Strategy and Design Thinking: Why architects need strategic thinking.

This blog explores the nexus between architectural design and strategy. I am thinking there will be more blogs on this subject to follow over the year. 

Most architectural practices seem to lurch from crisis to crisis. In Australia most architects are small practitioners, juggling family commitments, trying desperately to maintain work life balance and at the same time running a small business that produces bespoke projects that require innovation, high levels of risk management, advanced negotiation skills not to mention networking and marketing skills. Architects, in between juggling the school drop off or saving for their own mortgages, work hard to add value to their clients, the built environment and society at large. Of course, its much easier, as it is for some in the building industry, to take the low road of cheaper, better faster and easier when it comes to delivering projects. If its cheap and nasty it must be good, right?

Having a strategy, and embedding strategic thinking into practice, a good way to help guide and resolve the dilemmas of practice. A good way to combat the cheap and nasty faction. Recently it was suggested to me by an architect that architects need not learn the finer arts of strategy. It was put to me that some architects never learn it and that it doesn’t really matter. I was pretty surprised by this as we were taught at Business School, regardless of what you think of business schools or biz school education, that strategic management and thinking was the highest form of managerial action.

In classical management theory the classical definitions of strategy are intertwined with notions of competition, military thought and the notion of winning. Mintzberg argued that strategic thinking was a central component of creating innovation and was by its nature intuitive, creative and divergent.  Strategic thinking as defined by the managerial theorist Mintzberg argues that strategic thinking is:

“about synthesis. It involves intuition and creativity. The outcome…is an integrated perspective of the enterprise, a not-too-precisely articulated vision of direction”

Michael Porter another management theorist argued that:

“Competitive strategy involves positioning a business to maximize the value of the capabilities that distinguish it from its competitors.”

Of course strategy as a field of thought has moved on since the work of Mintzberg and Porter. This has happened because technology has morphed and remorphed and the interconnected complexities of the global system have seemingly increased. In recent times the discourse of strategic management has reflected this. In strategic management theory and research questions abound: Is strategy formulation something that emerges or is it something that can be designed top down? How can strategy help our institutions with concepts of turbulence and uncertainty? As noted in a recent editorial in the Strategic Management Journal strategy may cover: organisational capabilities, interfirm relationships, knowledge creation and diffusion, innovation, organisational learning, behavioural strategy, technology management, and of course corporate social responsibility.

For architects having an understanding of strategy and strategic thinking is vital. In fact I would argue that it is vital for future architects to study strategy at architecture school, perhaps in the design studio.  To suggest that strategic thinking is not a part of architectural education or architects expertise suggests that architecture is simply a bundle of technically orientated skills and processes. A bundle of repetitive actions that require little thought. Actions that can be transferable and imparted to others. This suggests a craft based notion of architecture where skills and knowledge are passed down from so-called master to apprentice. I am not so sure about the craft myths that seem to permeate architecture. The craft myth is hard to shake even when highly advanced design and construction methods are used. The craft metaphor is probably a little bit too formulaic as a concept of architectural knowledge for my liking.

In Australia the competency standards describe the competencies and skills that architects are expected to know. These standards are used in accreditation processes to determine if a particular person is capable of being an architect; or an architecture school is teaching the correct skills or competencies. Interestingly, the standards say little about the need for strategic thinking.  They mostly describe what architects do rather than the thinking or conceptual skills they require. They are activity and process based. The standards are really lacking when it comes to issues around concepts of strategy, foresight, risk, project management and financial skills. The weight of the standards are focused on design and documentation. Viewed in detail much less emphasis is given to practice management and project delivery. I mean who needs that stuff? All we need as architects are the skills inherent to the traditional practice life cycle: Sketch design, design development, contract documentation, contract administration ect etc. In fact all we need to know about is Sketch Design. No matter that this lifecycle is increasingly under pressure and fragmented and as result a result of the industries lack of diversity, fee competition, and dis-intermediation.

Strategic thinking and planning has a number of advantages even for those architects lurching from the client to the consultants between picking up the kids from school. Strategic thinking sets a direction, even for the small firm beyond the day to day. A kind of thinking that helps to guide resource allocation when difficult decisions or trade-offs need to be made. It determines how your firm might be different, and I mean really different, to all of the other firms out there. Understanding strategic discourse can help the architect understand clients as they make strategic decisions regarding the future. If the management consultants and gurus can do it, why not architects? We are a lot smarter and more diverse than those guys.

An appreciation of strategic thinking helps to get architects out of the cycle of reacting from practice crisis to practice crisis or seeing architectural design as simplistic, step by step, and linear process of sequential tasks. Seeing design as a narrow technical specialisation is a huge mistake. Strategic thinking is inextricably and broadly linked to design and should be regarded as the highest form of design thinking.

It’s all quiet on the front at my grad school of architecture. A few summer studios are running and there is till 5 weeks to go before classes start. Nonetheless, next week, in the lull I am pre-recording a whole lot of online lectures! 



Categories: architectural education, architectural practice, business strategy, Indeterminate

Tags: , ,

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