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.