What we talk about is who we are

While I have no knowledge of the source, I have heard forever — I think probably most of us have — that “we are what we measure.” I would not argue this point; it in itself is a topic worthy of exploration in the context of our world of design enterprise — but my topic here is based significantly on an alteration of the theory. I believe also (maybe more) that we are what we talk about. Measuring may indeed be part of the conversation but there is much more to it.

In now over four decades of experience in almost every role of leadership in a growing, dynamic and diverse design firm, I have witnessed — and often co-conspired — in the formation and evolution of a variety of organizational structures designed to advance organizational Purpose and performance. Through all of this evolution, and notwithstanding the growing complexities of expanding geographies, expanding services and expanding markets, I have continued to believe that — at the core of the concept — however we may structure our organizations — success in design enterprise relies on the balance of three essential elements: marketing, operations and practice. So simple to understand and so hard to build, this has remained nevertheless the touchstone for me in the formation of my voice in leadership for most of my career; my sacred triad. The simple part: marketing — all about winning the work; operations — all about getting the work done; and practice — all about the work itself. The hard part, as I have witnessed forever, is how the pervasive urgency of marketing and relentless gravity of operations conspire to diminish if not extinguish the will and the apparent wherewithal to invest in this elusive thing I call practice. And if that is not enough, there is the ironic propensity in the best of times to act as if we don’t need it and the worst of times as if we can’t afford it.

The means and methods which were the standard of my early career are today so primitive that I am forced to remind myself that these things actually occurred in my lifetime. And yet, while these changes are so dramatic, I see almost every day the persistent investment of enormous time and energy debating and managing the same issues we debated and managed 40 years ago. We remain consumed forever it seems by eternal discussions of the pitch and even more the process of practice as if somewhere in this ritual resides the elusive key to what we seek to be. I submit that we are talking too much and too often about the wrong things.

Caveats and Concessions

In round numbers, about one-third of typical design enterprise revenues is consumed by overhead expense. Give or take a point or two, one-third of that third goes to everything we must do to find and win work — “marketing.” With very rare exception, the balance of our budgeted overhead goes to everything we must do to run a business and get the work done — financial services, human resources, legal services, compliance, practice management, facilities, technology…the infinite and ever- expanding array of things commonly mashed up as “operations.” We budget for these things. We plan for these things. We structure our organizations around these things. And therefore we talk about these things every day. Ironically, I further submit, is the simple fact that we have become so conditioned to the unrelenting urgency and gravity of these variables that we abdicate talking about the work itself except by ad hoc agenda. We don’t budget or plan or structure our organizations to actively invest and lead this thing I label as “practice.”

I have no quarrel with those who point out that we are doing work today that was impossible 40 years ago. I certainly have no issue with those who point out the advancing intelligence of our work whether in terms of environmental or human impact. But, at the end of the day — as a profession — I see endless conversations around quality, productivity, technology, accountability, compliance, standards, structure, policy, methodology and so on; all vital and fundamental variables in the equation of successful design enterprise but arguably none yet yielding little if any form of enduring and conclusive benefit in the form of prosperity or authority beyond maintenance of our status quo.

I hasten to further concede that successful design enterprise indeed requires deliberate, informed and persistent attention to the management of resources and risk in the routine conduct of a business process replete in conditions we often can neither predict nor control. This has always been true and these conditions are arguably more acute than they have ever been. I am intimately familiar with what it takes every day in the form management and leadership at many levels to maintain let alone grow a design firm. My long-standing conviction remains however that the focus of all our overhead resources on marketing and operations at best secures a platform based on the way things are; and I will assert that there is little evidence — at least in my experience or observation — that it will advance us to where we wish it to be. I therefore continue to offer the challenge to imagine what might happen if we could find a way to consistently carve out just a fraction of our overhead resources and claim it for the formation of a new and enduring conversation about practice.

Subverting Sinek

While we may all see things through the lens of our own preconceptions, when I first heard Simon Sinek describe his Golden Circle concept, not only was I inspired, along with a few million others, an idea began to take form in my mind which seemed to offer a parallel construct by which to define these convictions I have tried so long to better articulate.

Briefly, Sinek refers to his discovery as the Golden Circle. He declares that everyone knows what they do and that most people can explain how they do it, but that very few people or organizations can articulate why they do what they do. By “why”, Sinek is referring to: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?

He goes on to suggest that most of us communicate and act from outside of the circle to in, because it is generally easier to go from the clearest thing — the what, to the how and then, perhaps, to the fuzziest thing — the why. The difference, he declares, is that inspired leaders and inspired organizations all think, act and communicate from the “inside out”; and he has the research to prove it. In other words, these individuals and companies start with the why and everything else they do follows from the inside out.

