To better understand what economist Robert Reich calls “the end of the Great Prosperity” and how it has impacted the architecture, engineering, and construction industries, it helps to have a broad perspective. Easier said than done, especially when you’re trying to make payroll for next month and beating the bushes for work.
But for three people, at least, thinking broadly means thinking clearly about economic cycles. For the past 18 years, Nancy Egan, Marjanne Pearson, and Paul Nakazawa have been focused on new ways of thinking about what they call the “ecology of practice,” including evolutionary growth and long-term strategies for practice management. They have incorporated their ideas about what’s next for professional design firms into a series of courses developed for the Executive Education program of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). This year their course, “The Strategic Agenda,” reframed critical elements of professional practice. They argued that, by acknowledging that recessions are symptoms of long-term economic, political, societal, cultural, and other factors, firm principals can begin to create opportunities to spread their risk over time.
Over the past 60 years, many architects have transcended their conventional roles as “craftspeople” to become knowledge experts. The shift from a predominantly craft-driven profession to special expertise and now, increasingly, to issues-driven strategies is transforming the profession. Design thinking has become more systems-based, providing architects the ability to incorporate a diverse range of ideas relevant to society.
For the trio, succeeding in a global—and volatile—economy requires examining historical shifts. “The ‘issues’ that we refer to are the drivers of decision-making in the new business, social, and political environments for practice,” says Nakazawa. “Firms that directly address the sets of issues that drive client decisions organize themselves to solve specific problems.”
Sure, some architects lovingly design beautiful objects and rely on consultants to implement their forms, but that’s not a competitive business strategy for most working architects. Cultivating the ability to identify the critical issues that drive client decisions increases the architect’s potential to address a broader set of contingencies, shifting ideas about program and typology as well as sustainable strategies.
Any number of successful architecture practices incorporates broader societal and cultural issues into their business strategies, along with market share, clients, architecture-based technologies, and general economic considerations. The most successful ones, however, according to Egan, Nakazawa, and Pearson, are the ones who can articulate what makes their ideas unique in the marketplace.
This might seem obvious, but maintaining clarity of purpose is one thing that often gets overlooked in the rush to land projects and meet deadlines. Continually defining and redefining their firm’s goals and core principles allows firm leaders to stayed focused on what it takes “to do their best work for the firm’s best clients,” according to Pearson.
Pearson identifies a spectrum within which firms, people, and clients fall, with ideas and intellectual capital at one end, and capabilities and implementation capital at the other. In the middle are the practice strategies that can allow firm principals to set the tone of their studios and create successful businesses. Are you a theoretically based ideas firm focused on the hypothetical questions? Or are you a practical, skill-driven firm building resources and expertise to provide services that you can deliver on time and on budget? If you think about where your employees fit into that spectrum, you’re probably a mixture of both. So how can you understand how to best use the talent of your individual employees? And who do you need in your leadership pipeline to build a sustainable firm?
Self-evaluation is the first step. The second is what media columnist Bob Garfield calls “Listenomics,” or open-source communication: creating platforms for clients and potential clients to define what success looks like in order to be part of a feedback loop. Pearson points to the approach taken in information technology and social business design in which knowledge and skill sets are freely shared with all who are interested. She suggests that architecture firms must take an active role in sharing knowledge and skills in order to create dynamic cross-collaboration opportunities throughout an entire practice ecosystem.
Another key to success in the architecture profession is translating larger social, economic, and political forces into meaningful strategies. The “societal narratives” of climate change, resource flows, development patterns, global conflicts, and economic fluctuation, according to Nakazawa, impact everyone all over the world, but in uneven and specific ways. The more powerfully your practice responds to the demands generated by the issues, the more your messages will resonate in the market.
Every firm has the opportunity to connect its story to these larger narratives, says the trio. The point is to be honest about your own identity and the concerns that shape your practice, and to build your network of colleagues, collaborators, and clients with those individuals who share your values and goals. It’s translating cultural capital into relationship capital.
The most urgent narrative these days is the recession, and one of the reasons it had such a devastating impact is the absence of self-regulation; far too many firms got too big and stayed big for way too long, and the recession forced them to employ drastic measures, like rapidly downscaling through layoffs, to survive. A lot of talent got set adrift that way.
“If we really think about the practice as an ecology, it implies cycles of growth, decay, and rejuvenation,” says Egan. “When we forget, assuming the future is always going to bring more opportunity, we become lax, we don’t stay sharp, and when the metaphorical lightning strikes, it’s a firestorm. Better to do some ‘controlled burn’ in the form of continual re-evaluation and renewal beforehand.”