By Karen O. Courtney, AIA, FSMPS, MBA
Just like a building has a strong foundation, an architecture firm should have a strategic plan upon which to build its desired future. The critical foundational elements of vision, values, and mission are described and used to set the goals, strategies and tactics needed for success.
Foundational elements of strategic planning
Historically, strategic planning has been a top-down process that uses a vision reflecting the values of upper management or an architecture firm’s founders. This type of strategic planning often caters to short-term results and rarely examines the appropriateness to future conditions or its relevance to all those who have a stake in the organization.
In contrast, the model of today and the future, starts with a vision shared by all those in the organization and is based on values they have in common. It creates the long-term foundation for the firm itself.
Setting forth the vision, values, and mission is the first phase of the strategic planning process. Woven together, they answer a central question: What do we want for our architecture firm in the future?
Vision tells the outside world what the firm, in its “heart of hearts”, wants to be recognized for in the future. It is what the firm sees when they look into their crystal ball. Getting to that point often means bringing values to the surface and being aware of the core beliefs that govern what the firm does and are shared by all who lead or aspire to lead the organization. Taken a step further, these core beliefs can also incorporate the collective values of all members of a firm. Determining them can come observationally from examining the conditions when the firm performs at its best or by facilitating a dialogue of what values all believe are important in doing the company’s work.
Once a firm’s vision is established and its values agreed upon, determining the mission of the organization is next. Mission explains why the organization exists, or put a different way, its purpose or reason for being. A good rule of thumb is a clear mission statement answers the question “Our architecture firm exists to…” and then fills in the blank with the overriding reason why the enterprise was created. Good mission statements should also position an architecture firm in terms of what attracts employees to work there and what draws clients to work with them.
When the building blocks of vision, values, and mission are clear, they can drive a business in a powerful way. A good example from the corporate world is Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc. where a basic founding principle and company value was that the company should affect positive societal change. That belief became a measuring stick for all business practices, from procuring raw materials to choosing areas of expansion. And even though Ben & Jerry’s was an early adopter of this founding principle, many companies since then have taken a similarly held belief and used it to drive their business practices. From Tom’s of Maine to TOMS shoes, other businesses have also used the value of positive societal change to create their desired future.
Maximizing strengths and opportunities
Working from the foundation set by vision, values, and mission, the next phase of the strategic planning process is research and analysis. Research is done to have a factual basis for evaluating current conditions like market share, financial performance, and firm utilization metrics, as well as an honest assessment of both competitors and competitive forces. It is important to gather this research before the strategic planning work begins so that decisions can be made from the basis of fact and not simply opinions. From this research, analysis is done next to identify areas where goals should be established to meet the company’s vision.
During the goal setting phase, a “SWOT” analysis is often used, which assesses the company’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats, as well as those of the markets it serves and its competition. The idea is to maximize the firm’s own strengths and opportunities and to minimize its weaknesses and threats. From the SWOT process, goals are developed that work toward corrective action or the desired future state. A good goal meets the “SMART” test meaning it is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time bound. Goals provide the quantitative statements of achievement which, when met, allow an architecture firm to realize its vision.
Another consideration is the time frame for the strategic plan. Most common for an architecture firm is a five-year strategic plan that lays out both the overarching goals to be met in five years, as well as develops annual milestones. Five years is long enough to make significant change, if needed, and yet not so long as to allow for putting things off that demand attention. Also, this time frame can also give architecture firms time to react to market conditions that may present themselves before the five-year planning horizon is complete.
Goals, strategies and tactics
Moving goals from dreams to reality requires a strategy to get from the present state to the desired state. A strategy describes the general approach to meeting the goals and are akin to paths taken to solve an issue. For every goal, there can often be more than one such path or a blend of two or more. Good strategic planning explores multiple strategic paths and often scenario tests them with changing variables to arrive at the desired strategy.
Once a strategy is selected to meet a specific goal, then additional details are needed to actualize the strategy. These are tactics or the “boots on the ground” action items needed to move a goal toward implementation. Tactics describe the step-by-step action items that must occur for the strategy to be fulfilled. With the tactics identified, more detail is added to completely explain how they are actualized. This next level of development is where necessary resources are identified and can include items like budget, person responsible, key performance indicators, and deadlines to track and measure when the goal has been met.
