Dear Matthew: How do I expand my practice without losing control?

Written by: Matthew Turner
Published on: 14 Apr 2014

Our careers expert on learning to delegate as your architecture firm grows

Question: My partner and I have been running a practice for a while and we are just able to keep in touch with the detail on our projects. We have the ambition to expand, but haven’t found the time to do it.

This month have won three large jobs. It’s great news, but I am petrified we will loose the quality we are known for. Will we be spread too thinly and our clients feel we are under delivering?

Answer: Architects trade on the value of our personal input, which is one of the main reasons why a majority of the profession remain in small practices. Even the biggest firms are tiny compared to other sectors of the service economy. So your worry about control is perfectly understandable.

However, though it may happen one day, what you are anxious about isn’t becoming the next Norman Foster & Partners overnight, but getting used to someone else handling aspects of your projects. Letting go may be uncomfortable at first, but you will have to learn to do it if you are to achieve your ambitions.

Architects can tend to overestimate the importance of their individual control; most clients will understand that you cannot handle the whole project personally. In fact I would suggest they would be worried to hear that you think you can.

Learning to delegate is a skill that most people have to acquire, rather than it coming naturally. Often it isn’t that you don’t think others can do things as well as you do, it’s that you don’t think they can do things as quickly as you need them to. Taking time to explain how to do something just adds to the timeline. Another reason, especially with architects, is the fear of losing authorship.

You need to address this attitude, as delegation is a critical skill. Most bosses don’t delegate because of an emotional barrier to fear of losing control, which actually ends up costing you more long-term. In the end, these kinds of bosses rob employees of the ability to enhance skills, and communicate a lack of mistrust to others, and foster the “perfection” disease.

So here are some tips for “letting go”:

Start small. Don’t delegate something that is mission critical. Initially hand oversomething modest, and work your way up to delegating larger, more important tasks.

Seek the right fit. Everything shouldn’t be on the table for delegation, and not chosen just because of the importance of the task but also because some tasks are a better fit for the particular person you’re delegating to. This doesn’t mean that employees shouldn’t stretch to develop new skills, but if possible look for areas where they have unique ability, interest, or insight. Maybe they’re a skilled space planner but never presented an alternative layout to a client. This task, while new for them, pulls on their natural strengths as well and provides them a “confidence cushion”.

Don’t have unrealistic expectations. Encourage staff to put their unique footprint on the task. Remember that there is a difference between someone doing something “wrong” and them not doing it the way you would have done it. Style differences are just that, and architects tend to get hung up on this kind of opinion.

Communicate. Ask your employee what level of support and communication they want. The worst possible position is to become a micromanager who “half delegates”. Avoid this by asking them how often they want you to check in with them. If they propose a timetable that doesn’t provide enough feedback in your mind, ask if you can check in more frequently initially and then reduce the frequency as the task progresses.

Reward effort and results. In order for others to truly learn, they need to feel that it’s acceptable to make mistakes. Indeed in a learning environment, effort is as important as results. If they’re stretching their abilities and trying new things, that in itself is an achievement and should be recognised.

Another point is to make a wider group aware of the role that you are conferring on others. Having consultants you work with or others constantly deferring to you is not going to either instil confidence in either your employee or your professional contacts, so ensure your delegation is communicated.

In your case, given that you have an immediate need, you may need to do the above quickly, and identify who in your staff is going to rise to which challenges. I wouldn’t say it is easy to delegate in your position, but two things are for sure, you will need tochange, and a big part of this will be your attitude.

Architect Matthew Turner of has worked at a range of offices as well as being a client adviser, project manager and competition juror

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