Doug Parris and A.J. Montero never get tired of change. They have to deal with it every day with their clients and employees.
It’s not the kind of change that involves turnover in either of those areas or new ownership or new policies. Rather, it’s eating, sleeping and breathing the company culture built around change.
As leaders and partners of the Columbus office of global architecture and design firm NBBJ, Parris and Montero, both partners in the firm, focus on transforming their clients’ enterprises through design. Spearheading that effort requires one of the standards of management: leading by example.
“If we, A.J. and myself, and our other 15 partners don’t live our culture every day, then we are not setting the example for the staff,” Parris says. “Part of living it is communicating it and always making sure it’s at the top of everyone’s thoughts as they work with our clients.”
“Everyone” includes the 135 employees of the $52 million Columbus branch of the worldwide company.
It’s a given that change comes with the territory of the architecture and design field. Not long ago, blueprints were drawn by hand. Today, 3-D drawings sketched by computer programs are the norm. With such advances that have been made in that step, it’s only natural that the best chance to boost a company’s success is to stress to clients that if they are interested in a new building or remodeling project, they should couple it with a new and different culture.
“Design often requires cultural change within an organization — how do we make it easy for the client’s staff and employees to transition from one environment to another and basically embrace the cultural changes that are required?” Parris says.
Here are some ways eating, sleeping and breathing change all fall into place at the Columbus office of the nation’s third-largest architecture firm so that it is not feared but desired and enables the company to reach new levels of success.
Find a shoe that fits
As simplistic as it sounds, the road to the highest potential often starts with a good fit between parties — be it designer and client, supplier and client, or consultant and client.
Obviously, you should avoid ones that don’t look like a good fit. You may save yourself from a possible problem client who will wear you out, avoid a reputation hit if you can’t deliver on your promises and be able to exploit your niche better by declining someone from outside your specialty.
A system to evaluate clients is often beneficial. You should check references and compare what types of work or what other companies with which your target has dealt.
“We have a system internal to NBBJ that we use to look at potential clients and see whether or not they align with our values,” Montero says. “Having that filter very early lets us see clients that are trying to transform themselves. We see clients that understand that they want to go somewhere. That is a big first step.”
Again, don’t hesitate to be a little choosy.
“It’s not just looking at everybody who needs something to be done no matter what they’re after or what their model is, you are not judging. You are just saying that, in many cases, those are not clients for you,” he says.
This is the time to analyze the leadership and employees.
“One of the most important things that you see in terms of getting started is that they have the right leadership in place,” Parris says. “Leading a project is not a skill set that everyone comes to the table with.”
If you can categorize the participants in three types, it will give some insights to your potential partner.
“What we typically see is you have three levels of participants,” he says. “You’ll have the very top leadership in an organization. They need to be on the same page so that they have a clear kind of vision of what they need.
“Second, you have kind of a working group, the people that are responsible for getting things done every day to keep things moving forward and pushing information up the ladder to the leadership of whatever organization it is, whether it’s a corporation, a university or a hospital.
“Then you have the people that do the work, and they end up being the most critical to getting things done because you have to meet with them and understand how they do what they do,” Parris says. “A lot of times, one of the key elements of working with any organization is that they only know what they have been exposed to.”
Opening all their eyes to the bigger world out there, be it new office design, a new product to consider or a new practice to undertake, is very important. Many people only know the places where they have worked and the procedures they have been following.
Do some role-playing
One of the more effective ways to get a grip on what may need to change in your company culture involves some mental exercises. When undertaken, they often lead to some startling conclusions.
“We call it suspension of disbelief,” Montero says. “You try to open people’s minds to say, ‘OK, for a minute, let’s just pretend that we were in a different circumstance.’ We have role-playing exercises that allow us to really understand that world.
“If you take them out of it for a second and see what the possibilities are, no pressure, just being able to look at those things in a fresh way, whether or not they choose to go down that road, ultimately, is going to be up to them. But what we found more often than not is that when they go through an exercise of discovery, they find out that it isn’t as scary as they thought, that the change is really not going to be that dramatic.
“There are people who work in the trenches every day, who are really seeking change, and it opens the door for that communication between top-level leadership and the users that maybe didn’t exist before in their eyes, so that kind of engagement is really something to achieve,” Montero says.
“A good example is that you might make the CEO of a hospital role-play as one of his own patients and walk through the system or have the president of a university be a student for a day and walk in the student’s shoes,” Parris says. “I use something called ‘walk a mile in their shoes.’”
“When you design hospitals, you work with a lot of high-powered administrators and surgeons, especially, who have very strong opinions about the way things should or shouldn’t be done,” Montero says. “So they’re very well-educated; they have to run very important enterprises. So when we get into these types of role-playing exercises, they are meant to show how the way that you do something isn’t necessarily the way that it has to be forever.”
While the role-playing may sound like children’s fare, it is indeed often extremely helpful to open the mind to different ways of thinking.
“Most of the time, when you introduce something like that, you can just imagine going to the Cleveland Clinic and sitting down with the top people in the world when it comes to heart surgery, and you’re trying to propose doing something that almost seems frivolous,” he says.
“There may be a lot of pushback, but once you go through the exercise, you will be surprised how much they get into it.”
