Archive for the ‘Business & Law’ Category

For benefit companies

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

Fast Company almost always gives me something interesting to chew on. In its December 2007/January 2008 issue, the magazine presents its 2008 Social Capitalist Awards. In his article covering the awards, Keith Hammonds talks about how promoting social good is no longer the sole province of non-profit organizations. He applauds a number of endeavors attempting to integrate financial returns with social good, calling them “for-benefit” companies. The enterprises he praises yield market returns, but don’t make profit their top priority – instead they put environment and people at the top of the list. Among the recipients of the Social Capitalist Awards are firms that facilitate micro-loans, teams that work with disadvantaged children to distribute books or further their educational opportunities, and organizations that provide housing and other services to homeless and disabled people.

For-profits are also getting in on the action. One of the for-profit organizations identified as having a strong social purpose is Herman Miller, a large manufacturer of office furniture. Herman Miller has a “design for the environment” philosophy aimed at creating no operational environmental impact by 2020. Make no mistake, Herman Miller makes money, and if they can do it environmentally, so can other corporations. Why is this important? With resources dwindling and environmental problems increasing, we’ll eventually run out of raw materials and our fouling of the environment will reach untenable levels. There is clearly a long-term connection between social good and corporate success and the prevailing focus on short-term profit at the expense of long term social issues will ultimately fail. Companies figuring out how to reuse materials and cut their pollution now will be ready.

Used to be only non-profits tackled social issues and they struggled with low funding, lack of clout, and transient leadership, with the result that much of what actually got done was talk. For-profits occasionally launched social initiatives, but mostly they were beholden to their shareholders’ demands for maximum profit at any environmental cost. Things appear to be changing. Now some for-profits are making social good a core value and still profiting. Non-profits appear to be adopting capitalist dynamics in ways that make them more effective in accomplishing their missions. The appearance of a new level of organizations with values falling somewhere in between widens the possibilities and presents terrific new opportunities for creative but achievable solutions. I join Fast Company in applauding these organizations.

Death of the Generalist

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

The Generalist is dead. It pains me to say it, because I am one. I want to know about everything; I want to be good at everything. But there isn’t enough time and there is too much, way too much, information. This has really hit home since I’ve started my new design career. Taking a building or an interior relocation from start to finish is extraordinarily complex and the sheer volume of expertise and information required is astonishing. As much as I want to learn it all, I’m beginning to realize it may not be possible.

Take Thursday, for example. In the morning I did some occupancy calculations for a client who needs to obtain permission from the city for an unusual buildout. This required me to understand several sections of the International Building Code, a document not known for its clarity, to say the least. It took me hours to parse the code language until I was satisfied I’d done the calculations correctly. People build careers doing nothing but interpreting the IBC. Later, I walked through a construction site where I was involved in discussions about fire alarm wiring, carpet laying, the proper use of plastic laminate, and the lighting levels in a corridor. Each of these involved a different trade, represented on the job site by a team working only in its single trade. In the afternoon I reviewed some specifications for office cubicles. There are those whose entire job is to understand the intricacies of systems furniture. In the evening, I went to a reception at a high-end furniture showroom that employs a pack of salespeople who do nothing but deal in this furniture.

All these specialists. It makes me, the generalist, want to cry. Not because I don’t appreciate the depth of knowledge that these specialists command, but because I know I can never learn everything that all of them know.

We need all these guys. No one of us can ever learn everything all the specialists involved in a design project know and we could never build a building or refurbish an office floor without all that knowledge. Architecture and design is a business of specialists and I’d better get used to it.

Nevertheless, I’m not going to cave in and become one of them. The design business also needs people who know enough about all these different specialties to see the big picture – people who may not have the depth of knowledge that the specialists do, but who understand the various processes well enough to ensure that the results really do resolve the client’s problem or need.

The difficulty, of course, is managing the overload of information that’s available. New designers have to learn a lifetime of information in a really short time to be even passably competent, even at one specialty. Becoming a semi-expert at all the aspects of a design project is one big challenge. Bring it on! Maybe the Generalist isn’t dead after all.

