The flattening world offers advantages to all sizes and types of design firms that choose to tackle work outside U.S. borders. But doing so requires agility, commitment, and organization.

The flattening world offers advantages to all sizes and types of design firms that choose to tackle work outside U.S. borders. But doing so requires agility, commitment, and organization.

I just landed in Vienna coming from Moscow, and I have a little time to reflect on the incredible changes in the world over the past few years. Vienna was always a great town at the far edge of the Western World. Now it has been transformed into a hub of activity connecting new members of the European Union with the more established members. People were afraid to go to Moscow just a few years ago; today, it is a booming metropolis (though one that still has some problems). A listing of the world’s billionaires shows that more of them live in Moscow than in New York City. Who would have ever expected that just three years ago?

The world has undergone immense changes. Countries have been transformed, and a number have simply leapfrogged whole development stages. For example, some African countries never developed landline telephone systems and as a result ended up devising advanced cellular systems. Although I have recently retired from NBBJ (while continuing to serve on the firm’s Board of Directors), I am intrigued by these changes and have turned my focus toward environmental and real estate issues in the United States and overseas.

There are many businesses that operate globally as a result of their incredible economic power, their unique products, their specialized skills, or simply because they have been doing so for a long time. The question is how a U.S.-based design firm can and needs to position itself in the rapidly changing world of commerce if it is interested in operating globally or in select locations outside the United States.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where “Made in the U.S.A.” has not only lost its glamour and power, but it has actually gained a somewhat negative connotation. In addition, firms and businesses in India and China are giving their former teachers from the United States a run for their money. These upstart organizations have some great advantages over well-established global firms: They are unencumbered by legacies, they are more agile in their work, they can strike faster, and they have a substantially lower cost structure. (Although U.S. firms enjoy a much lower cost structure than their European counterparts because of the precipitous decline of the dollar over the past seven to eight years.) Speed is what counts for all our clients, and being first to market can secure the success of a project and, often, the financial resources needed.

What can a U.S. design practice learn from this? I have summarized my conclusions under three main points.

First, we need to be very agile while delivering great projects. Global clients are looking for both top design and a real understanding of their issues, a product that can be delivered by any size design firm. The main reason these clients hire respected U.S. design firms is their belief that they can get a better product and that the reputation and experience of the design firm helps “sell” that product. However, a long resumé and a large staff is hardly enough anymore, as the emphasis internationally is based on the same criteria used in the United States. More and more, we have to compete with quickly adapting local and regional firms. In other words, the easy overseas projects are long gone.

Second, international clients are often looking for commitment. Will the design firm stay with the project or walk away from it when it is no longer interesting? Does the design firm show commitment to the project in its attitude and actions? Does it have a culture that meshes with the client’s? NBBJ was once interviewed by a client in Russia for three days. We had a team of three people, and the client separated us often to see how much the three of us really believed in the same culture and values and how committed we were to help with their challenges. I found this fascinating.

Third, the design firm has to gauge the commitment of the potential client and set up a clear framework for collaboration. This means doing the necessary research, finding out each potential client’s history, and understanding the legal, tax, and environmental requirements of each location. It also entails clarifying roles — knowing which parts of the project are the international firm’s responsibility and which fall to the local firm. This requires serious three-way coordination. Local firms vary greatly in the scope of services they offer, not just from country to country but from city to city, too. Beijing, for example, is different from Shanghai. It is therefore essential that all parties understand up front who does what. In my experience, a matrix that clearly delineates responsibilities can be an effective negotiation and management tool.The following are some of key guidelines and actions I have learned in recent years. They are crucial for successful international work.

• Identify the places you think you can be successful. I believe in doing an evaluation matrix that lists all relevant facts about the regions or places being compared and that allows you to rank them based on your firm’s culture and beliefs. The results of such an exercise can be very informative.

• Define the potential growth markets and get there early. It is much easier to be the leader in a market than a follower. Right now a lot of the investment out of the United Arab Emirates is going to other Arab countries in the Gulf and across North Africa. A lot of new Russian investment is going into the regions (the 11 largest Russian cities besides Moscow). And there are many other new opportunities all over the world.

• Find a reasonable entry into a market. Can an existing client take you there? Are there consulting firms you have worked with (engineers, brokers, contractors) that can help you in a new location? What regional firms are interested in working with you and want to help? Can you find clients through your reputation or via publications, conferences, or local media? Lacking any of these connections, you can do it the most difficult way by starting with cold marketing.

• Restrict your activities to regions where you understand the culture and where your culture fits. Tackle a few places and become successful there. Focus is the most important element. NBBJ decided to concentrate on Shanghai, the Emirates, and Moscow several years ago, and we were able to achieve some success there. Establish the criteria that are important to you, compare them to available data of the area you are interested in, and soon you will have a matrix that points you in the right direction.

• Carefully analyze the situation before committing. Our most commonly used phrase in marketing is “no go.” It is crucial to analyze, do the research, and have the strength to decline. This leads to better projects, gains the respect of future clients, and ultimately saves marketing costs.

• Be nimble and flexible. It is surprising how much people in less-developed countries know about our services and what we are expected to do. Many of them have been educated the same way we have been.

• Be your own master. Set your own criteria, live by them, and promote them to your prospective clients. Of course, there is a fine balance between arrogance and service. But you cannot be of service if you do not truly believe in your own principles.

• Stick to your ethics, your beliefs, and your standards. One hears all the time about corruption in various regions of the world. NBBJ’s position has been consistent: We follow the mandate of U.S. federal law. That statement has always been the end of discussion regarding any unethical behavior in any part of the world. Maybe I have been lucky and maybe I am naive, but it has worked and is working.

• Recognize the sacrifices and challenges. We all hear horror stories about international work. I know that it is often extremely taxing to the people working on such projects. Travel, communications at the oddest hours of the day and night, language issues, strange food, different cultures and behavior, miscommunication, and time away from family are just a few of the challenges. A firm has to be sensitive to these issues and has to have fair policies to support the hardships created. On the other side, teams also have to be willing to make sacrifices.

• Create reliable payment conditions. The other horror stories relate to payment. None of us need to go overseas in order to find work to do for free. Clear payment conditions and absolute management control of these conditions are essential. We also know that the last payment is often be the most difficult to collect. This fact may give you guidance on how to define payment conditions.

• Establish a local reputation. International work gives us some of our best design opportunities, but it will not last long unless we are actively establishing ourselves as local firms in the various international markets we serve.

• Focus on your strengths. The size of the firm is almost irrelevant. The really good clients are looking for talent, not resumé. Any firm that wants to do international work can do it, I believe.

• Explore the opportunities. The international arena offers great scope for environmentally sensitive and energy preserving design. I find it absolutely fascinating that the environmental issues surrounding any building project, new or old, are often given much more importance in the international markets than they are in the United States. It is even more fascinating when these issues are a central concern to clients in countries that have progressed economically in the world because of their wealth in natural oil, such as the Gulf States and Russia.

NBBJ’s approach has been to concentrate on a select number of international markets. This work has clearly helped in the advancement of the firm on almost every level. The firm’s beliefs and the principles of change design are clearly universally acceptable and appreciated by clients.

The international practice of architecture is changing substantially, with players from many different countries and many smaller U.S. firms entering select markets. This means that there are opportunities, perhaps even practical necessities, for U.S. firms to play in specific market niches. With opportunity comes competition and, ultimately, an increase in quality. And that is the main reason we are all in this business.