The Least Recognized Design Variable

As I stated in my last Blog, time constraints, those things such as schedule, ship date, move-in date, budget (which relates to time available to invest in the design) and other milestone deadlines are part of the design variable equation. What do I mean? I mean that the content, depth, elegance, or otherwise, of a design solution, is dictated by numerous boundary conditions, one of which is the required schedule, budget, and “done date.” However, in my experience, most often this is not viewed as such by the technical professional. “Hey, it takes whatever time it takes to get it done,” is often the attitude.

No. Not true. It takes the time we have allotted, the solution set, scope, and delivery we have sold to the client, and that they have purchased, to get it done. I dive a little deeper with some observations and comments below.

Parkinson’s Law.” This is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This is so true. I have seen it over and over. I don’t think any design, service, or product would ever be completed if it weren’t for deadlines, whether externally or internally imposed.

Do you need a solution in an hour, a day, a week, a year? We can provide that. You may not like the one-hour solution, and patience will wane with the one-year solution. Any good technical professional can tell you something that will work, sketch a solution, or provide a recommendation in a short period of time. It will likely be heavy, bulky, conservative, not elegant, but it will be a solution. If the client has $500 to purchase engineering vs. $50,000, the design will be impacted. If they have a day vs. a week, the design will be impacted. We can’t provide the same level of value and design in both contexts.

If we let design expand into “the void” until we think we’ve perfected it, we will reach the asymptotic stage where the curve flattens out, running almost parallel to the horizontal axis forever, never reaching the desired outcome (whatever criteria we have established.) Remember, there’s no perfect design, no perfect work product, no perfect solution. There’s complete, correct, finished, polished, specified, scheduled, completion of the work product, service, solution. Get it to the defined, specified, standard of care, and ship it.

How about an example from the building industry. Do you want quick turnkey delivery of your building for occupancy? How about a tilt-up precast or pre-engineered metal building? Not an elegant enough design solution? Better modify your timing. Do you want hand chiseled split-face stone, marble floors, custom bronze doors, glass from Europe, stone from Italy? If that’s the more elegant design solution, then get out the calendar and push the move-in date out a couple years.

What about modern tools of technology? Can’t they “hack” the time variable and do more work in less time? Sure, in theory. Those tools can enable a more elegant design in a short period of time. What I’ve found over the years though is that the tools of technology are often misplaced in the mind of the technical professional in this way; they become the thing we are serving rather than them serving us. If you’re my age, you’ll remember when the prediction was that things would go so much quicker the more advanced the tools became. Unfortunately, many lose site of this and use the tools to dive deeper and deeper to a point of diminishing returns, rather than using the tools to advance the design solution more quickly. Step back. Assess. Regroup. Do this often. Plus, there’s this thing called complexity. Simplicity is undervalued. Systems fundamentally create more complexity. The more capable an IT platform, computer, software, the more complexity can increase. Sometimes we need to step back, sketch and idea, assess “1st principles” and re-state the scope and deadline.

Schedule, time to perform, ship-dates, timing, all are part of the considerations in design. Schedule is a design variable. I recommend this be kept in mind when deep in the midst of “the work” and the scope and end goal is getting murky. Keep the end in mind.

Project Management

Project management is many things. The term project management is a broad category. It can be defined and manifested in different ways. There are key aspects and processes to the role of project management that need to be executed in order to achieve success. Project management in one company differs from that of another, yet there should be some common ground, some similarities, across all of project management in the AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) industry.

All companies bigger than the ability or availability of an individual owner, or group of owners, to manage at the project level, are dependent on project management to determine the success of their projects, their profits, quality, and ultimately, the success of failure of their client relationships. That’s right; everything intersects at the project manager level and in the project operational domain. The success of project management determines the future growth, size, scalability, and health of the organization.

Project managers are the gatekeepers of each company’s clients, values, projects, profits and quality. This should produce a sober reality on making clear their roles and responsibilities. This is easy to say, and difficult to do.

Project management involves both quantitative and qualitative skills and attributes. This includes what we define as “hard” skills and “soft” skills. The things we are trained for in school, the operational tools we learn to support project management tasks like scheduling, budgeting, accounting systems, CRM platforms, and more, ultimately do not determine its success. Tools help support and define the work. But the success of project management, any good fruit, is produced from a proper mindset, people skills, knowledge of the work, a solution orientation, discipline and accountability, along with the tools to support the work.

