What's Relevant in 2011?

Jan 05, 2011

From the Chairman:Ed Friedrichs
As the end of this rather protracted recession plays out (we all hope), I’ve been questioning lots of clients— both the architecture/ engineering firms to whom I consult and the companies or institutions that hire them— searching for the “North Star” to guide us into the era we’re entering. And I think I’ve found it. It’s a fairly simple idea, really, summed up by the word “relevance.” As in, “Is what you’re doing relevant to what your clients need and want?” Or more bluntly, do they really feel like they need you at all or do they merely accept your role as a necessary encumbrance to accomplishing their project? “Are we going to have fun working together?,” has been replaced with, “Is there really anything at all that you do that will improve my business?” In other words, they’re as frustrated as you are, scared to death and grasping at straws to stay relevant to their own customers and clients. To put this idea of “relevance” simply, if you can use design to enhance the performance of their enterprise, they’ll stop and listen. If not, why should they bother to spend the next moment with you when the wolves are at their door? Embracing this idea will give you legs well into a strong global recovery. And “global” is one of the reasons. Even the smallest firms are learning that they can pursue work outside their local communities, and outside the U.S. for that matter. So what will stop very talented, bright and competitive professionals from other countries from pursuing work here? In the new competitive environment, teams of talented professionals creating grand monuments to proudly display in a vanity press edition of their work will be passed very quickly by those that demonstrate how every aspect of their design enhances business performance— not just the beauty of what they create but every unseen element that effects how the things they’re designing will make their client successful. Another wrinkle is being added to the competitive environment: firms are aggregating, through merger or acquisition, to be able to serve a client who has multiple service needs in a number of geographic areas. Small firms are creating alliances (and developing a track record of working effectively with alliance partners so they are ready and credible when a client wants testimonials) to do the same thing. An interest in developing a deep knowledge of a client, their organization and industry, and an ability to understand how that client wants to be served, will be a singular distinguishing characteristic of a relevant firm. Deeply observing a client’s business processes, learning through personal immersion how it functions, and using your creative talents to recommend ideas about how their business can be made more effective is another defining characteristic of relevance. What design innovations will make parishioners feel more spiritual in the chapel you’re designing (so they tell their friends about their experience, expanding the congregation— and, by the way, putting more money in the offer plate)? What design elements will engage customers more deeply in the shopping experience of the store you’re designing so they come back often and bring their friends along to share the experience they had? What ideas can you offer in the design of an airline terminal that will cause a passenger to chose that airline in the future over a rival serving similar routes? Have you ever thought of spending a night or two in a college dorm room after being commissioned to do the new dormitory so you can find out what students vie for? Learning to think this way is not so difficult, but it does require focus and a change in attitude as you discuss and critique work within your office. These principles are equally applicable to engineers. Take a simple example: the role of a mechanical engineer in this era of reduced energy, high performance, sustainably designed buildings. Are you simply sizing ducts, specifying “Energy Star” equipment and adding a few solar panels? Or have you migrated to a more collaborative role on the design team, participating in and modeling the energy and performance of the proposed building as alternative site orientations and skins are considered? Have you begun to work with the structural engineer to use the thermal mass of the building as part of your cooling strategy? This is what a migration to “relevance” looks like to client “A,” the architect. But what about client “B,” the entity commissioning the building? Are you helping the architect be more relevant to his client by providing energy modeling and lifecycle cost analyses to make him smarter in his discussions with the financial analysts so first cost scrutiny doesn’t prevent the construction of a building that will quickly recover any differential through reduced operating costs? This strategy for relevance requires a new vocabulary and attitude within your team. It means that you must challenge each aspect of the design as you are working to define its relevance to your client and their issues. It demands rehearsal before every client meeting to assure that every aspect of your design will go beyond assuaging your client’s fears, thrilling them with how deeply you’ve become engaged in their business issues. This is how you’ll become relevant in today’s challenging economy and stay relevant in tomorrow’s globally competitive world.

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