Author Anna

The past ten years have brought revolutionary changes to practically every area of the architecture industry. No corner has escaped its share of disruption. Major socio-economic shifts and technological advancements have forever altered the design and build process, firms’ organisational structure, the skills and mindset of up-and-coming professionals, the competitive landscape and even the relevance of architecture as a profession. Before our very eyes, architecture as an institutionalised, canonised and elitist profession is dissolving and morphing into something totally different.

I truly believe that the combined fallout from all of these micro-movements will eventually strengthen the field of architecture, partly because it will force out those practices that have been unable to keep up with the currents sweeping through the profession. At the same time it will (and already has) opened the doors to other practices that do.

The truth is architecture today is home to two parallel movements (or perhaps, universes is a better word). On one side are the firms that “get it,” the ones that are adaptive, crystal clear about the value they have to offer and hyper-connected to the needs of their clients. On the other side is a growing pool of practices big and small, well-known and obscure, that are slowly losing touch with reality.

 

A Disconnect is Born

It’s fair to say that this disconnect starts in higher educational programs where a hands-on approach to learning the profession is practically ignored in favor of theoretical and abstract creativity. More time at university is spent designing pretty portfolios and building Styrofoam models than acquiring any practical design experience. Upon graduation, this attitude is only reinforced in the accreditation process and further egged on by the industry’s most prestigious organisations and awards. Even the topics for discussion among architecture circles as well as the content that fills our professional architectural publications, symposiums, and workshops reveal a stunning detachment from people, spaces, and even buildings.

Design technology has only exacerbated the situation.

Many architect practices are quite comfortable these days letting their software do the heavy lifting in the design process. They willingly give up control over how their designs are built and fundamental problems are solved in the name of saving time and money. Less focus is being placed on on-site learning and analysis, or even speaking to the people who will use or live next to the built space. The human-side of design, among these firms at least, is getting lost.

As parts of the professional architecture community appear to lose touch with society, it seems that neither architects nor the institutions that support them want to acknowledge the issue, let alone take any responsibility for it. Instead, they deep dive into a sea of discourse on urbanisation, diversity, and an ever broadening range of  abstract, philosophical, yet barely architectural, topics. It feels like a kind of diversion, a desire to just ignore the problem instead of working through it.

 

Architects Are Part of the Solution

But the truth is that architects are as much a part of the solution as a part of the problem. The idea of architects as skilled listeners and collaborators, ones who are willing and able to incorporate the needs of the surrounding environment into their designs, is slowly making its way into mainstream architecture and community development. There are a growing number of practices across the globe which work according to the ethos that private and public buildings, transportation hubs, and public outdoor spaces should not be out of step with the very people who use them.

While this movement is stronger in parts of Europe and North America, right here in Australia it has been gaining traction, as well. Over the past few years, we’ve been witnessing a burgeoning drive to design new buildings while actively seeking feedback from those who will be using them the most.

Not all projects need a big scale effort. But, it’s vital for architecture practices to understand people want above all that the discourse as well as the design of buildings and spaces should focus on them and their needs- not just the artistic whims of some distant software program.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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As the memory of the Great Recession starts to dim, and architecture practices big and small turn their attention to a re-energised and in many ways expanding market, opportunities for the advancement of the business side of architecture are growing. Instead of looking outward, now’s the time for senior leaders to use the current economic environment to their advantage by focusing within their firm’s own four walls.

Opportunities from Within

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the past twenty years is that socioeconomic disruptions and downturns can happen anywhere at any time. In our global economy, even a localized disruption a half a world away, such as a national debt crisis or a natural disaster, can have a devastating global ripple effect.

While many architecture practices may take advantage of the current economic uptick to expand by purchasing or merging with another firm or hiring additional staff, it may not be the best move to make… at least, not yet. Before planning for the good times, you need to be sure your firm can handle the difficult times.

Perhaps the boldest thing you can do for your firm right now is to rethink the way your clients are engaged, information is shared, stored, and manipulated, bills get paid, and work gets done. When you work to revitalise, re-align, and strengthen the operational systems in your firm- those vital, fundamental systems that define how your firm operates- then good things are bound to happen.