My adaptation of the concept did not occur as epiphany as much as evolution. Like many, I found the “How-What-Why” compelling from the get go but it took a while for me to process the concept and judge how it might expand my own “concept narrative.” Ultimately, I determined it didn’t just expand it; it more or less replaced it. I began to associate marketing with the essential fact of being about what we do. It is the understanding of what we are good at, what we can produce and deliver and how that can be most effectively connected to what the market needs. I made the even easier step to seeing that operations, by my definition, is about how we do the work we win. It is the design, implementation and application of the aforementioned massive structure that supports the complex processes by which we get the work done. And that left me with practice and the question of why.

I had not previously ever consciously connected my advocacy of practice discourse to starting with why but as I reflected on issues which I have submitted, this final piece fell conveniently into place. From time to time, I have teed up impact, prosperity, recognition, authority, legacy, power, community, citizenship and other dimensions of human motivation and experience as means of stimulating practice discourse and corresponding strategic shifts. These are provocative topics. Some have withered to be sure but some have germinated into profoundly important dimensions and distinctions in the culture and the voice of the firm which has embraced this construct. Still I have come to see that beneath these is indeed a more root definer and that is a deep dive into why. Why do we? Why should we? Why must we? Why can’t we? Why not?

So with apologies to Simon, I offer my Golden Circle v2.0.

I have invested more reflection on the efficacy of this final extrapolation of the theory than it is practical (or likely useful) to detail in this writing. While I am arguably a bit too preoccupied by such thinking, the value may be that I now believe it to be true because I have seen it work. I have seen the rise in confidence and in turn spirit and in turn ideas and in turn impact that conversation and debate about why we do what we do can stimulate. I have seen the influence of asking why we do something on reevaluating how we do it. I’ve seen the discussion of why we are not doing something change what we do.

My conclusion and my challenge is to elevate the value and therefore the time we devote to conversations about practice throughout our firms and profession. In the end, practice is about the effective leadership of discourse on the question wherein I believe resides the keys to our purpose as organizations, to fulfillment as individual creative people and, moreover, to a more promising future for a profession being rapidly commoditized according to increasing opinion. I believe we must find a way to build this discourse into the structure and culture and pro forma of design enterprise. I believe it is vital to our survival.

A new conversation

escribed by TED as a “simple but powerful model for inspirational leadership…’” a discussion of why and the translation of that discussion into actionable initiatives and strategies in practice can nevertheless seem to be a formidable undertaking. There is the often prevailing sentiment that the concept is too academic; all esoteric “talkitecture” (as I have heard before). In any case, it can be an intimidating task to first design a plan for injecting yet more conversation into our overcrowded schedules and over taxed obligations. Urgencies will not decline. Gravity will not diminish. The commitment requires absolute conviction, resolve, courage and unrelenting optimism for its value to a better future condition.

It is in the persistent exploration, debate and discovery of why we do what we do wherein purpose becomes more than just a slogan. Requiring ourselves to articulate why gives rise to insight and inspiration that can provide us new relevance, new confidence and new authority. It is my belief that it is in this conversation where real opportunity for distinction lies. It is the foundation of authenticity. It can galvanize vision. It can bond leadership. It can define a brand. It can and will influence the what and the how.

If we remember Sinek’s reference to “working from the inside out,” it is obvious the extent to which exploration of why can be a major strategic influence on how and what. Today I would submit that many design firms are venturing into areas after thorough debate over what they should be doing or what the competition is doing without considering the more profound question of whether it comports with why they are doing what they do in the first place. This is not to say that market based strategies are not valid; they are vital. But they should be filtered through our why lens. If our why includes a major dimension of social impact, a market strategy based on opportunities in high-end real estate may not fit our purpose. If our why includes recognition for iconic design, rising demand for parking structures may not be relevant. If why includes changing the world, then what might need to consider policy as much as project.

There are infinite dimensions to the question of why: we want to have impact; we want to be famous; we want to be rich (maybe scratch that one); we want to create something; we want the experience of the stimulation of the creative environment. Why is not absolute for a person or an organization; it changes as the world changes, as people change, as the organization itself changes in time. The value is not in just the answer to the question though; it is in the conversation itself — a conversation we have suppressed too long under the weight of prevailing urgencies and growing gravity. It can be tricky to begin. This conversation requires more candor than is common within design leadership circles — maybe most any circle for that matter. We confront conflicts as we measure our own motivations. We learn about ourselves and we learn about others on whom we rely every day to succeed.

It’s not like we don’t talk enough. We talk a lot. I am not advocating we talk more. I am advocating we change whatever needs to be changed in order to alter our budgets and behaviors just a little in order to change what we talk about. And then see what happens.

Kent Turner is president of market strategies for CannonDesign. For over two decades he has been a major force in CannonDesign’s emergence as a global leader through investment in research, diversification, knowledge management and a culture of ideas.” He is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council.