Taking Risks January 19, 2012

Futures Rambling – Issue 64

By Laurie Aznavoorian – Geyer Workplace Sector Leader

An old friend and past colleague suggested I write an article titled “Where Have All the Innovative Workplaces Gone?” Before knickers get in knots, I should explain my pal Dale lives in the US; a place preoccupied with Occupy, killing terrorists and digging itself out of debt. It would be safe to say innovative workplace design is not their current priority.  Dale’s suggestion was also somewhat ironic in that he is a project manager and knows damn well why workplace designers are having a tough time being innovative.

Dale… Seriously?

It’s shocking I know, but bland design is fostered by many links in the design cycle. Why workplace design hasn’t progressed at the pace some expect is a complex problem that warrants exploration of the design supply chain from client to project manager, to designers and on to a whole host of others who contribute to the inception, implementation and execution of a project. Face it, producing anything more than pabulum in design has always required vision, passion, persistence and cajonies. The state of the present economy has simply exacerbated what has always been an exercise that is not for the faint of heart.

Looking at the clients, it should be noted there are always exceptions; the bulk of clients are not scaredy pants, risk adverse weenies, looking for the easy and cheap path. On the other hand, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the few organisations with an appetite for risk taking could be counted on one hand. This is somewhat understandable, the public sector that we dabble in has been hit with debt and decreased tax revenues. Tertiary education is suffering from a drop in enrolment and the pressure to produce more research, which in turn attracts more students. Research costs money and places greater demands on time poor lecturers, it’s a catch 22. These pressures have forced Sydney University to eliminate 340 staff positions, 150 academic and 190 general staff.

The private sector fairs no better; desperate for higher profits and shareholder returns, companies are implementing aggressive cost cutting measures like holding off on capital expenditure. Few are planning large-scale expansions and when they do, costs are scrutinised. For projects that get the go ahead, schedules and budgets are tight and this leads to lower professional fees. Since those of us providing professional services are not philanthropies, we have no choice but to examine where corners can be cut and unfortunately this is generally in the area of innovation. As the old saying goes, time is money and when you don’t have any it can impact the time you dedicate to the ‘hunch state’ where ideas incubate and are co- mingled and swapped with others.

The really stinky part of this is some companies are so risk averse that even when they have money they opt to sit on it rather than invest in growth opportunities, innovation or R&D. A host of companies including Pfizer, Hewlett-Packard and Campbell Soup have cut research budgets and layed off employees, but managed to somehow scrape together enough cash to buy back millions in stock. Good news for shareholders, bad news for economic growth and jobs.

We know that civilization is not static; progress implies movement from the present. This is in sharp contrast to what many companies practice today when it comes to their workplace. Too many complacently sit on their duffs, feeling safe knowing they are not exposing themselves to failure. The Achilles heel is they also block their exposure to progress. Where the heck are we going to be in ten years if we don’t seek out new ideas, try new things and make mistakes today? There is a saying that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing wrong. If we are too scared to give something a go, engage in a process of trial and elimination, maybe what we are doing isn’t worth doing so why bother?

Einstein said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. If you believe this, you would be forced to question where the corner cutting and risk aversion is taking us. I fear we’re headed to a more dangerous place than what is implied when we relegate a large portion of the population to work environments that do little to inspire or delight. I may be being melodramatic, but suggest there is a hell of a lot more at stake.

In the book “Adapt, Why Success Always Starts with Failure” author Tim Harford talks about the difficulty of pinpointing the catalyst for success or failure in an increasingly complex world, where all things are highly interconnected. He asks why success is not insurance against subsequent failure and concludes that the level of complexity and change we are experiencing today creates new conditions that people and organisations need to adapt to. Adapt or die is the message. Unfortunately, the problems is organisations are so risk adverse they are willing to adopt, adapt or reject based on what others have already done, not a thorough questioning of alternatives and rationale. They do what is safe.

You would need to be living on Mars to not recognise our professional and corporate worlds are in a state of constant flux, what we feel is ok today may not be so tomorrow and this is the crux of the problem. Adapting blindly to practices, habits, cultures and workplaces we see around us without questioning their relevance is a compromise of commitments and beliefs. Of course this implies an organisation and their designers have taken the time to explore what their commitments and beliefs are.

Looking back at the past institutional failures around the world, one might conclude they are the result of this kind of blind adaption. Following others without thinking, whether it made good business or moral sense. As a teenager I did many things my mother didn’t approve of, my rational for doing these like most teenagers was everyone else was doing it. My Mother used to say, just because all of your friends are stupid enough to jump off a cliff does that mean you should too?

Another problem with taking the path most travelled is the loss of differentiation this signals. In his book That Used to Be Us, New York Times columnist Thomas Freedman identifies the dangers of being average in a hyper-connected world where people in other places and smart machines can do above average work.  He goes on to say that what was average ten years ago is below average today; therefore, we need to raise our game just to stay in place. Never mind what it takes to leapfrog the others.

The world is overflowing with products and services that are all pretty much the same, few stand out. We are translators of company vision, brand and culture and this gives us the opportunity to create a manifestation of what is truly different and amazing about a company. I don’t need to tell you, this is easier said than done. We don’t make companies, we translate them and if we are honest taking a mainstream organisation and transform it to something that is unique and compelling can be quite a challenge; particularly if the company doesn’t want to be great, but is happy to be no worse than their competition.

This takes us back to the beginning, workplace designers and all of the others involved in the process of creating place cannot do something wonderful if there is contentment with the status quo or a reluctance to stray from the pack. That takes courage. Robert Wennett had this when he bought a seven story parking garage in Miami Beach Florida. He decided to turn what was run of the mill repositories for cars, rats, beer cans and old Macca’s bags into an amazing place by designing the top two floors of the garage for both cars and functions. Those floors now rent for $15,000 a night as a venue for charity events, wine tastings and weddings.

Bob was prepared to take a risk, he had cajones.

I hope more of us will. There is promising news from the latest quarterly survey of CFOs by Deloittes that indicates many believe now is a good time for Australian companies, beyond those in the resources sector,  to take more risk and invest more. At the same time there is a greater appreciation by senior managers that space is strategic and that smart design can and should contribute to the bottom line.



