Two firms, one team

May 15, 2017

Firms that prepare together find that the investment in time and resources equates to project wins and good relationships.

Teaming with other AEC firms is a common strategy to win work that requires different types of expertise, size, and capabilities. What is not so common is presenting a seamless partnership to the client, both in the proposal and during the interview. “Sometimes I get the impression that teams met in the parking lot before they walked in,” said the director of a large city transportation department in the Puget Sound region.

To build a team that is more than the sum of its parts, follow these six strategies:

  1. Visit the site together – early. Insights gained by spending time together at the site will translate into memorable stories and anecdotes both in the proposal and during the interview. Both teams will have a canvas to describe how their unique expertise will translate into designing, building, or improving the project. Being able to describe in the local vernacular things you saw together – the big rock, the fir tree, the gully – shows that you have invested the time to partner effectively. One team we worked with was interviewing for a highly visible university project that featured outside study and gathering areas. The landscape architect flew in late and walked the site at night with a flashlight!
  2. Build a balanced proposal together. Often, one team will take the lead on the proposal, usually because it has the marketing horsepower or is the prime – and it shows. When the lead firm has slick project examples and customized content and the other firm’s content is clearly repurposed from other proposals, the client immediately sees that the team is not “together.” This becomes especially evident because panel members tell us that they often evaluate proposals by laying them side by side.
  3. Clarify roles at the beginning of the project – and in the interview. To avoid any confusion or redundant work, set in writing the expectations between the two teams so everyone understands who is responsible for what. “We believe that preparing a formal teaming agreement helps ensure the success of our partnerships with contractors and other design professionals. The process engages us in a dialogue that gets the key issues on the table and enables us to develop a collaborative approach based on mutual awareness and trust. It can be the foundation of a key storyline in our statement of qualifications and interview that resonates with our prospective client,” says Walter Schacht and Cima Malek-Aslani of Schacht | Aslani, a Seattle-based architecture firm. Clarifying roles before the interview is critical so the selection panel will have a clear understanding of what is to come. It’s also something panels say teams often fall short on. You may know your roles, but the panel needs to understand exactly what the PM on one team and the assistant PM on the other are – and are not – doing.
  4. Work out the step-by-step processes by which the team will make decisions. Selection panels are trying to understand how you will work together – and with them. How will decisions be made during the actual project? The PM on one team and the landscape architect from the other should explain the processes that they use to make decisions, to the point of being able to finish each other’s sentences. This is where a third-party “expert” brought in to bolster the team can do more harm than good. Unless the expert can invest the time to prepare with the team, the panel is likely to see that person as disconnected from the team and just a hired gun.
  5. Co-present ideas. Continuing the strategy above, members from both teams should present ideas together. While this may seem like a no-brainer, we often see one team do most of the talking while the other team sits on their hands. Team members should speak from their role, not just toss out comments. This is especially critical in design-build projects. “In design-build, the client’s goal is a balanced and collaborative team of design-builder and architect. In this balanced arrangement for success, it’s imperative the architect’s design doesn’t drive the process and the design-builder doesn’t squash the design. In this happy medium, the client will achieve design-build’s goals of functionality, creativity, and quality within the budget and schedule aspirations,” says Anthony Gianopoulos, principal at Perkins+Will in Seattle.
  6. Show you are more than the sum of your parts. How can all team members use their expertise not just to solve the project needs, but to help the client reach their long-term goals? What can your combined team do that others cannot? Surprisingly, teams often do not explain why the two firms chose each other and what unique benefits they bring. Ask yourself: What is the single biggest advantage we bring to the table? If you don’t ask and answer it, the selection panel will have to figure it out for themselves – and they probably won’t.

Teams from different firms that prepare together find the investment in time and resources pays off in the form of not just a project win, but a relationship that pays dividends long after the project is over.

Scott Johnston is a principal strategist and facilitator at Johnston Training Group. He can be reached at

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.