Architects and loss aversion

Is the profession is being held back by an attachment to past roles, responsibilities and reputation? Is it time to look at what might be gained instead?

In 1979 Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky coined the term loss aversion, a cognitive bias where “losses loom larger than gains” for people. It’s been shown that the psychological pain of loss is about twice as strong as the pleasure in a gain. People will therefore take greater risks to avoid loss than they will for gain. Explaining, in part, why many businesses and professions are slow to adapt to change, and to evolve.

I’ve regularly lamented the focus of the architecture profession on the loss of “traditional” scope and services. Manifesting as a desire by architects to regain ground (scope or services) lost to Project Managers, Building Designers, Planners, Urban Designers and/or numerous other newly minted consultants. In some cases the profession’s concerns about lost ground are legitimate, in other cases I’m curious about how focussing on losses might be holding back the profession from finding something to gain. Not to mention holding the profession back from evolving and adapting to change.

Whilst this is a long held lamentation, it’s only of late I’ve recognised the role of loss aversion in driving the profession’s desire to maintain or regain their past roles, responsibilities and reputation. It’s one thing to understand the underlying motivation it’s another thing to change that motivation and overcome it. Nevertheless, now I better understand the challenge I’ll at least throw up some ideas and further questions…

Of course it’s more difficult to shift the thinking of an entire profession than it is an individual practice. So my challenge to the profession is not to focus on these losses as a profession. Instead for individual practices to consider their position and what they might gain by changing their thinking around the traditional services/scope of practice. My conjecture is that it’s easier to gain new ground than recover old ground. So architects might start by reframing thinking around their services and scope, from:

How might we regain [these services/scope]?

to instead

What new [services/scope] might we try offering?

There is no singular answer to the latter question (for any practice). Some experimentation is required. Experiments specific and relevant to each practice. Developing ideas or hypotheses, testing, learning from the mistakes and failures, iterating new experiments until something resonates or works. Worthwhile noting too that this work continues anew after each success. Continuing with, Now what else?

Brainstorming is often the best starting exercise when coming up with experiments and hypotheses to test. So here are a few questions to ponder to help with storming your brain.

What needs to be rethought about the scope of the traditional form of architectural practice?

Where are the new opportunities to be gained in architectural practice?

What are the skills, knowledge or interests, outside of practice that you might leverage and/or utilise to extend your architectural practice?

Are there “colocated” services offered by other consultants or organisations that might instead be offered by your practice? [Don’t be tempted here to go to easy answers such as interiors, project management etc. Think outside of the traditional roles of practice in order to find new gains for practice.]

It’s mostly just a matter of trying things out. The experiments don’t have to be big to begin with. Maybe carve off a small amount of time for each and include as part of your business development time. Small ideas, quickly tested and iterated. Please let me know how you go and if you have any further thoughts on this.


Picture by Pixabay on Pexels [cropped & edited]

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach. I help architects rethink their practice and support them as they uncover better ways to work. I’ve worked in architecture for over 25 years, and I ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I believe improving practice takes asking hard questions and deep listening.

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