Heskett, Jim, So We Adapt. What’s the Downside? Harvard Business Review, July 7, 2011

Pascoe, Michael, Have an Iced VoVo, an Investment Boom’s on the Way, The Sydney Morning Herald, April 17, 2011

Rosenberg, Jay, Angry Academics Question Real Reason Behind Cost Cuts, The Sydney Morning Herald, November 23, 2011

Schwartz, Nelson D, As Layoffs Rise. Stock Buybacks Consume Cash, The New York Times, November 21, 2011

Taylor, Bill, Average is Over. What’s Your Extra? Harvard Business Review Blog Network, December 19, 2011

Comoditization October 6, 2011

Futures Rambling – Issue 63

By Laurie Aznavoorian – Geyer Workplace Sector Leader

Last month I made a sojourn to the United States. The purpose was primarily R&R sandwiched around business, the launch of a book I have been working on with a number of other authors around the world. The book’s topic is workplace strategy and there is no question that with a scintillating theme like that, it will be hitting the best seller list soon. You’ll find it in the sleep aid section.

Jokes aside, the book and the conference it was launched at were outstanding events, but the highlight of my trip and the part I want to share with you is about baseball.  As luck would have it, I was in the US during The World Series, the annual championship of Major League Baseball. Despite the misleading name, the competition has nothing to do with the world; as a matter of fact if Australia had a team they wouldn’t be allowed to play, primarily because to Americans, America is the world.

The most memorable game of the seven game series was the 6th, it went for a cliff- hanging eleven innings when typically a game only lasts nine. Game 3 wasn’t too shabby either, The St. Louis Cardinal’s Albert Pujols joined Reggie Jackson and Babe Ruth as the only players in the history of baseball to hit three home runs in a series game. No doubt it was the head trip, the bad ju ju created by homeruns that encouraged the team managers to make what fair weather fans like myself would consider questionable strategic decisions.

Those unfamiliar with baseball would not be aware of the high levels of strategy, statistics and science contributing to the game. I only became aware of this a few years ago when I read “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis about Billy Beane, the manager of the Oakland Athletics. Beane is credited for using a unique form of statistical analysis and strategy that re-evaluated what caused wins on the field. He turned what many considered to be a team of losers, misfits and utility players into champions. More impressive is the Athletics had approximately $41 million in salary, but were competing with teams like the New York Yankees who spent over $125 million in payroll.

Beane had what many thought was no talent and no money, he simply found players that were undervalued by the market and put them together in a new way. People like me go to baseball games to drink beer and eat hotdogs, there are true enthusiasts who actually watch the game, recording every play. It was this fan data, collected from baseball watching software engineers, physicists and derivatives traders, that Beane developed his approach.

Others have tried to copy Beane without success; the method was even featured in an episode of ‘The Simpsons’ when Lisa used mathematical analysis to improve Bart’s team. Being a traditionalist, Bart had no appreciation for what he felt took the fun out of the game.  “What happened to stealing bases, the suicide squeeze, throwing a little chin music. This isn’t the game I grew up with the game played in the misty ballparks of Enron field, or Pac Bell Park, then SBC and now AT&T Park”.

Bart concludes that from now on he is going to play the game his way, he was going to play “dummy ball”

Reading the book Moneyball, now a movie featuring Brad Pitt,  one has to admire Billy Beane’s guts and the wisdom he demonstrated in reinventing his team.  By realising that just because everyone does something one way, does not mean it is the right way; Beane was open to identifying attributes in players often overlooked by other coaches. He used and realigned those unique strengths and attributes to create a winning team.

This is not the first time bucking the trend has had paid off, in fact some of the world’s greatest innovations are the result of challenging the norm. For example, mathematician Frank Nelson Cole rocked up to a mathematics conference in 1903 and on a chalk board in front of a room of onlookers proceeded to multiply a nine digit number by a twelve digit number. The product was a 21 digit number equal to 2 67 _ 1. This was remarkable, in fact it was so exciting it warranted the first and only round of applause at a mathematics conference, because it was a Mersenne number. Named after a French monk, Marin Mersenne, a Mersenne number is better known as a Mersenne prime, or prime number.

Prime numbers are of course indivisable, it took Cole three years of Sundays, dividing 2 67 _ 1 by every possible number to discover that Mersenne’s 250 year old formula was wrong, that is 156 Sundays. This goes to show that bucking the trends often requires courage, persistence and patience.

Another revelation I came to from reading Moneyball was that despite the glamour, talent and money, professional ballplayers are commodities.  It’s not unusual for a player to be told to take off his uniform minutes before the start of the game because he has been traded to another team. Being swapped and shifted, sold like cattle with little concern for one’s personal life is a part of being a professional ballplayer.

Whether you’re playing baseball, or are a part of an organisation that has provided loyal service to a client for years; getting replaced with a cheaper, younger or faster model is no walk in the park. No one wants to be a commodity.

Commoditization, defined as a virulent form of hypercompetition, is believed by many to be inevitable in competitive markets regardless of what prohibitive measures a business takes, or how innovative they are. They maintain all goods and services will eventually become commodities. Others believe the best way to combat commoditization is through differentiation, but what becomes painfully apparent is the expense of creating and maintaining a unique point of difference.  It can also be a futile effort. In today’s fast paced connected world unique traits or ideas can be copied in a heartbeat.

In the book Beating the Commodity Trap author Richard D’Aveni  provides an appreciation of how companies become commodities. He maintains there are three traps, the first is Deterioration – the result of a low end firm entering a market with a low cost / low benefit offer, this is what companies like Geico and Zara have done. To combat Deterioration D’Aveni suggests adopting strategies to marginalise or contain the market power these low end entrants have.

Proliferation is the second type of commoditization and it occurs when companies develop combinations of price and unique benefits that attack an incumbent’s market. An example is the impact of Japanese motorcycles on Harley-Davidson’s market.  Finally, Escalation is when an organisation squeezes everyone’s margins by offering more, or the same benefits, at a lower price.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see all three of these types of commoditization happening in the design industry.  Product types, design look and feel and specific services that were unique or associated with a particular firm have been adopted by others. Looking at design firms today it is often difficult to distinguish one from another.  Unfortunately, it used to take a generation for a business to devolve from the top of the heap to a low – price commodity, but in this day and age it can happen in a year.

Economist believe every industry will eventually mature into a commodity environment.

Somehow I don’t see designers going down that easy, if for no other reason than to prove an economist wrong. We’re problem solvers and surely if we have the courage to resist status quo we have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves the same way Billy Bean reinvented the Oakland A’s in 1997.

To get the creative juices flowing here are 8 tips offered by strategist, author and innovation expert Kaihan Krippendorff, while most appear to be irrelevant on the surface, each is good food for thought. Perhaps if designers adopt one or two we can get ourselves back into the game of Moneyball and out of playing Dummy Ball.

1. Bring back the dead:  With clever marketing, what is old can become new.  Record companies are reissuing vinyl albums and even releasing new albums in the old format

2. Create new occasions:  What new uses can we create for our product/service?  One type of baking soda is indistinguishable from another, but Arm & Hammer pulled itself out of a low-price, commodity battle by creating new uses and occasions for its product.

