Building on principle Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2008

Frank Lloyd Wright would be a fish out of water in the culture of global architecture and design firm NBBJ. The traditional hierarchical structure is gone, there’s no head office, and professionals are hired for their teamwork skills, not their egos. The firm that designed the headquarter buildings for Reebok, Starbucks and Telenor and collaborated on seven of the top 10 hospitals listed on the U.S. News and World Report Honor Roll, including the Cleveland Clinic, has gone global and left its vertical structure and traditional leadership model behind.

“Beginning about 10 years ago, all of the growth opportunities were centered on a much more diverse mix of clients,” says Doug Parris, partner at NBBJ. “The new projects required a much more collaborative internal process and the ability to pool the best talent from across the firm. At the time, NBBJ was structured in silos, and that soon became an impediment to growth.”

NBBJ hasn’t just survived the transition to a global economy — it’s thrived. In the last five years, NBBJ has experienced double-digit top-line growth, the greatest profits in the firm’s history and total firmwide head count has grown by 200 associates to a total of 780 employees. In 2007, billings were $193 million firmwide.

While the last five years have been successful, the first five years of the global transformation were a struggle and Parris says the journey required a complete restructuring of the firm and a transformation into a learning organization. Parris, a 30-year NBBJ veteran, has also undergone a personal leadership transformation. He no longer manages, he mentors, and he doesn’t command and control. Instead, he facilitates group decisions.

Restructure for the global marketplace

Opening offices in London, Beijing and Dubai gave NBBJ additional dots on the map and the right to claim a global footprint, but as the NBBJ partners soon learned, you can’t just add locations — you have to change the way you do business to succeed in the global marketplace. The international demand for American-style hospitals was voracious, but the new projects were too large for one NBBJ office to handle; they required teams of architects and planners. But expecting professionals to suddenly morph into team players was a pipe dream, and when the firm hit a large growth spurt and struggled, it soon became clear to Parris that things had to change.

“A team of five partners, including myself, traveled to every office and asked our associates for their opinions about how the firm needed to change,” Parris says. “Everything was up for review. The feedback from the associates was pretty consistent. We needed a common structure, and we had opportunities for greater efficiencies in support functions.”

As a result of the feedback, the head office was eliminated, and now all NBBJ offices are equal in stature, which was the first step toward breaking down the silos. Next, Parris and the firm’s partners installed a structure based around practice studios. Practice studios are profit centers that specialize in a building type or client group, and each of the company’s 10 offices has at least one studio. The structure de-emphasizes the role of the individual architect, because all work is completed in teams, and it also focuses the firm’s designs around specific niches like hospitals and buildings for higher education. As projects arise, multidisciplinary teams are assembled from many of the firm’s studios. For example, design of a new Veterans Administration hospital in New Orleans requires 50 firm associates, yet only 30 are based in the Columbus office.

“As a result of the process, we also went through a substantial downsizing and consolidated the administrative functions and marketing into two locations, because we had redundancy in every office,” Parris says. “Now those two offices support the entire firm, so the structure helps us work as one big team.”

Evolve your leadership

Changing the structure was a critical first step in creating a flat organization that functions through teamwork, but Parris says that leaders can’t just flip a switch and expect cultural change. So over the last 10 years, NBBJ has been undergoing a cultural evolution led by a change in the structure and new roles for the firm’s leaders. Now, critical decisions, including project selection, are made by groups of associates, and partnership candidates are nominated by their peers.

“In a true horizontal structure, leadership is built around roles, not titles,” Parris says. “So at NBBJ, the clients and the projects are at the top of the pyramid, followed by the studios and their teams, then the advocacy groups and the firmwide administrative teams, and the partnership is at the bottom of the pyramid. Partners are also practitioners, and the rest of their responsibilities are focused on supporting everyone else and providing the right environment for success.”

NBBJ has 15 partners, including five market leaders, who head up the various niche markets, and many of them are new to their roles. The cultural shift is part of the reason for new leadership, but in addition, three of the firm’s partners in the Columbus office were approaching retirement, so Parris has been instrumental in creating a succession plan and developing the next generation of firm leaders.

