DesignIntelligence Media Group

Taking Cues from the Design Process, Organizational Structure Is Key to a Firm’s Creativity and Success

by Juli Cook

As a network of creative professionals, we have the privilege to see the design process and its outcomes generate powerful change in the lives of our clients — from inspiring the next evolution of health outcomes to encouraging a greater sense of well-being and productivity at work.

Our fundamental belief that physical buildings drive behavior and human experience has been a hallmark of NBBJ since its inception in 1943. In the generations since, our focus has also expanded to encompass the importance of immaterial structures, such as the organization of our firm, to support the success of our people and work.

Today, as the industry faces competition from unexpected places and the demand for increased value is high, we believe it is critical to invest in our internal structures and alignment to allow us to better serve our clients and our talent. Here’s a look at three ways NBBJ’s structure is driving these outcomes:

Culture: The formation of NBBJ took place during the Second World War when the U.S. government asked four disparate architects to collaborate to solve critical design and infrastructure challenges. Fast forward several generations later: NBBJ continues to retool itself to ensure that teamwork, distinct viewpoints and unique partnerships remain at the core of how we organize ourselves. Our firm is a creative hub without hierarchy, a collective where “psychological ownership” in all roles encourages and inspires staff to think and lead outside the box. We live by the belief that the best ideas win, and everyone is invited to the table to contribute and deliver impact. For example, while the firm is guided at a high level by a four-person senior leadership team and with the support and oversight of a board, each individual studio across the firm has the autonomy and finances necessary to lead in a dynamic business environment. Each studio is empowered and supported, as the needs of clients and employees change quickly and design must keep up in order to ensure its relevance.

Leadership: The growth of our company and the impact it has on the world is the direct result of leadership. While leadership ultimately comes from our people, it is the structure of our firm that allows it to deepen and expand. To that end, the people of NBBJ are given permission to test new ideas, switch roles and even create new business opportunities, while growing their leadership in the process. As a result, we organize our firm and live out this approach through a variety of custom programs, including: Leading Change, a year-long development intensive that pairs emerging leaders with seasoned mentors who work together on a common project with high impact; Oregano, a traveling fellowship program which brings together people from across our firm to see the world and design through a new, multi-cultural lens; our firm-wide career development program, which ensures each employee is designated an advocate with whom he or she can pursue personal and professional growth; and a series of informal and formal leadership gatherings through-out the year in multiple cities that allow us to step back, develop strong relationships and think about what’s next.

Design: Design is how we bring value to the world. It’s the reason we wake up in the morning and the driving force behind our work. Every aspect of the organizational structure of NBBJ is set up so new design ideas can emerge, develop and succeed. One of the ways we go about ensuring strong design is by creating a structure where resources and tools are constantly available to make us better. For example, NBBJ hosts internal design competitions, outside critiques and project awards; we create a framework for new tools, such as the NBBJ-incubated virtual reality startup Visual Vocal; and we form unique partnerships with outside experts to integrate research in neuroscience, social health, biophilia and materials science into our work. Combined, these outcomes of our structure lead to better design.

Ultimately, the key to our future success is relevance. Relevance comes by looking outward to understand the challenges our clients face and inward to see how we can make our firm better. When only one is emphasized, or done independently of each other, we can fail or at the very least, we don’t reach our full potential. A structure that enables relevancy from the inside out creates lasting value for our clients as well as staff and ensures our industry thrives with the world around it.

Juli Cook is NBBJ’s chief operating officer, managing the firm’s administrative, financial, legal, information technology and human resources functions. Prior to joining NBBJ, she served as executive vice president of Corbis Images and as its senior vice president of media products & global operations.