Pick Your North Star

I’m writing to share a simple tactic that can help drive alignment, communicate a common sense of direction, validate decisions on a daily basis, and even inspire your team. I started thinking about this tactic years ago at Adaptive Path but it came back into focus in a book that I recently read called The Power of Habit Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. I found this book to be a great read and recommend it.

I think this is a good follow up to my last post about leadership and setting expectations as well. So here it is. Picking your north star is really about setting a mid/long-term direction for your company or group. It must meet four basic characteristics:

  1. You must be able to see it from just about anywhere
  2. It must stay in the same place
  3. It must be far enough away that you’re not going to get all the way there anytime soon
  4. It must be aspirational

An Example From Manufacturing

The first example comes from the book I mentioned above and is based on the story of Paul O’Neill who picked “worker safety” as the north star for Alcoa when he joined the company. Here’s a short excerpt from a Business Week book review:

When Alcoa (AA) introduced Paul O’Neill as its Chief Executive Officer in 1987, investors thought the new boss was pulling a prank on them. Standing on a stage, O’Neill did not speak about increasing market share or earnings forecasts. Instead, he pointed out the nearest emergency exits. “In the unlikely event of a fire or other emergency,” he said, “you should calmly walk out, go down the stairs to the lobby, and leave the building.” O’Neill’s sole focus that day was on how to make a habit of worker safety.

What O’Neill knew was that in the process of eliminating injuries in his factories -which incidentally make aluminium in a process that is not exactly low risk- he would drive many other positive changes. In fact he improved  plant efficiency, employee morale, union relations, and the bottom line. This is because his north star had a surrounding constellation of  business goals that would also be met if he headed towards it.

An Example From Development

For the past year and a half I’ve been using an application called Asana to manage my team. It’s a simple task management tool comparable to MindJet Tasks, Pivotal Tracker, Trello and others. Though I don’t know if this is an “official” north star, I’ve heard and read that Asana is focused on “speed” …. and I see it represented in their service. When I say “speed” I mean it in a couple of contexts.

In the first case the user experience in Asana is very fast which means that you can enter tasks into the system faster than any other solution I’ve seen. The’ve also made the user experience visually light but information rich which means it’s quick to parse a large amount of information on the screen whether you’re in a browser or their mobile app.

The other context has to do with development. Before starting development on the service the team at Asana created a development framework called Luna which was designed to make product development faster (among other things). And, if you look at the rate of development compared to the size of the team working on Asana it’s pretty impressive how much they’ve built in a short time.

When you orient around a north star it has the potential to impact all aspect of your business from the front-end to the back-end. Again, lots of associated benefits cascade down from a single north star.

Finding Inspiration

Finding your north star may not be easy but it has huge potential for your team because it simplifies the process of validating choices on a daily basis. It also serves as a single guiding principle that every one can align to, communicate about, and celebrate. I think of a north star as being surrounded by a constellation of supporting stars that compliment it. I realize that I’m pushing the metaphor here, but the gravity that holds constellations together tends to look a lot like a unique differentiator.

Asana’s focus on speed has allowed them to make inroads with consumers (Asana has avoided industry specialization). On the other hand, Pivotal Tracker’s focus on Agile has lead to significant traction in the development arena. And, MindJet’s solution with a unique integration to their planning tool is well suited to business management. In short, there is no shortage of north stars to choose from and in addition to all the other benefits I’ve outlined above you’ll get a differentiated product or service.

Can you think of other companies that are aligning around a north star? What are they? is it working? Any skeptics out there?

A Useful Web Strategy Tool

This is a quick post to share a simple web strategy tool that I learned about from Jeremiah Owyang of the Altimeter Group. Incidentally, Jeremiah is speaking at an event I’m organizing entitled, Building Brands on Social Networks. It will be taking place in San Francisco on Feb 4th, in Silicon Valley on Feb 18th, in Chicago on March 31st, and finally in New York on April 1st.

Jeremiah’s web strategist blog is definitely worth checking out if you find this tool helpful. Here’s a link to his post The Three Spheres of Web Strategy in which he defines what each of the areas signify.

I find this tool most helpful as a validation tool that sits at the end of other strategy practices.

