Managing Complex Projects: Strategies For Architecture Practices
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Architect-turned-business management consultant Jennekin Dicks believes there are more challenges facing AEC business now than ever before. “In our industry, where profit margins keep shrinking and complexity is rising, we need better efficiencies, which means we need to find flow in our work,” she asserts. “We need to create connected, systemic environments to create that flow.”
As founder of Management in Action, Jennekin works with architecture practices to improve their profitability and sustainability, and she categorises potential contributors to complexity into four key areas, including:
- Diversity in all its forms, such as business models, stakeholder requirements, and among employees;
- The interdependent nature of the modern world, which can lead to the development of unforeseen problems, for instance in supply chains;
- A sense of ambiguity, which results from information overload and conflicting data; and
- The accelerated pace of change, which makes it hard to keep up with multiple demands on our time and attention.
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“We see these problems all around us in so many ways,” Jennekin says. “So the question we have to ask ourselves is: ‘How can we make ourselves responsive to this increasing complexity? How can we set ourselves up to deal with the fact that we can't plan for everything that's going to be thrown at us, and still avoid as many miscommunications and mistakes and time overruns and other problems as possible?”
She believes the answer lies in changing the organizational structures of consulting firms from a hierarchical model, which she compares to a train – where the directors and key decision-makers are positioned at the engine and the people carrying out the work bring up the rear – to a more inclusive and supportive model, or ‘habitat’, where all members of the team are valued for their specialist skills and knowledge.
“We have to move away from a linear and siloed approach to work more holistically in the round,” she says. “Then, when the unexpected happens, the structure is much more able to support the people within it. This way of working requires strong interdependent relationships because everyone needs one another to succeed.”
Jennekin says that her clients sometimes find this transition daunting, but that positive results emerge quickly and are highly beneficial for the business and its people.
"We have to move away from a linear and siloed approach to work more holistically in the round"
“Moving towards this systemic value set is quite teachable to any group interested in learning it,” she says. “And when we share information and knowledge with others in the business, it shifts the culture of the business into a collaborative state; people begin to seek discussion, input and connection.
“Better still, this new type of structure can be created in far less time than you think!”
Jennekin believes this crucial cultural shift is more likely to succeed when directors and employees have access to the right type of up-to-the minute business and project data.
“The clients I work with have shifted their mindset, so they are all working together to create and sustain profitability,” she explains. “They start by asking: ‘How do we build a healthy business together?’ and then establish the right circumstances for positive exchange of information.”
She recommends refocusing the agenda for weekly team meetings to encourage problem-solving and foster innovation. “It’s essential that everyone brings their latest data to the meeting, and the key decision makers need to be in the room so they can provide input and make decisions in that moment,” Jennekin says. “Then, frame the discussions around finding solutions, so that if a target is missed or a problem arises, there is a genuine group effort to find solutions together.
“People then begin to trust the outcomes of weekly meetings, and they are motivated to make the best use of the time,” Jennekin says. “The data and the environment become valued, because people are valuable to this process, and the organisation becomes fully collaborative as a result.”
Having worked with both large and small firms, Jennekin believes that all practice sizes can benefit from adopting this new business model.
“Larger businesses have greater resources but also larger decision-making hierarchies, and people can become stuck in their own patterns, so they have their own challenges ” she says. “But once a group of people start to change, it’s as easy to shift a large group as a small group.”
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