The Essence of Control

This is Step 9 on the pathway to Taking Control.

In this episode you will see what I believe to be the quintessential factor in being able to take control. But just knowing won’t get you there – it will require practice-wide implementation. That is introduced in Step 10.

What happened to Control?

The core premise of this website is that architecture has a hidden crisis; a critical erosion of relevance. This erosion has happened gradually, over a long period of time – stretching back at least to the 1980’s, with roots extending back further, to the period of a resurgence of building after WW2. A milestone in this erosion was the AIA Consent Decree.

Synthesizing the comments of several observers, one concludes that the world changed, but the design professions didn’t change with it, and got left behind. Into this vacuum rushed an army of others who made a case for their ability to provide control.

The Risk Factor

Over this period of time, the single most significant cause of this erosion has been the constant and ever-increasing prospect of risk. More precisely, it is our response to risk – essentially avoidance – that is the cause.

The issues of risk are explored in the Risk Management section, but the bottom line is that clients – private and public – want certainty over project outcomes, particularly with regard to project cost and time. If designers can’t offer that certainty, clients will go to, and pay, people who do. See What do Clients value?

Our Present Reality

The second page in this site identifies 7 factors that characterize design practice today. Several of these are escalating rapidly, even exponentially (such as the doubling of information every 2 years). The overall picture regarding these 7 factors creates a very complex situation for which no obvious solution exists.

One of these factors, however, contains the opportunity to sever this Gordian knot: the lack of a framework for coordination and integration. Creation of such a framework is, in fact, the promise of the IPD movement.

Genesis of a solution

But the problem with this potential solution is that – at present – there is no body of knowledge of how to create such a framework, or any group of people trained in the requisite skills it would take to implement one. Neither architects nor professional project managers have these skill sets. Nor is there any curriculum anywhere to teach these skills.

Nor are there any tools currently in the market to assist in implementing such a solution. I’ve personally spent over 8 years, and a lot of money on programmers, in developing such tools, and I’m well along the path – but more work is required to produce a comprehensive system.

To better understand this challenge, it is important to see that the brief analysis above is a “helicopter view” that has the tip of the iceberg in sight, but limited knowledge of what is hidden. To get an idea of that, go back and read Design Process Anatomy, if you skipped over it. It takes you to the cellular level of this iceberg, and which shows why normal project management processes can’t cope with the complexity of that present reality.

Value-adding vs. commoditization

There is widespread agreement among design management thinkers that what makes a service immune to the forces of commoditization is the ability to “add value”.

Large swathes of the design community understand this concept, but the problem with that understanding is the widespread belief that the “value” as seen by the design professional will be the same as, and will be recognised by, the client body. When that result doesn’t happen, frustrated designers assume they just aren’t getting the message across, and urge their professional societies to “educate” the client world about the great benefits of “good design”.

There appears to be a massive disconnect between what we think clients want, and what they actually will respond to. I may have missed it, but I do not recall any in-depth research carried out by any of the design professional associations I’m familiar with about what clients really value. Maybe we don’t want to find out?

In early 2015 The American Institute of Architects announced a new campaign called Look Up!, “designed to change public perception of architects and architecture” (see sidebar). Watch the video and draw your own conclusions.

I think it is essential that architects and their professional societies believe in advocacy, in saving the planet, in a range of worthwhile causes. But unless these values are seen as valuable by people who commission projects, their services will still be seen as a commodity by those clients. Maybe a commodity with a difference, but still as a commodity.

This may be an existential conundrum with no mutually compatible resolution. Maybe not. Maybe designers can both keep their value-sets whether or not the clients buy into them, and still be seen by the clients as providing high value; value that warrants commensurate reward.

If that option is possible, it will require that designers subordinate trying to promote their values to the world, and start to find out what the client world values. Many of my friends would reject that idea, I know.

 A greenfield site for a new design discipline 

The 7 characteristics of our present reality have created a situation where it is nearly impossible for the average design professional to respond meaningfully to the first 5 of the client value-sets noted in What do Clients value? There are exceptions: designers with deep experience in specific building types often have a lot of knowledge about what their clients want, and consciously or unconsciously build that knowledge into their design solutions (see sidebar).

Ask many architects about the “RoI” of their design approach to a building type they are experienced at, and the likely response will be “What’s an RoI?”

As noted above, the first key to slashing the Gordian knot is the “high ground” of being able to coordinate and integrate the design processes of the large number of players in the modern design project. These processes are fiendishly complex in any significant project (as noted in Design Process Anatomy). The lack of any framework for coordinating and integrating these complex design process is, effectively, a block against being able to take leadership in the risk-response actions that are required to meet client expectations.

The second key is to learn how to manage risk in a way that simultaneously protects the design firm AND provides certainty to the client. It’s not impossible.

There’s nobody in this space – it is a true greenfield site; albeit with some snakes in the grass. See sidebar for potential contenders – but they don’t have most of the necessary skills.

Taking the high ground

We know enough, now, to describe what design professionals need to know in order to take this last empty promontory and own it, at least for a while:

  1. A deep, broad understanding of project risk, from the perspective of all players, not just designers
  2. A thorough understanding of what drives client selection decisions, based on solid research, and including familiarity with multiple RoI models
  3. Extensive knowledge of various construction procurement models; their advantages and disadvantages
  4. Professional training and certification in at least one of the core design professions (architecture or engineering)
  5. A process-based, rather than outcome-based, orientation to design
  6. A substantial knowledge of the causal relationships and interplay of design processes between all of the players in a complex design project
  7. Awareness of buildability issues, including site access factors, long-lead time materials, etc.
  8. Awareness of and skill in managing internal and external stakeholder issues
  9. A passion for synthesizing the collective design processes and outputs
  10. High-level communication skills (verbal & visual)
  11. A structure for communicating and reporting all of the above, supported by appropriate tools and systems
  12. A value proposition to sell this service

How could a designer acquire these skills?

Short answer: By focusing on them, and by creating opportunities to gain the requisite knowledge.

Longer answer: It would take most of a lifetime for most individuals to assemble all of the knowledge required, but design firms with this focus could assemble teams that could collectively create this skill base in as little as a few years. Indeed, most firms already have these skills in their top performers, but they are hidden as there is no obvious need for them.

The best path for that would be to make it a high priority in the firm’s strategic plan, with all parts assigned to the most capable people, and the firm president/CEO personally responsible for synthesising the results.

Note that item 2 on the list requires good and ongoing research.

What’s the Client Value Proposition?

I will discuss this in more detail under the Managing Client Relationships section, but the main idea is to profile client-specific issues in the proposal and write specifically to them.

For example, one heading in a proposal might be: Certainty of time & cost outcomes, with a description of how the firm can achieve that promise.

Certainly one heading would be Coordination & Integration Services, which would describe in detail the firm’s unique capability in ensuring that all parts of the design solution fit together without problems or surprises.

How would a design firm promote these skills?

See Managing Client Relationships

Next: Step 10