Wrestling with growth is a good problem to have, but it can still be a challenge to the cultural sustainability of a firm.
When I joined BIG–Bjarke Ingels Group in 2008, we had one office, one partner, and 45 employees. Eight years later we have 12 partners and more than 400 employees in Copenhagen, New York, and London. As we continue to expand our reach, projects, and staff I have awarded myself the luxury of looking back and distilling what has made a difference so far. These are my top eight lessons for having secured the successful growth of BIG over the past eight years.
Lesson 1: Design and Business, Hand-in-Hand
In Formula One racing, it’s easy to focus too much on the car and driver because that is what we see during the race. But the pit crews, equipment and other behind-the-scenes support systems are just as important if you want to win.
Architecture is the most visible part of our organization, but we are focused on business operations too. Business is not in opposition to design. A well-managed business environment will support the delivery of design. During our growth we have learned that it is not only reasonable but also necessary to think analytically about our organization. If I could go back and change one thing, I would have hired more of the right operations people earlier on. Every single one of them has brought home their salary several times over. The better support and infrastructure we offer through operations, the more our designers can focus on what they do best.
Lesson 2: Focus on Financial Health
I was recruited to BIG to take on responsibility for the financial challenges that any growing firm will eventually face. Coming from another industry, I first had to acquaint myself with the architecture profession. I found the traditional billing structure focused on workload in the design process. Fees were attached to where the hours were spent in phases like construction documentation rather than where the value was created. This model does not work very well for a design architect who is traditionally asked to engage heavily in the earlier phases then handing over to the executive architect in the later phases.
To rethink the traditional fee approach and to gain our fair share of the value we were creating for our clients, we began to focus on documenting proof of our value creation. We are able to show clients that our projects provide more value per square foot sold, more program to any given site, and better value for the users; all of which helps us achieve a greater share of that value which we assist in unlocking, i.e., better design fees.
We have found that managing and controlling each project from start to finish is key to ensuring that our fees then also generate a profit. We use software that allows us to plan the required resources for any work stream. Also, the discipline we show in checking up on every single project regularly throughout the year allows us to prevent any project from running over budget on resource expenditure without our express knowledge and approval. The purpose is not to penalize the teams (the results of these meetings do not impact their bonuses, for example), but to talk them through the financial and practical side of the project so they can understand what is in wait and plan accordingly. Our staff no longer wonder where the money is being spent because the process is transparent.
I don’t think that any partner, design leader or project manager questions the need for financial control of the projects and, in fact, they all understand and speak to it as a natural part of their work.
Finally, as part of securing financial viability, we do stand firm on being paid. We cannot work for free and we think it is only fair that our contractual terms be adhered to just as we expect to deliver according to contract. This may seem a basic point but I’ve been surprised at how often in the past we’ve had to have serious discussions with clients about paying us inside a reasonable time frame and paying us in full. We continue to be uncompromising in expecting full payment for full delivery.
Lesson 3: In Marketing, Quantity Can Lead to Quality
When we began to think about BIG as a brand that we can strengthen and build,
we focused on how to raise awareness of the firm and to talk about our approach.
In the years I’ve been at BIG we have applied to hundreds of competitions. As the market recognition of BIG has expanded, we have garnered more direct commissions and rely less on competitions. But the competitions have been important in becoming known to clients and the industry.
Exhibitions and lectures have been important as well. We do between seven and 16 exhibitions a year and we apply for a stream of awards. Bjarke and others from BIG have given nearly 600 lectures in the last eight years. In the beginning, we went anywhere where the hosts would pay for the flight. Our goal was to meet potential clients, but we found that the experience has given us so much more.
The firm has now produced 16 publications. We have an intentional and targeted approach to coverage and publicity through our press and communications departments.
As long as we continue to create stories from the way we genuinely approach design, our marketing will be organically derived rather than contrived. Once you have originality and integrity in your communication it is simply a question of finding the right tools and outlets.
