Friday, June 26, 2009

Communication in architecture and the case against BS

I had a question earlier about BS in this profession. The exact question was this:

This job requires the ability to BS some.Can you describe some etiquette for when to BS and when not to? How much BS is too much? When is humility more beneficial? And when to call people on their BS, contractors, subs, city staff, consultants, project designers, etc.

Here's the short answer: BS is never okay. Here's why: there are generally three types of statements with regards to facts: true, partly true, and not true. Those are easy enough to understand. But bullshit (or BS as we're politely calling it here) is another whole breed of statement. BS isn't even concerned with truth: it doesn't care what's true, it doesn't know what's true, and it doesn't care enough to find out what's true, it's just about smoothing things over and making themselves look good. Moreover, it's lazy communication. The ultimate goal of all professional communication is to be clear, respectful, timely, and appropriate. BS is none of these. That's why there's no place in your job or career for it. Not to sound like your mother, but if you don't want to receive it, then don't give it out.

Some people confuse tact and diplomacy with BS--it's a common misconception, but they're two different animals. Tact is about speaking respectfully. If the contractor hasn't finished picking up all their punchlist items and it's going on 90 days after the owner has moved in and started using the building, then you need to remind the contractor of this:

Wrong: "You people need to go fix that crap. You haven't been doing your job and you'r making us all look stupid. I don't care what the problem is, just finish the damn punchlist."*
Right: "The owner has mentioned that there are still some outstanding punchlist items to be picked up. When are you planning to wrap those up?"

Diplomacy is being mindful that there are two (or more) sides to every situation and being able to problem-solve when you're hearing all these sides:

Contractor: "Well, we've been out there for two weeks straight. I dunno what else they want us to fix. Man, they are such a bunch of whiners."
Architect: "Dude, I can completely understand how frustrating this is, 'cuz you feel like you've fixed everything and we're all ready to move on. What they've mentioned to me is that the sink in the break room barely has any water pressure, and there are still a bunch of dings and scratches in the halls on the north end of the building. And I know we just wanna be done with this project, but they did pay for a nice, new, complete building, and we owe it to them to do that."

Sometimes, people will say things that you may not have the authority to handle, or they may say things that can't be verified easily or that will take some work to verify. When this happens, you call them on it with tact and diplomacy in the service of the job.

Contractor: "Look, they gave us our retainage, so we're done, y'know? And frankly, that place looks frickin' perfect. The subs were just up there fixing that drywall and that sink; they're just being picky."
Architect: "You were just up there? Did any of your sus meet with the facilities manager before they started their repairs to check what needed to be done?"
Contractor: "Uhh, awww they had the punchlist, so that's what they followed!"
Architect: "And you're sure they followed the punchlist? Because sometimes there can be a miscommunication if someone from your office wasn't right there and able to say, 'no, this is the part that needs to be fixed--'"
Contractor: "Naw naw naw, they followed the punchlist. Ricky's a sharp guy--he does good drywall, that's why we use him!"
Architect: "Hm. Well, how about this: before either of us drives an hour and a half to the jobsite again, I'll have them email us some photos and maybe a video of the problems they're still having, and them we can see how bad it really is. Sound good?"

At this point, if the contractor likes the idea, you can follow through with the owner and make certain whether the owner's being picky or if the contractor's shirking his job. If the contractor balks at your suggestion, then you know you just threw the BS flag and you've caught him. Mostly you can cut through BS by probing some: how do you know what you're telling me? How are you so sure? Might there have been some confounding factors that would have given you a bad answer? The parts of the above exchange that you might not have authority to deal with is the money thing, the bit about "we have our retainage so we've been cut loose." Run that by your boss to see if that's an acceptable excuse (it's usually not--mostly it's bad business for a contractor). If you're ever not sure, just say you'll run the situation past your boss and see if you two can come up with a solution.

I suppose you can use humility in the workplace mostly in terms of simply being aware that you too are a fallible human being. That's why you want to speak respectfully when you ask someone "hm, that's interesting, how do you know that?" You never know how they know what they know--either you'll bust them for some nonsense or you'll learn something new. Calling people on BS doesn't have to be a verbal arm-wrestling match. It actually works better if you're respectful about it, especially if there are witnesses. Ideally, you give a BS'er enough rope to hang himself or herself with in front of others.

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