
airliner cockpit

A habit is a routine of behaviour that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously. The reason habits matter is that once established, they are more or less automatic, which makes for great economy of action, i.e. it becomes very easy to act in a particular way. So, habits make us highly efficient – we can act without having to engage in conscious thought or to undertake time-consuming self-analysis. With the right set of habits we can succeed at any number of things more or less on autopilot!

If you don’t have a ‘habit’, each time there is a beneficial (but potentially challenging) thing to do, you have to make a conscious act of will to do it. This involves expending emotional energy on the decision process, rather than allowing the habit to take the strain. For example, “I take the stairs rather than the escalator – because that is what I do – that is my habit – that is who I am – I do not allow myself the choice to do otherwise – ever.” (Note that the rationale for taking the action is no longer there – it is not needed. All that is needed is obedience to the habit.)

There is, of course, a ‘dark’ side to all this. The unconscious, spontaneous aspect of habits can potentially make it easy to do things that benefit us (getting things done, exercising, meditating) but it is just as easy to repeatedly and unthinkingly do things that harm us (smoking, procrastinating, lethargy). The neurological process that creates habits does not distinguish between good and bad; it takes an act of conscious will to promote beneficial ones and extinguish the harmful ones. Sadly, as most of us know, old habits are very hard to break, and new habits are very hard to form because the behavioural patterns we repeat are imprinted in our neural pathways, so mastering our habits takes perseverance.

Habit loops

Charles Duhigg in the The Power of Habit notes that habits have a three-part structure:

  1. A Cue: A ‘signal’ that triggers the start of the behaviour (e.g. putting your running shoes by your front door; you see the shoes and think ‘run’!)
  2. A Routine: Engaging in the behaviour (going for the run)
  3. A Reward: The pay-off from engaging in the behaviour (the rush of endorphins that comes from doing exercise, enjoying the sense of achievement that comes from completing a task).

The best way to remove a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. So, the first step is to notice what ‘cues’ a negative behaviour (e.g. feeling bored), which initiates a ‘bad’ routine (e.g. eating a chocolate bar) and then change cues and/or routines to improve the situation. E.g. for the cue of ‘feeling bored’ we might adopt a new, more positive routine e.g. surf the Internet, phone a friend (rather than eat chocolate). Of course, it takes a conscious effort to establish the new habit; making improvements takes will power! In fact, Lally et al. (Journal of Social Psychology 2010) found the average time to establish a ‘habit’ was 66 days, with a range of 18–254 days.

Keystone habits

In terms of developing new habits one big idea is the notion of a ‘Keystone Habit’; these are ‘super habits’ that influence behaviours in a wide range of situations (i.e. it’s a habit that affects your entire life.) Keystone habits can be identified by asking the question: “What’s the one thing, which if I did it consistently, would have the most benefit in my life?” E.g. exercise more, eat better, stop smoking, improve my sleep hygiene, show more affection to my partner, embrace opportunities, do public speaking etc. And then frame that ‘topic’ as a specific goal that can become an automatic routine e.g. “I’ll walk 10,000 steps every day.”

One example that the research highlights as a keystone habit is exercise, because typically someone who keeps fit also eats reasonably healthily and sleeps soundly. Another is meditation. Research from the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging suggests that people who meditate show more gray matter in certain regions of the brain, show stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy (i.e. meditation can make your brain bigger and faster). So, one ‘keystone habit’ for people who commute on public transport could be to take a few minutes on each journey to close their eyes and meditate. Or for people who drive to work it might make sense to leave a little early, park and spend a few minutes in the car meditating before going into the office.

Bright lines and rituals

In legal contracts there is the concept of having ‘bright lines’, or clear, unambiguous boundaries; so it is obvious and unarguable whether or not something has, or hasn’t, been done. For example ‘stay hydrated’ or ‘get more sleep’ are fuzzy lines, while ‘drink a litre of water a day’ or ‘go to bed at 11pm every evening’, are clear, bright lines. In setting new habits it really helps to adopt bright lines. And, as far as habits as concerned, the brightest line is if you agree to do something (even for just a few minutes) each and every day, as opposed to, say, twice a week.

