Managing Expectations in Business and Competitive Intelligence Endeavors
Episode 5: Achieving the impossible.
You’ve been tasked with a big intelligence project to be completed in record time with a tiny budget. What do you do to keep from working really hard to deliver and then failing to make your client happy? David provides deep insights on how to pull something like this off.
THE ONE THING DAVID GETS ASKED THE MOST
Whether you’re new to the field or you’re an industry veteran, you have to keep in check those end deliverables and what people are expecting to get versus what you plan to provide. In our industry in particular, our stakeholders always want things “yesterday.” They don’t want to wait. They want it NOW, and our information age and our digital world fosters that environment, People often believe you can punch a couple of buttons and poof, this information just shows up.
You have to manage those expectations right from the beginning.
WHY IS MANAGING EXPECTATIONS THE TOPIC YOU’RE ASKED ABOUT THE MOST?
The demands on intelligence practitioners on a day-to-day basis are really high, and they can’t do it all. They don’t have unlimited resources, whether it’s people or dollars or time, to be able to deliver against the work. When stakeholders across different functional areas believe their issue is the most urgent and important, this is where that belief stems from.
People are looking for guidance on how to decide which issues to work on and how to educate clients that you can’t answer a laundry list of of questions and you can’t deliver it tomorrow, without coming across as telling everybody “no.” This is about understanding how to better manage this type of work load.
I always tell people, you own the CI function. Part of owning it is you get to decide what you can deliver, when, and how it’s done.
HOW DO YOU MANAGE OWNING IT?
You can never say, “I can’t.”
But you CAN say, here’s what we can do. Here’s what we can get done by this date, unless it’s that important and you can give me some resources to really get it done.
Resource allocation is typically the biggest issue and whether what they want will actually be obtainable.
Sometimes clients will ask for something and you can ask how do they track that in their own company? And they may respond, I don’t even know if we do. I don’t know if we look at the market that way or I don’t know who in our own company has that information. Asking how the same information would be found from their own organization puts it in perspective on how difficult that request can be if they don’t even know how it’s handled in their own organization.
Another way is to use a company’s values. If they’re committed to continuous improvement or integrity and all these various types of values, you can appeal that to produce the highest quality of an output, to best inform your decision, we need more time. But sometimes they don’t have more time if the information loses value after a certain date. That’s when you can address “good, cheap, and fast”: You want it fast, you want it cheap, then it’s probably not going to be very good. Are you okay with that?
What about increasing the budget?
Sometimes, depending on the ask, like trying to uncover the revenues or profit statement of a privately held company, a bigger budget is not going to provide that. However, there are certain building blocks you can get, a sense of their top line sales, a sense of their gross margin, something comparable to what a typical operating income might be, and then do some assumptions and modeling to get to the answers in between. Sometimes time and money will help you to get those answers. Other times, the doability factor becomes an issue.
FIVE KEY WAYS TO MANAGE EXPECTATIONS
1. Profile the Client
The first way, which, almost nobody does, is to profile your client. Profile those stakeholders from the beginning. As you start to work with certain internal folks, understand who they are, what they’re measured on, what are their objectives, what are they trying to accomplish in their role? What key decisions are they looking to make? What are their success metrics?
Anything and everything you deliver, should relate back to those metrics. Try to understand their personality. Are they a driver? Are they amiable, expressive, do they like to have information in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, in PowerPoint, in Excel, in a conversation? How do they want it delivered? All those things matter. So profiling your client, getting a little more understanding about who they are and how they operate becomes an important way to manage expectations, right from the beginning.
2. Determine the Scope
A second way to manage expectations is around determining the scope of the project, and it might sound obvious. Most people, however don’t take enough time to consistently document the scope clearly. What is it that’s within the boundaries of what we’re agreeing to, and what’s not inside the boundaries? What are the tasks involved? What are the key objectives we’re trying to accomplish? What are the must-knows versus the nice-to-knows? What are the resources necessary and then of course, timeline and dollars. If you don’t spell that out very clearly, then there’s ambiguity. Saying, ‘we’ll get that to you in the next couple of weeks’ – is that two or is that seven? What does that mean?
Many times in determining the scope, the client may not be asking you the right questions. You have to think about the next logical question to properly determine what they want? Do they want the dissertation version, or do they want the thumbnail look at a landscape issue? How involved do they want and what does their time and money allow? It’s like buying a car. What features and benefits and little extra options do you want, what can you afford, and how long will it take for them to insert that into the vehicle as it’s going down the line? Same thing here, you have to get the scope down.
To make sure they’re asking the right questions you need to understand the key objective. What are you going to do with the raw intelligence, and what decision will it inform? And if your client doesn’t understand their key objective then they not ready to start the project.
Sometimes you’ll get three pages of questions and you look at them and two thirds of them might be good questions but when answered, they’re not going to address the objective of the engagement or give them the insights that they’re looking for to enable a really informed decision. Honing in on why they want this and what decision they’re making is critical, but enough people don’t always probe deep enough. They might ask the question and get an answer but didn’t listen intently enough to see, was that just words in response to a question or did they really tell you what they’re trying to accomplish?
When that happens, they’re not ready to start the project because you’ll come back with a truckload of information and then they’ll either say, I already knew all that or what am I supposed to do with all that? Don’t ever start a project with that as a scope. It’s really critical to know what they don’t understand already about the market and what they’re trying to accomplish.
What do you do when they’re not defining the scope adequately?
Then you have to make some assumptions. You have to think about the bigger priority that they’re trying to address and come back to them with some suggested questions or topics. That will stimulate something in their mind of, yeah, that’s what I’m trying to get across. Usually, if they don’t know and you say, okay, then I’m going to go after these four things, If it’s not the right four things, they’ll tell you.