Bullpen vs pod

Saturday, June 23rd, 2007

I did a quick study for a class I’m taking this summer comparing the ease of collaboration in a bullpen work environment to a pod work environment and had some interesting and unexpected results.

A bullpen is an open area with a group of workstations that are not visually separated. A pod is a small group of workstations that are enclosed within walls that are high enough that occupants cannot see into the next pod.

The study asked pod and bullpen occupants how easy it was to collaborate in their current environments and asked bullpen occupants whether it was easier or harder to collaborate in the workstations than in the pods. Just over half of the people asked to complete the survey were housed in pods; the rest had moved within the last few months from pods to the bullpen.

I expected that it would be easier to collaborate in the open bullpen environment since other research has shown that open workplaces encourage collaboration, particularly if workers have visual and aural connection. The bullpen seemed to fit this description exactly – it was open, workers could see and hear each other readily over the low (12″) partitions that divided them from others, and were in closer proximity than in the pods.

However, my survey revealed that pod dwellers are much more likely to collaborate than people in bullpen environments. Here are some of the results. 76% of pod occupants on one floor of the study office and 86% of pod occupants on the other floor said they found it “very easy” to collaborate with people in their pods. On the bullpen floor, only 11% said collaboration with those in their immediate vicinity was “very easy”. None of the pod occupants said that collaboration was “very hard”, whereas 20% of the bullpen occupants did select “very hard”. When asked how easy or hard it was to collaborate with team members not in the pod or immediate vicinity, 19% of pod dwellers found it “very easy”, but none said it was “very hard.” Only 6% of bullpen dwellers, however, said that such collaboration was “very easy” and 14% said it was “very hard”. Everyone else rated their collaboration experience as “somewhat easy” or “somewhat hard”.

Finally, bullpen dwellers were asked to compare the ease of collaboration in the bullpen environment to the ease of collaboration in their previous pod environments. 11% said it was “much easier” to collaborate with proximate workers in the bullpens, but 43% said it was “much harder”. 9% said it was “much easier” to collaborate with non-proximate team members, but 40% reported this as “much harder”!

Other things besides the furniture configuration were undoubtedly in play and not reflected in the study. Privacy, resistance to change, noise, circulation patterns, etc. can play a big role in the ability to collaborate and may have been factors in the study results (I did not test for these).

My opinion, not based on the study results, is that the open bullpen has several faults. First, workers have no privacy. The space is too open and people get distracted by all that activity, suffering from sensory overload. Even the most collaborative of workers needs some quiet time and some privacy. Pulling back and lessening efforts to collaborate just might be a defensive reaction to lack of privacy and personal space.

Second, the bullpen’s circulation paths are indirect and somewhat invasive. To talk to people who are not in the immediate vicinity, bullpen workers have to travel behind everyone else in their row to the main path at the end, cross to the row of the person they’re trying to see, then move back up another narrow path behind the backs of the workers in that row. I’m sure this somewhat convoluted path seems longer than it really is and feels like an invasion of the other workers’ private space. In the pods, in contrast, the circulation path is direct and public – one takes 3 or 4 steps to exit the pod onto the public path and never has to walk directly behind someone’s back.

Third, the bullpen space isn’t set up for the kind of impromptu interaction opportunities that characterize collaboration. The pods are interspersed with tall “flat files” spaced along the common circulation path. People meet as they pass and can spontaneously congregate for a chat or to collaborate on a project. The bullpen appears to have no such nodes where a crowd of four or five can meet spontaneously. Although rows of workbenches are separated by low files, those files are too low to lean on and study documents. Meeting appears to be more deliberate and less spontaneous.

My conclusion is that bullpens don’t appear to be a great choice for businesses that want employees to collaborate, at least not without some careful additional thought into circulation and privacy. I’d love to do some more in-depth research with these participants to find out why they responded in the way they did.


Monday, January 22nd, 2007

According to an article by Greg Miller in the weekly journal Science, entitled Peering inside the Wandering Mind, daydreaming is the default setting of the human brain. Apparently certain sections of the brain are active when we are working on specific tasks and other areas are active when we are not. At those times when we are not task-oriented, our brains wander in and out of thoughts: we daydream. The studies reported in Miller’s article suggested that this mind-state – the default daydreaming state – is where creative ideas generate. He reports that “activity in the default network is necessary to generate spontaneous thoughts” and “creative insights often happen during these episodes.”

