Urban Planning Through Frugality

An NFB animated favourite - What on Earth!

An NFB animated favourite – What on Earth!

 Otherwise Titled: “The Frugal Consultant”

The variety of places I intentionally visit on the internet is small. One of them is www.mrmoneymustache.com. “Mr. Money Mustache is a thirtysomething retiree who now writes about how we can all lead a frugal yet Badass life of leisure.”

To distill what I like about the website is that it’s grounded in clear goals, clear criteria for success, and generally quantifiable approaches to assessing what will (or will not) lead to those goals. To some extent or another, most of us (unintentionally) subscribe to some external motivator(s) that move us in ways that we might not otherwise choose. This will be your farm someday, son. I’m proud of you being a lawyer like your dad. I need the health insurance and pension!!! I think this is why most people have some kind of mid-life crisis of one flavour or another. It’s only natural to get to a point and look back and wonder, “How exactly did I get here?” followed shortly by, “Do I want to be here?” It’s a reaction to realizing that we’re not as intentional as we might like to be.

The discussion about being intentional in our own pathways is likely a general theme of this blog. The intent of this post is to directly tie the concepts of frugality to planning and design, and to how we approach our work.

I sometimes feel like my goal with any client is to figure out whether I can talk them out of my services. It’s not some strange desire to inflict harm to my business. It’s a realization that clients sometimes don’t exactly know what they actually need (see: Trying to Avoid Work To Benefit Our Clients)… and that I can build value in my client if I can match them with the consultant that they REALLY need. At this point in my career, I want to build value in my network and build value in others. I know they will do the same in me. Then we get to focus on our skills and how we deliver highest value to our community.

I also feel that my goal with a client is to figure out what I can talk them out of constructing. That’s where this blog originates with Mr. Money Mustache. Take a second and read his post Understand the Drive-Through and We Can Understand All Problems. He’s not a landscape architect, or a planner (but has experience in building and construction). He has developed a lens of frugality through which he views the world. In case you didn’t go to his post, I’ll just quickly summarize that he looked at a bank’s drive-through system and saw the lost value in potential urban density. Value lost to allow us to stay in our vehicles with the engines idling. What I would see as poor planning and design, he saw as waste. (As an aside… why is it that we treat cars as the dominant life form on Earth rather than people?? I LOVE this 1969 Canadian Film Board animated short What on Earth!).

Planning is way more complex than a typical person would realize or expect. I fully understand HOW our cities develop (grounded in my mild cynicism), but the WHY is truly founded within strange code and ingrained ways of doing things. Sadly, working against (and even with) the system can be a long and hard road. Our systems have achieved lives of their own, just like the ‘lives’ of the cars in What on Earth!

I grew up with a fairly frugal outlook on life. But, as always, have only recently appreciated how that outlook applies to what I do as a career. I find it easy to try to match the correct level of our services to our clients. It’s much more difficult to match the correct design to the correct client to the correct site to the correct problems etc… There are so many variables and factors, that we get lost within them all. We sometimes turn around and see we’ve put in a banking drive-in on a piece of land that should have had a higher use. We have no good excuses other than we didn’t have the time, or the support, or the societal awareness, or whatever, to stop for a second and think about different outcomes. Let alone convince the other decision makers.

For those of you with means. For the thoughtful developers. For the city staff who use the system for change. For those of you committed to the long fight. I applaud you when you take a longer view and put your money and effort where your community is. Paradigms are finicky. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the right words to get people to say, “Oh. I get it now.” I’m not sure if  frugality and its criteria will achieve this paradigm shift, but for me it makes sense today and adds some light for me.

How to Build Mutual Accountability

Infographic Overall

I love the term “brilliant flash of the obvious”. For me, it’s usually the product of long analysis, interesting conversations and deliberation. We get to the point where we’ve overthought something, and realize… the answer is simple and was just waiting for us to get to it! But, the fact is that we had to go through the process. When a thesis advisor of mine (Larry Harder) told me about the phrase, I believe he credited a Canadian landscape architect named Michael Hough. I’ve had this phrase/concept long enough that it’s a goal for me to find this elusive “brilliant flash of the obvious”.

