DLR Group, Named #1 U.S. Design Firm, Says Big Goals Led the Way

strategic visioning Jan 24, 2013

The Grove has worked on strategic planning for many years with DLR Group, a national architectural firm. Recently one of our close collaborators at the firm got in touch to share wonderful news: Architect Magazine named DLR Group the #1 design firm in the United States. “Your process has helped us transform our firm,” he wrote.



We called Jon Pettit and Griff Davenport, DLR Group’s managing principals, to learn more about their firm’s journey to excellence. This article is adapted from those conversations.



Jon Pettit and Griff Davenport, DLR Group

In 1999 we asked The Grove to help us create a strategic plan. In the course of our planning process, it became clear that clarifying a broad strategic direction for our firm was a much bigger need.

So we worked together for three long-term planning periods. At one point The Grove led a facilitation workshop for a team of our people who then facilitated sessions at all of the individual DLR Group offices. In all, 560 people participated in the planning process.


The Power of the Big Goal

For each of three planning cycles we established a set of 5-year visionary goals to guide and inform all of our firm’s activities. We focused less on the specifics of how to achieve these goals, and more on making these big goals our organizational North Star.

The beauty of it is that the big goals remain constant. Having these goals orients our firm across location and function, helping us all move forward in a focused way. We are always headed in the same 5-year direction.


Set the Bar High

In 2005 we decided to take on a really big goal: to become the #1 design firm in the country. It started with our wanting to be “a” recognized design firm; it evolved to an intention to become “the” leading design firm.

This was truly a big, hairy, audacious goal for us. Some asked, “Can we really do it?” Yet we felt that to be successful, we had to set our goals high. Small goals lead to mediocrity. You don’t become the top firm by setting low bars.


Goals as Guidance System

After clarifying our strategic direction, we became laser-focused on our vision and business plan and the strategies to achieve our goals. We developed strategies within each specific sector and in the design forum. These had to be responsive to and consistent with our big goals. If there was any conflict, that item did not make it into the plan.

Our strategic direction provided an excellent guidance system for us. It did not permit us to wander at all.


Engagement Brings Alignment

The Grove’s process is a fantastic way to create organizational alignment. Actually, the visual facilitation process doesn’t create the alignment; it draws it out from within the group. The outcome emerges directly from participants’ input. This makes it possible to align around some remarkably visionary goals.

If you are looking for the secret sauce, it is engagement. Our planning process was not carried out by small group of people in a room somewhere. We conducted a session in every single office for every single person in the firm, so that everybody’s fingerprints were on the final vision.

People really took to that method of interaction. It allowed them to contribute meaningfully within a process that valued input and interaction. In the end they felt, “My ideas are part of this.”



People who help create goals are going to be allies in making them happen. They will experience meaning and satisfaction in being part of these goals being realized.


Maintaining Alignment

Even with this wide participation, we still had to work continually to reinforce alignment throughout our widely dispersed and diversified firm. We did this by absolutely, visibly, and comprehensively adopting the goals that came forward from the visioning process. Our communication was intentional and consistent. Our total focus on the big goals throughout our major communications made all the difference.

Each year we measure our progress toward each goal. What did we do this past year that made us a better place to work? What did we do that is making us a top design firm?


Sustainability: Design with the Future in Mind

One additional important factor that we consider: How can we, as a business and an industry, respect and improve the environment? We all need to be doing this. Our commitment to Architecture 2030 and to sustainability was a huge part of what led to our being recognized as a top firm.

How can our design work foster the use of carbon-neutral products and building systems that protect the environment and climate? This area is something we take seriously. Architecture 2030, to which DLR Group is a signatory, challenges the architecture profession to create a carbon-neutral environment by 2030. The carbon impacts of our work are measured every year. We see this not as a political issue, but as a “doing great design for the future” issue.


The Power of Aligned Intention

All of these outcomes are rooted in our aspiration to be a great design firm.

To sum up: get people thinking about your big goals all the time. Take your six core goals and repeat them, repeat them, repeat them, and then repeat them again. Make these six goals the threads of your 5-year journey. If you keep doing this, eventually the new ways of thinking will become part of the culture.

In our case, the true power of this process is in getting 560 people thinking about how we are going to achieve our key goals, versus just one. If someone tried going out there as a one-person show declaring, “DLR Group is going to become the top design firm,” people would quickly tire of hearing it. But when 560 people are coming up with ideas of how they are going to become the #1 design firm, you are probably going to get there.




1. See “The ARCHITECT 50”, ARCHITECT Magazine, September 2012, http://www.architectmagazine.com/business/the-architect-501.aspx.

2. Visit DLR Group‘s website to learn more about the firm’s work.

3. Learn more about our Services. Shop for planning and teaming resources at the Grove Store.

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