Rituals (highly specific behaviours, done at precise times of the day) are one type of ‘bright line’. They are a highly effective way of avoiding work overload as they can be used to ‘programme’ in breaks, pauses, and ‘re-set’ moments into the day. For example, a ritual might be that you go to bed at the same time every night so that you consistently get enough sleep, or exercise as soon as you wake up to be sure you get exercise, even when you don’t feel like it. One ritual that’s commonly taught as part of a time management programme (it’s certainly part of our training) is at the end of each work day to write down the most important task to accomplish the following day; something you’ll do as soon as you get back into work in the morning i.e. before doing anything else. Or you could take advice from Thanh Pham, the productivity blogger, and develop a ritual around “clearing to neutral”, by which he means clearing up at the end of any activity before starting the next task, e.g. put away equipment, or files, or wash up the pans, so that everything is ready to ‘go’ the next time you start that task.

Micro actions (too small to fail)

The smaller the daily goals or challenges you set for yourself when conditioning a new habit, the easier it is to keep going past the 66 day mark, when it’s likely to have become automatic and unconscious. So Stephen Guise in his book Mini Habits suggests that you make your goals ‘stupid small’, so small that it’s almost impossible not to do it. Of course the idea is that if you start with just one tiny step, that gives you the impetus to do much more than that. An example in the book, for the keystone habit of exercise, is that rather than specify that you’ll do 30 minutes of exercise each day, just commit to doing one ‘press-up’, or one ‘sit-up’, or one minute of stretching. Yes, just one. Once you’ve done that one you can then, if you like, do ‘bonus exercises’. He argues the key is to develop momentum for making a change and that means making things ‘too small to fail’. So, don’t say you’ll do ten sales or marketing phone calls each day; just commit to doing one. Don’t say you’ll start reading for pleasure ten minutes each evening; just commit to one minute. Don’t say you’ll become tidier and better organised; just clear out one shelf, or one desk drawer. Don’t say you’ll manage your team better; just give one piece of feedback (positive or constructive) each workday.

Habits that drive competitive advantage

One way of using ‘habits’ is to drive corporate culture. This is best done by choosing one simple, but core (keystone) behaviour and ask all employees to make it part of their normal routine. So, Lisa Earle McLeod in her 2012 book Selling with Noble Purpose, argues that driving sales revenue involves having a focus on what your product or service can do for customers (a Noble Sales Purpose). For McLeod this involves thinking about three issues:

  1. How your product helps customers
  2. How you’re different from your competitors
  3. Your emotional commitment to helping customers
    (why you care about what you do).

And once that focus is in place she suggests identifying a specific behaviour that supports that ‘purpose’, and this ‘habit’ should be something that:

  • Takes less than a minute
  • Everyone in the company can do
  • There are no excuses for not doing it

For example, Boston University have a policy that no member of staff should ever walk past people on their campus who are looking at a map, or appear to be visibly lost. They should stop, introduce themselves, and ask if they can help. This single policy sends a message to everyone, both inside and outside the organisation, that the culture of the University is to be helpful, and that the institution places a high priority on interpersonal interactions. This simple ‘habit’ encourages employees of every level to personally connect with students and their parents (customers), and empathise with them.

A focus on Safety in the workplace can be a ‘keystone habit’ that can drive profits and productivity. When Paul O’Neil became CEO of Alcoa in 1987 investors were surprised at the emphasis he placed on safety and ensuring ‘proper procedures’. O’Neill changed the company’s operation structure so that any time an employee got hurt, the senior members of the department had to deliver a plan to O’Neill showing how the injury would never happen again. Executives who didn’t embrace this keystone habit were fired or not promoted.

The knock-on effects of forcing people to pay attention to details, and making improvements that this focus on a safety culture engendered, saw costs fall, and quality improve. In fact by the time O’Neill retired in 2000, Alcoa’s profits had quintupled.

The seven habits

One of the best-known books on effective habits in business, and in life, must surely be Stephen Covey’s (1932-2012) multimillion selling;
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989). It could be argued that most of the ‘success behaviours’ that Covey lists are not habits in the technical sense of the term as they are broad concepts, and insufficiently ‘routine/automatic’. But they can certainly form the basis for a series of more specific habits and rituals that will drive good performance and create a sense of fulfilment.

The seven habits are:

  1. Be Proactive – Take responsibility for how your life is; make choices and take action to make things how you want them
  2. Keep the End in Mind – Define meaningful goals; be clear about what you want (Covey calls this the habit of personal leadership – having a focus for your actions)
  3. First Things First – Organise your time and energy around executing your key priorities
  4. Think Win-Win – Look for mutual benefit in all interactions; cooperation with other people tends to get better results than trying to ‘beat’ them
  5. Seek First to Understand and Then to be Understood – Listen closely to what people are saying and when you’ve fully understood their view have your say (diagnose before you prescribe)
  6. Synergise – Cooperate by respecting differences and build on strengths; use teamwork to do much more than you could accomplish alone
  7. Sharpen the Saw – Continuously look to strengthen your body, heart, mind, and soul

So what’s next?

