Top 20 business fundamentals for A/E firms: Part 1

Firms in the A/E industry have had their fair share of adversity in 2020. Companies that follow these business fundamentals will be able to withstand the pressure and keep its composure during the tough times.

By Morrissey Goodale October 14, 2020

All teams eventually face adversity. Some are consumed by it while others somehow emerge stronger. The teams that fail tend to panic, point fingers, and self-destruct. The teams that win, on the other hand, circle the wagons and focus on executing fundamentals at a high level.

Firms in the A/E industry have had their fair share of adversity in 2020 and could find themselves lining up for a whopper of a second helping in 2021 when most markets will be scratching and clawing for funding and investment. So when the road gets bumpy, will your firm buckle under the pressure or will it keep its composure and continue to march down the field?

Over the next several weeks, we count down the top 20 business fundamentals that, if executed well, could see your firm through what looks to be tough times ahead.

#20: Re-rack your mission

Now is a very good time to get clear on why your firm is in business. No, it’s not to make money. No, it’s not to provide a great place for people to work. Those are beneficial outcomes that are produced by your organization’s consistent track record of coming through on the promises it makes to its clients. Understand that your firm’s phone rings for one reason and one reason only – your clients have an itch, and they think your firm can scratch it better than anyone else.  If you can get clear on that, you can focus on building an organization that consistently creates lasting competitive advantages.  Here are some tips for framing a mission the right way:

  • Spell out who you are
  • Describe what you are doing
  • State how you’d like to go about doing it
  • Deal with the question of why you are doing it
  • Go shorter on “statement” and longer on “mission”
  • Don’t confuse your firm’s mission with the results that accrue from fulfilling that mission
  • Use concrete language (stay away from ambiguous/fancy words)
  • Don’t become a 12th grade English teacher and sentence your mission to death by wordsmith.

#19: Test your firm’s value statements

Values knit the fabric of a firm together. They are the DNA that runs through an organization. To promote and live your firm’s values, they have to be actionable. Honesty and integrity are fine virtues, but by the time you are a professional, you either have them or you don’t. So focus on values you can foster and practice throughout your organization, like continuous improvement, ownership mentality, and respect for people. Revisit these values at least twice a year and assess whether your company is living up to them – and if not, why not.

#18: Paint an attractive vision for the future

Keep the faith that there are better times ahead. Sure, things may get rough in the next 12 to 18 months, but know that your firm will persevere – and periodically communicate that positivity throughout the organization. Think about what you want your firm to look like when the world comes back online and share it with the firm. There may never be a better time to circle the wagons.

#17: Embrace responsible autonomy

Command and control assumes people must be managed. The belief is that management’s job is to give directions (as opposed to giving direction) and motivate staff using a combination externally applied forces (a.k.a., carrots and sticks). It’s old-fashioned thinking and a sure-fire way to drive the best and brightest out of your company. In contrast, responsible autonomy is based on the trust that the firm’s professionals will use their autonomy responsibly. This type of environment inspires smart people to work hard and do all they can to help move your firm toward its vision. Responsible autonomy assumes people can self-manage within effective systems – and are capable of improving those systems over time.

#16: Become a learning organization

A learning organization is one that is dedicated to the learning and development of its staff. It is skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and rapidly evolves. Learning organizations are capable in five important ways:

  1. Systematic problem solving – relying on the scientific method (plan-do-study-act), rather than guesswork, for diagnosing problems.
  2. Experimentation with new approaches systematic searching for and testing of new knowledge. Experimentation is geared toward transformation. It often starts with a blank slate and requires a significant amount of learning by doing, and making adjustments along the way.
  3. Learning from experience and past history – methodically reviewing successes and failures, documenting lessons learned, and institutionalizing that knowledge.
  4. Learning from the experiences and best practices of others – the AEC industry can be provincial. Many in the industry seem to only learn from those in their own discipline or profession. Few firms have practices for learning from those outside the industry. Learning organizations develop the habit of engaging more broadly in the world around them as a basis for learning for and with each other, and innovating.
  5. Transferring knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the organization. A learning organization is “high-velocity.” That is to say, they learn a lot fast, they improve, and they grow. Their know-how is routinely circulated throughout their organizations.

This article originally appeared on Morrissey Goodale’s website. Morrissey Goodale is a CFE Media content partner.

Original content can be found at