3. Become the ingredient:  Borrow other people’s roads into your home. Today you find Arm & Hammer in toothpaste (whiter teeth!), detergent (cleaner clothes!), and deodorant (fresher smell…!). The beauty of becoming an ingredient is that customers become less price sensitive.

4. Move the action:  Aussie Post is not in the letter business, you go to the Post Office to send a letter and come home with a DVD and set of free weights .

5. Shift the basis of competition:  In commodity games everyone competes on the same basis, might we distinguish ourself by choosing a completely different dimension? Can we compete on something entirely different?

6. Attach a business:  Thomson Travel in the U.K. sells cheap airline tickets and tours. It can afford to because it does not depend on these sales for profits, but relies on funnelling customers into Thomson Travel Charter Airlines airplanes. What related high-margin business could we attach to our core?

7. Rapid-fire innovation:  Trying to run faster than our competition is not a strategy, only if we really are swifter can it work. If we identify the most important factors that drive our client’s decision making and then unleashed a stream of innovative strategies to address each we would be cooking with gas as my Mother used to say.

8. Change the basis of pricing: Fill in the blanks: “My competition charges $_____ per ______” Then replace the blanks with something different. :  Xerox grew to dominate the copying business not just by offering great technology, but because at a time when the competition was pricing per machine, Xerox was offering a service priced per copy.



Christensen, Clayton M, Raynor, Michael E.  How to Avoid Commoditization; The Harvard Business Press; September 2, 2003

D’Aveni, Richard A; Beating the Commodity Trap: How to Maximise your Competitive Position and Increase Your Pricing Power; Harvard Business Press Books; January 12, 2010

Lewis, Michael; Moneyball, W.W. Norton & Company Inc. Publication date: 2003

NPR Fresh Air; ‘Moneyball’: Tracking Down How Stats Win Games; September 23, 2011

NPR Talk of the Nation; College Sport;



Denialism June 10, 2010

Denialism Issue 62

Looking to other industries is generally a good source of inspiration. At the very least, it encourages us to view our own industry and its challenges through a different lens, providing new perspectives and if we’re lucky, innovative breakthroughs.

Unfortunately, inspiration, creativity and innovation are bit like toned abdominal muscles, it doesn’t just miraculously happen; you must work at it and sometimes that means connecting dots where you don’t believe they should connect. This may well be the case with an attempt in this Ramblings to draw a connection between the design industry and an inspiring article I read in last months New Yorker.

The article was titled “Test Tube Burgers – How long will it be before you can eat meat that was made in a lab?” the author, staff writer Michael Specter, describes research being clandestinely conducted in hundreds of anonymous unmarked laboratories in universities around the world. Their ultimate goal is to create the same volume of meat in a lab that would have been provided by a million animals.

The research brings together the collaborative efforts of stem-cell biologists, tissue engineers, animal-rights activist and environmentalist; together they have now proven it is possible to grow meat outside of a body. It goes without saying that for some this is not exciting news, but a moral and ethical issue and that is why you will not find names on the doors of these laboratories.

The process sounds simple, but of course isn’t. Stem cells are placed on a biodegradable scaffold and are fed a nutrient rich mixture that encourages the cells to proliferate. Since meat is muscle and muscle that doesn’t move is fat, the cells get a bit of exercise with a jolt of electricity every now and then, which keeps the muscle toned.

Who would eat that you say! Ask the billion people in the world who go to bed hungry every night, or the people who have no choice but to dine on insects and rodents. Face it, we are pretty damn lucky in the developed world, it is hard for us to imagine going without food and we are quite oblivious to the evidence that our pattern of meat consumption is not sustainable. Besides being responsible for 20% of greenhouse – gas emission, cattle consume 10% of the world’s freshwater resources and 80% of all farmland is devoted to the production of meat. And we have not even begun to broach the inhumane practices in abattoirs

It is very sad, despite the fact that science will be able to produce a nice rump roast, people will reject the idea, say it can’t or shouldn’t be done and millions of people will still be hungry. Unfortunately, people tend to reject scientific fact in favour of personal assumptions that are based on nothing more than deep held beliefs.

The same author who wrote the article in the New Yorker addresses this topic in his book “Denialism – How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives”. My favorite story from the book is from Washington where I used to live. It is about the families living on Vashon Island who refuse to vaccinate their kids, preferring not to take a one in 1,000 chance that their kid will get a t disease like smallpox, measles or polio to a one in 10 million chance that the vaccine could hurt the kid.

Makes no sense to me, but I am sure in my own way I practice denialism, which is why I like to dress like I’m 22. We all do it, smoke or drink knowing it is not good for us, reject new technologies because we can’t be bothered to learn them, developing rationalizations for why the old way is better.

Specter thinks it’s fine if we believe irrational things, but says there is a big problem with people acting on those beliefs instead of acting on facts, particularly at a societal or organisational scale. This behaviour he says is a war on progress and he suggests it is important to embrace new technologies, acknowledging their limitations and threats, because the alternative is to slink back into “magical thinking” and that is not where we want to be.

We experience denialism to some degree with almost every project we work on. As missionaries of workplace change we bring new environments and with them come new technologies and often a requirement that users adopt new behaviours, attitudes and skills.

It is not uncommon to work with an organisation, provide data and anecdotal evidence supporting change, only to have it rejected in favour of sticking to long held beliefs that may be very individual and uninformed. You could argue it is an organisation’s or person’s choice to do what they want. This is true; however, when these views impact the success of the business as a whole it may be worth questioning.

For example, returning to Vashon Island, we could say fair go you hippies, don’t vaccinate your kid. Unfortunately, unvaccinated children are a threat to the ”herd immunity” that keeps epidemics at bay, shelters fetuses, infants too young to be immunised, old people with weakened immune systems and anyone who has been vaccinated because no vaccine is 100 percent effective. Suddenly denialism on a personal level becomes an issue for us all, and this is why it is wise to consider an issue from many different perspectives.

At the Property Council Congress in Darwin, KPMG partner Bernard Salt gave a presentation on the rise of negativism over positvism, which if you squint can be correlated to denialism. He is disappointed that Australian’s are not prepared to put a positive spin on growth, claiming we had all gone BANANAS in our attitudes towards development and choose to (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody). We are overlooking the positive aspects of urban growth and property development, choosing instead to believe any development defiles the planet and only serves to make developers rich.