Another thesis advisor (Dr. Robert Brown), left me with one of my most important “flashes of the obvious”. From his research methods course, I realized that if you outline your criteria for success prior to beginning your work, you have the power to define what success is. The power of this is that it encourages strategic thinking, the development of a concrete process to follow, and provides you with rigor that can be applied to the assessment of your final product. The easiest example is a playful one where you intentionally set the bar low for success. For example, if you state that your goal for a park design is to have it be an open space with seating… then success could be a parking lot with a bucket to sit on. Success!!!

The point of this blog post is to emphasize the value of entering into tasks with a goal (or goals), and understanding how these goals will be met successfully.

As a landscape architect, the most obvious application of this is the development of an agreed upon scope with your client. You need to establish not only what they want, but what they actually need. They often don’t know the ‘need’ part… and that is exactly why they have hired you with your expertise. Our success in this effort is directly proportional to our experience (knowing what to ask) and our communication skills. Good habits are often reinforced by avoiding bad outcomes. Losing money sticks in our minds.

The “brilliant flash of the obvious” part of this relates to the fact that we apply special tools and techniques with our clients in order to achieve solid communication (to avoid losing money)… and then we turn around and wonder why our staff do strange things? Why they didn’t approach a task the way we’d want them to approach it? Have we stopped to see if we’ve invested the time and effort into this the same way we do for things like losing money?

When we do think about it, I think the answer is that we didn’t establish an appropriate scope with staff… and perhaps more importantly, we didn’t establish how they would be accountable for their work.

Flogging Is NOT an Option

Our coping/communication skills are dependent upon the level of familiarity within our relationships. I can remain perfectly calm with a grumpy client. When I’m at home, an empty toilet paper tube in the bathroom can trigger an evening of passive aggression.

We spend most of our waking hours with our staff. This creates complacency with our relationship, and complacency leads to losing sight of the importance of good communication skills. We spend so much effort with effective client communication, but we just can’t seem to ‘find the time’ for staff. It’s not to say that things are dysfunctional, but there are certainly some things that we should be doing to set us all up for success. We can do better!

We Are a Product of our Baggage

Many of the strategies and processes that I employ are based on not wanting to revisit something bad that happened. I remember that fee where I forgot to include a certain typical scope item. My response was to create a fee template where irrelevant tasks are deleted, in order to benefit myself when I need to create a fast fee. Past Peter did Future Peter a favour by trying to protect him. So I say, “Thanks Past Peter! This one’s for you!”

So… back to criteria for success. If I’m working on a project on my own, I already have my own ingrained criteria for success. It’s easy to agree with myself and have a joint vision of where I need to go. In this case, there is an I in my Team. My Team is I.

Add another person to the mix (or more), and the need for a common vision and criteria for success becomes obvious! Right? Well… think about your project initiation process and see how it actively engages your team into shared accountability. If you DO have processes in place for this that you are successful… please share a comment on this post. Regardless… please read on.

Shared Accountability

We’re adults. We do our job. We can support those around us when they ask us to help out. BUT… until they bring us into a shared vision that we understand, we won’t be operating at our highest expertise. AND… we won’t be operating with initiative and passion until they craft a vision that somehow includes us. It’s human nature… we’re most involved when our tasks reflect us.

So… I’ll go back to the importance of establishing criteria for success. Below is a quick example of how this could happen. It relates to the importance of having a shared company vision that relates to all of your projects, and then project-specific vision.

Task 1: How Do We Measure Success?

Let’s assume that you haven’t had an office discussion like this. If you have a business or strategic plan, you’ll likely have all or part of these. The question is whether ALL of your staff have been involved in a discussion like this. The point of this is to develop a common language of common expectations that everyone is invested in. This should relate to everything that your organization does. Here’s a brief example of what it might look like organized within a hierarchy:

  • Happy Client (and most of these are for Happy Firm)
    • Meets Budget
      • Stay within design fee
      • Project within construction budget
    • Meets Schedule
      • Project bids on schedule
      • Meetings happen without rescheduling
      • Meetings are efficient
    • Meets Quality
      • Helps them achieve their organizational mission
      • Meets their operations and maintenance needs
  • Happy Community
  • Happy Environment

A good way to do the above is to give employees post-it notes and ask them to write one answer to the question “how do we measure success”, one per note. Use markers to make them bold and easy to read. Use different colors of post-its and markers to make it distinct and cool. Do not underestimate that the process itself it super important, and that includes how it looks and communicates.

