Soft Speed Bumps

Occasionally one of my marketing staff or one of my professional practice partners will take an action or go down a path when both I, and often they, know better.  For years this frustrated me.  How can someone I’ve trained to do something one way or who has agreed to do something one way and has for a while, suddenly get off track?  What I’ve learned is to watch out for what I call “soft speed bumps”.

Soft speed bumps are those deviations from the “norm” that happen not because the person doesn’t know what they should do, but because they’ve become emotionally or intellectually distracted in some way so they revert to a comfort zone that moves them off the path.  For example, I am not naturally detail oriented.  When I need to go over, for example, a proposal or a spreadsheet with a fine tooth comb, it requires all my resources of anal retentiveness (which are admittedly small to begin with) to accomplish the task successfully.  If I’m tired or stressed or overwhelmed, my detail orientation is the first thing to go.

The example I run into most often with professional practice staff comes up when they need to focus on strategy for a business development pursuit or proposal, and instead get fixated on redesigning the graphics in the document.  I understand that, as architects, design is in their comfort zone much more so than reaching out to a potential client to make a cold call or doing the research to find out what kind of strategy will give us the edge over a competitor.

When we run into soft speed bumps with our staff or our colleagues, our goal is to gently guide them toward the tasks we need them to do.   I find this requires three steps:

  1. Check in with yourself using your emotional intelligence.  When I start to get annoyed with someone, I first ask myself why I’m annoyed.  If I’m just cranky today, I let things go.  Then I check to make sure I have accurately communicated what I need to make sure I didn’t set them up to fail.  If neither of these is the case, I pull on my big girl pants and figure out how to respond like the professional I am.
  2. Check in with them using your emotional intelligence:  A simple, “How are you today?” or a “You seem distracted.  Everything OK?”, gives the person you’re talking to both a heads up and an opportunity to talk about it.  Sometimes, you learn what’s bugging someone and can help them let off a little steam so they can focus on the right task.  Even if they don’t share anything, it gently let’s them know they need to refocus.
  3. Figure out how to make the task manageable.   Seasoned marketers are usually  immune to the anxiety of the cold call and can do strategy in their sleep.  This is not true for professional practice staff or new employees.  I will see if I can help break a task down for them and ask questions to guide them in the right direction to make the task more manageable for now, which should also provide a sense of mastery that will lessen their anxiety for next time.

When we take the time to figure out why someone got off track, it is much easier to figure out how to effectively get them back to centered and back on track.

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Three Key Questions That Are the Hallmark of Outside-In Thinking

If I had to sum up the most important thing I have had to teach my AEC colleagues over the past twenty years, regardless of which type of firm I work for or type of clients we serve, it would have to be the following: “Learn to think outside-in rather than inside out.”

Thinking outside-in involves framing every solution, communication and interaction based on the value it delivers to the intended recipient.  Because architects, engineers and contractors have been my clients,  it has been important for me to learn how they work, what matters to them, and how they assign value to my efforts.  When I got my first job in this industry, as far as I knew, a lintel was something I ate and a dentil was something I ate it with.  Nowadays I’m far better versed in both the terminology and the practice of serving clients in the built environment because the more I learn, the better I do my job.

Similarly, I spend a lot of time teaching my architects, engineers, and contractors to think outside in.  Those who do this well routinely ask themselves three key questions.

How will this make my client look to their boss?   Recently  I hired a vendor to help me with a project and scheduled a meeting for us about four weeks out with three of my key leaders to review our findings.  I contacted this vendor four days before our scheduled meeting with my bosses to confirm their attendance.  What I learned was that he hadn’t yet met with his supplier since he was just back from vacation and wouldn’t get the information I needed for another 10 days.  This meant I had to postpone my meeting with my bosses for two weeks.  How happy am I with that vendor right now?

So What?  Often when I’m prepping my colleagues for an interview, one of them will  introduce himself or herself, saying something like, “I’m Chris and I just became a licensed architect” or “I’m Pat and I was just made an associate at my firm”.   My challenge is, “How does the fact that you just received (that license, certification or title) deliver value to the client?”  If you can’t find a way to communicate to a client why a piece of information matters to them, it’s not a relevant piece of information to share.  It’s the same when choosing projects to share.  Your most recent work may be the coolest to you, but it may not be the most relevant to what the client is trying to achieve.