Here’s a high-level view of some key aspects to project management. This is not an exhaustive list, but a few basic areas of impact.

  • Communication:
    • This is the primary differentiator. Focus on communication. If there’s one thing to do, do this thing. Clear, concise, timely, polite, professional, appropriate communication. The means is contextual to the need or client preference; email, phone, letters, instant messaging, texting, DM’s, WebEx, Skype, Face to face, and other. All forms; and it must be timely; concurrent; “real time”. Tools and platforms used in our companies should support communication in the best manner possible.
  • Scope and Contract management:
    • We’ve got to remember the project scope and make sure to benchmark to it. Knowing when to shift and when to draw the line on scope creep is a key to maintaining profitability while building a strong client relationship. Trust is the key. Build trust.
  • Document management:
    • Keeping track of documents, timing, logging documents, updating our teams, etc.; this includes things like ASI’s, CSK’s, bulletins, addendums, BIM updates, owner changes, and on and on.
  • Earned Value Tracking (EVT):
    • EVT is about measuring the real progress of our work as it relates to the budget. The goal of EVT is to estimate as accurately as possible, the percent complete on the project (the spent amount) vs. the budget we must work with.
  • Schedule management, milestones, submittals:
    • If we don’t establish a schedule, we won’t succeed. The schedule typically drives everything. Creating benchmarks and milestones along the way, allows us to stay on track. Schedules rarely appear to be realistic by the time the project gets released, but we must start somewhere. I’ve yet to see a single schedule maintained exactly, except perhaps the “turnkey” moment when the owner will be handed the keys to open and occupy the building. We must constrain the work. In fact, time constraining is a design variable (more on that in another blog.) Also, look up “Parkinson’s Law.” This is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Have a defined “ship it” date and stick to it.
  • Meetings
    • Project meetings, design-review meetings, huddles, post-project review meetings, kick-off meetings; all serve to create collaboration. We must share in each other’s reality (ours and our client’s) to drive awareness, stay aligned, and maintain milestones. We’ve got to be aware of business and people dynamics and manage them (B2B and H2H items.) Meetings should have a clear start and stop time. There should be an agenda, proposed outcome and solution orientation. Stick to the end time rigidly. I was not good at starting and stopping on time for many years. It sent a bad message. Stick to the end time, have a person designated as the timekeeper, stop 5 minutes before the end of the meeting time, and clarify all actions or “to-do’s”, who will handle it, by when, and then adjourn. We are following the EOS format for meetings more and more and I highly recommend it. I find virtual meetings via MS Teams, with the ability to screen share work products and collaborate on screen, to be highly effective for many meetings. I prefer face to face meetings in some contexts, but that’s another blog post on when is virtual vs. face-to-face better.
  • Process
    • In our company we created a project management process that’s taken about 6 months to define from the ground-up. My partner and I stayed out of this deliberately because both of us had defined and led a PM process effort in prior years, but without it ever being “owned” and accepted by everyone in our organization. We now have a “swim lane” process chart from which responsibilities have been defined and key scorecard metrics have been developed. The team of project managers, with insight from other “subject matter experts” within the company, developed the process with an outside facilitator who works with us. This is being implemented, can be a point of reference from which to manage change, and to improve upon. Define process and build consistency. Create specific scorecard metrics and drive clarity. Perhaps I’ll write another blog on process and how best to develop to achieve buy-in and accountability.

As we approach the end of the year, I am asking myself how we can improve project management in 2022 and beyond. It’s an ongoing process in perpetuity. How about you?

Note: A prior version of this blog was published in November of 2019 in the publication “US Glass Metal and Glazing” when I was blogging for them. The blog has been updated and modified here with more content and experiences in this new post.