Have each employee read their note, and put it up on a wall (whiteboard is great). As people add them, they should star to group them into similar groupings. As more are added, these groupings may also be divided into sub-groups. An important part of this is to discuss and examine hierarchies. Some of them might start to be specific, and they will lead into well the next phase of this process.

Use this as an opportunity to  stop and have those amazing “business of design” discussions that could result from this. You will likely find the perfect place to discuss your company’s mission and vision… if not even realizing that they can be improved to better reflect your company, staff and all. I’m assuming you have a business plan or similar that outlines your mission and vision. You do have that, right?

Task 2: How Do We Measure Task Success?

This discussion is specific to a particular project your office may be doing. It will expand upon and add specificity to items in Task 1. With this exercise, we’re walking a line between an internal agreement on what your firm is expecting of itself and its staff, and the development of project programming. That’s okay… final programming will lie with a client on any project, but your brainstorming may help you identify the questions you should be asking your client.

The conversation that spurred my thoughts on this blog post relate to a shared discussion of quality in my office. Our goal is to have our staff state what they feel represents the level of quality that we wish to achieve.

We’ve been talking about infographics in our office. We want to use the development of infographics to investigate our passions, refine our graphic design skills, and develop our approach to simplifying the presentation of potentially complex information. I could have issued this task by stating my top ten criteria for a successful infographic… but… that’s really kind of useless. Seriously. We’re designers, and as soon as I do that… I WILL limit what comes out of others. It might look like the easy way, but it does no one any good.

So… even on what might seem like the simplest of tasks, why don’t we take a few minutes and engage into this discussion of “what are the characteristics of the best infographic ever!!??!”

At the Task 2 level, here’s some of what we discussed:

  • What are the elements of a high quality infographic?
    • Tells a Story
    • Graphically Engaging
    • Simplifies complex information
    • ADDS to the discussion rather than duplicates
    • Comes from passion

Infographic Zoom

So now we have more details as to what we as a group consider to be the qualities of a successful product.

Task 3: How Do We Quantify Success?

This task gets down to the point of this entire blog post. We’re tying to remove opinion from assessment in order to increase the potential not only for success… but awesome success. If I were to have asked for a “great infographic” without any other information, I run the risk of setting my staff up for failure. Odds are that we would NOT have a shared vision of success.

So… down to the details. The discussion went into what exactly does something need to have to achieve it’s goals? The best part about this discussion is that we are working on a shared dialogue within the office that will benefit every project. When we understand what we mean by quality, by going through a specific case study, then we will start to open ourselves to small and large “brilliant flashes of the obvious”. OHHH!!! Peter has no idea what an infographic is!? He just wanted a bar chart??! Now we can open his eyes to how an infographic is soooo much better.

Or… we can at least talk about being intentional with story, graphic layout, etc…

  • The product is high quality
    • Tells a Story
      • Has a start, middle and end… and hopefully tension, conflict and the other things a good story has.
    • Graphically Engaging
      • Has a visual flow
      • Good color scheme

Task 4: Accountability

Where all of the above leads is that you have achieved a shared group vision. As a supervisor, you now have specific components to measure product success. As a peer working on the project, you have the tools to push each other when you say, “Is our story strong enough?”. Without this shared language, pushing another person can lead to conflict. With it, we can guide the conversation to how we get to our agreed upon goal.

Since we have agreed on what quality means, then we can review the product and congratulate the team on achieving success. If the product falls short, we can speak to what might be lacking and measure it against our group benchmark. I bet that most of the time people respect this accountability tool. BUT… recognize that communication is elusive. There might be the chance that what is lacking was not fully understood. Use it as an opportunity to continue the discussion. It’s about finding a shared understanding, and embracing the growth that will be a by-product of the right approach.

