Archive for the ‘Strategy’ Category

How much capital can you eventually attract by offering free samples of your thinking?

Do you believe it ultimately pays to be generous?

As members of a civil society, designers have many altruistic reasons to engage in providing pro bono services for nonprofit organizations. However in times of financial constraint there will be those who resist participation in this movement. How can designers even consider working for free when profits from their regular project fees have declined so sharply?

In order to continuously expand the field of motivated pro bono design participants, it’s crucial to recognize the full range of potential business benefits. In what ways is pro bono also good promo?


First let’s consider the nature of services that are needed by nonprofit organizations. Two individuals in particular are calling attention to the value of design as a powerful force for change and for feeding the soul. John Cary profiles forty impressive examples of design projects in The Power of Pro Bono; John Peterson founded Public Architecture around the idea of asking architecture and design firms to pledge a minimum of 1 percent of their time to doing pro bono work.


There is also an enormous opportunity for designers to bring their holistic thinking and imagination to complex problems – whether or not these services result in a built design. Designers are accustomed to envisioning a way through messy situations and working around obstacles that nonprofits wrestle with on a daily basis.

Now let’s think about the business case for each firm to contribute 1% or more. Consider how the nature of work and ways of pursuing new projects have changed in recent years. Whereas yesterday’s firm focused narrowly on selling design, today we also sell the quality of our interaction with clients and team members. This means a shift away from the tradition of designing for to designing with clients and other stakeholders.


Rather than attempt to promote outstanding collaborative skills with words and marketing promises, why not showcase these capabilities in real life? And isn’t it a far better thing to expand human networks naturally by working toward a common cause than through cold calls, interviews with strangers and related alien forms of promotion? In addition to giving back to society, pro bono really can be bono promo for business.

– Tye Farrow and Sharon VanderKaay

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

What happens when we place as much emphasis on the quality of our interactions as the quality of our products? And to take this notion a step further, what would we expect an all-time best design experience to look like?

To begin this investigation, let’s ask ourselves what kind of interaction is at the opposite end of the spectrum from a Fountainhead-inspired journey of clashing wills? What’s the alternative for innovators who find themselves struggling to defend their ideas in a seemingly hostile or indifferent world? How might clients and other stakeholders actually enjoy—rather than endure—their roles as responsible contributors to the built environment?

In our way of thinking, the opposite end of the interactive spectrum from clashing agendas is a transformational experience. These experiences enrich the lives of everyone at the planning table; they raise our spirits and expand our horizons. In contrast to traditional interventions that aim for buy in, we’ve seen the benefits of a mutual quest to raise the bar to new heights. This mutual quest banishes the assumption that the designer must carry on a valiant, one-sided campaign to address quality of life design issues.

Wrestling with the impact of a project together with stakeholders instills a sense of joint stewardship. Wise use of project resources and opportunities becomes a shared responsibility with the architect, rather than pursuing “us versus them” interests. Reliance on fancy presentations or charismatic persuaders is less important than knowing how to tap into the innate human desire to do something extraordinary.

By focusing on quality of interactions, designers can be catalysts for breakthroughs—experienced as transformational, aha! moments—in design and planning. These revelations and great leaps forward are built on a shared, expansive definition of each project’s purpose, opportunities and constraints.

Tight, mechanically-inspired processes are woefully self-limiting when compared to designing transformational experiences that appeal to hearts and minds. It should also be noted that this level of engagement goes far beyond faux-facilitation methods that skim the surface of obvious options.

Designers sell themselves short when they describe their fundamental role as problem solvers. For one thing, research by Ronald Lippitt indicates that “listing and solving problems depresses groups.” Also, the term problem solving creates the impression that designers engage primarily in reductive thinking.

Designing shared transformational experiences is where exceptional value is created. The above chart illustrates the shift from transactional to transformational design.

– Sharon VanderKaay

When Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities was first published in 1961, planners and politicians restricted themselves to questions such as “What are our plans for executing urban renewal? How can we move cars and trucks most efficiently through the city?”

The result of this kind of thinking brought alienation and economic blight as communities were destroyed and families were forced to relocate. One of Jacobs’ most valuable contributions was to change the nature of planning conversations to encompass quality of life issues: “What elements contribute to vibrant communities?  What options are there for moving through the city?

These kinds of questions were based on her observations, rather than theory derived from a mechanical view of the world. Jacobs looked at evidence on the street—to what was actually happening—and saw the advantages of combining work and living spaces. She recognized that human needs for social connections and the safety of  “eyes on the street” were fed by diversity of use and starved by segregation and uniformity.

