Centralize, decentralize, or neither?

May 23, 2021

There is a third option that empowers leaders at all levels, provides a foundation for growth, and offers a sound path forward.

Organizations that grow by making acquisitions and opening offices in new locations often find themselves struggling with a two-sided dilemma: Should they centralize the expanding organization’s leadership and operations, or decentralize and give individual locations the autonomy to operate almost as individual firms?

Having wrestled with this challenge over the last two decades, BSA LifeStructures recently recognized a third way: One firm, with leaders throughout the organization. I think our experience could help others facing the same challenge.

Context. In its nearly 50-year history, BSA LifeStructures has worked through both sides of the centralized versus decentralized debate. Founded by an engineer named Dwight Boyd and an architect named Richard Sobieray, the firm enjoyed decades of strong growth and, by 2000, had emerged as a substantial firm doing regional and national work from a single office. The board wisely recognized that the firm had outgrown this structure and pursued geographic diversification.

As a result of that vision, today BSA has seven offices that – thanks in large part to a traditional regional director structure – generally have operated like businesses within the business. While that approach served us well in some ways, over time it also led to inconsistent performance and anemic growth. The problem? The firm was operating in silos rather than, as our new vision asserts, as “OneBSA.”

To address this challenge, our leadership team took a hard look at the current firm and its future vision and sought the best way to get from one to the other. That process involved four steps: assess, plan, execute, and sustain and grow.

  • Assess. While we already were looking for a better way forward, the pandemic provided a perfect catalyst for change by further highlighting the firm’s structural deficiencies. In response, the firm created a leadership subcommittee to examine the current state and outline changes that would better align the firm across its locations. While the analysis was voluminous, the guide for change was concise, covering a simple A3 document with the following headings: background, current state, goals, analysis, recommendation, and implementation plan. Within eight hours, the leaders aligned around the Lean A3 tool.
  • Plan. Developing a plan required attention to five key factors:
    • Structure. To communicate the OneBSA concept, the firm adopted a matrix presenting leadership across two perpendicular axes: practices (healing, learning, and discovery) and disciplines (architecture, engineering, planning, and interiors). BSA’s missional magic of “creating inspired solutions that improve lives” occurs at the intersection of practices and disciplines. See an example of this below.
    • Design. Having focused on raising the visibility of its design over the past five years, leadership wanted a structure that reflects a design emphasis, so design was elevated as a separate discipline integrated into the existing disciplines.
    • Leadership. To empower leadership at all levels, this new structure designates executive, national, studio, and project leaders. For example, in the discipline of architecture, the chief operating officer serves as executive leader, the director of architecture as national leader, the architectural lead as studio leadership, and project architect as project leader. This creates a contiguous thread of leadership from the executive team to the project team.
    • Right person, right seat. In keeping with the Entrepreneurial Operating System, a right-person-right-seat analysis ensured that proper leaders were placed in key executive and national roles. Tools like Clifton StrengthsFinder and Cultural Index were employed to understand individuals’ leadership capabilities, and then designated leaders were charged with creating their own teams.
    • Accountabilities. Also in keeping with the EOS methodology, responsibilities for each role were condensed into five accountabilities based on the SMART acronym: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based.
  • Execute. Using Prosci’s ADKAR change management model, we rolled out the new structure with the following headlines: Why is BSA changing? What is not changing? How is BSA changing? What is BSA changing? Using a fail-fast mindset, macro changes were implemented, knowing it was imperative that leaders at the studio and project levels understand the micro implications.
  • Sustain and grow. Having worked under the OneBSA structure for nine months, BSA has seen outcomes any firm would appreciate: increased revenue, greater profitability, and improved quality. More important, the firm is working better across geographic boundaries, a result that has been accelerated by work-from-home policies that allow work to be done regardless of location. In other words, the third way – the OneBSA way – empowers leaders at all levels and provides a foundation for growth. For firms that have evolved beyond the either/or centralization debate, it offers a sound path forward.

Tim Spence is the president at BSA LifeStructures. He can be reached at tspence@bsalifestructures.com.

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