You Should Be the Dealmaker

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Communication and facilitation skills help firms develop the ability to influence.

A large multinational firm recently hired our company as a subconsultant in a significant infrastructure design project. Ours is a small role, and they invited us primarily because of our relationships and reputation with the project’s stakeholders. They hoped we could leverage our relationships to influence a favorable outcome for all involved. In spite of our limited role, we’ve provided much of the project leadership to make it possible.

I’ve thought a lot lately about the impact our ability to influence plays in successful project delivery. By influence, I mean our ability to draw on unique experience, relationships, and communication skills to create favorable outcomes that help clients achieve their goals. This role is different from the one most firms play, providing commodity services and solving repetitive design problems. In contrast, influencers are highly valued and trusted advisors who tend to be the “dealmakers” in our profession.

As a business owner, I wonder how to teach this ability to project managers and design staff. This is particularly difficult because influencers seem to possess traits (personal networks, reputation, and technical experience) that seem inherent in their personalities. While these traits are important, there are communication and facilitation skills that can be taught and will greatly increase a person’s ability to influence.

Lately, I’ve read and heard a lot about the role “design thinking” plays in business practice. By definition, I would assume architectural, engineering, and environmental consulting firms would practice these skills widely. That has not been my experience, and I wonder if developing some of the skills espoused by these advocates might help develop influencers. Some of these abilities include:

* The ability to understand a client’s needs. A solid understanding of a client’s underlying needs is critical during the proposal/sales process and equally important during project execution. Unfortunately, we tend to make quick assumptions about a client’s needs, which often lead us to answer the wrong questions. Teaching staff to reevaluate or question why a client has engaged us will help to develop influencers. To help, use standardized forms (to drive strategic brainstorming sessions and thought) and a consistent client feedback process (i.e. regular client progress interviews) to ensure you constantly reconsider the true drivers for project success.

* The ability to rapid prototype. Develop an aptitude for brainstorming and for creating and communicating concepts quickly. This ability to rapid prototype allows team members and clients to give feedback early and often. It also reduces the costs of rework, increases the quality of design solutions, and involves clients directly in the design process. It will differentiate you and allow you to effectively facilitate and influence outcomes in a client’s project.

In contrast, most designers and engineers seem to prefer to work a problem to near perfection before asking for feedback or comment. This can have a disastrous impact on the quality of the project and the profitability of the consulting engagement. It’s a problem that the use of modern engineering CAD tools have exacerbated (although I know these tools are getting better all the time). It remains difficult to collaborate around the computer; there is something to be said for a pen and paper or a whiteboard.

* The ability to facilitate participation. Ours should be a more participatory process. This can, at times, seem cumbersome and expensive, and there will likely be resistance from within your firm. However, designers can influence better solutions if they involve stakeholders in the process more effectively. This also includes the need to collaborate more effectively with project team members. For example, we do a lot of permitting work. I learned early that I needed to invite clients to experience the permit process with me. That way they understand the difference between the message and the messenger.

The ability to find divergent solutions. Engineers in particular (I know, I am one) tend to rush quickly toward the “correct” solution. It is the natural result of a desire to be efficient and timely.

The challenge? This desire to be efficient and timely can be an enemy to creativity.

Instead, look for opportunities to pause and exhaust other project possibilities. If you effectively seek broad participation and practice the ability to rapid prototype, these sessions need not be expensive and can lead to innovation— even for the most mundane or routine projects. At the very least, the extra process will reduce costly mistakes and unearth project challenges.

Create influencers by teaching team members the ability to fully understand a client’s needs, to rapid prototype, to facilitate broad participation, and to find divergent solutions. These design and facilitation skills will allow team members to influence project stakeholders toward positive project outcomes and dramatically differentiate your firm’s services.

Derrick Smith is a partner with consulting firm MacKay & Sposito, Inc. (M&S), an infrastructure planning and design firm based in the Pacific Northwest. M&S services Water Resources, Energy, Community Development, and Geospatial clients and markets throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Derrick publishes regularly in several regional and national journals that focus on business development, project management, and human resources topics related to his industry. Derrick Smith’s thoughts and past articles can be found at He can also be followed @derrick_smith.
Creative Commons License photo credit: Todd Klassy

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