Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category

Generations of architectural project managers have diligently applied tools and techniques that achieved some remarkable results, yet failed to meet budget, schedule and other targets. Traditionally, it was safe to assume that imposing tighter controls within a more mechanistic system was the best way to prevent these failures. Now there is growing awareness of the perils of pretending your real project exists in a closed, predictable, static environment.

Last year the world-renowned Project Management Institute presented their Book of the Year award to Managing Complex Projects, A New Model. Author Kathleen B. Hass recognizes that large projects have inherent dynamic qualities that we must work with – rather than attempt to fight against. “As projects get bigger and more complex, we tend to ‘do more of the same’ applying ever greater degrees of rigor in the way of methods, reviews and tests, resulting in higher costs, and not necessarily returning value,” says Hass. “What we do is explore the nature of complexity theory as it applies to projects.”

In other words, experienced project managers are realizing that the stakes are too high for us to rely on false assumptions and old mindsets to maximize project success. Below is a chart that captures our understanding of how complexity theory applies to large design and construction projects.

This is a huge topic that requires ongoing analysis. However it may be of interest to construction project managers that, nearly ten years ago, a group of leading software developers gathered to write an Agile Manifesto that identified what really matters in terms of rapid, results-driven software project delivery. Maybe a group of design and construction project managers will one day write a manifesto aimed at removing similar barriers.

Sharon VanderKaay

A prolific writer and social commentator on urban art and architecture, John Bentley Mays has done much to advance critical design thinking in Toronto. What many in the design field may not know is that he is also a strong advocate for Christian cultural values and has spoken frequently of its broader influence on the experience of the city.

To this point, his newly launched web portal, Art, Architecture and the City nicely connects the dots between contemporary design discourse and an inherent desire for all citizenry to achieve what Mays describes as an “authentic urban spirituality.” In God and the Secular City for example, he posits that “the day of the city has arrived” and goes on to discuss the need for a “constructive engagement of orthodox imagination with the structures of urban life.” Elsewhere in The Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum Mays lauds its near existential qualities as a site of “considerable freedom to think, act and move, to create and criticize.”  Throughout all his musings, it is clear that the common thread is a robust passion for creating, as Jane Jacobs described, the liveable city.

Kudos to John for being an unwavering champion of good design and an advocate for innovative thinking.

– Farrow Partnership


One reason so many architects love design competitions is that a finished concept can be produced without much involvement from clients and the public. Traditional architect selection committees—under pressure to appear objective—are routinely seduced by the logic of this age-old process of working in isolation. On the surface, design competitions aim to avoid messy human bias by focusing on each scheme’s perceived merits. But efforts to sell a remote designer’s finished solution can sometimes be bad for everybody.

While there are countless examples of beloved structures that resulted from such contests, I question three common assumptions that keep this hands-off approach alive:

 1.  An architects’ vision will be compromised through public engagement at the pre-design stage

2.  Visionary, meaningful decisions happen without engaging everyone (including the architect) in a learning process

3.  The public will be inclined to quickly grasp and embrace a sales pitch for the winning design scheme

As Web 2.0 participation reveals, people have an enormous appetite for making better choices by engaging in good conversation. I believe that clients’ interests would be better served through a selection process that involved spending quality time with each short-listed design team, rather than paying architects to work out competing designs in isolation.

A new era of selection criteria could include: How inquisitive are the designers who want to work on my project? How adept are they at sharing their thinking and de-mystifying their approach? How do they plan to engage the public in a conversation about shared aspirations, or defining the community’s self-image, or identifying the economic benefits of distinctive design?

Recent controversy around Santiago Calatrava’s proposed bridge design for Calgary raises interesting questions regarding naysayers, civic spunk and design process. The Globe and Mail‘s Lisa Rochon challenges Calgary to evolve into a “…a more visually enticing metropolis.” Cliff Kuang, writing for Fast Company in “How Not to Market a Big Public Works Project” advocates that city planners worldwide “…at the very least, hold a public competition to spur people’s imaginations.”

For years I felt uneasy about the risks of attempting to sell design answers to disengaged clients. Then I read Michael Schrage’s book, Serious Play, which provided my ka-boing! moment by explaining the true value of putting heads together over rough models and un-solidified ideas.

Consider also the negative financial impact on fee-squeezed design firms; in order to win a competition, teams typically spend many times over the amount they are paid to participate. This raises a question as to whether the best eye-opening ideas—or eye-catching graphics and videos—win the competition.

 Instead of jumping to the conclusion that design competitions = better results, let’s pay more attention to creating informed critics and enthusiastic champions through inquiry, dialogue and discovery.

– Sharon VanderKaay

game plan_3

Participation in social media teaches us a few creative thinking skills we didn’t learn in school. The term TIMTOWDI, pronounced “Tim Toady,” is an acronym for “there is more than one way to do it.”  The best online conversations challenge us to see things from different perspectives and maybe even change our minds. For every question or issue, there suddenly appear before our eyes many more ways to do things than we could ever have imagined.

By contrast, my early education was all about right and wrong answers based on indisputable facts. Except in art class, the thought of doing something for the first time was out of the question. Most insidious of all from a contra-innovation perspective was the whole notion of a high school debating team. At the time I remember feeling vaguely repulsed by the thought of being rewarded for single-mindedly defending one point of view. Today the spirit of high school debate lives on in polarizing, argument-driven T.V. and radio talk shows.

For those of us who were influenced by such constipated approaches during our early school days, social media is a crash course in the discipline of undisciplined thought. There is indeed more than one way to define a problem or see a gap in client services. Here’s to making the most of those Tim Toady moments.

– Sharon VanderKaay

human innovation

The human realities of innovation are fascinating. Each day the practice of planning and designing buildings provides us with lessons to be learned about the challenges and rewards of not settling for minor improvements. As Farrow makes this journey with clients and colleagues, we believe there is always the potential to do great, innovative things. But what tends to get in the way of progress? How can we work though these obstacles together?

Our frontline observation and academic research on the nature of innovation have uncovered some recurring patterns, pitfalls and questions. We see three questions as a good place to open our conversation to the world: What happens when you believe that buildings should feed peoples’ souls, as well as solve practical problems? How can clients be encouraged to take a visionary approach to planning, rather than simply aim to fit pieces of a program puzzle together? And how can the inevitable naysayers become supporters of innovation?

Much of the writing we’ve encountered on creativity either dwells on warm and fuzzy aspects, or approaches the subject as unemotional puzzle solving. And innovation is often viewed through the lens of technical solutions. This is our attempt to explore the messy, emotional, human side of innovation.

We hope to hear your stories of innovation yea-sayers and naysayers.

– Sharon Vanderkaay

photo source: Susan Ottevanger

  • About The Nature of Innovation

    We see our collaboration with clients and colleagues as providing a living lab for enriching the creative process. Farrow’s built work has been internationally recognized for leadership in human-centric design. This is where we come to discuss our ideas as they hatch and our experiences as they happen.
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