To remain competitive, design professionals need to align their thoughts and skills to contemporary practice needs.

In a recent New York Times column titled “The Start-Up of You,” Tom Friedman wrote, “What is most striking when you talk to employers today is how many of them have used the pressure of the recession to become even more productive by deploying more automation technologies, software, outsourcing, robotics… .” He went on to say that LinkedIn co-founder Reid Garrett Hoffman, one of the premier starter-uppers in Silicon Valley, has a book coming out called The Start-Up of You, in which he argues that professionals need an entirely new mindset and skill set to compete.

We architects are professionals, albeit a very particular kind. As design professionals who create facilities for others’ habitation, use, and enjoyment, we need new mindsets and skill sets to compete.

Societal Role

We need a new mindset regarding where we fit, not only in our communities and our countries but in the world. Because the world in which we work has changed and continues to change, we must adjust our thinking regarding what we do and how we do it.

For centuries, powerful individuals representing governments and their institutions commissioned architects: pharaohs, emperors, monarchs, and their royal followers. Later, it was popes, cardinals, ministers, and other religious leaders. Later still, presidents and vice presidents, prime ministers and premiers, CEOs and other organizational and institutional leaders, then individuals of every kind and stripe, from homeowners needing guidance on projects ranging from the apocryphal back porch to multimillion-dollar mansions. Clients today run the gamut in terms of size and budget, project complexity, and location. And they are all feeling the effects of world-wide change – in governance, culture, communications, finance, and access to information.

The idea of thinking globally but acting locally, initially ascribed to political thinking, has become a necessity for us all. Understanding the world and the way it affects the way we live and work leads to better information and, ultimately, more choices regarding design ideas, management theories, emerging markets, technological developments, and available resources.


You need to be attuned to the pace of decision-making and remain informed about decisions that affect you as early as possible. At the very least, you must be able to respond quickly. At best, you will find a way to get marketing-related information sufficiently early in the process to be purposefully proactive. This means getting out in front with regard to how decisions about facilities are being made, who is involved in making them, and how and when they are being made. It could mean learning to access information differently. It could mean more extensive research to learn enough about the market sectors in which you want to be active to become one of the decision-makers (or a trusted advisor to them). It could mean developing new knowledge or skills, and possibly expertise, applicable to specific markets.

Human Resources

We are moving toward a worldwide market for human resources. People have become more mobile than ever, and younger generations are seeking different work-life balances, and technology has made it possible for more work to be done remotely. Develop skills in accessing and processing personnel information, communicating electronically (including via social media), and dealing with junior professionals in ways that respect their personal views while continuing to meeting the firm’s changing needs.

Firm Organization

Changes in management theory, extended to practice and in generational lifestyle differences, have resulted in new directions in organizational structure and in the importance of team effectiveness. Organizations have become more horizontal and less vertical, moving toward a flatter, leaner structure. Although the span of control may not have changed much from ratios that date to the Roman legions, the structure and relationships within which control is expressed and implemented have. Additionally, as projects and the firms commissioned to execute them have become larger and more complex, design organizations have moved as well, from project teams to studios or departments, then to two-, three-, and sometimes four-dimensional matrix organizations in which market sectors, disciplines, geographies, and project delivery functions intersect. The requisite mindset is to understand those organizational relationships; the skill set involves creation of what in the military would be called command-and-control structures appropriate to new organizational structures.

Project Delivery

As a firms grow beyond a single person with no employees, project work will be executed in and by teams, sometimes teams as small as two people but frequently much larger teams – teams of architects, designers and technical staff, and/or teams of architects, engineers and/or various specialized consultants. When teams execute the work, a required new mindset is that team effectiveness is critical to success. New skills are then required to establish the parameters for and  monitor team effectiveness.

Going beyond the architectural team itself, a new mindset will be required to consider and employ collaborative, interdisciplinary teams, where integration of new people and processes is viewed as providing better access to clients, more effective performance, and increased project quality. Going further still, a mindset to understand and appreciate the likely further development of integrated project delivery would have a significant effect on the essential nature of practice, integrating building contractors as part of the design/documentation team.

Although some have already embraced new technology fully, for others a new mindset is required to understand and embrace the use of technology in improving and enhancing project delivery and, ultimately, construction effectiveness and cost control. Initially thought of simply as a means to streamline project documentation, building information modeling (BIM) has become understood as a means to facilitate interdisciplinary coordination, increase construction efficiency, and assure better project cost control. New skill sets include not only the ability to operate BIM systems (or perhaps monitor the work of others who do) but employ those systems to their fullest extent.

New Technology

Technology is essential to overall success. Project and firm-wide financial management and information systems, BIM (for design, documentation, coordination, and cost control), internal and external communications, record keeping, building energy and environmental monitoring and control: Technology must be embraced to the extent that it benefits the firm. And, of course, the requisite technology skills are needed for implementation and use.


What kind of mindset will be required to compete in the arena of design? We are not talking about style; we are talking about the creation of buildings that go beyond the Vitruvian elements of commodity, firmness, and delight to address matters of human dignity, health, interaction, and effectiveness; community and environmental ecology and responsibility; building performance (evidence-based design) and overall quality of life.

How should we prepare ourselves to compete? What should we look for in those we choose to help us? What will we require of them and what opportunities will we provide for them? What kind of organization must we develop to deliver the best possible results? How can design quality be made part of the value proposition for clients? Such questions go way beyond the oft-cited, perhaps apocryphal, Get the job! They go to a holistic way of thinking about the best way to practice in the future.


Whether firms rise or fall, thrive or fail, will depend on their leadership. Leadership is a top-down function. What is leadership? Although there are many definitions, a good one is that leaders articulate coherent visions for the future and then motivate others to help achieve them. What kind of mindset will be required for the leaders of the future? How will they be able to articulate their visions? More than anything else, they must not only be open to new ideas, they must seek them. They must create and support organizations and environments that foster the development of new ideas, and they must encourage and reward those that develop them.

What new mindsets and skill sets will comprise the start-up of you?

Peter Piven is the principal consultant for Peter Piven Management Consultants in Philadelphia. He helps professional practices in the areas of organization, strategic planning, valuation, ownership and leadership transition, marketing, project delivery, financial management, mergers and acquisitions, and senior-level search. He is a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.