Taking your agency to make change

An architects being held back
When the organisational culture doesn’t give you agency, here’s how to take some back.

This is a big juicy conversation. Architectural practices are often defined by stubborn power hierarchies. With dissenting or creative voices ignored regularly. And that’s a huge loss to the practice. Indeed the loss is twofold. It leads to staff churn with team members not feeling valued, supported and that they have some ownership of their work. Ideas that might progress or elevate the practices work aren’t heard, acted upon, and are subsequently lost.

I regularly talk to architects, some even in the leadership group, who either don’t have agency or know how to take their agency to make change happen in the practice. It’s a difficult conundrum. Power and organisational dynamics play a big role here, giving and taking agency can be challenging to both parties. It will take baby-steps.

What is agency?

Before we jump in feet first, let’s make sure we’re on the same page.

Agency is the ability for individuals to make independent decisions, have personal influence and some sense of control over their context. Potentially influencing and helping shape the culture too.

Change is challenging

And change can be scary for many. Architectural practice has followed the same model for ever and a day. You’re not going to upend an ‘apprentice’ model in a day or a week. By taking your agency you should be mindful you might be seen to be challenging the status of more senior staff.

Softly softly catchee monkey.


It’s likely you’ve more agency than you think, but you might need to choose to step up and take it. In some cases it might be that you have less than you’d like. Choose to make the most of any opportunities and within the constraints you have.

Find opportunities to contribute

There’s many moving parts in a practice and not all are managed and allocated. Pay attention, what do you notice you might be able to help with? Take ownership of the forgotten tasks or projects. Ask permission to initiate activities that might assist in yours and other’s professional growth – it’s harder to argue against that.

Find mentors and advocates

Find those people within the practice, or outside who can provide guidance, share experiences, and offer advice on navigating challenges and taking opportunities. Build strategic relationships, so that when the opportunity arises they might advocate for you too.

Forge allies and networks

You don’t need to take your agency alone, build relationships with colleagues and those that might have greater agency. Work with them to find creative solutions and advocate for yours and their ideas.

Skill stack

Make yourself so invaluable they’d miss you if you were gone. Adopt a growth mindset and develop more knowledge, expertise and skills. I wrote about skill stacking previously in relation to practice here, you can adopt a similar posture as an individual.


Are you sure you have no agency? Maybe you have more agency than you think. Ask what they might be willing to let you do. If they equivocate, use the magic question, “What would it take for me to be give more agency here?” They might not give you agency then and there, but at least now you have a roadmap.

Hard conversations

Make a space in order to have a conversation that might be a little challenging – asking for more agency, and asking the magic question. Sometimes these conversations are worse in the mind than in reality. It’s often helpful to preface such conversations by saying it’s one that you’re nervous about or a little uncomfortable to say out loud, or similar. It’s amazing how generous and supportive people can be when you show a little vulnerability.

Learn from ‘no’

It might take time, effort and recognising that you’ll might begin with multitudinous “no’s” to your asks. You might not get to an immediate ‘yes’ but make space and ask for permission to ask again at a later date. Always worth using the ‘no’ as a learning experience too. What made the ‘yes’ hard? How can you make it easier next time?

Parlay your agency

When making a suggestion to someone with agency, be willing to take responsibility for a failure and relinquish a success. Make this an express part of your proposition. It might not be all yours, but it’s a start and helps build confidence in your agency.

Small experiments

Let’s get scientific in taking your agency.

  • Develop a hypothesis (or idea).
  • Design a small experiment to test it.
  • Execute the experiment.
  • If it worked refine, develop and iterate. If it failed, why did it fail? What did you learn? What might you do differently?
  • Based on your new understanding, develop a new hypothesis or idea.
  • etc

Agency is not zero sum

Some people are reluctant to give others agency, thinking they must give up some of their own in order to make space for other’s agency. It’s not true, agency is not zero sum. Take a moment to show them. Hold their hand if needs be.

You already have agency

You always have agency. You can choose to stay, you can choose to go, you can choose to change the environment in which you work, you can choose how to do this.

You have to choose

You have to take your agency, it’s not always given.

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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.
Book a Call

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