Record the habits you already have, and how they work for (or against) you. As habits (once formed) are automatic it’s useful to take the time to consciously examine what you’re doing and assess the pro’s and con’s of your set routines.

Ask yourself: “What’s the one thing, which if I did it consistently, would have the most benefit in my life?” And create a ‘bright line’ goal based on your answer.

Read… Smart Change: Five tools to create new and sustainable habits in yourself and others, Art Markham (TarcherPerigee, January 2014)

Watch… this three minute clip of Charles Duhigg giving an overview on ‘the power of habits’…
See video clip

Consider sending your managers on our half-day workshop on Practical Time Management as a great way of helping them adopt habits for improved personal effectiveness…
View Practical Time Management

If you’re a senior executive maybe a ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching session would be a useful option for helping you develop some good habits, rid yourself of some bad ones, and maybe identify a ‘keystone habit’ for the organisation as a whole?
View ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching

And remember…

“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap
a habit; sow a habit, reap a character;
sow a character, reap a destiny.”
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

“One hand washes the other” – Seneca the younger

high impact negotiations
Negotiation, as defined in the dictionary, is, a discussion aimed at reaching an agreement. And much of success in business comes from being able to negotiate deals that leave both parties feeling satisfied. This involves treating the negotiation primarily as a ‘problem solving’ activity, as opposed to a competition to be won or lost. This is the ‘classic’ win/win scenario from the games theory models of the 1940’s. Win/Win deals mean that people are more likely to keep their promises because they feel that they gain from the arrangements that have been made. Win/Win deals also make repeat business more likely, because both sides start to trust each other and are ready to compromise to make sure that they both continue to gain from the relationship. In fact a study by Professor Gerald R. Williams (Harvard Law School dispute colloquium 1983) found that 97% of negotiators in his study who adopted a cooperative problem solving approach were rated as being effective, as opposed to 67% for people who adopted an adversarial stance.

But of course there are many competitive situations where one party would like to take advantage of the other and create a Win/Lose deal. Effective Negotiators understand this and so have the capability to work collaboratively (their preferred way of operating) while also being able to ‘defend themselves’ against hostile or predatory behaviour. With that in minds we’ll cover in this article:

  • Four negotiation principles
  • Four expert behaviours
  • Dealing with deceitful negotiators
  • The power of conditional language when doing a deal

Four negotiation principles

There is a lot of research that highlights what makes for good negotiation strategy, and amongst that research we can highlight four ‘big’ ideas: Building Trust; The Anchoring Concept; Interests not Positions; The Settlement Range (BATNA’s and ZOPA’s).

Building trust

Psychological research shows that ‘behaviour breeds behaviour’ i.e. we respond to other people’s actions with similar actions e.g. if someone treats us with respect, we tend to respond in kind, but If they seem (say) ‘guarded’ and cautious, we are likely to behave that way ourselves.  So good negotiators (wherever possible) take time to get to know the other party before they begin to negotiate in order to build a cooperative atmosphere e.g. by meeting for an informal coffee or lunch; but even a few minutes of small talk before starting the meeting can help. For example, Northwestern University School of Law Professor Janice Nadler found that negotiators who spent five minutes chatting on the phone—before negotiating —felt more cooperative toward their counterparts, shared more information, made fewer threats, than did pairs of negotiators who jumped straight into discussing the deal.

Of course it would be naive to assume that a ‘trusting relationship’ will exist just because you’ve engaged in some small talk, so skilled negotiators also do their homework on the other party’s past business dealings, corporate culture, and interests.National culture also comes into play when building trust. For example some cultures need a protracted period of confidence building, often based around meeting for dinner or drinks, e.g. to build a relationship with a Japanese company up to two years of contact during which friendship, ‘respect’, politeness, and ‘sincerity’ is established may be required; whereas other cultures prefer to get to business straight away and like a measure of plain speaking e.g. Holland.

Another key trust building technique is to highlight the concessions you’re making to the other side. A common negotiation error is to make concessions without explaining the ‘cost’ of that concession, and as a consequence the concessions go unappreciated and unreciprocated. So showing that you are prepared to do something that would be difficult/embarrassing/consequential is important, even (or maybe especially) in those instances where there is no financial number that can be placed on it.

