Survival>Sustainability>Success: How to Take Your Practice to the Next Level
Virtually every architecture practice starts in ‘survival’ mode. Many are permanently stuck in it. Over time, some grow and develop to become ‘sustainable’ businesses. But relatively few achieve real ‘success’. Here is what you need to focus on, to triumph and create a successful architecture practice.
by Ross Clark
Success in architectural practice can be elusive. Regardless of practice size or years of experience, many practice owners, directors and leaders believe that if they devote most of their energy to creating great architecture, business and financial success will follow. Fifteen years on, they still find themselves struggling in survival mode, never quite winning the top clients or projects that the ‘favoured’ practices seem to attract with ease.
So, what is a successful architecture practice doing differently? More importantly, what are you doing, or not doing, that’s holding you back? What’s creating barriers between you and real practice success? The chances are that a quick review of your practice will reveal some, if not many, of these cardinal sins of architecture practice:
#1 – You’re playing-to-play, not playing-to-win
Becoming an architect takes a lot of hard work. Getting to the point of founding your own successful architecture practice is an enormous achievement. You’re in the game!
However, like any creative, just being able to do what your competitors can do will only get you so far. Sure, if you do your best, you’ll probably manage to meet your costs, and you may win some happy clients along the way. But if you aim to be the best, to lead rather than follow, and to do everything possible to win, rather than just survive, you’ll go a long way to creating not just brilliant architecture, but continuous financial success as well.
Fix: Engage a suitably experienced business advisor or coach to help you create a clear business strategy. Ensure your plan is firmly based on a winning mindset, by focusing on hard work and not just talent, building resilience and perseverance, taking many small steps, and by being action-oriented rather than reflecting on what might have been.
#2 – You don’t know your ‘why’
Playing-to-win means you need a plan to win: A strategy to take your practice where few other practices go. This plan needs to have a specific objective. Otherwise, it’s pointless.
In any business, having clarity of purpose is essential to success. This purpose can’t just be to create great designs or even to build unique residences. Like Google (“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”), Tesla (“To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”) or TED (“Spread ideas”), who are all winners in their respective fields, you need to articulate a purpose that can continually drive you and your team to exceed your clients’ expectations. This purpose is your ‘why’.
Fix: Take some time out with your team and (if possible) a specialist consultant, to refine and clarify your ‘why’.
#3 – You’re not proactive about lead generation
Offering amazing outcomes won’t matter much if you don’t have any clients! The same can be said if you don’t tell them what your offer is and how it is relevant and unique.
Architects are in the sales business just as any other business owner. Yet many architects adopt the philosophy: Do good work, and the clients will walk in the door. However, the most profitable practices devote time, energy and money to nurturing leads, figuring out where the best prospects come from, and really getting to know and understand those people and organisations they target as potential clients.
Fix: Develop and implement a lead generation and nurturing program, using suitable software to automate as much of it as possible. The most popular packages include Monday.com. HubSpot, Pipedrive, Salesforce Pardot and LinkedIn.
#4 – You sell what you do, not the problem you solve
Probably the most common mistake architects make in sales and marketing – whether on their website, promotional material or in submissions – is to focus on what they do.
Well, guess what? Every other successful architecture practice out there can design. And document. And administer contracts. And apply for building approvals. What sets you apart, and what will have clients wanting to work with you, and even paying higher fees, is the ability to connect with them. Explain how you’re perfectly placed to solve their particular set of problems. Most potential clients only want to know that you’re on their page and that you can empathise with their unique circumstances.
Fix: Reconfigure your marketing to focus on the problems your practice solves. And use storytelling techniques to engage compellingly with prospective clients and shift the focus from product to people, just like Nike, Airbnb and Lego.
#5 – You think it’s all about design
One of the most common motivations for creative professionals starting their own practice is to regain design autonomy. Many architects wish to recapture the design freedom they had at university.
Yes, design is important. It can be critical to your brand and reputation. But you and your team will be lucky to spend 10% of your time in the creative phase of design. The rest of your time will be spent planning its execution and doing non-designerly things like making your business actually run. Devoting unrealistic amounts of time to design might make you feel great, but it won’t lead to success.
Fix: Track the time you and your team spend on all tasks and, based on the evidence you collect, ensure you maintain a sensible balance of income-producing time and non-income producing time.
#6 – You don’t see architectural practice as a team sport
Many architectural practices are sole practitioners. Many are known by the name of their founder. But no architect ever delivered a great building without input from others.
Whether you’re a sole practitioner or the principal of a large multi-office practice, you’re reliant on a range of players working together to deliver your product successfully. Some of these players may sit inside your practice, while others may be collaborators, consultants or outsourced contributors. Regardless of who they are, their ability to align and function as a high-performing team will be a crucial determinant of your practice’s success.
