Preparing for a New Practice Paradigm

January 8, 2010 · by Stephen Fiskum

Although creative disruption has always affected our business, this time around is different. Strategically optimistic professionals who align the zones of marketplace, skill, and passion, however, will find a career sweet spot.

As the economic tidal wave begins to subside, many design professionals are scrambling for a safe haven. Going forward, successful architects and designers will consider marketplace opportunities in profoundly different ways than they have in the past. They will embrace and develop new skills while renewing and adjusting the things they are passionate about.

It was easier in the past, when most of us could readily adapt to the mild rhythms of economic adjustment we had become accustomed to. Creative disruption was relatively kind to our industry. The ebb and flow of the economy over recent decades, coupled with technological advancement, had resulted in incremental changes in design and construction processes. For example, many of us who practiced during the double-digit stagflation period of the 1980s recall when phased design and early construction document packages became a way of doing business. This approach enabled construction to commence much earlier and with substantial cost savings. Similarly, design-build and GMP contracts became more widely accepted as effective ways to deliver new buildings.

As the recent long period of economic expansion coincided with advances in technology, the design professions have evolved in new ways. People newer to our professions may find it striking that just a couple of decades ago, a pair of computer-aided design and drafting stations with a compatible plotter cost upwards of a half-million dollars. Within a few years, this early CADD equipment became worthless as it was replaced by inexpensive and increasingly powerful personal computers. These are but a few reminders of how creative disruption has continually changed our business. Most of us would agree that the transition points have been relatively smooth, notwithstanding the occasional intervals of modestly higher unemployment during the milder periodic recessions.

The current Great Recession is different. The accompanying creative disruption is severe and relentless. The massive financial and market realignment we are experiencing occur once every two or three generations. Uncertainty is experienced by workers in virtually all industries. Design professionals are feeling vulnerable and anxious unlike any time in more than 50 years.

Only through the perspective of history will we fully understand the impact of the economic forces we are experiencing today. Yet it is informative to listen to the experts and begin preparing for the future. In his book Reset, Kurt Andersen writes of long-term political and economic cycles and the rare but inevitable intersections of their respective waves.

Such an intersection is at the heart of our current deep recession. As a result of several well-documented global trends, we are in the midst of a significant realignment of the world’s economy. The outcome is yet to be fully comprehended. Of course, such times of great change bring not only uncertainty, but they also present opportunity. In spite of today’s challenges, strategically optimistic architects and designers are preparing to thrive in the redefined design industry of tomorrow.

Preparing for Change

As we anticipate and prepare for new paradigms of design practice, it is helpful to consider the advice of career counselors and leadership coaches. They suggest that an individual is most successful and content when career pursuits are focused at the convergence of three important zones: marketplace, skill, and passion. Thinking of these zones as three intersecting circles, we find a triangle-shaped heart where the circles overlap. This center is the zone of convergence, and it’s unique for each individual. In fulfilled careers, people have convergence of their marketplace, their skills, and their passion. As the marketplace makes its periodic adjustments, adept design professionals renew their skills and refocus their passion to maintain a zone of convergence.

The current economic tsunami hit quickly and with a force that caused significant misalignment of the marketplace with the skills and passions of many people. The impact is all too evident in rising unemployment statistics for most industries and particularly for professionals practicing design. Collateral damage includes the loss of self-esteem and increased stress on the families and the personal relationships of the unemployed.

Applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to the current condition, within a short span of time, numerous design professionals have migrated from the highest tier of self-actualization to the lower tiers of safety and security. Design professionals who most rapidly bring their skills and passion back into convergence with the shifted marketplace will succeed more quickly than others.


In charting a change in course, we must be open to new paradigms. Mid-course corrections are neither comfortable nor easy. But thinking back on the periodic ebb and flow of the marketplace, we’ve all been making adjustments throughout our careers. The difference is that this time we may need to map our future with a felt-tip marker rather than a 4H pencil.

Zoning In

Consider the three zones. The marketplace zone is the one over which we have little or no control. Creative destruction, based on innovation and continuous improvement, is at the heart of a healthy and vibrant economic system. While we may lament the recent and rapid changes in the design and construction marketplace, it’s important to recognize that other industries have been dealing with more significant change for decades.

This ongoing disruption is often not evident from the typical government statistics. While the commonly reported unemployment figures indicate a net of 6 million jobs lost over the past year, other statistics show a tremendous churn in the job market that has been with us for many years. In fact, the number of people who have changed jobs during the previous 12 months is about 10 times the number of those currently unemployed. A large portion of the U.S. work force constantly migrates among employers and across industries. Such is the inventive and disruptive nature of our country’s dynamic economy.
Next to the recession itself, technology is responsible for the most visible economic disruption. Technology’s impact is seen in recent transformation of the banking, telecommunications, print media, and retail industries. By comparison, the design and construction marketplace has historically been slow in its pace of disruption and change — at least until now. Setting building information modeling technology aside for a moment, innovation in our industry occurs mostly through advances in the performance and manufacturing of building components. Architects and designers are, to a large extent, the integrators of these components, and many of our processes have changed little over time. While higher-value consulting services are less susceptible to the disruptive forces of technology, as we consider necessary future skills, we cannot ignore the technological advances that have brought havoc to many other industries.

The skills zone is an area where we have the ability to exert a great deal of control. New skills can be learned. While it may be therapeutic to commiserate about the anemic marketplace, we need to direct our energy toward that which we can control — our skills. In this regard, the designer’s unique DNA is a tremendous advantage. The innate skills and talent of design professionals make us well-suited to lead and contribute broadly at many levels of the built environment. Further, our unique thought patterns are advantageous as we visualize a new future. Career coaches validate this notion.