Now What?  Change is an expectation-resetter.  As a marketing person, sometimes Robbie asks me to do something that bumps a project I already said I’d do for Marty from the top of my priority list.  Sometimes my colleagues are asked by a client to do work that falls outside the scope of the contract.  When I have to bump Marty’s project for Robbie’s higher priority, I let Robby know that I had to bump Marty and I let Marty know how long the project will be delayed and why because it resets expectations.  When a client asks for work that is outside of scope, I instruct folks to say, “We’d love to do that for you!  First we have to determine the effort involved and send you an updated fee so you can sign off on it before we start that work, OK?”  This is the best way to keep your project on track, keep your client happy, and not lose your shirt in the process.

While it takes effort to see the world through another person’s eyes, it is, in my view, the essential skill for good marketers and project professionals.  Keeping these three questions in mind makes it much easier to see outside-in.




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5 Ways to Make Swag Meaningful

Wandering through another expo center at another conference made me think about swag: those little tchochkies, geegaws and giveaways we all create as gifts for clients and staff and tools for subtle name recognition.  Over the years I’ve created a lot of it with both hits and misses and think I now have some ways to make sure the swag we pick is meaningful, useful, and unlikely to end up in the circular file after a conference is over or in the Goodwill donation bin at home.

1) Remember your audience – Employees are interested in different kinds of things than clients.  There are also gender, cultural and generational differences that affect the popularity of some choices.  Be mindful of the recipients of your items, as well as the venue in which they’ll be used (and to which they’ll need to be transported.)  One of my recent missteps is a mini wooden Jenga-like game that everybody loves… until they have to cart 50 of them to a conference.

2) Be consistent in your identity – Ensure that your branding is consistent across gifts and giveaways.  It’s all too common to design different items for specific purposes (e.g., a conference, event or anniversary) and end up with hodgepodge of mismatched leftovers that are more likely to be donated than distributed.  The best way to make sure your swag has legs is to mark it with a consistent graphic identity.

3) Leverage economies of scale – While there are a few vendors who can make swag at reasonable prices in small quantities, (see 4imprint for example) this is the exception rather than the rule and you usually end up sacrificing either cost or quality.  I may have one principal who really wants a golf shirt and another who really wants customized name tags, but I have to weigh wants against costs and breadth of usage.

4) Respect quality – My go-to requirement when selecting gifts and giveaways is that the item has to be something I would use in spite of the fact that it has a logo on it, not because of it.  If it’s a good enough item to make my competitor annoyed that they can’t use it, I’m probably in the zone.  I have a tote bag I still use from a firm I no longer work for because eight years later,  it’s still the perfect bag.

5) Reflect values – If, for example, your firm has a mission to be environmentally sustainable, it makes sense to source products for giveaways that include recycled content and minimize off-gassing.  If your firm focuses on design, your swag should reflect high design as well.  What you give away says as much about you as how you conduct business so it should resonate with your firm’s overall values.

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5 Words of Advice About Networking

Our big summer client party is coming up soon and, though I’m ready for networking, I know that not all of my colleagues find it the most comfortable thing to do.  Thus, here are five tips for those who don’t do too much networking on how to be an ace at it during your next client shindig:

Party like a professional – Even at a party, whenever you interact with clients, project partners or colleagues you do so as a representative of your firm. Thus, its advisable to keep a close eye on how much you drink so you always keep your wits about you.  Work events are not a good time to cut loose.  You want to be memorable for your sparkling wit and charming personality, not for your ability to pass out sitting up or swing from a chandelier.

Dress to make your clients comfortable – Nobody wants to be the one person in shorts and flip flops at a black tie party.  Nor do you want to be the only one in a suit at a luau.  My rule of thumb is to pay attention to how my clients dress on a day to day basis, compare that against the dress code for the event, and dress accordingly.  That said, you’ll never be chastised for being just slightly better dressed than average but you might be for dressing down a bit more than is expected.  No matter what the dress code, as long as you’re covered from your shoulders to your knees, you’re probably 75% of the way toward professional.