What if we apply these findings to design? Several thoughts occur to me. First, to create, individuals apparently need a fair amount of unstructured time during which they are not trying to accomplish a particular task, including, I suppose, the task of coming up with creative ideas. Perhaps this is the problem with “writer’s block” – concentrating on the task of writing may block the free flow of ideas that occurs in the daydreaming state. Second, perhaps businesses that engage in creative endeavors should give their employees less work to do. A task-free workplace? Quite an oxymoron, but there may be something in it. Finally, workplaces of all kinds should be physically designed to afford some degree of non-task activity to encourage innovation. In today’s global market, even the most traditional firms need to be innovative to stay competitive.

Although I often find myself woolgathering at my desk, it’s usually when I’m bored with my task. Then the task quickly snaps me back and I feel guilty about “wasting” time daydreaming. This “distraction” daydreaming comes in short bursts and doesn’t lead to much insight. On the other hand, my mind free-flows like crazy in my long morning showers where I have no tasks other than to get myself clean and warm, and quite often, by the time I’m toweling off, I have formed two or three solutions to some problem or another. In the shower, I’m in the state of mind my father called “frogging” – sitting like a frog on a log with nothing else to do. The other time I do my best daydreaming is walking about my garden just looking at the plants.

Two situations seem to trigger the daydreaming mind-state. The first is when we are engaged in something repetitive that we don’t have to think about to do – the shower for instance. The second is when we are simply looking at things. When I visited the MOMA in New York last year I spent some 30 minutes sitting in the courtyard looking at the people and the art. The place was crowded – every one of the numerous benches was taken – but the experience was nonetheless quite meditative.

So what would a workplace that encourages “frogging” look like? The answer, it would seem, would be to provide places to engage in mindless tasks and/or places to simply look at things. How about some comfy chairs near a piece of art, a garden with meandering paths, or a coffee bar overlooking a window with a view? How about a nicely furnished gym outfitted with plenty of those daydream-inducing aerobic machines? If employers provided places like these and created a culture where employees were encouraged to use them, my guess is they’d see an increase in creative ideas.

Our brains are marvelous organs. We can concentrate on getting a task done and we can juggle multiple tasks at once. But, as Miller’s article suggests, the daydreaming mind can come up with some of the best ideas. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to relax a little.


Friday, January 5th, 2007

I just read Tom Kelley‘s The Art of Innovation. Kelley is the general manager of IDEO, one of the world’s most innovative design firms, and his book talks about how IDEO goes about creating the products for which it is famous. Here is IDEO’s methodology:

1. Understand the market, the client, the technology, and the perceived constraints on the problem.
2. Observe real people in real-life situations to find out what makes them tick: what confuses them, what they like, what they hate, where they have latent needs not adressed by current products and services.
3. Visualize new-to-the-world concepts and the customers who will use them.
4. Evaluate and refine the prototypes in a series of quick iterations.
5. Implement the new concept for commercialization. (pp. 5-6)

Although most of what IDEO does is product design, the methodology is applicable to architecture and interior design as well. In fact, the book has a chapter that offers guidance on designing workplaces that foster innovation. IDEO’s key points in this chapter are to create flexible and movable neighborhoods that encourage interaction among employees, give people control over their spaces, ensure that the space tells the company’s story, and keep it simple.

As an example of the kind of flexibility and simplicity that makes for an innovative workplace, Kelley relates a time when an employee brought a number of 15″ foam cubes into the office. Everyone liked the cubes so much that the company ordered hundreds more. The lightweight cubes are now used as stools, stacked to create stadium seating, topped with boards to create tables, stacked into partitions and walls to form impromptu meeting areas, and incorporated into large models to help the teams work through design problems. The extreme fluidity of the IDEO office promotes interaction, brainstorming, and the free flow of ideas.

IDEO is an unusually creative firm and not all businesses require that level of creativity. But to compete in today’s market, all firms have to know their markets, be able to visualize beyond what they currently do, and create new products and services quickly. Innovation is the key and is no longer limited to traditionally creative industries – even firms that have not thought of themselves as creative or collaborative could benefit from Kelley’s approach. Architects and designers can help them bring this about through workplace design.

