Project Kulcha vs. Design Knowledge Kulcha: What type of Practice are you in ?

I hate the word HR, especially the HR people who give the impression of impartially managing the protocols but are really just doing what they are being told by the organisational power brokers. Yes, I am bitter and twisted but architects deserve better. Favouritism, recruiting-in-your-own-image, gender discrimination and of course age discrimination (try and get a job in architecture when you are over 50) does not make for an innovative meritocracy. Throw in a bit of class based stereotyping and profiling. Oh, and I forgot to mention the fostering of acolyte cults and the sleazy disease of managing up; which all too often seems to work for some; eventually these people are caught out; usually not before the practice or organisation has been irretrievable damaged.

Open systems of governance and inclusive collaboration in design studios and architectural firms is where architects should be at. It is not rocket science but why is it so hard to examples of.

As someone said to me recently:

“Design leadership is not simply about putting the smartest people into the design studio and then telling them everything they do is “not quite right”, a “little bit wrong”, or their work has “no credibility” or doesn’t actually “count” or “amount” too much. All of which is a recipe for resentment and low organisational morale.

All these practices are too often rife in architecture and eventually they all impact on a firm’s ability, and the capabilities of the profession at large, to retain a competitive advantage or do great architecture.  There is some hope as in Australia, The Association of Consulting Architects Australia (why didn’t the AIA do this sooner I hear you ask?) has a lot of material here for those of you interested in developing a productive workplace.

And of course there is the elephant in the room. The bullying and sexual harassment that goes with poor workplace cultures. Australian Architecture has yet to have its big Weinstein #MeToo moment. But this is certainly an issue bubbling away in the pressure cooker of architectural firms in Australia as margins remain under pressure and the sector is forecast to not grow in the next year or so.

One theory that seems to accelerate this bundle of syndromes and horrific work practices in architectural firms is what I call the Project Culture mindset.

In the schizo, Project Culture mode, many architectural practices swing between, a project culture that is about processes of delivery, as well as time and cost outcomes and a project culture that is excessively focused on the “design”. Over determined reporting, pedantic detailing in documentation (as if that’s the only thing that counts), IT and quality systems that slow rather than speed, are all aspects of this type of culture. Combined with rigid organisational hierarchies and they are also an aspect of this type of culture. Feeding into the firm’s hierarchy is often the ill-informed practices mentioned above.

Project Culture. Managing projects to ensure: Design Knowledge Culture. Designing in order to:
Compliance Create new norms of compliance
Avoidance negligence Have foresight in relation to negligence.
Avoidance risk Testing the boundary conditions of risk.
Efficient time and cost outcomes Have time and cost outcomes that maximise Design Knowledge.
Managing relationships Managing relationships in way that creates Design Knowledge.
Operations Maximise the operational creation and delivery of Design Knowledge.
Qualitative Value Management Link Design Knowledge to Value.
Quantitative Cost Management Develop pockets of Design Knowledge within Value Management Agendas.
Managing staff through rule based incentives and metrics. Managing staff so they create Design Knowledge.

The Project Culture Firm

A firm with a project culture orientation will concentrate on the following types of knowledge:

Yes, this is the stuff the design architects are always pushing against. Within the project culture firm conflict between the design architects and the project architects, and so-called business architects is incessant and cyclical and often counterproductive. It’s a cycle that is really very boring. But it is also a cycle that is unnecessary and it is best typified by the large, and conservative, practice that wants to “beef” up its design credentials: Enter the new design director ( or recent grads), on the promise of being able to have design agency, who end up doing little and being frustrated by resistance from an entrenched project culture. This happens all too often. I guess its one way to exploit the design talent.

But what is also scary is that this list, as well as sounding all too familiar, looks so much like the competencies that architects learn or an Architectural Practice subject syllabus. But there is not a lot in there about, what I call, the real and authentic issues, of leadership and culture. Being a good project architect, or administrator, or a great managing upper, does not necessarily mean you are a good leader. We also need to decouple the design genius types out of our ideas of leadership as well: Being a good designer does not mean you are a good leader. It might just mean in all these cases you are a common garden variety arsehole (apologies for using the A word, at least I used lower case) who is incapable of building through leadership an inclusive Design Knowledge culture in a firm.

The Design Knowledge Culture Firm

A firm with an orientation towards a Design Knowledge culture is more interested in generating Design Knowledge or even other forms of construction orientated knowledge. This is a similar argument to that proposed by Flora Samuel, a recent visitor to MSD, argues this—although a little naively– as well in her latest book Why Architects Matter. Samuel argues that knowledge architects are concerned with “developing systems and processes the profession needs to subsist, not buildings.” Great, but I think there may be more to it than just getting out the Post Occupancy Evaluation and Quality Systems checklists. Nonetheless, the book is certainly worth a look even if it is still stuck in a project culture.

Within a Design Knowledge culture there is no conflict between the design architects and the project architects and so-called business architects. There is no territoriality or regimes of pettiness and power. All staff, with different roles, are incentivized and working towards creating knowledge; Design Knowledge speaks for itself.

