More than ever, designers’ skills are needed at the strategic planning table. These skills make for more effective strategic plans and stronger firms.

Surveys of the design and construction industry typically report that about 70 percent of firms have a published strategic plan either in place or in process. This percentage strongly correlates to firm size. Once firms grow beyond 50 associates, the likelihood of their having a plan increases. Further, it is large firms that tend to enlist the assistance of outside consultants to help develop or revisit their plan.

Is this industry data representative of architecture firms? The design profession is not typically known for its business savvy. As a sociologist for the architecture profession, Robert Gutman saw the practice of architecture as “a strong art but a weak profession.” Do Gutman’s words ring true in today’s culture? Do architects need to sling a business degree to our holsters or do we already possess skills that can give us a business advantage?

My two-part investigation sought to determine the answer to these questions and more. The first part of the research uncovered both qualitative and quantitative data about the nature of strategic planning in architectural practice. The second part explored the development and use of an alternative strategic planning methodology — a methodology developed by designers for designers.

Survey Data

An online survey was conducted of 65 architecture firms across the state of North Carolina. Of these participants, 38 percent responded that they currently and formally do strategic planning as defined below, which is considerably less than the industry’s 70 percent average. (Of the remainder, 49 percent indicated they did not formally conduct strategic planning, 10 percent did not do any strategic planning, and 3 percent did not currently do strategic planning).

Strategic planning: An organization’s process of defining its direction and making decisions on allocating its resources to pursue this strategy, including its capital and people. While there are various techniques or methodologies utilized in strategic planning, strategic planning is occurring formally if there is a written plan so that it can be communicated, executed, and progress can be monitored periodically.

Yet the profession does share similarities with the A/E/C industry as a whole. The larger the firm, the more likely it is to conduct strategic planning. Likewise, the larger the firm, the more likely it has enlisted an outside consultant to assist with strategic planning. One could argue that these survey results do not prove the architectural profession lags behind the industry. There is a possibility that industry surveys are skewed toward a population of large firms, unlike the population of architectural organizations that is dominated in number by small firms.

Can firm size be the major determinate or explanation for not conducting strategic planning? A look at survey responses from firms not doing strategic planning suggests that size is a major factor.

The No. 1 reason firms said they do not do strategic planning was “No need, firm is small.” This demonstrates a level of misunderstanding, since any organization, regardless of size, should have a strategy. The second leading reason was “It’s in my head.” This response speaks to the informal manner that many small firms take. The third most cited response was “Marketing plan and financial goals already exist.” This response indicates a misunderstanding about strategic management since a marketing plan and financial goals are narrower in scope than a strategic plan. Other common responses included “Too expensive to hire a consultant” and “Not enough time.” One respondent was completely forthcoming and responded “Other: No good excuse.”

The survey question, “What else do you feel is relevant to architecture firms and strategic management practices which might assist in future efforts to support leaders on these issues?” solicited a range of comments. The following are representative of reoccurring responses to this question:

“I believe architects in general need greater education in this area of strategic management practices. We have learned what we know about strategic planning through a business coach in past years. In general, I do not believe architects are taught basic business practices in school, and we are not typically exposed to management practices or have education opportunities (except perhaps large corporate offices) that increase our awareness and knowledge.”

“It is critical that an outside consultant fully understand the business of design and architecture. I believe that strategic planning for a design firm is vastly different from other service industries or businesses where products are generated. Many consultants do not have a grasp of that difference.”

The casual approach taken by small firms suggests a lack of understanding of strategic planning and its benefits. Additionally, practitioners of small firms express a need for a methodology that speaks to their particular business demands. Yet even large firms have room for improving their strategic planning practices, as the following results demonstrate.

In the survey, 25 of the 65 firms responded that they do strategic planning formally and currently.

