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

A Team Profit Strategy

To serve our clients, we need to stay in business. To stay in business, we need to make money. To make money, we need to meet our budgets. To meet our budgets, we need to remain within expected scope. To remain within expected scope, a project needs to follow expectations. To follow expectations, everyone needs to be familiar with them and respect them.

So… to serve our clients, we need to meet and exceed expectations. Not just us, the client too.

Our fees aren’t a random number. We generate them based on expected scope. We try to establish what we will need to do, and how much effort it will take to do it. This then becomes our contracted agreement with our client. We have done our job correctly if we set quantifiable expectations. When the reality of a project drifts from these expectations, we assess what impact it will have on our budget… and as needed, we discuss modifying scope and fee with our client. We’re crafty with developing our fees, and the reality is that if something new is needed, it typically balances with something that might have gone away. We very rarely pursue additional services where we validate that scope is truly different enough to affect our fee.

We have also developed excellent coping strategies. We have internal processes in place where we have become incredibly efficient at certain project tasks (like drafting), and this provides some buffer for us when other tasks take more time (like more team meetings than expected). We have taken control over the things over which we can take control.

Then… there are the things we have no control over… like our prime and client.

We have all submitted scope/fees where our prime and/or client have asked us to reduce our fee. The typical way to do this is to modify/reduce scope (remember that scope equals fee). Then, during the project the client asks for the scope that they negotiated out of your contract… without the commensurate increase in fee. We’ll be kind and say they forgot…

What do you do?

Well… one approach we have is to shift our strategies and internal processes. This means that we might pull in our best CAD person who can speed through things faster than the staff we might have had on the project. BUT… we’re providing scope that the client/prime told us they wouldn’t need. Aw man… not fair! Oh well… we’ll be kind and say they forgot, and they reaaaallly need it. Maybe they have pressures to deliver and are between a rock and a hard place. We often see that our prime’s negotiated their team down in good faith with the client… and then the client puts pressure on them to deliver more than expected. It can be super hard to be in that situation. We never want to alienate our prime/client. The issue is that they often don’t contemplate the reality that they are alienating their design team. I think they’re just not fully aware of what they’re doing. They don’t realize that they might be compromising our ability to stay in business and serve them well in the future.

So… we all need to be open and honest, and have a great discussion about how we can minimize the pain for everyone. The client just squeezed the team, so the architect initiates a meeting with everyone to establish what we can do better. How can we be more efficient? Minimize changes… or at least lump them together so they can all be done at once. Have efficient meetings, or better yet reduce them. There are all of these strategies that could make the best of a poor situation. Heck… the benefit is that the prime might wind up minimizing their own fee loss by improving their team! And we all learn skills that allow us to be more efficient in the future. That means we can offer better fees, or that we can be more profitable.

The summary of all of this: Profit isn’t a dirty word. If I can help my prime be more profitable, sweet!! They’ll hopefully recognize that and see me as a valuable partner. Maybe they’ll also turn around and ask me how they can help our company be profitable. That hasn’t happened yet… but I’m looking forward to the first client/prime who prioritizes this discussion enough to make it a reality.