Editorial: Lessons from the Shanghai Circus

Aug 15, 2013

Mark Zweig offers three simple tips: specialize, coach and choose your team well.

I went to what some of us refer to as “Hillbilly Paradise” for a couple days with my family last week – Branson, Mo. It’s an easy two-hour drive from where we live and with school starting for our seven-year-old the week after, I thought we should end the summer on some kind of a fun note. In addition to our requisite day spent at Silver Dollar City – one of the best-managed theme parks in the country that I could easily write a separate editorial on – we also bought some tickets for “The Acrobats of China” show at 8 p.m. at the New Shanghai Circus. And WOW – we were absolutely blown away by what we saw! These young athletes/performers could do things I had no idea human beings could do. Whether it was a dozen guys all juggling a half dozen hats at the exact same time flawlessly, or a young woman spinning 50 hula hoops while standing on the shoulders of someone standing on the shoulders of someone else, I have never seen anything like it. Every act was performed perfectly without a single obvious mistake. You would have to see this show yourself to believe it. The whole time I sat there watching, all I could think about was what it took for these young people to become so proficient at what they did. Most of them, I would guess, were under 20 – with perhaps a few as old as 25. How many hours a day did they have to spend practicing? And how did they all manage to get along and work as a team – in spite of the petty dramas we can all imagine they must be going through? The intense focus of the work, activity, and energy culminates in a flawless team performance. How does this apply to our world of A/E/P and environmental consulting? There are many lessons we can learn. Here are my thoughts:
  1. Specialize. There is no way you are going to be good at anything being a jack of all trades. If you want good fees – nice jobs – and to be listened to by your clients, you have to specialize. It doesn’t mean that the firm can’t do many different things but the individuals in it need to focus. Just like the people who can send Chinese yo-yos 50 feet into the air and catch them at the same time – you won’t be any good at anything unless you do a lot of it. This is fundamental and at the core of many firms’ performance problems.
  2. Coach. While the athletes may be the stars we see performing on stage, they wouldn’t be there if not for the coaches behind the scenes. You (the principals and managers) are the coaches – or should be – for your stars (the designers/engineers/doers). Are you really doing all you can to help your people develop? That takes intense observation and a willingness to give immediate, honest feedback. We have problems with both of these in A/E firms. As the principals and managers, you are doing too many tasks that are below your skill level, therefore keeping others from getting the experience they need. You are too separated from your workers – physical office design and firm culture both contributing to this problem. You also don’t take the time to observe and offer immediate feedback to your people. Our bad performance appraisal schemes work against that.
  3. Your whole effort is only as good as the weakest member of your team. Once again – firms in our business do a horrible job at weeding out the dead wood. We just don’t do it. Instead, we have been brainwashed to think all turnover is bad. It isn’t. No team takes (and keeps) everyone who wants to be on it. To get a performance like I saw at the New Shanghai Circus you have to weed out the duds, the malcontents, the troublemakers, the lazy ones, the ones who just don’t have the aptitude, and whomever cannot cut it for ANY reason. We like to keep everyone – and keep reshuffling them around. Then when a mistake is made that costs us reputation capital, we wonder why. This is why!
Think about what you could do with your business if you ran it more like a Chinese acrobat show. I would predict amazing accomplishments! Mark Zweig is the chairman and CEO of ZweigWhite. Contact him with questions or comments at mzweig@zweigwhite.com. This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310), issue #1020, originally published 8/19/2013. Copyright© 2013, ZweigWhite. All rights reserved.

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