The Nimble Design Firm
I am extremely fortunate. In September of 1980, I joined DLR Group and have practiced my entire career with the firm. Having experienced myriad roles and responsibilities for DLR Group, the only constant I have known in my 38-year career is the continuous change in our profession.
I can assure you, the practice of design was vastly different in 1980 than today. During my career, I launched new offices for DLR Group in Appleton, Wisconsin; Salt Lake City; and Minneapolis. Each time I did it with a car, a landline phone, an answering service, a fax machine, and a computer that today is dwarfed by the processing power of my iPhone. I drove around knocking on doors and a team “back at the office” drew and developed binders and presentations.
Today, I could start an office with a co-working space, an iPhone, and a car. In fact, I might punt the car and use ride sharing and public transit so I could work on the move. And when it comes time for a client presentation, the individuals on my team might be in Chicago, Dallas, and Seattle designing a model, and the presentation casts from my phone while sitting in a client’s office.
DLR Group’s Los Angeles studio. Photo by Mark Davidson.
Today, nobody needs to sit in the same office to produce the work, and that’s always been the vision at DLR Group.
A byproduct of globalization is you must be “local” around the world. I believe that requires a decentralized structure with experienced, senior leadership dispersed throughout the enterprise to serve clients, and lead and mentor talent. Since DLR Group’s founding in 1966, we have practiced in a decentralized leadership structure. Just as our specialized design expertise resides in local offices next to our clients, our firm leadership, studio leaders, and practice leaders sit in multiple office locations around the world. We collaborate with clients who operate from a single zip code, and with clients that seek our services in locations around the globe.
Decentralized leadership requires trust in one’s colleagues, no matter what the organizational chart displays: Trust in that they are as committed to their work as you are to yours. As a 100 percent employee-owned firm, this trust strengthens the decentralized approach and our ability to work through the org-chart.
DLR Group has 30 locations right now, and I feel very strongly that for a growing large firm, a decentralized model is an essential operational strategy to master.
DLR Group’s Omaha studio. Photo by Naomi Yanike.
There is still a need for integrated design teams to gather in a room to charrette, innovate, and problem-solve. However, today’s design professional is working across the enterprise. This is a concept many outside audiences have yet to fully grasp. The A/E/C media is still asking the standard question of “How much design revenue did you generate in this office or that state?” It is virtually—pardon the pun—impossible to quantify and determine that kind of number in today’s operational world. Integrated design teams are simultaneously making contributions and revenue on multiple projects, both locally and across the country. Diverse studio expertise is winning work and serving clients by embracing the creative intersections of our specialties across the firm. Hospitality is alive in healthcare; performing arts drives success of a community college project; and retail forms the base of much of our high rise housing work. And the design expertise to serve these clients sits everywhere in our network. It is geographically diverse and distributed by design.
Decentralization also fuels entrepreneurialism, and a forgiveness-versus-permission attitude to make things happen, whether we are advancing design, entering new markets, or providing leadership and career growth for people. At DLR Group, decentralization has opened the door for many individuals, regardless of where they sit, to grow as design professionals. Today you can accomplish most anything, from anywhere. This enables our design professionals to pivot and pursue career tracks in architecture, engineering, interiors, business development, research, technology, or firm management. It also exposes our design talent to a range of building types and climates, to learn the nuances of local communities and cultures. This also connects our design talent to a variety of people across the firm, creating relationships for the present and future, and the continuity of the DLR Group design culture.
DLR Group’s Minneapolis studio. Photo © DLR Group.
Enabling our mobile and virtual workplace, as a constant in a decentralized structure, is mission critical for DLR Group, and the industry. If we are to bring talent and ideas into our industry, and by extension into DLR Group, we must provide opportunities for the next generation; a mobile generation of design professionals–both women and men–to pursue design careers that meet their personal expectations for fulfillment and work-life integration. We must provide a decentralized work environment that ensures design is done on schedule, and not focus solely on where or when it gets done. It’s such a simple concept.
If you are within the first seven-to-10 years of your career, chances are the firm you work at today hardly even resembles the firm you were prepared to join at graduation. And if you are beginning your career journey, I envy you. This is a wonderful time to be an architect or to launch a career in design. Keep pushing. Keep learning. Keep exploring. Keep asking, and know, that the expertise and enthusiasm for design you bring to the table is valued across our decentralized delivery model.
Read more about DLR Group’s recent history.
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