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?

download.jpg

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 

powers-boothe-in-guyana-tragedy.jpg

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?

bimanalytics-infographic.jpg

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.

Rising and Falling Stars: Australian vs. Global architectural firms

This last week or so at my graduate school of architecture the students were lining up for selfies with Bjarke when he came as a part of the Beulah International competition. It was quite a commotion. Initially, I wanted to puke, there was a lot of black, and I mean a lot. Black tees, black jackets and black horn-rimmed glasses. Everyone looked liked gangsters on a Eurovision set. Most people who read this blog know how jealous I am of Bjarke’s hairstyle.

After my initial revulsion, I calmed down and realised that Bjarke was here for the Beulah International competition to design a mixed-use high rise complex on Southbank in my City of Melbourne. For Beulah quite a few of the local firms got together with the stars.

Beulah Competition: The Local-Star Match-Ups 

  • Bjarke Ingels Group with Fender Katsalidis Architects
  • Coop Himmelblau with Architectus
  • Mad Architects with Elenberg Fraser
  • MVRDV with Woods Bagot
  • Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) with Conrad Gargett
  • UN Studio with Cox Architecture

In December the South Australian government announced the shortlist for the Adelaide Contemporary Art gallery. This list was as follows:

  • Adjaye Associates (UK) and BVN with Steensen Varming, McGregor Coxall, Barbara Flynn and Yvonne Koolmatrie
  • Bjarke Ingels Group (Denmark) and JPE Design Studio with United Natures, Arketype and BuildSurv
  • David Chipperfield Architects (UK) and SJB Architects with Jane Irwin Landscape Architecture and Arup
  • Diller Scofidio and Renfro (USA) and Woods Bagot with Oculus, Pentagram, Katnich Dodd, Rider Levett Bucknall, Arup, WSP, Deloitte, Kaldor Public Art Projects, Klynton Wanganeen, James Sanders, Dustin Yellin, Right Angle Studio and Garry Stewart
  • Hassell and SO-IL (USA) with Fabio Ongarato Design, Mosbach Paysagistes and Fiona Hall
  • Khai Liew, Office of Ryue Nishizawa (Japan) and Durbach Block Jaggers (Australia) with Masako Yamazaki, Mark Richardson, Arup and Irma Boom

Rant Free Zone

Firstly, I will try and avoid a rant about how much I hate the star system and the paucity of risk-taking on the part of our institutional decision makers. Yes, it was great to see some emerging practices and voices in the Adelaide lineups and a focus on indigenous narratives for some of these teams. As time goes on, I think this focus will increasingly have to be a consideration for public commissions. But what does the overall inclusion of so many stars say about architecture in Australia? Have we lost our nerve?

Local Grunt with Super Star Strategy

In strategic terms what do these collaborations say about global competition, competitive advantage and the branding of architects in Australia and Australian architecture as a brand across the globe.

What struck me was that there is no single stand-alone Australian architect in this bunch. In both of these competitions, the short-listed firms are Australian architects aligned with the so-called star architects. Now far be it for me to preach some kind of little Aussie battler nationalist bias. But it is nonetheless vital to ask a few more questions about this situation:

As a strategy is it wise for local architectural firms in Australia to collaborate with these so-called stars architects? The old aphorism is that the local partner brings along well needed local expertise and on the ground knowledge. In other words, the international star designs and the local, seemingly domestic, partner implements.

Are Australian architects the documentation drudges of the global system? In these competitions have the Australian firms, in these collaborations, become global lackeys. The so-called second rate “drafties” of the global system? But is it really as simple as this? And in an increasingly media driven international marketplace for architectural services perhaps this strategic rationale is only partially valid.

Outsourcing 

In this context, one could argue that the Australian firms might provide the local technical grunt. This is in line with the overall trend towards the global outsourcing of documentation services. Across the global system, privatisation policies, and shareholder value practices have led to a situation where there has been a rise in outsourcing for architectural and building documentation.

The rise of digital technologies and the labour rates in the so-called global south have led to an increase in digital outsourcing for documentation. The late Bharat Dave in his own work noted the rise of offshoring architectural services which began in the late 90. Outsourcing has coalesced in places where there is an ICT infrastructure aligned with skilled workforces and low labour costs. Dave noted in 2010 a situation, that is now commonplace, where designs in one country are modelled in another, documented in yet another and then fabricated in another. It is not hard to concur with his conclusion that this situation necessitates the need for the “reconfiguration of practice in the long term.” ⁠

This situation has only accelerated in recent years, and it is perhaps naïve to think that the reconfiguration of practice is solely about the outsourcing and subsequent commodification of the services, such as technical documentation that designers seem to loathe in the first place.

