In observance of the Thanksgiving break, there will be no Word on the Street next Monday. Our next issue will be published on Monday, December 4.

Special Disaster Edition

Seven Ways to Screw Up Your Strategy Meetings

Since 1995, I’ve facilitated over 450 strategic planning meetings for AE and environmental leadership teams—in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and the E.U. This is not to say that I’m any good at actually facilitating meetings. But rather it’s a statistic to provide some context for the rest of this article.

I’ve seen what works—and what doesn’t—to make a great strategy meeting. What do I mean by “great”? Your team is fully engaged in strategic decision-making. They enter the meetings informed. There is minimal wasted time. The conversations are meaningful and—if necessary—tough and replete with conflict. There are debates and arguments. At the end of the session your team is spent, exhausted. They’ve left nothing unsaid. They emerge more united and stronger as a team. And you leave the sessions with a written plan for the future.

So, with that, here are seven ways to royally screw up your strategy meetings:

1. Choose a remote location for your strategy meetings

You know, one that’s high in the mountains, or on the outermost island of an archipelago, or in the middle of the desert. That will be a great place for your team to “get away from it all” and “leave the office behind” and “focus on the future.” Yeah, maybe it will, but probably not. What it definitely will do is waste at least two days of everyone’s time traveling to and from meetings (But your team has plenty of time to waste, right?), increase the probability that one or more of your team will arrive late (“Eduardo’s cable car is stuck above the deepest of the three crevasses we traversed to arrive at this bespoke mountain-top planning yurt, and it doesn’t look like a rescue team will reach him for at least a couple of hours, but let’s get going without him. I’ll ask him to Teams in.”), and create some happy memories (“I honestly didn’t think that swimming with stingrays could be so much fun, or dangerous for that matter. But Katie was such a good sport about it. And I hear she could be back at work as early as next spring.”).

2. Or equally painful, choose a non-business venue

Historic and cultural venues are wonderful. To visit that is. They’re wonderful to visit. NOT to run strategy meetings. In fact, there is a proven 100% correlation between sub-optimal planning meetings and historic/cultural venues. I’ve run strategy sessions at historic Shaker villages and plantations, museums, art galleries (modern, eclectic, and private), football stadiums (professional and college), and various zoos, botanical gardens, aquariums (aquaria?), castles (Thank you, Belgium!), and boat houses. They always sound like a great idea—to one person only. And that person is either the CEO or, more likely, the CEO’s chief of staff, who happens to be a “sustaining member” of said museum. Or who heard (from a friend in a book club) that the gallery downtown was a “great space for meeting.” Or whose wife is one of the team boosters and “can get us a good deal.” But they’re never a good deal—because they never meet your needs. There’s no reliable Wi-Fi. Or on-site AV capabilities. So, someone always has to lug a screen and projector from the office at 6:30 A.M., only to find that there are either no extension cords at the castle or they forgot “the clicker” or both. For multi-day strategy sessions, on-site accommodations—if they exist—are dated and not designed for business professionals. And don’t get me going about the restrooms. There’s a reason business hotels and conference centers exist.  

3. Weekend at Bernie’s II

Deservedly got 13% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer. It stunk. And so will your weekend strategy meetings. Sure, you’ll “maximize the utilization” of your team by having them do their day jobs during the week and then sequester them (Where better than at a botanical garden?) for one or two days of strategy sessions. But, unlike you, they’ve got a life. With responsibilities. And while they are more than likely 100% committed to the firm (Otherwise, why would they be on the strategy team?), they also have a spouse or partner and kids (or pets) who need them on the weekend. So, while you’re focused on maximizing utilization, you’re also ramping up the resentment and angst of your team, which doesn’t translate to an engaging, successful strategy meeting. Oh, and after your team wraps up on Sunday evening, they feel lousy that they have to get back to real work on Monday. And as a bonus, your team now refers to you as “Scrooge.”