In their recently published book GENIUS OF COMMON SENSE: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch write for “ages 10 to 100.”

Genius of Common Sense

The authors not only bring together pieces of history and personal insight into Jacobs’ extraordinary life, they also provide a memorable story for younger readers that sheds light on critical thinking and how people can fervently cling to ideas that do not serve their own interests.

Today’s notion of design thinking avoids jumping at answers to the wrong questions, and resists neat solutions that fail to scratch the surface of possibilities. Another basic tenet of design thinking is to place more faith in observation than conventional wisdom. It strikes me that the advantages of this rigorous, lateral, whole brain approach can be demonstrated not only through current case studies, but also historically by reflecting on the struggles and triumphs of Jane Jacobs’ life. Understanding the consequences of ignoring the design thinking lessons of 50 years and more are worth considering, it seems to me. 

– Sharon VanderKaay

Innovation applies to tangibles, such as new buildings and products, as well as intangibles such as methods of construction and ways of working. Traditionally, tangibles and intangibles have been seen as distinct states. Back in 2005 I gave a presentation at a design conference in Chicago on how design intangibles, for example “creating an uplifting feeling” or “instilling a sense of confidence” become tangible when they translate into hard numbers such as increased  revenue. During that presentation, “Calculating the Value of Design,” I used the term pre-tangible to emphasize the connection between design and business results. Since then I’ve become even more convinced that decision makers need to “see” a stronger relationship between intangibles and tangibles. Here’s the image I used at the conference:


Recently I created a set of slides for a business audience that further explain the concept of pre-tangibles.

-Sharon VanderKaay

We’ve been experimenting with condensing years of thinking and practice into max.18-slide “short stories.”  Here is the latest of three stories: Hospitals are Sacred Spaces  In this set we acknowledge Joe Pine, who with his colleague Jim Gilmore introduced us to The Experience Economy exactly ten years ago. His current thinking on authenticity: TED Talk: What Consumers Want  is especially relevant for hospital patients and families. Two other slide stories can be found here: Nursing Focused Design and here: Why Hospital Design Matters  Don’t forget to use Full Screen viewer!!

What would it look like if the Canadian health care system actually produced “patient-centred care”?  I mean, what evidence would we see in front of our eyes? Given that patients are human, I would expect to see places that looked humane. These places would look humane because they demonstrated obvious understanding for what it means to be in a vulnerable state.

After decades of loose talk about patient-focused care by various agencies, Jennifer Graham reports from the Canadian Medical Association’s annual meeting that these words are still up for discussion: “Dr. Robert Ouellet, the current president of the CMA has said there’s a critical need to make Canada’s health-care system patient-centred. He will present details from his fact-finding trip to Europe in January, where he met with health groups in England, Denmark, Belgium Netherlands and France. His thoughts on the issue are already clear. Ouellet has been saying since his return that “a health-care revolution has passed us by.”

Incoming CMA president Dr. Anne Doig says “we all have to participate in discussions around how we do that and of course how do we pay for it.”   

What’s the solution? How can those well-intentioned words begin to match reality? Is it only about “efficient care” or “activity-based costing” or is it also about something deeply rooted in our view of the patient experience? 

The Finnish modern master architect, Alvar Aalto, in his Paimio tuberculosis sanatorium of 1933 demonstrated how a humanitarian approach to the architecture of hospitals could provide comfort to  patient at their weakest moment. His thoughts are summarized by Colin St John Wilson in Alvar Aalto: through the eyes of Shigeru Ban; a good read.

In Aalto’s extensive writing, including his 1940 piece The Humanizing of Architecture, he revealed the struggles he was facing in his professional practice between the emerging forms of modern architecture. His own work drew on the philosophies of naturalists John Ruskin and William Morris’s “democratic architecture.” This was in contrast to the prevailing trend of modern architects at the time toward, for example, Le Corbusier’s view of the house as a “machine for living.”

In response Aalto writes, “. . . the newest phase of modern architecture tries to project rational methods from the technical field out to human and psychological fields.” As Aalto points out, humans have a deep need for human responses that don’t conform to a rational mechanical method, and stated that “architecture is only authentic when Man is at the centre, grounded in human priorities.”

It seems to me that the incoming CMA president could benefit by looking at the evolution of modern architecture in terms of how it could truly put patients at the centre of care. As our aging hospital “infrastructure” is replaced, decisions must be made about humane physical environments. The delivery of care, as in the creating hospital architecture, is an equal mix of the science and art of healing.

– Tye Farrow

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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