Focus on What’s Important

Jan 06, 1997

Did you ever notice how some companies muddle along while others seem to keep advancing? What allows some firms to make so much more progress and to get so much more accomplished than others? It’s their ability to focus on what’s important. These firms know what needs to be done, how to do it, and they do it. They don’t waste time, money, or mental energy on activities that aren’t critical to their success. As a result, they are tremendously efficient and effective, have good staff morale, and grow faster than the industry as a whole. Here’s more of what I mean: Project management— Everyone in this business wants better project management. But managers in the focused company know how to make it happen. They accept that not everyone can be a good PM, and reduce the number of PMs to the competent few. They don’t create training programs that deal with every aspect of project management, they focus on training that deals with specific areas that need improvement. They give the right information to PMs— information they need to run a job, not a bunch of junk. They give PMs their own staff so they can keep the promises they make to clients. They track a few key indicators of PM performance (project profits, effective multipliers, WIP write-offs, ACP, extra work sold, client satisfaction) and share these with everyone. In short, they don’t attack on all fronts and make no real progress on any of them as it relates to project management. Marketing— Putting a focus on marketing means a firm has to decide what type of clients it wants to work for and what types it doesn’t want to work for, then stick with this thinking for an extended period of time. But that’s not typical in our industry. Too many firms operate with a desperation mentality. They act as if their entire future depends on getting a particular job, and too often, it backfires. The focused firm has principles they won’t compromise when it comes to marketing, and they keep their focus narrow enough as it relates to client types they want to serve so they can be a force in their chosen markets. The unfocused firm goes after everything— “you never know....” is their corporate by-word— then they wonder why they can’t do a good job at anything. Recruiting— Focus in recruitment means the firm knows what type of people it needs (they have a list of openings) and what the highest priority job is. They put time and money into the priority needs first. They don’t just lump all jobs into one pot, run huge laundry-list ads, and pray they get lucky, while trying to hire anyone they can to fill any opening. Accounting— Having a focus in accounting means that #1, bills go out, #2 accounts receivable get collected, #3 deposits get made every day, and #4 checks get written. It also means that the cash flow forecast is done every week, the month is closed out and a P&L generated as quickly as possible every time, and other tasks, such as calling in the payroll or filing any necessary tax forms, get done every time. The unfocused firm worries about converting its systems to something new even though they aren’t using their old one properly, generates reams of paper reports full of bad information and then routes these all over, pays bills instead of getting bills out, and worries about magazine subscription renewal notices instead of doing the weekly cash flow forecast. People management— Focus in people management means the firm is doing what’s really important to keep everyone on track. It means, at a minimum, everyone knows who their supervisor is, who sets their pay, and what is expected of them. It also means that good people are getting the attention they need from management, instead of problem employees sapping all of management’s time and emotional energy. Ownership transition— Having focus in ownership transition means first and foremost that the firm has a plan for how it will remain capitalized over the long haul. That requires having a proper method in place for valuing the stock, and careful consideration of a wide range of scenarios related to when stockholders will leave the company and what it will mean to the firm when that happens. The unfocused company, on the other hand, is more worried about the perks and privileges that go along with ownership, the schedule of shareholder meetings, and a bunch of other stupid stuff such as what the company’s policy is on reimbursement of club membership dues for principals. Or worse, the unfocused firm is more concerned about deferred compensation plans to avoid taxes than they are in how to use the stock as a motivator to drive the firm’s future growth and profits. Information technology— Having focus in information technology means the first priority is linking everyone inside each office and the second priority is linking every office. Then the focus deals with issues such as file naming conventions and CADD layering standards. This is opposed to making the change from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 as the number one priority, or getting three more laptops for principals who don’t even type before replacing an aged HPIII printer that dies every day in the word processing pool. Employee benefits— Having focus on benefits means the firm provides good medical insurance to every employee and affordable or free family coverage to those who need it, before getting into free child care, dental insurance, or short-term disability benefits (don’t laugh— I’ve seen it before). Business planning— Focus in business planning means that the firm has a business plan that is updated at least once a year, a plan that includes goals and action items. This plan should have had widespread participation from employees to develop, and should be known by all in the firm. This is opposed to companies who can’t ever spend the time to put together a good business plan, yet will spend thousands of dollars doing things like determining the size of potential market for rubber band manufacturing plants because one of their principals has always had an interest in rubber bands. Having the proper focus in business planning also means the company is not spending weeks in the budgeting process and only a few hours on goal setting, or even less time communicating to employees the plan for the coming year. I could probably go on like this for hours, but I’m sure you get the idea. Put your focus on what’s important this year and see what happens— it’s powerful stuff. Originally published 1/06/1997

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.