You have to reflect back what they’re asking for: this is what I understand the scope to be or what your objective is and these are the key … four or fivetopics or questions that you’re seeking. Did I hear that correctly? Not only does it show them you were listening but you’re adding a consultative element to what you’re doing to reflect back and make sure before you go down the wrong path, that you’re aligned on what they want to accomplish.
Often times you’ll have a gatekeeper or intermediary who’s actually making the request on behalf of the true end stakeholder. The challenge is there’s often something lost in translation. This is where your project kick-off call is another way to manage expectations.
The kick off call makes sure you’re aligned before you really get moving. However, oftentimes that call is when you start to hear the real scope, what the real questions might be or you get new or different questions that arise because maybe something changed in the market or now the stakeholder is just thinking through it differently.
3. Communicate Regularly
Communicating regularly is a third way to manage expectations. Having very strong written and oral skills and being able to summarize very concisely what those needs are, verus the wants. We can have a list of 10 different questions to go after, but if the most important ones are questions 1 to 3 and you deliver questions 4 through 10 but you don’t do 1 to 3, they’re not going to be very impressed.
You might think, hey, I got 70% of the scope done. No, not really. If they say the must gets are these top 3, if you don’t get those, the project has no value. When you get those three and then if you get the other ones, now all of a sudden that adds incremental value. It’s the nice-to-know questions versus the need-to-know questions. Make sure you can communicate that back clearly and demonstrate you’re an active listener.
As an active listener, you’re not just listening and going through the motions. Youre really taking notes, writing down what you’re saying, and really reflecting back and asking questions about what they are raising.
4. Seek Perspective versus Precision
In the intelligence world, it’s about gaining perspective. It’s about getting different perspectives from different sources, some more credible than others, some have more knowledge than others, versus precise information. For example, if you’re trying to find out the revenues of a particular product line at a company, does it really matter if I tell you those revenues are between $100 and $110 million or it’s$ 102.7? It doesn’t change the decision you have to make.
It’s all about providing perspective on the issue rather than worrying about drilling down to the specific answer. They have 60 to 65 sales reps. Does it matter if I tell you 62? It’ll probably be 63 tomorrow. They’ll hire somebody. They can fire 2 people. The precision part is always changing. As soon as you hear that word, detail, it’s always an alert. It doesn’t mean you can’t provide details, and it doesn’t mean you won’t get a precise answer on something but you won’t strive for that. You want to strive for perspective because very few people at any given target company who know the precise number on something, and that’s not typically necessary to make a decision.
How do you express that to the stakeholder? Be direct. You don’t sugar coat it, you don’t try to be soft about it. You hit them head on with, “we can get you a narrow range,” if it’s a quantitative assessment.
Just like when you’re doing strategic early warning, you’re not going to get a precise date 18 months out of when a company is going to launch a new product. You’ll start by getting, “it’s going to be next year.” Then you’ll get, “we think it’s going to be third or fourth quarter.” Then “it’s going to be, November or December.” Then you might get to, as it gets closer, the second week in November. It’s not worrying, early on in particular, about the preciseness to inform the decision.
The amount of detail needed depends on how much support they need to feel confident in your answer. So the detail, sometimes, is a need to explain the rationale or justify how you got to your conclusion. But even the detail might not be available. Some executives just want the end conclusion, period. They want the bottom line results. Others, if they’re dealing with somebody who’s more analytical, they’re going to want to understand all those details because they’ll read all of the details. Some executives say, “give me a one page summary.” Some will say, “give me the whole report. I want to read it all.” So again, you’re going back to profiling your client. Are they detail oriented or are they top line, bottom line thinkers?
5. Determine Doability
Can you actually do the engagement? Sometimes something’s asked and you wonder, is it even obtainable information? Can you capture it legally and ethically? Can you actually connect with the individuals who have the insight you seek? Do you have access to those individuals? I like to give a doability percentage. We think we can capture 50% of what you’re looking for. I think you could get 80% of what you’re looking for. You set that expectation from the very beginning. You want this in three weeks. Here’s what I think we can get in three weeks. To get the balance, we need two more weeks. Are you okay with the staged or phased approach to getting this?
Being really candid about, can we even do what you want to have done? All this sounds fundamental and obvious, but as a CI practitioner you want to say, yes, okay, yeah, we’ll go get it and later you go, what did I just agree to? And how am I going to possibly get that and you start figuring out the resources needed and the time requirements and you’ve got these other deliverables. So you have to, at that moment, be able to pause and say, now that I understand your scope, let me get back to you in an hour or two hours, a day, whatever it is, and say, let me do a feasibility assessment, make sure we can deliver. Make sure we reflect back what you want, what it’s going to take to get it done and get alignment on that.
A good book that has nothing to do with CI is called, SPIN Selling. SPIN Selling talks about four things: S is situation; P is problem-based questions; I is implications; N is needs payoff. While this book is designed for sales people, that same type of technique works as well in a consultative scoping of a project for a CI practitioner What’s your situation? What are the problems you’re facing? What are the implications if we don’t answer these questions that you have? And what’s the payoff when we do?
You want to be able to have a very well organized intelligence capability. One of the ways to make sure that you’re perceived as professional and credible and consultative is to, from the very beginning, outline those expectations. If you start marching down a path that none of you were aligned on exactly, then nobody is going to be happy. You’re going to bust your butt to deliver something that won’t hit the mark — and it won’t hit the mark because you weren’t very clear on the specifics.