The Importance of Clear Role Definition

During periods of prosperity, architectural firms do well and have the funds for generous staffing practices and experimentation with firm structure. There is enough money to absorb redundant staff, with no need to worry about cost-effective staff utilization. In this economic climate, giving serious thought to staff role definitions is not a high priority.

But when times get tough, things change quickly. Profit margins dwindle, and redundant staff becomes a liability. Drastic cuts and hasty reorganization take place. Since professional staff are a firm’s most valuable asset and also the biggest cost of doing business, the optimal use of staff assumes pivotal significance.

Of course, it does not take an economic downturn to highlight the importance of role definition; it is a source of confusion even in the best of times. Eager to start on a new project, with an impatient client and tight deadlines, architects often start off without taking the time to list tasks and assign responsibilities. Staff are not clear about their roles, and there is no way to tell whether they are doing the job well–or even doing what they are supposed to be doing. Important tasks fall between the cracks. Roles could change from one project to the next, so the last job is not always a reliable guide. Even within a project, one’s role might change from phase to phase. For example, a designer might go from being team leader during design, to serving as an advisor during construction documents.

These difficulties are magnified during tough times, when there is no profit margin with which to pay for mistakes, and this is a good time to take a hard look at staff structure.

When analyzing staff functions it is easy to go overboard, so it helps to remember the basics. Role definition should be built around three pillars. The first is a careful analysis of the tasks and responsibilities involved in a project. A study of the scope of work defined in the client/architect agreement, and the firm’s past experience on similar projects, are a good starting point. If the firm does not already have detailed task checklists for each project type, this is a good time to start preparing them. The second pillar is ensuring that all the listed tasks are assigned to qualified persons, and that responsibilities and limits of authority are clearly articulated. This is where a databank of the firm’s available skills and experience would be indispensable. The third is making sure everyone understands their own role and those of others on the team. Kick-off meetings involving the entire team, focusing on roles, must become routine at the start of each project.

Unfortunately, one can get derailed in following even these basic steps, as project circumstances inevitably change and roles need to be adjusted. Shifting priorities between projects might force a reassignment of staff, imposing new responsibilities on the remaining team members. To adapt easily and quickly to such changing needs, roles must be resilient and adaptable, serving as flexible guidelines. They must not be prescriptive, and must be adapted to suit each project type. Once roles have been well defined at the outset, it helps to conduct regular meetings to periodically reassess the allocation of roles.

Even when role definitions are flexible, they can be a great help in creating realistic project plans by allowing reasonably reliable work plans and schedules to be developed. This in turn enables a firm’s overall workload to be planned efficiently and with maximized use of available resources.

How exactly each firm applies these basic principles is influenced by its culture, which in turn is influenced to a large degree by its size. Small firms tend to be relatively loosely structured, with the same individual carrying a project through several stages. Large firms, however, are usually more formally organized, often on a “departmental” model, with clear cut roles and compartmentalized functions. Here, an individual tends to remain in a single role, but on several projects at the same time. Regardless of firm size, confusion over who does what can be avoided if either of these models is applied consistently.

Since the size of a practice influences roles, any drastic change in size has a profound effect on roles. During downturns many firms downsize drastically, and individuals take on multiple roles, both on projects and in firm management. Significant economies and efficiencies are achieved. Then, when firms can afford to hire again, many of these efficiencies can be retained. Through this process, practices with the most resilient organizational structures–firms that could adapt their staff utilization strategies quickly–tend to come through with the fewest bumps. This underscores the need to pay special attention to staff management during times of significant staff change.

Other factors, too, are influencing the redefinition of staff functions. For example, he increasing complexity of client organizations and, consequently, client-architect agreements, have led to changes in traditional staff roles within a project team. Large mixed-use projects often demand multiple project managers, one for each project component, with a “super project manager”–often a partner–coordinating the issues that bridge between components.

Also, to manage their large projects more tightly, many large clients have developed sophisticated in-house project management structures that often compete with the architect management structure. This necessitates a new function within the architect team to interface with the owner’s management while the traditional project manager coordinates activities only within the project team.

Complex clients and large projects have spawned a heightened risk exposure resulting from an increasingly litigious environment. An insightful understanding of contracts and risk avoidance principles must be acquired, not only by partners and project managers as before, but by staff at all levels. For instance, a project architect previously assigned to internal coordination might now perform client liaison duties as well, negotiating scope changes or giving fee concessions and affecting the firm’s exposure to risk. To minimize risk exposure, both large and small firms must educate their staff on contractual and risk management issues.

Roles are not a single team’s problem, but a firm-wide issue demanding involvement from the senior partners. Management needs to take a proactive stand on establishing staff utilization models, seeking help from seminars and consultants if necessary. A periodic stock-taking of available staff is a must. Meticulous project planning, which often was skipped during the good times, must become the company norm.

Boom and bust cycles are by no means new phenomena, and will happen again. The process of change will continue, often in unpredictable directions, and firms are well advised to be poised for adaptation. The firms that are resilient and well established in organizational structure and staff management will be the survivors of the next round of change.

Satish Rao was project manager with Douglas Cardinal for 30 years. He is currently Senior Associate with Torti Gallas and Partners, a housing/ urban design firm in the Washington, D.C. area.