Irrelevance is the bête noire of professional service firms.
In the past two decades, we have seen the rise of BIM, generative design, digital twins and other technologies that are fundamentally changing the design process and construction documentation. The traditional roles, relationships and power dynamics within the design and delivery process have shifted, hastening the commoditization of design services. These and other challenges raise concerns about the future viability of standalone architecture and design firms.
Our fears may or may not come to pass, but it probably behooves us to act as though they will.
Of course, I am not suggesting we panic. But the power of an existential threat can help sharpen our focus and galvanize efforts to combat the risks that truly are embedded in all of these changes. The threats themselves can also hold keys to how we might avoid them.
The opposite of the irrelevance we fear is not merely relevance; it’s influence. Firms that are influential are listened to, and their views result in industry-wide change. Influencers are neither hobbled by changing power dynamics within design and delivery nor are they prone to commoditization.
By definition, influence is interwoven with the idea of power. It is “the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others.” The power of influential firms is felt in the opportunities they create and how they shape the industry.
Levels of Influence
The world of architecture and design provides good examples of the varying degrees of influence. There are firms that have a short-term impact, creating stylistic trends that for a time dominate industry publications and propagate through practices that value novel forms, materials and approaches. Their work, and often their charming founders, seem to be everywhere, then are gone.
There are other firms whose work is emulated over longer periods, even as their approach to design changes and evolves. Such firms influence through their ideas and point of view as much as their aesthetic faculties, and their impact is more enduring. You can see evidence of their innovations in the work of other firms and hear the echo of their ideas in the architecture and design discourse. Such firms remain hungry, doggedly pursue new challenges and continue to produce work that is born of fresh and original thinking.
Their innovative spirit does not stop with architecture and design, per se. They often lead the industry in application of technology and the development of research. Clients ask them to solve an increasingly broad scope of problems.
While no firms are invulnerable, influencers have negotiation power within situations that seem to get the best of others. They have enviable control over their destinies: they have the pick of the world’s top talent and seem to choose only the work they want to do. They command the type of fees that allow them to reinvest in their success, and they manage their businesses well.
These firms are true influencers within the industry.
The Ingredients of Influence
It is easy to separate ourselves from the influencers, assuming their success is due to some advantage just out of our reach. But a position of true influence is achievable.
It begins with the right mindset. Committing to building influence focuses us and shapes how we see our firm’s place in the world. Even if unconscious, the effect can be powerful. When we seek first to influence, we think differently, we make decisions differently and we present ourselves differently to the market.
Embracing or striving for the role of influencer, combined with the right other ingredients, is a potent combination.
Ingredient 1: A vision-driven, expert point of view
The first question is, how do you want to have an impact? Like water rushing through a funnel, focus amplifies the energy applied to building influence. The most effective focus stems from a strong vision, set by leadership, of what the firm wishes to be and the positive change it wishes to create in the world. Once vision is set, it drives a point of view that informs not only a firm’s design approach and output, but also the way it communicates its ideas to the market.
Ingredient 2: Communication power
Our view of communication power is perverted by A/E/C’s long history of charismatic individuals. We can all think of luminaries who have had loud voices in the public conversation. Such individuals are exceedingly rare, and we can neither replicate nor scale the model of individual industry stars (who are often the founders of firms). The key is to embed communication power into the DNA of an entire organization, building the reputation of the firm over any individuals within it. Firms that have communication power speak more frequently into the market, and the quality and variety of their communication artifacts is head-and-shoulders above their competitors.
Ingredient 3: Leadership of the discourse
Communication power amplifies the voice of a firm, positioning it to take leadership of the discourse on design, technology, sustainability, or any area in which the firm wants to exercise influence. Social scientists have long studied the effect that framing an issue by one party has on how the issue is perceived by others (including on a mass media scale). The upshot is that the one who sets the context of a discussion has the greatest influence on the outcome. Those firms that take leadership of the public discussion of key topics have a real opportunity to shape how the market itself perceives those topics.
Ingredient 4: Continual reinvention around an enduring core
Firms that influence over longer periods have mastered the balance between fresh perspectives and staying true to who they are. In other words, they do not shift their identity to continually be seen as on top of this or that trend. There is an incorruptible core to their point of view, but it does not keep them from original insights on important issues or new approaches to problem-solving.
Ingredient 5: Commitment, persistence, and relentless energy
Because it requires both extraordinary ability and frequent exposure, influence does not happen overnight. It must also be continually renewed through the evolution of a firm’s thinking and a roots-deep commitment to continual engagement with the market around ideas and design. Consequently, leaders of influencer firms must be prepared to invest in those areas of the firm that maintain and grow their influence, such as research, design and marketing.
Firms with enduring influence certainly claim benefits for themselves in greater opportunities for better projects and a positive impact on the market. The more firms strive for and achieve influence, they better the situation for both themselves and the professions. The stakes are high. In our current environment of flux and fundamental change, what could be more important?
Bob Fisher is editor at large of DesignIntelligence and managing principal of the Strategic Identity practice of DI Strategic Advisors.