Holding Us Back

Apr 10, 1995

What holds us back as individuals and companies? That question is critical to any A/E/P and environmental firm that wants to be more successful— and being successful is what it’s all about. There’s a tremendous opportunity in our business right now. Some firms and the people who work in them are tapping into that opportunity. Most are not. If you know what’s holding you back, maybe you can do something about it. Do any of these obstacles seem familiar? Cost-based pricing. Sure, “value pricing” is a buzzterm. But there’s something to the idea that most A/E/P and environmental firms could benefit from. The problem firms have with this concept is clients who insist they work by the hour. So instead of trying to convince them of the benefits of fixed-fee pricing, the typical firm immediately caves in to whatever constraints its client imposes on them. And if you can’t make any real money on the work you are doing, you’ll never be in a position to make the investments required to grow your company. Too much focus on offices, geography, disciplines, and projects, and not enough on clients. Too many A/E/P and environmental firms are caught up in managing their business based on factors that mean very little to their clients. Big, spread-out multidiscipline firms working for a broad variety of clients have the toughest time with this issue. Instead of organizing themselves around client groups so they can get their overhead infrastructure, marketing, people, and accounting in line, they organize around offices serving a wide variety of client types. Is it any wonder clients don’t get the best the firm has to offer? Or why one office may hoard work when perfectly qualified people in another office have nothing to do? Is it any wonder that a firm that can’t smooth out its peaks and valleys and get its best people working for clients may be held back? An “I’ll find what’s wrong with it” mentality at the top. Although you shouldn’t generalize, it’s widely accepted in the industry that engineers are the worst when it comes to figuring out why something shouldn’t be done. Some people think they are being smart when they “play devil’s advocate.” You can always find a reason why you shouldn’t do something. But only a fool thinks the results will change for the better if he keeps doing things the same way. Firms that can’t break out of this mold are stuck. The need to justify everything before doing anything. This is an extension of the previous point. Some companies believe they need to completely justify every nickel of marketing expense, in terms of the profits those expenditures will bring back. Or how about the company that wants to know how the new computer will be paid for or they won’t buy it? Firms that have this attitude get mired down so badly making even the smallest of decisions, they fall behind their competitors. Fear of change. Change is painful. Change requires a certain faith that everything will work out. Faith cannot always be justified— it’s just there. People who don’t have this faith fear change. They don’t change their behavior, and as a result, can’t keep up. People who can’t keep up hold the firm back in their constant effort to keep things as they are. Excess inbreeding. Some companies never seem to go outside when a key person needs to be added. While it’s usually best if you can promote from within, that policy, taken to an extreme, can do more than hold back a firm. It can kill it due to a lack of new ideas coming in from other successful companies. New blood re-energizes a firm. Poor role models and continual comparisons to other mediocre firms. Most firm principals learn the business from their predecessors. And these predecessors were all too often owners in smaller, less successful firms. On top of that, most of the industry data that firms use to set their goals are based on means and medians from a group of firms that, by-and-large, aren’t that successful. Is it any wonder they don’t perform better than this group when their frame of reference is one of mediocrity? Principals who have already achieved their goals. If you have already accomplished what you wanted to, anything that risks losing that achievement isn’t worth it. Too many of the top people in this business are in that mode, although most won’t admit it. And when you think like that, there’s no reason to take even the smallest risk. That systematically destroys opportunity. A desire to control everything. This is one of the primary “hold-backs” of firm principals and their firms. If you feel that you will always be able to do what you do better than some other person in your firm, you have set a limit on what you can accomplish. If you’re really good, you may be right— for now. But the only way anyone will be able to learn what you do and improve on it is to do it. That requires you to part with some of your activities. The “craftsman” mentality requires that the craftsman controls it all from top to bottom. But there’s only so much a single craftsman can produce. Sometimes you need a factory. Getting sucked into “hot” management panaceas. Major change initiatives can be dangerous when they are based on creatively packaged management jargon sold by people who make money teaching other people how to make money. Countless firms waste time and money by jumping on the latest bandwagon, only to find that it didn’t live up to its promise. This negative experience is then used as justification by future “can’t-do” thinkers on why things shouldn’t change. A defeatist, loser attitude. You have heard the saying: “You can’t soar with the eagles when you run with turkeys.” Firms that are populated— especially at the highest level— by people who are convinced you cannot be successful in this business— are no doubt held back from achieving their real potential. Originally published 4/10/1995

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.