The problem with partial services 

In these matchups, local architectural firms ruled by economic survival might find some comfort in being more easily able to modify the range of services they provide; being able to provide the technical grunt. Yet this flexibility poses a dilemma: to be more profitable, these firms need to offer a complete range of services. But as a result of changes in technology, partial services are less profitable and also readily supplied by non-architectural competitors. Consequently, many middle-ranking and larger firms have no choice but to provide limited or partial services despite the fact that this only encourages, and leads to, further disintermediation, and commodification in their markets. Providing partial services may be unsustainable in the longer term. For the local collaborating firms it might be a vicious cycle.

Mapping Strategy 

There is another issue that these two competitions point to, and that is the role of the internet and media to shape perceptions and the branding of architects. The following strategy diagrams map media impacts of the collaborations in these two competitions. I charted media hits (as measured by Google) of the stars against the reach of the local firms (number of Australian plus Internationaloffices of the local partner). I will let you make your own analysis of what all this means. My take is that clearly for some offices the match-ups appear to be ad-hoc and without any strategic intent. For other practices, the diagram shows who might gain or lose from the collaboration.

Slide1

Clearly, it also suggests who might win these competitions if this was the only criteria. It also shows which local firms may be using the collaboration to either extend their range or extend their brand by being attached to a star architect.

Slide1

For many Australian architects or any firm on the periphery of the global media starchitect system, such collaborations are perhaps necessary.  Since the early 2000s if not before, architects are no longer grounded in a particular office or geographical location. Competition amongst architects is global in the intense global competition for architectural services, arguably Australian firms need to extract value from networks and systems of patronage no matter how distant they may be. The star architects are better able to do this because they operate from larger economic centres.

Commodification of Design 

In any case, this all points to the ongoing commodification of design services. Perhaps the local/star matchups, point to the dumbing down of design into seductively drawn products with market signals that scream out “star-designer.” This is regardless of the fact that these designer products, seem to retain a threadbare relationship to what might have formerly been regarded as a traditional design process. Many of these designer products, indicate no interest in the memory of city or any sense of freedom and politics to be found in local communities.

Taken together, Australian firms need a renewed emphasis on strategic thinking, better management, a recognition of the media landscape, and internal research to gain competitive advantage. Otherwise, Australian firms will be doomed to be secondary actors, and lackeys, swilling around in the global system of architecture.

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.

TESTOSTERONE FUELLED TECHNO-OPTIMISM: 2018 Global Architectural Research Survey Part 2.

This blog follows on from the previous blog discussing the responses to my rapid survey of research attitudes and structures in architectural practices. I have sprinkled a few thought provoking quotes from survey respondents throughout.

As a new practice with limited mentor-type assistance research consumes a massive amount of time which results in inefficiency and financial stress. It is nevertheless a constant element that underpins all projects through all phases. The assumption is that through research we develop our knowledge and the ability to recall and apply it in order to achieve better result and with greater efficiency.

Research Ad hocism

Around 57% of responding architects have no, or only partial, systems within their practices to capture research knowledge. Yet as noted in the previous blog on this many architects still claim that they are doing research in informal ways as they design projects.

Chart_Q18_180322

If all this ad hocism is the case then it is reasonable to ask: what sort of research are architects currently pursuing in their wonderfully ad hoc, informal, doing the project-at-hand and organic ways? The survey asked a two questions about this. The first question asked: Does your firm conduct research into any of the following established research areas ? The results are below:

Chart_Q12_180322

Perhaps the survey question could have been sharper. But look at the chart: Lots are doing sustainability research (surprise, surprise), lots are into Urban Design (I am old enough to remember when no-one did this) and then different variants of health, housing and education crop up. Health and ageing looks like its a bit low. Nonetheless, my innate trained at RMIT cynicism tells me its a list of the usual suspects.

What is probably more interesting, in the above somewhat prosaic list of responses, are the outliers (the other responses) and these were things like: indigenous cultural awareness, forensic architecture, animal welfare,  pre-fab, modular, briefing methodologies, co-living, design advocacy and dispute resolution.

The list certainly reflects broader economic realities. Being the areas where clients have the money and the architects are following. As they say, follow the money.  So this may simply reflect broader economic realities.  But is this really a list of research areas that are going to help architects enhance their agency in the future? If everyone is doing the same research how can an individual firm differentiate itself?

