feedback and anecdotal evidence would suggest that most A/E firms are
better at "doing projects" than managing them. In other words, we're
more competent in the technical aspects of projects, and less so in the
areas of client service, quality assurance, team coordination, and
financial and schedule control. Of course, there are many exceptions.
But in general, I think this is a fair assessment.
would expect technical professionals to be more inclined to focus on
their respective technical disciplines, sometimes to the neglect of
other important project components. That not only aligns with their
competencies, but is typically the part of the project they enjoy most.
Next in the likely hierarchy of priorities is the delivery process, the
internally-driven project execution, controls, and documentation.
too often, the third priority is what should come first—serving the
client. Question my ordering of priorities? Consider the relative
expenditures of time and money that your firm makes in mastering these
three project elements: technical expertise, delivery process, client
service. Does your firm invest the most in improving how you serve
A month ago, I argued in this space that client service
should not be viewed as a distinct function, but instead as the "sum of
all actions involved in satisfying the client." Now let's apply that
principle to project management. Indeed, delivering projects is the
primary way you satisfy client needs. Yet it's not uncommon for project
work to become somewhat disconnected from the overarching mission of serving clients.
responsibility of every project manager is to prevent this from
happening, to instead keep the client at the very center of the project.
Let me describe some of the distinctives of client-centered project
management through four primary stages of the project: (1) project
definition, (2) project planning, (3) project execution, (4) project
Project Definition. Many
think of project definition as merely determining the scope, schedule,
and budget. But equally important is clarifying the needs driving the
project, what outcomes the project must achieve, and the resulting
business benefits. The client-centered project manager will ensure the
project is properly defined before proceeding, including the following:
Project Planning. Proper
planning often gets the short shrift in A/E projects. PSMJ concludes
that poor planning is the number one cause of project failures. Your
project management plan should not only describe what needs to be done, but how you're going to do it. The client-centered project planning process should consider the following:
Define the scope that best satisfies the client's needs and ambitions
Actively engage the client in the planning process
Document the client's role in making the project successful
Seek client endorsement of your project management plan
Project Execution. This
stage is the crux of the project, of course. But failing to adequately
define and plan the project often leads to problems here. On the other hand, engaging the client up front is no excuse for not working closely together throughout the project. One firm specializing in client feedback
has found that clients generally grow less satisfied as the project
design is completed and leading into construction. Why? I can only
speculate, but communicating regularly with the client in these latter
stages is clearly important. Client-centered project execution includes:
Project Closure. The
importance of this project stage is often underestimated. There are a
number of reasons why it deserves special attention: Inefficiency tends
to increase at the end, in part because the project team is often
transitioning to other projects. Some problems tend to be pushed to the
end of the project, which can lead to an untimely effort to resolve
them. And it's important to confirm that the client is happy with the
end result. A client-centered approach to closeout will typically
Maintain appropriate focus on the project as it nears the end
Ensure that personnel reassignments don't impede a strong finish
Work closely with the client to ensure that the project has met expectations
are but a sampling of the steps you can (and should) take to accomplish
your foremost project goal—satisfactorily meeting the client's needs
and expectations. This goal provides needed context for all other
project activities. What additional steps does your firm need to take to
deliver client-centered project management?
Recently I facilitated a planning meeting for an engineering company in
need of fresh strategy after years of flat growth. But the ideas the
group came up with in two planning sessions broke little new ground.
I led a workshop designed to teach emerging leaders how to promote
innovation in their respective offices and departments. We employed
several techniques known to expedite the creative process—stretch goal
planning, associative thinking, brainstorming sessions, and
cross-disciplinary collaboration. But again the group fell short of
coming up with truly innovative solutions to our sample problems.
these results point to my deficiencies as a facilitator. Or maybe it's
unrealistic to expect real breakthroughs in a span of a few hours (as
one participant observed, "It's hard to produce inspiration on demand").
Indeed, in my experience, real innovation is usually the product of a
prolonged iterative process. Or sometimes it comes suddenly,
unexpectedly, without any formal prompting.
Absent fresh ideas,
both groups nevertheless came to an important conclusion: The actions
they listed, while not really new, had not been accomplished. In many
cases, they were common-sense steps that had been identified before, but
remained unfinished or untried. "Maybe if we really did these things,"
one participant suggested, "that would be innovative enough."
I think he may be onto something.
