July 22, 2014
If you don't work in sales, you may not even know what the term "pipeline" refers to, but don't worry -- it's not complicated.
A pipeline is usually just a process; almost always one with identifiable steps, and something you (or your organization) will repeat multiple times. In many fields, we just call this "work". When I used to make salads in the crowded kitchen of an overpriced steakhouse (there, I said it!), we had a lots of pipelines. We made every shellfish platter the same way, with the same ingredients, the same presentation, and the same process. In fact, most of our mistakes and slowdowns came from someone freelancing or improvising. If you open those oysters before the ice is on the tray, you have to stash them somewhere on your tiny counter, your cousin knocks them over with a serving tray, and before you know it the two of you are screaming at each other and washing dishes for half the money.
We should have had a pipeline.
Sales organizations usually have a lot more at stake than a few heads of lettuce and an angry sous chef, so most of the time they have a pretty established process. Leads are collected, organized, contacted, and then classified based on how close they are to closing. Whatever industry specific steps (assessments, paperwork, financing, etc.) are necessary get inserted somewhere along the line, and viola, there you go. Pipelines help you predict what's going to happen in the future -- this is always useful -- and can often help you tweak and improve your most common procedures.
I've mentioned this before, but not enough people think of their repeated procedures this way, because life feels funny and random and riddled with too many variables and shifting circumstances. Often times, though, we give these variables too much weight. The basic process underneath it all really DOES have clear stages and repeatable steps, and thinking about them in those terms can reduce stress, simplify planning, and increase efficiency.
Don't believe me? Fine, I'll show you. Here are some pipelines almost anybody can relate to.
Ever needed to find a job?
I mean, really NEEDED to find one? If you're properly motivated, it's very likely that you're working on multiple opportunities with similar requirements; initial contact, resume, phone screens, interviews, negotiating, and your eventual glorious return the workforce. Hiring somebody is pretty much the same thing. You have your initial candidates, your first phone screen, your in-person interview, and several points where you decide whether to proceed or not. Each stage is basically a gate -- if someone makes it through all the gates, they become your co-worker. And then you do it all again!
I've never had to do a lot of conference planning, but I have helped out here or there. If you're in an industry with a lot of trade shows (read : any industry), you're likely to be bombarded with conference opportunities, all of which require answering slightly different versions of the same questions. Have you figured out what it's going to cost? Have you decided to go? Have team members been assigned? Is travel booked? Is the booth ready? These are all stages, and they basically occur in order (although your order may vary). Realizing that all these steps are required -- and often contingent on each other -- can make the whole process run a lot smoother, especially if you're going through it multiple times a year.
Ever hire a contractor, or pay a vendor to perform some kind of service? What does that process look like? First, you have to define what you need done. Then, you figure out how much you're willing to pay to fix it. Next, you have vet potential solutions, make a decision, and pay somebody. You'll need to supervise the work while it's being done, and then make sure whoever you hired gets paid, and properly evaluated. Whether you're building a website or a man-cave, having a good purchasing process makes sure you get good results, and better yet, avoid making mistakes twice.
I admit it -- I was a political science major in college, so I have a pretty good sense of what's involved in passing a law here in the United States. Lots of people, however, do not. Every once in a while, someone will breathlessly email me about some "law they're passing", only to reveal later that this person has no idea who "they" are, what the status of the proposed law is, or whether it has any change of getting through the legislative pipeline. Does it have cosponsors? Is it coming from the House or Senate? Is there a similar bill on the other side, with similar support? Can it survive a potential veto? These are all basically procedural steps every law has to pass one by one, before anything actually changes. Understand the pipeline, and you'll understand what matters, and when you need to start bugging your representative.
Some of my friends have one kid, and are firmly ensconced in the "special snowflake" phase of parenting. My sister, on the other hand, just had her third, and they've turned the whole process into a science. Dust off the old toys and hand-me-downs. Re-child-proof the same old things. Schedule parental leave. Move some money around. Plan vacation time. It all goes in stages, and when you're done, you have a 25 year old living in what was supposed to be your sewing room. Just kidding! He'll totally be an astronaut.
Pipelines are everywhere; work, home, and everyday life. Figuring out what they are, and what the steps are, is the first step towards understanding them and ultimately making them run more smoothly.