New Approach to Better Decisions

October 20, 2009 · by Rosemarie Buchanan

An educational affiliation between NBBJ and the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management leads to integrated thinking and superior solutions.

“Ultimately, architects need to change or die,” says NBBJ partner Richard Dallam. The firm’s current means of adaptation challenges its own past protocols by two related methods: It incorporates non-design professionals into its practice, and employees across the board practice a regimen of business management theory that influences the decision-making process to produce better buildings and better experiences.

The new regimen is integrative thinking, a method of decision making whose importance was reinforced by Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and author of The Opposable Mind. Martin’s method, as well as Rotman’s graduates and interns, have helped NBBJ find relevancy in more places, connect more elements of a problem, and craft more holistic design decisions, according to Dallam.

“We are all built to value our own perspective. As a result, you need to have some different thinkers and have communications processes in place that allow people to listen, expand their perspective, and then get it,” Dallam said.

Martin’s asserts that people typically reach decisions quickly by selecting one somewhat unsatisfactory solution over another one. Integrative thinking creates a third solution that combines the effective elements of first two choices while addressing all aspects of a problem successfully. It takes more time and effort than the old, binary habit, as well as more voices and open minds.

“Don’t underestimate how quickly people want to move from divergent to convergent thinking,” said Dallam, who leads NBBJ’s health care practice. “They want to do this as quickly as possible! Instead, you need to carry ideas further because they represent not just alternatives to be discarded but knowledge.”

Dallam offered the example of NBBJ’s brainstorming to figure out how to deliver a complex, $54 million project’s design in a mere five and a half months in the late 1990s. At a meeting about best practices for project delivery, one employee offered “3/32nds” as a solution. The idea was to replace 1/8-inch-, 1/4-inch- and 1/2-inch-scaled drawings with a single set scaled at 3/32-inch. After checking with contractors, it was determined the reduced number of drawing sets would shave 3,000 hours off the schedule, making the deadline feasible.

Inherent in that example is a process Martin codified as four explicit steps that successful designers and business people take every day:

1. Consider more information salient.

2. Take time to understand more causal relationships.

3. Create a diagram of how these relationships work.

4. Create the new solution.

The new perspective on integrative thinking came to NBBJ when the firm invited Martin to speak. Later, some of the Rotman MBA students were asked to serve as summer interns; subsequently, one of MBA graduate was hired. Then in the spring of 2009, a team four Rotman business students participated in NBBJ’s annual Business Design Case Competition and won for its creative and insightful response. The winning team evaluated the cadre of non-design in-house professionals and proposed how to position the group with regard to external and internal clients.

This wasn’t the first time MBAs and other professionals have worked within NBBJ. What’s different as a result of the firm’s relationship with Rotman is that the MBAs — and anthropologists, economists, psychologists, human factors designers, and health care planners — are no longer viewed as a skill set to support design teams. They make up their own studio, working as equals, as designers.

“I’ve seen colleagues become more empathetic, raise more questions, take more time to think, have more conversations with more people and embrace others’ ideas more often,” said Terry Huang, a strategy and management consultant at NBBJ (and the Rotman MBA graduate hired by the firm). “More perspectives are put up on the wall, and we ask of each, ‘How can this be relevant?’”

Pertinent, too, is that integrative thinking is encouraged from the top down; this wasn’t a passing fancy to be abandoned once the economy contracted. Partners encourage employees to consider the regimen as a means to buoy the firm through the economic storm.

Integrative thinking has spearheaded or strengthened a number of principles at NBBJ:

Shift from design to co-design. Buildings and problems are too complex to be solved by a single genius’ design. “Think about how most designers are all about their idea, not about our idea. Dialogue is more productive than monologue, and for us, integrative thinking is at the root of building Renaissance teams that co-design,” Dallam said.

NBBJ encourages co-design by asking designers to defend their peers’ work as well as their own.

 “Each team falls in love with their idea, so you end up with three or four groups thinking that theirs is the best solution,” noted Dallam. “But as their ideas develop, we have them trade — and then trade again.”

Defending others’ work dissuades designers from becoming married to their own ideas and helps them see the merits of others’. Designers develop an equal basis for evaluating the pros and cons of each option to assess value and causal relationships, which are crucial to integrative thinking.

Take time to recognize, challenge, argue and defend motivations. “Instead of quickly compromising —which is the way it’s been done for many, many years — now we’re really differentiating the ability to satisfy everyone’s needs. It takes a lot more time and a lot of arguing,” Huang said.

The arguing focuses on asking the whys behind a decision. More questions are posed further into the process. Instead of evaluating design decisions, teams evaluate design motivations.

Huang cited a dilemma many architects and clients face: whether to devote more resources to pursue a green building that may render it too expensive. By questioning motivation, NBBJ rose above two opposable options and arrived at a third.

In one case, it came down to a tree. To avoid a heat sink, a designer specified an expensive tree because it was a species he liked and was used previously on green roofs. After questioning motivation, the team suggested cheaper but equally effective plants, allowing the client to salvage its green agenda.

Invest in cross-pollinating intelligence. NBBJ’s health care planners create plans for health care facilities, but in doing so, they create adaptable spaces. Thinking of health care planners as experts in creating adaptability has opened the door to consulting on other typologies.

“I want to leverage intelligence across different domains,” Dallam said. “For instance, our retail group was looking for more people and initially thought health care designers were too expensive. Yet, about one week later, they said, ‘Can we have more of these people?’”

Build presentation techniques that reveal new insight for clients and designers. Dallam mentioned that integrating clients as part of the design team is crucial, and yet unquestioned motivations shape clients’ decisions, too. For instance, in the health care industry, if the current environment is working well, there is little motivation to challenge assumptions.

So for one particular project, for example, NBBJ led a series of questions to discover if the assumption that the current exam room was the solution was indeed the best solution. The firm created full-scale prototypes of the current exam room, several incremental improvement options, a radical option, and worked to co-design with the design team (which includes the client) real time in these spaces.

“They could cut this full-scale model, change it on the spot. It was tangible and resonated emotionally. We worked on this mockup together, incrementally, to make it better. Had we not done this, they wouldn’t have been as open to dramatic change,” Dallam said. In the end, the firm didn’t have to sell the radically different design because the client asked for it.

Turning the focus on the designers in this exercise, Dallam added that integrative thinking has helped architects step out of presumptions about presenting to clients:

“Architects are not trained to communicate to the uninitiated. In this exercise, not only did the client use the prototype to make decisions, the design team walked away with insights magnified 10-fold,” Dallam said. “It’s an example of how we’re committed to changing our industry.”



Rosemarie Buchanan is principal of her own communications consultancy, which specializes in helping architecture and design firms identify, frame, and present their stories. Based in Seattle, Buchanan is a former reporter for the Associated Press and business editor. She holds a master of environmental design from Yale University and has written for Architectural Record, the Chicago Tribune, Competitions, the Seattle Times, and others.

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