Own it, really own it

March 2013 » Columns » AEC COACH
Mark Goodale

Remember the days when the economy was so good that engineering firms led by people who couldn't spell business management still fared well? Nowadays, there's no guarantee that even the best-managed firms in the industry will live to see their next birthday.

So what can you do to stay ahead of the ever-intensifying competition? Here's a suggestion: Create an "ownership culture" in your firm. I'm not talking about the stock ownership variety. Let me explain. There's so much in the AEC business that has already been tried. It seems like there's hardly any room left to differentiate. Yet, there remains at least one potential game-changer that's within every firm's reach: Create a company where every employee takes responsibility for his or her own experience in the firm, the experience clients have with the company, and the organization's performance. I call it an ownership culture, and here's what it looks like:

Responsible autonomy– Control in organizations today is an illusion. Decision-making takes place on a continuing basis close to the work. As professionals, staff exercise autonomy while being responsible. When you think about it, responsible autonomy is about as pure a definition of leadership that exists. In an ownership culture, you are trusted to act. You are responsible. You take ownership for something and act appropriately. The firm has developed the predisposition for taking ownership. The question is, what do you intend that predisposition to look like in your firm?

A heterarchy – A heterarchy is a flat, transparent organization. It's the response to a hierarchical organization that over-weights the views of those who have a stake in perpetuating the status quo. In an ownership culture, you might see the organization structure not only being flat, but turned upside down to further illustrate the support nature of the firm's top managerial positions.

Collaboration – Collaboration is thinking with others, helping others, and learning with others. A firm becomes a playground for developing the practices of collaboration. Real and imagined boundaries to working together are always in the cross-hairs.

Seeing and eliminating waste – This means leading efforts to bring more value to clients with less effort and faster. It's based on continuous improvement – walking the shop floor every day, looking for opportunities to make things work better, and constantly asking how it can be done better. Meetings are crisp and lively, third-rail issues are openly and routinely discussed, and everyone has a chance to get air time for their topic of choice.

Reading the world – The AEC industry can be provincial. We seem to only learn from those in our discipline or profession. Few people have practices for learning from those outside the industry. But in an ownership culture, staff develop the habit of engaging more broadly in the world around them – they typically learn with others about a topic that is foreign to everyone in the group. There is no fear of asking questions, no fear of learning. They learn from and with each other at a time when none of the group is a subject matter expert.

Bringing leadership to bear in your organization is about disposition and actions – and changing the environment in the firm. Leadership can come from anyone at any time. The challenge is to bring leadership as warranted, but the results are definitely worth the effort.

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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