The Anchoring concept

‘Anchoring’ describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions.   Once an ‘anchor’ has been set, e.g. a price has been quoted, then it is quite difficult to move too far away from that initial start point. So it’s usually best to put your offer on the table first (i.e. set the anchor) and to make sure that you have a ‘bold’ initial start point. It also pays to be aware of this ‘psychological bias’ and to consciously and actively act to defuse any ‘unhelpful’ anchor points set by the other side.

Interest not positions

In negotiation theory an ‘Position’ is ‘what’ someone wants (it’s the thing they are asking for) and an ‘Interest’ is ‘why’ he or she wants that thing. The significance of this is concept is that there is usually only one way of satisfying a position – and that’s to give in to it – but there are typically many ways of satisfying an interest. This matters because the more options we can generate the more likely we are to find a way of doing things that work for both parties.  For example someone might ask a car dealer for a Porsche 944 (a position that gives one way of meeting their requirements) but if their interest is in owning a sports car then more options become available (e.g. Jaguar, BMW, Ferrari, Aston Martin etc.) And maybe the car dealer doesn’t have a Porsche in stock but can offer a good deal on a Jaguar. So effective negotiators ask, “Why is that important to you?”

Settlement range

Expert negotiators know what their goals are.  They also know what they are willing to give to the other side to get their goals.  As part of this they have clear view of what offer they will open with, what they are prepared to concede on and what they will absolutely refuse to do. This assessment is based on a solid grasp of the strengths and weaknesses of their position and of their view of the other side’s situation. This is known as building a ‘settlement range’. (Of course if the two settlement ranges – yours and theirs – don’t overlap then a deal is going to be hard to reach!)   At Harvard Business School they describe this overlapping range as the ZOPA – Zone Of Possible Agreement.

Also Ury, Patton and Fischer in their classic text on negotiation (Getting to Yes) highlight the importance of the BATNA when defining the settlement ranges. The BATNA is the ‘Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement’ i.e. what would you do if you walk away from the deal? The better your ‘no deal’ option, then the more ‘bullish’ you can afford to be during negotiation. But remember the other side also has their own ‘no deal’ fallback position and it might be even better then yours! It’s worth highlighting that the ‘best alternative’ is a robust and properly researched option – not something that ‘might be possible’, or something that you ‘hope’ to do if the deal falls apart.  The BATNA concept is topical in light of the British Prime Minister’s stated position on Brexit i.e.  ‘that no deal is better than a bad deal’. Her critics on this point (of whom I’m one) say that this is actually not a true BATNA, because the analysis of what is likely to happen in the event of not reaching agreement with the EU hasn’t been fully examined and explored.

Four expert behaviours

In 1978 Neil Rackham and John Carlisle published a seminal study into the behaviors of expert negotiators in the Journal of European Industrial Training. They defined good negotiators as people who: routinely came to an agreement; made deals that were implemented successfully; and left people happy to negotiate with them again. The study provided a wealth of research based data into what constitutes effective negotiators behaviors, including the information that great negotiators:

  1. Focus on the common ground – they don’t ignore difficulties but they start by emphasizing what the areas of agreement are. They also remind people of what’s in each other’s mutual interest and what has already been agreed as the negotiation unfolds. They do this three times as much as average negotiators.
  2. Ask Questions – they explore the other person’s point of view and seek to understand their requirements and what room they have for manoeuvre. They do this twice as much as average negotiators.
  3. Behaviour label (explain what you’re going to do before you do it) – they make what they want to happen clear in order to (i) create a sense of fairness and order and (ii) to slow the conversation down slightly, which creates time to think. For example they might label their behaviour by saying; “I’d like to ask you a question” or, “I have a proposal for you”, or “I’ll explain what we need to get from this deal, and then make a suggestion for how we think you can support us, does that make sense?” They do this four times as much as average negotiators.
  4. Summarise – they take the time to slow down the pace of the negotiation and give themselves (and the other party) time to think. Summarising also helps to clarify what’s been agreed and what is still at issue. They do this twice as much as average negotiators.

Dealing with the deceitful negotiator

Not all negotiators take a Win/Win approach. Some are very competitive and some tell lies, sometimes directly, but more often by omission (i.e. by not offering relevant facts). So effective negotiators are adept at asking detailed questions, spotting evasion, noticing vague responses and reading body language. A study by Schweitzer and Croson found that 61% of negotiators gave an honest answer when asked directly and specifically about information that weakened their position (compared to 0% of those not asked directly).But be warned, 39% of the negotiators simply lied. When people are telling lies they often avoid answering the question they’ve been asked.  A study by Rogers & Norton (Journal Experimental Psychology, 2011) found listeners usually don’t notice these evasive answers, so it’s a tactic that works well for the deceitful negotiator. One counter measure is to have a list of questions on a pad; leaving space next to them to write down the answers you’ve been given. It’s then possible to take a few moments after each response to consider whether you’ve actually been given the information you wanted.

