Monday, November 26, 2012

You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em

As a manager, I've sat through some pretty uncomfortable meetings with interns and upper management.  Sometimes those meetings were project-related in nature, talking about design or construction ideas. Other times those meetings were more generic in nature, like performance reviews or were some sort of attempt at conflict mediation and resolution. The uncomfortable moments generally came when the intern began pushing too hard in a design meeting for a certain feature or material or layout, or when the intern made sharp, emotionally-charged statements that sounded more like accusations than responses. In either case, the issue seemed the same to me: the intern wasn't correctly reading the moment, or s/he wasn't reading the moment at all.

Reading the moment is something I learned to do during my brief foray into stand-up and improv comedy.  If I'm performing a bit that's causing discomfort in the audience, I need to stop those jokes and move to my next group of jokes that they might respond to better.  If I'm running with a scene in an improv skit that's got the audience laughing a little more and a little more with each particular kind of gesture, I need to do more of those gestures, and maybe keep up that weird accent I developed accidentally to do the scene.  Either way, I'm making these changes on stage based on reading the moment, tuning into the audience and the surroundings: the noises they're making (or not making), the looks on their faces, if they're even making eye contact, and so on. But if I decide that I just absolutely come-hell-or-high-water am telling these jokes or am going to make this scene about Jerry Sandusky and Casey Anthony on a blind date, and I don't give a rat's ass how the audience is receiving what I'm doing, then I'm almost assuredly going to bomb.

This works very much the same in an architecture firm.  You may be in a design meeting where you really want the entry to do this instead of that, and your manager disagrees. Sometimes you two can talk through the pros and cons of the entry's layout and design, but perhaps today your manager just isn't having it. If you're not reading the moment, you're ignoring how his voice is getting louder and his answers are getting shorter and shorter. You're not seeing him pinch his lips together tightly and grimacing.  And if you keep not reading the scene, you're about to walk into a minefield. If you are indeed reading the moment, though, you can deftly propose looking at some different options and revisiting this later today or even tomorrow, or you can acquiesce and move on with your manager's suggestion. This isn't giving up or wussing out--it's acknowledging that design and work are about compromise, and always pushing for your way isn't going to be possible or a good idea.  In other words, this is acting like an adult and a professional. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Give yourself a break

As we head into Thanksgiving week (and the way-too-prematurely-arrived Christmas, etc. holiday season), I've found myself a little more scattered and less focused than usual.  I'm more easily distracted and have a harder time lately finishing a task, and I find myself with a shorter fuse.  Part of this has been due to some recent deadlines (two big meetings on the same day? oh, you should't have!), and part of it has been due to being just worn out. My projects have been moving at a pretty fast clip for a few months straight now, and I think it's taken a toll on the entire team, not just me.

The peril of white-collar work is that it's never really "done"--there's always something else to be done, and there's no clear boundary on our tasks.  Add in the ability to check our work email on our phones or iPads (guilty here) during the weekend, and it's easy to see the source of exhaustion. How can you rest when you can never get away, never get a break?  The truth about architecture is that there's always something else that you can do once you're done with the tasks you've been given.  If we carry that logic to one conclusion, then we'd never leave the office, because there's always something else to do.

But if we carry the "there's always something else to do" logic to another conclusion--a more sensible and prudent one--then we do get to go home, not check email, not plan our nights an weekends to revolve around our days. If there's always something else to do, then we're never going to finish. Sounds like a good time for a glass of wine, reading a book, or going biking.  (I wouldn't try all of those at once--pretty sure it's either impossible or illegal. But you get the point.)

You will feel the pressure to do more, draw more, research more, and be more.  You will stretch and push yourself to accomplish more personally and professionally.  If the pushing and pressure doesn't ease up eventually, though, you will feel your body and mind revolt.  You'll come into work and feel depleted or even defeated.  I'm asking you to honor that feeling for the sake of your sanity, your job, your project, and your profession.  You owe it to yourself to be healthy, and you owe it to your coworkers and clients to give your best to the project.  If you're too worn out to give your best, take the time you need to replenish and rest.  The work will be here when you're ready--it's always here.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The most unexpected skill you'll need as an architect

I mentioned last week that as a project architect and manager, I don't do a lot of drawing or rendering/photoshopping anymore.  (Though to be fair, my Photoshop skills were never terribly strong in the first place.) What I do more than anything is communicate, or more specifically, write.  I write a lot: emails, memos, meeting notes, more emails, RFP and proposal text, code documents, redlines on drawings, and still more emails. I tracked my writing word count for a week, and my typed word count alone clocked about 1,500 to 1,800 words a day.  That's between two and three pages a day of single-spaced typing.  

