Building a Niche

March 13, 2009

Today’s business world is beginning to reward those with a niche.

There are examples of this everywhere. Products and services that are designed for a very specific market are doing very well even in tough times. Lamborghini is having its best year. The Tesla Roadster is on backorder. But those things that are commodities, or are being turned into a commodity are worth and valued less and less particularly when money is tight. The Big 3 automakers who make average cars for average people (with a few exceptions of course) are in so much trouble they’re begging for money.

Service industries become a commodity when they take on any job that comes their way regardless of what it means or how it will impact their industry and business in the long run.

I think that’s a mistake.

According to wikipedia, a commodity is “anything for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market.”

Unless you are Amazon, or in years past Sears, and can take the entire long-tail under your purview, differentiation has to come from something other than an all things for all people mentality. You need to specialize. You need a niche to dominate. You need to be the best in the world, or more to the point, the best in the world of those in your market.

Instead of tackling anything that comes your way, choose an aspect of your industry and focus all of your efforts here. Become an expert in your market. Participate in forums and online communities involved in these areas. Help who you can without trying to sell your services. Start a blog and talk about your ideas and thoughts on the topic and pull in pages and articles your market would find useful. Start a newsletter for your audience and develop a permission based contact list of people who want to hear from you.

It might take time and it will certainly take effort but eventually your market will see you as an expert and will seek you out for your thoughts and your help.

Is it a lot of work? Yeah, of course it is, but it’s worth it in the long run.


Collaboration as it Could Be

December 10, 2008

To continue from the last…

For those of us who are not artists, who cannot and should not rely on raw inspiration to achieve success, we need to find a way to work that pulls from the best of those around us and allows for immediate feedback on an idea.

To work together maybe we should really work together. Sit around the same table, around the same drawing, the same screen, the same model and talk through the issues. Work the design as a team. Charette the problems. Come to solutions together. Only then should we work to implement those ideas individually.

The doing of the work, the actual production of the drawings, models and images that represent our understanding of the idea, should be done as quickly as possible so that we can get back to what we’re really all here to do, creatively solve problems.


Collaboration in Isolation

September 15, 2008

I’ve been thinking about how we work. About collaboration and what makes it work when it works. I think I’m on to something that I’ve been trying to understand for years. Collaboration, as seems to be defined by my colleagues, is a sequence of do in isolation and review in group.

Makes sense I guess. This is, after all, exactly what we did in school during the juries of our projects. Work for weeks in relative isolation and then present/review with a group of our peers. It wasn’t meant to be collaborative. It was about the individual, the classic definition of an Architect as Renaissance Man (or Woman of course). No wonder we carried that with us into the workplace, we had no other model to follow.

“Collaboration is a recursive process where two or more people… work together toward an intersection of common goals… by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus.” – Wikipedia

If that’s true then how can we call what we do, when we isolate ourselves from others (headphones on, intently focused on our screens), collaboration? It takes two, at a minimum, and yet we only occasionally get together. When we do it’s to discuss what’s been done since the last time we met. We review the work instead of working together.

There are times, certainly, when working independently can be extremely powerful. When it allows us to discover design as it happens. When it allows for “happy accidents”. Some of the best work I’ve seen done is a direct result of this happenstance.

Here’s the catch, if you’re not drop dead talented, a true artist, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to coax these accidents out with any amount of regularity. Still, you can try, you can fake it. Something will eventually get built.

to be continued…


Project or Process?

September 15, 2008

I’m wrestling with a problem of which is more important, the project or the process.

At first glance the answer seems obvious; the project is most important because it is ostensibly why we are in business. Clients come to us (or we to them in the case of an RFP) and we help them realize their projects. If we stopped working on projects we’d stop getting clients and we’d all be out of a job. Certainly then the project is critically important.

So what of process? If all else is secondary to the project why bother working the process? Why not stick with what’s working? Certainly makes some sense, particularly when we focus on the immediacy of this project and the next. Who has time to bother with process when there are projects to complete?

