Mangement For Design

Business Journal 123

Business Foundations

Most architects, engineers, and designers start their practices with little to no experience of running in building a business. Typically, the initial focus is on design, project delivery, and servicing client requirements—with a mind on winning new clients and new work. However, there is a myriad of elements of managing, controlling, and building a business that founders and principals require to become successful owners and leaders.

So, what are these elements that will create and build successful Architecture, Engineering, and Design (AED) businesses, with satisfied and well-rewarded leaders? Our work with architects, engineers, and designers has identified common themes, which set practices up for success—The Business Foundations of Architecture, Engineering, and Design.


1. Purpose and Direction

Our research indicates that up to 70% of design business don’t have a clearly articulated plan identifying where their business is and where it’s heading. That’s seven out of ten people at the leadership level, who don’t have a clear vision for their business. So, if the leaders are not clear about where the business is heading, then how are their people expected to be on board and in line with the business’ direction!

To start, you need a clear understanding of where your industry is heading. You should be at the forefront of the industry and have a picture of what will be required into the future. Secondly, you need a clear understanding of what you are great at and what your focus will be.

For your business to thrive today and into the future, you need to be great at something that the market has a demand for. And a key element of that for architects and designers is market expertise.

Your strategy needs to be built around what drives your business—what will lead you to success now and into the future. How does your company win work? How do you generate the work? What is your expertise? How are you positioned in the marketplace? How do you develop the concept and design? How do you deliver the work? What sort of people do you need to have around you? How do you become innovative? And finally, what sort of financial management control do you need? A strategy is built around the answer to these and other related questions.

A strategic plan with clear and concise strategic objectives and clear plans for implementation, only needs be 3-4 pages. The key element is to have a clear path, something that you are all aligned with as a leadership team, that you’ve communicated with your key people, and everyone is on board with.


2. Leadership

Architects in a leadership position are typically talented and experienced at designing, nurturing clients, and delivering projects. However, they often lack expertise around establishing, running, and growing a successful business.

As a leader, you need to balance the time you spend in the business—which is doing the work—and the time you spend on the business and how much time you spend on yourself. As a rule of thumb, you should spend at least half a day, to a day, on your business each week. Whether that’s nurturing and mentoring your key people, developing systems or developing a marketing program. None of this comes overnight, this takes time, experience and learning from others.Great leaders of architectural businesses:

  • Collaborate
  • Delegate
  • Expect responsibility and accountability
  • Empower people
  • Promote trust in their people
  • Constantly reinforce the value that they bring
  • Have a focus on performance and profit
  • Share information and rewards
  • Have a clarity of purpose


3. Team

Your team is comprised of the people that are in your business, as well as the team that is outside your business. And the people outside your business are just as important as the people inside your business. These are people like your mentors, your business advisors, your accountants, your lawyers, your consultants etc. Your responsibility is to find and nurture those relationships.

When building your team, you need to hire for cultural fit first—and skills second. Finding people who are aspirational and share common attributes to your practice is most important. Quite often, the mistake businesses make is hiring for skills and not cultural fit and often that comes down to who you put in charge of hiring.

There are typically 4 things that your people look for:

  • Who do I report to?
  • What do I need to do?
  • How will I do it?
  • And how well did I do it?

Develop clear performance criteria around the expectations, and review performance against progress; what’s working and what needs to be improved. It doesn’t have to be complicated!

Additionally, spending time with your key people on business management is essential. You need to educate and mentor—no-one else will do this for you. Perhaps a monthly management meeting, or directors’ meeting, where you can bring people in and expose them to conversations and give them responsibility for some of the actions that you require.


4. Systems

Your system is a set of behaviours that are performed consistently in your business. It’s the way that you do things, it’s not a piece of software.
Some of the systems you should have in your business include:

  • Ensuring you have the right fee
  • Managing your time and projects
  • Tracking project performance
  • Ensuring you will be paid
  • Ensuring your people are fully utilized
  • Managing your financials

These should all be systems—they should be performed consistently the same way each time. They should be a set of behaviours that you routinely follow.

For example, this is the way we recruit, and this is the process that we go through. These are the questions that we ask, these are the qualities that we’re looking for, this is how we induct, this is how we review performance, etc. That’s your system.

By having strong systems in place: work is more consistent, less re-work is required, profitability is improved with increased efficiency and scope control, less frustration is experienced, extra time is created for leaders to be entrepreneurs, and client management consistency is improved.


5. Project and Resource Management

Project and resource management has far less to do with people than you’ve been led to believe. If you want to make an impact in this area, your effort needs to be on developing a consistent way of working and then reinforcing and supporting that approach.

In our experience, the level of project management expertise in architecture, engineering, and design firms is “poor”—and unfortunately, this lack of expertise is not addressed early on. Ask yourself “How do you manage projects across the studio and each project?”