The findings are generally representative of firms doing strategic planning in terms of who is developing the plan, the time frame of the plan, and the frequency of revisiting the plan. While a majority of respondent firms are familiar with the components that make up a plan, results suggest that execution and tracking of the plan presents an opportunity for improvement. Most interesting of the results is the large number of firms not using a particular methodology. A methodology acts as a guide starting with initial development through execution and monitoring of the plan.

The survey’s high participation rate is attributable to the personal phone calls to firm leaders prior to survey administration. Survey responses not only came from firm leaders, but this sample is also representative of the profession. Result distributions for this sample are indicative of surveys conducted at a larger scale like those conducted by the American Institute of Architects.

The survey data, coupled with the comments, suggest that Gutman’s observation of architectural practice holds true today. Additionally, the data clearly shows several needs:

  • Firms need a defined methodology and prefer one specific to design firms.
  • Firm leaders see a need for education and assistance with strategic management.
  • Small firms have the most need for education, assistance, and a streamlined methodology.

If design firms were given a methodology created specifically for them, what would be their response? If this design firm-specific methodology were streamlined for small firm use, could they embrace it? What could be gained by applying design thinking to strategic planning?

With the needs of small design firms identified, the investigation turned to the development of an alternative strategic planning methodology.

Strategic Planning For Designers

In their book, The Ultimate Competitive Advantage: Secrets of Continually Developing a More Profitable Business Model, Donald Mitchell and Carol Coles brought to light several findings from their studies of 100 CEOs and their organizations. They found that companies that continuously re-evaluated and created new strategies were consistent industry leaders. Strategic planning is a continuous process: The more often business models are re-evaluated and created, the more likely a firm is to excel. This is no different from the iterative process designers use. Now the objective is to design a firm.

Thomas Fisher is dean of the School of Design at the University of Minnesota. In his book In the Scheme of Things: Alternative Thinking on the Practice of Architecture, he writes: “In some sense, the architectural profession, like many of the professions, is in a place where we have to now start thinking about designing a practice. The practice is as much a design problem as doing a building.”

Thus, a new methodology provides a redefined process to do just as Fisher suggests: Designers can use many of the same skills to design their practice that they rely on to design buildings.

To create a methodology that correlates to how designers work, a new methodology has to be visual, iterative, and collaborative. No matter how or where a designer begins, there is an iterative process — a back and forth between sketching, drawing in 2-D, and modeling in 3-D. What makes this a powerful process is the constant visual analysis, reworking of ideas, and producing many alternative solutions. The process converts an idea or concept to a physical model. The new methodology incorporates this same process. It is a framework for converting the concepts of the firm’s strategy and business focus into a physical model. The physical model enables visualization that allows for ease of rework, collaboration, understanding of relationships, and continual learning. This encourages innovation and the creation of alternative strategies.

Is this a departure from traditional or conventional strategic planning? Yes, it is in several respects but not in others. A comparison helps delineate the two approaches.

Both the conventional and the new methodologies are multi-step processes that produce a product. The steps within a conventional approach are made up of a series of analytical exercises. The objective of this conventional process is to produce a strategic plan. The plan is then monitored and evaluated to ensure actual performance meets the intended vision.

Unlike the conventional method, the objective of the new methodology created for designers is to produce alternative strategies, the best of which becomes the strategic plan. The primary focus of the new methodology is on the process, not the product. The conventional approach is text-intensive; the new methodology is visual. While both methodologies consist of proven concepts and processes, the designers method builds on the best business analytical tools and adds design techniques. This is not a suggestion to abandon conventional practices — not yet.

New Methodology

The first step in the new designers methodology is to define and assess the current state of the firm’s business. This begins with modeling the major business elements using a framework or conceptual structure as depicted in Figure 5. These elements are both internal and external to the firm so that the model reflects the value that is created and delivered by the firm. Analytical exercises are applied to the model, including a market analysis and a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis, before an evaluation or needs assessment is performed.

