How to captain change in your AEC business — eight savvy steps

How to captain change in your AEC business — eight savvy steps
New initiatives, tech updates, project-centred work, evolving competition. It all piles up to push us and our AEC design businesses to continually change. We look at Kotter’s eight-step change management model so we can all make that fact a strength.

Change. It’s inevitable and it’s hard. Don’t you just want to hunt down amazing change leaders and go all Spanish Inquisition on them about how they ‘do’ transformation? Be a fly on the proverbial wall of their strategy execution? Force these pilots of progress to reveal the factors that forged their change-management wins? Does she eat a certain cereal? Does he use a certain pen? Do they have some secret sauce of success that makes change in their businesses work, and stick? Does the sauce taste like chicken? And how can we use it for the continual innovation and adaptation required to run a successful business in the architectural, engineering, or construction design (AEC) industry?

We want answers to these burning questions, just like you.

Luckily for all of us, Dr John Kotter already gathered the goods. Over four decades, he studied leaders and organizations as they executed organizational change and transformation. Finding that only 30 percent of change programs succeed, the good doctor was moved to create a model for triumphant leadership of change within business. As modern AEC outfits, new initiatives, tech updates, project-centred workloads, and evolving competition all pile up to push us (sometimes kicking and screaming) to continually change. So, we thought we’d get into some Kotter-stepping with you so we can all learn where to tread for top-shelf transformation.

It’s worth noting that there are lots of change methodologies — some better for certain situations than others — but for smaller businesses undergoing whole-organization change, John Kotter’s eight steps are worth a look.

1. Create a sense of urgency

Whether you’re changing one little process or the entire setup, this first step is the most important one, according to Kotter. Step one is where you create the want. You get a business-wide buy-in by clearly identifying the threats and potential crises if there is no change. That sparks a sense of urgency in the need for change, for the survival of the whole organization, right now. Then explore the possible advantages that change at this moment could leverage. There’s your motivation.

“We receive so many emails… It takes maybe 30 seconds to save an email as a document and when you’re getting 200-odd emails per day, there just isn’t the time to keep doing that. As directors, we end up spending time in evenings filing our project emails to the central Exchange server.”

2. Form a guiding coalition

Here’s where you form the supporting faction. Build your (cheer) squad by identifying and gathering the most compelling commanders in your business, ensuring you have a good spread of representation from each level of seniority, each sort of stakeholder, and each department or role type. This A-Team provides visible support and active leadership to build momentum for change.

“Three of us recently became associate directors at the same time — that kickstarted the look at Total Synergy as we all wanted to find better ways to run the practice and project management.”

3. Build a vision for change

As they say in the Kevin Costner classic, “if you build it, they will come”. And by ‘it’ we mean the vision. You want a clear concept that you can easily and powerfully communicate, about what the change will look like. Once they see the vision clearly, your peeps will understand why you’re asking them to undergo the growing pains of changing behavior. They’ll see the shiny cause you’re all fighting for and grasp the path to it much better.

“The goal for MVL is to move away from a scenario where they use spreadsheets and siloed systems to run the business, to where key business software applications — like practice management and accounting applications — can talk to each other and create similar efficiencies to those seen in BIM model projects.”

4. Communicate the vision

Number four is easy, folks — talk about it! At meetings, in Teams or Slack, on Yammer, on phone calls, on site, in emails. This really does determine the success of your change mission because it’s the bit where you get staff buy-in. And you need everyone’s buy-in. You need to communicate your vision often and loudly, and then connect it with things like performance reviews.

“If we can be efficient in the way that we manage the practice, that is of benefit to the clients because we’ve got more time to dedicate to them, rather than to ourselves.”

5. Remove obstacles

At this point, AEC business buds, you’ve set up structures and vehicles for change. You’ve selected drivers and provided petrol. Now, just like any good safety car, you need to drive the track and get rid of debris. Anything that obstructs the path to the glittering vision has to be cleared — crumbling structures, outdated systems, or resistant staff. It’s not always easy, but it is essential — they can all derail your change outcomes.

“[A] critical business issue built environment design practices face is that not all projects are delivered equally, nor do all staff perform equally.”

6. Create short-term wins

Early and often! That’s when you should be ringing ‘round those goal posts in a victory dance. Early and as often as possible. You want to recognize and reward mini-goals on the path to the ‘big vision’ in order to spur on employees and to provide evidence of credibility. You’re showing your AEC design team that the vision is possible and that you’re on the right track to get there.

“If you look at [the amount of time] saved with Synergy, I’d say it’s probably 10 percent, overall, per engineer. If you just add up the number of hours that you stage a project… I mean, every single engineer’s finding Synergy a lot easier to work with.” Win!

7. Consolidate improvements and produce more change

At this point, what you don’t want to do is declare the game won. Kotter says that declaring victory too early is the cause of most change processes going down the drain. Instead, you want to push the team and the immediate targets harder — fresh projects, continuous improvement in systems, new goals. With each new success you gain another opportunity to clarify what’s working and cut away what’s not.

“As sole director of a company, I do have to wear a lot of different hats at the moment, but hopefully as things expand, I’ll have to do less and less of everything and be able to focus my time a bit more on what I want to focus on.”

8. Anchor the change

The last step in Kotter’s Eight is where you take steps one-through-seven and make them part of the very fibre of your architecture, engineering or construction design business. This is where you’re embedding progress as part of the culture of your organization. Repeat the success stories of this change process and keep championing development. Make sure the connection between the business’s success and the new behaviors you’ve fostered are articulated. Again, this is a case of often and loudly.

“Learning a new program is always a bit tricky, especially if you’re not IT savvy, but it wasn’t overly arduous… We got there in a week or so and everyone picked it up, and they’re using it no problem. We use it daily for different reasons.”

The point is that we know change is constant and its rate is ever-increasing. If you learn how to manage that change for the good and the growth of your AEC enterprise, then your capacity to evolve along with it may just end up being your greatest strength.

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