Lean Into Change!

AE Blog

The Escalating Importance of the Agile AEC Professional

When it comes to business growth, many AEC firms strive to diversify their businesses by breaking into more complex project types. These might include institutional, healthcare, labs, science and data centers. It’s a worthy endeavor as these are stable sources of future work, but they’re also notoriously difficult to get into. That’s primarily because owners in these sectors value experience, largely because they have bigger-picture challenges to overcome.

But is it really as simple as just having experience?

Whether construction of a new lab or renovating a hospital wing, every day delayed is lost revenue for these owners, and the larger and more critical their work is, the bigger the impact of that delay has on their business. They’re under extraordinary pressure to deliver projects faster and more efficiently, and they pass these challenges down to the project teams.

The secret to success, according to flourishing AEC firms, is that owners in this space expect something extra from their AEC professionals. They need them to not just manage projects, but lean into—in effect, anticipate and plan for—inevitable changes.

While most of the industry, delivery methods, and contract structures are change and risk averse, those that are innovating in this realm are winning the projects.

The Digital Difference

The perception might be that a firm wanting to explore a “change-forward approach” will be starting from scratch, but the truth is that there can be a lot to learn from adjacent industries.

Manufacturing and software, for example, are beholden to more innovation because the resulting deliverable (the product) needs to be generated efficiently. Now, let’s say we have a pharmaceutical manufacturing company or a large software company that wants to build a campus—as owners, they also expect their buildings to be delivered more efficiently!

Though the building design industry can’t copy and paste manufacturing and software delivery methods like the Agile method for all types of projects, what we can do is learn some best practices from them. A project is a project after all, and a building is the end deliverable instead of a product. Here are a few starting strategies to keep in mind:

  1. Set a Foundation: The foundation to any delivery method is determining how stakeholders will be sharing data, documents, feedback, and reporting. Throughout a project, we are generating so many different data points that an agile lifecycle platform to store this data is paramount.
  2. Determine Milestones: As any project manager knows, determining milestones happens early on in a project and changes become more expensive to implement as the project progresses. But as AEC professionals, we place the bulk of the work on the latter 25% of the project and even if the contractor performs “pre-construction work” it is still usually in the later stages. By determining how much feedback we need at each stage, and quantifying the impact of further changes, we are now effectively “planning for” and “managing change.”
  3. Communicate Effectively: Communication within the AEC space is a hot topic because phone conversations are still the norm, but any changes go through a grueling layer of documentation to be incorporated, often delaying the actual work to be done. This isn’t to the benefit of any owner, especially those that do complex work. Let’s take RFIs for example. Both A&Es and GCs/Subs use RFIs for unintended purposes because of change-averse attitudes. This costs architects, GCs, and owners alike. But, when we have an agile system and an agile platform, we don’t need as many RFIs, as there are other methods of tracking communication, agreements, and changes. Oftentimes, minimal RFIs between a GC and architect is seen as a bonus for an owner—who is then more likely to award new work to the same teams.

Attitude Adjustments

While we can “sell” a change forward process to the owner, what makes the greatest impact on the execution is an internal change management process. While communication has improved across the industry thanks to more collaborative procurement methods, GCs and architects (and by default engineers and subs) too often still fight tooth and nail over every little change that comes downstream. This attitude needs to shift.

We aren’t living in the same risk-averse environment as even a decade ago. On the design side, architects have learned that letting go of liability has actually eroded profit margins. It’s one of the reasons architecture isn’t as profitable today as it was in the 80s and 90s.

Similarly, contractors are increasingly open to design management and truly understand the design intent of the A&E and owner so the entire team can row in the same direction.

With changing attitudes, comes innovation and better business outcomes. The reality of implementing any new change is that it will have to be planned and executed strategically, not overnight. While many firms have built an infrastructure to facilitate this workflow, there are many firms that wish for guidance on implementation plans and strategies.

To learn how your firm can lean into a change-forward delivery method, or learn about our implementation planning and technology consulting services, please contact U.S. CAD, An ARKANCE Company.

Related Articles