Why AEC Firms Need Product Managers, Too

In most industries, companies come up with a product that is based on a successful client project. They may then refine the scope of the work in broader terms, offer it to the public or to their client list, and do it over again several more times.

In architecture, it is generally frowned upon to repurpose an old design, modify it slightly, and propose it for a new client; to an architect, every design should be “unique”, “creative”, “responsive”, and so on. The “stock plan” approach to building makes architects fear (rightly) for their jobs and their creative turf.

But when design professionals think they’re in a different business from traditional product-oriented companies, they’re missing an opportunity to use their creativity to build out their business.

What you do to get a project done the first time is always ripe for refinement – not just in how you do it, but in how you talk about it.

Recently, I helped an engineering firm market the expertise it had gained on a project by developing a project case study. When I started working with them, the project was still so recent that the engineers had trouble being clear and concise. The way they still talked about this project is perhaps very characteristic of engineers; they were very precise, very technical, and very thorough. They kept every detail, no matter how minute, in their “summary”. The reason behind their thoroughness was obvious. They feared that losing details would ruin the integrity of the whole collection of information. Plus, it needed to be absolutely right, down to the last detail. The result was ungainly; No brag, just fact.

In presenting their project, I took a project they had done once, and created a product – an example of their firm at its best – that they could use to sell themselves!

The client called me because they had already recognized that they could do it again, and that they could sell what they knew how to do as a service.

Whether or not your last project is meant to be the first of many copies, this is how a previous project can become something you can do again. You may not be selling the literal design, but you can sell your experience, your understanding of the process and why certain steps in it are more critical than others, and the creative refinements that only you can make from your richer understanding.

The creativity in this kind of product development is in how you rebalance the project story. You have to trim away some facts to make room in the customer’s mind for the brag. Don’t be put off by the word “brag”! For inside the brag lies the benefits. The brag could be the problem solved, the in-house expertise offered, and the difference your project made. The critical first step is to get rid of the obsessive and granular detail that you are used to including for the sake of thoroughness. Then you can add in the bigger “whys” behind the project, and the brief “hows” that ultimately will show how the work was successful.

A product manager can help you turn the ability you have gained on a previous project into a product you can sell again!

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