The power of conditional language

Conditional language is the bedrock of effective negotiation i.e. any proposed action is reliant on something else (i.e. if X then Y). E.g.  “if you reduce the price by 5% then I will sign the contract.” Or “if you want a lower price, then I need you to buy a bigger quantity.” This is important because it builds ‘give and take’ or symmetry into the conversation. So no concession of any substance is given for free; there is always a ‘quid pro quo’ hardwired into the structure of the language being used. And if the other side doesn’t reduce the price by 5% then the offer of signing the contract is void.

Conditional language can also be applied to the challenge of addressing differences of opinion about what the future might hold e.g. the seller of a business anticipates rapid, on-going sales growth and so wants a high price for their company, but the buyer is more pessimistic about future revenue streams etc. This can usually be addressed by including a contingency in the deal (i.e. using the if X then Y format) e.g. “the price for the company is €100,000,000 but if sales reach X over the next three years then an additional €10,000,000 will be paid.”

Conditionality can also be used to deal the issue of ‘events’ causing agreements to become unworkable or unprofitable over time.  Often these events will be unforeseen e.g. a change in legislation, an unexpectedly large shift in exchange rates, a new technology appears etc. So savvy negotiators make sure they have a ‘break clause’ in their deals, so that existing terms can be revisited as and when economic conditions change i.e. if we feel there is a change in circumstances then we have the right to reassess the terms after a two-year period.

What’s next?

Reflect on how you handle your negotiations at present. Do you plan thoroughly?  Do you think about your settlement range and BATNA? Are you focused on making sure that the other side also get something from doing the deal? (I.e. you adopt a problem solving mind-set.) What improvements could you make to how you negotiate?

Read (or re-read) …the classic negotiation text… Getting to Yes by Ury, FryPatton (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Watch… this two minute clip of the prize wining psychologist  Daniel Kahneman giving an overview of the power of anchoring.

Consider sending your deal makers on our two-day, Advanced  Negotiation Skills Course (which looks in detail at planning strategies, influencing skills and breaking deadlocks).

We also have a half-day workshop on High Impact Negotiations, which is a great way of ensuring people have a grasp of the key elements of making good deals…

If you’re a senior executive maybe a ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching session would be a useful option for helping you improve your negotiation skills.

And remember…

“You must never try to make all the money that’s in a deal. Let the other fellow make some money too, because if you have a reputation for always making all the money, you won’t have many deals.” – J. Paul Getty.

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”
Theodore Roosevelt

customer focus
Excellent Project Managers need to be technically capable, but being good at setting goals; planning; reacting to unexpected events etc. isn’t the whole story by any manner or means. Hard work on a project counts for little if the customer (or stakeholder) feels neglected, ignored or disrespected. So the ‘secret ingredient’ to project success is customer service excellence, and that’s true irrespective of whether the ‘customer’ is an internal sponsor or an external client.

Tell me about the money

Bain & Company research tells us that a customer is 4 times more likely to defect to a competitor if the problem is service-related, rather than price- or product-related.

Marketing Metrics reports that the probability of selling to an existing customer is 60 – 70%; while the probability of selling to a new prospect is 5-20%.

And a 2% increase in customer retention has the same effect as decreasing costs by 10% (Leading on the Edge of Chaos, Emmet Murphy & Mark Murphy.)

So it’s obvious why companies in general, and Project Managers in particular, need to take this topic seriously.

Furthermore, in many organisations, Project Managers are pivotal in driving a company’s Net Promoter Score (NPS). The NPS, which was created by Fred Reichheld, a Senior Fellow at Bain & Co, consists of just one question.

“On a 0 to 10 scale (10 being the highest) how likely would you be to recommend _______ to a colleague or a friend?”

The single score comes from taking the percentage of 10’s and 9’s (promoters) and subtracting them from the percentage of 6’s and below (detractors). The 7’s and 8’s are considered passives and therefore are not counted. Bain & co suggests that an NPS leader will out grow its competitors by a factor of two.

Thus, the NPS score provides a ‘trigger’ to really focus on the customer and that’s where the skills and techniques of customer focus can start to make a positive contribution to building strong, lasting relationships.