This shared vision is incremental, and experience dependent. You will hopefully have a common shared language with a person you have worked with for ten years. Don’t get complacent. These approaches have value, and allow evolution with each repetition. Also… they are critical to bringing new staff into the vision… AND… allowing the vision to shift with the good change that they bring.


Thanks for reading all of the way. The summary of this is that we spend our lives facilitating our clients and stakeholders, but we don’t seem to use those same tools to benefit ourselves and our staff. When we stop to do that, we reap many benefits… with the most important being strengthening shared communication and establishing accountability.

The only real accountability is that which we enforce on ourselves. In order to internalize accountability, we have to be a meaningful part of the process.

Postcript: For my staff that eventually find this blog, I truly wish that I were the perfect boss/mentor for you. I’m human and miss the obvious a lot. Please reference the ‘benevolent manipulation‘ post. Remember, you can also initiate things like the above. That would make me happy since it illustrates a shared understanding. Understanding is good. =)

Understanding the Secret Value of Value

When we are subconsultants, we are aware of our place within the world. Site design and landscape often aren’t the highest focus of attention within a project. We’ve developed approaches and skills where we try our best to deliver high value, even in the face of a lack of engagement or sub-optimal processes.

We operate at our best when our teams recognize our role no matter how small, and provide us with what we need. Sometimes we just need some sympathy, but more importantly… it comes down to understanding what we do and supporting our role.

Landscape architecture is a profession for a reason. We bring a high level of value for understanding and acting on how people use and enjoy their lives outside of buildings. This certainly relates to health, safety and welfare. This might be off the radar for some clients, but there are many small decisions on a site that could bring immense value. Without anyone ever knowing.

I think that we gain some pleasure realizing that much of what we do will never be actively recognized. We realize that what we do actively and positively shapes people’s experiences and quality of life. Conversely, I think we also gain guilty pleasure when our advice wasn’t heeded, and you hear grumbling about how a site design doesn’t function so well. We’d love to say, “We told you so!”… but we don’t. One of the best descriptions of landscape architects is that “we are a shade loving species.” There’s more in that for another post at some time.

When we work with architects and engineers who have realized our secret value, they see it as something that they want to harness in order to deliver value to our client. They have developed teams where no matter how small, they work with the people that they value. It’s human nature that we all work at our best when we are valued.

If you are a client, architect, engineer or another person who might work with us… if you don’t fully understand what we bring to your project, please ask us. Our goal is to create a site and atmosphere that benefits your business or mission! We will only be successful when our clients are successful.

This applies to everyone. When you seek to understand the value that someone brings to you, you will create value that wasn’t there before.

(In short… if you actively engage with us to encourage our expertise, we’ll do even more to try to help you. It’s human nature. See Benevolent Manipulation.)

Benevolent Manipulation

By you reading this, I’ve successfully lured you into being benevolently manipulated! But, don’t stop reading… it’s a good thing.

Should you and I interact, my goal is to do as much as I can to ensure that our interactions contribute to you being highly functional… and in turn, guide you to doing the same for me.


  • [buhnevuh-luh nt] – desiring to help others
  • [muh-nip-yuhley-shuh n] – skillful or artful management.

Combined definition: To artfully manage others to assist them in reaching their potential, recognizing that this will in turn benefit us.

This will be a short post. It’s really about an intent to understand the person you are communicating with. The idea is that whenever you encounter resistance or an issue (these are the easiest indicators), you stop for a second and think about how you can control the situation and work toward a “win-win” resolution. This is especially useful with people you will continue to interact with, as you will slowly find what works. Humans and trial-and-error go hand in hand.

Let’s look at a case study on how to manipulate me:

How To Manipulate Peter for Drawing Reviews

Scenario: You came to me with a set of drawings for me to review. I take them from you and begin to look at them. Your intent was that I review a few specific details, but you may not have communicated that effectively (or I didn’t listen).