Back at it

This is a continuation of my last blog, “What’s On My Mind.” It’s so hard sometimes to organize thoughts, so I just start to write. As I write, I go back and edit, then keep writing, then edit, and so on. Actually it’s always hard to organize thoughts for me because I have so much content going on in my head, in my brain, so many thoughts, observations, and “stuff.” I’ve got ADD brain which primarily manifests itself for me in two ways. One way is the ability to hyper-focus for extended periods of time, at depth, on a specific item, or work product, to completion. The other way is to start a bunch of things and not finish them. This is the most classic. I’ve learned over the years how to recognize it, discipline myself, and when to roll with it or not. I also have learned that they call it “the entrepreneurial brain” since the majority of entrepreneurs have the condition. (At least that what I am reading and hearing now.) I’ll talk more about this in the future as to how I manage it with exercise, nutrition, hydration, mindset practices, prayer, and more.

The way to make the idea of “start a lot of things but not finish them” actually be a positive thing is to have a staff of people that can run with them, manage them, do them, etc. My mind thinks in overlapping concentric or non-concentric circles. Everything is a layer or a domain that overlaps and connects to other items. Linear is not my thing, and it doesn’t need to be. It’s okay. There’s times when thinking linearly is necessary, but I have to force myself to think in that manner or have others hold me accountable to do so. I am finding that the best way to make this work in our company, and to not drive people crazy, is to have an integrator person, or persons, to filter things through; to cull the ideas; because EVERY idea sometimes feels right, but it’s not. And if it is, it might not yet be organized or clear enough to implement. How does it align with strategy? Can we afford it? Can we execute to that with our people? Are we ready? These are appropriate, and sometime frustrating, questions, but they are the right questions to ask. (I get bored easily.)

So today my partner and I, and our team of leaders and managers, meet for the first time for starting the implementation of “E.O.S.” the “Entrepreneurial Operating System.” This was introduced to me by my personal coach, Dr. Chuck Misja, earlier this year. Through reading the book “Rocket Fuel” and taking some tests, then further vetting the ideas, my partner and I made the decision to jump into it. Today and tomorrow are E.O.S. focus days. Vision- Traction organizing. Clearer strategy definition. Group work. I’m excited about it. Our people are excited about it. It will be hard, but it will be good. David Howard, the “biz-tech sherpa” and a trusted business consultant working with us, is leading us through the exercise and facilitating.

So, I was going to talk about our 3-D printer. That’s right. I had every intent, as I started to talk about organizing my thoughts, that the topic for today would be innovation, our 3-D printer, the “why” behind it, and some bullet points I believe you should think about as you consider tools, innovation, value-add, and market awareness. But now there’s no time for more posting. That will have to be another blog. I did manage to cover my mention of EOS from the last blog, I just didn’t expect to do it in this way. Such is the ADD brain. Like I said, I am learning to just write. The writing takes me where I need to go. It must be the right topic for today. Perhaps this will identify with one or more readers, and that will make it all even more worthwhile. If not, it was worthwhile to me. That’s one reason why I write. It’s cathartic. It’s worthwhile to me. It helps manage my over-active brain.

Be well. See ya next time

What’s on My Mind?

What is on my mind? That’s a good question. For anyone that follows this blog, you’ll know I haven’t written for some time. Seth Godin says there’s no such thing as “writer’s block” any more that there’s such a thing as “talker’s block.” But talking is easy, writing is hard. Talking feels less permanent; like standing by a stream watching the water flow by; it’s there and it’s gone. Not that the words we speak have no meaning; they do, but it feels less vulnerable, less permanent. What we write is fixed. It’s harder to take back. It’s permanent, or at least it’s memorialized in a more fixed manner, like a photo of the stream; a fixed point in time. No taking it back

Why so long between writing? I don’t know. I am busy running the company, Wheaton & Sprague Engineering, Inc., and affiliates. I have been devoting more time outside of that to the Creating Structure Podcast, which is now producing Episode 23 and with two more scheduled coming up in August and early September. Those take time to produce; the show notes are like a mini-blog in themselves. I’ve been busy with The Garden (see Instagram posts and other articles in prior blog posts.) It’s summer and I spend less time inside. I’ve been really busy with family matters, friends, and adjusting to post-Covid19 lifestyle. Actually I don’t think there is yet a “post Covid19” reality since the pandemic rages on. It’s just a different state of another “normal,” a new adjustment. Actually it’s worse than prior to, and during Covid, from my point of view, since now there seems to be this expectation to live in both realities. I find it less sustainable, therefore, prioritization of choices is required more than ever. There’s just a tension in the air.

