The Architect Brain- and How it Holds Us Back

We are trained as architects to be hyper-focused on detail.  We scrutinize relationships among elements, fret over details of code, think about every device that will be installed on a wall.  We draw finishes and juxtapositions of materials to the nth degree.  This same level of, well, obsession, gets applied to the way we operate.  Although we outwardly say that it’s a practice and that we can’t be held to a standard of perfection, we hold ourselves to that standard and react (at least inwardly) with shame when an error or omission occurs.  We condition our clients to expect perfection and implement all kinds of safeguards and quality control measures to “guarantee” mistakes won’t happen.  But the bottom line is that it’s about control.  We think that if we monitor every action of our staff, clients and contractors that we can swoop down like a hawk as the least sign of indiscretion and right the wrong.  That’s exhausting.  Furthermore, when was the last time it actually worked? 

If we were building the same building on very similar sites over and over again, we could just about perfect it over time. But most of the time, what we are doing in design is creating something from nothing.  We have developed a schizophrenic architect’s mind that allows us to be creative (embracing change) yet detail –oriented (resistant to change and looking for a right answer that can be applied formulaically).  Unfortunately, our creative mind does not win out often enough.  We ask of clients or superiors, “what do you want me to do?” and train our interns by saying, “this is how you do it.”  Then we become controlling about every detail of performance, documentation and implementation.

In an industry defined by disruptive change, we can take a cue from several recent neuroscience studies about how to deal with it creatively instead of procedurally.  Because architecture is really all about ideas.  A recent article in Strategy and Business magazine  by David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz gives some really great insight into how to let go of fears and start making amazing buildings.  Here’s how to deal with taking the leap:

1.  Command attention by eliminating distractions so the entire project team is focused on the information being presented.  Engaging your audience makes them stakeholders in ideas as they are developed.
2.  Create a compelling vision of the project and why certain design characteristics make a difference in how the building will support its users.  The authors call this mental mapping, and it shapes the expectations and attitudes of our audience, allowing them to have moments of insight that forge new neural connections.
3.  Sustain the focus.  Keeping creative or innovative approaches in the consciousness of the project team (daily is recommended) helps the new vision to become “the filter through which every decision is made.”  Isn’t this our dream for every project- to lock into the owner’s vision and support it with an amazing design that makes the lives of all who experience it better?  Think about why this so often breaks down (or fails to even get started) on most projects.  Now think about how you can articulate and sustain focus on your project.

The devil is in the details
It’s time to perform an exorcism.  Our obsession with detail sets us up for both madness and failure.