Peter’s Actions: I review your detail, but they lead me to look at other things in the drawings. I start to:

  • Find things that aren’t complete (I wonder why they’re not complete),
  • Find incomplete comments that I had previously given (I feel that I haven’t been listened to),
  • Weird design stuff (I start to worry I’ll need to step in and rally things), and
  • The list goes on.

Your Reactions: You’re not happy, because you had only needed a specific range of input from me… and now you’re hearing about the things you already knew weren’t done. Depending on how well I deal with things, perhaps you’re also worried that I seem grumpy. It’s a cascading list of potential sub-optimal outcomes.

Alternate Universe: You realize that communication is best when it is specific, and focused on the end product that you need. You also know that Peter’s eyes wander and he looks at other things. You print out ONLY the thing you want reviewed, or you circle it and write “look only at this”, or you have notes in the set that relate to incomplete redlines… so that when I reference other drawings, I see that it’s ongoing and you have noted my previous concerns.

Result: You have managed me to respond appropriately to what you want/need. You allow me to operate at my highest level for allowing you to be at your highest level.

This is Life!

We all want to operate at our best. We are weak and we are prone to our own shortfalls. When we are at our best, we try to overcome these… but when we are tired/grumpy/hangry/etc… we may not be the people we want to be. If people approach us with an optimized “Peter-centric” approach, then we’re starting off on the right foot and we can control the unintended consequences.

Another example:

Perhaps permitting is getting you down? Permitting is staffed by people.

  • Make it as easy as possible for them to do their job.
    • This is just life: CLARITY in what you give them. Clear documents that consolidate the things they’re looking for.
  • Think about what they are concerned about, and try to correct it in advance.
    • This is just life: AVOID doing the things that you know annoy people!
  • Include things in the project that appeal to their approach to their job.
    • This is just life: GIVE them something that they can recognize as theirs and find a sense of ownership.
  • Realize that their job isn’t to make your life miserable. It’s to do their job.
    • This is just life: UNDERSTAND their job and how you can assist them in doing it better.

Wouldn’t it be an amazing place to live if each of us operated at our highest level of expertise, and those around us helped us to do that? Sigh… dreamy…

The (un)Benefits of Owning Your Own Firm

ArchDaily posted a request today for input about The Benefits of Owning Your Own Firm.

When I talk to people about this, I used to say that it was like a version of retiring. Not retiring to go play golf, but retiring INTO something that was more of your choice. I always followed it quickly with saying that it also meant that any stress that you felt from then on was your own fault. You either didn’t say “No” to something, or you said “Yes” but didn’t adequately manage the situations around that positive response.

There are a lot of moving parts within running a business, and your success revolves around how you manage them. Accounting, contracts, taxes, employees… yet another list of things they didn’t adequately prepare you for in school. If you find peace in balancing your books at the end of the month, then you can look at that as a benefit of running a business. (Yes… this applies to me. Accounting is the only black & white thing in the areas of grey known as being a designer). You can always find people to help you with the things that don’t come easy to you. Your success is founded on bringing the right group of skills together (in one person or multiple people).

So, the biggest benefit of owning your own firm is also one of the largest downfalls: you are responsible for your own success. And at the end of the day, you are also responsible for your failures.

But… we usually don’t leap into starting our own design firm based on a desire to run the guts of a business!!! We want to be designers! Or, we don’t know what we want… we just want different.

Ten years into having my own firm, I realize that the discussion of running your own firm focuses on the running of a business, risk/benefit assessment, and other things like finding work/life balance. These are the easy things to talk about, and there are plenty of resources to draw upon. The biggest issue for me in running a business? When you run a business, there’s no one above you to tell you what to do… but that means there’s no one there to support you when you need help or advice. As a successful leader, you are good at mentoring those you work with (hopefully), but there’s no one there who has mentoring you as part of their job description. You are in effect… alone.

So, a significant thing to consider of owning your own firm is that you need to look outside for mentoring. You need to find the relationships where you can learn, and frankly… be reassured that you’re not completely crazy. I should have called this blog “Please tell me I’m not crazy.” Isn’t that what we crave in life, to know that we have shared experiences and aren’t alone?

