The problem with architecture

The architecture profession requires some renovation.
After umpteen interviews and a large survey*, it’s apparent that the architecture profession is confronted by a tsunami of challenges.

The remarkable thing I learnt from this research was the enormity and breadth of the challenges faced by the profession. I was not at all prepared for the diversity of issues, despite appreciating how complex practice is. It got me curious about, “What is the problem with architecture?”

Introduction

The challenges identified might be broadly defined under 6 main topics:

  • Market Fit/Getting Work (or should that be fit for market?)
  • Financial Management
  • Leadership Culture
  • People Management
  • Business Skills
  • Marketing Challenges.

These might be challenges for practice but they’re not necessarily the problem with architecture. So what’s the problem? It’s probably the most important thing to establish before leaping in and trying to resolve anyone of these challenges. Otherwise you might be solving the wrong problem, only addressing/solving a small part of the problem, or fighting against those that think the problem is something else entirely.

Note: This post doesn’t discuss the challenges and instead focuses on identifying problems. For anyone wanting to know more about my findings on the challenges, I’ll be publishing my research summaries. They’ll be available on my Homepage in the Resources block down the page. Or to be notified when they go live subscribe to my Useletter and Updates and Events emails HERE.

Professional skills

As an architect it’s important to be across so much in practice, so many skills are required that it’s hard to know what needs to be prioritised. The research made clear that many architects think there’s a skills deficit in practice. And largely that’s around business skills

That architects should be taught business skills at university is a regular discussion point amongst architects. But the more useful conversation to start with is to ask what essential professional skills are architects deficient in? We can name business and financial skills, marketing skills, staff management skills and of course leadership skills, which I’ll come back to.

For the benefit of the public there’s an ongoing requirement for continuing professional development (CPD) – prioritised by the profession’s and representative bodies. It’s fascinating that there’s zero mandatory ongoing learning requirements targeted for the benefit of the profession.

I don’t believe architects need to be taught additional skills at university, in addition to the skills they’re currently taught. I do believe they should take the time to learn them upon graduation and not just “on the job”, but formally. The learning deficit is a problem.

Is the problem: The profession doesn’t have the skills to properly tackle the challenges it faces.

Blindspots and perception

One notable aspect of the interviews and surveys was the almost complete absence of discussions around the impact of tech on the profession. Maybe that’s an outcome of my sample size or unconscious bias of the types of architects I reached out to. Whatever the case it seems remarkable to me that architects are not yet seeing the impact of tech on the profession as a challenge. I’m not sure if it’s a blindspot or simply a matter of perception or being incurious.

As an aside, tech may not necessarily be a challenge and architects are taking it in their stride – my perception is it’s going to be a challenge. I see this as symptomatic of something broader, rather than the issue at hand. It’s my precursor to what’s notable about the results

It’s fascinating to see the level of detail of the challenges identified. The fact there’s so many suggests to me that architects are zoomed into their problems and challenges and at the cost of a consideration of a bigger picture. It’s like the profession is identifying the challenges at 1:5 scale and not seeing them at 1:200 or 1:500. Is there an inability (or unwillingness) to make space to stand outside the day to day of practice to understand (and anticipate) broader challenges and change impacting practice?

Is the problem: The profession has failed to perceive current and future (imminent) change that’s impacting the profession.

Status quo thinking or a failure of business creativity

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail”

Benjamin Franklin

I appreciate this quote but I don’t think it’s the whole picture for the profession.

But it’s an important part of the picture.

Are architects too fixated on the status quo, trying to maintain (or regain) what they’ve always done and how they do it. Expending their energy holding on to old wants and tropes – creating new challenges. Failing to consider where new possibilities and opportunities might lie?

In my experience, many in the profession prioritise buttressing the profession and practice against change. Rather than (re)using their skills and creative practice to explore what the profession might gain from doing something new.

It’s the difference between thinking like an entrepreneur and remaining adherent. The entrepreneur sees change as an opportunity, whereas the adherent resists it. It’s understandable that architects want to maintain the profession in the manner that attracted them to it in the first place, but what’s the opportunity cost in doing so?

Is the problem: The profession is too caught up in addressing the daily challenges it faces and failing to embrace the opportunities that might come from change.

Is the real problem leadership and culture?

If we were to look at this through the prism of leadership, and I’m going to, we could say the problems identified above are all a failure of leadership. Leaders are born of a culture, driving and maintaining the culture. If leadership is inadequate the culture is too.

Good leadership has a growth mindset, looking to learn and grow at every opportunity. Where skills are deficient a good leader will seek out opportunities to do better, improving and developing their existing skills, and learning new ones when required – or seeking out expertise to help instead.

Good leaders seek out new perspectives, either through finding others to help them to see differently or placing themself in the position to see anew and from an unfamiliar perspective.

Good leaders evolve. They recognise that change is not only necessary but it’s a good thing.

Good leaders are creative, recognising that decisions aren’t binary but there’s multiple options available to them and they’re willing to excavate and consider as many as possible. They give others agency in this and capitalise on their team’s collective intelligence and experience.

By finding better leadership, the profession might begin to more effectively address the challenges it faces.

Is the problem: The profession has a leadership deficit, and subsequently cultural issues that prevent it from effectively addressing change.

Postscript

As a leadership coach and someone who runs leadership workshops, I’m of course going to show my bias here. As a hammer everything I see is a nail (or an issue of leadership). I don’t think that’s the case here, but happy to be shown otherwise!

I consider this a discussion paper, a starting point. It’s incomplete and a snapshot of my current thinking. It’s a space for my ideas and thinking as I work through these issues. It’s intended to provoke other’s thinking in order to extend the conversation and to help me to see more and learn more. All with a view to support the profession towards greater things and better practice. I welcome comments, critiques and insights, to extend and improve my thinking and towards a better profession. Please email: we.are@unmeasu.red


If you agree that leadership is a problem and need support in levelling up yours and your team’s, I’m here to help!
→ I support architects in mastering leadership and unleashing the collective energy, passion, and capabilities of their team.
→ For a free Leadership Clarity Consultation → BOOK HERE


* To date, I’ve conducted around 15-20 detailed interviews with architects and I’ve also conducted a micro-survey – sent to almost 250 architects. The focus of this research was on the challenges architects faced in practice, as well as the quality and value of leadership in the profession.


Picture by Ekaterina Astakhova [cropped and edited]

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach, helping the professional culture of the architecture profession. I believe the best way to do this is support leadership development.

I’ve worked in architecture for almost 30 years, and 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 help practices work on their leadership team and strategies. Supporting practices to become more open, fluid, and adaptable. Realising the collective energy, passion, and capabilities of their people.

Interested in hearing I can help? Let’s chat about the leadership development of you or your team.
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