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What do you know or do better than just about anyone else?

What do you know or do better than just about anyone else?

by CLARK DAVIS, FAIA, LEED AP | Sep 6, 2015

A friend recently asked me whether most professional firms are focusing on market expertise for growth these days, rather than on their office locations. “Sure,” I said, surprised that people are still asking this question. My friend already knew the answer, of course. After all, it’s like asking, “Is climate change real?”

Not too many years ago, a competent firm or institution got its share of the business available in its own city or region. A law firm could handle any issue; an architectural or engineering firm could design almost anything; the local hospital did its best with any illness that presented itself; and the local college provided a decent general education. In many cases, it was “good enough.”

But most of this isn’t good enough by today’s global standards, which are far more sophisticated and changing much faster than many people realize. As individual consumers of products and services, we expect the very best we can afford, wherever it comes from. Professional clients and customers are no different. The world has changed: specialization is real, too.

In the 21st century, successful people and firms will be engaged for what they know and do uniquely well within a world of competition and a much more specialized marketplace.

The design and construction industry is one of the slowest to adapt, because it is substantially defined by tradition and regulation. When we complain about being treated like commodities, it usually means that we aren’t perceived as offering anything very special to potential clients – so price becomes the only means of differentiation. It's a race to the bottom.

I’m working with a number of organizations that are handling this well. They’re cultivating the expertise that’s most important to their clients, and leveraging this know-how across a national or global network. One large firm has already shaped itself around key market sectors, with leaders who are among the best in the world. Other respected firms with traditional geographic structures are identifying their true thought leaders, promoting them in the marketplace, and applying their talents across all the old boundaries.

This takes work.

A matrix organization can develop lots of moving parts, hindering financial performance and confounding its leadership. The politics can be brutal, as personal “turf” gets in the way of growth and change. Strong leaders must simplify the structure, set the right direction, and maintain a unity of vision and strategy.

In the 21st century, successful people and professional firms will be engaged for what they know and do uniquely well within a world of competition and a much more specialized marketplace of ideas and services.

What do you know, or know how to do, better than just about anybody else? 

The answer will determine your fate and your relevance in the years ahead.

Based in St. Louis, the author is a principal consultant with Cameron Macallister Group. Prior to 2014, he had served 12 years as Vice Chairman of HOK and was managing principal of its St. Louis headquarters. Davis is a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects and a Senior Fellow with the Design Futures Council.

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