As design firms cope with the aftermath of the recession, the shape of professional practice is beginning to look quite different.

“The new normal” means embracing design technology in a big way (especially BIM), a laser-like focus on cost control, and the need to clearly articulate the value proposition of design. Of necessity, more is being done with less, and “change management” has become the phrase du jour. This is something of an oxymoron, in that it assumes that while change is pervasive, inevitable and unpredictable, it can still be managed effectively. Because all organizations must adapt in order to survive, change is an essential fact of life. The context in which we operate is all-encompassing, much more powerful than any single person, system, or organization. By definition, when a paradigm shifts, everyone is affected. While we may not be able to “control” change in the macro sense, it is certainly possible to exert some influence in pursuit of desirable outcomes. A good analogy is the sailor, who cannot command the winds, currents, or tides, but does have charge of the sails, rigging, and rudder. With the right equipment and a little skill, an experienced sailor can reach the desired destination despite the surprises encountered along the way.

Everyone knows that trying to predict the future is a fool’s errand, but that does not stop us from trying. Herewith, a few simple rules of the road that should come in handy when contemplating change-making in your organization:

1.     You are not as smart as you think you are.   No plan, no matter how well conceived, will be executed flawlessly, and even the most noble goals always have unintended consequences. Change beckons us to follow an unfamiliar path, so stay nimble, stay humble and be willing to be surprised. It will happen.

2.     Status quo is a myth. Physics teaches us that there is no such thing as a completely static object or system. Everything dynamic in nature, from the orbits of the planets to the dance of an electron around the nucleus of an atom.   The rapidity of change can be measured in different increments of time, from seconds to decades to centuries, so it’s not always easy to recognize when you’re in the middle of it (the “boiled frog phenomenon”). Whether you know it or not, change is happening all around you, all the time.

3.    Beware of the tyranny of the rear view mirror. Most people measure the future by comparing it to the past. By its nature, change challenges the status quo, which can be discomforting. However, if we look at the future only through a rear view mirror, everything we see will be colored by what’s familiar. Truly new ideas are, by definition, surprising. They are outside of our comfort zones. Effective leaders are not afraid to explore unfamiliar territory, because that’s where the really great ideas are hiding out.

4.    Beware “success ruts”. Success is a self-reinforcing loop. Getting good at something makes us feel good, so we keep doing the same things over and over (and hopefully better and better).  The result is that there is a strong tendency to repeat past patterns, and the more we repeat them, the stronger the tendency becomes. This can be useful you’re trying to groove your golf swing, but all too often it prevents us from considering ideas that are truly fresh and innovative. The tendency to repeat past success reinforces predictability, and the familiar can be the enemy of innovation.

5.    The two basic drivers of change are “fear” and “opportunity”. Of these, fear is the more pervasive. There is a natural tendency to be afraid of failure (even though it is through failure that we learn many valuable things). Because of this fear, we are often hesitant to try something new and different. Want to maintain your stellar GPA?  Take a course you know you’ll do well in. On the other hand, there are always “early adopters” willing to try something because it is new and different. Invest in your early adopters; it will pay big dividends.

6.    Change is generally top down or bottom up. Either can work. We are all familiar with top-down change: the boss says to do something, so we do it. Obedience is a time-tested and effective change management method. For some organizations, such as the military, top-down management is absolutely essential. Bottom-up change is less predictable yet can be even more powerful. A good example of this would the “Arab Spring” which has toppled more than one entrenched regime (and often with unpredictable results). Quick change generally comes from the top, whereas long-lasting change tends to come from the bottom.  Organizations need both kinds.

7.     Act as if you cannot fail. We often behave as if we hope that things will work out for the best, but all too often hedge our bets.  “Let’s give this a try and see what happens” is hardly a convincing rallying cry. By contrast, when Cortez landed on the shores of Mexico, he made it very clear that he was fully committed to the success of the mission:  he simply burned the boats, making it impossible to return to Spain.  When leading change in your firm, sometimes “burning your boats” is the fastest road to success.

8.    Listen, learn, and lead: People in organizations need leadership, but it has to be the right kind of leadership. They need to understand what they are being asked to do, why they are being asked to do it, and they need to know how to get it done. People perform best when they are fully plugged in, and they often have great ideas to offer. When driving change in your organization, keep the three L’s in mind:  listen, learn, and then lead. Without buy-in, you’ll be going nowhere fast.

9.    Have a plan, but make sure it’s a framework, not a box. Plans are great, and some of them actually work. However, no one can foresee the future with 20/20 vision. A well  considered plan, no matter how cleverly designed or thoroughly vetted, will have to contend with unanticipated consequences.  Good sailors know how to adjust to changing winds and tides. It’s OK to make occasional conscious deviations from the plan as long as the basic principles are held true.  

10.    Demographics is destiny.  Sooner or later, the current generation of leaders will fade away and the next generation will take over.  It’s a mistake to hold on too long, but also a mistake to leave the stage too early. Leadership transition is inevitable, and the true mark of an effective leader is to do the “downfield blocking” that will prepare successors to make the most of their circumstances (which will certainly be different from today’s conditions). Each generation gets a turn at bat…but only one turn.

11.    Success looks different to each generation.  What’s good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander. New leaders will come of age under different circumstances and will respond to different influences. Tastes in music, literature, and clothing will change, technology will transform work processes, and politics will make strange bedfellows. If you find yourself struggling with this, just remember the words of the old standby:  “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?  What’s the matter with kids today?”   They are different for a reason.

12.    When choosing new leaders, attitude is more important that aptitude. New skills can be learned and new technologies mastered, but it’s much harder to change fundamental values like honesty, integrity, collaboration, and devotion to client service. If the core values are in place, the rest will follow.  When choosing your successors, judge by deeds, not words. (As they say in Hollywood, “action is character”.)  

13.    Caterpillars become butterflies whether they like it or not. Let’s face it: change can be scary. It takes us out of our comfort zone. It thrusts us into the unknown. It asks us to depart from things we know work well, and to adopt new approaches that run the risk of failure. That said, it helps to remember that human beings are wired to be successful. When caterpillars morph into butterflies, they really have no choice in the matter — nature just takes over. It’s a matter of survival.

14.     You’re not as smart as you think you are.  This one bears repeating. Another way of saying this is that “all of us are smarter than some of us”. Smart leaders trust their people.   A well-led team is extraordinarily powerful.  You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to be successful…you just have to just figure out how to take full advantage of all the talent at your disposal. Provide the means and methods for people to shine, and let them surprise you with how smart they really are.

At the end of the day, the most important and difficult change that firms face is how to handle leadership transition. It helps to remember that the future will not look like the past (thank goodness) and that yesterday’s successes may hold the seeds to tomorrow’s failures (and vice versa).  History gives us many examples of smart people who made dumb decisions…but also many examples of how learning from abject failure led to spectacular success. Bottom line: it’s reasonable to be afraid of change, but also useless. Get your people ready for what’s coming next. You’ll know you’ve done a good job when they outshine you.

Scott Simpson is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council and a member of its executive board. He is a Richard Upjohn Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. With James P. Cramer, he co-authored the books How Firms Succeed and The Next Architect.