Lesson 4: Tenacity, Tenacity, Tenacity
Of all the qualities you need in people—from staff to leaders—tenacity is the most crucial to moving forward. Talent and leadership are important, but a tenacious team will perform miracles. Bjarke is the definition of tenacity, and the first partners at BIG embody this same characteristic. Whatever you asked them to do, together they would accomplish.
We added four partners in 2015. All of them have been with BIG for a while and each of them shares that quality of never going home until the job is done.
Every person at BIG wants to do a good job. Some of them don’t always do a good job, but they all want to. Sharing information with them and being straightforward about the challenges in their performance makes them try harder, makes them more focused, and allows them to grow.
Lesson 5: Less = More (Focus)
More is not necessarily more when it comes to offices. Three years ago we had offices in Europe, North America, and Asia, and plans for adding one more every two years. Our plan changed when we realized we could do work all over the world from a limited number of locations and the quality of our work and lives were better.
With greater focus we can contain our culture and way of working; we can spread Bjarke and other key people across more projects when they occur in fewer offices. We also realized that we couldn’t run an office without dedicating ourselves to spending a lot of time there; and after having spent significant portions of your life running through airports to catch the next flight, you learn that it’s better to be home.
Lesson 6: Culture Is Paramount
As an employee I cared about where I worked, who I worked for, and the quality of the atmosphere. As a leader in an industry where everything is about human capital, I see culture as the most important factor in BIG’s success.
We’ve tried to create the company we ourselves want to work in every day. That means we don’t talk about how much fun we have: we simply do it. We speak to people like we want them to speak to us. We treat every person as if he or she might be the next Bjarke Ingels, because it’s possible.
In the beginning our offices were open because that’s all we could afford. Over time the design of our workplaces came to reflect not only our design sensibility, but also our Scandinavian heritage and values: transparency, openness, and flat hierarchy. Our partners work directly in the teams and sit in the open. They are accessible to any employee, which can sometimes be challenging for them, but it works well for the teams.
The lack of focus on hierarchy helps build meritocracy. Everyone must design and produce, including leaders. In our firm, your title or position does not entitle you to squelch the voice of anyone else on the team. The entire team is present in meetings with the client or Bjarke, which has allowed us to develop talent quickly—people who joined BIG only a few years ago can lead projects knowing what Bjarke and the other design partners think.
We never shy away from conflict because it is the lifeblood of compromise. We search for the conflict and throw ourselves into it. Sometimes it takes longer to reach the compromise but in the end it is worth the work.
Flexibility and adaptability are the final key. Rules only stay rules until we find that they don’t work anymore. Nothing is too sacred to change if change is better.
Lesson 7: There Is No Steady Arc to Growth
Growth—whether maturation of the firm, or increases in revenue or employees—is never even or predictable. It happens in leaps.
Our growth has been driven by projects. First was 8 House, which was the largest residential project in Denmark at the time. It took us from a design office to a “grownup” architectural firm. In 2010, VIA on West 57th Street brought us to the United States, where we established our first office outside Europe. Our most recent leap came from the high rise projects, including 2 World Trade Center—our first super-tall. It has taken us into a new realm: new staff, types of profiles, and ways of thinking about how we work.
Lesson 8: Nothing Is Fixed
Whenever anyone recounts the story of their growth it sounds as though there is a fixed beginning and ending, which has never been the case for us.
Nothing in our history has been strictly linear. We often don’t know exactly where we are going until we get there. We have an idea about what we need to do, and then we listen, gather insight, and collaborate to end up in the right destination. Sometimes, we set a lot of ships to sail and one of them makes it.
During our period of rapid growth, we realized that no one has it all figured out. We developed most of the policies that we have today when we needed them, because if you try to prepare for everything you will probably never go on the trip. Some things you have to figure out along the way.
Sheela Maini Søgaard is a partner and CEO of BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group. Prior to joining the firm in 2008, she held management positions within food and medical devices industries and she was a consultant with McKinsey & Company.
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