A Leadership Opportunity. A Call for Courage. 

There is a problem in the design and construction industry today: our teams aren’t working together as well as they should. Based on client and partner feedback and metrics, as well as my own anecdotal surveys and experience, inefficient teams are still too common.

Recurring stereotypes plague us, as seen through the eyes of project participants. These stereotypes include:

  • Owners are faced with business uncertainty; behind schedule on planning their projects; challenged to make decisions; unable to read drawings, use BIM, or understand current design process and practices; too busy to manage teams; reliant on contractors and architects to get along and deliver their projects.
  • Architects are often behind schedule; designing over budget; often unaware of the business currencies of time, money and risk management; culturally isolated; ceding consultant control; lagging in digital technology; fee and profit poor; time pressed; challenged by the complexities of codes, consultants, regulatory issues and materials; pressured to shape a new generation of leaders in a more competitive industry.
  • Contractors are insensitive to design processes; schedule driven; without regard for design; claiming the architect’s traditional territory.

Any truth in these stereotypes presents a frightening set of challenges to overcome. When faced with this list and a discussion about their decades-long persistence, a colleague—a firm principal—said, “These things will probably never change.” This statement doesn’t bode well for our future. What should we do?

Optimism Needed

After five decades of observing, recounting and repeating these scenarios in hands-on project application, we’ve had some success with using individually-focused coping techniques. In search of a sustainable solution, and with necessity as the mother of invention, we are using new tools and processes to enhance collaboration.

By harnessing the power of collective change, we can change our profession. Beyond outlining the problems, this article proposes a framework for change, and suggests solutions and actions. We don’t have to resign ourselves to “this is the way it is.”

Forces for Change

We don’t need to look far to find impetus for change. Several recent examples offer hope to move beyond our current inertia.

The Digital Revolution

It’s been twenty years since BIM has revolutionized our business. Data from organizations such as McGraw-Hill Smart Market reports show that BIM use has accelerated drastically with great impact and with associated ripple effects. The BIMForum and Building Smart Initiative’s calls to unite their followers have radically increased data sharing and changed work processes.

Sustainability

Organizations such as the USGBC, Well Buildings and others in programs such as LEED are making great strides for energy and resource efficient design. The AIA and other entities have joined Vision 2030 to set a high bar for industry change with measurable results.

Collaboration

In March 2017, more than 100 senior leaders gathered at the Design Futures Council’s inaugural conference on “Collaboration Across the Design Continuum” in Atlanta. There they framed problems, shared data and posed possibilities for better collaboration. Luminaries such as Barbara Bryson, Renee Cheng, Howard Ashcraft, Ray Daddazio, Phil Harrison and others spoke about this industry need.

A Collaboration Manifesto

As shepherds and stewards for change in our profession, we need to lead. To work together better—and to inspire, create and empower the next generation of collaborative leaders—we must have the courage to change our:

  • minds (because without motivation, desire and the right paradigm, nothing else matters)
  • actions (vs. merely talking)
  • processes (to drive out waste)
  • tools (to cope with our changing world)
  • cultures (to encourage empathy for others)
  • metrics (to monitor and track the results)
  • approach (because what we’re doing now isn’t sustainable)

Causes and Solutions

To catalyze this change, let’s dive deep into these maladies, examine their possible causes and pose possible corrective actions. Together, these solutions can serve as a framework for sustainable change.

Inertia / History

“Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” Seeing the stasis that exists, leaders must act to change momentum and inject new direction.

Context and Strategy

The uncertain business climate in which we live is no longer suited for the longer, linear, sequential processes of the past. A concurrent process is needed. Smart firms should develop different strategies for different project contexts regardless of their role as owner, architect or contractor. The pilot’s flight plan or a coach’s game plan come to mind as examples of context-specific strategies. Recognizing these challenges, owners and all team members should set into action strategic initiatives to bring about these changes. Budget the time and money to do them.

Clear Roadblocks

As new technologies become mainstream, owners, architects and contractors lacking digital technology skills will be left behind. Make sure the path is clear to re-educate teams to give them the skills they need for success … which will benefit the firm.

Take Time to Plan

When we wait until the last minute to engage our teams, we give up our greatest chance to set a project up for success. Whether owner, architect or contractor, make sure to create a planning, pre-design, programming and feasibility phase on your project.

Contracts, Incentives and Funding

For owners, think life-cycle payback and facility and staff productivity to support people, planet and profit vs. first cost. The architect’s impact on your business will yield results long after you move in. Consider changing to a long-term total cost of ownership mentality. Set up contracts with team incentives. Architects unable to find ways to embrace profit and change their practice to realize it will be forever saddled with the status quo.

Mindset

We’ll never change if we don’t first change our paradigms and motivations. Leaders must show the way in pursuing philosophical goals.

Decouple

There will rarely be enough time to undertake process redesign while on a project. Instead, we must take advantage of off-the clock activities to find and train like-minded partners and to get new systems in place to use when opportunities arise.

Respect the Experts

Make an effort to empathize, understand, learn the business and speak the language of those on the team who are providing what you don’t.

Train, Teach and Learn

Leaders should make it their mission to create the leaders of the future with the attitude and skills to work in new ways. And we must make conscious plans to re-educate all team members with the new skills they need for success. Be willing to share and give freely to all teammates— even those outside your firm.

Monitor, Measure and Collect Feedback

“What gets measured gets done.” Take stock of how your new approach is working. Based on the metrics, use and act on the feedback. Reiterate incrementally for continuous improvement.

Swing Hard

In the 1990s, the Atlanta Braves began an unprecedented decade and half long run of division titles. After a big hit in a big game, a reporter asked the team’s diminutive shortstop, Rafael Belliard, to describe his approach. His reply was: “Swing hard, you just might hit it.” So this is my big pitch to help fix what’s wrong. As firm leaders, let’s accept this challenge. Let’s reflect on our current processes, decide what needs to be fixed and make those changes. Let’s create a better future for collaboration by enlisting our organizations, our partners and our clients. Let’s do something about it. Now. We can work together better, but only if we have the courage to change.

Michael LeFevre, FAIA, NCARB, LEED BD+C is vice president, planning & design support with Holder Construction Company. In his lifelong mission for change, LeFevre is a self-avowed collaboration evangelist.

Excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly.

Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash.