Look outside for insight

Applying cross-disciplinary knowledge to help creatively solve architectural problems—and broaden perspectives—is a time-honored strategy. The Seattle firm Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects employs a visiting-lecturer series which, according to its Web site, is “inspired by the power of cross-fertilization—where individuals who excel in disciplines other than architecture come and share with us what they do.” They have had presentations by artists, craftspeople, environmentalists, and even an exotic dancer.

Reorganizing staff can fuel new approaches to engaging everyday problems. Roger Goldstein, FAIA, a principal at Goody Clancy in Boston, explains that intentionally mixing teams from one project to the next is an integral part of his firm’s culture. He says, “There’s a lot of value in applying the things we learn in one realm to another completely different context.” There is, however, a delicate balance in composing a team with experts in a particular building type (that appeals to prospective clients) and those with little experience who come to the table with no preconceptions, contribute fresh ideas, and challenge basic assumptions. “Team composition that might lead to the most efficient design process does not necessarily lead to the best design,” explains Goldstein.

“One way for a majority of staff to have a degree of ownership in the design process,” claims Michael Ryan, principal of Environmental Dynamics Inc. (EDI), Albuquerque, “is to sponsor a group charrette for larger projects in which everyone gets to draw and design in the schematic phase.” Roger Goldstein similarly believes that charging a design team to “spend a few days developing a bunch of ideas that may or may not be workable” is not only intriguing for pushing the design envelope but contribute to a culture of innovation. Jim Voelzke, principal, MV+A Architects, Bethesda, Maryland, summarizes the collective feeling: “Most projects follow a classic pattern of high risk-taking in the beginning, gradually ebbing as the project develops and the time spent becomes more of a liability.”

How IDEO does it

Does everything have to be a touchy-feely collaboration? Are competition and collaboration within the same firm culture mutually exclusive? Not according to IDEO founder David Kelly. He describes its brainstorming process as “enlightened trial and error” and “focused chaos.” They don’t get too attached to their first few design ideas because they know they will change and improve. They may select a couple of alternatives to pursue (out of a half-dozen developed by competing teams) after a charrette, or cherry-pick ideas from multiple sources to create yet another alternative—all to ensure the final design has benefited from a series of explorations and perspectives. In this case, an internal competitive environment can indeed push outcomes to new heights.

The physical environment of an office can reflect and influence its culture. Ryan asserts something as simple as a big open space—no special offices, no closed doors, and no cubicles—promotes an atmosphere of shared experience, mutual respect, and casual (and nonhierarchical) exchange. For example, an impromptu gathering around someone’s computer is common when they have discovered something of architectural interest or “to kick ideas around.” EDI, like IDEO, also places a premium on humor and playfulness—whether it’s a nickname for a principal or their computers spewing quotes from cartoons when new e-mail is detected—to relieve stress and encourage whacky thinking. IDEO even has a wing of an old DC-3 cantilevered over a meeting room.

As a vital part of its firm culture, which is also under the umbrella of professional development, Torti Gallas, a Silver Spring, Maryland, practice, developed firm committees, firmwide “discourses,” and a customized project-management course. Staff at all levels participate on the committees, which primarily address office operations such as marketing and public relations, and document standards. The work of some of the committees is disseminated through a monthly session called a “discourse.” The discourse is also a forum for change and evolution in the firm, and helps to build consensus and ownership in shaping new directions. Principal Thomas Gallas says that the firm’s design charter, for example, arose from a discussion about improving the quality of architecture and included a set of principles that was signed—and embraced—by everyone in the office. Finally, the Torti Gallas project-management course is directed to interns and involves one-on-one training (during personal time), complete with homework and tests, and is a means to “get a common mindset about the importance of project management,” according to Tom Gallas. The firm was recognized by the AIA in 2005 as the IDP Firm of the Year—large firm category for its learning culture and initiatives.

If you’re successful, you’re in jeopardy of becoming complacent. So get out of your corner office, fail often, argue respectfully with coworkers, adopt a learning culture, don’t accept anything at face value, and start to innovate.