With that, make sure your business plan includes an emphasis on building the relationships that you will need to continue to learn and be mentored. Hmmm… you are doing a business plan first, right?

(As a business owner… networking is also pretty darn important. Consulting others to benefit your knowledge (and theirs hopefully) is a very effective networking tool. I’ll save that for another post.)

Most Important Skill Ever!!! Running a Good Meeting

I’ve had the luck to be on a commission, be on an editorial board, be involved with local professional association leadership, be involved with national professional association leadership, run my own company, and have countless discussions over “after beers” when I interacted with anyone else during the business of the above. If anyone were to ask me what the most important part about being a leader is… running a good meeting.

You are a leader! Your role is to enable those around you to achieve their potential. Your role is to let them figure things out, and then bring them to the table. It’s the best when a sub-committee brings a strong decision to a larger board, and all we have to do is vote to support it or not. There might be some brief discussion, but we’ve chosen the right people to be on that sub-committee… so we intrinsically trust what they bring to us.

I should state that this post assumes that it is a board meeting (or similar) with a group of people who function relatively well and are used to interacting. The opposite end of the spectrum is something like a public meeting… which would require numerous posts to address running from minimizing the opportunities for dysfunction.

Board Meetings are for reviewing and approving things.

When people slip into doing the work at a board meeting (getting into the weeds), it means one of a few things:

  • The subcommittee hadn’t completed their work completely,
    • Oops…
  • They weren’t clear about their reason for coming to the board,
    • Always be clear about what you need!
    • A status report (which really has only need for minimal discussion)
    • A request for approval (if it creates major discussion, it might just need to go back to committee)
  • It’s just the wrong thing at the wrong time.

A (secret?) recipe for a good meeting.

My opinions on the secret of a good meeting?
  • Have a good agenda.
    • This should include times for each item.
    • This is where you enable yourself to manage a meeting. When you get to the allocated time, you interrupt the discussion to state you have reached time. Unless the board decides to extend the time, it should be wrapped up.
  • Have a secret agenda.
    • This sounds bad… but isn’t. The president and executive director should have an agenda that might have extra information on it. At a minimum this should include a model motion (this can also be in the standard agenda) and any cheat notes you might want for easy access.
    • This shouldn’t contain anything you wouldn’t want people to see, but it should contain the items that relate to “leadership” and helping you run the meeting well.
  • Announce your role at the start of every meeting. I like to start with:
    • Hi. My role is to keep this meeting going, and make sure you laugh a little.
    • We will use loose Robert’s Rules for this meeting. If we find ourselves in a more complex discussion, we will use tighter Robert’s Rules and I will act as Parlimentarian to the best of my abilities.
    • I will be a time fascist. My role is to keep our meeting on topic and on time. I do this to be respectful of you and your time.
  • Keep to your agenda
    • Be a time fascist. As said, when you hit your time use it as a point to either validate the importance of the existing discussion by extending the time, wrap it up and find the right conclusion, or save it for another meeting.
  • Maintain the level of Robert’s Rules (or similar) needed for your group.
    • Receive reports and information.
    • Ensure that they are received with a specific intent. Is this informational, or does it have need of a motion?
    • As necessary, have a model motion ready for the group and read it out as a basis for someone to easily say, “So moved.”
    • Get your second, and have discussion.
    • Call the question to get your vote.
      • When I can’t see people (teleconference), I ask for all those who are NOT in favor. This gets to the point faster and generally becomes “motion moved unanimously”. You’ll know when you should start with those in favour, and/or ask for abstentions.
    • When things get complex… make sure you know the process for friendly amendments and unfriendly amendments.
    • YOU have to be the person that knows how to maintain procedural order (or the person who consults your parliamentarian and is willing to enforce it on the group). Without it your meeting will devolve.
  • Keep people laughing and enjoying themselves.
    • Break as necessary.
    • Feel empowered as a humour broker, or empower others to do this within reason.
    • During breaks and after the meeting, touch base with board members to socialize and show them people are listening. Make them feel good about themselves.
    • Always find time to provide positive credit and goodness.
Some of the best feedback I have ever heard in my professional career has been “Thank you! That was the shortest meeting ever!” or “You run a meeting well.” Well… that in addition to, “Wow… you look handsome in a suit!” I stop myself from wondering how I looked before I put the suit on… =(

Trying to Avoid Work (to Benefit Our Clients)

Sometimes we find ourselves doing things for our clients that they don’t actually need, but it’s what they told us they needed. When that happens, it means we didn’t stop for a second to work with them to truly understand their concerns. That’s one of our main reasons for being… figuring out what root cause(s) need to be addressed. Call us landscape whisperers.