With a needs assessment in hand, the next step in the methodology begins — creating alternatives that respond to these identified needs. Further consideration leads to a preferred model for the firm’s future. The last step of the methodology includes implementing the action required to transform the model into reality. Establishing a firm’s financial, marketing, and operating goals is a part of this implementation step. Monitoring results and continuous assessment of the business environment presents opportunities to revisit and repeat the cycle.

This is all good in theory, but is it sound in practice? Two teams were established to assist with the development and testing of this new methodology. A cross-disciplinary committee comprised of representatives from business school, architecture school, and professional practice provided oversight and feedback. A second team, a practitioner panel, provided input into the methodology creation. Several firms represented by this practitioner panel tested the proposed methodology.

Testing revealed ways to improve the proposed methodology and made interesting observations.

Given a choice between an off-the-shelf suit or a custom tailored suit, most people would choose a tailored suit. Not surprisingly, the same was true for the designers methodology. Given a choice between the conventional approach and the new methodology, practitioners chose the methodology that incorporates design techniques largely due to the benefits of a visual approach. Some of the most cited benefits include:

  • A visual approach is less intimidating.
  • A visual approach allows designers to relate to the topic better and to assimilate concepts and terminology faster.
  • Modeling the business strategies facilitates communication and makes collaboration easier.
  • Like filling a role of trace paper, the physical model promotes creating many alternatives and enables faster scenario planning.

One of the most interesting observations from the testing originated not from a designer but from an individual with a business background. Not formally trained as a visual thinker, this firm’s business manager commented, “I get it. This makes more sense.”

In addition to demonstrating clear benefits, the designers methodology directly addresses the needs identified from the survey results as follows:

  • The methodology incorporates design techniques.
  • The model/framework was created for the business of design firms.
  • The how-to guide takes users step by step through the methodology
  • The guide includes terminology, exercises, references, and examples to ensure quick assimilation of information.
  • The designers methodology incorporates the most essential elements of strategic planning.  Optional elements are clearly delineated in the guide to save time.
  • The how-to guide is graphically intensive to allow quick progression through each phase. 

The greatest potential this methodology enables is the ability to innovate how we do business. As designers, we create and innovate as a matter of practice. We are trained for this. Yet, as one practitioner noted, “Not many of us are creative in our strategic plans.” Can you imagine what would happen if we brought that rigor, creativity, and sense of play to designing our firms?

Duel or Duo?

With so much talk these days of the new normal, now is the time to challenge convention and rethink how we conduct business. For consultants and firm leaders responsible for leading the way and communicating the firm strategy, the most effective approach is one that goes beyond a terminology translation. The approach needs to relate to the individual; it needs to draw on how that individual works and communicates. If we are working with visual people, we need a visual solution. It’s true that designers tend to be visual learners who process information by seeing. As was attested by a firm’s business manager, a visual approach is a powerful tactic beyond the design community, as well. Visual learners are estimated to be 65 percent of the population. Challenging convention may have a broader impact than you think.

In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink popularized the idea of the left-brain versus the right-brain approach. As he pointed out, it is human nature to see life in contrasting pairs, but “We need both approaches in order to craft fulfilling lives and build productive, just societies.” Using our whole mind produces better results. This is true for strategic planning, as this investigation proved.

Conventional strategic planning maximizes analytical thinking. Yet this is only part of what successful strategic planning requires. Strategic planning requires creativity, innovative ideas, and the ability to recognize patterns that lead to opportunities. While a business degree might help, more important is the appreciation for business savvy and the ability to collaborate.

The organizations with the best strategic plans are those that marry analytics with creativity. It’s simply not a duel between strategist and designer but a duo. How will you choose to approach your firm’s strategic plan?

Amy Jo Denton holds graduate degrees in architecture and business. Denton is a marketing coordinator for LandDesign, where she leverages her 12 years of financial industry experience in combination with her design education. An associate AIA member, Denton participates in AIA activities including the Mentorship Exchange Program. She conducted the research described above as part of her 2011 Master of Architecture thesis.