Not only will you operate more efficiently and cost-effectively, your firm will be better positioned to withstand any future market disruptions in the future. You’ll also have the clarity and piece of mind you need to make sound, growth-oriented strategic decisions down the road.

But which operational systems should you be investing in?

Here are five areas to consider:

Internal communications and information management. In an earlier article, I mentioned a survey which claims that over 71 percent of up and coming employees face challenges using the available collaboration tools at their firm. This means if you haven’t looked at this area of your firm lately, then it may be time to reassess the way communication happens and data is created, managed, stored and shared both within the firm and outside of it.

Market research. Marketing isn’t just about promotional materials, presentation tools, or a modern, optimised website. Before you can get to those things, you need to have a solid understanding of how the competitive environment has changed in recent years, who the key players are, what your clients want, and how best to position your firm in the market. This also requires you to be in touch with your firm’s key strengths and core competencies and make the effort to nurture your client relationships.

Cash flow cushion. One of the most overlooked places to invest money during good economic times is in your firm’s pool of liquid assets. Liquid assets are either cash on hand or an asset that can easily be converted to cash. In order to avoid corporate tax liabilities, many firms don’t save enough of their profits to prevent shortfalls when a financial emergency or a slowdown in projects hits. But consider this: a sudden scramble for cash can end up costing you more than the money you saved in taxes. Better to have a few months worth of operational expenses on hand.

Training programs. Today’s young architecture professionals want from their employers hands-on experiences that develop key life skills as well as leadership and functional skills. Now is the best time to reevaluate your systems for career advancement and training. This includes, workshops, formal classes, mentoring programs as well as opportunities for performance feedback.

Upgrading design technology. Even as technology has dramatically altered the design and build process, the architecture industry has been notoriously slow to adapt to it. Part of the reason for this is that money gets shunted to other, more “pressing” areas- especially when work is scarce. As technology continues to rapidly evolve, you can’t afford to sit on the sidelines, and on-boarding the technology that matters is much easier to do when business is booming.

Bottom line: if you want your architecture firm to endure in good times and in bad, then you need to invest in the operational procedures and systems that give you a solid foundation to stand on.

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In the previous two articles of this series I discussed who Millennials are and what they needon the job these days in order to stay motivated and loyal. In this final article, we’ll take a look at some practical things architecture firms can start doing right now to hold on to, encourage and develop their young talent.

Getting Real, Staying Committed

Before I get to those practical changes, however, there is one final issue that needs to be addressed. After perhaps sensing an impending shift in the way business gets done, the senior leadership at many architecture firms have already started to refocus their efforts in leadership and skills development, as well as employee impact and engagement. Many have also attempted to put into place an assortment of forward-thinking initiatives and tools, like open work spaces, cutting-edge design technology, and innovative job descriptions.

Yet, for all of this effort, there remains a big divide between what firms say they are committed to doing versus what ends up getting done on the ground. In fact, it seems the more firms try to cater to their young employees, the more the very things they are trying to avoid only rear their ugly heads. The solution as I see it is for firm leadership to reassess not just their systems, but the attitudes and values behind them.

I’ll give an example… There is a wide-spread perception that Millennials as a cohort are job hoppers.

Let me turn the tables a bit.

Few will argue with the fact that many bigger architecture firms these days seem to care more about short term gains than they do about the long term life and career of their professional employees. Pigeon-holing employees into limited roles, pressuring them to work long hours and offering unattractive compensation packages is still standard procedure. This goes hand in hand with the fact that young architecture candidates see an archaic linear path to career development looming up ahead.

Given these circumstances, it’s not so surprising that Millennials are such a nomadic bunch. What are they getting back for all of their hard work, anyway?

Reputation and flashy benefits alone are not enough to motivate and hold on to top talent if these individuals feel they are unappreciated, under-utilised, unchallenged, unheard, treated like a commodity and bored. The first big epic step architecture firms need to make is to recognise this attitude of short term gain, realise how self-destructive it really is, even to their bottom line, and truly be committed to making a change.