The effort to gain new insights really takes on a life of its own, Montero says, and brings engagement that is a distinctive plus.
“You have doctors and surgeons saying, ‘Well, based on that scenario, maybe we can create this device that is actually implemented in the ambulance as opposed to waiting for the patient to get to the hospital,” he says. “It’s that type of thinking outside the box that these role-playing exercises allow you to engage in. It’s a disarming environment that allows people to think creatively as opposed to the day-to-day grind that they usually are in.”
“Role-playing actually gets us and our clients into kind of a different persona so that they can see the world around them from a different perspective. And it’s actually a lot of fun,” Parris says.
In this pseudo-environment, people feel they can say what they think and don’t have to worry about making errors.
“You create an environment where you allow for mistakes to happen,” Montero says. “You allow for people to think up stupid ideas that you can discuss that sometimes actually become really interesting ideas.”
“Let people take risks,” Parris says. “Let people take chances to innovate and create new things. You can give people all the authority and responsibility in the world, but if there’s no room for them to grow, no open space there, they’re never going to achieve what they can achieve if that space doesn’t exist.”
Instituting change doesn’t come without problems. There is a point where leaders need to show empathy for talented performers who contribute to the organization but only can be pushed so far.
“In all honesty, there are people within our firm that say, ‘This is what I enjoy doing, and this is all I want to do. I love my work, so I don’t have an aspiration to do other things,’” Parris says. “We have to respect that also. We really have to make sure that we don’t push people beyond where they’re comfortable being pushed.
“Everyone has a tolerance for that kind of thing. So that’s the kind of empathetic leadership that you have to develop all around, the kind of diversity that we build because everybody is not the same.”
There is a very fine line between the creative culture and one that expounds dogma.
“You don’t want to be dogmatic about the things that you do,” Montero says. “You have to be empathetic that everyone brings something. And there’s a gradient in there — some people are much more conservative than others.”
A culture can be considered well-assimilated when the people with the right mix of skill sets, temperaments and expertise blend to make the machine work very well.
“But you can’t have everybody think the same way, even if it’s thinking creatively, because then you become very one-sided,” Montero says.
“The thing you have to guard against is being homogeneous,” Parris says. “It’s not just the diversity of people and skill sets, but it’s also diversity of thought that lends itself to greatness.
“That should apply to all businesses. In the design profession, no matter what you do whether you are an architect, a graphic designer, an interior designer or product designer, innovation comes from the ability to think in different lights. Otherwise everything will look the same and like a formula.”
Lest you tear up your book of formulas, think about uniqueness instead.
“In a lot of businesses, there are formulas,” Parris says. “If you’re making toothpaste that people buy, you’re not going to want to change that formula. In design, it’s not that way. They don’t want what you gave to the last guy. They want something that is uniquely theirs. That is an important part of that diverse thinking and not being too homogeneous within the office and the firm worldwide.”
“I think many professions are moving toward that idea that creativity and idea sharing, innovation — is a big impetus for what they do. We are finding more of that in all the different project types and professions that we touch.” <<
How to reach: NBBJ, (614) 224-7145 or www.nbbj.com
Parris: Bremerton, Wash. I’m a Navy brat — born on a Navy base and moved around my whole life.
Montero: Havana, Cuba
Parris: I graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) and have a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a master’s degree in architecture.
Montero: I have a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Cornell University.
What was your first job?
Parris: Digging and planting trees for a landscape company inFairfax,Va.I learned it was really hard work. Now they do it with machines. I had to do it with a shovel.
Montero: I think you’re going to find a pattern here. I worked in construction all throughout high school in south Florida. It was very hot, and it was very hard work. What I learned from it was that I never, ever wanted to do it again, which was one of the big reasons that I made sure that I went to college to get an education.
What was the best business advice you received?
Parris: Your career will be defined by the success of those around you. That came from one of our former partners.
Montero: I got some really great advice from a close family member: If you’re a cheese maker, then make cheese. What that means is if you’re good at something and you are passionate about it, really dedicate yourself to doing that and supporting others in that enterprise.
Whom do you admire in business?
Parris: I’m conflicted about it. I guess if I had to say historically whom I admire, it’s Frank Lloyd Wright because his passion and rigor around architecture are something that I’ve always respected. In a more contemporary sense, probably Steve Jobs because he had a kind of a boundless creativity — the ability to imagine or at least create an organization that could imagine what’s next.
Montero: I have a lot of respect for Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. The reason is not because of Facebook but because whatever he has created has influenced society in a positive and negative way. I think that Zuckerberg has been able to touch on something that is very, very relevant, that we can even put our fingers on, and I think that is the kind of definition of somebody who is a visionary.
What is your definition of success?
Parris: Transforming our clients’ enterprise through design. If we work with the client and the outcome has taken them from where they were to where they can be, it is really the definition of business success for us.
Montero: I look at that but more internally. I think that success for us is really creating a great culture where people can fulfill their professional and sometimes personal aspirations and goals. We want people to come into this building every day and feeling that they can change the world, that they can accomplish everything they want to accomplish and really make a difference. If we can provide them with that kind of environment, I think we will be a successful business.