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.