4. Same as it ever was

The path of least resistance to the worst strategic decisions is to (a) assume that the current economic and social environment will prevail (When has that never been true?) and (b) that your firm will keep selling the same services to the same clients in the future. Throw in a self-aggrandizing SWOT assessment, and you end up with a strategic plan to double in size in five years. Job done, let’s head to the bar. Not so fast. Status quo bias is a cognitive bias based on emotion. (They were also a terrific bunch of English rock and rollers in the ’70s.) And it’s the enemy of great strategic planning meetings. The best way to overcome it is to make sure that everyone on the team has access to research and materials that objectively assess how the world around the firm may change in the future, how clients may evolve, and how the firm itself looks different. Powerful strategic planning meetings are the result of blending data (“there will be zero growth in our market for the next five years”) with emotion (“we do not accept zero growth; as a team and shareholders we demand growth, and so, in a zero-growth market we will take market share from our competition, and here is how we will do that”). When you do this, your vision is one that marries what you need to change to be viable with what you want to change to self-actualize.

5. Agree to disagree about the vision and move on

Don’t worry. That won’t cause problems down the road. At least not for the group of principals who decide to peel off and form your biggest competitor overnight. Visioning sounds low risk. (“It’s so far off in the distance, it’s meaningless! Who can predict the future?! No action items! Let’s head out to see how the Shakers made bread.”) But it’s not. And lack of alignment around vision is the reason most firms fragment and fail. You’re not going to get agreement or consensus on every single element of your vision. But you want to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard and the hard discussions are mined in its creation. Oftentimes the crucial conversations around this topic go WAY longer than 5 P.M. Which is not ideal when the aquarium you’re having your meeting in shuts down right then for penguin feeding. 

6. Focus on word-smithing the mission statement

It will be time well spent. This is especially true for a large group…of engineers. Start the day with the real wordy version that captures every service that your firm offers now (along with every market that you serve and every office that you have—if you still have ’em). After two to three hours of that, the “brutalist” school members of your team will take the floor and, in their best Hemingway impersonations, root out all adverbs and adjectives until your mission statement could be applicable to any firm in any service industry (and some other industries, too). Once you’ve gone through that cycle, it will be time for lunch. As you leave the meetings at the boathouse down by the river to trudge through the surprisingly heavy rain the one mile to the “lunch facility,” you start to get a sense of dread that you may not get to all of the action items that you need to. Then you slip on the mud.

7. Don’t bother with an action plan. It always takes care of itself

Action planning boils down to who is going to do what by when and how. Very blocky, very tackley. Not very strategic or high-minded. Not visionary at all. No flowery, aspirational language. No stirring statements to save the world. When you actually write down the action items that come out of strategic planning, they are almost always disappointingly dull. Mundane steps to be slogged through to get to where your firm needs to go. In reality, they are the red-headed stepchild of strategy meetings. Everyone is fired up and engaged when it comes to visioning and missioning and strategery-ing. By the time you get to the end of the day and it’s time for folks to raise their hand and lay claim to putting an initiative in motion, a strange silence descends on the room. The aversion to accountability is palpable. The avoidance of eye contact replaces the eagerness to voice opinions about new markets or services. And so, many teams don’t write down action items, nor do they set up a system of reporting on progress. Because they are either exhausted or nobody wants to do the “executing”—they all want to do the planning.

Don’t screw up your strategic planning. Do your research on your markets, your competitors, and the industry, and make sure your team has ample time to review ahead of meetings. Meet in a convenient location whose mission is to provide your team with every resource that you need to run a successful meeting. Have an agenda and follow it. Move from big picture to specifics. Make sure everyone has the right mindset. (Focus on the entirety of the firm rather than their individual piece of it.) Pro tip: Have everyone attending read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni before coming together. Good luck! 

To connect with Mick Morrissey, email him at [email protected] or text/call at 508.380.1868.

