Who’s in Control?

Mary Ellen Wilkes (Joseph C. Towler)

As a Principal who is very engaged with mentoring (and trying to do it well), my communication focuses on finding the right communication tools for each person. A large part of this is figuring out how to deliver the same information to different people. This means different examples and different metaphors, adapted to someone’s communication style.

An important example I come back to is trusting your gut. As soon as your gut starts to tell you something, you need to stop and listen to it. If you assess that your gut has you 10% uncomfortable, then you’re probably in a good spot. You can manage that, and it will likely result in professional growth and personal development. As soon as it’s more than 10%, it means that you are truly uncomfortable with something… and I bet that it’s because control over the situation is in doubt.

EVERY situation needs to have someone in control. This person needs to recognize that they have control. They need to accept this control OR quickly defer the control to someone else. In order for a situation to progress well, the right person needs to be in control. This requires that we listen to our guts to assess whether we should be in control or not. The whole concept falls apart when someone is deluded into thinking that they should have control, but they aren’t the right person (they have a dysfunctional ‘gut alert’). This means that we WILL experience a combination of negative impacts on schedule, budget, quality… and morale. (It also falls apart when multiple people try to exert control)

Within our firms, we can manage this system of ensuring someone is in control. It’s really difficult to do this when we are subconsultants, and we look to our prime consultants to exert the control we need from them to ensure our projects go smoothly. Some previous posts referenced the challenge that subconsultants face when we’re put in a place where we need to “manage from behind” (Managing From Behind – Part 1). As subconsultants, we have to walk a line of deference (for lack of a better word) and try to work within what we have. It’s pretty uncomfortable to be in a place where we need to request our primes do better. It seems that the only way we typically do that is when we bring up scope/fee modifications. This is likely an indicator of lack of clarity, and lack of clarity means that someone isn’t in control.

So, let’s try to be clear about control. It makes us all look good.

[As to going back for scope/fee modifications, the reality is that we anticipate these kinds of bumps, and when they’re bad, absorb them as we can. Scope/fee modifications tend to need to be valid with a client, and these internal team misalignments are not valid to a client.]

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As a visual example of putting control in the right place, I previously created a flowchart for staff (Know What Not to Do – Part 3). This also dealt with listening to your gut, but it was aimed more at staff inefficiency/mistakes with things they hadn’t done before. A different way to discuss the same fundamental topic: who should be in control?

About the Author: Peter Briggs is a landscape architect who has an ongoing preoccupation with the business of design. For more bio information, please see: www.highestexpertise.com/who-is-peter/

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