Bob Fisher of DesignIntelligence interviews Steve McConnell, managing partner of NBBJ, about how architecture and design firms can grow their relevance.

Bob Fisher (BF): What are the best future opportunities for reinvention and growth for architecture and design firms?

Steve McConnell (SM): We have to continuously reinvent ourselves to stay relevant. The challenge is to demystify what is relevant and to understand who and what you are as a design enterprise. If you’re about innovating new value in the world, then there has to be a commitment to first creating a culture that allows ideas to thrive and accepts risk as part of the journey.

When we look at the landscape of practice and at the opportunities technology offers, we’re certainly at the threshold of a transformation. Design firms are moving from a traditional methodology to one that emphasizes new ways of collaboration, understanding work, interacting with clients, and proving value.

One example of a tool that supports a new way of working is virtual reality, not simply as a presentation tool but as a collaboration tool in geographically distributed, asynchronous ways. Computational algorithms and analysis are demystifying how our work performs. I’m not talking about basic building system performance, but rather human performance within the built environment.

The next five to 10 years has the potential to be a golden age for design.

BF: What could the “golden age for design” look like?

SM: The problems and challenges that the world faces are infinite, and yet design can play a big role in helping address these challenges. I think it’s not so much an issue of limited opportunity for designers — rather it’s an issue of unlimited opportunity when we truly comprehend the relevance of what we do. For example, I can imagine that in 10 years, NBBJ’s work could be comprised of 50 percent strategic consulting and 50 percent more traditional design services. Within 10 years, we could be consulting in Africa around healthcare system organization, focusing less on building infrastructure and more on applying thought leadership to effectively organize how to deliver healthcare services as a result of our deep expertise in the practice of healthcare.

As it stands today, I do not believe we can resist the forces behind the commoditization of production. Our greatest opportunities lie upstream and downstream of the traditional design services journey, to expand the value we can bring to our clients. As architects, there’s an opportunity to focus more on leading a dispersed network of resources. It looks to me like the future is less about leading co-located people working together, and more about leading and leveraging a global network. Beyond leading design for clients, there are opportunities to lead strategy and the operationalization of our work and its future evolution.

BF: What you’re describing is a fundamental change in the role of an architecture and design firm and how it relates to clients and what kind of problems it solves. At what point does a firm cease to be an architecture firm?

SM: It’s already happening.

We are passionate architects and dedicated to the mastery of architecture and tectonics; we see this physical realm as “hardware.” However the potential for expanding the value of design lies in the way spaces and places drive human behavior — what we view as the “software” that drives the places we create. By collaborating with brain scientists and using analysis tools we can better understand how a place can inspire an organization to be courageous, or provoke changes in behavior, or reduce errors in various procedures — highly relevant outcomes that point to a new way of thinking about the value of design to any client’s business.

BF: In order to be the type of design partner that can solve upstream issues you need a strong trust-based relationship with the client. What kind of client is right for building that kind of relationship?

SM: In order to answer that you have to understand who you are. At the Design Futures Council in New York I talked about NBBJ as a fundamentally practice-centered business. With that comes a bottom line that is inherently qualitative. That leads to aligning with the right kinds of clients. It’s not about saying yes to just any client, it’s about saying yes to the right clients where our values align. When that calculus is correct, special things happen because of alignment and shared interests.

I’m also glad you mentioned trust in your question, because if I were giving a seminar on selling I would say that trust is the first and last point. Ultimately, it’s the only point. At the end of the day a client is deciding one thing: can I trust you with this investment, with the risk we’re taking to generate a return? Key to lasting success is understanding how to earn and maintain high trust.

BF: When you are cultivating a relationship with the client or chasing a particular project, do you relate your work to a financial return for the client?

SM: It’s important to connect real, credible performance metrics to the work, and there are many, many levels at which that is done — whether that’s at the moment of sale, through the design process, or at the completion of a project.

BF: How do you draw a connection between your work and organizational results?

