Intensification of collaborative practices within the office may result in novel outcomes that can significantly enhance cost-effectiveness as well as project quality. During a challenging period in which a paucity of work may leave key employees with increased amounts of downtime, there is an opportunity to examine, hone, and reflect on the art of multidisciplinary collaboration and teamwork. The acquired and polished skill sets will update the firm’s process patterns and ultimately confer an advantage in the marketplace in terms of appealing to prospective clients who are increasingly sophisticated because of the budgetary accountability they face.
Illustration ' Harry Campbell
As projects become more complex, good teamwork takes on greater importance.
Describing the process Monty Python used to develop comedy sketches, John Cleese said, “The really good idea is always traceable back quite a long way, often to a not very good idea which sparked off another idea that was only slightly better, which somebody else misunderstood in such a way that they then said something which was really rather interesting.” Implicit in this funny account is that knowledge is freely exchanged, misinterpreted, and somehow becomes synergistic. Constructive and inspiring conversations are occurring, and a self-reinforcing mutual respect, trust, and appreciation are arising from the associated creativity. The serious and sometimes accidental business of generating a good idea is enjoyable for a skilled yet diverse team.
The ability to work effectively in teams has become increasingly important because of the complexity of projects requiring expertise from a variety of specialties, the speed with which they must be completed, and demands for better building performance. With the recent release of new documents related to integrated project delivery and building information modeling, the AIA has begun to address contractual and process issues that have heretofore impeded the best possible collaborative environment for multidisciplinary participants. There could be no better time for seizing the opportunity to establish and fine-tune the notion of team practice and collaboration.
Len Charney, head of practice at the Boston Architectural College, considers teaching collaborative behavior essential to advanced design studios as well as in practice. He is leading a number of Boston architectural firms in a collaborative inquiry initiative to learn more about project-delivery processes. With the promulgation of powerful new software tools, according to Charney, architecture firms acknowledge that they need to become more team-oriented, but they often don’t know how. He aptly summarizes the emerging issue: “It’s not technology, it’s psychology.”

Fostering collaboration

Collaboration can range from a casual comment over the phone or a napkin sketch that triggers new ideas to a formal work session that includes well-choreographed brainstorming toward creation of various alternative solutions to vexing problems. Scott Simpson, principal and senior director at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, office of KlingStubbins, elaborates: “Collaboration is an attitude more than a process. Participants assume that each member of the team has something valuable to offer, and that by using many brains synergistically rather than working in ‘silos,’ overall outcomes will be dramatically improved. In a collaborative effort, it is understood that different points of view add richness and depth to the project, but this means that ego must take a back seat.” The great caveat, of course, is that the work is indeed amenable to a team approach and that an individual could not better or more efficiently execute it. It must be recognized that some challenges are best met by one good performer.

A productive, collaborative work session requires talented people who are empowered to make decisions on behalf of their firms and who are unafraid to push disciplinary boundaries. Recounting one such session, David Altenhofen, AIA, technical design principal at RMJM Hillier, comments that each member must feel free to present ideas even if they are out of the participant’s area of expertise; for example, when a structural engineer makes aesthetic suggestions, or when the builder makes suggestions regarding plumbing. Integrated designs cannot evolve successfully without the participation of all relevant disciplines.

Attitude is critically important. Everyone on a team has an obligation to strive for the group’s success. Roger Goldstein, FAIA, principal at Goody Clancy, believes that attitude has more to do with building trust than anything else. He says, “Being respectful of peoples’ contributions, even if you disagree or think some ideas are not worthwhile, helps on the trust dimension,” and inevitably will reinforce the habit of vocal contribution.

Although there are no formulae for working well together, collaborative performance can be cultivated in a number of ways. Richard Hackman, a Harvard professor and guru of successful group process, suggests that having an ennobling theme for the work will increase the likelihood of the group’s effectiveness. A lofty, overarching objective “energizes team members, orients their attention and action, and engages their talents.” In architecture, this translates generally to understanding that architecture is a profession and as such, no matter how mundane a project may seem, the work is transcendent because it provides a professional service, which is truly distinctive in society. It translates specifically to doing excellent design work as defined by a firm’s mission and project-specific circumstances. Creatively and cleverly framed design challenges, proffered at every phase of a project, are intrinsically motivating and lead to higher productivity and quality.