A destabilization of older markets yields new zones of opportunity

This year’s circumstances could change your life. All around us, inside and outside professional practices, it’s a new game. Basic principles of acceleration are almost always in play. In architecture and design, we are witnessing the destabilization of older markets (and their tired business models) and we are watching never before seen zones of opportunity.

Success in this new era is no accident. Leadership success and growth on a global scale is what this issue of DesignIntelligence is about. Many of the firms featured are heading toward a new vision that includes new entrepreneurship in professional services. Characteristics of these firms include:

  1. They know their territory well and they differentiate their value proposition to the locale
  2. They avoid the brain freeze of future shock
  3. They take time and patience to construct relevant new conceptual base(s)
  4. They extinguish the inertia caused by old-school practitioners who are opposed to change
  5. They build support among the kindred spirited entrepreneurial professionals in their firms and community

I’m often reminded that the word “crisis” in Chinese has two meanings: danger and opportunity. The transformation underway in our industry has both possibilities. Leadership decides when and where to take action. In some ways, all that we have known in the past, including strategic business models in professional services, is somewhat wrong or even significantly wrong today.

This realization reminds us how easy it is to be blindsided by change. Therefore, we should not think that everything we see, know, and assume is an indisputable fact. I once heard Michael Michalko, author of Creative Thinkering, speak on creativity. He led off with a short test. He said, “How do you spell silk?” Everyone knew of course in a split second. Then he then asked us to say the word silk five times. We all did. Then he asked us a question, “what to cows drink?” Most of in the audience quickly said “milk.” After a short uncomfortable pause, people started laughing. We sometimes — too quickly — reach conclusions without thinking much at all. We are creatures of our own habit patterns. Moreover, not all of our habits are correct and not all of them positive. Yet they control us.

The good news is that professional practice leaders can successfully negotiate new behavior, change paradigms, and make significant gains in their achievement objectives including global growth, success and satisfaction.

Know the Territory

Cultural characteristics are different in each country where firms practice. Achieving a good working knowledge in the culture of China today will not help you so much in Brazil. Global firms are learning everything they can to understand countries and their politics. Moreover, they deploy an intelligent two-way public relations program. They acquaint themselves with business networks that possess desirable power, authority, and action. These networks know local laws and cultural circumstances that can lead to sustainable success.

Let’s say for example that a firm has a practice in health care design and that they want to expand this service to new countries. Healthcare is one of the fast moving zones of professional practice today. However, it is not always possible to run this as a successful business experiences in all countries. Is it exportable knowledge? Can the firm make money?

It is important for firms wanting to grow in specific market segment to learn and then apply all that there is to know about that sector and about its networks within the territory of focus. Saying “no” is a strategic consideration. It doesn’t always have to be “go – go.”

Avoid the Brain Freeze of Future Shock

While it is seductive to do otherwise, successful firms must focus first on today. Leading firms keep an eye on the horizon without disconnecting with the present. They don’t get so immersed in planning that they forget and neglect the present. Firm staff need to function in the here and now and they require attention and support today from leadership.

A strong vision will motivate the entire workforce. However, it is also true that leaders with a preoccupation for planning and inventing the future must balance this with both feet on the ground and maintain their quarterbacking spirit for winning today — in this moment.

Sometimes too much planning can lead to paralysis and indecision. Other times it can unlock the potential for exceptional growth and prosperity. Find the leadership balance that appreciates today and also looks to tomorrow. It is a balancing act characteristic of today’s successful global practices in architecture and engineering.

Take Time to Construct a Differentiated Conceptual Base

Global service firms are changing and evolving. Smart firms have a clear understanding of how to change as well as what to change. Strategic plans are only as good as their implementation and this requires behavior change that can be motivated by visualizing the evolving conceptual base. Firms are changing both in incremental terms but also in radical ways as well. Some adapting is timely and can be accomplished fast. Some change is imperceptible on a day to day basis.

Knowing the cultural footprint (in the Design plus Enterprise Model of finance, marketing, professional services, and operations) is important because culture trumps strategy. Ideas that are antithetical to the firm’s values will most certainly wither. Some change is caused by crisis. Other change is caused by vision and policy with enforcement follow through. But regardless, change needs to be in alignment with the conceptual base of the evolving firm.

Extinguish Inertia – Fighting Entropy

There are architects and engineers who settle for rhetorical change. They talk a good game but then they don’t deliver. They are the opposite of what they say they are. They promise much and deliver little. Usually it is the clients and junior staff who recognize this long before the principals, who are often in denial. On the other hand, successful firms challenge this behavior with scrupulous honesty. They practice meritocracy. They are alert to talent that is enterprising in nature.

Successful firms that seek to be innovative in both design delivery and practice find ways to extinguish the inertia in their culture. I don’t know the attribution, but I’ve never forgotten the quote: “Life is not about waiting for the sun to shine. Life is about learning to dance in the rain.” Leadership is about seeing things as they can be and taking actions to that otherwise prevent the possibilities. It’s also about stamina, not giving in to fatigue.

Build Support of Like Minded Leaders

Great practice leaders have shared their secret to success. They say that what they read and who they spend quality time with, is what creates the recipe for professional practice success. These two sources reinforce the culture of health in a growing and relevant firm. Leaders who possess self-respect, affection for others, and rapport with other high-performing professionals in their organization, are those who will most often create the climate in their firms for future success.

Pluralistic and complex questioning of status quo is important around every firm board room table. A mix of ideas with quality feedback is what real leaders thrive on. The problems associated with innovation and change are common to every professional practice and should be discussed and then followed up with appropriate actions.

Is there a science to success in global cross border practice? Yes. As told to the Design Futures Council in La Jolla, California, the late Warren Bennis said that the model for truly innovative organizations — at a global scale, may actually be a derivative of the scientific model. As scientists seek and discover truths, so too should professional design practices. They must seek and discover their own truths — carefully, honestly, imaginatively, and courageously.

James P. Cramer is the chairman and co-founder of the Design Futures Council. He is chairman of the Greenway Group and author of three books on professional practice leadership.