Change may be difficult, but the effort can produce amazing results.
In our first article about how to improve your design practice, we described our work with a series of offices. That article focused on the process of self–assessment to identify issues impairing success. This article continues with a discussion of proposed changes in office procedures to address the issues. When approaching cultural change, it is important to consider how the proposed changes are introduced. In each workshop, participants were challenged to propose one idea of a change in each of the five areas of practice:
- Getting Paid
- Lessons Learned
We took great care to solicit change ideas from the office members participating in the workshops. We did this to assure that they would own their “homegrown” ideas, thus avoiding the impression that we, as outside consultants, were imposing ideas not grounded in their particular circumstances. Once an individual idea had been introduced, we would help refine and shape the idea before the entire group chose “one thing to change” to be implemented in each of the five areas of practice.
What Should We Change?
Across the course of these engagements, we fielded more than 100 ideas for change offered by workshop participants. Ranging from minor adjustments to their current processes to radical changes, the ideas showed that participants applied true critical thinking to the task. A selection of the “one thing to change” ideas that could lead improved effectiveness in your practice includes:
Establish a standard Go/No-Go process. Use it to research and analyze each “Go/No-Go” to understand client values. Determine an approval process for individuals who want to override the standard process.
Invest more time and money in researching strategic clients with whom the firm wants to develop relationships. The selection and pursuit of these clients should be based upon the compatibility of their values with the firm’s.
Create a narrative:
- Every pursuit should begin with a compelling (but brief) narrative that frames the project from start to finish
- The narrative forms the basis of the project approach
- The narrative forms the basis for fee
- The narrative sets the form of the interview
- The narrative frames the basis of design
Clearly define what content the work plan should include as well as its documentation, distribution and communication. The work plan should go far beyond schedule and budget. It must be based on goals established by the client and by the firm’s leaders. The plan should set the direction for a variety of issues, including design, risk, quality, staff development, portfolio enhancement, client relationship, etc.
Require each project to develop a work plan with broad team participation that includes the firm’s financial, design and technical goals in addition to clients’ qualitative and quantitate goals.
Define a consistent, scalable work plan that includes qualitative goals, quantitative goals and required decisions to which the project team can be held accountable and is required for each project.
Develop an inclusive communication process for project kick-off with the team. Include an agreement on goals, accountability for achieving task and methodology for producing results. In addition, there must be a clearly defined work plan and a mechanism for reporting statuses (positive and negative) to office leadership on a regular basis.
Establish regular reviews scalable for each project. Participation in reviews must be a priority for all team members. These reviews provide perpetual oversight of progress towards the documented goals and results. The reviews should develop adjustments in the plan to maintain progress toward goals and profitability.
Develop a process to identify scope creep — either client- or design-firm-initiated — so it can be avoided or managed to enable securing of additional services compensation. The process must assign responsibility for creep identification to all team members. Managing scope creep should be in the forefront of all team members’ minds as the project progresses.
GETTING PAID PHASE:
Establish a methodology for including client invoicing and payment as part of the work planning for every project. The method should include:
- Developing a process for understanding client’s payment process at the start of each project.
- Clearly defining the invoice process, including follow-up responsibility with client, for all projects.
- Establishing responsibility for follow-through.
Prepare a comprehensive invoicing plan for each project. This plan should include timing of invoices, frequency of contact with client, establishing expectation for invoicing from consultants and other pertinent invoicing information.
Include administrative team members in the collection process. Consider establishing a relationship between the firm and client’s accounting departments. Use this to align firm invoicing with the client payment process. Also, make accounting the initial contact when payment passes the due date.
LESSON LEARNED PHASE:
Develop a process and criteria to evaluate each project and capture lessons learned. This process must include input from the client and contractor. It should schedule reviews at major milestones in addition to substantial or final completion.
Develop a system to share lessons learned on a real-time basis across the office. Each project must include a schedule of milestones and final lessons learned to be input into the system. Use electronic notifications to staff members to inform of essential lessons learned toward the goal of reducing rework and share best practices from teams with the office.
Taking Action Is the Key
As we worked with these offices, we found some commonalities among the change-related issues and stumbling blocks. As you attempt to make changes to your practice processes, take some time to analyze your firm’s culture. Work on these cultural issues may prepare your staff for additional changes that more directly impact the quality of your client’s experience working with your firm. Common process cultural issues include:
Clarity of purpose: Create a clearly defined mission that all staff members understand and use when making decisions for the good of the firm and its clients.
Lack of Go/No-Go rigor: Although all offices employ a decision-making process for project pursuits, these processes lack rigor and transparency. Decisions frequently depend upon a person’s position of authority in the office rather than logical analysis. Project teams are not informed why a project was pursued, the office’s goals for the project, or the project delivery expectations.
Project work plans are not understood: Most project work plans tend to be limited to definition of staff hours and fee budgets. Plans are then poorly communicated to project team members. Robust, meaningful work plans that define both qualitative and quantitative (i.e., financial and schedule primarily) goals are rarely used, and project teams don’t factor in both the firm’s goals and the client’s aspirations for a project.
Project work plans and BIM plans ignore each other: The concept of developing a BIM plan is commonly understood, but integrating the BIM plan into the project work plan to execute the project is considered a novel concept.
Project reviews must focus on progress: Regular project review meetings are rare, but when they occur, the focus is on hours spent rather than progress toward completion of tasks. Discussion of what information or decisions are needed to complete tasks is also rare.
Mentoring and coaching are rare: Younger staff members seek empowerment, and office leaders want them to be empowered to take ownership of projects. Senior office leaders rarely participate in project reviews as mentors or coaches and instead choose to dictate actions rather than using their experience to assist project teams to find solutions.
Invoices are client communications too: Invoices are usually just sent each month without consideration for a client’s needs for information. The process of issuing a monthly invoice and getting paid is an opportunity to understand your client’s satisfaction by simply asking “How are we doing?”
My time card is tied to office finances? Many staff members, some of them quite senior, are unclear how office finances work. From the building up individual pay rates to determining billable rates, to defining effective project multipliers, through the timely submittal of weekly time cards, each component’s contribution to firm profitability is not considered important to many staff members.
Non-learning organization: Despite a firms’ desire to be a “Learning Organization,” i.e., to learn form the past and not repeat errors, there is little effort to capture project information in any office. This includes the capture of basic project data for use marketing the firm for future projects.
Will to act: Each office’s workshop participants have said they will support each other and be accountable for the five changes they agreed upon. Firm leaders have the ability to encourage, cajole, inquire and require them to be accountable for implementation. Our greatest concern is that without a continuous encouragement and monitoring effort, this valuable program will not produce the desired results.
Design practice in the 21st century is increasingly complex, as more issues must be addressed in less time with higher expectations of the outcomes of our work. Often, improving the effectiveness of project teams and firms to become more profitable and personally satisfying seems impossible. In these two articles, we have described a process to evaluate where your firm is today and decide on changes that can visibly impact the firm for greater success as your firm defines it. Change may be difficult, but the effort can produce amazing results. Embrace change and you may be surprised at the results. Q
R.K. Stewart, FAIA, is an educator and consultant collaborating with practices across the country. In 2007 he was the national president of AIA. He can be contacted at 415.250.4849 or via email at RK@RKStewartConsultants.com. Steven J. Isaacs, P.E., is the division manager for Architecture and Engineering Services at FMI Corporation. He can be reach at 925.934.7200 or via email at email@example.com.