The Evolving Architecture Firm In the Age of the Millennial

As firm leadership do some soul searching, there are four key areas that need the most attention and investment:

Rethinking Benefits and Career Advancement

This means benefits that look beyond seniority to reward hard work as well as soft skills, such as taking initiative, thinking creatively, collaborating, and helping other team members. It means spending more resources on skills development, with a particular emphasis on a learning-by-doing model where, for example, architects can spend project time physically on site, or can get experience working in various different departments of the firm. It means including ways for them to make a tangible impact, like improving the efficiency of the design process or enhancing the client experience. It means investing in your employees and not treating them like a commodity that can be easily replaced.

In the end, promotion and skill acquisition then become a personalised process, not a systematic, faceless exercise in human resources.

Rethinking Hiring

There are two parts to this.

The first involves an evaluation of the job titles and corresponding responsibilities that are currently in the firm. Firm leaders need to pinpoint where people are unhappy with their work, where mistakes are consistently getting made, where the design process is getting held up, and then use this information to redefine and realign positions. Redundant and irrelevant positions will disappear, while retained positions can expand so employees have the option to take on new and/or challenging projects.

The second is about the hiring process. When an architecture firm wants to hire a Millennial, senior leaders have look beyond skill set and focus on finding those candidates who don’t have the stereotypical narcissistic, entitled, and inpatient personality traits that can make leading young workers so difficult.

Rethinking Feedback

There is the perception that Millennials need hand-holding on the job. But perhaps this is really about a need on their end for personalised, constructive feedback that allows them to see their progress over time and is backed up with clearly communicated options for career development.

Though it may be true that Millennials have a difficult time when it comes to the virtue of patience, there are many young hard workers out there. They just need to know where they are holding and not feel like their contributions are being drowned out by the contributions of others. This can be done through smart mentoring programs and peer and management reviews as well as self-assessment reports where the employee offers a synopsis of his or her work progress.

Most Millennials need some measure of autonomy, the ability to have some input in the direction of their career development, and not have it inadvertently “erased” through shifting policies or decisions made by those disconnected to the actual work getting done on the ground.

Rethinking Communication

Senior leaders should reassess the way communication gets done and data is created, managed, stored and shared within the firm. Since Millennials are bent on real-time or near real-time communication and the access of information, in-house communications technology may need an upgrade.

In particular, senior leaders should be looking for ways to open the lines of communication throughout the firm. For example, there can be an internal instant messaging system that allows employees to contact members of their teams, other departments, as well as clients and perhaps even senior leaders. There should also be a move towards cloud-based document management solutions so that employees can access and edit files anytime from anywhere.

In short, when it comes to Millennials, money, great benefits, cutting-edge design technology, and the promise of future career development is not everything. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from all of this is that sometimes what matters most is just the work and the feeling of being understood and useful.

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In the first part of this series we took a look at who Millennials are. In this article we will look at what Millennials in the field of architecture want and need in order to thrive at work.

Bridging the Gaps

As Millennials continue to fill the ranks in the workplace, the senior leaders at many of the top architecture practices have been trying to figure out how to best hire them, motivate them, and hold on to them. But for all of their effort, pesky issues, such as high turnover, low job satisfaction and poor performance continue to persist.

At my executive recruiting firm we are constantly fielding requests for assistance from architecture firms big and small that are struggling to attract, retain, and motivate talented young candidates. Even the biggest names in the industry can’t seem to keep their potential top performers, let alone encourage them to do their best.

Leaders are often at a complete loss for what to do. Should they change their compensation package? Promise future equity? Attract talent with cutting edge design technology? Hire a more diverse workforce?

The truth is the challenge that Millennials bring to the architecture industry has little to do with things like compensation, cutting edge design tools, or the promise of future equity. There are basically two great divides driving the friction between young architecture professionals and the firms that employ them, and both of these divides are equally important and equally influential.

The first one is a clash between the attitudes and work preferences of Baby Boomers versus that of Millennials. As I mentioned in the first article of this series, the transition that is happening today is not just a mere passing of the leadership torch from one big generation to the next. Instead, senior leaders are handing over the reigns to a whole new way of doing business, communication, and management that seems (on the surface, anyway) totally foreign to what they have always known.