Web Strategy Spheres

The Request For Proposals (RFP) For Marketers

I recently wrote about how to manage the request for information (RFI) process in the interest of identifying potential service providers for marketing related projects; this post is a followup  in which I’ll talk about the request for proposals (RFP) process. It is based on my experience working with a variety of companies and is intended to share some of what I’ve learned about the RFP process along the way.

I’ll discuss the RFP process in relation to a recent project I did with a Bay Area scientific device company, Wafergen Biosciences, for the development of their new SmartChip system. In my role, I worked closely with the project lead to select a service provider who could take on an industrial and user-interface design challenge associated with the project.

Why do an RFP?

The RFP allows you to obtain detailed information about how a service provider plans to conduct your project, what methodologies they’ll use, how long it will take, and what it will cost. Once you choose a service provider, the RFP can also serve as the basis for a statement of work contract and help transition to getting started working together.

The RFP process is ultimately about obtaining the information you’ll need to select a service provider for your project. It’s not usually just a matter of cost, but also includes factors such as past experience, work samples, process, timing, and references. If you’ve managed the RFI process correctly, all of the firms participating should be able to fulfill your project needs, the question is which one can best satisfy them.

How many firms participate in the process will depend on the nature of your project. In Wafergen’s case, the RFP was extended to four firms out of ten that participated in the RFI process. I’d say this is a fairly typical scale for medium sized companies. Going through the process is a significant investment for both participants and the company running the process, thus it’s best to limit the group size as much as possible while still covering your core range of selection criteria.

Selecting The Participants

Selecting the firms that will move from the RFI process into the RFP process can be a hard choice, but there are some exercises you can do that will help. These are all essentially ways of pulling apart the threads that form the fabric of your selection criteria:

  • SERVICE DIMENSIONS- Identify the dimensions that distinguish how each firm is positioned. For example, you might have small and large participants in the RFI group which would be expressed as “firm size”. Perhaps some firms are full-service while others include partnerships. Or, some firms might have a more traditional approach while others employ agile principles.
  • GROUPS – With your service dimensions defined, you can start comparing firms against each other and through the lens of each dimension. Based on the RFI information each firm provided, prioritize your choices for each dimension. A clear group may rise to the surface at this point.
  • DIVERSITY – Ideally you’ll want a range of firms included in your RFP process so there will be a real distinction between your options. In other words, you’ll  want diversity with respect to at least one of your service dimensions. For example, you may have determined, through the RFI process, that the bigger firms are better suited to your project but within that group you’ll want to include a range of full-service to partnership oriented firms.

Even with a well written RFI you may need to go back to the participants to ask for additional information. After sorting though your analysis,  you should be able to clearly articulate your overall selection criteria. This will also be helpful later as you communicate with the firms that may not have been selected. Keep in mind, these firms have invested in this process so you own them feedback as to why they were not included. Plus, you never know when you’ll have another project that they might be a great fit for.

A Basic RFP Outline

The structure of an RFP will vary a bit depending on the application, but here’s a general structure to get you started:

    • Letterhead
    • Project name & date
    • Confidentiality statement
    • Contact information
    • About your company – this is simply an expanded version of what you shared in the RFI
    • Purpose of the RFP – again, a more detailed version of the RFI purpose
    • Technical contact – list as many relevant contacts as you need for your project
    • Contractual contact – the business contact for the project
    • Due date – A written confirmation of the service provider’s intent to respond to this RFP is required by [date] with letter of intent form (below)
    • Schedule of events – include key dates for your process
      • RFP to candidates [date]
      • Confirmation of participation [date]
      • Set capabilities presentation [date]
      • Capabilities presentation date [date]
      • Proposal due date [date]
      • Target date to review proposals [date]
      • Consultations [date]
      • Anticipated decision [date]
      • Notification to other parties [date]
      • Anticipated commencement of work [date]
    • Proposal submission – sample copy: Award of the contract resulting from this RFP will be based upon the most responsive service provider whose offer will be the most advantageous to Company X in terms of cost, functionality, and other factors as specified elsewhere in this RFP.
    • Restrictions – get your lawyer to approve something like this sample copy: Company X reserves the right to:
      • Reject any or all offers and discontinue this RFP process without obligation or liability to any potential service provider,
      • Accept other than the lowest priced offer,
      • Award a contract on the basis of initial offers received, without discussions or requests for best and final offers, and
      • Award more than one contract.
    • Additional information – sample copy: There is no set format for the project proposal; however, the service provider’s proposal must cover all of the information requested below. In order to address the needs of this procurement, Company X understands that service providers may work cooperatively in presenting integrated solutions. Company X will recognize the integrity and validity of service provider team arrangements provided that: The arrangements are identified and relationships are fully disclosed, and a primary service provider is designated that will be fully responsible for all contract performance. The service provider’s proposal in response to this RFP will be incorporated into the final agreement between Company X and the selected Service provider(s). The submitted proposals are suggested to include each of the following sections:
      • Executive Summary
      • Approach and Methodology
      • Project Deliverables
      • Project Management Approach
      • Project Schedule
      • Detailed and Itemized Pricing
      • Method of Payment
      • References
      • Project Team Staffing
      • Company Overview
    • Executive summary – sample copy: Present a high-level synopsis of the service provider’s responses to the RFP. The Executive Summary should be a brief overview of the engagement, and should identify the main features and benefits of the proposed work.
    • Scope, approach & methodology- sample copy: Include detailed testing procedures and technical expertise by phase. This section should include a description of each major type of work being requested of the vendor. All information that is provided will be held in strict confidence.
    • Deliverables – sample copy: Include a list of deliverables associated with the development process through the final deliverable at the end of the engagement.
    • Project management approach – sample copy: Include the method, software, and approach used to manage the overall project and client correspondence. Briefly describe how the engagement proceeds from beginning to end.
    • Project schedule – sample copy: Include information about the anticipated project schedule, the number of required meetings, time between deliverables, etc.
    • Pricing structure – sample copy: Include a fee breakdown by project phase, showing itemized costs. Estimates for travel expenses, or other miscellaneous expenses should be included as well.
    • Method of payment – sample copy: Include information about payment amounts and times to secure services, and as relates to deliverables and/or other project phases.
    • References – sample copy: Provide three current corporate references for which you have performed similar work. If possible provide a brief summary of the project and how it relates to this RFP.
    • Project team – sample copy: Include brief biographies and relevant experience of key staff and management personnel. Describe the qualifications and relevant experience of the types of staff that would be assigned to this project by providing biographies for those staff members.
    • Company overview – sample copy: Provide the following for your company:

      • Key contact name, title, address (if different from above address), direct telephone and fax numbers.
      • Person authorized to contractually bind the organization for any proposal against this RFP.
      • Brief history, including year established and number of years your company has been offering services.
  • CAPABILITIES PRESENTATION – sample copy: In addition to the above material, Company X expects service providers to visit Company X to present their capabilities and discuss the project in detail.
    • Criteria – sample copy: Any award to be made pursuant to this RFP will be based upon the proposal with appropriate consideration given to operational, technical, cost, and management requirements. Evaluation of offers will be based upon the service providers responsiveness to the RFP and the total price quoted for all items covered by the RFP. The following elements will be the primary considerations in evaluating all submitted proposals and in the selection of a service provider or providers:
      • Service experience during the RFP process, including an in person capabilities presentation.
      • The extent to which the service provider’s proposed solution fulfills Company X’s stated requirements as set out in this RFP.
      • An assessment of the Company X’s ability to deliver the indicated service in accordance with the specifications set out in this RFP.
      • The service provider’s stability, experiences, and record of past performance in delivering such services.
      • Availability of sufficient high quality personnel with the required skills and experience for the specific approach proposed.
      • Overall cost of service provider’s proposal.

      Company X may, at their discretion and without explanation to the prospective service providers, at any time choose to discontinue this RFP without obligation to such prospective Vendors.