David Maister wrote that "much of what individuals and firms do in the
name of strategic planning is a complete waste of time and about as
effective as making New Year's resolutions. The reasons are the same in
both situations. Personally and professionally, we already know what we
should do...but we don't do what's good for us, because the rewards (and
pleasure) are in the future; the disruption, discomfort and discipline
needed to get there are immediate" (from Strategy and the Fat Smoker).
firm would like to come up with a unique marketplace strategy. But if
you are unable to implement that strategy, what good is it? On the other
hand, imagine the firm that merely accomplishes what we all know we
should be doing—excelling at business development, delighting our
clients, developing our people, improving our productivity. Would that
firm not have a substantial competitive advantage, even minus any novel
Maister observed that he saw little meaningful differences
in the strategic plans of competing professional service firms. Any
leading insights or new services or pursuit of growing markets were
quickly replicated by other firms. The best firms, however, excelled in
putting their plans into motion. It was their follow-through, not their
strategy, that truly set them apart.
Clearly innovation is a
powerful force in business. Yet the companies we all admire and want to
emulate have succeeded not just because they've had great ideas, but
because they've been able to bring them to life. They are implementation
masters. In fact, many top companies have prospered by building on
others' innovations (e.g., Japanese companies that dominate U.S. market
share with products developed from American inventions).
the real innovation in the A/E industry is the ability to succeed at
what most firms are unable to achieve. Doing what we all know we should
be doing, but can't for whatever reason. How can your firm get over the
hump? I've written on this topic before, but let me add a few additional insights (including from Maister):
Align short-term operational goals with long-term strategy. The
two are often in conflict. For example, the push to meet business unit
profit goals may discourage managers from investing money and
nonbillable labor into new services or expansion plans. It's not that
you can't do both, but you need to remove the obstacles to acting in the
long-range interests of the company. One such obstacle may be a reward
system that favors only short-term achievements.
Personalize corporate strategic goals.
Strategy often exists as a disembodied vision of what would be good for
the firm but not necessarily for the people involved in making it
happen. That ignores a basic truth: People are more inclined to do
what's in their own best interest. The most powerful form of strategy is
that which achieves personal ambitions. It's not always possible to
bring the two—corporate and personal goals—into alignment. But you
should take what steps are available to make company success personally
rewarding for those most responsible for it (by the way, don't overestimate the value of financial rewards).
Deal with leaders who won't lead.
In my extensive work with strategy implementation over the years,
there's one cause of failure that trumps all others—the unwillingness of
some influential managers to support the strategy. The may resist
loudly or quietly, but the result is the same: It usually undermines
attempts to move forward. It's hard to convince staff to work hard
towards achieving strategic goals when some key managers treat them as
Maister put it this way: "Professional firms are afraid
of this conclusion. They try to work around the skeptics, the
nonbelievers, and the nonparticipants in their senior ranks, preferring
to hold on to revenue volume rather than put together a senior team
whose members are equally committed to reaching [strategic goals].
That's fine, but you can't call it strategy."
Nor can you call it
innovative if you can't get the organization out of neutral. Strive for
the best ideas you can come up with, but if you must, settle for
ordinary goals pursued in extraordinary fashion.
Give engineers and architects opportunity to brag about their firm and they typically point to its quality work and strong expertise. Invite them to complain about their business and they'll likely mention how it's becoming increasingly commoditized. While they are loathe to admit it, they essentially acknowledge that quality and expertise have become commodities.
A quick Google search reveals that our profession isn't alone in this. Quality and expertise across diverse industries no longer differentiate as they once did. There are exceptions, of course, but they are rare among A/E firms. Quality and expertise are minimum expectations on the part of clients, not points of distinction. Yet many firms continue to tout the strength of their technical services as their primary competitive advantage.
If you want to further dilute the strength of your services, offer them indiscriminately to clients from multiple markets. Many engineering and environmental firms are particularly prone to this. They view the market diversification as a hedge against the ebb and flow of individual market sectors. True, but they sacrifice an important competitive strength in taking that approach.
The best firms I've worked with have a common trait—they're focused on a few markets (though not necessarily exclusively). That's because clients value firms that really understand their business. Ultimately, your mission is not simply to render a specialized service, but to help your clients succeed. You add value to your work when you connect it to satisfying their strategic business needs. But you can't do that if you don't know your clients' business.
In my experience, A/E firms generally make their highest profits within their targeted markets. Conversely, firms that don't have a market focus are usually less profitable (I don't have data to support this claim, only my accumulated observations). Profit and labor multiplier are together reasonable measures of client value. So it's not surprising to me that the firms I've worked with that generated the lowest profits and had the lowest multipliers characteristically lacked market focus.