I’ve noticed many practices in the UK do formally engage in meaningful research and employ full time research staff to organise and catalogue information. Not only does it help to strengthen the practices body of work, but also their image as a practice that engages with contemporary issues, this consequently gives them a competitive edge when competing to win much sought after public projects and roles involving design advisory for government bodies

One strategy for firms is to set up structures, to research the things around what the practice is currently doing but also develop a few research projects that lie outside of the firms expertise; research that might create knowledge that will differentiate the practice.

Chart_Q19_180322

The research carried out by the practice is underutilized, and should be benefitting the practice and the industry in general.

Which leads us to the next chart, the second question about what architects do, which was intended to be a little more future orientated:

Chart_Q13_180322

Looking at this one, I am beginning to wonder, again with my cynical hat on, if anything outside of the techno-optimistic agenda might be too hard for architects. But all of the other usual and overtly macho-boyo technical suspects were there including: BIM, Parametric Modelling, Drones & 3D Printing or Scanning (stab me in the eye with a biro),  Virtual Reality, CNC Fabrication and Advanced Prefabrication. Not a word about the organisational or social sciences. The what?

I was somewhat shocked to see that a huge slab of architects listed BIM Modelling and Parametric modelling as the big ticket future research items. Maybe not so suprising. Surely, any future research in these areas is more about incremental rather than radical innovations. Perhaps architects are now lost without a kind of technical agenda for guidance.

But, as someone said to me if you are going to research this stuff don’t dabble in it. Either do it as pure research or do it as serious applied research, at the other end of the chain, which will give you some kind of competitive advantage. But don’t dabble.

Little thought is given to incentivising staff to carry out research. For more could be achieved if there were incentives for staff. Staff are assumed to be interested in research but many capable members of staff feel they are too busy to do it especially when they do not see a return.

Heres another chart looking at research governance:

Chart_Q16_180322

While there is a knowledge bank from previous successful and never built projects that can be accessed by anyone in the practice, it is a tool that it is rarely used. There is this idea among architects that there is always the need to reinvent the wheel, even when sometimes the answer is within previous research and projects undertaken by the practice.

Ladbrokes 

For my money I am betting with my Ladbrokes account on research into data analytics and social media. This is because I think architects can profitably bring their creativity, spatial thinking skills and ability to see across disciplines fields like data analytics.  Maybe those qualities are a bit old school. But, I am over the boys-with-toys technologies in architecture. And what really worries me is all that testosterone fuelled techno-optimism has eroded our ability to think clearly.

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

img_4363.jpg

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

64_pot_grf1_cha_58.jpg

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.

download

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.

22711055_144479806170606_782134886294093824_n.jpg

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

what-nasa-does-when-an-astronaut-dies-in-space-05.jpg

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).

Rebranding the Architectural Firm: a brand framework for architects.

This week I spoke at the M-Pavilion and I got a little carried away talking about branding in relation to the Apple Store and Federation Square in Melbourne controversy. I will write more about that in coming weeks. But in the meantime, here is my first take at thinking about branding and architects.

mars-bar-53g__55165.1281000026.1280.1280

Intro

In the wonderful world of digital advertising. The subject, tone and style of a campaign needs to be delivered to a customer within the first 9 seconds of a digital advertisement. But architectural branding is a different kind of beast. Architectural services are not a fast moving consumer good (FMCG), like a Mars, Bar, or a product that requires a simple pay wave transaction. Branding and the elements that constitute an architectural brand are a little more complicated.

The Problem: How to change your architectural brand

The lead times in running an architectural practice are quite long. Sometimes it may take a practice up to 10 years to achieve stable and less volatile income stream. But in my experience the branding of a firm is often set very quickly within the first few years.

Late last year a friend of mine said there were two types of larger architectural practices those with “family” brands and those with “corporate” brands. She wondered how do you change an architectural brand once it has been established? This made me think about what the elements of branding is for an architectural firms. Once that branding is set how might you then change it? In other words how do you change the branding of a firm that has been going for 10 years or more.

The Elements of Architectural Branding 

Slide1

In my framework the three elements that make up an architectural brand are Knowledge Creation, Knowledge Delivery and Knowledge Style.

This is because I think a Knowledge Management approach is the best way to approach thinking about branding in architectural firms. Forget about the focus on designed objects. It is better to think about:

  • What design knowledge is being created?
  • Then, how is that design knowledge then delivered to clients and others?
  • Finally, and in doing the above, how is that design knowledge expressed in terms of an expression or style?

Knowledge Creation: What knowledge is created

You can see from the diagram that elements of this include the kind of architectural types your firm works, on or the size or scale of projects, the regions that you work in and create knowledge about, or the different kinds of expertise your firm is known for.

