AEC Coach: Getting hearts and heads in the right place

May 2014 » Web Exclusive
Mark Goodale

If your A/E firm is about to take on a major strategic initiative or embark on a company-wide strategic planning process, consider the readiness of your leadership team to engage in the kind of conversations and collaboration necessary to produce buy-in, accountability, and an unyielding focus on the common goal.

Start by asking if your leadership team is full of “owners” — please note, I do not refer to the stockholder variety. These folks are easy to spot. In some ways, they exhibit behaviors seen in a sole proprietor. Whether it’s their own experience in the company, the experience clients have with their firm, or the overall results of the firm, they believe whatever happens is their responsibility. 

Then assess the following about your leadership team:

  • its ability to break down internal barriers to open, honest dialogue;
  • its willingness to shine a light on a teammate’s blind spots; and
  • its tendency toward competitive behaviors (do individual agendas override the needs of the team?).

Be brutally honest with yourself. Will members of your team seek to locally optimize, or worse yet, feather their own beds? Are they inclined to take actions that are inconsistent with the company’s direction if it better serves them to do so? Is every member of your leadership team facing true north and inclined to make critical firm-wide assessments with that direction in mind?

If your team grades out poorly in these areas, focus on building trust out of the gate or you risk producing a prodigious amount of waste throughout your planning process.

Your leaders should also be armed with skills that help them collaborate at a high level, and prepare them to work on the business together and not just in it.

For example, think of the advantages you could create for your company if your leaders were highly skilled in:

  • making and securing reliable commitments;
  • solving problems (the right ones); and
  • consistently making sound decisions.

Here’s a quick primer on each of these fundamentals:

Making and securing reliable commitments — Yes, this may just be blocking and tackling, but the truth is that people in general and engineers in particular struggle with having conversations that consistently result in action. But the good news is that this skill can be coached. Once you tune your ear to what’s missing in typical conversations that call for action — such as deadlines and clear “conditions of satisfaction” — you’ll never listen to conversations the same way again. When your leaders realize that producing reliability on a consistent basis requires negotiation and not a command-and-control dynamic, they will begin accomplishing important things through others, not just themselves. Like just about any other skill, it takes practice.

Decision making — Typical decision-making methods in use today do not qualify as sound methods. They either cause or encourage critical mistakes, such as omissions of relevant facts, multiple counting, distortions of facts, or distortions of viewpoints. Pros and cons, advantages vs. disadvantages, and any method weighing factors, attributes, criteria, objectives, characteristics, or consequences are all unsound.

A sound method is one that uses correct data and uses the data correctly.

One sound method, created by Jim Suhr, an engineer, is called Choosing by Advantages. Its origins date back to the late 1950s and it’s been field tested by scientists, engineers, ecologists, landscape architects, psychologists, economists, and educators, to name a few.

The fundamental rule of the system is that decisions must be based on the importance of advantages. It seems simple, and it is. But your team will likely need to use some different muscles and unlearn some of their hard-wired ways of making decisions.

Problem solving — Boy, do we like to solve problems; it’s almost a reflex. But in our haste to problem-solve, we often end up solving the wrong ones — and that creates waste. A construct we teach our clients to use for solving problems is called “A3” thinking. Borrowed from Toyota, it’s an iterative process that actually tells a story from beginning to end. Its steps include:

1. Defining the current condition

2. Establishing an expectation — the desired condition

3. Identifying the root cause of the problem (where many engineers like to start)

4. Designing countermeasures (ones that can be revised)

5. Creating an action plan

6. Following up plan

The A3 approach is a way to solve problems that generates knowledge (the reports can be adapted for future use on similar problems) and helps people learn how to learn.

Is your leadership team ready for strategic planning? If not, get their hearts and heads in the right place! 

Mark Goodale is principal with Morrissey Goodale LLC in Newton, Mass. Morrissey Goodale LLC is a management consulting and research firm that serves the AEC industry. He can be contacted at mgoodale@morrisseygoodale.com


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