It’s the change itself that is threatening.

The second great divide has to do with what firms say they want to do versus what they actually end up doing. But, more on that in the next article…

What Millennials Need on the Job

If senior leadership is serious about catering to their future leaders, then they need to bring about nothing short of a cultural shift. They are being forced to rethink the way projects get done and talent is developed not just to stay competitive, but stay relevant.

That said, here are three of the most important key points today’s senior leaders should know and act on when it comes to their Millennial hires:

1. Millennials want career development through self-actualisation and experiences. It’s important for senior leaders to understand that their Millennial employees have personal and professional goals that are totally different to theirs. Millennials expect their employers to help them succeed through individualised support and experiential learning. A firm can’t just provide money or a standard path to career development; it has to deliver self-actualisation. In return, Millennials are ready and willing to passionately invest their time and energy towards the advancement of the firm.

An interesting example of this in action is Pepsico. The popular food, snack and beverage corporation recently launched a career and leadership building initiative that focuses on what it calls “critical experiences.” These are hands-on experiences that develop key life skills in addition to leadership and functional skills by placing candidates in new environments and roles. Assignments could include turning around a failing department, pioneering a new product or vision, or taking part in a firm sponsored community service initiative. Through learning-by-doing and stepping out of their comfort-zones, young professionals are exposed to different people and fresh perspectives. All of this helps them to expand their understanding and ultimately think differently.

Modern architecture reflects the increasing complexity of the world we live in, and as such, there are many, often shifting, factors that can influence the outcome of a project. It is practically impossible for young professionals to deliver optimum results if they are confined to their desks and pigeon-holed into a specific role. It doesn’t matter how talented or motivated they are, nor how many design tools you throw at them.

2. Millennials want “sensible” flexibility and freedoms. Many senior leaders today bemoan the fact that Millennials seem unfocused at work and have little regard for authority or standard procedure.

Here is where a little understanding is in order. Millennials need some measure of autonomy to perform their best on the job. They may need to take “mental breaks” throughout the day, get a change of scenery, or work flexible hours. They may need to keep their phones in front of them at times. But at the end of the day, they will get their work done.

When it comes to communication and collaboration, Millennials loathe constraints. The ability to reach key people at key times is extremely important to them, and the opportunity to have their opinions heard is energising.

The culture within the architecture workplace needs to adapt to the way Millennials approach focus, discipline and communication. This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t ever be a hierarchy, or limits or constructive performance feedback, but forcing strict conformity will only backfire. Such a move will continue to bring about the very things leadership is trying to avoid: high turnover, low job satisfaction and poor performance.

3. Millennials want the best technological support for collaboration. While many architecture firms are busy updating their design technology, Millennials are bent on collaboration applications that are easy to use and allow for flexible, seamless communication, just like they have for their personal use.

One recent survey reported that just over 71 percent of Millennials face challenges using the collaboration tools provided by their firm. In general, Millennials prefer the real-time communication on chat applications, online meeting software, and texting versus email, which is slow in comparison. They also prefer cloud-based document management solutions so that they can access files and information anytime, from anywhere.

To sum up… architecture firms need to rethink the way they approach benefits and career development, by moving away from the old job seniority-based hierarchy model and embracing the skills and experience model. They need to create opportunities for autonomy and give them the space to do their work

But to do this, they need to build a bridge between the old way of doing business with the realities of today, to respect the past while showing a distinct interest in the current disruption that is redefining the architecture industry and many other industries like it.

I’ll offer some practical tips on how architecture firms can do that in the final article of this series.

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As Millennials continue to come of age and a new wave of architects settles into the workforce, there has been a lot of discussion about what this generation means for the profession of architecture. The work ethic, attitudes, skills, and career aspirations of these up-and-coming young professionals are starting to change the way architecture firms operate, communicate, and reward good performance- whether these studios like it or not.

