Time to Change the Game?

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Imagine that you’re running in a race (a marathon) and doing well. You’re at least four miles ahead of your nearest competitor, and with only a half a dozen miles to go. Things look pretty good. But then (all at once) you’re passed, by someone bounding along at nearly twice your speed – on some sort of high-tech, futuristic springy shoe-thingys. And then she is gone.

Or imagine the opposite: you’re running the same race, but now it’s you that is more than ten miles behind, and with only a couple left. It’s clear that, as long as things stay the same, you just can’t win this race. You cannot go fast enough to make up the lost ground, to change the physics involved. You’re only hope is to instead change the game, in some transformative way, just as the first competitor did above with new technology.

In sports we rarely witness these changes in the middle of competition. Changing the rules unilaterally usually isn’t allowed – it’s just not fair. But business is different, and the same standards of fairness don’t apply. In the marketplace what the customer thinks (and values) is what succeeds. If your competitor devises a new gizmo that allows her and her team to move faster, and the client appreciates that result, then she wins. By default this becomes a “game changer,” the new, preferred approach. Others may cry foul (their sense of justice challenged) but that misses the point. Business is not an intramural (or even a professional) sport.  What’s considered possible – and fair – changes constantly, evolving with customer tastes and preferences, and with supplier innovation and improvement.

In the Fast Future ahead we’re in for much more of this disruptive game changing. In reality, many of the professional services fields have been somewhat isolated from the major forces of change, but this won’t last forever. New technology, the availability and transparency of information, and the rapidly accelerating global connectivity of our world will profoundly reshape all business in this century – including the work of most professionals.

And it’s not just the big, “uber-trends” of the Fast Future that lie ahead. Much of the transformative change in business is already here, or just arriving, and affecting now the professional services sector. Consider these:

Marketing – Anyone paying attention appreciates that marketing is moving fast, and that the old ways simply don’t work as well anymore. Too many see this shift as an outcome of the recent recession.  In fact what’s happening is not cyclical, but transformative. The marketplace today is overwhelmed with information, connectivity, and rapidly rising consumer power. What’s working better now is in-bound, permission-based, and value-oriented marketing.  This is a much different path than the old marketing approach, and many firms are struggling with the shift.

Business Development – In the past most professionals built their business through local area relationships – one at a time, and over a long period of time. Today the markets (and the world) are moving much faster. Relationships still count (they count a lot), but the old methods of concentrating the business development acumen in just a few of the firm’s principals, and then waiting out the growth of relationships over long periods of time – is just not enough anymore. Moreover, in many firms these BD ‘rainmakers’ are now nearing retirement. Who’ll do this important work after they’re gone? Isn’t it obvious that a change in tactics, and indeed in strategy, is needed?

Operations– I’ve said this many times before, but too many professional firms are run only as well as they have to be, and not as well as they could be. This is largely the result of the relatively stable and protected business environment they’ve enjoyed. How things are done inside the firm has largely been opaque to clients. Customers focus on results, and not usually on the process to achieve them. But when the nature of client expectations changes dramatically (for instance wanting same product but for 2/3 the price; or the same output, but 50% faster) then how the work is done will become considerably more interesting. Arcane pricing models such as ‘percent of construction’ or ‘time and materials not to succeed’ (my change/emphasis) – these will be exposed for their ridiculousness, and with intense pressure for major change. Many professional firm operations have lots and lots of inefficiency – in part because today the client pays for it. Expect this to change in a big way.

Leadership – Professional firms have enjoyed historical success through an organization model that commonly concentrates business experience and skill among just a few firm leaders. These managers, principals, and owners do most of the “business” work (marketing, client relationships, accounting and finance, operational management). The idea has been to “protect” the larger staff from administrative, support, and ‘overhead’ work. But as a result, many companies today are comprised of talented, hard-working professionals with considerable technical abilities – and little else. As one senior executive recently put it, “we’ve got a lot of great folks around here, but I’m not sure that many of them know how to make a buck.” Again, the question is how the firm can survive, and perpetuate itself to future success, unless more of these professionals are brought into the leadership circle, and they develop a broader portfolio of skills, competencies, and experiences for leading and running the firm.

The bottom line is this: an organization comprised of professionals with great discipline strength–architects, structural engineers, environmental consultants, or accountants– but with little ability to acquire work, managing operations, or lead staff – will have little more than commodity worth. I’m not suggesting that the technical discipline itself is a commodity – that anyone can do what the architect does.  But there are literally thousands of these professionals domestically (and millions worldwide) in each field. In the Fast Future ahead, increasingly transparent information, global connectivity, and a myriad of new technologies will unleash a sea of game changers – they’ll be visible, available, and valued.  Game changers will win everything.  It won’t be fair, but it will be.

Take a look around your firm, organization, and team.  Consider these major pieces of your business – like marketing, business development, operations, and leadership.  Do you see the opportunities for improvement here- either modest and incremental, or much larger and transformative? Is it time for you and your team to get serious about future success, about changing the game you’re in?

We believe it’s time to move – and to move with courage – into the Fast Future.

Let us know what you think.

Best,

John

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