Where Do We Go From Here? 6 Tips For Mapping Your Firm’s Future
These are tricky times for AE firms—staffing remains a fundamental constraint, yet storm clouds appear to be gathering over a growing number of markets. In a business environment chock-full of mixed signals, figuring out a direction for your firm to take while getting buy-in is no garden-variety challenge. But a deliberate, focused strategic planning effort can go a long way in helping you accomplish the feat. Here are a few tips for creating a clear, compelling vision for 2023 and beyond, and the roadmap for achieving it.
Tip #1: Get the story behind the story
Before launching into strategy meetings, get a 360-degree perspective of the firm. Do this by preparing an unbiased evaluation of the company. Gather feedback from leaders, staff, and clients, and benchmark your firm’s financial performance, policies and procedures, marketing practices, and organizational characteristics against industry norms. Distill this information into a concise report that contains a summary of the information as well as observations, interpretations, and conclusions. Deliver the report to your planning team several days in advance of the session so they can digest the issues and test their assumptions about the firm’s strengths and weaknesses before engaging in discussion with the rest of the leadership team. This document should not be shared firm-wide. It is only a tool to help establish the strategic plan, which should then be communicated to everyone in your company soon after its development.
Tip #2: Consider a “Leadership Intervention”
If your preliminary analysis indicates that there is a moderate to high degree of dysfunction at the top of your organization, consider holding a “Leadership Intervention” to focus on the health of the leadership team and clear the air before the real planning begins. Use this forum to practice listening, exchanging ideas, giving and receiving honest assessments, surfacing lingering or festering issues, and ultimately, building trust.
Tip #3: Hold the strategy meetings off site
A neutral setting has a way of relaxing the mood and providing a buffer for busy managers who would otherwise be tempted to rush to the fire du jour. Arrange for flip charts, white boards, markers, monitors, name tags, and any other tools and accessories you might need, and make sure whatever facility you use allows for plenty of natural light so the meeting participants stay alert and focused. Consider combining in-person meetings with remote sessions for added flexibility and reflection.
Tip #4: Set ground rules for the meeting
Before the bell rings for Round 1, take 15 minutes to set ground rules for the session. Let the participants know that it is their responsibility to fully engage, listen thoroughly, and be open and honest with their thoughts and comments. Encourage the team to build on ideas and take them as far as they can go before looking for holes. The phrase “Devil’s Advocate” should be banned from the session.
Tip #5: Work from big picture to little picture
Architects and engineers often seem more interested in taking the hill than figuring out whether it was the right hill to take in the first place. So start with the vision (not to be confused with mission—more on that in a moment), then figure out how to get there. Take the opportunity to explore the possibilities of what your leadership team could build together and what the company might look like five or ten years from now. What kind of firm will it be? What markets will it serve? What will the culture be like? How big will it be? If you observe a lot of inertia in your firm, an exciting, unifying vision might be just what the doctor ordered.
Understand that a vision statement is quite different from a mission statement. A mission states why a firm is in business, or why it exists. Conversations about mission tend to eat up an inordinate amount of time and result in ice cream headache-inducing statements like, “Our purpose is to seamlessly coordinate unique infrastructures so that we may endeavor to enthusiastically customize mission-critical opportunities for 100% client satisfaction.” It’s almost a guarantee that after hours of waxing poetic, someone in the group will inevitably ask, “What are we supposed to do with this thing? Put it on a business card?” You’re far better off to simply state that your firm exists to help clients accomplish their goals, or some such thing, and move on.
Once the vision is established, develop strategic objectives in the areas of individual learning and growth, internal process, market development and expansion, and financial performance. Next, identify key performance indicators (“KPIs”) that will help you determine whether the firm’s objectives are being achieved, and set annual goals (specific and measurable) for each. Finally, establish initiatives and actions to serve as controlled experiments that help leaders and managers learn their way toward the firm’s goals.
Tip #6: Don’t keep secrets!
When senior management disappears for a couple of days, employees tend to get curious, or perhaps even suspicious. To put a lid on the gossip, plan for a firm-wide meeting as soon as possible after the session. Larger firms should schedule a road show and/or conduct remote meetings to deliver the plan to management and staff around the company. Share the floor with the planning team. Discuss the strategic planning process and its purpose, showcase the vision, reveal the core objectives, and KPIs, and field questions in an open and honest way.
Strategic planning can be of great value to an organization. But you need to have a well thought-out approach and a willingness to tackle the tough issues—or you could end up doing more damage than good.
If you’d like help creating a strategic plan for your architecture or engineering firm, call or text Mark Goodale at 508.254.3914, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.