Given the rarity of high-performing teams, creating one can be a compelling point of difference. A high-performing team can overcome all sorts of challenges and consistently generate real innovation, creativity and sustainable business growth. A team’s effectiveness will often boil down to one simple thing: Trust. Without it, there can be no permission to fail, no encouragement to challenge the status quo, and no motivation to do better.
Fix: Getting the practice’s leadership to move away from an egocentric, do-as-I-say approach can be challenging. Generally, this can only happen when leader(s) fully commit to a genuine, team-based philosophy. It is virtually impossible for an ego-based leader to drive change – in these instances, an independent business adviser or coach will need to be engaged.
#7 – You never say ‘no’
As well as building trust within a team, you also need to build trust and belief in yourself. Have you ever said ‘yes’ to a project you really didn’t want? Have you persisted with a client who is not on the same page as you? Have you agreed to a low fee – or no fee at all – just to get the job?
Most architects have done all these things, especially in the early years of their practice. But despite rationalisations – “maybe this project will lead to something more exciting” or “I’m sure the client will change” or “let’s think of this low-fee job as an investment” – learning to trust your intuition and say ‘no’ is an essential milestone on your pathway to success.
Fix: Develop a clear strategic business plan. Clarify and define your overarching purpose. Build a team culture based on trust, where everyone operates with the same set of core values. A clear understanding of where you are going and how you plan to get there makes all the decision-making far more straightforward and empowers you to say ‘no’ to anything that is not aligned with your direction.
#8 – You consider yourself an expert rather than a facilitator
As a professional, part of your allure and value lies in your expertise – knowledge and awareness that the client doesn’t have. There was once a time when clients submitted to the view of the expert. But those days are virtually gone.
Business in the 21st century requires an equitable dialogue between customer and professional. A discussion that is based less on how much the professional knows and more on how effectively they can discover the unique aspects of the client’s needs and circumstances, will enable a genuinely creative outcome.
Fix: Prioritise continuous learning for everyone in your practice. Develop a clear strategy to embed proactive innovation and research into all aspects of your practice’s culture and operations.
#9 – You don’t plan for success
You wouldn’t recommend to a client that they build without a suitable plan. So, it’s confounding that so many architects feel comfortable trying to grow their business without a plan. It is ideal to create several different plans, extending from the big picture, strategic aspects of the business (strategic plan, business plan, growth strategy) down to the finer operational details (financial, resources, facilities, marketing).
To move from ‘survival’ to ‘sustainability’, it is best to focus on the financial plan and resources plan. Or, in simple terms, the finance budget and time budget. It is essential to set realistic targets based on your knowledge of past performance at both practice and project levels to deliver ongoing success.
Fix: How do you feel about the client who wants to override your specialist advice and design their own building? How often do you carry out your own structural or mechanical service designs? Business and strategic planning is a specialist skill, so hire a suitably experienced specialist to help you.
You don’t track or measure your performance
Without a plan, it’s almost impossible to measure performance effectively. This is because you have nothing to measure it against.
I suspect most practices would say they do measure performance. But while basic comparative statistics like the number of new projects, staff, or bank balance are informative, none of these bears any causal relationship to profitability. You could have twice as many projects, or staff, or a higher bank balance, but your business could still be less profitable.
Profit is not the only meaningful measure. Other values include client satisfaction, media coverage of your projects, and staff turnover. The better you perform across all aspects of your business, the closer you will get to success.
Fix: Establish critical measures relevant to your practice, set appropriate targets, and make sure you have systems in place to capture the performance data you need. Relevant measures might cover financial data (profitability, revenue, cash), staff (time, cost, length of tenure, satisfaction), customers (sources, conversion rates, satisfaction), media and awards coverage, and projects (type, size, value, services offered). Regularly compare actual performance with targets and be sure to take appropriate management action when targets aren’t met.
Breaking down these barriers to success
Practices that have overcome most of all of these barriers are far more likely to achieve success at levels well beyond basic business sustainability. But it is critical for highly a successful architecture practice to implement the required management actions deliberately and explicitly.
Behavioural and operational guidance is needed for everyone in the practice, to contribute to achieving great outcomes. Ensure that your practice’s leadership compiles, shares, and actively reinforces these guidelines with everyone in the business.
So, survival, sustainability or success? Which of these goals is the ceiling for your practice?
How far you can go will depend on how hard, and how smart, you’re prepared to work. A successful architecture practice will tell you that success is definitely achievable, and absolutely rewarding.
Ross Clark is the founder of Melbourne-based business coaching and advisory service, WhyWhatHow. He started his career as an architect and has more than thirty years’ experience in mentoring and coaching architects and creative professionals so they can start, innovate, and grow highly successful architecture practices.
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