When I first got out of graduate school with my MBA back in 1980, I went to work for a consulting/recruiting firm in St. Louis that specialized in serving the construction and real estate development industries. They did a lot of work for some of the bigger developers— particularly shopping center developers— and for a wide variety of general and specialty contractors. And, though they occasionally had opportunities to work for architects and engineers, the word throughout the firm was, “Those people are bad clients. They can’t make a decision.”Of course, being young and knowing it all, I pooh-poohed the conventional wisdom there and started doing work for— you guessed it— A/E firms. I liked the people. They were smart, creative, and talented— and heaven knows, they needed help! That said, now it’s more than 24 years later— and I have come to realize that there was a lot of truth to my 1980 coworkers’ prejudices. A lot of people in A/E/P and environmental firms CANNOT make a decision to save their lives! Especially when it comes to their own firms— too many owners and managers are paralyzed at every little decision. When firms are paralyzed and cannot make decisions, it becomes readily apparent to the rest of the employees. It’s demotivating and frustrating and too often results in good people leaving the firm. Successful firms in our business seem to have somehow gotten past this “paralysis syndrome.” If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be successful. How do they do it? Here’s a quick summary of my observations of firms where the owners and managers CAN make decisions:They pick the right leader. The right leader is decisive. He or she seeks out the information that’s available and then makes the call. If a mistake is made, it’s admitted and a new decision is made. The wrong leader cannot make the call. There’s always more information available and it ought to be considered. They make plans and stick to them. Firms that can make a decision start by having a solid business plan. It defines what the business is all about, what its thrust is, and what the basic strategies are to be followed. This makes it easy for the managers to make decisions because they know the philosophy from the top. They just need to be sure that their decision is consistent with that and everything will work out.They have very clear management responsibilities and lines of authority and then don’t second-guess it. The firms that show they can make decisions have managers who are in charge of their areas that are allowed to do their jobs. The marketing director is not forced to run everything they do past the principals. The head of the Fayetteville office can decide to hire a new engineer if that’s his call to make. The head of structural engineering can delay the completion of final plans and specs if adequate checks have not been performed. The CFO can enforce the firm’s collection procedures without being stopped by a principal. You get the idea. Clear responsibilities and lines of authority are essential to good decision-making.They work on building trust among the managers. One of the reasons people working in A/E firms cannot make a decision on anything is that they don’t trust their fellow employees. How can you build this trust? I am not sure. I think the best way is to simply have a lot of interaction and contact with those people who do need to work together. If they don’t ever do anything together, and don’t know each other well, there won’t be the same level of trust there.Their culture says it’s OK to fail (but not spectacularly!) as long as you don’t keep repeating mistakes. If people feel failure is punished severely, then they will tend to have difficulty making a decision. “It’s best to poll everyone to see if anyone objects. Then if it turns out to fail, you can’t be blamed.” You really have to work hard to make sure your employees don’t get this impression!It’s clear that the ability to make good decisions quickly is an essential element in business success today. The pace is getting faster and faster, and the new, often more entrepreneurial companies have a high energy level as well as the ability to make quick decisions. If you want to compete in the world of the future, you need to think about what you can do to speed up and improve the quality of decision-making in your firm. Think about it.Originally published 10/11/04
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.
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