Great project management is fundamental to business success in our industry. Your projects require a plan around the work required, tasks, start and end dates, the time it’s going to take, assignment of resources, milestones, per cent complete, etc. The more complex the project the more detail is generally required. And you should be tracking your progress every week—as a minimum. So, what is Resource Management?

  • Who is working on what and when?
  • Who is available when?
  • Who is over and underutilised?
  • What are the resource requirements moving forward?
  • How does this tie into billings now and into the future?
  • How do regular reviews happen?

Unfortunately, most architecture and design firms don’t have an effective system that they adhere to for managing resources across the studio.

As a business, you should have a clear picture of the workload moving forward. An effective and comprehensive resource plan ensures you’ve got the right number of people to complete the work, but also have the right people to grow the firm.


6. Financial Control and Profitability

As you may know, profitability is a very good indicator of the effectiveness of your business and your business management. Achieving a 20% profit—that’s income less expenses—(before tax) should be your benchmark. That’s realistically achievable for any AED business.

A strong profit allows you the ability to take on the work that you want to take on, work with clients you want to work with, and say no to projects and clients. It allows you to attract, reward, and remunerate the best people, whilst also investing in marketing, technology, growth, and training.

Strong financial performance and profitability allows you to be in control of your business.

Financial control is about having at your fingertips the measures or information that will drive, or should drive, your decision-making going forward. The ability to forecast your future work provides you with the information to project out your resourcing—the resources that you’re going to require and typically, that means people.

Now, all this information is irrelevant unless you review it. You need to set up a regular monthly meeting, with someone who can interpret the information and understand the financials.


7. Managing Risk

While Risk Management might not be the most engaging subject for leaders of Architecture, Engineering, and Design businesses, it’s an essential concern that you can’t avoid—and something you need to manage effectively.
But, what does Risk Management mean?

  • Surrounding yourself with the right expertise
  • Adopting strategies and systems to minimise your risk and exposure
  • Effective quality control to keep yourself free of unwanted and unnecessary disputes

While this can be an extensive subject, key issues most businesses encounter are categorised into three main areas.

  • Business Structure and Legals
  • Clients, Fees and Fee Negotiation
  • Insurances

Ask yourself, does our business have the appropriate expertise, the strategies, systems, and effective quality control to minimise and manage our exposure. While some risk is out of the control of the business, most of the risks that a firm might encounter can be managed, reduced or eliminated.


8. Marketing, Communications, and Brand

Your marketing effort has a singular focus, and that is to win work. When thinking about marketing, you need to ask yourself whether this is a valuable use of your time and resources and whether it will move your business forward in your ability to win work.

Further, you must think about marketing in two elements—business development and communications. Business development is how you’re going to win work. Communications is how you’re going to build and raise awareness about your business.

As a starting point, you should have a marketing strategy with a documented plan that’s agreed upon amongst the leadership team. It should document key areas that will move you forward towards your plans. You need to articulate your value proposition, identify your keys to success, your revenue projections by sector and what investments you need to have in place.

Another aspect of increasing your market awareness is communications through social media. It provides you with the opportunity to advocate and develop an online community that will contribute to the positioning of your business moving forward.


9. Design, Innovation, and Delivery

Effective design management should be one of the core values of your architecture and design practice. However, when Management for Design delves into this subject and asks business leaders to explain and articulate their processes, they tend to struggle with their response.

What’s required is to find the right balance for your practice. Typically, the larger your business is or becomes, the more you will rely on a way of working that is consistent, methodical, and aligned with your studio culture—that’s business. Effective design management finds a balance between creative freedom and consistency.


10. Succession

Firstly, there are two elements of succession: Leadership Succession and Ownership Succession. Leadership succession is around developing your leaders—the next generation—the people that are going to take on the role of growing, building, and controlling your business. Leadership succession is often far more complex and challenging and should happen before ownership succession.

The problem with leadership succession in our industry is that it’s often more difficult than in other industries. Quite often the leaders are the key initiators of design and client relationships, and they’re not necessarily skills that you can educate or develop people on. These traits are inherent in leaders in our profession and therefore they find it difficult to let go of decision-making around clients and design. Leaders feel that this is where they can most effectively contribute to the business.

However, the greatest contribution you can make in your business could be the development of those that take your business forward. There is a great personal and financial reward in leadership succession. If you can change your thinking around leadership succession, you’ll be ahead of many other AED practices. Start with transitioning your decision making, your client relationships, and your design decisions. Give your people exposure to business management and give them clear expectations and responsibilities.

Ready to take you take your business to the next level?

Arrange your complimentary consultation with the aim of assisting you to make the most effective decisions for maximising your business performance.