    • Summary – the summary of your project background, opportunities/challenges, and goals
    • Product/service advantages – explain the unique value propositions of your business
  • SCOPE OF WORK- clearly define the scope of work so the service provider will understand what areas are out of bounds
    • Deliverables – define what you’re getting at the end of the project
    • Requirements – set clear requirement for the deliverables
    • Customer & environment profile – who will be using the product or service and in what context
    • Use pattern – define the typical or proposed use pattern
    • Production volume – how many will you need and in what time frame
    • Service profile – how often will it need to be updated or changed?
    • Competitive landscape – who are you up against and how are they differentiated?
    • Other specifications – technical or other specification information
    • Existing product service information – this is where you might share inspirations, work-flow documentation, product/service eco-systems, or other relevant information
  • LETTER OF INTENT TO RESPOND TO THE RFP – sample copy: This letter indicates [service provider’s company name]’s intention to respond to the Company X’s RFP according to the specifications of the RFP by time am/pm on  [date]. My role at the above mentioned company is: [role]. I [print name] am an authorized agent of the above company. Signed by [signature] [date] Please fax or deliver to: [contact info]

Next Steps

With proposals in hand, you’ll want to go back into analysis mode. In my experience, it’s worth bringing the stakeholders in the selection process together to discuss the participants only after they have individually reviewed the proposals. Ideally the team will also participate in the capabilities presentations (if that’s part of your process).

How the final selection is made will depend on your organization. Usually, there needs to be some consensus between the person who will be writing the check, the person that will be benefiting, and the person who will be dealing with the day to day implications of working with the service provider. Once a decision has been made, don’t look back! Often times, assimilating outside service provider work into your organization can be a challenge, so get the momentum going by sharing your selection with anyone that might be affected by the choice.

3 Project Management Tips

As with the RFI process:

  • Start a spreadsheet with all the candidates listed as you’re working your way through the process. It’s too easy to confuse candidates, contacts, and assets otherwise. For the Wafergen project, I used Google Docs to manage the process because I wanted the project team to be able to watch the process unfold, review candidates, and provide feedback.
  • The way you handle the RFP process also sends a message to the candidate, so be professional, courteous, and respectful of the fact that they’re investing in the process at this point without getting paid. At the end of the process this means following up with the candidates that won’t be getting the project.
  • Start writing your statement of work as you go through the RFP process. This will save you time by expediting the contract process once you select your service provider.

Good lcuk, and I hope this information is useful!

Phased vs. Straight Bidding Strategy

I recently wrote a post on writing project proposals, however, I glossed over an important conundrum that can handicap the process. Here’s a sample situation, a potential client wants a website redesign proposal but doesn’t really know the scope of what they need. It’s like saying to a builder, “I need a 3,000 square foot home, how much does that cost?” Of course, it depends on the materials you use, the time-frame, the layout, etc. But you don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to build it. That is what this post is about.

Approach #1: What’s The Budget?

The easiest way out of the above situation is to determine the project budget. With a target budget in hand, it’s possible to spell out several options based on the amount, which can be a very effective bidding strategy. The problem is that it’s usually hard to get a decent target number. And, you have to watch out for how bidding to a budget can lead you to exclude more expensive options which are inspiring, start conversations, and which might be found in competitive bids.

The fact is that in many cases, clients will find the money if they’re really inspired. Thus the first approach works best in situations where there are hard limits on spending. In this case, I recommend including a presentation on how your work could be extended through future engagements to get the client inspired, while still bidding in reality.

Approach #2: It’s Story Time

Assuming you can’t get an accurate target budget to work from, it’s time to start telling some stories that illustrate why it’s hard to bid an entire project upfront and how a phased approach might work better. I recently completed a project that hammered this lesson home for me.

In this case, a significant part of the project focused on strategy, brand identity, and positioning in support of the development of a marketing/communications oriented website redesign. One tricky part of the project revolved around the positioning because the industry space in question is rapidly growing and evolving. With this in mind we wanted to create an online experience that was flexible and extensible, but also unique enough to capture the value of having come to the market early.

I knew that we had a tight budget to work with and that the client team wanted something easy to manage, so I scoped out a site using the WordPress open-source platform. Open source plugins and widgets would save on development time and allow for extension moving forward. What I didn’t estimate clearly enough was the user experience on the home page.

Because of this, the best home page concept that came out of the strategy phase was beyond our reach. In this case, we were able to come up with a second choice that worked out great, but the client was frustrated by the process. Had we bid the strategy phase of the project independently from a bid on the design and development phases, we could have presented the client with a choice rather than a budget reality. The fact is that at the start of the project we just didn’t know if a flash animation, a video, or a static presentation would make the most sense on the home page, but they have vastly differing costs to produce.