The above are all just excuses of course. Even as I write this, I am starting to FEEL better. Why? Well, I like to write actually. I spend most of my writing time crafting emails, drafting company briefings, writing memos, proposals, work products, and more. But putting this out to the public, and to the followers of the blog, feels different. It is different. I am crazy enough (call it what you will) to think that I might have something to say; that perhaps my experiences might positively impact one person. Even if that’s not the case, it impacts me. And writer’s write because they need to. They write for themselves. One writer said, “If you really want to make an impact, write something that would make your friends feel uncomfortable reading. If you want to make an even deeper impact, write something that will make yourself unconformable.” I’m not quite there yet. I’m able to be just vulnerable enough to do this; to share these thoughts in writing with the world.

What’s on my mind, though, you ask, since I still haven’t answered the question? There’s a lot on my mind. Organizing it and sharing it in a substantive way is the tough part.

What about REMOTE WORK. Well there is no such thing anymore as “REMOTE WORK.” There’s just contextual work; work from various locations. As a business owner I used to work “remotely” often since business ownership is more of a lifestyle than a job. Now I never use that term. First, working in different contexts now belongs to almost anyone that is in an office environment or working a traditional “office job.” It’s no longer in the realm of the business owner alone. I actually feel better about that. I never say “I am working remotely.” It doesn’t matter- not at all. I say things like, “I will be working from my home office this morning,” or “I will be working from my car, between appointments.” (Yes from my car.)

If I turn on “out of office” for auto-response to email it’s because I am on “personal time” or “handling matters that will not allow me to stay in top of email in real time.” There is no more “out of office.” Do I have a physical office? Yes. I am there sometimes five days per week, sometimes zero days per week. All that matters is whether I am engaged or not; whether I being productive or not. Never has it been more obvious to manage by results or outcomes than now. Manage to results and outcomes, not appearances.

What’s on my mind? I don’t know. Have I gotten to that part of the blog yet? “Hey John, what is your company doing about return-to-office vs. hybrid work vs. work from home? Which one are you guys doing?” My answer is yes. What? “Yes, I said.” We are doing ALL OF IT. Is there one better than the other? I don’t know. It’s all contextual. If we are not creative in our approach to people and work contexts, we will struggle with retention and recruiting for sure. Like I said, manage to results and outcomes. Not everyone will survive the change. Not everyone has at our firm. But many will like it more, and they will thrive, plus new people will come into a context they are familiar with if we hire within this paradigm.

What’s on my mind? A lot of things. How can there be so many “hiring now” and “help wanted” signs compared to the time prior to COVID19? Are there that many people that have bowed out, gone to gig economy, freelancing, or just decided not to work? I don’t believe the statistics from the labor department. I just believe what I see; a LOT of jobs available and not enough people available to do them, willing to do them, or that have been trained for them. What a shift. The shift is dynamic and continuing to play out. Take your 5-year plan and scrap it, unless your 5-year plan is “be nimble,” or “make cool stuff,” or “impact the world through clean drinking water,” and similar. I like the “be nimble” part. The job of my company, our “why,” is to “Create Structure” to the world, physically and operationally. Being nimble is required (that’s sound better right now than “pivoting” which is an overused word.)

What’s on my mind? I don’t know. I guess quite a bit. But I am coming to the end of my attention span and available time for this priority today. I’ve not touched on the spiritual, the garden, updates regarding the company, technical posts, discussions about project management, client relationship management, faith and work, the natural, supernatural, discussions about BIM, innovation, 3-D printers, point clouds, time sheet discipline, strategies behind billing report audits, leveraging of time, prioritization, game-changer tasks, the importance of relationships, implementing EOS at our firm and more. I guess those will have to wait for the future blogs; tomorrow, next week, as soon as I prioritize and choose to write more.

What’s on my mind? I guess there’s quite a bit. Let’s talk more later. See you in the next post. Have a great day.

Covid19 Dynamics- Business & People

41% of employees considering leaving?

I received this article and link from PSMJ recently in their executive forum thread.

