Define roles, communicate expectations, and create greater clarity in your firm.

By Steve Whitehorn

Most of us are familiar with the theory that greater risk equals greater rewards. This theory, however, does not apply to your firm’s operations; failing to manage operational risks can quickly eat up your profits rather than grow them. Unfortunately, managing this type of risk is a challenge for many architects, engineers, and design professionals. The most effective way to manage operational risks is to create a “blueprint”, if you will, of the essential procedures and processes of your firm.

The first steps to managing and, ultimately, mitigating operational risk is for you, the principal, to identify and define your expectations. Next, you need to clearly communicate these expectations to your project managers and staff. Finally, refine these processes by getting collaborative feedback from your team, and creating a culture of continuous improvement.

Creating a blueprint that defines each of your firm’s policies, procedures, and processes can seem like a daunting task. But, if you take it step-by-step, you can create effective, efficient workflows that will help you manage your operational risk and allow your team to work according to your expectations. Most importantly, your operational blueprint will allow you to:

  • Have the confidence to trust your staff to do their jobs to your standards of quality
  • Objectively evaluate the performance of your employees
  • Reduce the chance for mistakes, scrambling for information, and time wasted in trying to “reinvent the wheel” each time someone leaves the firm
  • Focus on growing your firm and shaping your firm’s legacy, rather than worrying about each little detail

Follow these steps to create your own set of operational blueprints for every task, process, and procedure in your firm:

Focus on each process and task with a bird’s eye view. As principal, you know better than anyone how your project managers should do their jobs. Write down these processes on paper. Document your expectations of how your staff should do the work, define what constitutes a quality end result, and establish how much time it should take to do each task. Such as, what is your procedure for measuring out a building?  How do you handle cash flow on a project? How do you manage internal budgets? This will help you establish procedures and standardize the way of doing all the things that your firm does.

Meet with project managers to get their feedback and insights. Gather your project managers together and discuss how they think your firm’s tasks, procedures, and processes should be executed. Have a dialogue about what their own strengths and weaknesses are in performing these processes.   Write down each step and detail.  The project managers will probably need to consult other staff members to truly capture the processes; each staff member has knowledge that could be helpful in creating the final blueprint. Remember no step is too small to document. The standard by which all of this feedback is measured is, of course, your expectations and standards that you set forth in the beginning.

Synthesize all of the information gathered and define roles and responsibilities. For each task, clearly define the roles and responsibilities of each staff member involved with that process.  Assign responsibility for each step, set timeframes for completion, and define what constitutes a quality result. Look over your processes carefully to make sure everyone involved has clearly defined roles, sets of responsibilities, and mechanisms for accountability. Ensure that everyone in your firm clearly understands how each workflow is executed and what each person’s role is in each process.

Finalize your blueprint and activate it. Once you have defined your processes, procedures, and tasks; assigned the roles and responsibilities of the people who will perform these tasks; and developed a mechanism for measuring success – make it official.  Finalize your operational blueprint by writing out a formal step-by-step workflow. Many people find it useful to create flow charts in addition to written instructions. Activate your blueprint by enforcing compliance across the entire firm.

Over time, adjust your workflows to improve efficiency.  After your workflows are in place, observe where you have the greatest exposure to risk via wasted time, energy and other resources.  Remember that maintaining your operational blueprint is a dynamic process. For smaller firms a basic review of your operations every six months is adequate. Larger firms may want to break the operations into categories and review on a quarterly basis.

Defining and refining your firm’s operational blueprint will lead to better quality in operations, staff, and product. You’ll see greater profitability as you identify and eliminate the elements of your operations that are not functioning as they should, and you’ll develop a better sense of who is doing what and how well they’re doing it. Best of all, an operational blueprint creates an internal mechanism that will allow you to focus on the work you want to do, rather than bog you down with minutia.

Use your blueprint to communicate your expectations, define roles, and create greater clarity in your firm. It will empower you to relax in the knowledge that the work is being performed to your standards, and allow you to finally focus on the aspects of your firm that you truly enjoy.


Whitehorn Financial Group, Inc., is the creator of The A/E Empowerment Program® which helps its clients create a more significant legacy and empowers them to achieve greater impact on their projects, relationships, and communities.