How to Wreck Your Firm in Seven Easy Steps

Mick Morrissey just provided you with seven valuable, surefire ways to dismantle your strategic planning process. I’ll see if I can take it to the next level by laying out seven steps to help you take your entire firm down to the studs. Why would I want to do that? Well, lately, I’ve been experimenting with an exercise called “Anticipatory Failure Determination” or “Anticipatory Failure Analysis” (AFA). This technique involves deliberately seeking out ways to make an initiative fail or to prevent specific goals from being achieved. By examining potential failure modes, AFA aims to proactively identify weaknesses and obstacles in an organization. 

After fruitful trials with several clients, I decided to take a crack at it myself for our loyal Word on the Street readers. So, without further ado, here are seven steps I offer to those of you hell-bent on derailing your otherwise successful AE firms:

Step 1. Keep a closed mind

Reinforce the notion throughout your company that anything architects, engineers, and scientists haven’t been schooled in isn’t real. Business? Just develop your technical expertise. Do good work, and business will take care of itself. Communication? It’s the technical expertise that matters, not how well you can get it across. It’s what you know, after all. Psychology? Give me a break. Learning about people is an utter waste of time. If you’re exceptionally terrible with people, all the better—we’ll make you a mentor. Just get really good at your discipline and rise to your level of incompetence.

Step 2. Think operationally—and only operationally

Strategic thinking is just a quaint pastime for daydreamers. Who needs a grand plan when you can thrive on the excitement of operational thinking, right? I mean, who cares about long-term success and sustainability when you can be dazzled by the sheer thrill of solving project problems as they pop up? Forget about setting goals and plotting a course for the future; just roll the dice and hope your operational-thinking fairy godmother sprinkles her magical problem-solving dust on you. After all, who needs strategy when you can just wing it and hope for the best? It’s not like success has ever been attributed to thoughtful planning or anything—just get those projects out the door!

Step 3. Wait out the technology fad

Ignoring technology is the ultimate power move in the AE industry. Who needs to keep up with the ever-evolving digital landscape when you can revel in the nostalgia of COBOL and FORTRAN? Technology is just a passing fad—like parachute pants or slap bracelets—it’s not like it’s the backbone of modern business or anything. Ignore those pesky advancements in automation, artificial intelligence, and connectivity; they’re probably just a passing trend, like disco. Who cares if your competitors are zooming past you on the information superhighway while you leisurely stroll down the analog alley? Embrace the blissful ignorance, and revel in the simplicity of the pre-digital era. I’m sure your company’s abacus division will make a stunning comeback any day now.

Step 4. Laugh at the idea of change management

Why carefully plan and execute a thoughtful process to manage change when you can simply ram it down people’s throats? Don’t bother considering the impact on your team, assessing potential risks, or communicating effectively when you can enjoy the thrill of surprise and confusion. Just throw caution to the wind, implement those changes without a second thought, and let chaos reign. After all, the best way to handle uncertainty is to create more uncertainty, right? 

Step 5. Stop the marketing nonsense

Forget about creating brand awareness, engaging with clients, or strategically positioning your AE firm—that’s all just smoke and mirrors. Didn’t you once send out a postcard to the 24 contacts in your database in 1997? What did that ever get you? In the grand scheme of things, all you need to do is do good work. It’s like having a secret superpower that magically attracts clients without any effort on your part. Why bother shouting from the rooftops about your fantastic company when you can rely on telepathic communication to convey your excellence? So, toss those marketing plans out the window and let your sheer brilliance illuminate the path to long-term success.

Step 6. Be cavalier about financial performance

Financial discipline—it’s just nag, nag, nag. AE firms are swimming in success, so why bother with fiscal responsibility? It’s not like economic downturns, market shifts, or unforeseen disasters would ever rain on our parade. They wouldn’t dare. After all, the economy is like a reliable butler, always there to serve the financial elite without a hint of rebellion. Your services will always be needed, and the good times are obviously an everlasting fiesta. Prosperity is a lifelong companion that will never, ever consider playing hard to get. So, let the good times roll!

