Sometimes You Have to Just Plunge In

Jul 20, 1998

Summer’s here. Our local swimming hole— “Farm Pond”— in the town I live in (Sherborn, Mass., pop. 4,300) is also a social gathering spot. Late in the afternoon and on weekends you’ll see all of your friends and neighbors there and catch up on local gossip. It hasn’t been that hot here yet so the water at Farm Pond is still a bit chilly. Getting in when it’s a little cold to go for a swim is somewhat analogous to decision making in A/E/P and environmental consulting firms. You can prolong the process— put a hand in, then a foot, then both feet, then wade in up to your waist, doing that little shivery dance before fully submerging yourself. But all this does is take time and protract your pain. If you want to get in, there’s only one way to do it as far as I’m concerned— jump in off the dock to water that’s over your head. Sure it will be cold, but in a minute or two you’ll feel fine. Here are some examples of where A/E/P and environmental firms would be better served to jump in instead of protracting their pain: Reviewing marketing support materials. Why, why, why is that firms in this business take forever to get any piece of printed marketing material off to the printer? We act as if every principal and manager in the firm should put their seal of approval on this stuff, and that our life depends on this one piece of promotional material. On top of it, the final product, in most cases, suffers from having too many cooks. The message is garbled and it takes too long. The moral of the story is to stop trying to make it perfect, get it out, and move on to the next piece. It’s a quantity and frequency issue, not a quality issue, that is hurting your marketing. Hiring. It’s really nice to have choices when you are filling a critical position. It’s great not to be rushed. You want to be sure you make the right decision so you run the candidate or candidates past everyone in the firm who will ever interact with them. But in 1998, with unprecedented demand for certain types of people, you don’t have that luxury any longer. Time is of the essence. Not everyone can or should meet the candidate. And if the person looks as if they can do the job, you better make your decision and get the offer letter out today, because they aren’t going to be available for long. Collecting long overdue accounts. We have a habit of wishful thinking in this industry when it comes to collecting money. We keep thinking that the money will come, that somehow that client that your instincts told you was a sleazebag will pay his bill. So you do a little more work to make sure he’s happy and make a few half-hearted collection calls. But what you really need to do is stop work, get tough, get the collection letters out, and turn these crooks over to your lawyers with strict instructions to bite onto their legs and not let go until you get your check! Making someone an owner. Once again, we caucus, we think, we poll, we caucus some more, and so on when deciding whether or not we’ll let a given employee buy some stock. All of this takes a tremendous amount of time. But why do we do it? Because once we make someone an owner, they have a job for life, aren’t accountable to anyone, and are practically tenured. But that needn’t be the case. Just because you sell someone stock doesn’t mean that they cannot continue to be a productive staff member who earns their pay on a daily basis. And if they don’t, there’s no reason you cannot buy their stock back. So how much time should the current owners waste thinking/politicking/talking over this issue? Delivering performance feedback. Too many engineers, architects, and scientists want to save up their praise and criticism for performance review time. Wrong!! They should be getting it out immediately. Procrastination accomplishes absolutely nothing. The more closely the feedback is timed to the act, good or bad, the better. There should never be a surprise at performance appraisal time. But too many of us feel strange about delivering criticism, and some even hesitate to give praise. Either being “judge” is uncomfortable to us, or we’re afraid to swell someone’s head with positive feedback. Neither is acceptable if you are supposed to be the boss. Firing poor performers. It’s like pulling teeth to get managers in A/E/P firms to feel it’s O.K. to fire someone, even people who are lazy, stupid, incompetent, or dishonest. We want to keep giving these people chances to turn things around. But once again, most of the time, anyone with a lick of common sense who follows his or her intuition could have determined early on that the person wasn’t going to work out. Why prolong the agony? When it comes to management decision-making, the water’s always going to be cold. So are you “jumping in,” making decisions, or are you doing that one step at a time shivery shimmer and unnecessarily procrastinating? Originally published 7/20/1998

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