When coaches, who are often psychologists, work with design professionals to fine-tune their career path and leadership style, they sometimes employ assessment tools to identify personality traits and intellectual patterns. Whether gained through nature or nurture, these characteristics are rather indelible in each of us. Imperfect as assessment tools may be, they invariably uncover consistent traits common to most architects and designers. Time and again the results are similar. Most of us excel at seeing the big picture, discovering patterns and possibilities, imagining future options, and forming innovative ideas. It should be comforting to know that as designers we have innate qualities that will enable our success as we face an uncertain future. It’s in our DNA.

Accepting that we, as designers, have an ability to make sense out of uncertainty, the actual determination of the right skills we need in order to thrive in the future can be difficult. Since each of us must also consider our passion zone in our professional pursuits, there is no single right answer regarding optimal skill sets.

One thing is certain: The solution to the current malaise in our profession is not for us to go broader but to go deeper. We must focus on how we will bring our clients unexpected strategic value. Our value proposition is highest when we guide clients through their earliest decisions that impact myriad subsequent choices.

Recent American Institute of Architects surveys validate this growing trend of going deeper by confirming that two-thirds of design firms work primarily in a single market sector. The downside to developing deeper expertise is that we may be less versatile and less adaptable to economic shifts. During the current recession, a focus on narrow expertise has significantly affected firms that practice in certain tightly defined markets. While this focus resulted in competitive advantage during good times, the lack of diversity has been devastating for firms that find themselves with expertise in a market that does not need it. As a defense tactic, some individuals and firms follow a strategy to remain agile in two or three markets whose trends are complementary over time.

The Choice to Change

As we reassess our skills zone and consider how to remain relevant, being mindful of social trends is a good starting point. Futurists ponder the impact of trends, both local and global, such as changing demographics, migration to cities, scarcer energy, global warming, and the relentless advance of technology.

For designers, studying trends informs our thinking about how the built environment must respond to long-term societal changes. As we look for new opportunities in the context of global trends, the entire life cycle of the building industry holds great promise. Architects and designers need to become more comfortable with our potential to lead throughout all aspects of a building’s useful life. Some entrepreneurial professionals already visualize their impact as embracing the full spectrum of the built environment.
 
More specifically, in addition to our more common leadership in programming, building design, and sustainability, we can also provide leadership in related areas such as building component research and development, long-range planning, construction management, commissioning, building operations and maintenance, repurposing, and building recycling.

Further, while the majority of practitioners in our fields may continue applying their skills through traditional practices, opportunities abound in politics, governmental agencies, the corporate arena, education institutions, and more. With regard to technology, we all know that the process of making construction documents, from which many firms generate half their revenue, is being revolutionized by building information modeling. New BIM technologies are compressing our work effort while expanding collaboration among the dozens of partners who join together to make a building. The integrative nature of BIM technology requires highly skilled and experienced architects and designers who are computer savvy and software adept. But it’s likely that fewer of these individuals may be needed in the future — a result of creative disruption.

Learning new skills requires a significant investment of time and energy. While much of architects’ annually mandated continuing education rightly focuses on staying current on professional issues of health, safety, and welfare, we should be investing hundreds of hours in learning new skills that provide greater client value and more targeted differentiation.

Of course, much time is required to develop credible expertise, not to mention valuable experience, in a new discipline. We must be realistic. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell observes that mastery of a skill requires at least 10,000 hours of focused practice. Since most of us do not have the luxury of investing 10,000 hours during this recession, we might consider partnering with others who have already mastered disciplines that complement our own. Well-considered strategic partnerships can result in high-impact services that differentiate us. For example, some architects have partnered with lean consultants who understand the Toyota Production System. Together, they design buildings and processes that provide clients with a competitive edge. Other designers, teamed with anthropologists, bring forth new powers of observation and discovery leading to highly innovative solutions.

Partnering possibilities are limitless. Perhaps our professional societies should consider inviting more disciplines into the tent. More voices bring greater power and influence.

Redefining Passion

Our passion zone is where we may struggle with our identity and lack the courage to embrace change. Our preconceptions of the idealized architect and designer have been formed over time, often over decades, and we understandably have difficulty letting go. When creative disruption upsets the harmony of our three zones, if even temporarily, we have a choice to make. The courageous will choose change over inaction.
 
In the same way that we conceptualize and design the future for our clients, we must similarly do so for ourselves. We may wisely choose to execute this design process in phases, keeping multiple options open as the future marketplace becomes better understood.

To succeed as design professionals in our changing economic environment, we must consider new practice models. If past is prologue, then we know that some professionals and their organizations can be slow to accept change. With the best of intentions, they sometimes perpetuate obsolete paradigms.

Indeed, the greatest threats to the livelihood of architects and designers today are not from each other but from those outside of our industry who seek unmet client needs. The seduction that design holds for many of us can deter a more holistic approach, and we sometimes enable others from outside our industry to step in and capitalize on opportunities. Unlike many architects and designers, these outsiders are unconstrained by preconceived notions of what their business is and is not. Those who doubt the reality of this outside threat need only to explore a few of the Fortune 500 companies. Some are now in the business of planning and delivering K-12 schools. Others are investing heavily in the exploration of new health care delivery models.

This Great Recession and its aftermath will pass. Strategically optimistic design professionals will survive this Darwin-like experience and they will be positioned to thrive again. They will have explored and acted on the two zones of convergence within their control — skill and passion. Newly minted skills and freshly defined passions will align with a new and different marketplace. A healthy dose of optimism combined with our unique DNA will serve us well as we envision and prepare for the new future of design.


Stephen Fiskum is a partner and the chief operating officer at HGA Architects and Engineers. In addition to his operations role, he is a practicing architect and actively serves a range of clients. He is a frequent speaker at forums on a variety of topics relevant to design practice and is a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council and sits on the DFC Executive Board.

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