November 15, 2001

Achieving design certainty through collaboration

  • Working together is a catalyst for creativity and innovation

    Within all projects lies the opportunity of creating something new, the opportunity to innovate. It can be a momentous time in the project’s history if those committed to the project challenge themselves to begin anew by shedding preconceptions.

    The stereotype of the aloof creative genius pronouncing wisdom from on high, whose vision is accepted without compromise or question from the client, never really succeeds in the demanding, multiple constituency arenas in which today’s architecture is done.

    If you think you already know how to do it, the result will be the same as the last time you did it.

    The stereotype of the aloof genius pronouncing wisdom from on high never really succeeds in today’s architecture.

    Projects are typically comprised of “design stakeholders” equally invested in, and respectful of, each other’s success. This trust enables the stakeholders to meld their individual agendas and harness their unique talents and experiences through collaboration.

    Collaboration fosters true innovation when there are no hidden agendas or fear of questioning the way things have always been done. Why build a 1,000-car garage when a revision to the program mix for offset a.m./p.m. parking uses requires 750 cars instead?

    Know where you want to end up before you start the engine — it saves gas.

    The best work results from establishing a clear set of principles, agreed upon early in the process. In this state, the designer is as committed to the client’s budget as the client is the designer’s ideas. Unfortunately, projects are often initiated without a clear roadmap of desired expectations and outcomes. Without these fundamentals in place, the project work plan is likely to be hijacked by reactive second-guessing. The ability to benchmark progress will be eroded for lack of clear direction.

    In contrast, charting the project’s aesthetic, financial and programmatic intentions will ultimately achieve the goals of the stakeholders, and reinforce the benefits of collaboration.

    Your fears are probably the mirror image of your fellow stakeholder’s fears.

    The fascinating thing about the fears of the sometimes-polarized stakeholders is the fact that the very things they hold in common are exactly those things that work against collaboration.

    Clients often begin the design process fearful of:

    • Being steamrolled by the designer’s hidden agenda

    • The designer not owning the client’s issues

    • Ending up with a design that is financially unrealistic

    • Being unable to communicate aesthetic goals

    Designers often begin the design process fearful of:

    • Being kept at arms’ length from some fundamental project driver

    • Being unable to obtain timely client input to meet deadlines

    • Inability to get input from the highest-level decision maker

    • Changing scope during design process

    All of these fears are real and happen in the absence of trust. They are clear examples of what happens when each group pilots an independent course and brands their fellow stakeholders with assumptions.

    Collaborating creatively is not design by committee.

    The power of a committed, collaborative design team is not synonymous with a “design by committee” scenario in which accountability is diffused. It is incumbent on the team’s design leader to act as the creative catalyst, enabling the stakeholders to yield as much collective horsepower as possible.

    This means the design lead frequently fills a role as facilitator, honing a coherent vision that is consistent with the project’s purpose and intent. For example, on occasion we have entered into an alliance or joint venture with other local design firms. Without a commitment by those involved to creative collaboration on the project, it could have resulted a painful zero sum competition.

    The combined team leaders have the responsibility not only for collaborating, but also for harnessing all stakeholder contributions — those of the client, potential tenants, the general contractor, sub-consultants and the broker community.

    Only with this combination of talent and consolidation of resources is the committed collaborative design team possible. The discoveries and revelations made possible by the combined intellectual capital of those involved in this experience have been consistently stimulating and occasionally astounding.

    How you get there is as important as where you’re going.

    The reality of the collaborative design process is that, unlike the predictability of, for example, a manufacturing process, the design process can be infuriatingly nonlinear. It can be likened to more of a patient search.

    If the team is challenging itself to innovate, more questions than answers arise. If the team is committed to surpassing the status quo in pursuit of excellence, then making side trips always adds value to the bottom line of the process. If the team tasks itself with an inclusive view toward divergent perspectives and ideas early in the process, and continuously solicits input throughout the period of creative collaboration, then the outcome will benefit.

    Great ideas can come from anywhere, no one has a monopoly on them.

    Collaboration is a catalyst for creativity and innovation.

    Every project we do has a unique set of circumstances or “reasons for being” when the team is committed to the potential of innovation. This is the path for doing transformational work. Playing collaboratively fosters a dialog resulting in something larger than playing individually.

    Things are uncovered in the collaborative process that may never be considered individually. Collaboration results in openness and predictability, with all actions being purposeful and achieving goals held in common.

    It is a worthy game to play — though it does require discipline, honest communication and commitment to one’s own goals, as well as those of the other stakeholders. It is one of the best ways to demystify the design process and facilitate the stakeholder’s ability of meeting the project’s intent and objectives, and in turn, their own.

    The proof is in the product.

    There is one last thing to playing collaboratively, and it is the most important. Successful collaborative stakeholder experiences are joyous.

    The solidarity, mutual respect and sense of accomplishment can be awesome. The project as a vehicle for all this excels in ways no one ever dreamed. Creating value through discovery is what inevitably makes the work we do worthwhile.

    The true measure of what the commitment to collaboration, innovation and excellence has yielded over the years can be reaffirmed by the quality and legacy of the product. Creative collaboration is about uplifting the human spirit by creating places of dignity, beauty and clarity.

    Our projects have always benefited from creative collaboration, and that’s why we believe in it.

    Jeff Bates is a partner at CollinsWoerman.

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