Keep the conversation polite – Yeah I know. Even if you don’t like small talk, try at least. Avoid talking about religion and/or politics.  Don’t swear. Don’t complain about your work, your clients, your colleagues or your competitors.  I find it helps to focus more on being interested in what others have to say than in trying to be interesting yourself.   Usually safe topics are your kids/pets,  vacation plans, hobbies, cool projects you’re working on our interesting changes in how business is getting done these days.

Be inclusive – Everybody gets shy now and then and most people, upon entering a networking event, aren’t sure who to talk to.  Look around for people who are standing by themselves and introduce yourself.  If they’ve just arrived, introduce them to someone you think they might enjoy talking to. If you’re engaged in a conversation and someone is hanging around at the edge of your group, widen your circle to invite them in and catch them up on what you’re talking about so they can join the discussion.  If you don’t know anybody, walk up to someone, chat a while, then let them know you’re new here and ask them to introduce you to someone new and offer to do the same for them.

Exit conversations gracefully – Don’t be “that guy” at networking events who walks from person to person handing out and collecting business cards then moving quickly onward.  If your conversation is not productive or you’re running out of things to say, let the person know you enjoyed meeting them and excuse yourself to get a drink or “powder your nose” or greet a guest who has just arrived.  If you’re talking solo to someone, try to introduce them to someone new and let that conversation start before you exit so they’re not left standing alone.  When in doubt, pay attention to how others exit smoothly and follow their example.

Networking is like anything else.  Practice makes perfect.  Even if you don’t love it, you’ll probably get to like it.  Give it a try.







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5 Important Things You Should Be Doing Now

Currently and uncharacteristically,  most of my colleagues in the AEC industry are experiencing a rare and joyous period of marketing by answering the phone.  What is a boon to architects, engineers and contractors can also be a boon to the marketing folks who serve them.

Throughout my career in this industry I’ve spent most of my time trying to fit in what’s important (strategy, social media, efficient and effective work process development, etc.) between the urgent tasks that need to be done by a specific deadline (e.g., proposals, award submissions, interview prep.)  Yet while reviewing my tasks assigned and accomplished over the past 90 days, I realized that I have been able to devote an unprecedented amount of time to things that will allow my entire team to work smarter when the urgent again takes center stage.  Not sure how to explain how satisfying that feels.

To those of you who find yourselves in the same boat I’m in, here are my recommendations for how to prepare now to work smarter later:

1) Ensure you have an effective system and process for gathering, tracking and retrieving project statistics.  Having good data and a solid system to manage it will substantially reduce the amount of time you have to spend looking for information when you’re in a hurry to have it. If you have a system that doesn’t work all that well, now is the time to tweak it.

2) Check and update your references, testimonials and standard collateral.  When you’re in the throes of a proposal deadline one task that often goes by the wayside is calling the references you’re including to make sure they’re a) still employed there, b) still accessible by the numbers and e-mail addresses you have and c) still willing to provide a reference when asked.  It’s also a good idea to look at the age of your testimonials.  Even the best reference letters don’t age well.

Likewise this is a good time to make sure that current project sheets for jobs that were completed last year don’t still have language in them that suggests the project itself is still a work in progress.  It’s also a good time to look over your standard firm introduction and other often-used tidbits of information that nobody has looked at in years to make sure they’re still valid, accurate, useful and representative of the firm. One caveat: while it’s a good time for you to update resumes, it’s probably not a good time for your practice staff who are slammed with work.

3) Teach yourself something new that makes you better at your job.
Want to know how to measure the effectiveness of your social media?  Wonder if HootSuite or Marketo or SurveyMonkey or MailChimp or BatchGeo would help you market better but don’t know how to use them?  Want to hone your management or negotiating skills?  Want to get in the trenches with your practice professionals and shadow a project to learn how they do what they do?  Now’s the time.  Do it.

4) Figure out the most informative and efficient ways to market marketing.    When firms are not flush with work, staff who aren’t billable are under increased scrutiny to ensure that they’re delivering value that exceeds their cost.  If you have an ongoing and effective way to let the firm know what you’re doing, how it’s benefiting them and why they should care, you go a long way toward ensuring you’re “at the table” rather than “on the menu”.  If you don’t, now’s a good time to create one.

