We are a bunch of conformists. It’s a big problem in the AEC business. Everyone is sitting around waiting to do what the other guy is doing. And this is precisely the WRONG course of action for a company working in a crowded, mature industry (and we are that). In those situations, it is differentiation that makes you successful.
Here are the areas of conformity that are affecting many firms’ ultimate success:
- Their company name. Why is everyone some version of alphabet soup these days? ABC, WSK, WSB, PEI, HOK, WGI, YRS. I could go on and on. The number of possibilities for random three-letter combinations is pretty high, and today, we are seeing them all. I don’t want to offend anyone, but I have to break the news to you – it’s boring as hell! And completely unmemorable, too! And the three letters don’t stand for any values or what the firm does, typically. They just happen to be the initials of some or all of the founders. Stop doing this!
- Their marketing strategy. Why do so many companies go down the same path – afraid to do something different from every other “61-person civil engineering firm in Minneapolis?” It seems to me like everyone does the same thing. They develop a new brochure at great expense that no one reads and goes out of date three weeks after printing – like we need that! A newsletter covering all the firm does that comes out once a quarter – great idea! A fancy magazine that comes out twice a year and has a name different from that of the company – of course! A company Christmas card that doesn’t offend anyone. A holiday open house no one but competitors and former employees come to. A three-postcard series that takes a year to implement. A 20-name press list that we mail press releases to three times a year. All the same everything from every company in the business. Differentiate, people!!
- Their ownership transition strategy. Why are so many firms blindly pursuing a path of internal transition – typically one with a certain ratio of owners to employees, stock that is sold at “book” value, and stock purchases that are financed through bonus programs? And why do the preponderance still treat their principals like they are some sort of “special” gods that the rules everyone else plays by in the firm don’t apply to? There are huge behavioral ramifications with these kinds of decisions. It doesn’t have to work this way. Figure out how to do things better than the way everyone did it in your firm and most others in the past!
- Their office quality and layout. Why do so many firms put their top people in the perimeter offices and throw everyone else out on the floor in a sea of cubicles? Paint the walls grey, put in some gray-blue carpet, hang some old project photos, and put someone at the front desk behind a super high counter so you can’t see them – someone who can’t even say the company name properly. So boring. Even design firms that do offices for a living oftentimes have terrible, boring offices. Make them different! Put the cubicles around the perimeter and the offices inside. Paint the walls red and provide bike racks in the building. Toss the dog-eared copies of ENR on the lobby coffee table and decade-old plaques given to you by your local chamber of commerce. Make your office different and make it an asset rather than a negative.
I could go on and on. We seem like lemmings to me – in too many ways. Crowded, mature markets demand innovation and differentiation. Better get on with it or next time a recession comes along you might be the victim of a changing world.
Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.