After the Storm- A Plan for Renewal

Lowther7, LLC Sunset photo of a gazebo in Sanderling, NC

The challenge: How can we survive right now and prepare to thrive as a relevant business for the future? The answer: Channel resources toward organizational and professional development renewal.

By Guest author Sonja H. Winburn, SPHR.

Industries serving the built environment continue to weather a perfect storm: a tough economic climate, new technologies, and varying delivery systems. The tension between the way we have done our work in the past and the way it will need to be done in the future is causing firms to feel disconnects and dilemmas in all operational areas. There is fear, confusion and ambiguity in how leaders need to lead and carry their firms forward. This indicates that organizations need to create and communicate a new vision for their new reality and then realign their business model to match the new direction. In order to accomplish this, firms need to define where they are now and where they want to go in the future.

Firm Leaders need to be able to see and communicate clearly the changes they wish to make and the activities that may need to be eliminated. One way to start defining your needs is by challenging some of the assumptions held from the past. As we look over our shoulders and examine current dilemmas in light of past assumptions, the disconnection between them can be seen. Similarly we can look ahead, reviewing the current state of affairs in terms of the new environment and then make connections to new needs. Such efforts can only be accomplished if we can see and highlight the gap between the current reality and where to go from here. Then translate the change to the people that will need to carry out the strategy. Then the firm and its people can change and realign with the leaders newly defined path.

This kind of organizational change has to be addressed holistically. Plans for redirecting or reshaping an organization have to be purposeful, systemic, and coordinated. A new vision, ideas about innovation, attitudinal changes, and appropriate process changes all need to be aligned and communicated in a renewal plan. The plan should address what services we provide and to who, how we will lead and develop people, how to achieve operational excellence, and then utilize resources effectively. When we accurately describe our strategic goals and current reality, and then line up our resources to close the gap between them, we can move ahead with confidence.

Terminology from the industrial environment separated organizational development from individual profession or employee development. A/E/C leaders do not make this distinction and it hinders communication and holistic system change and planning. A successful plan will address both your organizational plan and include how this should impact the new skills and information needed by staff to be productive in their work. The implementation of the strategy must permeate employee selection and development, the orientation processes, skills training, manager’s mentoring, and the relevant education of your business along with the relevant issues in the markets of our clients. In other words this is an entire system “upgrade”.

Your renewal plan’s implementation map will look like a spider web that runs through all efforts and activities. For example, how do you now communicate with people on important information? All firm systems should be examined for more effective ways to access any needed information quickly and easily. Utilization of an intranet or a company Wiki to capture and disseminate knowledge and changes, or the use of VOIP options such as Skype to help facilitate long distance communication, are inexpensive ways of improving the effective use of time, people, and resources. Firms can also use forums and lessons learned sessions to share problems and solutions. There should be opportunities that require face to face interaction as well as the use of blogs and the standardization of project documentation. There is no replacement for face to face interaction because business is about relationships and trust. It takes time and personal interaction with those you work with to develop this kind of trust. Also remember to apply more than one method to reach target audiences because of differing experience levels and generational communication preferences.

As a starting point for developing a renewal plan:

1. Put forth the effort to discuss your business issues, markets, disconnects etc. with those in your organization that know the current environment and markets.
- Choose this group carefully. Rethink who can and will contribute in terms of defining the current and future needs of “your” business.

- Center your discussion on what your people need to know today to be more effective.

- Topics should include markets, operations, people, project management, technology, research and innovation, etc.

- Document the discussion and highlight any ideas for change or improvement.

2. Focus on the real and current client and business needs first.
- Correctly and honestly identify the issues that come out of this discussion. This will determine if your plan will impact and change your effectiveness as a firm.

- This effort should lead to ideas that will have full system impact, process changes in the way you market, manage projects and define subjects for an employee education plan.

3. Choose a champion.
- Make sure this is someone you will allow to take the time to work on this.

- Someone that understands learning theory and people.

- A person that really believes in the process and cares about the outcome.

- Someone that has a good understanding of the resources and can allocate them for this kind of effort.

4. Develop and document a formal plan.
- Commit to it.

- Designate responsibility to appropriate staff and set timetables.

5. Align defined implementation strategy with the resources you can afford and have available.

After you have established your needs, do what you can today with what you have today. Don’t wait until you have it all worked out.

In the past, one of the primary obstacles to establishing and completing this kind of planning effort was finding the time to devote to implementation. The people most qualified to take on such an effort are the same people wearing the project and managerial hats. When a conflict between the urgent project need and the important strategic need arise, the immediate project wins. The trick here is to either elevate in your mind the value of your strategy needs or to minimize in terms of your use of resources the conflicts by allowing someone with the proper skill set to hold this as a primary responsibility.

Another obstacle connected to having our project managers and our leaders combined in the same individual has hindered the development of good and relevant content for programs and training for the needs of the A/E/C environment. As technology and information sharing explode there are now ways to get this content at reasonable costs.
As a result of converging macro environment factors, the recognition by multiple design practices that this is the perfect time to leverage sustainable design and the LEED building certification process, together have allowed the USGBC to offer some ground breaking choices for firms. The education arm of the USGBC has developed case studies on green buildings and also provides content subscriptions. that are available for purchase, thus providing good and relevant content for at least this one area of possible program need.

Most small to mid size firms do not have people on staff that can facilitate this kind of holistic change or focus on the individual development components of the system. After you have specifically defined your needs you may need to seek help from outside resources in terms of outside consultants to help with implementation or program content development, facilitators, etc. But someone internally needs to be tasked with primary focus of the development of staff and their alignment with the newly defined vision.

If your firm develops this kind of holistic plan then you will feel more comfortable with your ability to deliver improved service that can impact fee and/or profit. The resulting changes will have elements to capture and communicate the strategy needed, then search for appropriate solutions to business and project needs, and somehow stretch the searching and communication into a continuous process. The new business system model itself should also hold people accountable to a defined, well-communicated specific set of expectations. Research shows that when people accurately understand what the firm expects of them and they have the right skills to execute it then performance does improve sharply. A comprehensive plan for renewal will translate into better project performance and more credibility with clients and staff.

Sonja H. Winburn, SPHR. is an HR and Business Operations Consultant for her firm “People and Solutions” Sonja helps organizations serving A/E/C organizations with organizational planning and implementation strategy. You can contact Sonja at sdhwinburn@bellsouth.net