That's right--I write the equivalent of a college essay every day.  And I'm not even an English major.

You get to move from plain-old-architect to project architect/manager for a variety of reasons, chief of which is that you have some kind of design or technical skill--great with space planning, design, or construction detailing or codes.  But also among those skills is that you have some sense of what is entailed in good communication.  Writing and speaking that is clear, succinct, and respectful is good communication. Rambling, fudging, and accusing are not evidence of good communication skills, and those traits in writing and speaking can hold back a brilliant designer or someone with strong exterior envelope design and detailing skills.

Having done stand-up and improv comedy, I'm comfortable speaking to a group, and I'm (usually) good at thinking fast on my feet and coming up with an appropriate reply. My writing is often where I shine, though, and that's because writing, unlike speaking, leaves a record.  My words disappear into the air, but my memos live in a client's records, and my emails sit in a consultant's inbox with either dignity or repugnancy. My typed words can provide the clarity the design and construction team needs, or the thanks and respect that a consultant craves, or the explanation and CYA that my firm requires. My writing can be used to either protect my firm (or my client) or get it in trouble later.  My writing is the footprint of my firm's professional standards, which can help us gain or lose clients as much as our service can. And yes, spelling and grammar still count. If I'm not careful enough to check my emails and meeting notes, what makes anyone think I'll check my drawings too?  My design skills say that I've been an architect for a long time, but my spelling and grammar say that I also went to college.

So while my design skill may be the basis for my promotions, my writing and communication skills are what make the iron-clad case for me to run a project and to have authority.  Good writing is part of the proof that I won't abuse that authority and that I acknowledge the power that comes with it.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

Why your managers need you to manage them

Over the past 12+ months, I have become less of a producer (i.e., someone who draws and prints and researches things) and more of a manager (i.e., someone who directs producers and reviews their drawings and research intermittently). It's been tough getting used to not having any actual product to show for your efforts at the end of the day--a page of elevations, a colored floor plan, a Photoshopped rendering. I spend a lot of my time getting the information that my staff needs to make the design and drawings happen.  This means I spend time typing emails and calling people and occasionally doing my own research. 

I also spend a lot of time in [shudder]....meetings.  I go from the exterior design meeting for one project (two hours) to the planning meeting for another project that's just starting (one hour) to an informal discussion at someone's desk about a space planning issue on the first project (30 minutes) to a meeting on that same project with the MEP engineers (three hours).  If my day typically starts around 7:15am, and I leave around 5pm (if I'm lucky), that means I've just blown six and a half hours of a nine-hour day (if I actually take a full lunch) just meeting and talking to people. My email inbox has meanwhile filled up with messages regarding a wide variety of issues along with the occasional "there's cake in the break room" emails (mmmm...cake), and some of those emails may alter what I just told my staff in one of those four meetings I had today.  Oh, and I still haven't finished the meeting notes from the client meeting I spent all day in yesterday.  Dammit.

One afternoon, an intern asked me to review a drawing he was working on for another manager and me. I said sure, let me go get some water and hit the ladies' room and I'll be right back.  As I was coming out of the bathroom, I saw another team member for one of my other projects--she asked about a code study I was working on: did I have anything on how much we can suite the rooms to reduce travel distances?  I said I'd check.  Back at my desk, I looked up the travel distance, which was going to be too long even if we made a suite out of that particular part of the floor plan.  I needed to re-layout 10,000 sf of floor plan, because I only had one person working on the plan on another area's changes, so he couldn't do it that day.  As I was about halfway through redoing the plan, a shadow fell over my desk: it was the intern whose drawing I was supposed to review.  I looked up, startled, then looked at the clock on my computer monitor.  Almost two hours had passed since he and I had spoken--I had completely forgotten about reviewing his drawing.

My intern had been hesitant to "come bother me", he said, because he knew how busy I was.  Thing is, my not reviewing his drawing held up progress on the project--his project, my project, the office's project.  Like many project architects and project managers in an architectural practice, I got tied up in putting out fires and forgot about the original task at hand. I needed that intern to "come bother me" with extreme prejudice.  I needed him to come to my desk twenty minutes after we spoke and ask if now was a good time and say that he can't really move forward until he and I talked.  I needed him to hit the reset button on my priorities, especially because I had promised him some help first.  I needed him, in short, to manage me.

Your managers get busy, frantic, spread too thin.  It's generally quite helpful for them when you know their schedules and you remind them of what you need for them to do for you.  It can feel like you're being a bit parental, but nothing's farther than the truth.  Managing your managers puts you on a bit of a level playing field with them. You're really helping them help you by making sure you have what you need from them to keep moving and to do the right things on a project.