We can sympathise with the bananas, there is no shortage of tragic developments, but there are also plenty of exciting developments being proposed which promise to make our cities much better places and Salt is understandable disappointed that so few business leaders are prepared to support property developments and fight the negativism with fact, reason and logic. He says no one wants the flak, but goes on to warn that every time misinformation, unfairness and economic illiteracy is unchecked it fans the flames of negativity that influence public opinion. The real enemy he says is unreasonable or plain wrong statements about planned growth and development instead of fair, reasonable, measured responses.

Our industry is by far not immune to denialism, plenty of architects and designers have their head in the sand when it comes to acknowledging and responding to changes taking place. Unfortunately, when companies ignore change it only makes them more vulnerable because they are unprepared. In our industry the fee base has eroded and competition is fierce, those are pretty big changes to contend with.

By choosing to deny, rather than formulate new responses we are selecting imminent failure. If we hope to survive we need to appreciate change has occurred and adjust accordingly by exploring new ways of marketing, communicating our design outcomes, collaborating with others and preparing documents; we need to reinvent the business of design.

This is what Sony Pictures Entertainment did when they launched their energy management training. Sony recognised their people were battling change in the market by working more, trying to get more done in less time. They also recognised time is finite, but energy is not; therefore they developed a program to maximise people’s energy to deliver the best outcomes.

By encouraging employees to establish rituals, like shutting down e–mail or taking a walk they began to shift behaviours in the business. Having senior leaders in the organisation willing to lead by example ensured the program was a success. Employees are now more focused and productive, 90% say it helps them be more energetic at work, 84% feel better able to manage their jobs.

Another industry we could look to is health care, as a whole the industry is being forced to reevaluate service and cost. Society can no longer afford to spend the kind of money it does on an inefficient health system, so are demanding new levels of accountability. One challenge with health care is they have existed in an internal bubble, most sectors have had to stream line process and have an idea of what they should measure and what their outcomes should be.

In health care they haven’t done this. When something isn’t measured, it is challenging to manage or improve. Providers can’t link costs to process improvements or outcomes, therefore, they are unable to make systemic cost reductions, the only place they can cut costs is with people and what they are paid.

The industry will argue that it can’t be held to a level of accountability, or initiate ideas applied in other sectors, because they are unique and cost cutting will only result in poor health care. Robert S. Kaplan, Harvard Business School professor and coauthor of the HBR article How to Solve the Cost Crisis in Health Care disagrees. In his article he suggests the industry must review and simplify. For instance today patients move from specialty to specialty and with each shift medical history and vital signs are taken, this duplication causes delays and can lead to bad hand offs and wasteful duplication. If hospitals organise according to patient flow they would minimise handoff and reduce redundancy and also improve medical outcomes.

According to Kaplan this takes time and requires dedicated resources, but it’s not rocket science, more like plucking low hanging fruit. The system called Activity Based Costing is currently being trialed in four hospitals. So why wouldn’t everyone be doing this if it lowers costs, eliminates duplication and will deliver better service? One reason is it reflects a change in how health care professionals do what they do, with technological and accounting improvements there will be better outcomes with fewer resources. People would lose their jobs. They are also in denial, over the need to change, the unsustainability of the system and a backward attitude about the specialness of what they do.

It is easier to pick out denialism in other industries, as opposed to our own. If you squint a bit you ought to be able to see a few similarities that can become food for thought. We maintain that what we do is unique and there are many people in our profession who have done what they do for a very long time. There are also associated risks in our industry that make us fearful of changing our processes. However, if we don’t change our processes we simply won’t be able to compete in today’s marketplace.

We cannot imagine doing design differently, but we must. It is important to keep an open mind to new ideas and innovations that may make a difference, even the ones that at first seem distasteful and unimaginable, like test tube burgers. A future where we are doing what we choose, in a different way is far preferable to a future where we have no choice, or are completely obsolete.

Kaplin, Robert S; What Health Care Really Costs – Activity Based Costing and the Balanced Scorecard – How to Solve the Cost Crisis, Harvard Business Review Idea Cast # 261, August 18, 2011
McNeil, Donald G. Jr,; When Parents Say No To Child Vaccinations, The New York Times, November 30, 2002
Salt, Bernard; The Forces of Negativity in the Trenches, The Australian, July 07, 2011
Schwartz, Tony; The Productivity Paradox: How Sony Pictures Gets More Out of People by Demanding less, Harvard Business Review, June 1, 2010
Specter, Michael; Test Tube Burgeers – How long will it be before you can eat meat that was made in a lab?, The New Yorker, September 2011
Specter, Michael, Denialism – How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. Amazon.com

One Company August 30 2011

One (insert company name here) Issue 61

In a recent meeting with one of our clients, I was surprised to hear the company planned to reverse a decision that they considered to be a key business driver, integral to their future success. Moving the goal post didn’t surprise me, after all clients are not unlike designers; sometimes they change their minds especially once they truly understand the manifestation of their goals in the physical environment. What surprised me was the particular goal they chose to abandon. Like many companies we work with, they hope to act as ‘One (insert company name here)’ and now before their new space is even occupied, they’ve elected to revert back to a regionally focused approach.

When questioned why, they explained that when the company, which is both large and global, views itself as ‘one’ they lose accountability at the local level. Regions that under perform have greater opportunity and propensity to hide under a one (insert company name here) umbrella. This attitude seemed very counter intuitive, but then I thought about it in the context of Europe; to be precise I considered Greece. It would be safe to say, Greece would not win a popularity contest with other countries in the European Union at the moment. In fact, I would wager the rest of the EU would be regretting the day they made the decision to become a part of ‘One Europe’ now that countries like Greece, Portugal and Ireland are neck deep in debt.

Given Greece’s track record of borrowing too much and being unable to pay its debts it should not have taken anyone by surprise. Over the past 179 years the country has been in default 50% of the time and Greece is not likely to reverse that trend any time soon; they have an uncompetitive economy that cannot generate growth. Their labour is expensive and unlike Australia there is nothing useful for them to dig out of the ground and sell to other countries. When it comes to economic leaders, Greece isn’t one of them.

If you are drawing a parallel between those European countries and the current state of the USA, acknowledge these facts: the US is still one of the world’s most competitive economies and despite its credit rating being dropped (touch wood) they have never defaulted on their debts. You might draw a very long bow and applaud the US for a stellar demonstration of acting as one, even though they only acted this way for a brief moment and literally came to consensus at the last possible moment. Everyone with half a brain knew that not agreeing to raise the debt ceiling would have lead to cataclysmic global disaster and even the US is not that stupid or self–centered. Having a country like the US default on its debt is a wildcard (low – probability high-impact event) that smart people wouldn’t care to mess with.