Taken together, each agreed upon goal now has a detailed plan with a strategy (path forward), and the necessary tactics (action steps), together with the resources needed to meet the strategic plans’ objectives.
After the plan has been operating for approximately 18 to 24 months, an evaluation should be taken of each goal’s performance metrics and the overall strategic plan’s consistency to the vision, values, and mission first identified. Sometimes market conditions can present a situation where a reset is necessary to one of the three driving forces (vision, values, or mission) or to a particular goal. Ownership transitions can also lead to the need to reevaluate the goals set to determine if the new firm leaders have the same priorities.
The failure to evaluate vision, values, and mission on an ongoing basis can sometimes lock an organization into activities that do not fit. Evaluations of goal performance measurements may be met, but it is possible that the firm is doing the right things for the wrong reasons. This is a sure path to future problems unless the organization measures the task against the three foundational elements of vision, values, and mission.
Establishing the yearly discipline to check the status of the strategic plan and assess its progress is the key to making the strategic planning process work. Too often once the initial work on strategic planning is done, the excitement starts to fade and the goals are forgotten, hence the strategic plan does not fulfill its promise and firms are discouraged from doing it again. The work to actualize the defined goals is hard and typically involves change to the status quo, so attacking this with a tenacious mindset is required. Or as the old saying goes, nothing hard is ever easy!
Problems also arise when part of the process is circumvented. It is common, for example, to concentrate on the procedural steps of goal setting and simply rely on an existing vision, values, or mission without exploring whether they are all still a good fit. When this occurs, a founder’s vision is often used instead of one generated through a group process from the ground-up by current company leaders. This group method uncovers present day common values, and, from the process, a shared vision emerges. However, a ground-up process is not an easy one and often requires help from an outside facilitator to assure that all voices are heard and honored.
Another common misstep is to misjudge both how long the initial phases of strategic planning can take and to forget that the work has only just begun once goals are defined. One to two months is often needed to get the necessary research together so that sound decisions can be made when in the throes of strategic planning. Then the actual development of vision, values, and mission and all the resulting goals to fulfill them can then take another one to two months more. Add in firm-wide communication about the strategic plan and its goals, as they will likely affect many parts and people of a firm, and another month is needed. After all that takes place over three to five months, then the actualizing of the first year’s goals can start in earnest with clear direction and commitment by those assigned to them.
Does it matter where the vision, values, and mission of an architecture firm come from? It does if commitment to the organization’s plan is important. Commitment is enhanced by sharing the experience of defining or reconfirming the three foundational elements of the strategic planning process - a firm’s vision, values, and mission. To create a shared experience could mean getting firm-wide feedback or asking a wide range of employees their thoughts about the future of the company.
Another method of getting commitment is to empower others in the firm by having them participate in the initial goal setting based on the company wide feedback or an initial sense of what needs to be addressed by the company’s leaders. This group is then charged with developing the details needed for the goals to be considered and prioritized during the strategic planning process. The leadership or decision-making group now has the detailed information to better evaluate a well-defined set of goals and give the go-ahead to those most appropriate to fulfilling the vision and time-frame of the strategic plan. It is also a good way to let the next generation of leadership within an architecture firm have a taste of the rigor of research and analysis needed for good business planning.
Commitment brings energy and creativity to a job that compliance never could. Starting strategic planning in the middle of the process and emphasizing the strategy, planning, implementation, and evaluation phases leads to compliance not commitment. Engaging the whole firm at the start of the process with defining or affirming vision, values, and mission is a way to build commitment. And in a business environment in which technical superiority and uniqueness is not necessarily proprietary, and in which competition is intense and international, commitment to the job may become the critical edge that determines who survives.
Vision, values, and mission may seem on such a high plane that they have little relevance to the day-to-day operations of an architecture firm. In reality, they permeate every activity. Worked into the fabric of a company, they provide the vitality for staying competitive in an ever-changing and uncertain future.
Karen O. Courtney, AIA, FSMPS, MBA is the Chief Marketing Officer at Fanning Howey, a design firm dedicated to creating next generation learning environments. She was an integral part of the strategic planning process working for three architecture firms and one engineering consulting firm. Karen led the creation of the first comprehensive strategic plan for the Society for Marketing Professional Services when she served as national SMPS President in 2005. She can be reached at work at firstname.lastname@example.org or 317-848-0966.
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