To develop bench strength and nurture a cultural metamorphosis, NBBJ partners instituted an intensive training program for new and prospective leaders that focuses on leading change. The associates initially attend a two-week development class and then continue their studies by working with coaches each month. The program is designed after the teachings of author John Kotter in his book, “Leading Change,” and 50 NBBJ associates now participate in the program each year.

Without an autocratic decision-making system, the most vital decisions facing the firm’s leadership team surround project selection. The market for architectural services, especially in higher education has been plentiful, so the team must often choose projects from among a number of opportunities. Profitability is one criterion to consider, but there’s also the cachet the project brings to the firm.

“Frequently, the team disagrees about which projects to take on,” Parris says. “I play the role of facilitator, ask questions and play devil’s advocate just to make sure they’ve thought of everything. For example, I might ask the team if they all believe that the project has high potential. Then, I leave the room and let them decide.”

Parris says that one downside to group decision-making is maintaining business momentum, because reaching decisions with a large number of people takes time and energy. To maintain vigor, he now holds weekly team meetings and each member provides a progress report for their area of responsibility. The team then holds each member accountable for achieving results. Despite the obstacles, Parris says the cultural shift and change to group decision-making is working, because in the last two years, the firm has taken on much higher impact projects, and it is now engaged in the top 15 percent of architectural projects in the world.

As part of his personal transition from manager to mentor, Parris says that he now gives people as much responsibility as they can possibly take and empowers them to make decisions. He’s also learned not to step in and offer help when the group is deliberating over a difficult issue, unless the group requests it.

Parris says that leaders must learn to trust others to make the transition from manager to facilitator and they must also respect their colleagues and not tell them what to do. But it’s not enough to talk a good game. He says the cultural evolution has progressed at NBBJ because he demonstrates those qualities by being calm in every situation and not dominating the discussions.

“I’ve developed an on-board clock, so now I keep track of how long I’m talking and cut myself off before I go on too long,” Parris says.

Become a learning organization

When officials in Istanbul, Turkey, wanted to build a medical facility similar to the Cleveland Clinic, the NBBJ partners soon discovered that patient rooms would require a few modifications to fit with the local culture.

“In Turkey, the entire family stays in the room with the patient 24 hours a day, and they prepare meals on-site,” Parris says. “So we needed to design rooms that could accommodate as many as 10 family members.”

Succeeding in the global marketplace requires any business to adapt to the local culture, but in the design business, it’s crucial because nothing reflects a community and its heritage more than the architectural style of the buildings. Parris says it soon became clear that global expansion would be accompanied by a huge learning curve.

“In many cases, the building environments are much less regulated, and we were dealing with entrepreneurs who had never built buildings before,” Parris says. “They bring a trader mentality to the building process, where they want to debate and negotiate every step of the process on a daily basis. We had to become a learning organization to succeed in global markets.”

The firm instituted videoconferences and Internet meetings where design groups working on international projects could share what they were learning about each country’s culture in real time with their associates, and the firm created a presentation to share with clients in an effort to educate them about the building design and construction process.

In addition, the firm created a learning program called Oregano, which got its name because Parris says the firm wanted to spice things up. Each year, 20 NBBJ associates travel to other countries, build local relationships, and then share their learning moments and experiences with their peers. In keeping with the firm’s leadership philosophies, Oregano participants are nominated by their peers and more than 225 employees have traveled to 25 countries since the inception of the program.

Given all the changes, Parris says that the main consideration for prospective NBBJ new hires is their desire and ability to work in a team environment. But nothing speaks more to the success of the organizational and cultural changes than the number of “boomerangs” working at the firm. Twenty-five percent of NBBJ’s current staff is composed of former employees who left the firm, mainly because they didn’t see a clear path for career progression, and have now rejoined the firm.

“I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that sometimes you wait too long to initiate some of these things,” Parris says. “I wish we had made these changes five years earlier. Now we keep our fingers on the pulse and collect 360-degree feedback from associates every year and make the necessary changes.”