In the interest of staying on the tight budget we’d bid a fairly static presentation, but it became clear that we needed something more dynamic as we began to dig in. That said, working on a budget really keeps you honest with respect to what you “need” and it’s amazing how sharp the final design is. I’ll share more about the project once the site launches, but the moral of this story is that it’s worth pushing for a phased bid approach if possible.

The problem is that it’s hard to get clients on board with this approach because they want to know what they’re getting into up front. That said, telling the your own story about why a phased approach is better will help you renegotiate scope when it’s time to do so.

Looking Forward To The Roadmap

I mentioned above that we identified “the best” concept which was out of reach, I actually see this as an opportunity rather than a challenge. The fact is that during the ideation process you’re trying to produce lots of ideas to envision the experience you’re trying to create. You can’t do this without turning up ideas that are out of reach. The real question is whether or not the ideas are relevant enough to build into your roadmap.

In the case above, we were able to create an experience that anticipated an evolution towards the best concept we came up with. Whether you’re using a phased or straight bid approach, you should be collecting all your ideas for potential incorporation into your experience roadmap. Don’t get discouraged because you can’t fit them in right now, focus on what you can do today that anticipates how they might be incorporated later.

All Hands On Deck

As a final thought on the bidding process, it’s important to highlight the importance of having your entire team involved in the  process. Each discipline has it’s most common pitfalls and you want to anticipate as many of them as you can. Fostering conversations between copywriters, designers, developers, and managers will help surface these issues within the context of your story and ultimately your proposal. In many cases, this results in clear statements about scope and the consequences of going beyond the scope. Simply presenting consequences upfront can make them feel more like choices than penalties and thus reduce client frustration.

Two Strategy Tools

I’m writing to share two tools that I use when developing marketing strategies. I hope these will come in handy and I’d be delighted if there are other tools that you use that might compliment these.

A Word About Strategy

Different people mean different things by strategy, so I want to be clear about what I mean. Strategy originates from a military context and focuses on linking engagements together to advance progress towards a specific goal. In other words, in the military context, strategy would guide decisions about whether or not to engage in a particular battle (there are many battles in war), as opposed to tactics which guide how each specific  battle is fought.

One key to developing a solid strategy is understanding that resources set the limits to what can be accomplished. Thus strategy is about making choices regarding how to allocate limited resources over time. I would say that the best strategies are characterized more by saying “no” than saying “yes.” In other words, there are generally many options that you could pursue, but only one that you will pursue. The hard part is sticking to your decisions! The first tool will help you prioritize your options and make a decision about which one to pursue. The second tool will help you stay on track once you’ve set your strategy.

A Prioritization Tool

This tool allows you to visualize potential strategic steps based on their feasibility and importance. You start by listing out all your potential strategic steps, or short-term goals, in the left hand column of the table. From there you assign each a feasibility and importance rating. The key is to setting a budget for these ratings. In the example below I have seven potential steps to be considered and I’ve allotted each a budget of five points. Thus, my total budget for each column is 35 points (7 items x 5 points = 35 budget). Once I have the table filled out, I plot the steps on the chart to the right. This allows me to place them within three priority zones. At the end of the process, I’ve identified the two steps to pursue. Click on the image to enlarge it:


A Management Tool

This tool allows you to lay out the short-term strategic goals that advance your long-term strategy. It also allows your to visualize  the tactics that support each strategic step, understand how they are dependent on each other, and the relative resources required to complete them. The arc is essentially a time-line for managing projects, like all time-lines it can be very helpful to work backwards from your long term goal. Each way-point along the arc marks the completion of a step towards the ultimate goal. Each step is tied down to a set of tactics, and the dotted lines connecting the tactics show how some tactics are dependent on others being completed first.

By using size to estimate the resources that are required by each tactic, it is possible to visually understand where you’ll need to staff up or down. For example, at the least step in the example below the need for resources is less than half of the need at the second step. By visualizing tactics it is possible to move their placement along the time-line to even out work flow and resource requirements.


Thanks for reading, and please send me info about any tools you use for strategy projects.