5) Ensure that your brand promise is consistent across media.  When was the last time (since you first started your job) that you had time to verify that the essential messaging that underpins all of your communications media is expressed across those vehicles (website, collateral, mailers, social media, signage, etc.) in ways that are working in harmony if not in unison?  I’m going to guess maybe never.  You are unlikely to have this kind of time again anytime soon, so go for it.

After the uphill slog through the mud that was the Great Recession, it’s refreshing to have the time and opportunity to make hay while the sun shines.  Don’t squander this chance  to prepare wisely for whatever comes next.





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Leading From Behind

I have a quick lesson in role reversal for my billable AEC colleagues.  Imagine you work for a large, Fortune 100 public relations and marketing firm. You lead the in-house team transforming all their global facilities. Sound good so far?

You report to a leadership team that knows everything about marketing, and a little about workplace design. Thus, you need to learn the language of the marketing industry to communicate well in your job. Some of the billable staff don’t respect you because you’re overhead. Some of the people you are called upon to mentor sign your paycheck, and they are more accustomed to leading than being led. So how would you guide that firm’s leaders? What about those who don’t see your value but need your expertise?

For the architects, engineers and contractors out there, relax. This is not your job. For the marketing folks at AEC firms out there, I think you’ll recognize that this is exactly your job. Learning how to lead from behind is an essential skill to master if you’re going to do your job well. I was raised to command and control, so it took me a long time to learn how to lead from behind. Eventually I got it and I have some experience to share.

The term “leading from behind” comes from Nelson Mandela who compares being a leader to being a shepherd. Mandela says, “He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

He stays behind the flock

Leading from behind requires one to inspire or nudge rather than direct. It provides a vantage point from which to see those who are confused about or distracted from the path, and to help these stragglers along. My first boss, Jerry Irvine, was excellent at this. In my 20s I was an eager and arrogant college grad. When I came to Jerry with an ill-informed idea, he never said, “Don’t do that; do this.” Instead he asked me questions about my idea. By answering his questions I figured out myself when my idea was flawed, which helped me make better decisions going forward.

“Letting the most nimble go out ahead,

If you’re going to bring up the rear, you need to inspire someone to lead the charge, and make sure they benefit from going out ahead. I learned this lesson my 30s when I taught college. Having practiced and studied my craft for over 10 years by then I had forgotten how I learned what I knew, so I wasn’t teaching everybody well. I made a deal with whatever students had “As” going into finals. If they would run a study group with at least five of their classmates, they could opt out of the exam. When test prep was done by their peers, more students attended and everyone in the class did better on the exams. All I had to do was let my own ego get out of the way.

“whereupon others follow”

Change happens on a bell curve. While early adopters may “go out ahead”, innovation is always in danger of dying until the majority adopts it. The majority needs to see the benefits before they opt in and my job is to show them something better than what they have now.   Lest you be tempted to disparage them, we need followers. I learned the value of following by taking dance lessons with my husband. Ballroom dancing only works with a leader and a follower. With two leaders, it’s just stand-up arm wrestling.

“not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind”.

Good leaders found the genius in me that I didn’t yet see in myself. Can you think of a more remarkable gift? They gave me the credit when things went well and took the blame when things went south. They didn’t just tell me the way, they showed me, so in watching how they handled themselves, I learned how to become a professional.  Just as you appreciate your own parents more after you have kids, so it is with some leaders.  You often only recognize them once you’re a leader yourself.

Those who have led with humility, by example, have been my greatest teachers. Their reward came from seeing light bulbs go on above the heads of those they have guided. Nowadays, I see the advantages of being the kind of leader most people can only see in the rearview mirror. I’ve been given many gifts. They need to be paid forward.


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National Cat Herders Day

Apparently today is a holiday that’s perfect for AEC marketing professionals: December 15th is national cat herder’s day.  Why do I think this is our own personal national holiday?  Here’s why:

We juggle multiple projects, multiple personalities, multiple deadlines and a broad and deep swath of information about people, projects and processes in our efforts to respond to proposal requests and prepare staff for interviews.

