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November 16, 2000

Making chaos work for you: keys to small firm management

RM Klein Consulting

Are you an owner or manager of a small design firm?

OK. Now try these on for size. Do you work evenings and weekends on a regular basis? Do you spend your days “fire-fighting” or scrambling to take advantage of a sudden opportunity? Do you feel so pressured by current demands that you can’t possibly plan for the future? If you answered yes to any or all of these, you are not alone.

Take the case of BB Architects: The principal there usually works 60 to 70 hours a week. Often he is in his office until 8 or 9 at night, regularly works on weekends and takes work with him when he does go home. He would like to spend more time with his friends and family, but the demands of his six-person practice seem to make that nearly impossible.

For example, last week one of his project managers was sick, and there was no one else but the principal to do the necessary work. At the same time—besides the usual work load—a great job opportunity came up which required that a quick proposal be written. This week, a project in construction is demanding immediate attention, the bookkeeper quit and a major deadline looms.

The principal likes his work and is stimulated by the pressure and variety, but feels vaguely like he is on a treadmill, never advancing, perhaps falling a little more behind each day. In addition, he’s just tired, and wonders how long he can go on this way.

Many principals in firms with fewer than 20 on staff will describe their work life in a similar way. The work is unrelenting, demanding and unpredictable.

Anything can happen at any time, and there is very little cushion to fall back on. The day-to-day demands make it hard to take time to plan for the future—and even if you try, there are no guarantees.

How then, do firm owners deal with constantly shifting workloads and unexpected circumstances? How can they cope with the demands of the marketplace and still create a satisfying workplace environment? How will they hope to set professional goals and achieve them in this environment of constant change?

Unfortunately, the answers to these questions do not lie in the usual realm of problem and solution. Problem solving only works when the cause of the problem is straightforward and the result is predictable. Linear cause and effect is not common in our practice environments. Usually, whatever result you are seeing—whether it is a principal chronically working overtime or perhaps an unanticipated cash flow crisis—the cause is usually a complex web of interlocking factors. Like a complicated design problem, everything is connected.

Key number one: Notice patterns. Chaotic systems, observed by scientists in nature, are defined as unpredictable, acting in nonlinear and complex ways, and as systems in which small influences can create huge unexpected effects. Sound familiar? According to the principles of chaos theory, you can never tell where a system is heading until you’ve observed it over time. Over time there is an inexplicable tendency towards order and repetition, and patterns emerge—even from the most chaotic circumstances.

"Understanding your own 'core incompetence' and working toward self-improvement has a huge potential for improving the operations of your firm."

Noticing patterns over time will give you an improved sense of what is going on in your firm and what to do about it. This is always preferable to reacting to a single circumstance that may come up, no matter how significant it may seem.

For instance, looking at your firm’s income statements over time to understand financial trends will be much more meaningful than planning based on one good or bad year. It is vital to tailor your record keeping system to give you data that is really useful to you over time and to create simple models that can be checked easily.

You will probably have to invent and create these systems on your own, or with the help of a consultant, unless you want to invest in the expensive and complicated software that large firms use. Although it is time consuming, setting up data collection and compilation systems that are tailored to your information needs—and style—is a vital step in making sense of the chaos.

Often patterns become discernible if you ask simple questions, “Have we seen this before?” or “What feels familiar here?” and take the time to notice if certain processes produce the same undesirable outcome over and over again. These repeating patterns point to areas that need improvement.

In my research and consulting with small firms, I’ve observed that some patterns are so common among them that they are almost archetypal. The factors that universally influence productivity—and hence profitability—are job satisfaction among staff, ability in time management, and systems for effective communication. In most firms, improving time management, communication effectiveness, and especially staff satisfaction, will result in increased productivity.

Key two: Routinize the routine. In most small firms, work processes need improvement. The efficiency of work processes are heavily influenced by time management and communication effectiveness as I have mentioned, but they are also influenced by the type of work that is being done.

For instance, I have a client who has about seven architects working for her and has a very successful, design-oriented residential practice. She and her staff are still only doing manual drafting, but that’s not the problem.

The problem is that all of the project architects do their set of drawings their own way. There is no standard format or organization, no model to follow each time. When I suggested to my client that she create some sort of drawing standards, she replied that she was afraid that standards would stifle the creativity of the architects and she didn’t want to impose any rigid methods on them.

Although well intended, this kind of thinking is self-defeating because it fails to distinguish between the routine and nonroutine aspects of the work. By asking each architect to “reinvent the wheel” with each new set of CDs, the principal is actually reducing the available time for the creative aspects of the work. Knowing the difference between routine work and nonroutine work is the key. Creating systems, standards and check lists that handle routine tasks in routine ways, will always create more time for the nonroutine work—design and problem solving.

In addition to distinguishing between routine and nonroutine tasks, work processes may also be improved by looking for bottlenecks, wasted efforts, and blatant inefficiency. Take care to use technology effectively, thinking about what is appropriate for the size of your office and the work that you do.

Key three: Provide self-aware leadership. Create order out of chaos by using values, vision and ethics as management tools. These are known as “conceptual controls” and are more powerful than mere rules. Firm leaders have the ability to shape their firm through modeling their vision, values and purpose. By knowing what’s important to you and by “walking your talk,” you can have a more powerful influence in leading you and everyone around you in the direction you want to go.

However, since firm principals set the tone and model behavior, it is critical to be aware of your tendencies and habits. It has been said, “Your habits are your destiny.” Notice what you do over and over again and consider whether these behaviors are serving or not serving your purposes.

Every person and organization has core competency and capabilities, but people and organizations also have what could be called “core incompetence.” Understanding your own core incompetence and working toward self-improvement has a huge potential for improving the operations of your firm.

For instance, I know a small firm owner that is very poor at time management. His staff sets back the clock in the office a half-hour to try to fool the principal into being on time to meetings. Nevertheless his inability to think realistically about the time things take influences his relationships with his clients, his consultants and, of course, his staff, who can never know when he will be available. Clearly, identifying and improving this core incompetence would be essential for positive change at his firm.

People need basic guidelines to refer to, to see if their own decisions are in alignment with what is expected. If they have these guidelines, then they can also have freedom to make decisions on their own. This will happen automatically in a firm as staff members mimic the behavior of the principals, similar to children who copy their parents. So like parents, you have to be very aware of what you are doing.

If your staff members continually make decisions that you are not pleased with, there are two likely reasons. Either they don’t understand what you want and need some training or coaching, or you are giving them messages and directions that you are unaware of. Self-awareness leadership therefore is crucial to the success of all small design firms.

According to Meg Wheatley in her well-known book, “Leadership and the New Science,” when environments are unpredictable, you must develop a capacity to improvise, not control. Agree on intent and how to work together. Then practice becoming a better observer. When you learn to see trends over time as guideposts, you have a chance to steer your firm where you want it to go. Stepping back to see the big picture may allow you to fight fires more effectively, or even better, put fire-prevention measures in place.

When you pay attention to work processes, improve time management, communicate better with your staff, and improve staff enthusiasm by offering professional challenge and mentoring, you have a chance to work fewer hours and increase profitability.

As a small firm owner you have the ability to make your work life more satisfying to you and those around you. Remember, if you design your practice with the same thoughtfulness as you design your buildings it will be possible to work less, make more money and have more fun.

Rena Klein is a management consultant and practicing architect in Seattle. The full seminar, “Making Chaos Work for You: Keys to Small Firm Management,” will be presented at the upcoming AIA Washington Council “Assembly 2000” and is available from AECDirect.com or RM Klein Consulting at rmklein@aol.com.

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