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April 7, 2009
by Lisa Delgado

Event: Firm Development in Uncertain Times — A discussion with Jack Reigle
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.25.09
Speakers: Jack Reigle — President, SPARKS, The Center for Strategic Planning
Organizers: Professor Frank Mruk, AIA, New York Institute of Technology for the Center for Architecture and the Association for Strategic Planning
Sponsor: AIANY New Practices Committee

The past several months have been filled with an uneasy feeling of “now what?” remarked design-business consultant Jack Reigle. Faced with the recession, architects are collectively holding their breath, waiting to see what’s in store for them, their firms, and the industry.

Don’t panic and blindly seek whatever projects can be found, warned Reigle, author of the book Silver Bullets — Strategic Intelligence for Better Design Firm Management (Bascom Hill Publishing Group, 2008). “You want to be better, not busier,” he explained. A firm should carefully assess its individual identity and mission, and pursue the specific types of clients and projects that will help to fulfill its “higher purpose.” Don’t let short-term practical matters drain your time at the expense of far-sighted strategic thinking, he cautioned, for that leads to inefficiency. Focusing on long-term goals helps a firm gain greater success and a more defined identity, which ultimately means attracting business instead of having to spend time chasing it.

Archetypes can help a firm clarify its mission, he added. Is your firm an “Einstein” — a producer of visionary ideas? Or a “niche expert” that clients turn to for advancing a certain specialized type of project? Or a “market partner,” which collaborates with the client to pursue immersion in a certain market? Some other archetypes include “community leader,” “orchestrator,” and “builder.” In general, it’s best for a firm to limit itself to one or two archetypes, to keep well focused, Reigle said. When one audience member from a large company questioned the advisability of such a tight focus, Reigle suggested that big companies might draw from a greater number of archetypes, but each department should keep its own identity well defined.

He also emphasized the importance of “client and market empathy.” “You’ve got to develop expertise beyond your professional skills: expertise that is based on knowledge and familiarity, let’s say, with markets,” he said. “The more you do that, as opposed to just jumping from market to market, the more you’ll be able to contribute.” That kind of market savvy helps architects empathize with the specific challenges the client faces, and as a result, architects can offer services beyond architecture itself, such as valuable research and information, or even marketing.

The economic downturn might also necessitate different, more flexible ways of working, Reigle said. Some architects might end up working as freelancers in medium-to-large firms instead of full-time staff. Also, virtual firms might gain traction, as architects band together on more of an ad-hoc basis in response to these fluid, uncertain times.

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