Monday, May 11, 2009

Asking questions and providing value

Asking questions is arguably a sign of intelligence, but the questions themselves also matter.  There is such a thing as a dumb question (and believe me, you'll ask some), but as long as your intelligent questions outnumber your dumb questions, you'll be fine.  The main thing to remember when asking a question is to see if you can answer it yourself first.  Did you look through all the existing drawings to see what this building you're remodeling is made of?  Did you find some meeting notes in a project folder that you could read through to answer your questions, or to use as a basis of your question?  When you try to answer your own question first, it shows your project manager that you are self-sufficient.  Self-sufficient interns don't need constant attention, just periodic attention; they're more interested in learning and being productive and useful than in being fed every bit of information and just warming a seat for eight hours.  In any case, if you try to answer your own question and cannot, then ask someone.  Tell them what you've done to solve the problem so far, and then ask for direction.  Your more experienced colleagues are usually glad to help.

The difference between just doing a job and doing it well is providing value. It's easy enough to do some redlines and then print out a drawing as a PDF to be emailed somewhere.  The value comes in, again, asking the right questions.  Why is this document/drawing being created?  Who will see it?  This information is crucial because not everyone needs the same information.  For example, a PDF of a floor plan sent to a client for their sign-off on an office suite layout needs room names, casework, and plumbing fixtures shown.  Extra information that the client might find helpful is to see the names of the suite's occupants on their offices or workstations or locations of artwork on the walls; it tells them that the plan has a seat for every backside, and it will give them something they can pass on to an art consultant (or whoever is going to buy the artwork for the office).  However, if a contractor will be using the PDF for some schematic pricing, then they need different information.  They won't care whose office is whose, but they'll need to know what the finishes are in each room and if there are any features that exist but wouldn't show up in a simple plan: garbage disposal in the break room sink, wall-mounted toilet instead of a simple floor-mounted model in the office bathroom, a heavy flat-sceen TV mounted to the wall in the conference room.

Additionally, think about what you can do with any task to make it more helpful, clear, or useful in the long run.  Staying with the example of the simple PDF floor plan, perhaps some additional furniture, plants, or people in the plan will help the client understand how their office suite might function.  If you find out that the client will be using the floor plan in a marketing effort (say, to get someone to rent the office), you might bring the PDF into some kind of rendering software like Adobe Illustrator and put some color blocks and swooshes on the floor and casework to make it look a little more realistic.  (Yes, I said "swooshes."  That's a grad school word.)  Likewise, you might fin that it's easier to take the contractor's plan into Illustrator and use different color blocks in the rooms to indicate finishes: green means carpet and semigloss paint, a purple line along the wall indicates vinyl wallcovering, and so on.

Asking questions when you receive any task, even some with which you're already familiar and have done before, clears up a lot of confusion in the long run.  When handed something new, ask about three things:

  • Scope: "What all is involved here?  What should the final product be/look like? Do you want something quick and dirty or picture-perfect and presentation-ready?"
  • Resources: "Where is this document or drawing located on the server?  Has anyone worked on it before?  Who can I ask questions of if you're not available?  Are there other examples of this that I can use for reference?"
  • Deadline: "When is this due?  Is this a drop-dead date and time or is it malleable, depending on how this proejct is going?  When do you want to see a draft version?"
It's been said that most television sitcoms hinge on confused communication or a lack of it.  The same can be said of many problems on an architectural project.  Asking the right questions up front can reduce or eliminate confusion and increase your value.

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