The ugly truth is that your process is more important than your project.

I should clarify here that my use of the word process is in no small way a placeholder for something more than “a series of actions, changes, or functions bringing about a result”.  To my mind it includes just about everything we do that’s not directly related to the project.  Office culture, standards manuals, email policies, marketing tactics and company moto are all things that have just as much and more important than the project.  It’s what gives us whatever edge we may have in the market place… in addition to any awards we might have won as well of course.

Process is what allows us to grow and change with the evolving world and business climate around us.  If we continue to hold onto outdated processes and insist on working the same methods the market will bypass us and find other ways to achieve its goals.  The only way through this is to accept continual change and work on process.

So process is important too.  More important than the project because process is about growing the company, the industry and yourself.  The project is about a completion date and a set of expectations.  It has an end and an outcome that is focused on the now with little to say about what comes next.  Process is the next and the in-between and the before and the during.

Projects are what allow us to work on the process.


What’s in a name?

August 27, 2008

I was looking at my blog stats today and saw that the traffic I was receiving from Google and the like don’t exactly matchup with the topics I’m talking about. They’re mostly searchs for “cheap wine”! LOL

Guess I have a lot to learn about how search indexes work.

From what I do know about SEO it seems that Google is prioritizing the name of the blog over the content. I’ve read Google gives content that’s emphasized preferential treatment. Titles, headings even bold and italics are more important than body text. Go figure.

So, with that said I think it’s time I changed the title and tag line to something more relevant.

Originally I had “Life’s too short to drink cheap wine.” as my Blog Title and “My maternal grandfather, Robert Smith, used to say this to me a lot as a kid.” as the tagline. Gotta document your history!

Okay then, what should I use? I talk about Revit and BIM of course, but I also talk about work processes and how our assumptions and traditions affect how and why we work. So how do you say that in a way that Google likes? What’s another word or phrase for all that?

It has something to do with marketing as well (I’m heavily influenced by Seth Godin and his writings and thoughts). Seth uses the word zooming to describe the process of continual changes and how they’re critical to business growth and success so that’s another keyword that might work.

How about “Zooming with Revit” and “thoughts on Revit Architecture, BIM and how they change the process” for a tagline?

Yeah, that’s not bad. Let’s try that and see what happens.

Now, what do I do about the URL! LOL


All about Me… in one page

August 27, 2008

Why is it that we continue to use resumes as an introduction in our search for new opportunities? It’s one page (occasionally two, never more than three) with standard formatting (contact information on top followed by work experience, educational history and a short list of skills) whose sole purpose is to get you in the door, to get you an interview. They are the gatekeepers to employment and they have outlived their usefulness.

I can’t find a history of the resume online anywhere but I think I can make some reasonable guesses about where they came from.

As businesses grew to require hundreds of employees those responsible for making hiring decisions would have needed a tool to help them weed out the applicants to a select few with the necessary and required skills and experiences. The single page resume would have made this process much easier and since these large companies were creating products and services for the newly emerging mass market the remarkability of employees was not necessary or often desirable. Remarkable people upset the status quo. Mass market abhors change and prefers to keep the world and the market stable to ensure sales and profits. Employees in these businesses were little more than cogs in a machine, resources needed to produce whatever it was the mass market required. New jobs and new departments where created to manage these Human Resources and the resume was one of their tools to find the right match for the task oriented jobs that were being created more and more quickly.

This method of finding and selecting personnel worked very well for the decades of mass market dominance. But the internet, niche markets and the Long Tail are changing all that. More and more we’re finding that it’s not enough to just have the skills and experience. We need to be remarkable. We need to be the best in the world (or at least the isolated niche in which you’re invested). If we want to do more than get by we need to stand out and step up.