Unfortunately, neither political party felt good about the compromises they had to make to spring America from the financial pickle they’re in nor the likelihood that ramifications of their choices will most likely drive the country into an even deeper, darker place than it already is. Still given the polarisation, the political landscape and difficulties associated with this particular decision; one has to hand it to Barak Obama for his ability to negotiate with various members of congress and succeed in ultimately encouraging them to behave as one. The word is they bonded over Chinese food and some not too subtle encouragement from Obama “Voters may have chosen divided government,” “but they sure didn’t vote for dysfunctional government.”

In his book about evolution “The Selfish Gene” Richard Dawkins contends people are at their core selfish and primarily motivated by self advancement, even to the detriment of others. If you buy Dawkin’s argument, the fact that the US came to any agreement is quite miraculous, it also explains why it is so hard for us to collaborate – even when we know it is for the best. Of course, no one said collaborating was supposed to be easy, in fact the word collaborate is derived from the Latin word collaborare – made up of com which means with and labore which means work; the meaning of the word is to labour together. Work is not play, as is made abundantly clear in Bruce Mau’s description in “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth” where he aptly described it as being filled with conflict, friction and strife.

Most organisations believe working together as one (insert company name here) is a strategic business objective critical to their business success. Unfortunately, saying you’re ‘one’ and acting as ‘one’ can often be two different things. Despite how banally common the goal is, few organisations ever really achieve it. Part of the challenge they have in reaching collaboration nirvana is determining what will motivate their people to work together. Yochai Benkler, professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard University suggests there are seven mechanisms an organisation can employ to motivate people to collaborate, these are as follows:
1. Foster communication between team members. This is the biggest (and most experimentally-grounded) factor in getting people to cooperate.
2. Frame the business context appropriately because it plays a strong role in our motivation to cooperate. For example people are more apt to cooperate on a ‘community project ‘than a ‘Wall Street project’.
3. Create empathy and solidarity- caring about the people we work with has an enormous impact on our motivation to cooperate with them.
4. Be fair and moral. Treat people appropriately for a business context and focus on doing the ‘right thing.’
5. Reward – but not necessarily with money, find elements of fulfillment that are valued by team members.
6. Use reputation -people value their public status, so make it visible.
7. Offer diverse mechanisms to motivate people to cooperate – different people are motivated by different things.
Point seven is tricky. How can an organisation know what will motivate each of its individual members? A number of clues were offered at this year’s Enterprise 2.0 Conference held in Boston (20-23 June). Sara Roberts, one of the conference’s key note speakers, suggests each person is primarily motivated by one of the following: competition, personal achievement, exploration or socialisation. For example, she says that by ‘Game-ifying’ business initiatives an organisation can encourage participation by playing on our competitive nature. We can publicise personal goals to address our need to achieve and give people the opportunity to learn or research new things e.g. allowing them to explore. Finally, given we are social beings, being part of a community or team is a powerful motivator for many.

Finding the right blend to motivate a whole team is not an easy task and inspiring people to work together requires the skills of a talented ‘collaborative leader’. This term applies to people who have the ability to engage others, inspire them and encourage them to work toward a common goal. Beyond simply motivating others, collaborative leaders play the role of connector, bringing together people within and also outside of the organisation. This is what Beth Comstock; the chief marketing officer of GE did when she shared what she learned about the company with internal managers via her ‘Blackberry Beth’ blog. The blog goes to thousands of sales, marketing and technology leaders so effectively closes the connectivity gap between internal people and those in the outside world.

Research shows connecting people with different backgrounds, disciplines, cultures and generations produces better business results. One of the mistakes companies make is attracting people with different views or perspective, only to stifle their creativity by micromanaging or forcing them to follow homogenous processes. In doing this research I discovered companies that spend a fortune on interpreters at their annual meetings simply to allow executives, who are not native English speakers, to deliver presentations in their native tongue. The result is those who are less articulate in English are not handicapped, barriers are broken down and the company looks a heck of a lot more attractive to potential talent who may not speak perfect English.

Great collaboration starts at the very top of the organisation, the boss sets the tone. Sometimes collaboration is accepted at the middle or bottom ranks, but sabotaged by political games and turf battles that occur in the upper echelons. A famous example is Microsoft who apparently had a viable tablet computer that could have given Apple a run for their money. The project became collateral damage in a turf battle between divisions in the company. Sometimes it is best to remind ourselves where the real war is being fought; all too often we waste precious energy focusing on internal battles. By the time we have a run at the external competition, we’re exhausted.

We look to leaders for examples of how to behave, but in the case of leadership teams they often don’t operate as teams, so are perhaps are not the ones to mimic. A leadership team consists of the CEO and his or her direct reports and those leaders may be so concerned with their own team’s short term performance, they lose sight of company goals. Psychologists explain that when performance goals dominate, people expend considerable energy convincing others that they have unique skills such as intelligence, leadership abilities or being a great thinker, as opposed to really evolving or innovating. When a team is motivated by learning, as opposed to performing, their focus is on developing attributes which will benefit the company in the long run. Performance goals lead to a focus on tasks, team members will gravitate to what will make them look good, as opposed to what will help them grow and the company to evolve.

The down side of collaboration is a bit like red wine; a little makes life look wonderful and rosy, too much gives you a headache. We can all appreciate the reverse effect of situations were there is too much collaboration: endless meetings, debating ideas, covering old ground and yack yack yacking till we’re blue in the face, never reaching a consensus. This is the down side of collaboration and once again is where the ‘collaborative leader’ can help by calling an end to the debate. A strong collaborative leader has the ability to direct teams and maintain agility by forming and disbanding the team as required.

Collaboration is most definitely the flavor of the decade, it is a powerful business enabler and with downsising, outsourcing and the increase of the virtual organisations businesses will want to get the most out of their people by tapping into their collective power. The good news is there is evidence of human predisposition to cooperate! Still those who aspire to be one (insert company name here) will need to pay close attention to motivating and training people to shift their focus between long and short term goals, remembering both are important to the company’s success.

One trick I’ve discovered to keep sight of long term goals, while focusing on individual or short term goals is to do what my eye doctor advised. She suggests wearing a contact lens in the right eye suitable to see clearly into the distance, in the left wear a lens to see up close with complete accuracy. Simultaneously you can perceive the world from both near and far, it’s quite a special thing and harkens back to university days, where good eyesight went hand and hand with the occasional urge to throw up. Then it was due to drinking grain alcohol in slushy fruit drinks, now it is from wearing two different strength contacts. At the end of the day it’s a small price to pay for altered perception.


