Develop your strategic thinking

Feb 28, 2021

Strategic thinking enables us to enlarge the value and impact of our work, connecting it much more than a technical solution.

As the landscape of the AEC industry changes to adapt to the “next normal,” we are having less direct contact with our clients and are in some cases seeing tightening budgets and increasing competition. In the past, we may have been able to retain clients primarily because of personal relationships, but delivering business value will increasingly be the key to strengthening client relationships and maintaining loyalty.

To consistently deliver business value, we will need to develop our strategic thinking ability. When planning a project, most of us are inclined to see a technical problem in need of a technical solution. Yet the client is more likely to see a technical problem that creates business impacts, thus requiring a technical solution that delivers business results.

That’s not a natural perspective for many technical practitioners. We’re generally more comfortable describing technical scopes of work and solutions. Our brains tend to be hardwired for focused analytical problem solving. Thus our strategic thinking muscles can atrophy from underuse.

I read a lot about leadership, culture, the client experience, and the like, much of it specific to the AEC industry. When strategic thinking is discussed, it’s usually related to corporate or marketplace strategy. Rarely do I read about strategic thinking in the context of project delivery, especially as it relates to our profession.

That would explain why many clients these days see our services as a commodity and see us as order-takers rather than consultants. Perhaps it also explains why industry multipliers on labor have come down over the years while the cost of living continues to increase. Well, perhaps I’ll dive into that another day. Suffice it to say, if we are going to focus on delivering business value, we have to use our strategic thinking muscles to develop strategic, valuable solutions.

Let me clarify what I mean by strategic thinking. You can find a wide variety of definitions on the internet, but a couple of recurrent themes are apparent: 1) Seeing the big picture, and 2) focusing on desired results. Strategic thinking involves a broad examination of factors, inevitably extending beyond narrow realms of expertise. Critically, it must be viewed through the lens of the client, to the extent possible, since they define success. Strategic thinking is also necessarily driven by desired outcomes. Neither of these major themes are routinely integrated into the typical AEC project, particularly on the engineering and scientific side of the business.

At SCS Engineers, we are endeavoring to strengthen our strategic thinking through a results-oriented project planning framework and in-project coaching for our project teams. We try to involve as many team members as practical, because we want to encourage strategic thinking at all levels. And we want to identify those individuals, particularly younger professionals, who show an innate ability to think strategically, so we can help them develop those skills further.

The project planning framework that we’ve introduced is based on a few core principles that help promote strategic thinking. These can be summarized as follows:

  • Problem definition at three levels. We break down client needs at the strategic, technical, and people levels, with the intent of better aligning our perspective with that of the client. Strategic needs are those that impact the client’s overall success. People needs relate to impacts to the client’s staff, their customers, constituents, neighbors, or society at large. Technical needs are, of course, our specialty. But we want to guard against blind spots in our technical assessment where problems extend beyond our areas of expertise. We’ll seek outside help if necessary.
  • Outcomes before strategy. Project success is realized by achieving specific outcomes, which need to be defined before shaping project strategy. In our profession, we have a tendency to define project success as a sound technical solution delivered on time and within budget. At SCS, we’re pushing our staff to connect their work (and definition of success) to the client’s ultimate return on investment. Thus, we can’t outline a sufficient strategy until we clearly understand what the project needs to achieve.
  • Strategy before scope. Experienced technical professionals can produce a detailed scope of work rather quickly. And that’s part of the problem. Without a project strategy that weaves our technical approach and solution together with client goals and ROI, we tend to revert to simply doing what we’ve done before – often without understanding what it is we’re really supposed to accomplish. No wonder clients often treat us as a commodity. Strategy defines the larger project narrative that positions us to deliver distinctive value to clients.
  • Clients before projects. Like most every other firm in this business, SCS could be described as a project-delivery company. That’s what we do. But it’s important to recognize that projects are not really the focus of what we do. They are merely the means to an end – satisfying our client’s needs and aspirations. Strategic thinking in the context of projects unavoidably puts the client at the center. By contrast, when we become consumed with the details of executing the project, we can easily lose sight of why we’re doing the project in the first place.

Strategic thinking enables us to enlarge the value and impact of our work, connecting it much more than a technical solution. That’s why developing more of it in our firm has become a priority for me.

Eduardo Smith, P.E. is senior vice president of client success at SCS Engineers. Contact him at

Click here to read this week's issue of The Zweig Letter.

About Zweig Group

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.