Step 7. Hold on tight

Why on earth would you waste time grooming a team of capable individuals when you can bask in the glory of being the organizational superhero? Delegation is for the weak, and the mere thought of entrusting others with important tasks is laughable. After all, as the old saying goes, “If you want something done right, do it yourself—forever.” So, revel in the glory of being the one-person powerhouse because, clearly, teamwork is just some silly thing that was invented by those who couldn’t handle the unparalleled greatness of your solo act.

If any of these steps sound familiar, you’re doing precisely what I would do—if I were trying to wreck your firm.

For more ideas on how to wreck your firm, and many others on how to make it more successful, call Mark Goodale at 508.254.3914 or email [email protected].

Market Snapshot: Surveying and Mapping (Part 1)

Weekly market intelligence data and insights for AE firm leaders.

  • Surveying and mapping services consist of the technique and science used to establish land maps and boundaries for ownership or governmental purposes by accurately determining the terrestrial or three-dimensional space position of points and the distances and angles between them. 
  • AE firms employ 70% of surveyors. Other employers include government (8%), construction (7%), and mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction (1%). Self-employed workers represent 4% of surveyor jobs in the U.S.
  • Surveyors and surveying technicians make up approximately 4.5% of total AE industry occupations.
  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are an important aspect of surveying and mapping. It is the preferred technology for managing the data collected by surveyors. Engineering companies offer a wide range of services and technologies to support and enhance GIS systems.
Market Size
  • Companies in surveying and mapping services registered $10.2 billion of revenue in 2021, according to the Federal Reserve. 
  • The surveying and mapping services industry is expected to continue in high demand, keeping up with architecture, engineering, and construction forecasted growth through the next several years. 
  • Over the last five years, the pace of growth in M&A deals involving companies that offer surveying and mapping services has been about two times faster than the overall AE industry pace of consolidation. This trend is expected to continue based on deal activity in 2023.
  • Like many other occupations in the U.S., surveying is facing significant workforce challenges as a relatively high number of workers is heading into retirement. 
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of surveyors is projected to grow 5% from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average for all occupations. An aging workforce is driving many of the 3,500 job openings expected yearly over the next decade. However, the use of drones and other advanced technologies are transforming the practice and may limit jobs growth by increasing productivity. 

In next week’s issue, we’ll look at drivers, trends, and hot spots for this market. To learn more about market intelligence and research services from Morrissey Goodale, schedule an intro call with Rafael Barbosa. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

Weekly M&A Round Up

Congratulations to Blankinship & Associates (Davis, CA): The environmental sciences and engineering firm that specializes in water resources, natural resource management, permitting and compliance services, and specialized training joined Bowman Consulting Group (Reston, VA) (ENR #87). The Blankinship team will make great contributions toward helping Bowman clients tackle their environmental and natural resources issues through consultation, innovation, and simplification. We’re thankful that the Blankinship team trusted us to initiate and advise them on this transaction.

Another congrats to High Mesa Consulting Group (Albuquerque, NM): The multi-disciplinary consulting firm that offers surveying, mapping, geospatial, sub-surface utility infrastructure engineering, civil engineering, and planning services joined Bowman Consulting Group (Reston, VA) (ENR #87). We feel privileged that the High Mesa team trusted us to initiate and advise them on this partnership.

Bowman continues active year of dealmaking: The two featured deals mark Bowman’s ninth and tenth deals of this year. Last week we reported additional domestic deals in IL, PA, and FL. Overseas we reported two new transactions in Germany and the U.K. You can check all the week’s M&A news here.

Searching for an external Board member?

Our Board of Directors candidate database has over one hundred current and former CEOs, executives, business strategists, and experts from both inside and outside the AE and Environmental Consulting industry who are interested in serving on Boards. Contact Tim Pettepit via email or call him directly at (617) 982-3829 for pricing and access to the database.

Are you interested in serving on an AE firm Board of Directors? 

We have numerous clients that are seeking qualified industry executives to serve on their boards. If you’re interested, please upload your resume here.

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