Ibarra, Herminia and Hansen, Morten T. Are You a Collaborative Leader? Harvard Business Review, July 4, 2011

Kahan, Seth. Revolution At Work, Fast Company Blog, May 12, 2011

Krugman, Paul. The President Surrenders, The New York Times, July 31, 2011

Lavenda, David. Social Business Leaders Speak Up: 9 Suggestions for Enterprise 2.0; Fast Company Blog, June 10, 2011

Lavenda, David. Why Do We Cooperate? Some Evolutionary Thoughts About What Motivates Us. Fast Company Blog, June 24, 2011

Zakaria, Fareed. The Post-American World: Release 2.0, W.W Norton & Co. 2011

Zakaria, Fareed. Debt Woes Could America Go the Way of Greece, Time Magazine, June 30, 2011

Dealing With Change July 24, 2011

Dealing with Change Issue 60

All of us have a tough time dealing with change; transitioning from the old ways of being to new behaviours and attitudes typically elicits seven distinct emotional responses from an individual: denial, resistance, confusion, release, envisioning, enactment and finally commitment. Organisations are similar, except they generally only go through three stages of experience when change is introduced: Ending – which produces feelings of anxiety, fear and loss; The Gap – when we feel paralysed to let go or begin anew; finally the New Beginning – where we begin to enact the first steps toward a new way of being.

Managing the emotions and behaviours that result in each stage of a change process is a significant challenge for individuals and businesses, but you would know this first hand if you’re in the Sydney studio. There are so many changes! One is the eminent transition from the task chairs purchased in many years ago to a new model to be selected upon completion of an involved evaluation process orchestrated by one of our designers Pablo. 4 chairs, 40 people, 6 questions, at least 120 personalities on any given day; it is not a job for the faint of heart.

One reason getting new chairs confronts us is that it comes on the heels of another change to our environment, new toilets. The new toilets are an improvement, never the less, improvement or not, it is a change and demonstrates how a good communication plan can help. Sure they told us about the new toilets, but did they mention the new vanity lighting would highlight every grey hair on your head and remind us of the inevitable aging process we prefer to ignore? Did they tell us they were switching to bidets? Okay I know they’re just normal toilets with an over zealous flushing function, still communicating the need to jump back when you flush would have been helpful.

We should take some comfort in knowing we are not alone, all humans have a degree of difficulty adapting to new things, even if they are for the better. But adapt we must, because by all indications we are in for a long string of changes, particularly in how we work. For example, those of you who always shut off Facebook when someone over 30 walks by can rejoice, it is no longer taboo to be on Facebook at work. In fact the average Australian spends 30 to 60 minutes of their work day on line, checking the news, weather and travel websites; sports and on line shopping are growing too and tools like Facebook are now considered a normal part of office life.

You know social media has hit the main stream when those pillars of progressiveness, the law firms, are on to it. Only a few short years ago we were laughed at by clients when we suggested social media as an upcoming and effective means of communication and community building. How times have changed. Many organisations now have their own Facebook page, generally used for recruiting. In fact one of the larger legal practices in Australia is working with Steve Jobs to develop an application aimed at new recruits. Some companies like Accenture source 80% of their new hires through LinkedIn and that’s nothing to laugh about, it has saved them more than a million dollars in recruitment fees over a two year period. Not chump change.

Businesses entrust their employees with sensitive information every day and demand a high level of professional responsibility; therefore to believe the employee can demonstrate responsible use of social media at work should not be a stretch. It is also virtually impossible to control the use of tablets, laptops and smart phones in the work place. The leash employers have on employees is gradually being let out: Activity based working, flexible working hours, Facebook and Twitter in the office all point away from the command and control model adopted in the past. Today many organisations believe that if people are engaged in the work they do, they will not spend their time on unproductive activities.

The infusion of social media into our work life is not the only change we must wrap our heads around. Although to be honest, many of the other changes that other are experiencing in the workplace are already the status quo for Geyer employees. Losing ones office appears to be the change that elicits the most emotional upheaval for some, but to us it appears to be an over reaction since we have never had, nor wanted an enclosed office to work in. Nevertheless, this single change is the one that really knocks some people for a loop.

Another big change is the lack of space to store useless junk and files, this too creates great angst for people. Most of us can understand why, of course you wouldn’t want to detach yourself from useful information you have been stowing away like a chipmunk for decades. This change hits emotional buttons and is much more about distrust of electronic media, or our ability to properly use it. In some cases it is a crutch for generally sloppy work practice and for other they just like to touch and sniff paper. The point is, these changes are often about more than what they seem.

Workplaces today are definitely less hierarchal and contain new types of spaces that are both more relaxed and casual. To take full advantage of the benefits these environments might yield, leadership must embrace the evolved work attitudes of their employees. In some instances this may lead to the development of new management techniques that favour goal setting and clear deadlines. Managing by walking around no longer fits with the way many people work and insistence on performing tasks in a particular place may block creative outcomes.

Today you don’t hear a lot of yes sir, and no sir in the work environment with the exception of hotel concierges, most will address you by your first name. People wear what they want to work, they show up and leave when it suits and for many organisations as long as the work gets done they care little whether an employee chooses to listen to music, eat, drink and in some cases take a little kip if it helps them do their job better.

Employees are encouraged to render an opinion, regardless of their position or rank in the company. It is through a blending of attitudes, experiences and unusual encounters that we provoke innovative thought. Since innovation, creativity and knowledge are the currency of our times, we have greater respect for someone because of what they know, think and how they behave, than their job title. For instance, someone like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF chief arrested in New York this May for sexually assaulting a hotel maid, would have more than likely been able to buy or talk his way out of charges in the past. Of course he did talk his way into a cushy house arrest in a luxury Manhattan apartment that many of us would consider a holiday. I know the case has taken a turn, still he lost his job and the fact that anyone gave the hotel maid airtime suggests a title no longer ensures a person is right, or good.

As we respond to global issues, Geyer will continue to create new work environments that will contain new technologies and suggest new ways of using space. We will find ourselves playing a significant role in helping our clients develop work place etiquette and protocols that make those environments successful. Often overcoming the fear of change is as simple as communicating the four P’s: the Purpose of the change, the Picture of what it will look like, the Part you want people to play, and the Plan of when things are going to happen.