This may also be a proportion or mix of different elements.

Knowledge Pathways: How is knowledge delivered? 

 How you deliver this knowledge also contributes to your brand. Is your firm only interested in time or cost outcomes. Or maybe your firm is focused don generating concepts or iconic architecture. Or maybe it’s just about getting awards.

Knowledge Expression: How is knowledge expressed?  

 How your brand is expressed is also another aspect of this framework. Part of this is how an architectural firm creates knowledge that helps to brand its own clients.

  • Is it focused on informal styles where the firm does not have to structure the expression or aesthetics of design knowledge.
  • Or is design knowledge expressed somewhere in between. This is when the firm employs a mix of formal and informal signifiers and design knowledge to help brand groups or communities.
  • Or is the style of the brand, what I have termed high style, where the firm is focused on Iconic Symbolic Capital at a National or International Level? Where design knowledge is highly structure and bound by aesthetics.

Family vs. Corporate brands. 

Family brands are common in architectural practice. These are architectural firms that employ or hope to employ family members as leaders within the firm.

This has a number of advantages:

  • The value created by hard won financial stability over a long period of time stays within the firm.
  • Personal networks and connections vital to business can be maintained.
  • Succession problems are easily solved
  • Directors have more control, and incentive, over design decisions rather than giving these design decisions to managers.
  • In practice a “family” architectural brand might have this kind of mix.

The corporate branded architecture firm is different:

  • The brand may not be determined by a name associated with familiar and long standing networks or particular design approach.
  • Corporate style architects rely on the portfolio of projects within the firm.
  • The project portfolio, as whole then partly determines how the form is branded.
  • Managers, including designers, have more incentives to get projects which in turn determine the brand.

 Rebranding: the all important question. 

So if you need to change your brand or even rebrand your firm you can then look at this framework and decide which things you need to shift to achieve this. For example, a family brand wanting to be a corporate brand can see which elements to change.

In other words, the framework helps architects to decide which elements to change or transform and it also suggests that changing or rebranding necessitates changing more than just one element. Many architects fall into the trap of getting in a few new designers and fresh design ideas in the hope this will change the brand or how the firm is perceived. Or they think they can do it by, going after a new types of projects they havent done before, or by developing new types expertise.

It doesn’t really work like that because too often the other elements in the mix are not changed.

This is the first real post of 2018 and I would like to thank those of you who read and visited the site over January. Quite a few of the greatest hits posts from previous years were more popular than when they were first posted! The site has had a bit of a makeover and I am hoping to renovate it a little more in coming weeks.

Business Suits vs. Designers: Why architectural practice is going down the gurgler.

bathplug-e1516068648199.jpg

This was another popular blog post from the last year or so. Many readers contacted me to comment on the post. Most were in general agreement with the sentiments expressed in it. Re-reading it now, I am more emphatic in my thinking, and wonder how does a profession or a domain of knowledge expect to survive? Especially, if it gives no priority to educating its best and brightest about economics, finance, business strategy and management.  

Down the gurgler is Australian slang for: down the plug hole; something has failed; wasted (as effort, money, etc.); ruined, destroyed. 

Before you read this you may be interested in the:

SURVIVING THE DESIGN STUDIO: 2018 ARCHITECTS GLOBAL RESEARCH SURVEY. 

At the 2106 ARCOM conference I attended I met a few other researchers working in the area of architectural services. One was from Western Australia and the other was from Delft. Delft is one of the largest and well regarded architecture schools in Europe. At Delft my friends there have a large EU research project looking at the nature of architectural services and their value. Whilst standing at our conference having a cup of tea one of them mused that architecture seemed to have a global ideology. I asked “What do you mean?” thinking that perhaps the counter is that architecture is something that is pretty much formed by what Kenneth Frampton called critical regionalism.

The great divide 

She went on to discuss that no matter where you went in the world in architecture there was always an insanely stupid divide between the creative designer’s and the so called “business” people of architecture. At her architecture school the “in-crowd” of design professors turn there nose up and reject the so called “business side” of architecture. I agreed and then thought more about it. This divide is contributing to the demise of the profession. It prevents big practices from integrating knowledge and going upstream; it cripples small practices because they often do not have the business skills needed to make them sustainable.