Yes, quality and expertise are critically important. But market strength matters more than the strength of your services. If your firm is facing increased pricing pressure, slower growth, and declining client loyalty, an honest consideration of the following questions might be helpful:
Are we focused on a few core markets (based on clients' business, not our services)?
Do clients within those markets view us as "industry insiders"—active participants within their business?
Do we really understand how our clients succeed and the business challenges they face?
The biggest problem with planning is lack of execution. And many plans
are doomed to failure because they define goals without describing the
actions needed to achieve them. I see this in plans of all types:
Strategic plans, business plans, marketing plans, project plans, capture
plans—to name a few.
Why do we divorce goals from actions?
Because goals are relatively easy to define, whereas the associated
actions are often elusive. For example, if you have an underperforming
office, you can easily determine how much its financial contribution
needs to improve. That's the goal.
But what specifically should
be done to accomplish that? Chances are if you knew, the office wouldn't
be in trouble. It's simpler to put in your plan: "Increase 2016 revenue
in the Atlanta office to at least $1.2 million, with a minimum profit
of 7.0%." A statement like that alone constitutes an office or business
line "strategy" in many of the plans I've seen.
We can do better.
Let me offer a few suggestions for making your plans actionable, thus
enabling your firm to achieve more of its goals:
Determine what steps are needed to reach your goals; better still, define the process. Meaningful
business goals require sustained, disciplined effort. Yet many plans
only define the initial steps. That may be necessary because subsequent
steps cannot be determined until the first steps are taken (to gather
more information, for example).
The problem is that without a
long-term process spelled out, efforts often stall after the initial
actions. This is one factor that argues for doing planning in stages
rather than in a single annual event, as is most common. Plans often
lack enough information to be trustworthy or devolve into speculation
about future events or circumstances. Without the structure of an
ongoing process—which hopefully further enlightens and validates the
plan—the effort can stumble to a halt after a few months.
best to outline a process that extends over time until the
accomplishment of your goal. You may not be able to define longer-range
actions, but you can at least plan how you will determine them and when.
Identify obstacles and how you will overcome them. I've coined the terms "elevators" and "gravitators" to point out the importance of realizing both (1) what you need to do and (2) why you might not do it.
The concept comes from the Apollo spaceship that consumed 99% of its
fuel escaping the earth's gravity and only 1% to complete the remaining
4.5-million-mile journey. Similarly, in reaching business goals, we
usually expend most of our energy just trying to overcome the inertia of
the status quo.
Yet plans often ignore the gravitators—factors
that work against goal achievement—and focus on elevators, those
positive steps that move you in the desired direction. You should avoid
defining actions without the context of those inevitable obstacles that
will need to be overcome, an all-too-common occurrence in planning.
Instead, choose actions that both elevate your progress toward goals and
mitigate the pull of "gravity" (the appeal of old, familiar ways of
Define intermediate milestones on the way to your targeted goals. Momentum
is a powerful motivational force that catapults sports teams to
victories and businesses to successful accomplishment. Intermediate
milestones enable you to build momentum over time by celebrating small
wins on the path to bigger ones. Indeed, John Kotter's seminal research
into successful organizational change strategies found that generating
opportunities for such short-term wins is critical.
milestones should be specific and measurable, so that reaching them is
unambiguous and progress toward them can readily be monitored. They
should be timed such that they demand significant effort, yet are not so
far apart that people lose focus and commitment—three to six months
seems appropriate. But progress should be measured every month when
possible, with a more in-depth reassessment and readjustment perhaps
Remember that you must actively lead the change process. This
is probably the most common oversight in plan implementation. If your
goals are substantial, people will need to change what they're doing.
And such change does not come naturally or easily. In fact, resistance
to change is almost always your biggest challenge in executing your
Don't confuse material changes (in strategy, systems, policies, practices, etc.) with the human transition
that is always the hardest part of organizational change. Your plan
should define the actions you will take to facilitate behavior change.
Training alone will rarely get the job done. Nor will a management
dictate. Define your change process as part of the implementation
process—not just what people need to do, but how you're going to get
them to do it. (For more on this, see my series on change, starting with
Carefully allocate the necessary time and resources.