Resumes get in the way of selling and showcasing your remarkableness. Its static formulation and brevity make it difficult to identify the remarkable beyond the occasional and rare remarkable education or experience. What we do, how we think and what we have to offer is far more valuable now than an Ivy League education or a job in the mail room of a Fortune 500. The resume is designed precisely to obfuscate the remarkable in order to reduce you and your efforts to a single page.

This blog makes for a better introduction than any resume can. It doesn’t list where I went to school (The University of Kansas) or whom I’ve worked for (HOK Sport, Gould Evans Associates, Architekton and more) but it does show how I think and where my interests and passions lay (hint – it’s all about the process). Does this make me remarkable? Not yet maybe, thought some would seem to think so, but it does lay the foundation.


Geek: Definition

May 30, 2008

Found this awhile back at gapingvoid.com. I think it helps make it okay to be a geek. I think it suggests that it’s essential that you be a geek about something.

“My definition of a geek is, “Somebody who socializes via objects.”

When you think about it, we’re all geeks. We’re all enthusiastic about something outside ourselves. For me, it’s marketing and cartooning. For others, it could be cellphones or Scotch Whisky or Apple computers or NASCAR or the Boston Red Sox or Bhuddism. All these act as Social Objects within a social network of people who care passionately about the stuff.

Whatever industry you are in, there’s somebody who is geeked out about your product category. They are using your product [or a competitor’s product] as a Social Object.

If you don’t understand how the geeks are socializing- connecting to other people- via your product, then you don’t actually have a marketing plan. Heck, you probably don’t have a viable business plan.”

It’s okay, go geek out on something. You’ll like it!


Medicority

May 29, 2008

About a year ago I found a program for building performance analysis, Ecotect, and its sister website/wiki devoted to training and learning. Complicated program, at least for my ignorant dumb ass, but the wiki is great. My favorite part? The organization of the training based on a series of Levels of Achievements.

Beginning with simple viewing and navigating the application at level 1 and going all the way up to being innovative in the use of the program (essentially untrainable), the Level of Achievements they’ve implemented covers a lot of ground and gives clear signs to know where you are and how to get to where you want to go.

So what if we applied that same thinking to training Revit? Here’s what I came up with:

Level 1 – View

Sufficient skill level for Partners and non-technical Project Managers.

At this level you should be able to move around and through the model in order to acquire and print the information you need without going through another person.

This level focuses on View Tab in the Design Bar.

Specific skills include being able to; navigate through the Project Browser, create additional views to show you what you want (including Visibility Graphics and View Properties settings), and print views and sheets.

Level 2 – Assist

What first time users, resistant AutoCAD geeks, SketchUp kings, interns and more than a few designers I know need to be capable of.

At level 2 you should be able to help others on the project modify existing model content and add annotations. New object creation should be limited to what is specifically “redlined” and previously discussed with Producers and/or Managers. You should also be able to create sheets and place views and have a an understanding of how to create basic schedules.

This level focuses on Drafting and Room and Area Tabs in the Design Bar.

Level 3 – Produce

This is where the majority of work is done and, as such, Project Architects and some Managers may need to be at this level.

At this point you should be creating and modifing projects with all required model components as well as know how to create basic families in either 3D or 2D and create and edit more complex Schedules.

Level 4 – Manage

Here, the power users, the Revit geeks, the computer savvy Project Architects and those highly skilled in AutoCAD making the transition may soon find themselves.

Skills at this level include; creating and managing Design Options and Phasing, creating and managing parametric families that are both 3D and 2D with appropriate levels of detail, understanding the differences between modeling for Design Intent and Construction and how to move from one to the other during the design process, as well as being able to create and edit interrelated Schedules and Schedule Keys.

Level 5 – Innovate

Who knows. How do you define or describe innovation? I think you’ll know it when you see it.

So the question I want to pose is how far down (or up if you prefer) this list do you think is far enough?

