ARCHITECTS VS. TRUMP-LIKE CLIENTS: Rising Up Against The Alien Overlords Known As Client.

As we start to get into 2018 many of us can see that Trump would be the worst kind of architectural client. But sadly, many clients have Trump like tendencies and this is a real problem for most architects. It is a particular problem for those architects who have to deal with clients with the resources to do large projects. Please note: I am always available to run a client education or design thinking workshop for your most evil and Trump-Like clients. 

Architects, apart from having to deal with Project Managers, without any idea of the complexities and nuances of design thinking, architects also have to deal with that other group of evil alien overlords: Trump-like clients.

Emotional Domestic clients

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An Emotional Domestic Client 

Don’t get me wrong many clients are great, supportive trusting and generous in their relations with the architect. But many clients are problematic to the architect for a number of reasons which I will explain below. For small architectural projects, in particular residential projects client emotions can and tend to run high. In some ways this is understandable if the client has had no previous experience of building procurement or you are ripping off the back of their house, usually their largest asset, in order to make it better. In my experience domestic clients tend to flip out the most just after the demolition stage, or during framing stage prior to anything else being installed.

Large project clients

But my remarks here are directed to those architects with larger projects and clients. These are the clients who should know better. But, often they don’t and I want to outline some of the pathologies at play here. By larger clients I mean large companies, large public institutions, state or federal governments, not for profit agencies with turnovers exceeding not just millions, but hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars. There large projects spun out of these entities might include projects related to urban infrastructure, health or education.

7 Characteristics of Trump-like Clients 

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I met a friend over January for a coffee who is a project manager in one of the larger entities. This person trained as an architect and then pursued a career in Project Management. By the end of her latte she had quickly outlined the characteristics of the dysfunctional, Trump-like Clients often found in these large organisations. These clients may be individuals, the may be CEOs, senior executives, line managers, so-called project managers with responsibilities, or worse still a committee of so-called stakeholders.

1. Dithering

Firstly, the dysfunctional client is always meddling. Mostly the process is additive. Adding a bit to the design here and there, a new material, a new subsidiary design concept, a new function, a new bit of technology, an increase in space allocation or a new stakeholder to be thrown into the project mix.

Sometimes this process goes back and forth, they alien client adds something and then takes it way in the next minute. These clients are not able to trust architectural expertise and will add and subtract things depending on who they have just spoken to.

These clients think that by doing this that they are actually managing effectively: But, they are not. These clients tend not to be able to cede control to others (until things go wrong of course) and the often have no overview or strategic insight into project timing or processes. They think that adding and subtracting in this way is about “refining” the project.

Dithering is time wasting and corrosive to a projects overall design strategy. With lots of client dithering, a project can bit by bit, end up being something completely contrary to its initial strategic intent.

In these situations architects need to assert control and get the client’s over-control  out of the project process as far as possible.

2. Indecisiveness

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All projects have time and cost benchmarks. Despite myths to the contrary most architects have the benchmarks firmly stuck in their heads from project inception. In order to meet these decisions, decisions need to be made in a timely fashion.

Client indecisiveness, for whatever reason will slow things down. Often it is the result of procurement and design ignorance combined with the fear of being seen to do the wrong thing

Where there is more at stake for the client, for example a domestic client, decisions can be made quickly. For line manager or a senior executive in a large organisation, direct incentives do not apply because the projects outcomes will not impact the manager’s personal finances. Indecisiveness can easily be covered up by managers in large organisations, but it is essentially destructive to a project, if not self-destructive to the entity sponsoring the project.

Architects need to communicate clearly to clients when indecisiveness impedes project time and cost outcomes. This can be difficulty when it means telling your client that their own indecisive practices are screwing things up. But, if you don’t you are being set up to fail. 

3. Managing up

There worst and most dysfunctional of the clients are the ones that don’t really care about the project. In fact, they are more interested in managing up to their own overlords. What matters is not a great project but how this project is perceived. In other words, how project looks, both as a process and as an end result, to other client overlords is the most important this.

