Managing Creative Teams: 5 lessons from the architectural design studio

Architectural design studios exist in a highly complex industry sector with multiple stakeholders and numerous financial pressures. Architects must both educate and guide their clients through a highly complex and risky process. For the most part the property and construction industry is one of the most brutal industries that a firm can compete in. This is primarily because most property development and work in the sector is driven by the economics of price competition. Apart from architects, and perhaps interior designers, few other actors in the industry really care about design and design outcomes. Certainly not in the same way, or the same extent, that architects do. As a result the design studio, the team which creates the theories concepts and ideas driving a project, needs to be effectively nurtured and fostered. This team needs to be led in a way that fosters its capabilities to generate ideas but also to ensure that those ideas are robust. It’s no good leading a team in a way that prevents it from producing ideas or generating ideas that are easily diminished as soon as the cost cutters and value managers turn up.

 1. Be Diverse

Of course it goes without saying that gender and ethnic diversity is essential in any creative team. I like teams where everyone is different. Good leadership should be able to harness the difference’s between team members rather than turning difference into conflict. Clone teams are boring for those who work in them and I think clone like teams only ever aspire to mediocre results. Celebrating, fostering and supporting difference, enables a team to produce design knowledge that has the ability to produce a range of options. It also enables a team to critique a design from a multitude of perspectives.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest mistakes architecture students make is to form into groups and teams with their friends. They all live in the same area, or come form the same town or have the same skills. They don’t often realise that once they are in the real world they will work in teams full of strangers and people with diverse expertise and even age groups. One year I tried to change this and I selected the groups in my subject. I got the architects together with the landscape architects in order to do the assessment tasks. The idea was to try and simulate the kind of disciplinary exchanges that take place. The result was high degrees of conflict against me and within the groups. The architecture students resented not being with their friends. The next year I set up a whole lot of group formation exercises in order to facilitate students forming groups with complementary skills. There was less conflict and I thought it was working until I realised, despite my efforts, they had all got into their same old groups with their peer groups. After that I gave up and now my students self select their groups. The problem is that students then dot stay in these groups for the duration of the course poorly performing groups always perform poorly and better groups always do better.

My colleagues at the Parlour web site have written a lot about gender, diversity and equity and it is certainly worth looking at their site. Notions of diversity can of course make a difference to the outcome. A building I am familiar with ended up being mediocre, rather than great, because the culture of the office and the project team that produced it did not actively pursue diverse thinking.

The team itself needs to be diverse. Recruiting clones is fine if you want everyone to agree with you or produce nuances of the same idea. Worse still is a team where everyone has the same skill set or the same way of thinking. Diversity means having people in a team with different skills and ways of perceiving. In architectural teams, or any creative team for that matter, it is really important to have people who can thing in 3 Dimensions; who can think spatially.

2. Form a team culture 

The first 5 minutes of a team meeting are the most important. This is when the culture of the creative team is formed. In these crucial minutes do the team leaders suggest that the culture is collaborative? Do they espouse the highest conceptual and design aspirations for the project? Do they suggest that people in the team can make mistakes and take risks without recrimination? Do they suggest it is important for the team to have a sense of its won identity? Is difference and diversity in the team acknowledged and accepted? Will  contributions be acknowledged and praised? Or is it one of those teams where the slightest  misstep leads to censure and underlying and unspoken criticism.

3. Foster and tolerate ambiguity

The design process is highly ambigous. Often there are no right answers to a given scenario or problem. I think we have all heard or read about wicked problems. For architects, the design outcome is not exactly or precisely prescribed or understood at the beginning of the process. Nor can the design process be described as a logical sequence of precise actions (architectural thought is different to engineering). Moreover, sometimes the team, or some members of the team, might generate or pursue options that seem bizarre or unrealistic. All of the factors tend to mean that their is a high degree of ambiguity in the design decision making process.

It is the role of the team leader to know when to hold open and tolerate the ambiguity and risks of the generative design process and when to conclude various lines of flight. In other words there are times when ambiguity needs to be tolerated in order to pursue new lines of thought or ideas, that do not accord with a prevailing line, that just might be worthwhile. These ideas may not seem immediately instrumental or pragmatic. But they need to be pursued and their possibilities held open as strategic options or design options. A good design leader or architect will lead his team in a way that ensures there is a range of  different options being pursued and considered at any one moment in time. This should be done in a way that is systematic and considered. In contrast, the not so great design leader, creative  or architect will suddenly have a new idea out of the blue and make everyone change the design, or bits of the design, at a whim and usually at an inopportune time.

4. Increase the feedback speed 

Ever wondered what those thousands of interns do at the star architect firms. Well they often produce options and lots of them for any given scheme. I remember seeing thousands of options for the CCTV building in Shanghai at a OMA exhibition in Berlin. For those interested, Optioneering processes have been written about by my colleague Dr. Dominik Holzer and at CIFE at Stanford 

Option generation and then feedback in a team needs to be frank, honest and open. It needs to be delivered without conflict. Teams members need to understand there is no such thing as a dumb question; another common mistake of architecture students is to be afraid to ask dumb questions.  Communication needs to take place in an environment that is supportive. Team members should not feel that there are no wrong answers or a sense of criticism or censure.

Things will of course, and inevitably, do go wrong. the more open the channels of communication within the team the quicker ideas can be generated and problems solved as these ideas are defined. Open communication will also ensure that the connections and linkages needed between each step in the workflow are seamless rather than dysfunctional.

The quicker feedback can be incorporated into the design process and the greater the ability of the team to reiterate processes and provide recursive solutions the more robust the team is. Again one of the great mistakes architecture students make is to produce a design that has never gone through any iterations or its elements have never been explored in a recursive way.

5. Excellence in team leadership is critical

Team leadership is critical in the above mix. Studio leaders and the leaders of creative teams need to support difference, tolerate ambiguity, foster continuous feedback, build a team culture and do things quickly. Strong creative teams well led will produce great ideas. The best teams produce ideas that are well integrated with and closely matched to their project circumstances. As a result, great designs or campaigns are resilient to the travails and sniping of cost cutting, project risks and the mindless search for profits over the value of design.

All of the above are attributes arise out of and are taught in the best architectural design studios. To produce great graduates these attributes must be allowed to flourish in architecture schools.  In the university system, an emphasis on rigid policies and processes over fostering studio culture – or any kind of culture for that matter – loading up staff student ratios and cost cutting has eroded this culture.  I worry that the proponents who dream of a new higher education system, based around technology and virtual reality, are eroding what really counts because it cheaper or faster or better. At the moment I think that what really counts can only be taught face to face and that the architectural studio can teach us a lot about managing high performance in creative teams across many disciplines.

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