Business of Engineering

Top 20 business fundamentals for A/E firms: Part 2

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 21, 2020
Iconic high-rise commercial buildings in Chicago. Courtesy: CFE Media

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?

Continuing from last week are five more business fundamentals that, if executed well, could see your firm through what looks to be tough times ahead.

#15: Get good at making negative assessments

How do you react to negative assessments? Do you defend your behavior, actions, or performance? Do you make counter-arguments? Do you get upset? If so, you’re missing golden opportunities to improve yourself and your firm. Think about elite athletes. They don’t become elite if they don’t thrive on negative feedback. Yet we don’t behave that way in our professional settings. We hide from it. We suppress it in ourselves and others. We are conditioned, and condition ourselves, to not to bring things up, that it will hurt our career paths, and so forth.  But people don’t get very far when we have low expectations for one another, and we do each other and ourselves a disservice when we let each other off the hook by failing to seek and provide critical assessments. Not talking and not listening are two of the biggest wastes in far too many A/E firms.

#14: Solve the right problems

No matter how successful your firm is, you don’t have the luxury of working on things that don’t matter. That might be obvious, but it happens more than you might think. Maybe you created a project management manual in response to quality problems or changed your organization structure around to deal with accountability – only to find that despite your best intentions, the problems still remained. There is a structured ways to address problems that yield much better results. One is called A3 Thinking (or A3 Learning). Essentially, it is a sequential way of working through a problem that prevents the problem solvers from jumping to conclusions (resulting in working on the wrong problems) and working collaboratively to figure out what the problem is, how things work now, the desired condition, causality, countermeasures, and how to follow up to the desired outcomes are achieved. The goal of the A3 approach is not just to solve the problem of the day, but to make the process of problem solving transparent and teachable in a way that builds a host of valuable skills.

#13: Conduct ongoing client monitoring

Whatever questions you have about the direction your business should take, chances are your clients have the answers. Periodically select a number of clients appropriate for the size of your organization and interview them. The purpose of these interviews is to test your firm’s assumptions about how your company is perceived in the industry and how it stacks up against the competition. Seek to get a sense of where your clients think their own industries/sectors are headed. Then share the information internally – the good and the bad.

#12: Map the client experience

Disney does a fantastic job at consistently delivering a spectacular customer experience. No detail is too small. They are acutely aware of every interaction customers have with anything Disney and value is added at every intersection. For example, anyone who has been to a Disney theme park knows how long the lines for the attractions can be. But rather than being content to let visitors waste those minutes, Disney introduced interactive displays throughout the queue. Use this thinking to improve the client experience in you firm. Map the journey your clients take with you, identify the high-leverage touch points, and deliberately build value into them.

#11: Get serious about risk

If you deal with risk by going into a project with a mood of hope, sooner than later you’ll find yourself cleaning up a mess – so understand your options. They are:

  • Avoid it. You may or may not be able to avoid it. You could just not take a job that you don’t already have the required staff working for the firm.
  • Reduce it. Training, onboarding, and clear communication are examples of ways to reduce risk.
  • Transfer it. This means, “If we miss it, you pay.” That’s a classic transfer. “I don’t want to deal with it, so someone else will.” If you don’t want to deal with a particular environmental risk, for example, get a sub to take on that risk.
  • Allow it:  Think contingency in this case – that means stockpiling hours or money. In the event that whatever you don’t want to have happen actually happens, you have the wherewithal to deal with it.
  • Manage it. If you choose to manage risk, there are two assessments to make. The first is the likelihood and the second is the significance to the business (i.e., how much it would hurt). There usually isn’t much, if anything, you can do about the significance. But you can try to work on the likelihood. If it’s unlikely, make sure it stays that way. If it’s likely, focus on it try to drive that probability down

One more thing – many believe risk is, for example, losing a million dollars on a project. That’s an outcome. Instead, risk would be something like not being able to staff the project properly. In any case, you can’t manage risk if you don’t understand what it is and what it is not.

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


Morrissey Goodale