We have an expert command of our local language, the jargon of our firm’s practice and the nomenclature of our particular firm, as well as the ability to bend that language to the needs of a variety of different communications media, often after literally prying the information from the brain of a practice professional who doesn’t realize how phenomenal they really are.

We demonstrate unfailing patience as we motivate, inspire and activate our practice colleagues to overcome their fear of presentations, of business development, of public speaking at conferences, of talking to the press, all of which makes them more successful at their jobs, sometimes in spite of themselves.

We exhibit incredible grace under the pressure of immovable deadlines, shifting priorities, lack of understanding of how marketing makes practice professionals successful, strong personalities and the occasional lack of respect from some of our practice colleagues who make it clear they think that we’re not really professionals because we don’t do exactly what they do.

So, a shout out and a tip of the hat to all my AEC marketing colleagues on national cat herder’s day.  You continue to enlighten, amaze and inspire me every single day.

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professional? service?

A recent cross country move provided me a clear reminder of how not to practice “customer service”.  I needed to hire a mover to pack and move me so I got four bids.  The provider I chose wasn’t the cheapest or the most expensive, but was the only one who sent someone out to my home to look at what I was moving and give me an accurate bid.  Sounds pretty good so far, right?  I hired based on what at the time constituted the best service.

The moving company gave me a delivery window that was three weeks wide.  I asked if the window could be narrowed (because I had business and personal travel within that window) and was told by my assigned customer service rep that “possibly, after the items were on the truck” she could.  Sounds promising. OK.

I got in touch with my “customer service agent” after the items were on the truck to ask about a narrower delivery window.  No response.  I asked again.  Silence.  I e-mailed.  (sound of crickets).  When did I find out what the actual delivery date was?  When the driver called me, three days before he was scheduled to arrive.

Now, kudos to the driver for calling. (That’s what I was hoping for from my customer service agent.)  However, the three days notice left me with scheduling and billing problems.  I spent six hours over the course of the next three days trying to get a call or e-mail back from no less than eight people at the company’s home office and trying to find a workaround on my end to resolve the issue.  How did I finally get action?  Oddly enough, it was talking to someone in HR that finally got a manager and the customer service person to call me back.  The customer service person finally called, was surly, and had nothing to offer but the question, “I understand you want to speak to me?”   Thus, I asked for a manager. His solution was: because I can’t be available the day they can come, my stuff will be delayed another 10 days and my move will cost 40% more than I anticipated.

So, is the outcome consistent with the terms of the contract? Yes.  They gave me a three-week window and were prepared to deliver within that time frame.  Did I get the communication from my customer service rep that I needed from them to ensure that I could make that delivery date?  No, which is why I became frustrated.

What did the manager that this eventually worked its way up to say when I asked him to work with me to come up with a solution?  He basically said these five things:

  1. He explained to me the internal workings of the company that were why it took so long to respond.  (Why is this my problem?  I don’t need to know why it happened, I need you to help me fix it.)
  2. He said he was sorry for the lack of communication from customer service, but “I think you heard what you wanted to hear not what we told you.”  (Excellent.  Insult me.  Great way to turn a frown upside down.)
  3. The contract is the contract and business is business.  (Translation: even though my customer service person dropped the ball, we can do nothing for you.)
  4. He’d like to be a nice guy about it but whenever he’s done that before he’s gotten burned. (I’m not the one who burned you so why am I paying for someone else’s sins?)
  5. He referred to his own company as “they”, as if he wasn’t even part of the company.  (Team spirit/accountability: 0)

I suspect there are many companies who like to make their living by having their clients over a barrel.  It’s just not the way I believe people ought to do business.  Sure, this company made money off my move, substantially more money than I wanted to pay them, and I paid it because that’s what I’m obligated to do by the contract.  Here’s what else I’ll do:

  1. Share what I consider an exceptionally unsatisfactory experience with everyone I meet who is looking for a mover.
  2. Ensure that I give them a poor rating on any and every rating system for movers that I can find.
  3. Find a place to advertise about my experience so anyone who might try to use them in the future has a sense of what might happen to them.
  4. Never, ever, ever hire these guys ever again (and I move a lot).

Oh, and by the way, someone from the moving company called me the day before the movers arrived to ask me how my move went.

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Who’s Your Tribe?