“A recent Microsoft study found that 61% of business leaders say they are thriving while 60+% of staff-level employees say they are struggling.  What is even more striking is that 41% of those surveyed say they are mulling leaving their jobs.”  You can find an article with more detail on the survey here: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-22/bosses-are-clueless-that-workers-are-miserable-and-looking-to-leave

My commentary; this is a deep issue. So much of it involves the need for more “self awareness” for everyone. The physical, mental and emotional whiplash effect from transitioning, or trying to transition, out of COVID19 lockdown, in whatever form, is real. Working remotely stifles the full impact of social connectivity, culture, the more predictable and interactive environment of office life. Working remotely for specific reasons or for short sprints, is a great option. Staying remote indefinitely is not.

 

This is a deep well and I can’t do it justice in a short blog. But many people are tired. Many bosses are tired. Many think “they are ok” but they are not. My first question to everyone now is “how are you doing?” “Is there anything I can do for you to help?” Liberal use of calls from managers and ownership to staff via video chat really helps.

The number one predictor of long life in the top ten indicators is social connectivity and engagement. Think about it.

 

There’s turnover happening and it will continue to happen as people evaluate their life and options. We have been working to mitigate the side effects and rebuild connection and culture at my company but it’s all dynamic and an emerging picture for all of us.

I would love to hear from others on this topic. If you have story to share, please comment.

How are you doing?

A Poem – MARS ROVER

Here I am, on the planet they call “red.”

A manifestation of the humans

Taking pictures, collecting data, sending information

People applaud my presence, but not those here. There’s no one. I’m alone

I’m preparing for the potential colonizers, those funded by the humans; by the billionaires, and by the taxed people living within their governments.

I’m assessing the landscape and viability here, even though it seems that we can’t take good enough care of ours, as if the thin atmosphere will be sufficient, or better.

So I’ll collect, analyze, and share, while the humans try to run their power grids, economies, communities, and supply chains, the fractured ones, on the rich planet. The one with the resources.

A Poem – SLEEP

Drifting

Drifting

Drifting

Suspended between realities

Deep Breath. Slowing heart rate

Powering down

Yielding to the day’s fatigue and gravity

A type of death. A daily death. Practice for the next reality

Visions appearing

Now getting thinner, now darkening

Then nothingness, darkness, time suspended, unaware, of everything, until rest is sufficient

Then a stirring, a slow stirring

Powering up

Aware of the breath, the heartbeat

A new reality appearing. An awakening. Light growing. Ready for the gravity of the day

A type of resurrection. A daily resurrection

Practice for the next reality

Zero-Based Everything

Do I still need that meeting?

Is that activity still productive?

Is it still necessary to have that in our budget?

What impact is my focus on “those activities” producing?

Is the business model still relevant?

What’s the worst consequence if we stop?

Is my master schedule still producing the results I need to see?

Is that decision providing value to the business?

Is that service still appropriate?

Knowing what I know now about that person, would I still hire them?

If it consistently is no longer producing results, creating anger, leading to frustration, draining energy, not making positive impact, then it’s time to change either ourselves, our focus, our financial investment, our time expenditure, or other things. As business owners we design the game. If we don’t like certain aspects anymore, or we are consistently losing, stop the game, go play another, or adjust the rules.

Just because we’ve been doing something doesn’t mean it is still is important or impactful

Step back, analyze, create thought time. You’ll know what is working and what is not.

The Flagship Office- The Office for the Now

Back in early December of 2020, one of my outside board of advisory members asked me this question, “So now with COVID19 reality and remote work, what are you going to do with this building?” My immediate answer was brilliant, “I don’t know.” Subsequently the board members, my partner, and I, engaged in a discussion about the pro’s and con’s of having a substantial office space that was equipped for doubling the size of our staff, assuming everyone was in the office. “What do you think the odds are that everyone will return to the office?” “Do you envision a reality where 100% of staff will be operating together 100% of the time, with no offsite remote work?” “How do we justify the overhead costs with empty space?” “What’s the value?” Many of us are asking these same questions.

I recently participated in a PSMJ (Professional Services Management Journal) webinar about current compensation strategies and the future of human resources (HR) in A/E firms (Architecture and Engineering.) Multiple surveys were taken from the 300+ participants during the 1-hour session. All were dealing with the questions of remote work, partial remote work, in-office, out-of-office, and so on. Interestingly, while multiple hybrid work models were the largest percentage of the sampling, a follow up analysis showed that only 5% of people wanted to remain remote and work at home 100% of the time. If you had gotten answers to the same question one year ago in February of 2020, prior to everyone actually doing remote work, you would have gotten a much higher percentage.

