More proof that delegation is the key

I was going through some early material from my days as the CEO of Results Accountants’ Systems and came across an Advisor Note written by Colin Dunn, one of our team members in the UK. On reading his note I thought it’s just as relevant today as it was back in 1998 when he wrote it -perhaps even more so. So, with a few edits by me, here it is …

This morning I happened to overhear a telephone conversation involving a Professional Development Advisor (PDA) in the UK and a client who came to the Boot Camp four months ago.

The flow the call was taking seemed to be that the client (a manager in the firm) was becoming more and more disillusioned with the partners’ lack of progress with their Boot Camp implementation program.

I then heard a word which triggered a number of thought processes that prompted me to write this note — Paula (the client) mentioned that the problem in the practice was that the partners were bottlenecks.

I’ll return to that word “bottleneck” shortly.  Before I do that, here’s a bit of background I found out from the PDA after the call:

  • Paula had been given the responsibility of driving the business development implementation in the practice
  • She is feeling more and more alone — the partners are effectively leaving it all to her
  • Despite their initial enthusiasm, the partners have no time to devote to Boot Camp as they are bogged down with their compliance and administrative tasks
  • Paula came along to one of the Heel & Soul meetings (a post Boot Camp implementation support meeting) at which we discussed engineering change in your practice and agreed with the content, but is having difficulty putting it into action.

If you put yourself in Paula’s shoes, I’m sure you can feel her frustration!

Let’s return to that word, then.  Bottlenecks.  When I heard Wendy Gleeson, our PDA, repeat the word Paula had used, I started to think about the implications.

Identifying bottlenecks in a process is usually associated with a manufacturing environment.  But when you think about it, we stand on the stage at Boot Camp and, quite rightly say that every business is a series of processes. What many business owners fail to grasp is that virtually everything within an organization is a process.  They fall into the trap of trying to identify all of the work flows in their business and think they have identified all of the processes.

Managing process in this way can be misleading in that it means there is a strong risk you will ignore other processes which need dramatic improvement.  The processes I’m thinking of here are sometimes known as “soft” processes…things like hiring and developing team members, succession planning, instilling a culture within an organization, providing the right IT equipment or training team members. This is the stuff that has made Tom Peters famous – he’s always saying the soft things are the hard things to get right.

At first glance, it is not easy to draw a link between the concept of identifying bottlenecks and identifying soft, value-added processes.  Here’s how I would demonstrate that link:

If you view the integration of Boot Camp ideas into a firm as a series of processes, you can start to hone in on the bottlenecks within those processes.

With that in mind, let’s think about how we could describe the series of processes which would ensure a successful implementation process in a practice (this model is purposefully simplified and restricted to the EXTERNAL side of Boot Camp implementation — working with clients):

Process Action
Set up a team of people to drive the process Communicate vision to team, hire and select team members who will be champions of various areas, free up time for those people, ensure the driving team has enough power within the practice
Set goals for the next financial year Benchmark the practice, set goals for target rate, value index, productivity, set financial goals for business development unit
Develop a business plan for the unit Establish products to be developed and delivered by the unit, define protocols to be followed, calculate activity levels required to achieve financial goals, develop a marketing plan
Deliver to clients Get in front of clients for an initial consultation, deliver planning sessions, work with clients in ongoing work

Let’s examine each process in turn and see if we can spot where bottlenecks might occur:

  1. Set up a team of people: many firms have problems communicating the vision, or hiring team members. Virtually all admit to having problems freeing up time.  Several (including, I suspect, Paula’s practice) don’t establish a powerful enough guiding coalition. Refer to John Kotter’s seminal work Leading Change (Harvard Business School Press.)
  2. Set goals: practices often don’t have accurate figures for their business performance to start with.  Some have simply not found the time to sit down as a partner group and set goals.  Others don’t see how they can offer business development services when they are so stacked up with compliance work.
  3. Develop an action plan: allocating time to develop a plan is something not enough firms do;  some don’t know where to start in drawing up protocols so don’t bother;  others think that the work will come to them rather than them having to go out and generate it — so they have no concept of the activity which will be required to produce the result.
  4. Delivery: some people simply don’t have the confidence to get in front of their clients;  others have partner compensation issues in their practice which produce barriers to giving the business development unit members access to other partners’ client bases;  the biggest challenge yet again, however seems to be that they run up against the barrier of TIME.

If we go back to the phone conversation, Paula’s observation was that the partners are the bottlenecks.  What she meant by that was that they don’t have time to do all the things they need to do to make implementation happen (not least of which would be to give Paula the support she needs, develop her skills in delivering value-added services to clients and help her develop or hire other team members as well as developing and articulating the vision for the firm and so on).

Once you have identified a bottleneck like that, it can then help to talk through the consequences. You can very quickly see that this is all about constraint management.  Once you have identified the constraints to smooth process flow it’s how you manage those constraints (or bottlenecks) that is the key to the output from the process.

This applies with every process — and implementing Boot Camp is, as mentioned above, merely a series of processes. Having identified the bottlenecks (or process constraints) you MUST then relieve some of the pressure on those bottlenecks — another way of putting that is you must increase CAPACITY for the bottleneck resources.

Another way of putting that is that DELEGATION is the key.   Unless you work on processes which allow you to delegate, it’s impossible to get out and make rain to get referrals.

In my experience virtually every Boot Camper accepts this to be the case — but so few do anything about it.

It seems to me that we need to continually hammer home this point, using as many different arguments and tools as we can.  To me, this is a profoundly important point which we cannot allow our clients to gloss over:  the sad reality is that unless they relieve pressure on the bottlenecks in the process and increase the capacity for those resources (effectively, freeing up partner time by delegation or by reassigning or exiting clients) they are unlikely to be able to sustain any real change in their practice, either internally or with their clients.

When you think about it, there really are only four options if a partner needs to free up time:

  1. Delegate (but DON’T abdicate responsibility!)
  2. Hire more people at a senior level who can do some of the work the partner has been doing either in the compliance space or in the advisory space
  3. Fire clients who are not net contributors to the firms growth aspirations – as Ron Baker says “bad clients drive out good clients.”
  4. Put in some sweat equity and be willing to trade off some current income for substantially more future income. Another term for this is build your firm’s intellectual capital by developing your own skills and those of your team members.

Just to conclude, other points that firm leaders should be aware of include the creation of an effective organizational structure within a practice, in which roles, responsibilities and accountability boundaries are clearly defined, team training and development plans are created and implemented, compensation issues and feedback and control mechanisms are addressed.

I strongly recommend reading The Goal by Elihayu J Goldratt and The Process Edge by Peter Keen — both great books which deal with these issues head on AND both are easy reads.  I have learnt heaps from reading them and other books and when we develop ourselves and get “smarter” it becomes so much easy to help our clients become smarter themselves.

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