So how can Project Managers deliver great customer focus to go along with good technical ability…

Owning the relationship

Part of the skill of being excellent at Customer Focus is the capacity to be able to anticipate the customer’s needs, and this means taking the time to think through how to deal with their concerns in advance of any meeting. Clearly, if you can accurately identify what ‘wins’ the customer needs (e.g. a quick delivery) then you can shape arguments to take account of those factors. Also, thorough planning is important because any suggestions that are supported by hard evidence are more likely to be accepted by the customer than those that are not backed up with hard data. A number of techniques come into play in this area, but the most fundamental is arguably “Stakeholder Analysis”.

Stakeholder Analysis is about (a) identifying and then (b) influencing the key people involved in any given project, deal or decision. Aubrey L. Mendelow, Kent State University, Ohio 1991, suggested allocating the people involved in making decisions about an ‘issue’ to one of 4 quadrants; based on a graph that plots Power to make decisions against Interest in the topic in question.

So there are four ‘classes’ of people to be identified and influenced…

  1. High Power, High Interest: people that need to be given frequent updates and consulted in advance of any action being taken. Plans may have to be modified, in light of their feedback, in order to gain/keep their support.
  2. High Power, Low Interest: this group need just enough communication to be kept ‘in the loop’, so they’re not ‘surprised’ by how the project is going.
  3. Low Power, High Interest: these people need to be kept adequately informed, and canvassed to ensure that any useful ideas they have are captured and acted upon.
  4. Low Power, Low Interest: monitor these people and provide high level updates, but do not bore them with excessive communication.

Murray-Webster and Simon 2005, suggested adding a third dimension ‘Attitude’ for each person (or group) by adding a tick, cross, coloured dot or emoticon to highlight their views about the issue, project or deal in question. Usually one of three possible attitudes is allocated to each person, they are – Supportive; Neutral; or Obstructive.

Solving Problems & Building Trust

Stakeholders (both internal staff and external customers) understand that issues will arise on projects and that there will be ‘challenges’ that need to be solved. So when technical errors or setbacks occur ‘customers’ want those problems solved and, if they are solved in a timely manner, then (usually) all is well. But where communication is poor they get angry and start to complain e.g. ‘trust’ is lost when calls aren’t returned promptly, action plans aren’t distributed, or Project Managers seem uncertain about what to do etc. So strong relationships are built when you show that you really do care about what the customer is experiencing, and that you’re willing to take prompt action to address their needs.

Research by Dr Janet Curran of Huthwaite Group identified the key factors that lead to a positive experience for customers who have concerns with how a service is being delivered. The research was based on managing relationships with external customers, but the same findings would surely hold true for internal clients. They include:

  1. Positive First Impressions – looking interested and engaged; taking ownership of the ‘problem’ by saying “I” not “We” or “You”
  2. Defusing Emotion – using empathy and a sincere apology to help calm angry customers down
  3. Aiming for a Win/Win outcome – really listening to what their concerns are; getting a solution that makes sense for both sides (not just the customer); making sure that the ‘process’ for getting a solution is agreed by both parties.
  4. Prompt Follow Up – aligning the internal resources needed to deliver the agreed ‘solution’; keeping the customer up to date on the progress being made.

Reciprocity & Frugal Wows

Dr. Robert Caldini in his well known book on Influence explains that “Reciprocity” is: the in-built inclination to feel grateful for favours and to have a powerful psychological urge to “pay them back,” no matter how small they are.

The ‘reciprocity’ effect can be used to develop good client relationships in a number of ways. One application of this effect simply involves making a small gesture that will have a positive impact on how the customer perceives you. (What are sometimes called “frugal wows”). The small gestures should, of course, be meaningful to the customer and appropriate to the situation; they are especially powerful if they are unexpected. Also (and unsurprisingly) the research shows that the more ‘personalised’ or ‘tailored’ the ‘gesture’ to the customer’s situation, the stronger the impression it made on them.

So in a high street shop a ‘frugal wow’ might be as simple as making eye contact and smiling to greet the customer, or offering to help them carry their goods to their car if they’ve made a big purchase. In the corporate setting it can be that the Project Manager takes the time to reserve a car parking space for a client when they make a site visit, or maybe arranging some sightseeing if people have travelled from overseas, or perhaps providing a report in the customer’s mother tongue, or organising for an interpreter to be present at a key meeting, or sending them an article based on a conversation you’ve had etc.

One word of warning here; ‘frugal wows’ work when you do what is expected of you, reliably, and are sincere about wanting to do what’s best for customers. It’s the cherry on top of the cake. They won’t help if you’re getting basic things wrong. By way of a small personal example, I once had someone in reception at a hotel ask me brightly if everything was alright with my stay, just after I had complained to her about something – autopilot service mantra!

