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Thinking Outside the Architecture Box in 2017

What’s your creative process?

As the calendar changes to 2017, each of us begins the next chapter in our own professional journey. However, a little introspection is in order. What better area of your professional life to pick apart and try to improve upon than your creative process?

“Of course I have one,” you say to me about your creative and brainstorming process. “That’s why I became an architect! Creativity was one of my innate talents. How could I possibly improve what is my biggest strength?”

However, the creative process to which I am referring to is not confined to only your creative design process. Novelty and innovation can also apply to your business acumen. As we move forward into 2017, let’s take a look at how thinking outside the box can help breathe new life into your design process, as well as act as a guide to tackling the challenges you face as the managing owner of your firm.

Daring Designs

The entertainment world wasn’t the only industry coping with the loss of several of its most significant members in 2016. The worldwide architecture family said goodbye to Zaha Hadid in March 2016. As the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize and Great Britain’s Stirling Prize, Hadid opened her own architecture practice in 1980.

At the time of her death in 2016, Zaha Hadid Architects in London was the fastest growing British architectural firm, with its work spanning 44 countries. Hadid’s work, however, also attracted criticism from within her own industry.

What was so daring about Hadid’s work that it came under intense scrutiny? Many architects prefer to design what is referred to as “orthogonal” buildings – no-nonsense buildings that fit into a perpendicular box, so to speak. There were even politicians who described her early works as unbuildable. But Hadid had other ideas – and she wasn’t afraid to implement a trial-and-error process to get to where she wanted to go.

Don’t Be Afraid to Try Something New

Why wasn't Hadid afraid to try and fail? What was it about the trial-and-error process that allowed Hadid to flourish?

“I know from my experience that without research and experimentation not much can be discovered,” Hadid said to the Serpentine Gallery’s Hans Ulrich-Obrist in 2011. “With experimentation, you think you’re going to find out about one thing, but you actually discover something else. That’s what I think is really exciting. You discover much more than you bargain for.”

Hadid chose to think outside the box and you should too. When it comes to your creative design process in the New Year, don't be timid to try something, fail, and then try again.

Perhaps your design mindset needs a change of scenery by remodeling your workspace. Maybe your software could use an upgrade or additional functionality – most software have add-ons that make your life easier. What about networking more in your local architecture community to learn what your fellow professionals have discovered? Maybe none of the ideas you come up with will work to spark new creative design ideas...but you'll never know until you try.

In the next part of this article, we'll take a look at another creative process you use every day: the creative process of running a business. From how you deal with employees to software that will streamline your HR, time and billing, accounting and project management functions, we'll take a look at different ways you can think outside the box as the CEO of your architecture firm.

When architects hear the word “innovation,” it’s usually their creative process that comes to mind – a new, bold design, or perhaps a more modern-looking building. Earlier, we considered how you as a creative professional can use innovation and experimentation to your advantage. Discovering new ideas requires thinking outside the box and being ok with making mistakes while searching for a new design or creative process that will ultimately win your firm more work.

Let’s take a look at another area of your professional life that needs continual innovation – how you run your business. The AEC industry has been undergoing a remarkable transformation over the past 10 years. This already-rapid change will further accelerate as software and technology continue to evolve and your AEC colleagues experiment with new business models. Your firm risks being left behind if it doesn’t keep pace with what your competitors have discovered that will help them – and not you – gain a competitive advantage.

As the CEO or managing partner of your firm, try thinking outside the box in these three areas in 2017:

Get to Know Your Employees Better

Business owners are always trying to come up with new ways to improve customer service. In addition to trying new ideas for wining and dining your clients, why not try something new to deepen your working relationships with your employees? Your employees are, of course, your firm’s most important resource.

One way to improve employee relations is to change your firm’s attitude towards tracking the time of your workers. Instead of viewing the task of entering time as cumbersome and something that will be used against the employee come evaluation time, try explaining that tracking a worker’s time helps finish a project as quickly as possible and the firm as a whole to be more efficient. And instead of scolding an employee for going over budget, use time tracking reports as an opportunity to identify phases of a project or particular skills that an employee struggles with. You can then develop a training curriculum to help turn an employee's weaker skills into strengths.

To help with tracking your employees’ work efforts, re-visit the capabilities of your current time tracking software and determine if an upgrade is warranted.

Project Management to the Rescue

Juggling all phases of a project can be daunting even for the most experienced project managers. To help your firm be more efficient with completing client projects, have a discussion with each employee who was tasked with being a project manager over the past two or three years. Find out what’s been working and what needs fixing.

Have your project managers go into as much detail as they can: tracking projects by phase, comparing budgeted hours and costs to actual figures, and how easy it is to follow where employees are on their respective to-do-lists. Also take a fresh look at your project management software and determine if it’s generating the reports you need to quickly assess the status of live projects.

Become Your Firm’s CEO

“If I really loved numbers, I would have become an accountant!” Yes, I know - accounting is not high on an architect’s list of “Things I Can’t Wait To Do.” But if you’re a sole proprietor or tasked with being your firm’s managing partner, then accounting needs to be at the top of your “Things I Must Do Every Day as My Firm’s CEO” list.

The good news is that there are many accounting software options to help track your firm’s bottom line. Time and expense tracking, invoicing, accounts receivable and labor utilization are some of the more important metrics you should be able to generate from your accounting software program every day. The software should also have an option that lets you track all your internal expenses that can (should) be billed to clients.

The good news is you don’t need an accounting degree to be a competent CFO for your firm. Enlist the help of either a go-to office manager or someone else at your firm who has an affinity for numbers to help with tracking daily invoices, billing transactions, and generating reports.

Thinking outside the box when it comes to your employees, project management, and becoming your firm’s CFO will help to better position your firm to take advantage of opportunities as the AEC landscape continues to evolve in 2017.

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