What Is Your Firm Doing to Design a “Future Worth Fighting For?”

Last month in Austin, TX, EDR hosted its first-ever PRISM conference, bringing together more than 100 risk management and property due diligence professionals to exchange ideas and insights on the issues reshaping our market. One of the topics at the forefront of many environmental due diligence professionals’ minds today is how to develop and implement effective growth strategies in an uncertain economy. To help, we were very fortunate to have as a speaker Brent Robertson, Partner, FATHOM. Robertson generously agreed to share his expertise with our EDR Insight readers in the following Q&A based on his Austin track.


EDR Insight: How does your approach to strategic planning differ from what most firms typically do?

Brent Robertson: First, I wanted to express how much I enjoyed being at the PRISM event. The quality of the people, the event, the venue and the conversations were simply outstanding.

I had the chance to speak with attendees who had been part of strategic planning that never materialized into any meaningful change. I also spoke with others who are currently involved in what I call, “Perennial Conversations,” where a lot of time and effort is spent talking about an issue, only to have the same issue sprout up again and again. Both situations are frustrating, draining and often end with leaders acquiescing to the idea that a little better than the status quo is all that is possible when trying to improve the reality of an organization.

And for good reason. Two-thirds of initiatives fail to produce the desired results. In my experience, there are three primary reasons for this:

  1. Not enough people are involved in the strategic planning process. This means that the few that are, have to push the strategy out into the rest of the organization – never fun or productive.
  2. A reason to care about the strategy is never revealed through the process of creating it. This leaves a team, already busy with their day job, unmotivated to work on it, or worse, actively trying to sabotage it.
  3. The leadership team refuses to change how they work even though the rest of the organization is being asked to. Obviously, if the leadership team isn’t willing to change, why should anyone else?

The Fathom Approach:

Our approach allows our clients to successfully design and execute strategic initiatives that transform their organizations. As a result, these firms perform beyond traditional industry benchmarks. Below are three keys to our approach.

1) Be as inclusive as possible

We believe everyone has something vital to contribute. We have a process that assures as many people are invited to contribute to the strategy as possible. This could include a firm’s staff, clients, partners, suppliers, etc. We want stakeholders to not just align with a strategy, we want them to own it. If you want someone to truly own something, they need to see a part of themselves in it.

2) Answer the question, “Why would anyone care?”

We believe everyone wants to be part of something bigger than themselves. We begin by helping firms see beyond what they sell and what they make, and reveal why they do what they do and the difference it makes for their world. A favorite question to ask your team that can spark that dialogue is, “What would be true about the world if you had a say in it?” If you create your strategy on behalf of an idea generated through that question, finding a reason to care is unavoidable!

3) ‘Doing’ is more powerful than ‘saying.’

We believe fundamental change isn’t something you wait to execute, it happens with your next word and your next action. During the process of helping our clients design and execute strategy strategy, we facilitate workshops that not only reveal new things to do, but also new ways to interact, create, communicate and be with each other. As a result, our clients not only do new things, but also become reliable for being with each other and their clients in new, much more meaningful and valuable ways.

EDR Insight:You work w/ clients in the architecture/engineering and manufacturing space. In your experience, what are some of the common traps you see firms falling into with their strategic planning?

Robertson: The biggest trap that firms fall into is failing to change their perspective before they try and change their business. You can’t see past the reality of your firm if you don’t change where you are thinking from. It’s like trying to read the label from inside the bottle.

The commonly held belief I run up against when talking with leaders is that there is something wrong with their firm that needs to be fixed. This belief is reinforced by many consultants, authors, and bloggers who perpetuate the idea that your firm is suffering from a disease in which there is a known cure (that they happen to have for the right price). Approaching the design of a new future for your firm by searching for what’s wrong with it can easily be seen as a witch hunt and create conditions where everyone is defensive, unwilling to contribute and feeling exposed. Not healthy or productive.

Instead, we help our clients think about their organization’s current state as one where nothing is wrong. And, in fact, that everything is how it needs to be to open the discussion about how to make it even better. “Honoring what’s so” is a much more constructive way to come at the conversation, as it allows people to put down their guard and contribute enthusiastically.

EDR Insight: The market is likely heading into a cyclical commercial real estate downturn in the next few years so what advice would you give firms looking to get a jump on their strategic planning? [OR What questions should they be asking themselves?

Robertson: One of the the ideas I see pretty calcified in this industry is that there are a finite number of business opportunities and the only way to grow or survive is by taking those opportunities from someone else. This kind of thinking precipitates commoditization and keeps firms in this space so focused on competing and winning they forget to innovate and adapt to the fundamental shifts that are inevitable in any marketplace.

Every change is opportunity in disguise.

Change can be seen as something to fight against, or as a place of possibility. If you see things are changing for your firm, you can be pretty certain they are for your clients, too. For instance, there was a lot of discussion at the PRISM event about the commoditization of Phase I environmental site assessments. Here are two ways to think of that issue:

  1. Something you simply have to deal with
  2. A sign that the current structure, fee, or process for conducting Phase I ESAs is no longer relevant to the needs of the market and that this is an opportunity for someone to develop a new way of delivering this service.

An example of this kind of thinking happened over lunch when a few of us were joking about mounting cameras on UBER cars that recorded every property they drove by with photos, time stamps and GPS data. Visual property verification would be able to be collected and delivered real-time at dramatically lower costs compared to sending a person out to each property one-by-one. Sounds crazy right?

Is an idea like that really crazy, or simply brilliant?

Change gives birth to opportunity. If the opportunity is a good one, someone will exploit it, guaranteed. Why not you?



Take a look at Fathom’s Create A Future of Your Own Design, a slide deck that better encapsulates the approach Brent outlined above. The concepts within this slide deck are terrific talking points for any firm re-evaluating its place in our competitive market. As a fun exercise, try the try the three changes in thought and behavior at the end of the presentation–and see what happens!

About Brent Robertson

Brent works with leaders to design futures worth fighting for. A partner at Fathom, he champions an approach to strategic planning, employee engagement, leadership succession and market differentiation that prioritizes people and relationships. As a result, his clients don’t simply plan their futures, they bring them to life through the energy of organization-wide involvement in, and commitment to, generating valuable businesses that matter.