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Ten Ways to Face the Decade like an Architect January 8, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, architect, change, creativity, optimism, possibility, problem solving, the economy.
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Many people say that they would have liked to become an architect but for the math or drawing requirement – areas where they felt they were weak. While sketching and crunching numbers remain important parts of what an architect does, with technology and others nearby to help out, these skills have become less critical with time while other skillsets, mindsets and attitudes have come to fore. The irony is that architects to a great extent don’t do the very things that might have kept you from pursuing this career in the first place.

But luckily that need not deter you from thinking like one. Architects are trained to face seemingly intractable, unsolvable problems with a set of tools and mindsets that are readily accessible by all.

So, at the start of a new decade, let’s turn our attention to how architects approach problems – so that we might do the same in our own lives, at home and work, in our schools, neighborhoods, cities and the world at large.  

What can we learn from the ways architects think that might help us improve our lives and the world?

Architects see the Big Picture – how often have you worked on a team when most of those involved focus on their own special interest areas, in silos, seemingly unable to see how their viewpoint impacts others? Architects are trained to understand their client’s, user’s and neighbor’s issues and circumstances and come up with multiple solutions that not only solve the problem for all involved but do so while successfully addressing multiple constraints brought about by economics, the site, user’s needs, resource availability, politics. In other words – architects determine the consequences for their paths of action and decide accordingly. Architects are often characterized as focusing on objects and things – at the expense of all else. But in truth what separates the architect from others is that they see everything as a system, the object of their assignment as either a contributor or inhibitor of the various necessary flows within that system. In the end, you may walk into the physical library or school that they designed, but to them it’s all part of a much larger, largely invisible, network of flows.

Architects focus on the Details – specifically, the Divine Details. How so? Architects believe that opportunities for discovery and creativity come from focusing on the details. Architects say, after Mies, “God is in the details” while others might say “The devil is in the details.” Architects are optimists – we have to be – in order to work on the front ends of projects, to visualize and imagine them one day existing despite so many obstacles in their path. Non-architects more often opt for the devil version, where solutions break down when you examine them closely enough.  You can see this most often when someone in a meeting offers to play the “devil’s advocate,” determined to kill whatever promising idea is in their path by death-by-detail. When it comes to details, go the God route.

Architects believe in Reciprocity – Sees the big picture in the detail and the detail in the big picture – keeping things whole, a hidden wholeness, all of a piece, keeping chaos at bay, providing meaning and purpose, when elements refer to a larger whole relate, appear less arbitrary, justified in their existence. The house is a city and the city a house. Architects address the big picture and the details at the same time. Their work is organic in this way – where every part is of the whole.

Architects Synthesize – as much as they are sometimes labeled as head in the clouds, impractical dreamers, architects always have at least one foot in the ground because they know if they are ever going to build what they’ve dreamed-up every idea and suggestion needs to have a corresponding answer in the real world. Architects only take to the air knowing that the goal is to land safely. They take part in digressive thinking knowing that sooner rather than later they need to return from their excursion – where they gather information and explore alternatives – to solid land with ready answers in terms of gravity, dollars and sense.

Architects like Ambiguity – they’re even comfortable with ambiguity. The architect has a lot thrown at them in the early stages of a project – a lot of unknowns – it’s pretty difficult to juggle all those balls especially if you’re the sort who needs to hold onto a ball or two while the others are in the air. Architects are trained to keep the balls in the air for as long a possible while a solution makes itself known. Yes, many have a reputation for designing for too long, but truth be told, just as often the architect is delaying the materialization of a solution while still gathering critical information from stakeholders as well as shareholders. Bean counters tend not to be so comfortable with ambiguity. This calls on another skill of the architect…

Architects Manage Expectations – architects today are expected to work quickly, efficiently and expertly all at once. But as every architect worthy of her name knows, you can have it free, now and perfect – pick two – but not all three.  I can lower my fee and get it to you sooner – but the quality will suffer. Or get you great detailing and quick – but it’s going to cost you. Knowing this – and because architects can see the big picture well into the future – they need to temper expectations. They do this subtly, casually, along the way.