I haven’t thought about how this would apply to AutoCAD though I’m confident that, while the specifics would change, the underlying structure and rationalization would stay the same. Nearly everyone I’ve ever worked with is a Level 3 and there are always technical problems that those of us who are Level 4s (and occasionally 5s) have to spend an inordinate amount of time to correct and resolve.

That’s not good enough. Not by a long shot.

Perhaps it would help to explain if I pointed out that the steps between these levels is not geometric, it’s exponential. Each step up the ladder is at least twice as complicated, requires at least twice as much effort and at least twice as much commitment than the one before. Getting to that Level 4 or 5 is not easy. Most people give up when they’ve got enough knowledge and skills to get the job done – about Level 3.

Level 3 is mediocre, average. Level 3 is a “C”. Not good enough.

When we first started using AutoCAD, it was an asset. We used it intelligently where it made sense and only the geeks took control of the computer. Now AutoCAD is a liability. The senior staff who were trained and practiced in creating documents by hand are constantly amazed at how long it takes to get drawings created and modified compared with what it took them when they were responsible for making the drawings.

We have a chance to learn from our mistakes with AuotCAD and keep Revit from turning into a liability. The first step is having the right people, the Level 4 and 5s, working the program. We have to keep mediocrity out of the process. The 4s and 5s cannot spend half their time fixing mistakes based on ignorance. Let the 4s and 5s go as far and as fast as they’re able. Keep them in the design process and feed them what they need to make things happen in Revit.

Let the 3s and 4s focus on something else that will benefit the project, the company, the industry and themselves. Let them focus on their own 4s and 5s instead of settling for a 3.

Everyone can be remarkable. Nobody has to settle for mediocrity.


Widget Cranking

April 16, 2008

We all know what it is. We sometimes call it being a CAD Monkey, drafter or some other, similar term to imply a task or series of tasks involving little brain work. A friend of mine recently suggested that perhaps the individual projects we work on are really another form of widget cranking. ZOINKS! I never thought of that way before but you know… I think she’s on to something!

What if we were to consider the idea that our real work, the work that makes a real difference to the company, to the industry, to ourselves and yeah, even our clients, isn’t the successful completion of a project? How would an industry-centric view of our careers change what we do from day-to-day? How would it change the widget cranking tasks we all occasionally loathe?

I think that the more widget cranking tasks you perform, the worse off everyone becomes. You get no pleasure, the company doesn’t grow and so, naturally, the industry stays put. But the project must move forward. After all, without the projects we’d have nothing to do! So we continue to make things. Specifically we continue to make drawings, and specifications, and models, and meeting notes, and renderings – all the stuff that’s need to get the project done. How does any of this help us beyond the short-term goal of getting the project done, out the door and built?

Our real work, the stuff that we should really be doing, the stuff that would make a real difference to our clients, to our offices, to our industry and most importantly to ourselves has little to do with the making of stuff to make other stuff. Our real work is design, insight, problem solving and marketing. How does focusing on the project accomplish these things for anything other than the successful completion of the project? We use them all within the framework of the project but what role do they have outside the project? If we only use them for projects then the project must be what is most important.

Is it?

If we were working on goods and services (widgets) that had a wide range of appeal or need, then using those talents to improve the quality of the widget would absolutely be the right thing. Those talents would help us make a better, more remarkable, widget which would in turn attract more people to our widget and all would be good and right with the world. But we are involved in a very different sort of business. Our industry, at least the public sector that I’m involved with, doesn’t rely on remarkability as a determining factor of success or failure. In fact I’ve seen the opposite. The more remarkable the Architecture the less likely it is to appeal to the groups of bureaucrats that make up the majority of the selection committee. Remarkable Architecture, the sort that catches your attention and invites you to engage with it and remark on it (whether the comments are positive or negative isn’t the point right now) scares the hell out of bureaucrats. They’d much rather create a building that didn’t even attempt to challenge or engage anyone lest they meet them at their next public meeting. Better to play it safe than risk annoying members of the community.