SM: We’ve done extensive evaluations of projects and get critical feedback on a regular basis. If I use the healthcare arena as an example, there’s a lot of measurement we can look at relative to flow, errors, and accidents. But there are also less traditional qualitative metrics we’re beginning to measure that have just as much impact. For example, delight, happiness, and satisfaction.

BF: Let’s talk a little bit about the mix of strategy and culture and design. At NBBJ what is the relationship between them?

SM: We subscribe wholeheartedly to the understanding that fostering a healthy and aligned culture is the most important job of leadership. We also believe that culture trumps strategy when it comes to creating a rich and fertile environment for success.

Strategy is a roadmap that provides direction, but strategy alone won’t fulfill our objectives. The best strategy can be obfuscated by opportunistic circumstances. Because we want to be an innovative firm, and because we are motivated by design excellence and new ideas, we have chosen to pursue a culture of empowerment, a culture that is truly role-based rather than title- or seniority-based. We are dedicated to being a collaborative firm and we’ve spent years investing in it, which is a journey in itself.

Our competitive position relies on a frictionless network across our worldwide platform of 11 offices and 650 people. That strategy is backed up by being one fully integrated business model, as well as by creating a culture where we’re all in it together and where we all prosper together in the rewards that our business generates.

Because the fluid exchange of talent, ideas and expertise is a critical part of our strategy, we love that we are self-owned. We can set our own direction uncompromised by outside financers or public markets.

BF: What are some of the practical steps you take to create a culture of empowerment?

SM: We invest a lot in being together; we take risks with initiatives; we have hackathons. For example, we have sponsored organic growth for our design technology group across our entire platform worldwide. In 2008 and 2009, firms were shedding design technology as “nice-to-haves.” We doubled down on our investment, and it’s probably one of the key reasons why Fast Company named us one of the top 10 most innovative architecture firms in 2014 and 2015. We have a community of design technologists around the world who have the resources and freedom to explore and try new things.

Another step to creating an innovative culture is by partnering with outside experts. One of the ways we do this is through the NBBJ fellowship. Our current fellow is one of the leading brain scientists in the world, Dr. John Medina, who incidentally is also a highly recognized educator. One of his many books is Brain Rules. Dr. Medina has taught us that by understanding brain science, we can find more meaningful ways to improve and enable the wellbeing of people and their health through the environments we design.

One more example of how to improve culture: we have an extraordinary amount of transparency on business metrics. There’s really nothing you can’t find out about the firm’s performance as an employee. One of our core values is that we trust our people and we believe that by sharing everything we’re treating them like owners. They need to be in an empowered framework to realize their highest potential.

BF: A lot of traditionalists seem to be threatened by the growing role that data and technology are playing in design. It seems as though you have found a way to embrace data and technology, harnessing them to accelerate your design. Tell me about NBBJ’s approach.

SM: Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, is one of our advisors. Something he wrote in his book The Design of Business really stuck with me: that in the years to come, the most successful businesses will balance analytical mastery and intuitive originality in a dynamic interplay.

I think that says a lot about the relationship between pragmatics and poetics, between analytics and artistry. I think the time of an all-knowing architect is past us. Instead, today’s best architects work in teams with the power of computation to understand things we never understood before and then to marry that with artistry to advance innovative ideas and creative projects.

My advice to firms is don’t be threatened by technology. Embrace data and the inputs that analytical work can offer to the design process. The analytical side doesn’t design the project, but it opens up a whole frontier of knowledge and insight.

I’ll give you an example. I was at the MIT Media Lab with the World Economic Forum and one of the presentations was about a startup group called MindRider. They had outfitted bike helmets with sensors that could read a rider’s stress based on how his or her brain was responding. They then recorded the data on tens of thousands of bike rides all around Manhattan. Well, when they mapped the stress of the riders, guess what? People were experiencing stress not where we may have intuitively thought they would but in unexpected areas. If I’m an urban designer and I have this new knowledge set, my design solution just got a lot better because of analytics and new ways of understanding performance and experience — in this case stress in an urban environment. That’s very different than 10 or 15 years ago.

