Strategic vs. Project Thinking: Sticking your head up the dead bear’s bum of Projects

Here at this low class, sex, drugs and rock and roll, architect focused, in-the-gutter blog it helps the blog stats to write popular tags like “Sticking your head up a dead bear’s bum.” Sticking your head up bear’s bum” is one of those lost, and now inappropriate, Australian sayings that thankfully is no longer in use. It can be used in a derogatory sense as a direct call to action—best not to overthink that—or it can suggest a kind of head in the sand attitude. The original line comes from the Australian film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, and I have adapted the line here for my own purposes.

In my lovely mannered, patrician and bland-boosterish world of academia, it is not a saying that I am loathe to bandy about that much.

So, enough of the self-indulgence, the point is that for far too long architects have stuck their head up the dead bear’s bum of projects.

What Architects are good at 

Architects are great at spatial thinking, great at design thinking great and great at integrating knowledge across the construction, engineering and most consulting disciplines. Architects are good at looking at details (for those of you who can still actually detail) and then look at the larger urban scale all in the same breath. They are trained to shift their view to focus at different scales. As a result, architects are great at managing ambiguity and tackling the wicked problems.

The is what architects are supposed to do and what architects are good at. However, all of these skills and unique ways of thinking are hampered by the fact that architects are too often are stuck and blinkered by the project mindset. Everything is about the project. In practices large and small it’s all about the projects: big projects, little projects, built projects, or unbuilt projects, school projects, retail projects, domestic projects, commercial projects and urban design projects. Bathroom and toilet projects. Architects compare themselves to other architects through the lens of projects; their awards systems are based around projects, and the internal management systems of firms are founded, not around strategic management, producing design knowledge or the talent but the holy than holy projects. It’s always about the project.

The curse of the Project Centric

This project-centric focus keeps architects chained and enslaved in their own small pond. This pond is becoming increasingly smaller because of this very focus. Broader, market trends, macroeconomic changes, and the impact of future technologies on the profession often go unnoticed. Architects are clueless because of this lack of strategic thought. The profession is still only just grappling with the idea of advocacy; let alone producing any industry research about the impact of future technologies on it. Many strategic decision makers in practices medium, small and large are so project focused that they cannot see the forest for the trees.

As a result of this overbearing project centricity, the competitive advantage and value of architects is slowly being eroded. We have already lost construction administration, and Design Development is hard to argue the value of, design thinking has been taken, and repackaged by the graphic and industrial designers. A raft of new technologies, such as Big Data and AI, is slowly eating away at our design thinking skills. Some architects still think a digital strategy is about getting onto Instagram.

Architects are going to lose 

So if my argument is correct, that architects can’t think strategically outside of the project mentality, it follows that this lack of strategy, will in time, diminish the domain and agency of architects. We have already lost project management, and the banks are screwing us over our contracts. So where might the next pinch points be?

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Maybe it’s time we stopped letting the special technical nerdy types from running the IT department in practices. Maybe uni administrators should stop thinking that just teaching software skills or techniques is all we need to do in Architecture schools. Alternatively, we should stop thinking that being “strategic” when it comes to new technologies, is about curating the images in an Instagram profile. Wooo Hooo. Half the Instagram profiles of practices in my city say the words: Award Winning Architects. So what? However, it’s all about those projects, isn’t it? The elusive award-winning project. The one we would all die for.

Drinking the kool-aid 

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Architects have really drunk the Parametric and BIM kool-aid but at the cutting edge of practice as well as in the teensy weensy practices, and in the so-called professional associations. However, did anyone ever stop to think how architects might manage these new technologies in a strategic sense? All too often, architects have a kind of buy it and plug it in and play mentality when it comes to new technology. The new technologies are the kinds of things that make the project go faster, or cheaper or maybe sometimes better.

Architects have not been able to manage IT within their practices strategically. Yes, they have jumped onto BIM and the people I hate it when the students say: “why don’t we learn BIM at architecture school.” For the universities administrators BIM, and all other such widget technologies, is precisely the kind of curricula that they would love the architecture students to learn: easy to teach, the students think they are learning a skill (even if they are not learning to think) and a great way to make money. I mean WTF?

Architects might still have an opportunity to shape digital strategy. However, if they are not careful the digital strategies in the property and construction arena will be taken up either by new specialists, marketing, and asset managers who can run the data analytics. In workplace design, Big Data and associated analytics and AI are going to sweep the floor. Architects need to figure out how the Internet-of-Things is going to change things. Moreover, How will BIM data be connected to other broader IT data systems and analytics?

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Big Data, BIM and AI and will get together with the property and construction types, and before you know it, we will lose Feasibility Studies as a source of income. God help us when the nerdy nerds start thinking about data analytics in construction. As BIM and AI conjoin, the result may be a new take on generative designing, and then as AI begins to develop options to make design decisions where we will end up then? Just following the pack I guess.

General and strategic management skills

One more thought I would be rich, if I got a buck for every time, someone said we don’t teach business skills in architecture, or when people say architects lack in business skills. Teaching ourselves a few numerate business skills is not going to help and I am beginning to weary of this mantra. It’s the general, and strategic management skills architects don’t have I tried to find those in the Australian AACA competencies, but hey who wrote these new competencies? These are skills are critical to understanding all the activities that architectural practice encompasses. They are critical to understanding the universe outside of the architect’s bubble. Sticking your head up the dead bear’s bum of Projects is not doing us any favours.

Yep, maybe I have been hanging out with the copywriters too much. However, seriously, for those who know me well, I guess I am wondering how much truth-to-power stuff I can actually get away with these days now that I have some kind of immunity in my own version of Survivor. So stay tuned and we can see how outrageous I can be in the face of mediocrity.