These clients don’t really care about effective client or stakeholder consultation, they don’t care about design (even though they say they might), they don’t care about effective and sensible project processes and workflows, they only care about how it looks to their own networks and political masters.

These are truly Trump-like clients Some of these client types are really more interested in the projects ability to be promoted across social media, once the project is complete, or as I recall in one instance, the executive manager more interested in hosting a dinner for their own managerial networks, to celebrate the project’s completion. Despite the fact that the manager had little to do with the building’s genesis or design.

Smart architects will use this syndrome to extract design leverage out of a client. Amoral architects will just go along with it out of political necessity.

4. Too many stakeholders

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Too many stakeholders with no decision making governance in place. Stakeholder management and processes often ill defined. Without proper project governance and a process for managing stakeholders everything becomes a meeting; where nothing is decided and no leadership is exerted. Everyone feels good at the end of these meetings, they feel like they have done something. But actually they have done nothing.

I once pitched for a job which had 13 people on the selection committee. I should not have wasted my time and in the end no-one got the job because the committee couldn’t decide. There other extreme is when the managers make a pretence to “consult” with stakeholders but then make autocratic decisions. Usually the autocratic pathway leads to organisational resentment once the project is complete. Often it is the architect who then bears the brunt of post-occupancy dissatisfaction.

Effective client excellence means having effective and authentic organisational leadership. It means having an idea how to govern and consult with stakeholders and make decisions.

Architects need to be sure that they are dealing with the right stakeholders and this project is being managed by the organisation authentically. 

5. Turf war warriors  

Clients who don’t have the leadership ability to negotiate between different parts of their organisation. There extreme of this is those clients who use the project to gain organisational territory or power over other organisational groups and networks within the organisation. This usually has an impact on the resourcing an organisational entity can give a project. It may mean that as a result of territorial disputes and Architect is denied vital information that is vital to integrating design and construction elements as the project proceeds.

Architects need to make sure what the lines of project reporting and governance are in place between different sub-groups or organisational silos in an organisation. Architects need to be clear at the outset that they may need to gain information from across the organisation.  

6. Blame gamers

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Architect Post Blame-Game

The client or the clients are so busy blaming each other that nothing gets done. The  extreme of this is that the Trump-like clients are so worried about cycles of blame, or getting, fired that they are not willing to take design risks, or risk anything. This really distorts the architects risk management process.

As an architect caught up in the vortex of blame eventually the cycle will come to you. There is no easy solution to this one. 

7. Zero Design and Procurement Knowledge

It’s great when the project manager is an economist, or has background in accounting and management consulting, or nursing and health and really now idea about urban design, architectural design, or bottom-up community development and consultation.

So, maybe worse still, are not the evil clients who know very little, but the ones who think they know about what architects to do, because they did their own house renovation once, or they have allied degree in maybe civil engineering or construction management.

Procurement pathways and options these days can be very complex. Making the right decisions about procurement in the early stages of a project is vital. There current community and political controversy over the Apple store at Federation Square is a case that reinforces this point. Clearly, for such a project, a procurement and decision-making process that was both lacking in transparency and did not build in community consultation, was bound to explode in the face of the Trump-like project sponsors and clients.

Time consuming as it is: Architects need to constantly communicate and educate clients about the entire process. Be wary of the clients who think they know stuff. 

Finally: What Architects should do ? 

The difficulty for architects when faced with these larger evil clients is then having to explain and communicate, in other words educate, to them the intricacies and risks involved in the complex process of making great architecture. Arguably, that’s why we need to have negotiation and organisational leadership skills as a core competency in our national competency standards. Or, as a post professional development option.

Not only do architects have to face the challenges of designing great architecture but they also have the challenges of educating and working around evil clients. Many, architects do these things all the time and as a result their design and project leadership skills are often more effective and authentic than the large clients they serve.