Luck or Skill?

I’m been practicing marketing in the AEC industry for over 15 years now and have lived through some interesting times. In the past few years, interesting has been defined less as “engaging” and more as akin to the Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.” My past 10 years has been marked by a roller coaster ride of intense activity and equally intense downtime as well as monumental unpredictability, as it has for many of my colleagues.  It has gotten me thinking about the role that luck and skill have played in the profession this past decade. I have a few thoughts and would love to hear what you’ve learned.

I think some firms mistook luck for skill, which turned out to be a fatal flaw. We all know that a rising tide lifts all boats, but I think during the boom years some of us forgot this. I saw firms make decisions about how to shape themselves based on the belief that the upturn in business achieved in 2005-2008 was the result of something they did right, rather than recognizing that everybody was doing better. Some decided to ignore structural or cultural problems that didn’t affect the business much during the boom, but proved to affect it mightily when times were tough. It has made me a more critical judge of what’s behind successes and failures.

Some firms used the revenue generated during the upswing to prepare for the inevitable down times. I saw firm leaders become practically apoplectic about the amount of money being invested in global expansion, BIM technology/training, and strategic hires for market vertical expansion, only to find that these very investments  ended up keeping the doors open when times got tough. Many of the top ten revenue-generating firms during the lean years were getting a substantial portion of their commissions from international projects, or by successfully riding waves like Integrated Project Delivery, Lean Design and Construction, and effective Design-Build or P3 partnerships. Those who were smart enough to put profits in strategic reserves were also able to keep afloat longer, lay off later, and weather competition and takeover attempts.

One of my favorite definitions of “luck” is “when preparedness meets opportunity.”   The skill I believe we require to capitalize on our luck going forward appears to be figuring out how to benefit from the lessons of our past and adjust strategically to the financial model for the next decade, which the economists I have read predict to be growth in smaller increments over a longer period of time rather than the three-year boom/bust cycles we’ve been experiencing the past 10 or so years.  Luckily, I’ve developed some greater professional self-awareness over time which I hope to skillfully apply to addressing the “new normal”.  I hope to bring a stronger saving account, a better bluster meter and some hard questions to the next decade in my career.  What will you be packing?


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