How architectural engineering firms can gain traction for growth

If a strategic plan isn't working, there are five main reasons why the plan isn't working as well as expected and how to fix it.

By Mark Goodale November 6, 2023

There are few things more demoralizing in business than putting heart and soul into a strategic plan that ultimately goes nowhere. The AE firm’s future is at stake, yet despite all of the best efforts, once the sugar-high of the planning process wears off, the partners immediately abandon working on the business and return to their comfort zone—working in it.

The sparkling mission statement, the shiny new vision, the monster goals, the detailed implementation plan, the soulful introspection, the emotional declarations, the iron-clad commitments—all of it—turns to vapor right before your eyes.

Say it isn’t so! But, as Cosmo Kramer once famously said when asked if he had, in fact, eliminated the practice of wearing a rather fundamental undergarment, “Oh, it be so.”

But why, after all of this hard work and seemingly good intentions, do these best-laid plans go to waste?

Well, there are a bunch of reasons. Here are five of them:

  1. Lack of clarity in the vision: “Do we really need to say how big we are going to be? I think that will scare people off.” Nine times out of ten, the people who say such things aren’t nearly as concerned about the tender feelings of the staff as they are about having to put their weight behind real growth. But don’t give in. If the firm’s direction is to double its size in five years, sing it from the rooftops. If you leave it vague (for which many will advocate as others righteously nod their heads in approval), you are simply kicking the can down the road. All of your firm’s strategic decisions hinge on its vision and direction. If those things are unclear, good luck getting any agreement on key investments and generating any real momentum on meaningful initiatives. You can’t agree to disagree about the vision. Your company isn’t, and shouldn’t be, for everyone. Those who can’t or won’t get on board would march to their own tunes with or without a clear vision, so you might as well draw the line. Of course, everyone should be heard and listened to, but there can be only one direction for a company. Perhaps those who can’t or won’t get on board would be better off hanging out their own shingles. And so would your firm.

  2. Unimaginative, uninspired communication of the plan: So, how do you plan on unveiling your strategic plan? Will it be a thrilling sermon? Will it be a graphics-packed PowerPoint on a Teams call? Will it be communicated by the CEO, and the CEO alone? Yuck, yuck and yuck. Hackneyed techniques for communicating the strategic plan to the organization can lead to a lack of understanding and a lack of buy-in. Employees need to understand the plan’s importance, their roles in it, and how it aligns with the firm’s overall goals. So, design ways to get engagement beyond asking, “Does anyone have any questions?” to a broad audience of people who, understandably, don’t want to speak up in front of the entire firm. Think of the rollout as an orientation rather than a presentation. Set up an open-space meeting where the various components of the plan are represented in facilitated break-out areas in a large room, and let people go where their feet take them so they can ask questions and offer ideas in smaller, self-forming “communities of interest.” And once implementation begins, faithfully update the firm on the plan’s progress at least every quarter.

  3. Resistance to change: Let’s face it. Folks in the AE industry tend to like their comfort zones and will do what they must to maintain the status quo—whether it’s openly defying the new direction, arriving late and leaving early, spreading gossip, or exhibiting passive aggressive behavior. This stance could stem from fear of the unknown, perceived job insecurity, or simply a lack of motivation to change. Managing change starts with talking and listening. Define the change; specify what is changing, and why; and perhaps equally important, communicate what is not changing. Seek to understand concerns and let employees know you are on their side and you’re there to help them be successful. Consider implementing change in phases and conducting pilot programs to avoid overwhelming staff. But ultimately, you’ll need to change the people—or change the people.

  4. No implementation plan: Strategic planning requires big thinking and looking way out there, but if you don’t eventually get down to the nitty-gritty, nothing is going to happen. Now, you don’t have to map out every single action item that’s going to happen over the next five years. You can’t predict what will work and what won’t. But you do need to get off the dime. So, create specific action items that will get key initiatives off the ground. Who will do what and by when? The “who” should be one person, not a committee. People in committees tend to point fingers at each other. Now, these “champions” don’t have to do all or even some of the work, but they are responsible for execution. As for the “what,” action items need to be clear as crystal, leaving no room for interpretation or ambiguity—and they need to be agreed-upon. Finally, a deadline is not “as soon as you can” or “sometime next year.” It’s a date. Period. Hard deadlines instill accountability—and without that accountability, tasks don’t get done and there’s no learning or progress made toward the vision.

  5. Lack of monitoring and evaluation: Without regular monitoring and evaluation, it’s challenging to track progress, identify areas needing adjustment or celebrate successes. Failure to assess and recalibrate as necessary is yet another reason plans fail to grip. Meeting every 60 days for the first six months after the establishment of the plan is important to a) verify that scheduled actions were carried out, b) explore the results of those actions, and c) determine whether those results were the desired results, and if not, why not. After six months, decide whether the 60-day interval is too long, too short, or just right. Without this level of rigor, don’t expect the strategic plan to stay on anyone’s radar for long.

Mark Goodale tells a story of when he was once hired by an ENR Top 500 firm to lead their strategic planning process. Before getting started, he met with the firm’s board of directors. One of the first questions he asked was, “What was the focus of your previous strategic plan?”

After an uncomfortably long period of silence, one of the board members opened his laptop and, after several frantic minutes of keystrokes and mouse clicks, shouted, “I found it! I found it!” I kid you not, the rest of the board erupted in applause. Forget about making any progress on their plan—they were just thrilled someone was actually able to locate it. Don’t let this happen to you.

Original content can be found at Morrissey Goodale.

Author Bio: Mark Goodale is principal at Morrissey Goodale, a specialized management consulting and research firm serving the architecture, engineering and environmental consulting industries. Morrissey Goodale is a CFE Media content partner.

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