Design Leadership 

In this ideal knowledge orientated practice Design Leadership is used to set the culture of the firm. This is the first role of leaders. But sadly, project orientated culture has a real grip on the profession and it is currently the predominant mode of developing leadership and culture. But architects now need to shift to the new models of leadership, unfettered by project pedantry, if they are to avoid the sludge of mediocrity and irrelevance.

Architects are living in La-La-Land: Project tyranny and network fantasies 

Traditional logic suggests that architects are focused on project networks rather than projects. But architects we now are witness to a rise of the project network organisation. This new form of organisation has arisen as a result of project complexity requiring greater degrees of specialist knowledge. Such organisations are seen as being the best way in which complex tasks can be achieved by bringing together heterogeneous and diverse skills and knowledge. Project networks are argued to be more flexible and creative.

As soon as project outcomes have been achieved the knowledge network is dismantled and reconfigured for the next project. According to this body of theory projects now embody “temporary systems” and that these systems are “constituted by multiple individual or organisational actors” (see: Whitley, 2006; Manning and Sydow, 2011).

In this context the challenge for architects, is to adapt in a competitive global system that is increasingly flexible and indeterminate. This is a system where the project itself has, in a manner of speaking, disappeared. As a result, architects now face competition from project delivery actors who are better, because of their agility, at project control and management than architects ever were.

Project tyranny and the genius


ear of an architectural genius 

It is reasonable to ask in this context, if architectural firms are sufficiently flexible, both internally and in their external facing guises, to adapt to the demise of the project. Certainly, architects focus on projects but increasingly utilises and connect to various knowledge networks outside of the firm. This suggests the line between project based organisations and network organisations is in theory at least increasingly blurred. For architects there is still a tension between being project-centric and the idea that projects are themselves temporary systems.

In other research, focused on consulting and knowledge based firms, it is contended that: projects are exclusively customer or client centric, leading to a kind of “project tyranny.” This tyranny does not allow for or easily accept competing, flexible or organisational principles and dynamics.

All of which struck a chord with me because architects seem dangerously focused on the designed project with a capital P and this approach this is linked to the inflexible postures of the creative designer. In combination project centricity with the current culture of design leads to inflexible, archaic work and discriminatory work practices. The tyranny of client centric projects alongside inflexible organisational hierarchies and haphazard infrastructure reigns supreme within many firms.

Network fantasies


Potteries Thinkbelt Cedric Price 

But for architects there is another danger: the allure of the internet as a distributed technologies. Architects have been obsessed with networks for a long long time. There is a superficial resemblance between the project networks that architects seek to build and the internet technologies that facilitate these networks. In the strategic thinking of some architects these two different types of networks are conflated. This conflation is exacerbated by the optimistic and utopian rhetoric’s that surround the ongoing development of technology in architecture. Every architecture school in Australia has robots, we are getting workshops technologies and software shoved down our throats at every turn. Yet very little of any architectural school’s curricula is devoted to how to manage these technologies. As I was reminded in a recent ACA webinar architects aren’t even taught how to manage projects. Design them: Yes. Manage them: No.


Cedric Price and the windscreen wiper goggles 

For architects technology networks are seen as a realm of possibility rather than a realm that threatens to limit the agency and range of architects. Emerging technologies may be the architects worst enemy. There emerging bunch of technologies (I won’t name the usual suspects here) are arguably broadening the size of our professional service markets, market geographies and worst of all reducing differences amongst competitors and increasing the proliferation of substitute services. Oh, and I forgot to mention, the internet allows suppliers of knowledge to reach end users more directly. Yet architecture students are frigging around in every studio workshop across the globe with little bits of laser cut timber.


Collaborative Leadership

On the one hand, architects may survive in a scenario where projects are organised around a temporary teams, enabled by technology, that is both mobile and fluid as it connects and reconnects to different networks. Arguably, it is the architects, organised around teams with good studio based leadership, leadership that is collaborative and inclusive, rather than the old creative design genius style, design leadership needs to be about gathering, configuring and integrating design knowledge, from within and across networks, in order to design and produce through temporary project systems. Not just stamping your ego and whims on a project.

La-la land

In the future survival and competitive advantage will go to those architects, who cling to the notion of the designed project but also recognise the indeterminacy of both projects and networks. As well as this architectural survivors will reject, the fallacies of technology, and its associated hyperbole, and opt for models of collaborative leadership. Anyone else is living in La-la Land


It has been a hectic week: Architectural Practice at MSD has started up, I have discovered WeChat, my son has started his final year of school, and we have been busy organising our Practice Night for the subject on the 13th of March. Wow !!! we have about 24 practices across Melbourne involved. Thank you so much to those firms who have agreed to participate. It will be quite a night, especially on Social Media. Not only that but the rescheduled Faculty Christmas party is this coming Friday (lets hope I survive it).

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


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 


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


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


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


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.