We enjoyed reading the most recent issue of Architect magazine (“The Magazine of the American Institute of Architects”) entitled What’s Next?: Architecture in an age of Transformation. We recognized that many of the challenges raised in the feature article have existed in the architecture industry for many years. Since this edition of Architect magazine strives to be about organizational and industry “transformation”, we wanted to point out that there might be some process confusion embedded in “What’s Next”.
Recognizing that “What’s Next” is full of good intentions, lets not get what the magazine is successfully doing confused with the questions it raises. From a transformation methods perspective we would like to point out that the challenge of: How might a provocative magazine issue be created ? is quite different from: How might you reinvent your practice ? and How might you reinvent your industry ?. The well-meaning contributors appear to know more about the former and less about the later.
While the methodology of provocations is a useful approach to magazine article making, it is not robust enough, precise enough or scalable enough for use in addressing the latter transformation challenges. In other words, provocation is the right tool for creating entertaining magazines and the wrong method for organizational transformation. Transforming organizations and industries requires a different set of cocreation methods and skills.
Popular in academic circles, the provocations approach intermixes facts, challenges and possible solutions. In the “What’s Next” edition one can see them intertwined throughout.
While there has been no consensus (outside the magazines advisory team) on what the facts are or what the challenges are in the architecture industry, a partial picture is never-the-less created. Even with the best of intentions, the picture represented by the five central provocations in the “What’s Next” edition may or may not reflect what the key challenge areas actually are in practice and in industry.
While we were struck by the numerous insightful provocations in Bruce Mau’s “You Can Do Better” contribution to the edition it would be safe to say that the days are gone when simply complaining about complaining is enough to drive meaningful change. In the context of organizational transformation the act of “provoking” is recognized as the relatively easy lift.
Provocations tend to generate heat rather than clarity. The provocations approach typically yields more provocations, a lot of coffee chat conversations and not much forward change motion. If driving to coffee chat is your goal then provocation might be a methodology worth considering.
In the online feedback over at Architect magazines web site, one can see what happens when the wrong problems have been defined, solutions to problems that don’t exist proposed and little buy-in has occurred.
Since transformation is the subject of the edition the overall picture being created by using provocations as an approach tends to reinforce the misperception that getting to the future in organizational contexts is argument and provocation based. It seems likely that readers come away with the misperception that this is what organizational and or industry transformation looks like and feels like. In our experience transformation need not look and feel like a magazine hit-job.
The reality is organizational transformation is messy and often complex. It is quite common that the challenges present even in small organizations vastly supersede five problem areas. To undertake this kind of work one has to get ready for navigating upstream from the terrain of tidy framed briefs where many fuzzy complex challenges exist in parallel.
Perhaps ironically this is the operational terrain that Mr. Mau seemed to be referring to in his “You Can Do Better” commentary to the “What’s Next” readers: get prepared for a place where architects are willing and able to engage, not in building creation challenges alone, but rather in addressing challenges requiring no preconceived outcomes. Mr. Mau insightfully invites readers to rethink the DNA of architecture skill not the DNA of building creation. Unfortunately what is missing from “What’s Next” is the acknowledgement that getting to that terrain and operating there clearly involves more transformation skills than provocation.
While there is nothing particularly new in Mr. Mau’s message of reorientation and reskilling, the difficult and probably more meaningful truth is that much of the graduate architecture education community including high profile institutions like Harvard Graduate Design School have for more than ten years consistently missed the globalization driven message to prepare their students for working upstream from briefs. Many graduate design schools have been tone deaf to the need for this form of strategic change. In other disciplines that message was heard years ago loud and clear. As a result when it comes to leading cross-disciplinary cocreation upstream from briefs the realm of architecture is now playing catch-up. Today, much of the most current upstream cross-disciplinary cocreation knowledge exists outside of the architecture profession.
Perhaps unintentionally the “What’s Next” magazine edition brings one unasked and unanswered key question into clear view, and that is: How will the professional association of AIA provide relevant value to its members going forward in this time of great change? If we can acknowledge that the days are already gone when it is enough for a professional association to sponsor a magazine provoking “dialogue” as its contribution to industry transformation, what then is AIA’s plan for helping its membership make sense of and navigate the realities of what’s next?
With the spirit of constructing change making in mind we would like to table a capabilities challenge to American Institute of Architects as an association. Beyond provocative conversation stimulation you might want to consider creating a change making institute capacity inside AIA that in some form is capable of offering meaningful transformation help to its membership. If there is serious appetite for such an ecosystem Humantific would be happy to help AIA create such an initiative.
Perhaps this time next year will bring more to AIA membership than yet another “What’s Next” provocation.
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