It is a pity more companies don’t communicate these basics, it’s really quite simple; for example, if we were to apply the four P’s to the Labour government’s carbon scheme it might look like this:
Purpose – To reduce Australia’s emissions by 5% of the 2000 levels = 160 million tonnes by 2020
Picture – Ice sheets don’t melt, ocean maintains the right acid level, summers not so hot, bananas don’t cost $13 a kilo, fewer floods, fires and drought – overall it is pretty good as long as your job is not in the cement or aluminium industries. Plan – Big emitters pay a $23 a tonne tax for carbon emissions, increasing to $100 a tonne over time. Big emitters pass those costs to us, an estimated 0.7 percent to consumer prices. Hey wait that’s not fair! Correct, it’s not and that’s why there is $8 billion dollars worth of tax cuts planned. Part – It depends who you are. 4 million households will be over compensated due to the tax cuts planned so they can go blow that money, 2 million will not be any worse off and three million will go backward. It all gets a bit confusing, perhaps it is easiest to focus on Julia’s summation “There’s no money tree, there’s no endeavour here to try and pretend that everybody’s better off”.

Making changes is not easy, and developing a plan that works for everyone is complicated. Maybe they should call in Pablo.


IDEO, Your Company Needs Gen Y Values (Really!); Fast Company – Pattern series 2010

Smith, Fiona; Social Media is no Workplace Time Waster; The Australian Financial Review, June 7, 2011

Smith, Fiona; Miss Manners Moves Out; The Australian Financial Review, June 7, 2011

Taylor, Lenore; A Clean Start; The Sydney Morning Herald; July 11, 2011

Whitbourn Michaela, Parkinson Emily; Facebook’s firm friends; The Australian Financial Review, June 7, 2011

Competition August 17, 2011

Competition Issue 59

Competition is in the air. I had the pleasure of spending a week and a half in lovely Lismore, vacation destination of baseball aficionados, where I watched the annual Australian Youth Baseball Competition held on the few water-sogged baseball diamonds not washed away by January’s floods. At the halfway mark, when I had reached a saturation level with baseball that could not be revitalised by beer, I flew to Melbourne to attend the annual IDA awards. Now I am back in the office and the spirit, exhaustion, stress and overall exhilaration that accompanies competition continues on around me. Half a dozen of our best and brightest are toiling away on a competition for a major project in Singapore.

Opening the newspaper there is evidence of more competition: milk wars, petrol wars and airline fare wars. The highs and lows, the endless juggling to be on top, to win the game, get market share, be awarded the commission is everywhere. In some cases this brings out our best thinking and team spirit, unfortunately in others it brings to the surface ugly tactics and behaviours that lead to no good. Winning an award for a design, or getting the gold medal in a baseball tournament is a low stakes game, the winners don’t get money and other than a few moments of fame, which I will grant for some is the highlight of their lives, the benefits are often really only emotional and quite personal. This is not the case for many of the other competitions that are in the air.

If you have been to Coles or Woolies lately and picked up a litre of milk you will have noticed that the price has gone down, in fact the price of milk is about the only price that has gone that way of late! The two retailers are in a bitter war with one another that has been going on for years, but it wasn’t until the price of a litre of milk was slashed to $1 in January that the fighting got dirty. No doubt the reaction was due to the understandable latent fear, petrifying to many Australians that milk wars could extend to beer wars. Sadly they have, severely impacting a main staple of the Australian diet! Don’t make light of this, it is both serious and complex. So serious that a federal senate committee has been sent in to investigate price wars and so complex that the committee has requested an extension to their reporting deadline.

The milk guzzlers amongst us are happy, they’re dancing in the streets knocking back moo juice like there is no tomorrow. Coles and Woolies are happy too, because when you buy a litre of milk it would be foolish to not buy the accoutrements that go with it: Oreo cookies, coffee and Wheat Bix. When reaching the register you will more likely have spent more money than intended because large retailers like Woolworths and Coles are making it more and more attractive to purchase items in their stores that you may have previously bought from smaller retailers like the local butcher, fishmonger or fruit and veg vendor. What’s the problem? Isn’t this good old healthy competition? Do we need a senate committee to investigate and aren’t there more pressing items for senate committees to busy themselves with?

Watchdog magazine Choice thinks not, they have nothing against cheap milk, which they maintain is good for the consumer. Their concern is the high level of concentration in the supermarket sector and the fact that there is no regulation. This has led them to call for the appointment of a supermarket ombudsman. The unfortunate reality of this story is the consumer isn’t losing, Choice magazine isn’t suffering either, neither are the large retailers. You might conclude the real losers are the Ma and Pa stores and the dairy farmers who face pressure to keep cost low, but they still are not the real loser in the milk war. The real loser is the cow, in particular the 700,000 ‘bobby calves’ slaughtered every year as waste from the dairy industry.

Before I started writing this I didn’t even know what a bobby calf was and honestly that was a good state of blissful ignorance. Not giving a stuff where and how the milk got into my latte was a better place for me. Knowing about the poor little suckers and their pitiful four day lives has driven home the point made frequently on The Biggest Loser – in a competition there are winners and losers. In this case the baby cow is the biggest loser. My motivation is not to profess animal rights, or to guilt you into a short black; I simply wish to highlight the fact that in competitions, it is not always easy to tell who the real winners and the real losers are.

Being in the design industry we are no strangers to competition, the past years have been particularly tough with the GFC and general slowdown in many regions of the world. In fact the past year has been so tough that designers feel like they are living in a late night commercial where they are forced to entice the consumer with thrown in extras to sweeten the deal. “You don’t just get design services, if you purchase by midnight we will throw in strategy and travel free of charge, yes ladies and gentlemen that’s a 30% savings for purchasing by midnight tonight. Wait don’t touch that dial – for today only, we will also add a post occupancy evaluation. That is a $10,000 savings for you”.

Attempting to look at the positive side of this situation, it is important to note that competition between design firms keeps us honest and serves as a catalyst for out of the box thinking, it also forces us to develop clearly articulated value statements and continuously evolve as professionals. However, as we found with the milk wars, design wars may have unexpected consequences that are far from optimal. One obvious down side is the wear and tear on people that producing the same amount of work for less money takes. It is counter intuitive that educated people would agree to take on work they could not earn money on, but they do, although sometimes not knowingly. It is all part and parcel of the passion architects and designers have for their work and their general lack of concern with finance (Given we talk about our ability to deliver commercial solution, to client’s budgets, does this sounds like we don’t care about cost?).

In school, or if not there in the early phases of our professional careers, we learned the importance of balancing the relationship between scope, fee and time; nevertheless designers are more prepared today to make adjustments to one part of that trio without adjusting the other. Why? For the same reason Woolworths lowered the price of their milk, because that is what the competition does and if you’re going to be in the game you play to win.

There are many sayings that extol the virtues of winning the battle but losing the war. One of my favourites comes from the ‘Art of War” by Sun-Tsu. Written in the 6th century it goes as follows. “In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy is not so good.” It causes us to consider whether what designers have been doing in the past years has been doing just that, shattering and destroying the industry we work in and love.

