Expansion Through Contraction

It’s a dilemma that all firms face: grow at any cost and lose sight of your purpose, or be more selective, but risk being more vulnerable. We face it as individuals as well. Do we specialize in a certain aspect of practice (design or construction management) or a project type (education or healthcare) or do we try and have a full complement of experience and skills? Either way, we are limiting ourselves. Diversity can lead to dilution and distraction of our creative spirit, while specialization and focus can cultivate expertise, but narrow our options.
So which to choose?  Both and neither.  It all depends.  On you.  Only you know what combination of skills allow you to be your best creative self and continue to grow and add value as an architect.  Only when you and those who work for you are growing and inspired by the work you do willl you see a profound change in your business.  I’ve been reading a lot lately about a prevailing wisdom in the social media world to have fewer but more relevant and loyal followers. The point: It’s not a popularity contest and you don’t gain much by following/friending/connecting with anything that moves. Social media only works if it’s opening up a conduit between you and people who either provide you with information of value or who will value the information you produce. I think that this is a good way to look at our practice of architecture as well. Unless the only point for you is making money, you want to know that the work you did made a difference. You might want to feel that people’s lives were improved by your design. The inverse of this is also true, you want to have a client base that values creativity and innovation and will seek out your talents rather than one that views you as a commodity and just wants the lowest fee.

The key is selectivity. You don’t necessarily have to specialize, but you do need to clearly define what you do and then do it exceptionally well. This may mean turning down work, or leaving a firm if you feel that your ability to learn, grow and be excellent at the things you most value about being an architect are compromised. You can think I’m crazy, pull out a list of bills you have to pay and tell yourself that you have to suck it up. Or you can be really brave and follow your passion. Which option do you think will take you where you really want to go? Clients respond to your passion. They seek out consultants who they feel have an approach to design compatible with their goals for not just the end result but the process of design.

We want so badly to be seen as both hero and artist, some mythical construct (pun intended) of what an architect is, or rather could be. This seemingly principled stance actually puts us in the predicament of undervaluing our servicess in favor of what we believe to be the opportunity.  This anything to get a job, that job, mentality is bad business.  As this recent piece by Mike Michalowicz for the Wall Street Journal  shows, you really do get a positive response when you choose to value yourself and stop being hesitant about the services you have to offer. It's clarity of purpose that leads you down your chosen career path, not playing the game by someone else's rules.

I had an opportunity to do this early on in my career.  Graduating in the midst of the last recession meant jobs were scare for entry level architects and I ended up going to graduate school.  Having completed by BARCH degree, I had no prerequisites and could spend the year getting my Master's degree pursuing any aspect of architecture that interested me.  I drew on what I loved most about my undergraduate experience- sociocultural issues.  That gave me a lot of clarity about why I am an architect, but initially pointed me down a road of urban planning.  However, life shifts and somehow I ended up doing healthcare.  I had to stop and reassess how or even whether this type of work fit with my architectural identity.  It did, but then I found that my identity as a healthcare architect did not fit with the approach to healthcare design of the firm that employed me. One of the greatest gifts I received in the past year was being laid off from said soul-killing job. Sure I knew I needed to leave. I was even looking for other opportunities. But I wanted to play it safe and stay until I found that perfect next move. Being laid off gave me time and space to think about what I wanted to do and how I hoped to accomplish that.  This blog is the perfect example. I got the idea about a year ago and finally managed to get started in May of 2010. My initial few middling posts were made in between everything else that was going on and I didn’t really promote them because they weren’t at the level that I wanted them to be. Being laid off allowed me to really research how to write effective posts and how to promote them. It also allowed me a chance to discover a whole data stream available to me just by adjusting some filters on my twitter account. My blog has gotten me a speaking engagement as well as helped me get the consulting job I have today. It is my vehicle to promote who I am and what I believe about being an architect. Having gotten to that point of clarity, my brand if you will, I can market myself for the things I am both expert in and passionate about. You can agree with me or not, but you know where I stand. It’s out there in front of me and not up for debate. What about you? When was the last time you took your career’s temperature? Are you distracted by trying to do a little bit of everything competently or are you focusing on doing the things you love really, really well for clients that will appreciate them?