I was inspired by a sentence in a rather good article in the Wall Street Journal this week about Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America. The article references a manual the TFA members use that provides the tools and techniques that make them so successful in raising the educational achievement of the students in the schools where the teach. This is the sentence that caught me –
One chart explains why teachers should choose an objective like “The student will be able to order fractions with different denominators,” rather than “The teacher will present a lesson on ordering fractions with different denominations.”
It caused me to reflect on the power of language in the design and allied professions. As in this example, the subject of our work is frequently not the objective of those we serve.
The dominant lexicon of achievement in architecture and design projects includes objectives like “on time/on budget.” Yet, I do not think that any of our clients has ever built something for the purpose of being on time and on budget. They build for the purpose of advancing the goals and purposes of their enterprise. However, there is rarely a reference to this purpose and its success metrics in the guiding principles of the project or in the review of its completion. The conventional professional lexicon and its associated quantitative and qualitative measures express self-reflective and self-congratulatory objectives that tend to divert our attention and could take our services and solutions well off target.
That sentence from the TFA manual, Teaching As Leadership, made me speculate on the value of renaming one of the core disciplines of our practice. Would developing best practices in “outcomes management” instead of “project management” reverse the continuing erosion of the scope of our profession and its slide into commodity service? Could assuring that the guiding principles – the program requirements – of any project have a well defined and understood linkage to the purposes of the enterprise increase the value of our relationship with our clients? Could the project “post-mortem” (egad! what a term!) include a post-occupancy review that specifically tracked the performance outcomes of our client’s enterprise? Would “outcomes management” yield an entirely different approach to design (“pilot projects” to test and prove assumptions, for example) and an entirely different relationship with our clients (a significantly broader “surface area” of contact and a longer “dwell time” of relationship that experienced with “project” management)? How do we develop space and place concepts to more effectively enable people’s participation and provide the utility to unlock their contribution of value to the enterprise?
Here are five tactics that I’d suggest to begin to change the lexicon of professional practice and move in this direction –
- Uncover and understand the business issue, the job the client is trying to get done – Move the expression of the client’s project mission from “we need (or don’t need) more desks,” to “here is the problem we are trying to solve,” or “here is the opportunity we are trying to capture,” or “here is the contribution we are trying to make.”
- Define the role that people play in this mission and purpose – what do people who work for the organization do or need to do to get its work done? Move from depictors of spatial function to descriptors of workmodes.
- Listen and observe – develop insight from the ways that people work both in the larger world as well as in the project context. Whatever the context, seek and identify the spatial motivators of human engagement.
- Identify the unmet needs – uncover what has not yet been invented that would help shape better environments for people to do this work, creating places and spaces where new opportunities can be found and developed to do the job the client wants to do
- Invent, test, develop – generate and test new ideas, learn from them, make the solutions better
I’ll develop these ideas further for a future post. In the meantime, and as always, I’d greatly appreciate your own thoughts on this subject in the comments.