Is the Way Your Architecture Firm Makes Decisions Hurting Your Business?

The way your architecture firm makes decisions may be a process that you intentionally chose, or it may be something that evolved organically over time. In either case, the manner in which decisions are made can have real consequences for your business growth.

In this blog post, we identify types of decision making processes that can hurt your business, and how to move toward better decision-making that supports growth.

Architecture Firms Make Hundreds of Decisions a Day

Every day at your firm, hundreds of decisions are made. Many of these are specific to projects, but others relate to business operations. These can range in levels of magnitude from whether to renew the firm’s lease for office space to where to order lunch for the Friday staff meeting. Some of these happen so quickly that you don’t even think about them as “decisions.”

Each of these decisions, no matter how seemingly small their impact, involves a process to reach the end result. These processes shape your firm, and directly impact your firm’s growth and stability.

What Happens to Decision-Making as Firms Grow

In small architecture firms, decisions are usually made in two ways: (1) by group consensus, or (2) by delegating responsibility to one person.

The Group Consensus Model

The group consensus model looks like this: items that require a decision are raised at staff meetings, and everyone has the opportunity to voice their opinions. Pros and cons are debated, hands are raised, and the ultimate result is a decision that the majority agrees with. The dissenters can at least take comfort in having been heard.

This same interaction can be played out over email for less-important decisions, like what kind of coffee to stock in the kitchen or whether the company picnic should be on a holiday weekend.

The group consensus model is popular with firms who strive to make every person feel valued and believe that the way to maintain office harmony is to give everyone a say. Although less common, it is also the model of choice for firm leaders who want to avoid having their decisions criticized. If the majority wanted it, there’s no one to be mad at.

Why the Group Consensus Model Stops Working as Firms Grow

In its optimal form, the group consensus model creates and maintains a feeling of ownership and connection among staff. As the number of people involved in making the decision grows, though, it will become increasingly more difficult to make decisions.

Let’s take the example of a six-person firm. They are trying to decide whether to respond to an RFP. A meeting is scheduled for a time when all six people are available, and they sit together in a conference room for two hours to review the project requirements and the impacts of the project to the firm. At the end of the meeting there is a vote with four in favor and two opposed. The firm will respond, but the decision is made that the two naysayers don’t have to work on the submission.

Contrast that with a 20-person firm, which is still considered “small” by industry standards. A meeting must be scheduled at a time when all 20 people are available, which is two weeks from now. This means that If the firm does decide to respond to the RFP, they’ll have two weeks less time to prepare. During the meeting, everyone needs to be heard, so it becomes a three-hour meeting. People tend to stray off topic and leadership has to redirect the conversation back to the RFP. At the end of the meeting there is a vote of 11 to 9 in favor of submitting. The submission will require the help of the nine dissenters, which does not sit well with them. They feel like their concerns have been dismissed and they are resentful that they were made to go through the meeting only to be forced to work on a project they voted against.

What was adequate for a six-person firm creates significant problems for a firm only slightly larger. This is in addition to the financial impact of the meeting. Assuming an hourly rate of $100 per staff member, the six-person meeting cost the firm $1,200 (six people for two hours at $100 per hour). The 20-person meeting cost the firm $6,000 (20 people for three hours at $100 per hour).

Decisions like whether to respond to an RFP are an important decision that can have significant impact on the business, so firms may justify the time, cost and slowness that an all-hands meeting requires. But in firms where group decision making is the model for all decisions, the same due is given to decisions like whether to switch from weekly to monthly recycling pick-up.

Not only does the group consensus model cost firms more in staff time, but it can have other negative impacts:

  • Missed opportunities because of the delay in getting everyone together to make a decision – especially if your firm has offices in different time zones
  • Employee resentment over being asked to give up time to weigh in on decisions that they may not care about
  • Employee dissatisfaction when the decision doesn’t go their way
  • Bad decisions made because equal weight is given to people with little or no experience in a particular area and subject-matter experts
  • Firm shaped by majority-rules decisions that are not necessarily based in a strategic view of what’s good for the firm
  • Delays on work in progress because staff are frequently pulled in to meetings or asked to weigh in over email

The group consensus decision process is almost always started with the best intentions. As the number of people in the group grows, though, this approach becomes untenable.

The Solo Decider Model

In the solo decider model, one person is responsible for making all decisions in the firm. This is seen most often in firms that were started by one person or where because of attrition there is one person with significantly more seniority.

Why the Solo Decision-Maker Model Stops Working as Firms Grow

It may seem easier to have one person be the decider, but that can also lead to problems as the firm grows:

  • It can be difficult for the Decider to keep up on all of the information necessary to make good decisions about every aspect of the firm.
  • If the Decider is unavailable (temporarily or permanently), nothing gets done.
  • The Decider may continue to make decisions the way she always has, without taking into account changing times, changing technology, or changing market conditions.
  • When the responsibility for making decisions has to change because the Decider is unavailable, there are no clear parameters for how those get made or what the firm is working toward. This can lead to chaos and a public perception that the firm is unstable.
  • Resentment can build because people don’t feel valued.