Our expertise is to speak with clients and figure out what they actually need. This can certainly be challenging, as then we need to figure out communication styles and the best tools to enable us to listen effectively. Listening well requires figuring out the right questions to ask. This is also benefited by being equipped with a broad range of facilitation techniques.

Anyways… this post was based on a discussion in the office. We try to empower everyone to say, “Why are we doing this?” because sometimes we need to stop and ask ourselves what the actual reasons are.

I used the following as an example of the way that we humans sometimes act:

  • I need to buy a new house.
    • Why?
  • I hate the house I have.
    • Ok… why?
  • It doesn’t work for me.
    • Why?
  • I love to cook?
    • What doesn’t work about cooking?
  • I hate the kitchen.
    • Why?
  • The counters suck.
    • Oh. Would it be better if we replaced the counters?
  • Yes.
    • Here’s a number for a counter guy. Great conversation!
  • Thanks!

We save effort by listening and working with clients to understand the actual concern, and the correct response it deserves. Maybe that’s a good definition for when someone is a professional in their field? They know the right tool to use at the right time, and how to use it properly.

When someone asks you for a phillips screw, don’t be afraid to ask a few questions and offer that perhaps their problem might better be served by a robertson screw. (a little Canadian content on screws there… if not just an obtuse reference loosely related to this post.)

Managing from Behind: Part 1 – Helping Our Prime Consultants Help Us

Part 1 – Helping Our Prime Consultants Help Us

We’re an independent landscape architecture firm. That means we work with a wide variety of architects, engineers and other consultants. We get to see (and experience) a whole range of project management styles and capabilities. This allows us to not only learn by example (from good and bad), it allows us to learn how to “manage from behind”. During the best of times this means that we get to function at a higher level on the consultant teams that are managed well, during the not as best times… it means we can try to save our teams from potential self-inflicted issues… or at the worst, try to shield ourselves by adapting to make sure we’re doing our work properly within the surrounding mess.

What surprises me is that ten years into Corvus Design, I can say that none of the firms that we work with have ever asked us how they might do better (and I have prodded them). We find that odd since we put effort into trying to do our work better, and reaching out for input. I believe that the reasons for this are a combination of not knowing better, not having the time, being unaware that there are issues and/or being blinded by ego (luckily a rarity). We’ve experienced all of those, and other versions.

We think about these things though! So, we asked ourselves the question: How could our prime consultants make better use of us and their teams?

  • Clarity in deadlines
  • Efficient meetings
  • Timely delivery of what we need (and brokering such delivery from others)
  • Clear project strategy based on reality (i.e. procurement methods)
  • Have humor
  • Manage THEIR time to avoid passing pressure to us
  • Stay calm and carry on
  • Check in using the phone
  • Balance communications: face to face, email, phone
  • Be strict
  • Have processes and strategies
  • Know your contract/fee… and ours too.
  • Set measurable expectations

We value the above, and do our best to “manage from behind” by being proactive about ensuring our relationship with our prime takes the above list into account. We just wish we could eventually stop doing this from behind… and do it together. Then when one of us forgets, the other has our back and remembers.

As a designer turned business person, I also really like the idea that our Primes might be concerned that we make our profit and stay in business. At the beginning of each project, there should be a profit meeting where we all discuss what we need from each other to achieve our scope within or ahead of budget. Do any primes do things like this?

This aspect merited another post on creating a team profit strategy that anticipates project and client complexities… and can adapt successfully to the unknown! A Team Profit Strategy