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Architecture & Design

Ralph Hawkins: Strategic Planning in Uncertain Times

Personally, I am not a big fan of complicated, laborious plans; I typically like to see short, maybe even one-page plans, as Jack Welch has suggested. But a 2020 strategy HKS principals developed in 2009 has made it easier to make decisions about the course of our firm, allowed us to better serve clients—and is generating significant bottom-line results.
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Ralph Hawkins

The design and construction industry continues to face extraordinary challenges. At the annual HKS principals retreat in 2009, we focused on where our profession was headed—not in the short term, but in the long term. Our retreat was focused on 2020 and where, not only our profession was headed, but, specifically, where we wanted to be as a firm.

Last year, we conducted a strategic planning meeting to map our journey to 2020. Our plan was divided into yearly, sequential three-year windows until we reached the 10-year plan.

Personally, I am not a big fan of complicated, laborious plans; I typically like to see short, maybe even one-page plans, as Jack Welch has suggested. However, in this longer view, we drilled down to address key components of our practice. Our discussions and deliberations were recorded to be reviewed each year of our journey. We also created a shortened action plan to gauge our progress.

We revisted our “purpose” … Why do we come to work every day and do what we do?  What drives us as architects? We agreed that it’s “enhancing the human experience” where we work, live, play, and heal. This is simple, but meaningful. In a time when the state of the economy has all but decimated financial reward, we must remember why we became architects. Our professions are not all about money but, rather, accomplishments.

As a result of the plan, I have found it much easier to make decisions about the course of our firm. My fellow principals are supportive of the direction, and it requires much less communication spelling out reasons for the decisions our leaders are making. Overall, this effort was well worth the hours spent developing the plan.

Secondly, our subsequent three-year plans already are formatted and simply tweaked to align with the overall 10-year plan.

This exercise allowed us to be much more nimble in implementation. During the last two years, we’ve been able to expand into the market sectors of science and technology, including laboratory planning, and bring on a market-sector thought-leader for federal work, healthcare interior, and federal military healthcare. We expanded geographically into Denver, Chicago, Indianapolis, and San Diego. This is in addition to growing our international presence in India by opening a branch in New Delhi and continuing to build our China office in Shanghai.

We created a manifesto, One Firm, for HKS that has resonated in the industry. We bring the full knowledge and experience of our firm to every client. We do not have cost centers, only project accounting. This works well with our insatiable desire to serve our clients, while focused on their projects.

We now have clear domestic and international strategies in our architectural practice. We have seen a positive impact to our bottom line since the beginning of the 2008 recession. Net revenue has increased substantially and will allow us to continue to invest and grow our firm to serve our clients around the world. Most important, we can serve our clients more effectively and responsively.

Taking the time to develop a 2020 plan, having a clear sense of direction in these uncertain times, has been well worth the effort.

H. Ralph Hawkins is chairman and CEO of HKS Architects, one of the top five architectural and engineering firms in the United States. Contact him at [email protected]