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Unlearning to Collaborate November 28, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, BIM, books, collaboration, IPD, management, problem solving, sustainability, the economy.
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Is the ability to collaborate something we are born with only later to forget?

Are we wired to collaborate?

Michael Tomasello in Why We Cooperate argues that we are – up until a certain age. Then – through conditioning – we forget. Tomasello’s book itself is an interesting act of cooperation, where the author invited his severest critics to poke holes in his argument and explore the implications of his work in light of their own research.

To put it another way: as we grow we cooperate conditionally, attending to the behavior of others. This has huge implications for architects and design professionals who might be naturally collaborative – through sharing knowledge, learning, mentoring and teaching – but are otherwise conditioned by the culture of the firm where they work.

Some firms encourage collaboration while others discourage it by focusing exclusively on individual achievement or by not valuing knowledge sharing. In a sense, you are collaborative because the culture of your organization is one that promotes and encourages collaboration.

The Latest Buzzword?

The word “collaboration” seems to have been invented to provide adults with a serious sounding activity that we, as children, seemed to do naturally.

We like to think of collaboration as the latest business buzzword but of course is nothing new. The word is actually 130 years old, making headlines nearly 100 years ago in the New York Times. We are all still trying to figure out how to do it effectively or at least how to sell it as a unique way architects work.

In any event, there’s a great deal we need to unlearn in order to return to our original sharing attitude and collaborative ways, including bad habits we’ve picked up since we left the cocoon of school and embarked on the hard knocks of a career in architecture and construction, where we learned to be mistrustful, skeptical, competitive, secretive, working independently out of silos. We unlearned all of the critical natural habits, attitudes and mindsets necessary to work effectively on integrated teams.

Collaboration Defined

While collaboration extends and reorients insight, increases efficiency, creates credibility and community, the word itself is too often loosely defined.

A definition of collaboration particularly relevant for our age of Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) is a process through which people who see different aspects of a problem can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible. (Grey, 1989)

Collaboration is simply when people work together to create something that couldn’t be done by someone on their own. We do it all the time when designing buildings, resolving problems or working with owners to deliver solutions. The difference today is that we need to get even better at working together and sharing knowledge to solve problems, which are getting larger and more complex.

Moving beyond our boundaries – personal, organizational – requires that we see our blind spots and who better than our fellow collaborators – seeing-eye professionals – can help us see our blind spots?

To do so we have to seek out people who have other pieces of the puzzle.

Wicked problems

Collaboration is best used to solve what Howard Gardner called “wicked” problems with “imperfect, changing or divergent solutions.” The problems architects face today are wicked in that they are complex, defying simple formulations and easy solutions, such as fighting global warming or increasing productivity in the construction industry.

Problems aren’t only wicked – they’re simultaneous – occurring at the same time. Buildings aren’t only complicated, becoming increasingly complex; they also change quickly, marked by a sense of urgency.

To remain efficient and effective, recognizing when it’s unhelpful to collaborate can be important. There’s no need to collaborate, for example, on simple, repetitive, fast turnaround assignments.

Conditions for Successful Collaboration

We don’t trust that this diverse group of people we hardly know will be able to perform better than we can on our own and tend to feel more comfortable and self-assured managing tangible things such as projects over people and relationships. Fortunately, architects are more people-focused later in their careers.

In addition to being people-focused, here are eight preconditions for successful collaboration:

Chemistry – because how can you work well together if you don’t like each other?

Equal, multiple expertise – it’s not truly collaboration if the manager cannot participate in design and the designer cannot participate in managing – it’s an assembly line.

A willingness to play – because fun leads to better, more creative results.

Listening – because it’s about the process of making something together.

Having an open mindset

Willingness – you must choose to collaborate – it can’t be done at gunpoint

Willful effort to work together to get things done; and

Trust between those involved

Why collaborate?

Because architects find themselves questioning their relevance, their collaborative participation is crucial. We perhaps sent the wrong message by recently honoring sole practitioners such as Glenn Murcutt and Peter Zumthor because it glamorizes autonomy over working together.

Why collaborate? Because if you don’t you will not fully participate in public, community, creative and economic life. We may be natural collaborators, but now it is time for us to build collaborative cultures.

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Comments»

1. Alan Mossman - November 29, 2010

nice one Randy

Randy Deutsch - November 29, 2010

Thanks Alan for stopping by – I appreciate it.

2. Ted Pratt - December 1, 2010

This is the point Fred Rieber and I have been trying to make in our blog postings. Collaboration isn’t just necessary in our profession it’s important to the survival of innovative companies. Look for our next post on this topic Randy and thanks for the timely message.

Randy Deutsch - December 2, 2010

Ted, I’m looking forward to reading your next post. In the meantime, thank you – and Fred – for reposting this on your own wonderful blog http://mtparchitectsnews.blogspot.com/

3. Taking BIM and IPD to Task | BIM + Integrated Design - May 29, 2011

[…] you haven’t done so already, read the blog post ‘Unlearning to […]


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