Millennials, themselves, are a kind of disruption to the industry’s status quo- a disruption that has left many of today’s senior leaders baffled and unsure about how to proceed. But as Millennials become the largest generation in the workforce, it’s an issue that needs to be figured out, and fast.

While Millennials are certainly leaving their mark when it comes to the trends in design and architecture, in this series, we’ll focus more on who Millennials are, how they are changing the systems that support the design and build process, as well as consider some concrete ways firms can (and should) respond to it all.

 

A Millennial is Born

Before we can explain how Millennials are redefining and reshaping the architecture industry, we first need a little background.

The Millennial generation are those born between 1980–2000, give or take a few years. Though the generation spans two decades, those in this cohort share many distinct characteristics, even across cultural and geographical lines. Millennials have come of age during a period of tremendous technological, political, economic and social disruption. In it’s wake, emerged a generation of young adults who have grown accustomed to change and of challenging the status quo. As one author put it, “They are the most threatening and exciting generation since the baby boomers brought about social revolution, not because they’re trying to take over the Establishment but because they’re growing up without one.”

Part of this has to do with the fact that they are “digital natives.” Millennials are the first generation to have grown up with the Internet and personal computers as well as a whole host of mobile devices, apps, and social platforms. It’s not just that they are comfortable with technology. It’s that their cell phones and other connected devices are their instinctive, go-to portal for acquiring information and conducting some of the most basic daily transactions, such as making purchases, setting an appointment, or sending someone money… and, this technology enables them to do the vast majority of these things in an instant.

If you have been paying attention, most of the articles written about Millennials over the past few years are quick to highlight a range of the negative stereotypes, such as:

●     They struggle with face-to-face social interactions

●     They are narcissistic and have a hard time handling failure

●     They lack basic life and workplace skills

●     They are easily distracted

But, there are many positive stereotypes, too:

●     They are confident, connected, and open to change

●     They actively seek feedback to help them improve performance

●     They are curious and passionate learners, excited to acquire new skills and experiences

●     They are open to collaboration in order to work smarter, not harder

Obviously, these are broad stereotypes, and not every Millennial will fit in. That’s not the point. These qualities are backed by a tremendous amount of research, subjective and objective assessments- even from Millennials themselves. To simply ignore them is the equivalent of putting your head in the sand, and all that’s likely to do is give you a headache.

Passing the Torch

Leaders in architecture, and throughout the working world, need to not only figure out this unique, transient, often contradictory cohort, but come to terms with the fact that change in the workplace is necessary, and some of that change may not be so easy.

As Baby Boomers reach retirement, it’s not just that the largest generation to ever be in the workforce is being replaced, it’s that the entire practice of doing business is evolving into something totally new and different. Many senior leaders in architecture and most other industries have been struggling to come to terms with this uncharted territory. But instead of fearing it or fighting it, this transition can be an exciting opportunity for renewal and for redefining the role of the architect in the built world.

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Of all the challenges facing architectural firms today, figuring out how to win more work definitely sits at the top of the list. Yet, I find it interesting that many companies are tragically out of touch with the basic trends shaping how projects are secured in the first place. Nowhere is this break more prevalent than in the project pitches that many architectural firms are presenting to their clients.

Gone are the days when you could just rely on your name and reputation, or even the quality and relevance of your design to secure a project. Today, projects are often won and lost based on the “performance” of the presenters. It’s not just about the ideas they are trying to convey, but how they go about doing it.

The architectural firms that will earn the most business in 2015 and beyond are those that know how to connect to the needs and preferences of their clients. They have a narrative that speaks to their clients in the words that their clients are using.

If your team can learn how to get that narrative right, then chances are you will already be well ahead of the competition.

The Case of the Stumbling Starchitects

Just over two years ago, some of the biggest names in the industry, Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Norman Foster, all vied to secure a high-profile project: a new tower for L&L Holding Company on Park Avenue in New York City. This stretch of prime real estate is home to some of the most expensive properties in the United States and a popular enclave of fortune 500 companies as well as the rich and famous.

Norman Foster won the contest with a rather traditional, sensible design: a stack of three glass boxes connected by an exposed steel scaffolding and separated by three landscaped terraces.

Shortly after it was announced that Foster had won the contract, The Guardian ran an article that included video excepts from all four of the pitches. The lessons that can be learned just from watching these architects in action are priceless.

So, why did Foster win? Here are three good reasons:

  1. He knew his audience. Of the four architects, Foster is the only one who didn’t sound like he was talking to a bunch of art directors or architectural aficionados. Good thing because he was speaking to a risk-adverse corporate crowd. These are people who think in terms of measurements, profits, and practical results, and that is exactly what Foster gave them. He showed them that he knew his design intimately, particularly the important numbers, square footage, and rentability – precisely the kind of information needed to reassure his audience.
  1. He presented a clear, focused message. One notable difference between Foster’s presentation and the others is that he chose to avoid the PowerPoint slides in favour of an easel and poster boards. Though the move may have seemed risky given his audience, it ultimately paid off. With less visual “distractions,” the investors were able to focus on both the person behind the idea and on the fact that the details of the project were well-known and thought out- and that is exactly what Foster wanted.
  1. He knew how to tell their story. Most importantly, Foster knew how to craft a compelling story line. But, it wasn’t his story he was telling, and it wasn’t the story of New York City, either. It was his clients’ story- a narration full of solid, no-nonsense facts and figures and a smattering of corporate-speak. In the end, his audience was left with a clear vision- a vision that included them.

While not every architect and his or her team may be gifted orators, however, these are skills that can and should be learned. It could significantly make the difference between a year of wins or a frustrating year of losses.

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Over the past couple of years, a “discounting trend” has been quickly making its way through the architecture industry. In order to win work, some architects are low-balling their competition by offering clients very low fees. This practice has been sparking a collective grumbling among firms that feel crucial contracts are being stolen from them… right under their noses.

But, if your architecture practice has been considering a price discount in order to attract clients, I would urge you to reconsider: Discounting will only attract low paying clients, eat into employee moral, and ultimately gut your firm until there’s nothing left.

I know these are strong words and that some of you may almost instinctively resist them. It’s certainly understandable. After all, some of your competitors may be lowering their rates, and those profit margins are getting harder to maintain. You’ve got employees to keep happy and engaged, key investments to make, and bills to pay.

The issue of low fees is reflected in how you deliver the product; you produce a fast lesser quality outcome that doesn’t represent your firm’s attitude or quality and value. Time that is allocated to the work is directly impacted by the fee, so if it’s low, you may end up with doing the minimum you can to get it done – ultimately driving down the quality of architecture and design. Also how can you return to charging a fair and reasonable fee once you start discounting?

The business world is full of examples that prove discounting your service almost always doesn’t work over the long-run.

Consider the example of Starbucks, Inc.

In 2000, Starbucks tried to penetrate the Australian cafe market. The ubiquitous global coffee chain quickly opened 84 stores, most of them in high-profile locations. Eight years later, they closed 61 of these stores. They simply could not compete with Australia’s small independent cafes and coffee shops, the majority of which continued to focus on the quality of their products and the experience they offer customers instead of engaging in a price war.

But what does coffee, a high-turnover, low profit margin, retail product got to do with the architectural industry which is, after all, a service selling design flair and intellectual capital? It’s a fair point but when it comes to the effects that discounting has on a business, products and services are interchangeable.

In my industry recruiters are notorious for undercutting. It’s a way for new entrants to quickly grab the attention of HR teams who are eager to save costs in any way they can. Invariably however, clients revert back to the service-offering that charges higher fees but offers far more in terms of value for money. How refreshing is it to interview three great candidates as opposed to wading through a dozen average candidates, none of who are right. Clients want to trust you to do a good job and leave it in your hands and come back to them at decision-making time. They don’t want to have to hold your hand and they are willing to pay fair value for that service.

New recruiters try to enter the market and compete on price all the time and they might achieve some early wins but they never last long. It’s the recruiters who know their stuff, deliver a good service and build trust that clients return to again and again.

