Shooting the elephant —” with lasers!

Your efforts to improve profitability are lagging. You might be staying afloat, making payroll, and beginning to reinstate a few benefits, but you’re not really doing your best work. For the most part, that might be okay, since that’s probably also what your competitors are doing. But is that really where you want to be as a responsible business owner?

It might have been a journey of a thousand steps, or perhaps an attempt to eat an elephant. Whatever your metaphor of choice, we all had big things to accomplish, but only a fortunate few had more than a vague idea of where to start. If your first action was to cut your way to growth, you probably already know that it wasn’t the best idea. But what’s an engineer to do? Analysis is so much easier than action.

Profitability can be a deceptively elusive goal. With expenses and revenue as the starting point, it masks the hundreds of possibilities on each side of the equation. Unfortunately, most folks will avoid the many (often more valuable) things over which they have less control — markets and clients — while taking great pride in attacking those over which they have direct control — namely, the internal budgets. The end result is that expenses seem to garner more than their fair share of attention.

Even so, there is no doubt that "It’s the economy, Stupid." When everything slows down, everyone must work a bit harder to pay their way. In a twisted version of finding a silver lining, however, many firms sought sacrifices under the assumption that staff had nowhere else to go. Even had this been true during the last couple of years, things are swinging the other way. In sharing the pain, companies may be sowing the seeds of high turnover later.

The profitability elephant needs more than just a knife and fork. Not only must the firm leaders have a clear idea of the end goal, but that goal must be broken down into specific, short-term actions that keep the staff engaged in the process. It doesn’t help to have everyone starting on the elephant in different places at different rates (perhaps even on different elephants!) That’s where the laser focus comes in. Rather than the shotgun approach, an organization requires highly focused sniper shots to achieve big goals. You can’t aim for the toes or the tail. You go for the vitals for immediate results.

What’s most vital for your firm’s success? Number or types of projects? Locations, scopes, or clients? Let’s pick just one of these to illustrate how to shift focus to an appropriate target. It’s not enough to say, “We need to increase profitability.” That’s too big, too vague. Increasing revenue comes from increasing the number of projects or the value of your work. You could do both, but again, that dilutes the effort. The prices you charge may be somewhat fixed if you are in a saturated market. So let’s boost the number of projects in the pipeline.

This is where you start to recruit staff to foster valuable ideas and harness their expertise to meet a target, let’s say increasing the number of projects by 15 percent in six months. Build in accountabilities for this goal; perhaps even restructuring your bonus program to support marketing efforts. In any event, you need direct engagement and buy-in to move it along. Imagine the difference in staff morale under this scenario compared with the one-sided cost-cutting effort: engagement in a real, firm-building goal versus passive sacrifice for the good of the company.

Without this combined focus and individual commitment, it doesn’t matter how much you think your staff is on board. Sharing the pain, though sometimes necessary as part of a larger effort, should not be an end goal in itself. The firm runs the very real risk that its high performers will seek out others who are willing and able to pursue organizational change, not just accounting acrobatics. As always, change is scary, but your people are ready to shoot the elephant, if they just know where to aim.

Jason Burke, P.E., is a project manager in Billings, Montana. Find additional information at

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Posted in Uncategorized | January 29th, 2014 by

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