Most of us believe that we focus on what’s most important. In fact, the reverse is usually true: any information or issue we are made to focus on becomes the most important.
Observe how news seems to come in waves. A particular event (possibly a tragic one) hits the news and then similar events seem to happen across the country. Often, those events were happening and going to happen anyway - but nobody paid them any attention. Opinion polls consistently show that issues in the news assume a higher level of importance: ‘something must be done about…’
So what’s going on? As Robert Cialdini explains in his book Pre-Suasion: ‘we can be brought to the mistaken belief that something is important merely because we have been led by some irrelevant factor to give it our narrowed attention.’
Before 2015 most people had no strong views on the EU, it was a fact of life. Once the issue came to dominate the news agenda it grew in importance to the point where people started to define themselves according to their views on EU membership, some even became a bit obsessive.
In a very unscientific way, I’ve recently observed how the degree of strict adherence to social distancing seems to be related to the percentage of news coverage dominated by coronavirus.
For a mundane example, think about what happens if you are having a conversation with somebody and your mobile phone rings. Try as you might to ignore it, it has a grip on your attention. ‘Who is it? Could it be important? Sorry, what was that you were saying?’
Focusing Attention in Presentations
As a presenter, one of your chief tasks is to be persuasive. In the context of the tendering process this means convincing your client that yours is the most advantageous solution.
It’s likely that your proposed approach will have strengths and weaknesses compared to your competitors. While you must always address all of your client’s requirements, you have more influence over the relative importance of those requirements in your client’s mind than you probably realise.
I recommend that you actively research your client’s hierarchy of needs and match your proposal’s strengths against these. Try to positively influence the relative importance of your strengths in their hierarchy and, similarly, aim to persuade them that the relative strengths of your competition shouldn’t rank so highly in their hierarchy of needs. Let’s look briefly at how you might do that.
What Comes First?
A key consideration is the order in which you present information. The thing we hear first is normally assumed to be the most important. Subsequent information tends to get filtered through the ‘reality’ of the first information we receive and accept. Once accepted, this idea can exert the same magnetic force of attention attraction as the ringing mobile.
When planning your presentation it’s impossible to overstate the importance of how, and in what order, you intend to present information and arguments. Think about how you need to frame and manage the flow of information so that it is focused on your strengths and so that people remember those strengths and perceive them as important for a successful outcome.
Other methods of focusing attention include:
There’s plenty more I could include on this topic, but that would be a book rather than an article. For now, I’d just like to encourage you to think a little harder about how you can use presentations as an opportunity to shape and positively influence the discussion and the decision making process.
It’s staggering how some project relationships start to sour before delivery has even begun. After the euphoria of a major project win has died down, mobilisation can be a stressful time. Cracks in communications and cultural differences become apparent quickly as the pressure is on to recruit staff, appoint subcontractors, secure approvals and set up the processes needed for delivery.
As project details become clearer there are often negotiations over prices and schedules. This is the time when you most need clear communications and mutual trust - and it’s often where relationships start to break down.
Given how much both clients and contractors depend on successful project outcomes, a modest investment in setting the right tone for behaviours and communication before the serious work gets underway makes sense. But it rarely happens.
Three times in the last year we’ve been called in to help rectify situations where projects didn’t get off on the right footing. Serious communication and trust issues had developed and both sides needed to get back to doing what’s best for the project, instead of blaming each other for delays, increased pricing and other issues.
How to Reset the Relationship
Our objective when we run workshops like this is to help ‘reset’ how the parties communicate with and behave towards one another. All demons have to be exorcised, which means issues, disputes and suspicions have to be aired, acknowledged and resolved. It can get messy but it’s the only way to re-establish trust between the parties.
We help senior staff to understand their behaviours using a recognized behavioural assessment tool. We explain why behaviour matters and how our own behaviours could be perceived. We also teach techniques to deal with people whose behavioural style is similar to or contrary to their own.
We do this using management exercises that stress-test communication and trust. We take regular time-outs to revisit what was happening within the group. Participants analyze and understand how and why those situations arose.
Embedding Positive Behaviours
We then rejoin the exercise, trying to keep and do more of what was working well, eliminate or reduce anything disruptive. We introduce new behaviours that we agreed during the time-out would have helped prevent or diffuse the issues that arose previously. We embed ‘what good looks like’ within all participants.
The outcomes include:
These workshops are highly effective. They help to establish mutually agreed standards for behaviour and communications that can be cascaded throughout all teams involved in the project.
But the success raises an important question: why wait until things have gone wrong?
In any project, positive behaviours, clear communication and a commitment to the same goals are critical. In the context of a multi-million pound project the up-front investment needed in this type of workshop is a pin-prick in the overall budget. That investment will be repaid many times over, not just for this project but for future ones too.
This type of workshop should be standard practice. Why isn’t it?
I can only think it comes down to two factors: one, people aren’t used to doing it, so don’t think of it; two, it’s not a comfortable exercise to put your behaviour and communication style up for scrutiny, possibly in front of your clients and colleagues.
In my view, senior executives should be able to overcome that reticence. The mental and financial wellbeing of a lot of people depend on getting projects off on the right foot. And in any case, feedback on how we behave and communicate can only help us be more effective in our roles.
There is a growing realisation among procurement teams that large and complex projects depend on collaborative working. No single contractor is likely to have all of the skills, knowledge, experience or capacity to deliver the entire project. Collaboration between contractors and throughout supply chains is essential if you want the best outcomes in terms of value, quality and reduced lifecycle costs.
Recognising the value of collaboration, many key clients including Highways England and Network Rail are pioneering new approaches through frameworks and alliances. These offer contractors and supply chain partners a longer-term line of sight on future work in return for acting collaboratively in the best interests of the project and the client.
Collaborative working is seen as a vital enabling mechanism for the greater adoption of BIM and digital sharing of asset and project data. It also helps promote innovation through greater sharing of knowledge and ideas.
What Do Clients Expect?
I can’t think of any contractor that wouldn’t grab the opportunity of having greater security over future projects and revenue. The financial stability this brings makes it easier to plan strategic investments in recruitment, training and new technology. It also keeps shareholders happy.
In return for this security clients are looking for more than words, mission statements and promises. They want to see evidence of how you interact with other organisations and your supply chain. They want to see the collaborative behaviours in action, to know that the results are measurable and that you are striving continually to improve these even further.
Behavioural assessment is becoming a highly significant feature of the tendering process. It’s increasingly common and rigorous, and collaborative behaviour is one of the most important aspects that gets put under the microscope.
This isn’t an environment where you can fake it or ’wing it’ on the day. It might mean you have to take a cold hard look at how your organisation collaborates with partners and the freedom you give to people to share information and expertise. This in turn might mean that you have to fundamentally ‘shift’ the culture and how things get done within your organisation so that you can demonstrate that you truly behave collaboratively.
It certainly means you need to prepare. Having experience of typical questions and exercises, and a better understanding of how these are designed to expose positive and negative behaviours, will help your team respond appropriately. Impartial and informed feedback in a less pressurised or high-stakes environment is also valuable.
Preparing for behavioural assessments takes time and commitment, but if the prize on offer is greater confidence over future work it’s surely well worth putting in the effort.
I have many years of senior sales and account management positions.
This experience taught me how to interpret exactly what clients are seeking, and what they need and expect to see and hear from the successful bidder. We draw on this experience to give your team an additional competitive advantage by building on their existing strengths while improving their team-working and self-awareness.