A facilities director, a contractor, an architect and a development director walked into a (breakfast) bar and began a frank conversation about the things each of us do that drive the other ones crazy when trying to get a project going.  No, it’s not the punchline of a joke, although the conversation was at times as hilarious as it was instructive; plus it was interesting enough to draw a crowd of over a hundred eavesdroppers/contributors at a national facilities conference.

On the way home from the conference I was reflecting on the things that made this panel a success and recognizing that they were also the things that make a project a success: common purpose, enough trust to allow for vulnerability, open communications, and acceptance of shared responsibility for the outcome.  In other words, we were united in the understanding that, for the purposes of this particular 90 minutes on this particular day, we were all members of the same tribe –  built environment professionals – and it was our job to understand and inform each other about how we can work well together.

So often projects go south because instead of aligning ourselves with our project teammates, we identify with our particular discipline, lumping all other disciplines, and occasionally the client, into the broad category of “them”.  When the latter happens you end up with the equivalent of a group of people standing on a sinking ship arguing about who punched the whole in the boat in an effort to assign both blame and risk to one of “them” .  When the former happens, you focus on fixing the hole because you know that, at the end of the day, all project partners will share the risk.    Personally, I think the former is how it should be.

The best project experiences are those in which honorable people develop a bond driven by mutual respect, shared purpose and commitment to collaboration.  They recognize that it’s all human beings on this team and that each of us is tasked with giving our best effort to the assignment and the benefit of the doubt to each other.  Sounds like a tribe I want to join.  How about you?

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AIDA: The Conscious and Unconscious Trajectory of Marketing

If you went to school for marketing, chances are at some point you were confronted with the acronym “AIDA”, which stands for Awareness, Interest, Decision, Action.  Let me illustrate how this process works with a personal story.

In my twenties I had a job that required a lot of travel.  I would be out for two weeks at a time, in a different city every day, with typically one week back in town before the next trip.  The only luggage I owned at the time was the set I had gotten as a high school graduation present and the backpack I used to carry my books in college.  My growing need to travel for work gave me an AWARENESS of luggage.  A few trips developed in me an INTEREST in what kinds of luggage might make business travel easier.  Thus, as I read airline magazines, I paid attention to the luggage ads more than I had previously.  One ad that caught my eye was for a piece of luggage that was the kind I had been looking for, which I noticed was being sold at a store where I had worked while I was in college.

One Friday in December, I was returning from a business trip and getting back on a plane the following morning to spend the holidays with my sister in another state.  I was at the baggage carousel at about 7:PM waiting for my luggage, when I saw my make-up case circling the belt.  Then I saw one of my shoes, followed by a slip.  I looked up to the top of the conveyer to see my backpack, caught on the metal corner at the top of the belt, a deep gash down the side, and my belonging spilling out.  I blinked a few times, got a trash bag from the airline desk and began grabbing my belongings as they came down the ramp and stuffing them into the trash bag.  Now I had a DECISION to make: how was I going to replace my luggage in time to board a plane the next morning? I needed to take ACTION.

While sitting in a taxi on the way home, I remembered that ad I saw in the airline magazine for the luggage I wanted being sold at the store where I used to work.  I asked the driver to take me directly to the store.  Once I got there, I asked about the particular piece of luggage I had seen.  I bought it, got back in the cab, got home, repacked, and left again the next morning.

This experience with the AIDA trajectory illustrated two key things that contribute to successful marketing:

  1. Much of the AI part of the trajectory happens unconsciously.  I was only able to unpack my experience of that part of the process in hindsight and I was only interested enough to do it because marketing is my profession. The average person is unconscious of these two phases as they’re happening.  This is what makes tracking how successful we are in these phases so difficult.  However, what happens in this liminal state informs our decisions.  Whatever projects you’re chasing, know what motivates the decision makers and become associated with those positive motivations.
  2. “Decision” is the part of this trajectory when things become conscious.  Decisions usually happen in response to circumstances and occur in tandem with deadlines.  This is when we become conscious about the process and can start tracking it.  The end of a fiscal year, the start of a school term and the need to meet staff growth projections are all triggers that create deadlines that require decisions.  Whatever markets you compete in, know the attendant deadline drivers.

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