Risk-Taking Isn't Reckless

Great design can't happen unless you are willing to take a risk.  BUT- taking a risk ups the likelihood of making a mistake, and in an Owner-led process of design, mistakes can be judged so harshly that we often prefer to stay where it's safe.  Obviously this "safe approach" benefits no one, yet we are running for cover as fast as we can.  I recently read an excellent article by Barbara White Bryson and Canan Yetmen for Design Intelligence on Leading with Exuberance that zeroed in on this issue. The article discusses the importance of having a collaborative process and the difference between cost and value (both popular topics of your Patron), but an interesting twist that they introduce is the idea that risk-taking is associated with feeling safe

Yes grasshopper, great ideas are not necessarily born from a maverick, devil-may-care state of mind, but instead emerge from the energy that comes from being able to interact and share thoughts.  However, being able to speak unedited and voice true opinions is a double-edged sword.  So is proposing an idea for which there is no precedent.  That's where the authors argue that the risk comes in.  They urge project teams, from the owner on down to stop the blame game.  Because innovation comes from straying from the tried and true, the likelihood of failure is also increased.  When the team can look constructively at the failure and learn from it, a mistake can become a gateway to valuable ideas and amazing solutions.  The authors further argue that the true source of failure may not lie in the team members, but in the process itself.  Processes that are faulty (many of them widely accepted industry standards) often lead to problems and it is these processes that should be attacked and amended.

Sounds great on paper.  How do we put this concept into action?  
  1. Show the way.  During the proposal and interview process, and certainly at the initial meeting with the Owner, talk to them about innovation and how you can work together to achieve it.  Use inclusive terms like "we" and "our" to refer to the project and the team. Structure design meetings as interactive brainstorming sessions instead of presentations.
  2. Get everyone involved. Encourage department staff s well as leaders and administration to speak up.  Conduct field observations and surveys of user groups.   If the contractor is on board early, structure time for their input on means and methods or cost/benefit analysis as part of every team meeting.  Use the resources of the entire team to look at ideas in terms of life cycle costs not just project costs.
  3. Never stop asking "what if?" You've heard that the only bad questions are those that don't get asked.  Never accept anything as unchangeable.  Everything can be improved to better adapt to the unique circumstances of the project.  Challenge the team to criticize and comment on every idea.
While the status quo may be comfortable, not taking a risk on innovative ideas may ultimately  be the biggest gamble of all for you and your client.