Business Acumen and Your Design Team

Posted on April 15, 2010


Architects, engineers and contractors love to jump in and do projects:  architects want to start sketching, engineers want to run calculations and contractors want them both done yesterday so they can put things together already. Yet even the most socially gifted of the bunch would rarely broach the question:  are we doing the right thing, providing a fix for the right need?  Designers love to solve problems (just send me the RFP, please), but how many think like a business consultant?  Few are skilled enough to wear the business hat. Anyone can provide a functional solution to a problem and build it, but how many can spot an opportunity?  Even less.

Why?  Because designing, engineering and building is the strong suit of a design team; it’s easy.  It is what they are good at, what they do and do well, almost in their sleep. But asking the tough business question involves work, research and client, facility and industry knowledge. It is an unconventional approach that requires creativity of a different sort. It is enough to send a team fleeing to the safety of the cubicle or job trailer.

As an owner or facility director you need to have your design team ask questions about your business.  Likewise, you need to open up and share a little bit about how and why you operate as you do. If I were a hospital, I would want my designer to ask questions about my service lines.  What is successful; what is not, and why? Where is future growth planned? And I am not talking about a master plan here.

For instance, before a time-consuming, multi-phased renovation and addition of the Emergency Department, what is the patient throughput and are there any service bottlenecks that need addressed first?  This might reduce the scope of the expected project, saving money and time, or delay the capital outlay altogether. Capacity, demographics of patients, wait time, LWBS (walk-outs) all affect the character of an ED project, and these should not be brought up nonchalantly late in design development.

As a designer, I would want to know about models of treatment at the facility.  Does the hospital have a philosophy toward patient care that will affect the design, like at a Planetree facility? I worked on a women’s center for a Planetree facility, and after reading up on Planetree, I was more informed about Planetree priorities, and what issues would take precedence throughout the project.  I understood the importance of non-traditional birthing methods, and how the patient experience truly came first.  This was not one director’s predilection, but an understanding that everyone shared.  It was an important backdrop to all meetings with the client.

Your team can be too focused on solving the obvious, immediate problem that everyone misses an opportunity to diagnose and fix a larger issue, like process (efficiency, flow) or staffing (wait time) or environment (patient satisfaction, customer loyalty) which might be solved with adjacencies and planning now…and construction later on when a bigger need arises.

Design teams typically must work extra hard to be proficient in business aspects, not only of their client’s work, but of their own firms. And clients may seem skeptical to have a design team questioning them on the hows and whys of their operations. Both designer and owner need to grow into the collaborative role for the betterment of the project.  To solve a problem handed out by the client is pedestrian, expected, low value; but to uncover a possible improvement with ripple effects througout an organization is an example of high value, the extra effort owners seek.