A conversation between Brian Conlin and Steven Forth

The architectural, engineering and consulting (A/E/C) sector is facing a time of unparalleled challenge and opportunity. There is a growing consensus that the world needs massive investments in infrastructure and it is the A/E/C sector that will lead the way. With opportunity comes challenge. The next generation of infrastructure will include many new technologies, stakeholder expectations, and innovative use of materials.  Future infrastructure investments will require new approaches to financing and winning social license. Not surprisingly, the scale of the opportunity is attracting new players. The big four professional services firms are looking at how they can best engage in infrastructure and management consulting firms (e.g. Boston Consulting Group, Booz Allen, McKinsey and Deloitte Monitor) are positioning to take as much as possible of the high-value planning and design work. Competition will be intense.



This is the first of a series of conversations between Brian Conlin, an executive coach and advisor to the consulting engineering industry and former CEO of Golders Associates and Steven Forth the CEO of TeamFit and manager of the 92,000 person Design Thinking Group on LinkedIn. We begin with an exploration of design thinking.

Brian Conlin (BC): Steven, you have said on several occasions that Design Thinking is going to be an important skill set for consulting engineering; but as engineers, we are already experts in design and we think pretty hard about things. What do you mean by design thinking?

Steven Forth (SF): Design thinking is an idea that was popularized about 10 years ago by Tim Brown of IDEO and Roger Martin then at the Rotman School of Business. A number of business schools, notably Stanford University have built programs around it and it is being widely adopted in many industries including management consulting and IT services.

The basic idea is pretty simple. Take the best approaches used by service and product designers and apply them systematically to a wider range of business and social problems. In the approach to design thinking advocated by IDEO and Stanford’s d.school, one begins by getting deep insight into the problem through empathy and a deep understanding of user needs. From empathy, one moves to defining the problem then to ideation, prototyping and testing.

Brian, how do you see this fitting into the project development and delivery processes currently used at A/E/C consulting firms?

BC: Many firms are trying to learn from their main audience – their key clients – so they can develop and deliver solutions that not only meet their requirements but will also create new client opportunities. In my experience, many firms have some room to improve in this aspect. As consultants, we brainstorm ideas naturally.  However, there are constraints imposed by cost, risk management, stakeholder expectations, and contractual/legal issues that prevent those in the industry from truly pushing the envelope. I think the use of design thinking can really help to find new solutions and approaches.

Steven, how widespread is the adoption of design thinking?

SF: It is well adopted by the top-tier product design companies, places like IDEO or frog. They have made it part of their differentiation for a long time. More interesting is its adoption by the big technology vendors like SAP, which has a corporate strategy to weave design thinking into all of its businesses but especially into its professional services. SAP’s founder Hasso Plattner has even endowed the Hasso-Plattner Institute in Potsdam. IBM has also invested heavily in this, through acquisitions and strategic hiring and is working to inject design thinking into everything from product development to solution design. Deloitte acquired Monitor Group back in 2012 to strengthen their go-to-market consulting services, but in the process it also acquired the design thinking consultancy Doblin that Monitor had acquired earlier. McKinsey also sells design thinking capability as part of helping its clients deliver compelling customer experiences. In your experience Brian, what is the role of user experience in the consulting and design work done by consulting engineering companies?

BC: One area that certainly comes to mind is the advent of data collection, monitoring and data analytics.  Many structures are being monitored in new and innovative ways that help designers expand the use of materials, schedule maintenance more effectively to save money, and warn of impending problems.  Think of sensors on structures of position, movement and temperature.

This is all interesting but what does it mean for a business?

SF: I would answer that by going back to your earlier post about Client-In Differentiation. It is not how the consultant views their differentiation (the company-out approach) that matters, but how well your skills and offer fit the client’s needs (the company-in approach). Will design thinking help consulting engineering firms develop a better fit with their clients? I think the answer is yes, for two reasons, convergence and the need for social license.

The next generation of infrastructure projects are going to include many new technologies from the Internet of Things and data analytics. Many of them will come with or be integrated into larger information gathering, analysis and dissemination systems. It will not be unusual for a new piece of infrastructure to include its own app or to share data with existing apps. To do this well requires the kind of user-centric approach that design thinking supports. It will be hard to win work without having these capabilities, whether internally or through partnerships.

The other driver for adopting design thinking is social license. A number of major projects have failed to move forward recently because they did not get social license. One response has been to hire consulting firms specialized in social engagement. Design thinking offers an alternative and more compelling approach. It begins by understanding all of the people that will be impacted by an infrastructure project and factors then into the design. It then opens the design process to investigate alternate solutions and include the users in the design of the solutions. This process can be uncomfortable at first, and it adds to the upfront investment in a project, but done properly it results much greater buy in and much more successful projects.

While many consulting engineering firms may have participated or lead such projects I believe it will become more commonplace. If they do not offer this service other companies surely will, primarily the strategy consulting firms and big four professional services firms that are already looking for ways to move into their space. Getting pushed down the design value chain is a bad outcome, adopting design thinking and selling it to customers is one way to avoid this.

BC: Are there new skills sets that will be needed to adopt design thinking?

SF: Yes, I believe so. Perhaps most important is the skill that several of the CEOs of consulting engineering companies have mentioned to us, ‘listening.’ In this case, listening refers to active, curious exploration of ideas to gain understanding, not allowing others to share only to give you time to formulate your next clever idea. The ‘listening’ has to be extended beyond the client to the users and stakeholder community. Empathy begins with ‘listening.’ The best firms are already very good at listening to their customer, and listening to each other, so this should be relatively easy. More difficult may be ‘managing ambiguity.’ Engineering is often a process of stripping away ambiguity to get to the optimal solution. In design thinking one often needs to begin by generating ambiguity and uncertainty so that new approaches to solution can be explored. Good design thinkers need to be able to delay design decisions until the right moment. The other key set of skills is what we can broadly call “integrative,” the ability to bring together two or more separate disciplines to drive innovation. It is these integrative skills that are they key to future opportunities.

Do you think consulting engineering firms are likely to go out and begin to acquire design thinking agencies, following the path taken by the large professional services and strategy consulting firms?

BC: I think this will be a cautious step taken by a few of the largest public companies.  Which is too bad because it is the smaller to mid-sized firms that have the agility to change to meet needs and to truly apply design thinking approaches. So, there may be some acquisitions but the ability to integrate those firms into engineers and architecture firms is challenging for sure.  The large firms that have tried this have typically set up separate business units to ‘shield’ the management consulting people from the bump and grind engineers who solve some of society’s most pressing problems using traditional and trusted approaches.  I think those traditional and trusted processes will be tested in the months and years to come and firms better recognize that there is greater value to their client (and themselves) by leading the development of unique solutions that address specific environments, social needs and societal changes.

Brian Conlin is an internationally experienced CEO with an established track record in professional consulting/advisory, business management and project leadership of small local operations through to a global enterprise with up to 9000 employees and US$1.5B turnover. Leveraging 35 years of business experience and executive leadership, he actively supports the leadership development of CEOs, key executives and their teams.