Diverse Teams Drive Better Projects. Here’s How to Get the Most from an Integrated Partnership.
To transform the design profession and create more inclusive built environments, hiring a diverse team is the first step. But doing so often requires changes to how peer firms and clients organize themselves. For clients hiring integrated teams, this could mean amending the traditional RFP process for greater inclusion. For design firms, aligning values, practicing open communication and cultivating authentic chemistry are critically important. This article was co-authored by NBBJ Partner and Global Urban Environments Practice Leader Tom Sieniewicz and DREAM Collaborative Principal Troy Depeiza.
Design opportunities in the architecture industry are often given to firms with long-held connections and decades of experience—an understandable choice because, like us, clients want to ensure the highest likelihood of success for their projects. However, this preemptive bias and hesitation to work with less established firms—which are often M/WBE—may cause clients to miss out on unique skill sets and experiences.
Hiring diverse teams—not just in terms of skin color or beliefs, but in terms of experience, expertise and perspective—can help clients further their ESG commitments to diversify vendors and project collaborators, a practice that leads to more inclusive spaces and a transformed profession.
Recently, NBBJ and DREAM Collaborative—a Black-owned firm—engaged in one such partnership that led to the design of a signature lab, research and office building in Cambridge, MA’s Kendall Square. This partnership, and others like it, expand professional opportunities, encourage mentorship and bring diverse viewpoints that better reflect the needs of building occupants. In this article, we draw upon lessons learned from our experience together to offer insights for clients and firms that may also be interested in integrated teams.
For Clients: Considerations for Hiring an Integrated Team
Rethink the Traditional RFP Criteria for Greater Inclusion
While RFP’s and interviews are necessary to ensure a client chooses the right consultant team, it’s also important to recognize their limits: the traditional structure of the process may unintentionally disqualify an integrated team. Questions like, “How many projects have you completed together?” are meant to gauge experience but can discount the important cultural perspectives that a diverse team can bring. Instead, questions like, “How is the combined team stronger and better able to solve the issues I have in my project?” or “How will this team provide a stronger design solution for me?” more accurately cut to the specific needs of the owner while giving the partnership a chance to describe the unique viewpoint they bring to the table.
Taking a step back and examining the filters and criteria in the decision-making process may feel uncomfortable, especially when taking on the extraordinary risks most owners do. However, while the partnership may be new, looking for teams that have aligned methods, skills and values that allow for effective collaboration can set the stage for success. Further, recognizing that there is likely a learning curve for all involved that comes with creating more inclusive designs is critical to hiring a team that is future looking. The outcome will be a more sensitive project and a transformed design pool.
For Firms: Ingredients for a Successful Partnership
Spend Quality Time to Assess Value Alignment
On paper, NBBJ and DREAM Collaborative seem different—NBBJ is a global, legacy firm whereas DREAM Collaborative is a small, boutique MBE organization. DREAM brings expertise in responding to community priorities and creating places to build wealth for underrepresented groups within the built environment, while NBBJ has a strong reputation for high-profile healthcare and corporate clients and a research- and craft-driven approach. These contrasting skill sets complement each other and ultimately make us a stronger team.
Our firms entered a partnership without the impetus of an RFP or a project, or the pressure of a deadline, which meant we were able to get to know each other at our own pace. Over meals, face-to-face meetings, and many candid conversations, sharing personal and professional triumphs and challenges, we learned that, despite varied levels of experience and areas of expertise, we have a set of common values related to empathy that govern how we do business. These shared values were the impetus for our partnership and continue to guide us as we work together.
In addition to value alignment, for other firms looking to form similar partnerships, we recommend that each party recognizes the experience they bring to the table and affirm the importance of sharing their perspectives. In doing so, both firms receive a view of the profession—and the world—that they would not have been privy to otherwise.
Practice Open Communication and Respect
Change is hard, and so is honest communication—especially when navigating cultural differences and exacting client standards. Defining expectations at a project’s onset helps set the tone for the duration of the partnership. Clear communication from combined leadership of both firms—and seeking and responding to input—is vital, especially since project teams under the pressures of schedules and budgets often have less time to answer foundational questions.
Clarity around roles and responsibilities is also critical to foster open communication. Beyond simply assigning each team member a set of tasks, this clarity extends to terms and conditions of working together—for example, percentage of the project fee and how each firm will be credited.
Cultivate Authentic Chemistry
Clients are often limited to first impressions when making decisions about project teams, working from qualifications packages and RFP documents. However, interviews offer an opportunity to see how teams interact—whether they trust and respect one another, and how easily and comfortably they communicate. This chemistry can’t be faked, and these intangibles speak volumes.
Before winning our current project, our firms pursued other opportunities together, and received feedback that our partnership did not seem fully established. To remedy this, we fostered a sensibility of being “one team,” and brought it with us to our next pursuit. For us, this took the form of co-locating two days a week, presenting jointly in meetings, and relying on one another to fulfill promised obligations—all of which contributed to authentic trust.
Advocating for one another is also important—for example, smaller firms are not capitalized like big firms and cannot carry the costs of a large team for long periods without being paid. Bringing this to the owner’s attention and establishing a streamlined billing and payment plan can set a positive precedent for our industry, eliminate financial stress and allow both firms to focus on the details of the project instead.
To truly change the design profession and create inclusive built environments where people of all races, cultures and abilities are welcome, a diverse team is the first step. A better project is the destination.