It’s not real until it’s real syndrome

This divisive refrain has often been driven home to me in the architectural practice classes I teach at MSD. Every semester students question why we would do business plans in the class as part of the syllabus. Of course, when I talk to practitioners and I tell them we teach business planning in the class at MSD they say that’s awesome. When I tell they students this they don’t really care and they don’t really get it until they themselves become practitioners. Even when I say: “you will be more employable if you understand this stuff”, they still don’t seem to get it. It might be the it’s not real until it’s real syndrome.

The “practice” lecturer syndrome 

blonde-salesman-wig-1

How “design” architects see “business” architects

Also, as the so-called “practice” lecturer I constantly, get the impression, that  in some way I am written me off as some kind of accounting value managing drone who hates architectural design because I have an MBA. Yet, I love Debord and Deleuze and Guattari and late Foucault just as much as the next theoretically inclined architect.

download-2-e1516068545796.jpg

D & G 

Of course, in other fields it is different. For example, in advertising, the dark heart of capitalism itself, the collaborative tensions between the creatives, the so called suits and the production people are acknowledged and managed well. Agencies still manage to produce great work that moves people and contributes to brand survival in the spectacle.

french-architect-jacket

“Design” architect complete with mandatory jacket. 

What exactly is the business side of architecture? 

Thinking about it I am actually not sure what is meant by this. It is such a vague term and ideological prejudice. Does it mean you just want architects to make money (don’t we all want this?) Does it mean if you are “pro-business” you just do what aesthetically ignorant clients do? Does it mean you hate design and design processes? But just maybe actually, paying attention to the “business side” means architects need to pay attention to the following: Diversity,  in our team structures, strategic positioning, innovation systems, knowledge management processes, technology implementation and how we respond to emerging forms of procurement.

Oh and there is that that other area of academic and professional study that is often ignored in architecture schools, and missing from our competency standards, also relegated to the “business” side: Leadership.

Long hours, price cutting and other structural problems of the profession 

As the Sydney architect Clinton Cole eloquently argues, amongst other things, the profession is beset by a number of structural problems that impact on its well-being and competitiveness. He cites the “hugely entrenched cultural tendency to perform long hours” combined with truckloads of unpaid overtime, anomalies in charge out rates (Charging staff out at 40 hours per week but working more than this). As Clinton points out these practices disadvantage women in the profession. Or anyone else, for that matter, seeking a reasonable work life balance.

Oh and I forgot to mention  the other structural problems such as fee competition (the persistent rumours about large practice cartels price fixing low fees) and the push in some quarters, even by some so called-architects themselves, to deregulate the word architect.

The need for industry research 

Industry development backed by evidenced based research is the key to help architects  argue their case. But, as far as I can tell the AIA has had no real research function for years. The Government Architect’s across Australia are also generally deficient in this regard. So it’s great to see the Association of Consulting Architects taking up this mantle and filling some of the basic research gaps with the fine work of Gill Mathewson.

As suggested above, there is a whole range of research areas, that architects could collectively pursue for the benefit of the public, policy makers and even their clients.

7 tips for bridging the divide despite the horror of small practice

Lets face it in small practice organising and scheduling time, managing cash flow, preparing marketing materials is extremely boring. But it is stuff that needs to be done. In larger firms, let alone any firm for that matter, strategic thinking, marketing and branding, HR and management policies that promote diversity and creativity are vital. So if you are a small or solo practice in the outer suburbs or inner suburbs of a large city. What do you do? How do you avoid the quagmire of overwork, high stress and the feeling that you are always reacting from crisis to crisis.

In my experience the following things are all definitely worth considering to bridge the divide.

  1. Don’t cut your fees just to get the job.
  2. Have a business plan even if it is only two pages long.
  3. Calculate charge out rates that allow for fair work hours and profit. Stick to them.
  4. Work on your business systems.
  5. Take the time to constantly market the value of design.
  6. Do what Google does and don’t work for half a day a week. Just think or meditate.
  7. Do some research that will help strengthen your knowledge base.

Unless a practice considers acting on the above 7 points it will always struggle.

Design value and design fees are positively correlated

Of course I fear, that if you mention business systems to one of those big name alpha-male architects  that adorn the global system of architecture they look at you as if you some kind of pariah. They always leave it to someone else. As a result our profession is getting killed. It struggles to argue to clients why there is a direct relationship between design fees and design value. It struggles to shake off the overall prejudices that the broader public have about architects. More importantly, it is currently struggling to compete with other professions that claim to offer similar services.

The business-creative divide and corresponding global ideology has crippled architecture and threatens to hasten its further demise as a domain of knowledge. As a result the viability of architecture as an profession is increasingly at stake. Unless the divide is bridged we remain a naive profession full of poetic and narcissistic dreamers who are rapidly losing ground.