Solo decision making is tempting because it seems so efficient. However, once you factor in the amount of time and effort you’ll end up spending managing employee upset, it becomes less appealing. More importantly, solo decision making keeps the shape and future of your firm in the hands of one person.

The Optimal Decision-Making Model for Firm Growth

So what’s the right way for architecture firms to make decisions? The answer isn’t a formula, but an approach that should be tailored for each firm’s culture.

Assess the Process

First, do an honest assessment of how the decisions in your firm are currently made, from how people are hired to what snacks are in the kitchen. Look at how each decision is really made: if Dan is in charge of deciding where the holiday party should be but he bases his decision on the many emails and desk visits he receives from staff, that’s more of a group decision.

It’s important to consider whether the process that exists is one that people value. If you have a solo process, does the decision-maker feel burdened and wishes things were different? If it’s a group consensus model, do people feel like too much of their time is spent weighing in on things that should be decided by someone else?

Assess the Expectations

Next, review what the firm has conveyed to staff – both explicitly and implicitly – about how decisions are made. For instance, if when people are hired they’re told that everyone’s voice is important and everyone has a say, that tends to create an expectation that decisions will be made with their input. Similarly, if emails are frequently sent asking for input on operational and development issues, that also creates an expectation. If, on the other hand, people are never asked their opinion and decisions are announced instead of discussed, there will be an expectation that participation in decision-making is not part of the job.

Determine Which Decisions Are Cultural and Which Are Operational

No matter how seemingly inconsequential, most of the decisions made in the firm are going to have an impact on the firm’s operations or its culture.

Take the list of decisions made in your firm and break it into two lists: Cultural and Operational. Cultural decisions are things that do or could impact how people feel about working at the company: dress code, work from home, snacks, company events, education and training, etc. Operational decisions are those that shape the firm’s existence and its future, including office locations, hiring, commissions, and leadership structure.

Cultural Decision-Making in a Growing Firm

If your firm staff expect to have a say in how the firm is run, cultural decisions are the best place to do that. Such decisions that directly impact their day-to-day lives; staff are the stakeholders. Depending on the size of your firm, it may be beneficial to set up one or more committees so the group decision is manageable. Committees can be encouraged to solicit feedback from the larger group, but at the same time staff who don’t care about the decisions shouldn’t be required to weigh in, attend committee meetings, or respond to multiple emails from the committee.

Committees can also be ad hoc; you may create a committee for a specific purpose (like planning the holiday party) that meets for a limited time and isn’t an all-year or permanent commitment.

Operational Decision-Making in a Growing Firm

If you want your firm to grow, operational decisions cannot be made by one person or group consensus. To preserve stability and keep the firm focused on its strategic objectives, operational decisions need to be made by a small number of experienced leadership. This allows decisions to be:

  • Made quickly
  • Informed by experience, including what worked well – or didn’t – in the past
  • Based on the good of the firm and not an a personal agenda

Committees can also be introduced here, especially for project-based decisions like where to open new offices or how the new website should function.

This also allows people to know who to go to if they need input or a decision about a particular issue instead of emailing the entire firm.

The Right Time to Change How Your Firm Makes Decisions

The right time to change how your firm makes decisions is now. Not all at once, but starting slowly so that people don’t feel surprised. Waiting won’t help; with every day that passes people will become more ingrained in how things currently are.

How to Communicate Change

You can have everything lined up for process change, but if you don’t successfully communicate the changes to your staff, there are going to be problems.

How and when you communicate the changes are the biggest factors in whether people will accept them (or even be excited about them), or resent them. Resentment can lead to negative consequences like a toxic work environment and employee turnover, so communication is worth the effort.

  • Start communicating early. Don’t wait until someone overhears something and a rumor mill is fed.
  • Message from the standpoint of how the staff will benefit. They don’t necessarily care about how the change makes it easier for you or more profitable for the business (unless they receive dividends from those increased profits). They care about what it means for them.
  • Communicate in multiple ways. Sending one email and calling it a day falls short. Emails, mentions during other conversations or meetings, posts on a company intranet, memos in the kitchen, and in some cases, one-on-ones are all good ways to make sure the messages are received.
  • Don’t communicate changes that no one would even notice. If Bob used to be solely responsible for negotiating the contract for office security and now Bob shares that responsibility with Jane, no one else needs to know this. It’s not that it’s a secret, it’s that telling them would be taking time out of their day that they don’t need to spend thinking about it. Over time, this overcommunication can cause people to tune out the messages and miss something significant.
  • Be clear about the timelines and parameters. When will the decision making process change take place? Who will the decision makers be? Is feedback welcome on decisions that are no longer group consensus? How should feedback be given? How will final decisions be communicated? How can people join committees if they’re interested?

With everything else that goes into running a firm, evaluating how your firm makes decisions can seem like a luxury you can’t afford. On the contrary, the decision-making process creates the backbone of your firm. Ensuring you’re set up for growth and stability is worth the effort.


Patience Jones