The Stages of Evolution for Design Firm Principals

Three Stages of Interior Design Management

There are three stages of evolution that interior designers who wish to build a thriving firm must go through.
    1. The first is hanging in there long enough as a sole practitioner to even consider growing your firm. And to be sure, there is often a case to be made to not grow your firm. There’s nothing wrong with remaining a sole practitioner forever.
    2. But if and when you decide to hire people on a full-time basis then you have to navigate the difficult transition from just managing jobs, to managing people. That’s a completely different skill set, or core competency, and in most cases interior designers have no training in the areas of human resources, team building, compensation, etc. They wing it and if they’re lucky, they hire good people and their firm continues to grow.
    3. The next phase of evolution is from management to management of systems. As the business and complexity continues to grow, the “manager” cannot continue to act like the sole practitioner, but must put into place systems that allow for much of the role of management to be replaced by processes, operations manuals, policies, guidelines, checklists, and reports. Management must evolve from a single person by automating, delegating, or outsourcing.

Corinne Brown is a long-time Edge member who runs a “right-sized” firm in Mammoth Lakes, CA. Corinne has learned over time that she must follow the E-Myth philosophy of creating a firm that can run without her. To that end, she has created a detailed operations manual describing for every employee how to do every task from using Studio Designer to setting the thermostat and unlocking the doors.

While Corinne might be accused of overkill, I can’t help but share with you just the folders her Operations Manual contains. Each folder, of course, contains many more individual documents:

Her employees never ask her how to do something; they look it up! Her time is free for the two critical tasks of the principal—business development and creative design for select projects. (Not for all projects!)

If this step of building systems is missed, then the “manager” essentially remains a sole practitioner (involved in everything!) and an unfocused, inefficient and highly stressful environment is born. The greater the growth, the further behind things get and the more of a bottleneck the principal becomes. This is the source of almost everyone’s stress level, and turning things around is a world-class challenge. It’s like changing the tires at 90 m.p.h. . . but it can be done!

The real key is to decide in advance what size firm you will be, rather than letting the randomness of unexpected jobs to make that decision for you. As the Greek stoic Epictetus tells us, “Say what you would be; then do what you have to do.” Not, the other way around.

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