The Time They Are a-Changin’

Spring 2007

The Times They Are a-Changin’


The kinds of changes to which Bob Dylan was referring in his 1964 album’s title song are different. But surrounding issues are amazingly the same. In the last ten years, work has been easy to get. Now, markets are shifting; some that were hot are not. And client expectations are shifting…often dramatically. The problem…

The busier we are, the narrower our thinking tends to be.

Utilization rates rule; they key profitability. Accelerated schedules keep noses to the grindstone. Tighter fees prompt an efficiency focus. And we don’t take time to “explore alternatives” or “consider unique possibilities” or “call time out to see how we’re doing” or even “see how our client is feeling about our efforts, at progress points.” Here are four areas for helping you adjust to changing conditions…

1. Ensuring clarity of understanding of client goals and concerns.

Too often, we listen to “what?” and not “why?” Or we don’t take time to go beyond the client’s initial statement. For example, on a recent university project, the university president said he wanted an upcoming building to be “sustainable.” Now…

What did the president mean by “sustainability”? He may have meant “reduce energy costs” or “a building that’s healthy for students and faculty” or “a building that takes care of itself, off of any grid.”

More important, why did the president want a “sustainable” building”? To show alumni and donors that the campus was at the cutting edge, to increase foundation revenues? To bolster graduate pro-gram recruitment. Because it’s an important personal passion?

The professional responses would vary widely with different answers the president might offer to just the one word, sustainability. If the goal is to impress alumni and donors, you might use more visible and unique technology. If the goal is providing a healthful and carefree environment, you might use less expensive and virtually invisible solutions. Better understanding is the foundation. The problem:

Many people have no Mandeville training. And those who do are often rusty or are not taking the time to explore these terms – “Mystery Words” – in sufficient depth.

2. Asking, “What’s special?”

Many moons ago, the American Institute of Architects sponsored a research project to see what was different in the offices of what they called “Signature” architects..firms whose work was most heavily published, year after year. One of the findings was that the well-known principals all assembled their project teams to explain the project, client goals, and the surrounding factors. Then they posed one question…

“What is there about this project that makes it unique?”

Firms that design many projects of the same type, have to really push themselves to “look beneath”…to see what’s truly special about a project. The dialogue gives a project team a stronger “vision of possibilities” and a sense of the “soul of the project.” Those firms enjoy greater levels of excellence, satisfaction, and profit. Yet, how many teams take a few hours or a day or more for that level of discussion?

3. Pushing strategic thinking.

If a heart surgeon does a triple bi-pass, if conditions are the same as they were previously, we would not seek innovation. Going with what works is comfortable – for us and for our clients. But if conditions change – in both markets and in client expectations – then we need to step back and begin rethinking, often from the ground up, how to approach solving each specific client concern. For example..

Multiple attempts to promote recycling failed. Then a group engaged elementary school teachers and students with explanations and field trips. Then kids engaging their parents. And that led to widespread acceptance. A unique grassroots strategy solved the problem.

How often do we push ourselves to develop a truly unique strategy when facing a new problem? Do we bring in younger people – or even non-technical staff – who haven’t done it a certain way for years and see things differently? The busier we are, the narrower our thinking; production rules. When conditions change, expansive strategizing needs to be rekindled. And it’s a different way of thinking.

4. “Huddling,” from start to finish.

In this venue, football teams may provide a useful example. Consider three phases in which teams sit back from the actual game and look at the “big picture”…

  • Preparing for the game – organizing our team, selecting the best staff for each role, setting goals, game plans, and examining if-then possibilities. Few firms seem to use a what-if punch list, such as: “What if client review time takes longer than planned?” or “What if we’re not paid as agreed?” or “What if needs change?” The list can be long, but this helps us anticipate and address the “unexpected.”


  • Huddling – our weekly team meetings, to see what’s ahead or behind schedule, what conditions have changed and what adjustments need to be made for the next play – or week.
  • Feedback & Adjustment – our milestones (halftime) and wrap-up (post-game analysis.) How thoroughly do we take time to look at successes and problems, and gather in-depth client feedback, to make major mid-course adjustments? Winning coaches always do.

Ideas from these four areas can go a long way to helping you in changing times.