Plan implementation usually requires a significant investment of time
and money. Yet plans rarely explain where this is coming from—especially
with regards to time. In all likelihood, the people assigned
responsibility for executing the plan don't have spare time waiting to
be committed to this. One big reason why plans fail is the failure to
budget time to work on them.
This involves not only defining
actions, but estimating how much time those actions will require. Then
you should allocate time specifically for the assigned individuals to
complete their actions. To do this, you're probably going to need to
readjust time commitments to other activities. I typically press my
clients to answer these questions: "If the assignment will require x
hours for this person, where do those hours come from? What is the
individual going to give up or delay to create that capacity?
you manage a client project without budgeting time? Of course not. Then
why would you approach working on crucial corporate goals and
initiatives without the same discipline?
Goal setting is a vital
part of any planning, but the effort shouldn't stop there. You need to
define specifically how you will achieve your goals. Consider the above
steps to ensure your future plans describe the necessary actions in
appropriate detail. For the plans you already have in place, let me
encourage you to revisit them to review their implementability. Do your
goals have a clear plan of action? If not, filling that void should be
the next step in your implementation process.
In 2015, Millennials (those 18-34 years old) became the largest generation
in the workplace. Five years from now, they'll comprise half of U.S.
workers. This dramatic shift, combined with the retirement of millions
of Baby Boomers, will have a profound effect on the A/E business in the
years ahead. Is your firm ready for the change?
Last week I conducted a workshop on how to develop younger workers
for leadership roles, with a particular emphasis on Millennials. In our
first breakout session, I asked participants to identify which
generational differences they found most challenging in their
workplaces. The discussion turned into a gripe session about the
perceived shortcomings of Millennials—their work ethic is lacking, their
methods of communication too shorthand, they have a sense of
It hardly sounded as if they were ready to give Millennials a larger
stake in their respective firms! Fortunately, over the course of the
day, the group seemed to gain a better understanding of what made their
younger colleagues tick, and even how those frustrating differences
might be leveraged to the firm's advantage. Since I know many of you
probably have some of the same concerns, I thought I'd share some of the
conclusions we discussed in our workshop:
Millennials will need to advance faster than previous generations, and that's just what they want. Millennials are distinguished by their ambition.
But most of my peers seem to think they have unrealistic expectations
about how quickly they can move up the organization chart. Shouldn't
they have to wait their turn like us Boomers did? Given the pace of this
workforce transformation, it's impractical to expect Millennials to
advance as slowly as we did. We're going to to have to fast-track their
development—for the sake of our companies.
Get ready: Some things you should consider in this regard:
Formalize your professional development process, spelling out what is
needed to advance from each level to the next. Clarify career paths.
Provide real-time coaching. Rethink the qualifications for advancement, especially in terms of required experience. Don't hold your young stars back because of arbitrary or outdated policies.
Millennials are more engaged than you think, but harder to hold on to. Given their reputation as job-hoppers, you would expect Millennials to exhibit lower levels of employee engagement. But the difference isn't substantial. According to Gallup, 29% of Millennials are engaged, compared to 33% for Boomers and 32% for Gen Xers. The most recent Modern Survey U.S. Workforce Study
found no statistical difference among the generations in terms of
engagement. Moreover, Millennials were much more likely to recommend
their employer to others or see a promising future there.
But that same study found that 36% of Millennials were currently
looking for another job elsewhere (compared to 30% for Gen Xers, 19% for
Boomers). A remarkable 91% expect to stay in their current job less than three years,
according to another study. Why the disconnect between engagement and
retention? It appears this generation's aforementioned ambition trumps
loyalty to their employer.
Get ready: Don't assume you can't retain your Millennial
employees; many firms are quite successful at it. And don't hold back on
investing in them because you think they won't stick around; that will
ensure they won't. More than any generation before, this one will force
you to earn their loyalty. Maybe that will push some workplace
improvements that are long overdue—and that will be a good thing.
Money talks to Millennials, but not as loudly as work flexibility.
A common complaint is that younger workers aren't as committed to their
jobs. The truth is that they take their careers very seriously, but not
at the cost of enjoying life. They believe it's possible to have
productive careers without sacrificing everything else (a lesson many
Boomers wish they had learned years ago). Thus Millennials give priority
to work/life balance and schedule flexibility, even if it means lower pay.
To call this evidence of a poor work ethic is misinterpreting their
motives. The research shows that Millennials are typically hard workers,
but not in the traditional 9-to-5 way. In fact, any real differences in
hours worked has been found to be more related to position than age. Give younger workers greater responsibility, and they usually rise to the occasion.
