New Series: Empowerment by Design

By Steve Whitehorn

Introduction

These days, owners are expecting more and more for their investment dollars.  Unrealistic owner expectations can lead architects and engineers to experience greater risk and anxiety with every new project.

In my new series for AIA New Jersey – Empowerment by Design – my goal is to help you, the A/E professional, to create a greater sense of clarity in your practice, to establish standards that will protect you and to make you more confident practicing in this ever-changing economic landscape.

It’s not my position that what you’ve been doing is wrong, but that there are more effective strategies – both internal and external – that can empower you and your firm to succeed in today’s marketplace.

This column will also provide you with information as well as, I hope, inspiration.  The kind that helps you step outside of your comfort zone, away from the mindset of “this is the way we’ve always done things, ” and toward a more confident approach to risks and rewards.

Professional boxer Jack Dempsey used to say, “the key to a good offense, is a great defense.” It seems to me, that for the past 40 years, our industry looked at risk in this way.  In my opinion, this hasn’t been the best approach; architects and engineers get sued all the time, and not necessarily with good results.  That kind of uncertainty leaves you always on the balls of your feet.

But what would happen if you learned strategies that helped you get paid, on time, every time?  How about setting standards that empower you to refuse to accept substitutions?  How about discovering the power to keep contractors from running circles around you?  You may find operating and negotiating from a position of strength has its payoffs.

We believe it’s time for change and that your credo as an A/E professional should be, “the key to a good defense, is a great offense!”  That’s what Empowerment by Design is all about.  So go confidently in this new direction, dear reader.  We’re here to help you find greater clarity, greater stability and, above all, greater success.

 

Create Greater Clarity to Empower Your Firm

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in the Empowerment by Design series by Steve Whitehorn of Whitehorn Financial Group, Inc., providing A/E professionals with practical tips for a more successful, profitable practice.

As an architect, what are your top career goals?  Fame?  Creative freedom?  Respect?  More money?  Having worked with hundreds of architecture and engineering firms over the past twenty-five years, I have learned that there are many paths to a successful career in architecture.  But each path has one common guide that lights the way: clarity.

So what exactly do I mean by “clarity”?  In the context of observing it in successful firms, possessing clarity means having a detailed understanding of the responsibilities of each person’s role in the firm – from principals to associates to assistants, and so forth – and developing a greater awareness of how each role affects the other.

Why?  Because design is a team sport.  In baseball, for example, coaches typically say that their best hitters are “seeing the ball well.”  In other words, they have achieved a sense of clarity: they can see what’s coming at them and they’re confident they can knock the ball out of the park.  In the same way, the greater clarity firm principals have, the greater positive impact it will have on the firm.  Clarity is a stepping-stone for success, as it will improve and guide the firm’s projects, relationships, and overall economic stability.

Unfortunately, a lack of clarity is a distinct flaw that shows up in many areas of a firm.  I have found that most of the fears and anxieties that my clients possess ultimately can be traced back to a lack of clarity. The resulting uncertainty and apprehension leads to a domino effect of confusion among their employees in their respective roles.  Thankfully, finding greater clarity within your firm isn’t as elusive as it may seem.

The following are a few ways in which you can empower yourself to bring more clarity to your firm, your projects and, with it, more peace of mind for yourself:

Be selective.  You may find that you spend only 20% of each day actually designing and the other 80% lost in tedious tasks.  This is because you lack clarity and you’re not making the right business decisions. In school, you learned how your designs could change the world, but what you didn’t learn were strategies necessary to attain the work you desire. When you’re clear about what you want, how you and your team are going to execute tasks, and you’re selective with clients and projects, it’s likely that you’ll end up with more projects you want and can reasonably manage.

Create a gameplan.  You must establish a clear understanding of scope for each project; from the owner’s perspective, your perspective, and the project team executing the project.  Creating a game plan for your team – one that clearly states which team member is responsible for which tasks, and so forth, from the start of a project to its completion – will relieve you as a principal from feeling like you have to control everything and accomplish everything yourself.

Beware of micromanaging.  If you find yourself worrying about what might go wrong if you don’t have your eye on each and every task within your firm, or about what an employee might do without your knowledge, nothing in your firm will be accomplished.  In this case, you’re too busy planting doubt within your firm and those who work for you.  Clarity comes when you learn to let go of the worry of losing control.  In fact, you will have greater control in the end because you will be able to focus more clearly on your vision, passion, and creativity, while knowing who’s executing tasks and how the work is getting done.

Clearly define post-design phase responsibilities.  Lacking clarity, especially during the construction process, prevents employees from practicing with confidence.  For the construction phase of a project, clearly define your firm’s responsibilities, as well as each of your employee’s responsibilities.  Additionally, confidently express expectations to the contractor in terms of their responsibilities for the project, and, above all, always hold them accountable.

Step out of your comfort zone.  If you’re holding on to the mindset that “we’ve always done it this way,” you’re not doing yourself or your firm any good over the long term.  Finding greater clarity will require you to try new ways of getting things done.  This doesn’t mean that the way you’ve always done things is wrong, but that there are ways to do the work more efficiently and effectively.

Greater clarity enriches your firm’s value, but it must be shared from top to bottom.  Defining scope and responsibilities, being more selective about the work you take on and freeing yourself to do more of what you love to do, will bring you and your firm greater clarity, greater confidence, and greater success.

 

Steve Whitehorn is the author of the upcoming book, Empowerment by Design, and Managing Principal of Whitehorn Financial Group, Inc., which provides architects and engineers with strategies that minimize risk, increase profitability, speed up cash flow, and get more work. Whitehorn Financial Group, Inc., is the creator of The A/E Empowerment Program®.whitehorn-finacial-logo-w-tagline41

 

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