The problem is that the Request for [Blank] system that is required in public work doesn’t reward or even acknowledge remarkability. It is political. It is designed to find the average, the easy, the cheap. It is the antithesis of the free market economy that we’re used to in other industries. The middle, the average, the safe is no longer appealing to the masses in the way it once was. We either want the very best we can afford if we care about and are passionate enough to search it out, or we want the cheapest thing that will get us by until something else comes along. Take a look at how you decide to purchase goods and services. The research you do to find the best product that meets your individual and specific needs for the goods and services you care about. The comparison shopping you might do to find the lowest price for the rest. Which one of these sound most like the typical public work procurement process we’ve all grown to despise?

If you were in charge and were passionate about having the best Architecture you could find, how would you approach the process? How would you find the right Architect for you? Would you put a notice in the newspaper and weed out the obviously undesirable in order to interview the remaining and choose from among them, a process not unlike comparison shopping between Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Amazon? Or would you look around at the very best, most remarkable buildings, find out who designed them and then start a conversation, a process more akin to searching out the small, independent shops in your area and online for the exceptional products and services?

If we continue to focus on the project, the widget, then we’re destined to be a participant of the public process for the remainder of our careers. And, if we’re lucky, we might find success.

On the other hand, if we think of the project as a means to another end perhaps we can start thinking about how to use our design, insight, problem solving and marketing skills in different ways. To promote our industry, to educate the interested and uninformed about what we have to offer, to find new markets.


Efficient Drawings

March 3, 2008

A few weeks ago we were talking in the office about how much wasted effort is involved in doing our work. I wasn’t sure the Powers-That-Be were really getting what we were talking about and I knew that the over-drafters wouldn’t follow the discussion well either (if they could, would they still be drafting for the sake of drafting?) so I decided to run a test on a drawing that I knew was overdone.

The original drawing contained nearly 2,000 objects. After thinking it through a bit and re-creating it (I traced over an Xref to make my job easier) I got it down to about 200 objects… just 10 percent of the original. I printed it out and showed it around and everyone started to understand even if they’re not sure yet how to get there.

I made a PowerPoint out of the example for grins and posted it up over at slideshare as part of a brief exploration of that site. I also embedded it below.

I am continually amazed at the potential of the internet to make connections. In the short time it’s been on the site it’s been viewed over 30 times and downloaded once. Not big numbers to be sure and some of them are likely people I’m working with but not all. It’s amazing that with so little effort you can start to influence people you have never and likely would never meet.

Think about what would be possible if you tried.

Off topic rant… sorry ’bout that.

If you’re going to use a 2D CAD program to create drawings I think it’s important to look backwards to when drawings were produced by hand with pencil and pen. The width of the pencil lead or pen tip was a determining factor in the level of detail you could place in a drawing. As was the understanding of how long it would take you to erase and recreate the work should it change.

A parapet, for example, in a building section at 1/8″ = 1′-0″ might be nothing more than a 3 lines. In a 3/4″ wall section you might add a bit more information (enough to suggest the metal parapet cap). And you weren’t likely to see much more detail than this until you got down into the 1 1/2″ = 1′-0″ details. Changes to the detail usually didn’t necessitate changes to the building or wall sections thus making these changes was quick and easy.

One common method of using CAD is to place as much detail as possible into the building or wall sections and to simply zoom into them for the details. Sounds reasonable and is certainly easy to initially implement; after all, once the parapet is drafted in the first section it’s simple to copy the section to use a start for other drawings. A lot of ink is placed on the sheets in a short period of time and gives the illusion of work and thought. But what happens when the parapet detail needs to be changed under this methodology?

Well, if you’re going to do it correctly you need to find each of these sections that were copied from the original and make the appropriate change to each of them. What took the pencil drafter an hour or so might take the CAD operator an entire day… or more!

We need to get better at managing change. If our processes don’t acknowledge and allow for change easily then we are not managing change, the change is managing us.