The debate is real. The questions are substantive. We’ve seen big companies choose to not occupy new headquarters buildings, to cancel new leases, and to stay in current spaces. We’ve seen some say “we’re going to be 100% remote now forever.” We’ve seen some still going ahead with buildings equipped to house all or part of their staff. But the reality is, everything has changed. What was once the norm is now disrupted. It was going this way, but the COVID19 pandemic reality accelerated the process; it created the cause-effect response available in a connected, internet-based, digital world. Response to the remote-based work environment, hybrid models, or 100% in-office, are going to vary by industry, company, and position. All I know is that it’s going to be different.

Once again, the question: “So now with COVID19 reality and remote work, what are you going to do with this building?” I’ve been thinking about this continually, monitoring our experience, getting input from others on an Executive forum thread with PSMJ, listening to staff, to podcasts, gathering information, talking to clients, related businesses, and more. I’ve been watching the realities hitting retail in the pandemic and digital environment as well. We all know that the future, and the “now”, of “brick and mortar” retail is quite different. Smart retailer’s have gone digital, while also showcasing some of their work and products in specific stores. Outlier stores have been closed, inventory in the remaining stores reduced, and more invested in online and warehoused inventory. So what about the future of the “office?” What about the future of it in the context of professional services? How about more specifically in A/E? Here’s how I envision it.

Think “flagship store.” The future of “the professional service office” is a multi-dimensional experience for all who enter, all who are affiliated with the company, including staff, clients, vendors, affiliates, referrers, advocates, collaborators, students, recruits, and more. Just as smart retailers have put in place digital infrastructure while creating a physical retail location that is experiential, showcasing products, services, and supporting their brand, such is the future of the professional services office. What does this multi-dimensional office look like? What is the envisioned experience? What is it? What is it not? It will depend on the location, industry, work type, and so much more.

It is no longer simply a place to go work for 8 hours a day and go home. It is no longer a static space to just do work and collaborate with clients and staff. It’s a “watering hole” a “community well” a “gathering place” for the industry, domain, practice segments. It is a representation of brand through physical placement of things representing the work, through digital experiences accessible in multiple areas throughout the facility, where clients can access and reference the showcased services, engage electronically, or personally. The 3-D printer is continually printing samples of products and goods supported by the service. Spaces are nimble and flexible for collaborative teams. Spaces are hybridized. Glass is more prevalent in creating separation and visibility at the same time. People can talk to a representative like they do at a bank. Services can be ordered and procured on the spot if desired. Clients, supporters, and other people connected to the company can come and use common spaces as a “third space” to use wireless, collaborate, take a coffee break. Staff members work productively whether from home or from office based on the need, the work typology, and tasks at hand. Projects are displayed physically, and electronically. The space is a shared work space, brand support, resting space, and more. It is a media center as well. The podcast (if you have one) is produced from a studio in the office such as the one I produce called “The Creating Structure Podcast.” When not accessible, staff, clients, and constituents can have a virtual experience.

Everything we do, including the facilities in which we work, are an opportunity to support and express brand; to express innovation, attract, retain, support and care. The facility, in my reality, has always been required to communicate as much as possible about who we are in the physical expression of the space.

I’m looking forward to creating more of a “flagship” office experience. That’s what we are going to do. That’s how we will use the space. Now let’s see how much we can make it a reality.

Why Wait?

It’s Monday. The start of the business week. It’s a good time to get moving on “that thing.”

You know “that thing.” The one that keeps nagging at you; the one you’ve been postponing.

What’s the issue?

That thought you keep waking up with when the mind is clear.

That recurring issue that keeps presenting itself

The boundary that needs to be set

The pattern that needs to re-start

The complexity that needs to be simplified

The “why” that needs to be clarified

The “what” that needs better definition

The “who” that we need to connect with

What’s the risk if it gets started? What’s the risk if it stays the same?

Think “game-changer” activities. Prioritize biggest leverage items first.

Why not stop delaying, stop fearing, stop putting up barriers?

Entropy always tends to pull us in the direction of not acting. Resist it.

One thing, today. Why not?

Go get after it.