Facts tell but stories ‘sell’

If a Project Manager wants to persuade a ‘stakeholder’ to agree to something, one of the most effective strategies they can adopt is to tell a ‘story’. Green, Melanie C.; Brock, Timothy C. (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Nov 2000) found that a good story ‘pulls’ people into the narrative and makes them less aware that they are being influenced, reduces skepticism and counter arguing. So telling an anecdote about the lead up to a problem and the development of a solution is much more effective (from an influencing perspective) than just giving someone the straight facts.

So effective Project Managers will give the ‘history’ of the idea and not just the solution they propose e.g. “we first became aware there was an issue about six weeks ago when we saw (y) happening…so we started by exploring the options…and as a result of that work we recommend that we implement option (x)”

Good stories (according to research by Mazzocco & Green, Ohio State University) are…

  1. Well delivered (good pace and clear voice)
  2. Use imagery (describes the scene in terms of what you’d see, hear, and feel if you were there)
  3. Realistic (content is believable)
  4. Logically structured and ‘concise’
  5. Tailored to the audience’s level of interest and understanding

So what’s next???

Reflect on how you handle your communication with project stakeholders at present. Do you think carefully about what they want and need from you? Do you have a robust methodology for handling meetings and providing updates? What improvements could you make?

Read… Practical People Engagement: Leading Change Through the Power of Relationships, L Mayfield P (Elbereth Publishing)

Watch… this twelve minute You Tube clip giving an overview of 3 aspects of delivering a great story based on analysing the work of US comedian Kevin Hart. Of course the behaviours shown are ‘stronger’ than you’d use in the corporate setting, but the principles are valid and clearly demonstrated.

Consider sending your Project Managers on our two-day, ‘Customer Focus’ course (which looks in detail at how to build great client relationships and has been run over 50 times, across three continents.)

If you are a senior executive maybe a ‘one to one’ Executive Coaching Session would be a useful option for helping you improve your relationship building skills.

And to end, an insightful and often reproduced quote…

“The customer is not someone to argue with or match wits against—he is a person who brings us his wants. If we have sufficient imagination we will endeavor to handle them profitably to him and to ourselves.”
Kenneth B. Elliott (who was the Vice President in Charge of Sales for The Studebaker Corporation, in an article published in 1941)

“Without a standard there is no logical basis for making a decision or taking action.”
– Joseph M. Juran
reports and graphs

Many of the factors that make for success in business, and in life, are seemingly mundane; tedious even, but that apparent blandness can sometimes hide the fact that the routine disciplines are the bedrock of good performance. So the gifted musician practises their scales religiously, the professional athlete works on their flexibility, the talented leader makes sure he/she gets enough sleep so that they have a clear head when making decisions etc. In business one of the most overlooked of these ‘hidden’ success factors is how people formally communicate ideas and information within a business.

Whether reporting overall business performance, ‘pitching ideas’, solving problems, planning a negotiation, or giving project updates, having a systematic approach to transmitting information around the business is an unglamorous but important factor in an organisation’s success. Well-designed standard formats ensure that key points are covered and errors are minimised. It’s easy to learn to write them and the information is easy to grasp (because the format is always the same.) So what are some examples of effective, standardised reporting formats…

The Balanced Scorecard

Developed by Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton (1992 Harvard Business Review) the aim of the Balanced Scorecard is to:

  • Identify what you need to measure to be successful
  • Focus people (and business processes) on the priorities
  • Make sure that all people (and systems) are aligned with the same set of priorities

In essence the scorecard aims to add strategic non-financial performance measures to traditional financial metrics, to give managers and executives a more ‘balanced’ view of a company’s performance. The Scorecard has four sections that cover the key elements, which, Kaplin & Norton argue, makes for success in business:

  1. Financial (e.g. ROI; Cash Flow; Profitability)
  2. Customer; internal and/or external (e.g. Customer Satisfaction; Customer Retention; acquisition of new clients; brand image)
  3. Internal Business Processes (e.g. Manage risks; Efficient operations; Continuous Improvement)
  4. Learning & Growth (e.g. Talent Management; Performance Management; Morale; Training)

Of course to work well it has to be actively used as the centerpiece of a management meeting, and its completion must be absolutely mandatory. As with all management information it needs constant review and amendment of metrics to retain its relevance. However, ‘Scorecards’ are a ‘big idea’ in terms of reporting formats, in fact they were selected by the editors of Harvard Business Review as one of the most influential business ideas of the past 75 years, as they gives senior executives a clear, structured way of executing and monitoring business strategy.

