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Can your practice thrive without you?

David Miller – speaker at the RIBA’s forthcoming Guerrilla Tactics event – tells us about how a personal circumstance led to a radical shake-up of working methods in his practice, all designed to empower younger staff members.

29 September 2022

Every small practice that enjoys success and starts to scale up reaches a point where the founders must hand more responsibility to junior staff. The ‘assistants’ have to step up to become project leaders themselves, but it often takes an extended period for directors to realise that their leadership style needs to adapt.

Until that time, the pressure on them can grow to unsustainable levels and potentially underutilise the talents of the team.

For David Miller, personal circumstances forced this insight rather suddenly. It was 2008 and the practice had just won a place on its first OJEU-advertised framework. With a string of school projects on the books, he unexpectedly had to take time off for medical reasons.

During his absence, he noted to his surprise that the practice had increased its profitability. He recalls with a laugh not to know whether this was a result of the new commissions or his absence from the office where he may have unwittingly acted as a decision ‘bottleneck’ in a growing team.

Empowering staff members to step up and take more responsibility

"When I started it was just me," David remembers. "But I realised then that the practice was going to have to adapt rapidly and that I had to let younger people step up, and to do that I had to put a structure in place."

David was conscious that empowerment needed to be balanced with the right level of support. Leaders need to build a framework around younger professionals to make sure they stay on track, while still enabling them to innovate and contribute.

Best known to architects as a vocal champion of BIM adoption by small practices and a self-described process driven person, he began to look at structured workflow and information flow inspired by big practice management systems. Taking advice from larger, more established firms, he developed his own Best Practice Management System (BPMS) designed to support greater independence by junior team members while guaranteeing quality and compliance.

DMA has adopted a new approach to empowering its staff.

Applying large practice management systems in small practice

"Most small practices will have some people from large practices who know BPMS, though they probably did not take much notice of it as a junior team member," Miller posits.

Around that time the practice carried out a Vision and Strategy exercise with the help of a consultant and achieved the quality assurance standard ISO 9001, unusual for a practice of just four people. David did not regard it as a tickbox exercise at all, rather he says it really helped them to think critically about how they worked and what improvements could be made.

Being a BIM-led practice, the system incorporates BIM workflow and information conventions, complies with accreditations such as the environmental standard ISO 14001, and is updated with new legislation and regulations as they appear.

It has close out exercises for the completion of each work stage, where senior team members can check that all work is competent and compliant.

Crucially for junior staff, the system also has links to information sources. This means they can readily find guidance and self-tutor on particular technical issues if they choose, though support and advice from senior staff members is, of course, always on offer.

It may have seemed like overkill to apply a big practice management system to a four person office at the time, but Miller says with hindsight he can see it is the best way to go for a practice that is expecting to grow. It was easy for four people to adapt to the system and let it evolve. Trying to introduce it with a larger team already in place would have been a monumental task.

Giving staff members a career road map

The practice works on mainly social housing and school projects in a range of sizes. This means there are usually some smaller scale projects and pro bono work where younger architects and Part 2s can be given more control and more creative freedom while keeping risks manageable.

David says that working within the BPMS gives Part 2s a clear road map of where they are and where they are going.

And, each Monday, the team looks at the resource plan, looks at who needs help and support; a process that’s led by junior staff members. This extra responsibility helps to give them experience in running meetings and saves time for senior members of staff.

David’s ethos of empowerment also extends to a Virtual Design Academy – week long placements for young people who have an interest in working in the built environment. This initiative is led by younger members of the team at DMA, who are passionate about the opportunity to make a positive social impact.

He observes that younger architects are putting much greater value on the social impact of their work than earlier generations: "It is important to understand your team’s priorities and provide an opportunity for them to pursue their interests."

This sense of social purpose contributes to the team’s wellbeing as much as the ability to develop their professional skills and have agency over their work.

And how about the director’s wellbeing? While his schedule is as busy as any practice leader’s, having built a strong supportive framework around the team allows David to contemplate the idea of taking a planned sabbatical sometime in the future, safe in the knowledge that the practice will be thriving without him.

Thanks to David Miller, Director, David Miller Architects.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

David will be talking about how he adopted a more empowering leadership style at the RIBA’s Guerrilla Tactics event between 8 to 10 November, where this year’s theme is Wellbeing in Practice.

RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Business, clients and services.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, professional features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD core curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as a RIBA Chartered Member

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