BF: Tell me a bit about the relationship of good business management to other aspirations for your firm and culture.

SM: It has to be interdependent. At the heart of any project is leadership: design and process. They each have to have the other’s back. There has to be a context of trust and empathy. How does the designer help the process leader responsibly deploy resources? Likewise, how does the process leader help the design leader pursue an innovative inquiry?

BF: Is there any time at which that approach has backfired on you?

SM: I can’t think of a backfire, per se, but we don’t have perfect results. Looking at it differently, I can think of a number of examples where our best design work, our most admired design work was also our most effectively run and, therefore, our most profitable work. It speaks to something magical that happens when you get this set of interdependent skills working harmoniously. Fundamentally, we’re after this balance and recognizing that no one piece of that puzzle trumps the other. Delivery, design, and process are equal.

BF: Does NBBJ have a formal innovation program?

SM: We focus more on creating a culture where innovation happens than an actual innovation program. One of the people we work with is a brilliant professor at the Boston University School of Management named Siobhan O’Mahony. She talks about innovation as new combinations of existing ideas, concepts, processes, or physical materials. Which is not to be confused with invention.

To talk about innovation is first to define it. Invention is fundamentally something that is new but unproven, untested. Innovation, as described in Siobhan’s work, speaks to taking things that are adopted out in the world and bringing them together in new, interesting ways. I think architecture firms have excellent DNA for that.

As holistic thinkers, as creative people, our ability to combine things in new and provocative ways is ever-present. Again, back to culture-making and being a place where ideas flourish, a great idea doesn’t care where it came from. It is the role of leaders to set up the ecosystem where ideas thrive, and the skill of a leader is to channel and focus those ideas into thoughtful outcomes.

BF: How do you all look at failure?

SM: We recognize it is not a question of whether failure happens but when. It’s all about what you do with it and how you learn from it and embrace it as part of the journey to wisdom, to deep experience, to improving work.

BF: There are many different definitions of leadership and throughout the history of organizations, there have been many different approaches and trends. What characterizes leadership at NBBJ?

SM: Ownership is the first thing that comes to mind — understanding your realm of responsibility, consciously comprehending the areas that you impact, and actively leading both action within and expansion of this realm of understanding. Being role-based, we are asking everyone to lead. We do not look for employees who wait for direction or who like orders. We are trying to create an ecosystem where new ideas change us. One thing I deeply admire about our partner owners is, I believe, as a group we have the inner self-confidence to fully embrace ideas and initiatives that make us better. We’re not threatened by change. It’s our job to secure the future of the firm through its betterment, as opposed to trying to protect and defend something that we may have created.

BF: Our industry and our economy are very cyclical and at some point we’ll face another downturn. How can firms protect themselves?

SM: The way in which we defend against changing market cycles is through building type diversity and geographic diversity. That said, I don’t think the commercial downturn is very far away. Most experts would offer that in the U.S. we are in the late innings, if not the ninth inning, of the present cycle.

BF: Any final advice on how firms can grow their relevance?

SM: In terms of being relevant, it helps to embrace diversity and create a community of talent. Gender parity is something that the architecture profession must face head-on and make changes, and to ignore this is to risk irrelevance. Can you imagine today showing up at a major project with six middle-aged men? Of course not! That’s because it’s not relevant, and people are keenly aware that you’re missing modes of intelligence. In fact, studies show you can elevate the potential of any group through gender diversity.

This has been a signal issue for us for many years. We’re very consciously evaluating gender parity and compensation and making adjustments where called for. We’re making changes right now that I’m certain will affect our culture in the right ways as we go forward. If anyone has been watching us for the last few years they’ll see a very conscientious effort to promote diversity.

We have good stats compared to the international standard, but they are still nowhere good enough. When it comes to gender parity our goal is to have 50 percent of our leadership positions held by women.