Board Reports or bored by reports?

Board Reports are intended to help company directors drive their organisations forward by answering questions like, “What were the significant events last month/Quarter? Are we on target? What is the financial situation? What significant investments are planned?” Etc. However, very often, senior executives find that the Board Papers they receive are too detailed and too poorly structured to be able to absorb all the data – they can be hundreds of pages long! They also (typically) suffer from ‘metric madness’, with a huge range of KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) often using different reporting formats.

The challenge then is to dispense with the myriad of KPI’s, colours, tables and lines, and sheer ‘heft’ that constitute many Board Packs and replace them with a simple, well-organised report that tells a story for each key area of the business. Of course providing the proper level of detail, mostly in the appendixes, is important so that Executive and Non Executive Directors have access to data they need to make informed decisions. But providing that data needs to be done in a clear, concise manner that makes it clear (i) what the purpose of each section of the report is and (ii) what decisions the Board are being asked to make.

One writer on this subject, Jon Moon, suggests that his Words in Tables format (WiT) provides a possible answer. WiT is a method of presenting information in table format…as in this example from his website… jmoon.co.uk



Toyota’s A3 Method & Nemawashi

Toyota’s production system is highly regarded and has a number of well-known elements amongst its 13 components or ‘pillars’ e.g. ‘fool proofing’ (Poka-Yoke) Pull System (Kanban) etc. However a vital, though lesser-known ‘pillar’, is their addiction to A3 reports and ‘building a consensus’ (i.e. Nemawashi.)

Toyota insists that managers use a tool called “the A3” (named after the paper size – 11” x 17”) as a method for sharing information, solving problems and approving proposals. All proposals, ideas, problem solving exercises etc. have to be summarised on a single A3 page. The A3 page is divided into several sections, with each being a small square or rectangle, and each section tells part of a ‘story’ that builds to support a given conclusion. The key to success is to realise that there is a need to ‘story board’ the proposal, recommended action etc. and to ensure that the key data is presented clearly, and there is a logical ‘flow’ to what’s being suggested.

Nemawashi typically begins when the person who is promoting a particular proposal talks the stakeholders through the initial draft of the A3 form. Usually they start with the most junior stakeholder and then work their way up the chain of command, modifying their proposal, as necessary, in the light of comments received from key people. In the event of strong resistance, the proposal is either abandoned or completely reworked. The idea is that once a proposal is approved (which may take some time) it is fully understood by all the relevant parties and can be implemented quickly and efficiently.

Summary on a Page (SOAP)

The Procter & Gamble One Page Memo format has been in use by P&G since the 70’s. As the name suggests all internal communications have to be condensed into one page, and follow a fixed, five-part, format.

  1. The background
    Set the context
  2. Introduce your idea
    Describe, ideally in one sentence, what you’re proposing
  3. Explain how your idea works
    Explain the key elements of the idea
  4. Reinforce the benefits
    List the three most important benefits of your proposal/idea
  5. Suggest the next step
    State what has to happen to move things forward

This format ensures that ideas are presented succinctly and coherently, because addressing the five steps (should) automatically mean that the important elements of a new idea have been thought through.

Pecha Kucha – the Japanese art of chit chat

The Japanese reporting format of Pecha Kucha (literally ‘chit chat’) is used to keep presentations short and sharp. The discipline is to prepare 20 slides, each of which gets shown for 20 seconds (on auto change) so each presenter has 400 seconds (6 minutes and 40 seconds) to make their point. It is primarily intended to keep people at conferences (internal or external) and networking events (where there are a whole string of talks on the agenda) ‘focused’ and so avoid death by PowerPoint. Here is an example of this 20 x 20 format in action: www.speaker.org/video/pechakucha.html

So what’s next???

Reflect on the nature and quality of the internal written communications that you (a) prepare and (b) receive, and consider if some ‘standardisation’ of formats might be useful.

Take a look at this short lecture (10 minutes) on how to use the A3 report format…youtube.com/watch?v=UvffmfnTh3A

Read… How to make an IMPACT: Influence, inform and impress with your reports, presentations, business documents, charts and graphs (Financial Times Series) by Jon Moon

Consider sending your managers on our “Managing the Team” course (which includes discussions of standardising reporting formats)…

Or maybe a ‘one to one’ executive coaching session would help you to consider the way some aspects of your company’s documentation could be improved e.g. Standardised Sales Pitches, Revised Board Packs etc.

And remember…

“Without standards there can be no improvement”
– Taiichi Ohno