Working towards excellence

Saturday, November 11th, 2006

I like things to be done right. And who doesn’t. As consumers, we expect services to be completed correctly and products to function as they should – and we deserve as much. If I hire a painter to paint my living room red, I want it to be red, not purple, and I can’t imagine that many homeowners would feel otherwise.

So, if customers deserve to get what they contract for, then service providers have an obligation to serve their clients well. The perplexing thing is that often this doesn’t happen. Of course, miscommunication, changes, and cost increases can play havoc with a project, but I keep running into an impediment that is completely within the control of the project team – a lack of committment to excellence.

Let me give an example from my current grad school experience. This semester, I’m in a Project Management class in the business school. Our term project is to plan a hypothetical high-society wedding between a bride and groom of different non-western cultures and our wedding must respect both cultures. We are specifically prohibited from “Americanizing” the wedding. We are formed into teams of about 8 individuals, most if not all of whom are adults who have full-time jobs, many as project managers. Because our wedding involves non-western cultures, the activities don’t fall into typical western categories. So far, so good. The problem is that some of my teammates are approaching this project with quite a bit less than full effort and others are using canned western wedding templates for budgeting, sequencing, and decisionmaking. Granted, this is only a school project with no real client to disappoint, but in my mind it doesn’t take a great deal of extra effort to, say, create budget categories that track the activities involved in this project rather than simply download and fill in a western template that contains activities that don’t even apply in our chosen cultures.

My concern is not that we’ll get a bad grade (we won’t), but the lack of a true committment to excellence. Perhaps a student project is not a good example – after all, the student mentality of doing just enough to get the grade is fairly prevalent and my teammates all have full-time stressful jobs on top of their schoolwork. However, I think there’s an attitude evident in this class that pervades much of the work culture in the United States, and herein lies the real problem. A good-enough attitude at an employee level yields shoddy products and disappointing services. When it’s company-wide, a good-enough attitude adversely affects the company’s ability to compete. When a good-enough attitude pervades a nation, the nation’s trade balance suffers.

I suppose it’s not so simple. People have different ways of thinking and working and it’s a challenge to assemble a team with a shared vision. Moreover, in today’s market team members often can’t do their best work because they haven’t been allotted the time and resources they need to do so. Perhaps I’m a Pollyanna, but I’d like to think that, despite this, sometimes teams really do manage to achieve excellence. I truly hope that someday I’ll be part of such a team.


Thursday, October 26th, 2006

As I learn more about the design profession, I discover new resources. Today’s discovery is DesignIntelligence, the Design Futures Council’s monthly “Report on the Future” and self-described “repository of a vast wealth of timely articles, original research, and industry news.” Here’s what the Council says about itself:

The Design Futures Council is a global network of design community professionals. The mission: to explore trends, changes, and new opportunities in design, architecture, engineering, and building technology. Members include leading architecture and design firms; dynamic manufacturers; service providers; and small, forward-thinking A-E-C companies taking an active interest in their future.

The Council regularly publishes articles on future trends and management practices that affect the design industry, including “reports on financial management strategies, best practice case studies, and articles on fees, profitability, ownership transition, communications planning, strategic change, [and] achieving competitive fitness.”

Webcrawling, I found a full reprint of DI’s January 2006 volume entitled Fifteen New Directions Sweeping the Design Professions. (One must subscribe to get the full text of articles on DI’s website. I can’t remember where I found the full article.) In the first article in this volume, Current and Emerging Trends Reshaping the Design Professions, author James P. Cramer states: “At no time in history have the design professions played such an important role in pressing global issues.” He’s talking about the sea-change occuring in how business is done globally, evidenced by a proliferation of “new methods, processes, technologies, demographics, values, and behaviors,” and argues that design firms will need to reinvent and restructure themselves to keep up.

I couldn’t agree more (see my post The World is Flat). Changes wrought by technology, particularly the global connectivity made possible by the internet, and new competition from educated, talented, and ambitious workers in countries like China and India are changing how projects are done in the US and other nations that previously had a monopoly on design. If we don’t keep up with the technology and we don’t join forces with these new experts, we’ll lose.