Architects remain Flexible – stuff changes all the time. Architects know they need to roll with the punches. I used to design buildings, no matter how large and complex, by coming to a solution rather quickly then holding on to my hat – and my breath – as the design went through the veritable spanking machine of the process before coming out the other end a building. If 80% resembled the way it first started out, I deemed it a success.  This is no doubt – like bungee jumping – a game for youth and not recommended for those faint of heart. Today, older and wiser, I recommend keeping a vision in one’s mind while allowing for other possibilities as information is gathered and feedback provided and realities set it. Neither way is foolproof – and both can lead to great results – but the key lesson here is not to approach situations with preconceived ideas, lest you repeat the last one you did in a new situation. Each site and situation, client and opportunity, is unique and deserves the architect’s full display of resources.

Architects Prototype – not stereotype. Architects, as designers, love to make models and sketch – they do so to test ideas out quickly and inexpensively before going to the big show. As rigid as some architects may come across when it comes to their limited wardrobe palette, architects seldom zoom in on one solution, even if they know intuitively beforehand that it is the right solution. Why? Because the right solution may not be the best solution for those involved.

Architects Facilitate – meetings, presentations, discussions need someone who both belongs to the group and at the same time –simultaneously – can stand apart. Architects always keep the goal in mind and in doing so keep the topic moving forward. They design and present knowing that they are leading the client down a path. And once the client has taken their first step on that path, everything that is said and offered ought to move the story forward. No diversions, no distractions. Sure, architects take flight of fancies as much as anyone. But all know if these flights are to end in real results – they need to have both feet on the ground and place one in front of the other until they arrive at their mutual destination.

Architects Help – most architects will tell you if they weren’t able to practice their chosen profession any longer and were given the choice would opt for one of the helping fields – medicine, healthcare, therapy. As a service profession, one would conceive this to be a natural outcome – serving others is what they are in business to do. But what is perhaps less well known is that architects when they build – whether they are working on new ground-up construction or renovating existing buildings – see themselves as repairing what is broken. They’re repairing and maintaining the manmade and natural world. Much the way doctors see what it is they do.

So, what can we learn from the ways architects think that might help us improve our lives? What in other words are the takeaways? Draw your own conclusions – here are some of mine:

  • When working on an assignment – don’t let yourself get buried by the details. As yourself how this specific task relates to the larger whole. If it doesn’t – then creatively find a way that it relates or propose a way that it can.
  • Don’t focus on the task you’ve been given as an end in itself but rather as a way of fixing or repairing an existing system, fabric or situation
  • When in a discussion or meeting, mindfully zoom out to see what is being covered in its larger habitat or situations; then zoom in to the close-up detail level to see if a solution can be found there – or an overlooked problem revealed
  • The world is in a state of flux – in terms of politics, the environment, the economy and much more. See to what extent that instead on fixating on a stance or solution – how you and others around you might benefit by your becoming more comfortable with the idea that things are unsettled and might remain that way for some time. What are some things you can do or yourself to approach and respond to events in a more flexible way?
  • You may be in business to produce the next widget – but even so, try to picture what you do as a service that is performed to help others in some way. To do so will result in your performing your work with more of a sense of purpose and meaning. Ask yourself: What is the problem in the world that my product fixes, repairs or maintains?
  • See your individual decisions as part of a larger system – one that flows both upstream and downstream. Before realizing any idea by pursuing it, test out your course of action by determining the potential consequences for each course taken – who is impacted and why.
  • The next time you are confronted with a problem of some weight – test out your response on paper first, building a miniature prototype of your answer or solution before taking it out on the road for a spin and exposing it to scrutiny. This will help you to see the benefits – as well as the flaws – before others do, and will help you to see your treasured idea through their eyes.
  • When it comes to the details – go the God route. In other words, use details to allow you to see things as a positive opportunity – as opposed to providing you and others reasons and excuses for not pursuing a trend or goal.
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