Three Reasons to Avoid Competing on Price to Win Work

There are three main reasons why your Architecture and Interior Design firm should avoid lowering its fees in order to secure more contracts:

  1. You will attract low paying clients. Once you start lowering your prices, you run the very real risk that future customers will get addicted to the discount and won’t want to pay higher rates. Chasing after low-paying customers can significantly cut into your profit margins and ultimately hurt operations.
  1. You will lose brand equity. Brand equity is just a fancy way of saying the perceived value your prospects and customers have of your company’s services. Many studies have clearly pointed to the fact that higher priced products and services are automatically considered to be more effective, of better quality, and more valuable, than lower priced options. Plus, once you start introducing price cuts, you also can end up coming across as desperate, and desperation is never a good marketing strategy.
  1. You will compromise employee moral. This is a concept that doesn’t get talked about enough, yet it is extremely important. It is certainly discouraging to work with clients who don’t appreciate the value of your efforts and input, and this can quickly affect how your employees view their work as well. The result is that they will be less motivated to give each project their best.

That said, you may be wondering, “OK, Dean, so if we shouldn’t be competing on price, how do we compete and still maintain healthy profits?”

I’ll get to that in my next post… Stay tuned.

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In my last post, Why Architects Should Never Compete on Price, I advocated that firms should never try to compete on price in order to secure work. Not only does price-discounting cut into profits but it can be destructive to the practice as a whole.

That brings up a few very important questions:

  • How can a smaller-sized architecture firm not only survive but thrive in a market where architects are routinely charging very low rates in order to attract clients?
  • How do you set up your business so that you can charge a fair price for the valuable service and expertise that you are offering?
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, how do you get high paying clients to come toyou instead of having to chase after them?

This last question really cuts to the core of one of the biggest struggles facing architectural firms today: securing work. It is quite easy (and almost natural) for architects to feel like they are on a big hamster wheel, constantly on the lookout for the next project even before current projects have come to an end. Not only does the constant pressure to find more work make that work less enjoyable but it can cause those in leadership positions to make irrational decisions out of desperation.

That’s not a position you want to be in.

So, how do you go about charging what you are worth, while simultaneously attracting good paying clients? Here are three essential factors that many architectural firms (big and small) surprisingly get wrong:

1. Target the right customers. If you don’t want low-paying clients, then stop chasing after them in the first place! One of the most important steps your architectural firm can take is to develop a clear, detailed picture of your ideal client. Is this client a private individual, a developer, a corporation, or a public works department? What is the scope of this client’s project? The vast majority of your marketing efforts should be focused on securing this one kind of client.

I know this may sound limiting. But, the reality is that unless you’ve got the resources of a big corporate firm, you can’t be everything to everyone. The goal here is to develop a unified message that will attract your most lucrative projects. The more work you get, the more your reputation and your portfolio will grow, and the more diverse your client pool may actually end up being.

2. Know what value buttons to push. I mentioned earlier in Architecture’s Forgotten Art, that some architectural firms are tragically out of touch with the wants and needs of their clients. They fall into the trap of assuming that most, if not all, of their clients are primarily interested in the architect’s name and artistic expression. But, the truth is that most clients are fixated on their own needs, and they are really just looking to architects to give those needs expression.

The firms that recognise this dynamic and learn how to truly listen to their clients are the ones that will be the most successful. They are in touch with the qualities and services that are the most valuable to their clients and know how to effectively communicate this value to them. These firms also actively seek feedback- both from happy customers as well as the prospects that turned them away.

3. Go in with the right attitude. Many smaller architectural firms tend to get intimidated in the face of their bigger competitors. Whether you realise it or not, this attitude will come through to your potential clients and could turn them away. If your firm is clear about whom you are targeting, and you are laser focused on providing needed value, you can go into any competition with confidence. Plus, many of your bigger competitors may actually be pretty complacent since they feel that they can win the contract on their name alone. This creates a very big opening for your firm.

Each one of these “tactics” are designed to produce satisfied customers who will be more than happy to refer your firm to their contacts. You’ll generate a healthy stream of work and be able to ditch that hamster wheel once and for all.

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It amazes me every time.

Many architecture firms come to us looking to fill a number of key positions. They make it clear from the beginning that they are only interested in talented, motivated individuals. They want the best people out there. But as my team and I begin to interview the leaders of these firms, that’s when things start to get a bit bizarre.

When we ask them ‘why’ someone would want to come and work at their firm, we get a blank look and then an answer as boring as “because we are looking for someone,” or “because we are offering a good job, and good prospects for the right person.” Even questions as basic as, “What are your goals, plans, and vision for the next 5 years?” are met with a rather awkward silence.

Really?

These are not some obscure little studios that no one has heard of. Some of these firms have been in business for years and have an impressive portfolio of projects. But, these “answers” are simply not good enough. If firms can’t identify what makes them unique, what they stand for, and why people would want to work for them, then they have practically no chance of attracting the best talent in the market, not to mention remaining successful and relevant in the coming years.

I have been in the architecture and design industry for a while now. In that time I’ve been personally involved in the movements of many of the industry’s most talented people. I’ve watched these individuals join companies and then leave, and I’ve watched many firms rise and fall.

The firms that can confidently answer our questions… the ones that have already booked in the financial targets for this year… the ones that have a solid succession plan in place and that recognise and reward outstanding performance, these are the companies that are forging ahead. Ten years from now, they will still be successful and relevant.

How Does Your Firm Define Success?

I want to close this article with the above question because it is really the starting point for meaningful change.

In business there are many measurements of success. There is financial success, market penetration, brand and reputation awareness, customer satisfaction, employee retention, and the performance of individual employees as well as teams, to name a few. In some firms, success is also measured by how well the company lives up to its own core values and vision. If senior leadership and key employees can’t arrive at a clear definition of success for most of these areas, then it is strong sign that something, somewhere has gone off track.

If you really want to attract and retain the best talent and stay competitive in the coming years, then you’ll want to do what you can to get back on track as quickly as possible. You owe it to yourselves, your employees, and your clients to find out what makes your architecture firm so special in the first place.

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When most young architects are considering whether or not to take a new position (or leave their present one), they typically look at the job’s benefits- things like salary, location, culture, and how interesting or fulfilling the work is. Often absent from this list of qualities is one key benefit that can significantly make or break the work experience. The firms that “get it” are the ones that are attracting and retaining the best talent.

The Architectural Glass Ceiling

Young architects and designers in their twenties who are just starting out in their careers may not really be thinking about where their present jobs will take them ten years from now. Most people this age are intent to just get a job and look for something better later on.

But this attitude typically changes with employees who are a little further along in both their careers and lives. That’s when some fundamental priorities start to shift.

Every single week I am contacted by numerous Senior Associates and Associate Directors who are not happy with the lack of direction and options their current employers are giving them. These are extremely talented, experienced people. They are typically in their mid to late 30’s or early 40’s, have been with the same firm for several years, have put in a lot of good hard work and a lot of hours, and have risen through the ranks.

Then, bam! They hit a glass ceiling.

It’s a barrier that affects both men and women (though women do have it harder). But it comes at a pivotal time when people are building families and preparing for the future. The Associates who contact me are taking a good, hard look up the organisational ladder. Though the wording may vary a bit from person to person, they inevitably all ask the same question: what’s in it for me in the next 5 years?

Thinking About Tomorrow’s Needs Today

These firms are not giving their best employees hope for the future, and they are not grooming them correctly to move through the upper corporate ranks. The result is that some ambitious young star performers are feeling disgruntled, frustrated, and ultimately not engaged. The firms that are not recognising and acknowledging high performing, high potential talent will continue to lose these people to their competitors.

That’s how it should be.

If a firm’s senior leadership won’t make the effort and investment needed to cultivate their key talent, to prepare for both the future of their employees and of the firm as a whole, then that sends out a very strong message: There is a crack in the foundation, and the employees will be better off taking their talents elsewhere.

That being said, it is a two way street, and the next generation of leaders need to understand that in order to progress to Director level and equity- you have to develop the essential entrepreneurial skills in marketing, business development and commercial acumen, which are imperative to help lead the continued success of the firm.

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