A recent survey of A/E firm leaders indicates that the most common cause of conflict among design firm principals relates to a company’s vision. According to ZweigWhite’s newly released 2008 Principals, Partners & Owners Survey of Architecture, Engineering, Planning & Environmental Consulting Firms, 28 percent of the A/E firm leaders surveyed indicate that firm vision/growth is among the biggest causes of conflict among principals in their firm. This marks the fourth straight year that disagreements over vision and growth ranked as the most commonly cited cause of conflict.
"Even within the most closely knit leadership teams there are often fundamental differences of opinion regarding what a company’s future should be," says Jeremy Kamm, a consultant in ZweigWhite’s Strategic Advisory Services group. "There’s nothing wrong with healthy debate on the subject. In fact, such discussions are often constructive. However, if a leadership team can’t come to an agreement on a firm’s vision, competing agendas and a lack of buy-in will ultimately hold the firm back."
Kamm, who has helped dozens of design firms create and achieve their visions, suggests the following strategies to achieve buy-in regarding a firm’s vision:
Encourage broad participation. A firm’s vision cannot be made in a vacuum. "If only one or two people develop a company’s vision behind closed doors, the chances that the staff as a whole will understand and buy into it are very slim," says Kamm. The best vision statements are those developed with a great deal of participation from the entire leadership and management team with input from the staff. The firm’s key strategic thinkers and next-generation leaders should be included in the discussion, and passively involve the rest of the staff through a survey or series of informal discussions prior to development of the vision.
Ask for open and honest feedback. When developing a firm’s vision, encourage the people at the table to provide their honest, unbiased opinions. It’s not easy to openly disagree with the majority—much less with a superior—but it has to be OK to voice a dissenting opinion. When developing a firm’s vision, Kamm suggests establishing some ground rules upfront, such as setting the expectation that differences of opinion will be tolerated and that people will check their egos at the door.
Be grounded in reality, but not bound to it. The best vision statements are aggressive enough to cause a company to stretch to meet its goals, but not so aggressive that they cannot be achieved. "The most common mistakes we see companies make are to be either too aggressive or not aggressive enough," says Kamm. "It’s a fine line, but whether you set unrealistic ambitions or set the bar too low, the result is usually the same: People tend to view the vision statement as just a bunch of words."
Be specific. A vision statement should not only describe what a firm will look like in the future, but also give some indication as to how it will get there. "Each part of the vision statement is a piece of the puzzle, giving a clear picture of what the firm will look like in the future," says Kamm. At a minimum, a firm’s vision statement should clearly describe: how big the firm will be in terms of revenue and staff size, what market sectors it will serve, where it will be located, what the culture will be like, and what the firm will be known for at some defined point in the future.
Back it up with action. Even the best vision statements are meaningless without a plan to achieve it. The vision-setting exercise should take place within the context of a firm’s strategic business planning effort. A vision becomes much more powerful and takes on a life of its own when you back it up with a plan to achieve it. Firms should commit to an annual strategic business planning process that starts off with development of the vision and includes the strategies and action items needed to achieve it.
The question of firm-wide vision and direction can be a controversial one, but it is a critically important one as well. "There are a lot of ways to be successful in this business," says Kamm. "But one sure way to fail is to have the people at the top heading in different directions."