The issue goes on to present 15 trends that the Design Futures Council identified after surveying top design professionals. The first of these is that “firms will be delivering genuinely integrated and more overtly collaborative professional practices in architecture, interiors, engineering, and construction.” The successful organizational model will involve integration of all disciplines needed to complete a project either by creation of a truly multi-disciplinary firm or through an inter-firm collaborative effort. The future, the author argues, will see architects, designers, engineers, and contractors sharing authority, responsibility, costs, and risks from a project’s inception.

This level of collaboration will require firms to adopt technology that will permit a seamless exchange of data and this involves another trend that the article identifies – Building Information Modeling (BIM). With current architectural, design, and engineering systems, separate files are created by the various project participants as they develop and complete their tasks and drawings and documents are then physically exchanged. Changes to one document might require changes to other documents and these changes must transferred manually to every drawing or document that might be affected. This cumbersome process has enormous potential for errors and omissions. BIM streamlines and decreases errors by maintaining all project data in one file that can be accessed by all participants and changes to one part are immediately reflected in all parts. BIM has been around for a few years, but only now is it beginning to catch on (see my paper on BIM written in September 2004 for a class.)

The most forward-thinking firms have already adopted this technology and others are poised to do so. Given the incredible changes in how business is done and the increasing pressure on firms to produce more in a shorter period, firms that fail to adapt their processes and organizational thinking to this trend will surely fall behind.

I haven’t learned or even seen BIM in action, but I have had some recent conversations with firms that are adopting the technology and they’re pretty excited about it. So am I. The design business is poised on the edge of something new – not only new technologies, but new ways of doing things, new hierarchies, new expectations, and new needs.

I like the thought of entering the design profession at a time when things are changing. It’s invigorating and that’s a good feeling.

Tools of production

Wednesday, October 11th, 2006

Chris Anderson, in his interesting book, The Long Tail, says: “When the tools of production are available to everyone, everyone becomes a producer.” He’s talking in the context of the explosion in computer technology and internet access to software that allows ordinary people to create videos, music, books, and blogs on every conceivable topic, but the thought is an important one in other contexts as well. In effect Anderson is saying give people the right tools and they will produce. Because production – be it of things, service, or ideas – is key to business success, organizations that make it a priority to equip their employees with the right tools will be a step ahead.

So what are these tools? Technology, sure, but I would argue for a broader definition of tools to include opportunities to acquire knowledge, open communication channels, access to experts and stakeholders, and a sense of empowerment. In other words, employees need training, libraries and databases, a way to access the lessons learned from past projects, the freedom to express ideas and be heard, and to feel as if their ideas and efforts are valued.

Workplaces are also tools of production. This is not a new idea by any means – people have been trying to come up with the best workplace design for years, with mixed results – but most workplaces continue to be built on tired models. I googled “workplace design” and quickly found the following articles that discuss the productive value of a well thought out workplace: DJC News, Management Issues, and Building Design & Construction. Resources spent to ensure a supportive and empowering workplace are worth every penny.


Tuesday, September 12th, 2006

Working in teams is pretty much a given in the architecture and design business. But good teams don’t just happen by themselves, as I’m discovering in my current Project Management class. We’ve learned that the structure of a project team and the role of the project manager may vary depending on the nature of the project and the company’s organizational structure and culture, but one thing is common to all projects: they need effective leadership. Good project leaders have a clear vision of the project as a whole and the ability to convey that vision to the team members. Without leadership, projects fail.

I’m finding this out first hand in my class experience. We were divided into teams of 8-9 people, given a short description of our term project, and set loose without much guidance on how to begin. All the other students in the class are in the MBA program, so I thought they might have had experience with this sort of thing, but none of them acted as if they knew any better than I what we were supposed to be doing. In the first two weeks of class we hadn’t accomplish much of anything, so I started producing drafts of the project deliverables and sending them to the others for comment, but not even that got much reaction. Finally, our professor stepped in and gave us a kick in the shins. I don’t know how the rest of the semester will go, but at least there is now some communication among us.

