A Staggering Amount of BS

Aug 28, 2000

The amount of BS that exists out there on management and marketing for firms in our business is beyond belief. Just check out the program from the most recent American Institute of Architects (AIA) (Washington, DC) convention. Some of the topics covered included: “Mentoring to Refresh Practice and Feed Initiative,” “Transformative Practices for Better Projects— Making Your Firm a Leading Edge Learning Organization,” “Strategic Thinking— Selecting Opportunities and Positioning for the Edge,” and “Marketing with an Attitude! Changing Your Paradigm on Traditional A/E Marketing,” among others. I could go on and on, but you probably get the idea. In all fairness to the AIA, they had several hundred sessions, and it’s hard to make sure each of them has a great title (and actually is great to boot!). I think they do a great job with their program. But that said, it occurs to me that architects (and engineers, to a lesser extent) are some of the most gullible people I have ever seen, especially when it comes to anything to do with the business of design. It seems as if anyone with an MBA, anyone who self-publishes a book, or anyone who is married to an architect is suddenly an expert that has to be listened to. But there’s a hitch. How successful are these speakers? Why are they at the AIA convention? What qualifies them to tell anyone what to do? And more importantly, is the stuff they are telling design professionals true or right? So why do design professionals listen so intently? Design professionals generally have a narrow perspective on this business. It’s much like the neophyte fresh graduates we are all hiring in our firms, the ones who last 12 or 18 months on the job and then go somewhere else (often a place that’s no better) because they have no perspective. Most principals of design firms have worked in their current firm and one other organization for their entire post-graduate career. That’s not real wide-ranging experience. As a result, they are seeking information from others. Design professionals are not trained in business. The schools of architecture, interior design, planning, and engineering really do very little to educate their students in how to make money in this business. Basic accounting, finance, organizational behavior, and marketing courses are not offered to these students, and as a result, only a few (10% to 15% of principals) have any significant formal business education. Design professionals don’t really think you can make money in the business. The preponderance of firms in our business are small (fewer than 15 staff members). And the majority of owners of small firms, while they do OK, don’t get rich from their business. As a result, it’s conventional wisdom that you cannot make money in the design business. Therefore, they are looking for people who will validate their thinking that it’s OK to stay small, that design really isn’t a business but instead it’s art, or that having a lot of recurring problems with workload, cash flow, or turnover is normal. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Design professionals are nice, considerate, open-minded people. As a result, they tend to listen to what others have to say. They are trained to listen— to the client at least, and try to meet that client’s needs and expectations. They do the same with advisors, speakers, consultants, and industry “experts.” The other factor is that design professionals are used to deferring to others trained in different disciplines from themselves. It’s part of being in the business of planning, permitting, and designing construction projects, so most (not all) treat business experts accordingly. The bottom line is that while we are doing much, much better than we used to as an industry and as individual firms, we can do better still. We all have to continue to challenge conventional wisdom and challenge the experts who are put up in front of us to tell us better ways to do things. They don’t all know— some do, but most don’t. We each need to pursue our own education in business using every resource available. And we need to work in firms that are growing and challenging us every day to learn, because there’s still no substitute for on-the-job experience when it comes to management, leadership, marketing, and other business aspects of the profession. Originally published 8/28/2000.

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.