Get ready: Talk to your younger workers to learn how they
perceive your work environment and what changes they would like to see.
Be prepared to make more concessions on flextime and telecommuting where
it doesn't compromise teamwork or productivity. Review your paid
time-off and parental leave policies, considering reasonable changes in
response to employee feedback. In general, shift management focus to
achieving consistent outcomes versus enforcing routine methods.
Millennials can be effective team players, but perhaps not in the traditional sense.
They are the most connected generation ever, but it's arguable how well
they're actually communicating. Millennials are more prone to
collaborate than their older coworkers, but prefer doing it
electronically. The research is mixed regarding how well they function
as team players. Some of the confusion may result from a clash of
customs—they value teamwork but approach it differently. To get the full
benefit of their contributions, you may need to as well.
Get ready: Review your work processes in light of the
multigenerational dynamics present in your firm. Remember that
technology is changing the way we work, and Millennials are best able to
use it to its full advantage. Modify your work processes to fit your
people, not the other way around. Give some ground to the ways younger
workers are most productive; that will shape how work is done in the
future. But establish clear standards regarding what's expected of
everyone regarding teamwork.
Millennials want to do meaningful work, which you're probably already doing but don't express it very well.
Our younger coworkers are looking for more than money and success; they
want significance. Engineering, architecture, and environmental firms
do important work, but often do a poor job describing its significance
(for evidence, check your project descriptions). We serve people, help
communities, solve big problems, make life better. But too often we make
our accomplishments sound like little more than completing a technical
scope of work.
Get ready: Make a concerted effort to better articulate the real value of what your firm does, both externally and internally. Include meeting strategic and personal needs
in your work descriptions. Connect your work to the larger issues that
your projects are designed to address. Review your core values, vision,
and mission. Are they purposeful? Inspiring? Revise them if necessary.
Also get your firm involved in meaningful volunteer work, or at least
support those employees who do so on their own.
Millennials also need to learn the value of business.
This generation has been taught that profit is evil, businesses are
greedy, and capitalism is inherently unfair. Don't assume they'll be
inspired by your quest for business success. Of course, how Millennials
feel about business is often based on faulty or incomplete information.
For example, a disturbing 53% of Millennials view socialism favorably, but only 16% can accurately describe what it is.
Get ready: Teach younger workers the truth about the
positive contributions your business and others make to society (see the
previous point). Explain why profit is important, and not just to line
the pockets of firm owners. Share financial information openly,
which has many benefits including not suggesting that there's something
to hide. Give appropriate emphasis to nonfinancial performance metrics,
particularly those that resonate with employees (like client service,
quality, safety, etc.).
Millennials need more feedback, and they deserve it.
I think it's fair to say that this is probably the most coddled
generation yet. For example, note the hypersensitivity to being offended
that's emanating from college campuses these days. Likewise, they crave
regular affirmation, direction, and encouragement. Unfortunately, most
workplaces are notorious for the lack of such feedback. As evidence,
consider Gallup's finding that two-thirds of U.S. workers felt they had not received recognition on the job for the last 12 months!
Millennials (and everyone else) deserve better, and not just to soothe their sensitive egos. Research makes clear that providing more feedback and recognition significantly improves business performance. Positive reinforcement, in particular, is a powerful method for bringing out the best in your employees.
Get ready: Determine how to increase feedback and
recognition in your firm, with special emphasis given to Millennials.
Annual performance reviews aren't adequate. Consider monthly or quarterly reviews at a minimum. Develop a training process for bosses, as they are critically important in retaining staff. Assign mentors to your younger workers.
Millennials aren't as different from other workers as you probably think. There is a growing body of research that indicates that generational differences have been overstated. As with categorizing people based on personality type, the common stereotypes about generations are easily misapplied. One large meta-analysis
of generational studies concluded that there were too many
contradictions and inconsistencies to support many of the popular
assumptions. Other studies have found that all generations are looking for much the same things in their work.
That's not to suggest that significant differences don't exist—they
do. But in many cases they are misunderstood or temporary. Millennials,
just as the rest of us when we were that age, have some growing up to
do. Some of the differences that frustrate us now will subside as they
gain experience and take on more responsibilities in their job. Many of
the differences can be leveraged to your firm's advantage with a little
The Millennial Makeover is not something to fear, but it does demand
our attention. Successful A/E firms will need to adapt to the growing
influence of their younger workers. Business as usual won't cut it. Are