So what went wrong here or is this just the way teams work? I would hate to think that all team work is dysfunctional, so I am assuming the problem was, in part at least, a lack of leadership. Perhaps one of us should have assertively assumed the role of project manager, perhaps the team itself should have designated someone to lead the group, or perhaps this is simply a problem inherent in a project mangement class where every class member should have an opportunity to be a manager.

In the real world of commercial projects, however, teams that can’t function efficiently adversely impact the company’s bottom line. To compound the trouble, apparently good team leaders are few and far between and most companies don’t understand how to develop and nurture them. One article assigned for my class, entitled “Make Projects the School for Leaders” by H. Kent Bowen, Kim B. Clark, Charles A. Holloway, and Steven C. Wheelwright (Harvard Business Review, Sept.-Oct. 1994), states: “The challenge is to understand what leadership requires of people and to create a process and a system in which leaders develop naturally as part of the life of the business.” In companies with good leadership, the authors aver, senior management (1) expects leadership from its team leaders, (2) supports its leaders by making sure they have the resources to do their jobs, and (3) rewards leaders for success.

Turning to the architecture and design community – is the profession supporting and training people to become the leaders it needs for effective project management? We’re certainly not learning leadership in interior design school – but for the fact that I needed an elective and signed up for the Project Management class in the business school, I would never have been exposed to project management principles at all.

My guess is that the answer is no, and this may be a big mistake. The world is changing. To compete, architecture and design firms have to produce great projects. To produce great projects, firms need expert teams with effective leaders. To produce effective leaders within the profession, schools need to provide leadership training and A&D firms must value and develop leadership skills throughout their organizations.

The World is Flat

Friday, September 1st, 2006

The World is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman‘s book about globalization in the 21st century, keeps popping up on my radar and triggering ideas. (See my previous posts: A New Business Model and Versatilists.) Last night, my Project Management professor treated us to a slide show about the book and today I read an interview entitled Wake Up and Face the Flat Earth: Thomas L. Friedman that Nayan Chanda, editor of YaleGlobal Online magazine did with Friedman in 2005. In the interview, Friedman says:

Well, let’s start with, what is the mix of assets you need to thrive in a flat world? Money, jobs, and opportunity in the flat world will go to the countries with the best infrastructure, the best education system that produces the most educated work force, the most investor-friendly laws, and the best environment. You put those four things together: quality of environment that attracts knowledgeable people, investment laws that encourage entrepreneurship, education, and infrastructure. So that’s really where, in a flat world, the money is going to go.

Friedman is talking about countries in this paragraph – what countries must do to be competitive in the flattened world of the 21st century. But suppose we translate the four points in this quote from the country level to a single firm. How can any one company incorporate Friedman’s ideas to ensure its own competitive position in the flat world? Here are my thoughts:

1. Quality of Environment: Firms need to make their companies great places to work. Several things contribute: comfortable and usable workspaces, good employee benefits, and positive organizational cultures. For example, employees are more productive when they have control over their working conditions – lighting levels, air temperature, noise level, furniture fit, etc. Including benefits such as health insurance in employees compensation packages attracts higher-quality employees and increases existing employees’ feeling of security. A culture that values intelligence, ideas, and collaboration generally achieves greater success than one that is based on power plays and inflexible ways of doing things.

2. Entrepreneurship: Firms need to encourage internal entrepreneurship by encouraging innovation, creativity, and risk taking and tolerating the mistakes that go along with exploration of new ideas.

3. Education: Firms must provide their employees with opportunities to learn new things by having in-house seminars, supporting continuing education efforts, or simply working learning time into weekly schedules.

4. Infrastructure: Firms will need to explore new types of partnerships with other companies, both local and global, to ensure that they can provide the best product or service to their customers. In-house, employees must be given the proper tools to do their jobs, be it computers that contain the right software, communication tools, or the physical tools needed to do the job.

In most cases, transitioning into the new flat world will require an initial expenditure of time and money and perhaps some radical and difficult revamping of organizational thinking. But, just as countries that fail to adjust will loose their competitive position in the world political and economic arena, firms that neglect or refuse to change will find themselves left behind in their marketplaces. Design firms are not exempt.