To gain greater insight I have asked a number of professionals practicing in different parts of the world to share their experiences with price wars. While my survey is by no means conclusive, it does offer insight into what our profession is experiencing and whether you consider it good news or not, we are not alone. In fact, in some places designer price wars are far worse than they are in our neck of the woods.

It is no surprise that in countries where haggling to buy street trinkets and knock off watches is common, designers are forced to haggle for their fees. We must therefore consider ourselves very lucky. In India architects accept fees as low as one percent of construction cost, a practice we wouldn’t consider even in our most desperate hours. It should be noted that these are the same places where kick backs and bribes are fair go, providing the architect the opportunity to make up the difference by having contractors, sub–contractors and suppliers pick up the slack.

You may find it unacceptable as a designer to think others in our profession would be engaging in these kinds of activities. Before you do, consider the sentiment of the architect who gave me this information who asks how this is any different from some interior designers in the West marking up furniture they specify. Also don’t forget, designers in the developed nations do not think twice about accepting invitations to overseas boondoggles sponsored by suppliers, which some might construe as a covert bribe.

There is a belief that larger firms are able to charge higher rates than smaller design consultancies. A parallel was drawn between the design and fashion industry “retail is generally suffering in the UK, but premium clothing brands seem to continue to prosper. Clients seemingly will pay for the signature firms. That said, those who are engaging the larger firms are large robust blue chip clients.” The price range for simple space planning services in the UK varies from £16 – £45 per hour. We have experienced similar gaps in our markets. From this we could conclude that when the price gaps are that substantial, it is even more critical to articulate value and your point of difference to warrant the extra cost.

You may say you get what you pay for. One would assume that the same quality level could not be achieved when fees are cut so dramatically, interestingly this was not the case for the few I spoke with. Many admitted to biting the bullet and taking up the slack for the good of the relationship, or to get work in the door. For some this was a factor of who the client was, whether they had a national contract with the client and only if they believed that market share and volume would make up for early losses. Still they discounted their work, even it was not a practice they would extend to all clients, only those who could offer a large volume of work.

Most practitioners would deliver a high quality outcome to their client even if they did the work at a lowered cost. This is not the case everywhere, particularly in countries where kick-backs are common. “There is shoddy architecture everywhere. Doors do not close and windows do not open, paint runs, but lights do not, concrete crumbles and pipes drip, walls grow trees, planters do not. Hardware is worn even before it is installed. This is exacerbated by the fact that all this sits cheek and jowl with its opposite: doors that close and windows that open and so on, all evidence that doing the right thing is possible and an option.”

All it takes is one competitor to lower their fee to set a client’s expectation that they can get services for less, especially if it comes from the same competitive pool, not from three guys in their garage. This often leads to challenging conversations with clients that result in the designer backing down to get the work. Despite not being a country known for haggling, contracts in the US are now being conducted with the fervour of a Bali beach vendor, one respondent wrote: “All recent replies to inquiries go 2-3 rounds with specific requests about add services, exclusions and other items that did not previously receive such scrutiny”. It is not dissimilar in Australia, today I reviewed the sixth version of a contract being negotiated with one of our clients.

One area where we appear to stand apart is in the area of competitions for interior design services, unfortunately this practice has become a standard entry ticket for work in the Singapore market. When exploring this topic with practitioners in other countries I couldn’t help but feel very jealous of our neighbours in New Zealand where the not so bright idea of interior design competitions are less common. “I can’t think of any situations where we have been in a competition for interior design services.” Hearing that from our pals in NZ hurts me, almost as much as it hurt when my best friend in puberty would rant on about eating whatever she wanted and never put on weight.

The firms I spoke to in the US do partake in paid competitions, but only for architectural services and do so rarely. In the UK they have seen an increase in clients engaging in interiors competitions described as a “beauty parade of designers where they ask to see some initial design ideas and indication of fees prior to appointment. In these instances we virtually end up designing the scheme, as you can’t afford to pitch an average presentation.” This statement hits the nail on the head; there is no point in playing if you don’t play to win and playing to win often means losing your shirt. In most countries there are guidelines that have been drafted around architectural competitions, never the less they still don’t protect architects from pulling the short straw and if I am not mistaken these guides don’t apply to interior design.

Design competitions are not a contemporary concept and are most definitely not always bad; many famous buildings are the result of architectural competitions including the Acropolis and a handful of middle age cathedrals. Our Sydney Opera House was the product of an architectural competition. A competition can change the face of architecture, as was demonstrated in the outcome of The Chicago Tribune Tower Competition in 1922. The judges selected a design by New York architect Howells and Hood featuring a neo gothic building complete with flying buttresses and gargoyles. This decision to shun modern entries by Walter Gropius and Adolph Loos is said to have set back modern architecture by 20 years. That design went on to influence buildings around the world; take a look next time you’re in Melbourne.

Generally competitions produce exceptional outcomes; however, sometimes local conditions, politicians or site owners insist on putting in their two cents worth, which impacts on the winner’s vision. Just ask Daniel Libeskind about his World Trade design or Phillip Thallis about his winning entry for Barangaroo. (any issues with Lend Lease in saying this?)

Returning to The Art of War, consider the initial question posed, are we doing something to our industry that will ‘shatter and destroy’ it? Some think not, considering the current practice of price slashing and throwing in extras as par for the course in a competitive industry, believing it is up to each of us to deliver value that is worth paying for. Others lament we have become a commodity, a box of paper clips, with our services being procured by the same people in the organisation, using the same method.

Most small design companies cannot afford to buy work for very long. When larger firms slash prices, it creates an untenable situation for the smaller practitioner who will either fold, or be sold. Even larger firms cannot sustain this practice, companies in the US that bought work are now suffering, and particularly those that negotiated five year contracts at discounted rates in a desperate attempt to keep afloat.

Price slashing will change our industry; the challenge is in knowing how it will change it and strategically thinking about how we will respond. We can be ‘bobby designers’, like the cows – too young and stupid to know they are destined for the chopping block. On the other hand, it is pointless to go down fighting a lost cause by taking a ‘we are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore’ approach. What are we going to do? Demand the DIA create a commission and appoint a design ombudsman? That would be tantamount to recording companies arresting every teenager in the world for illegal music downloads.

After researching milk and petrol, beer and architecture it seems obvious the right approach is to forget price wars and get smart. Perhaps follow the lead of REX (formerly known as the New York office of Rem Koolhaas’s firm OMA ). They use design to make money for their clients; their design for the cultural centre in Kortrijk, Belgium is a great example. The brief called for a “library of the future” but REX believed the client’s recommended use of the site was wrong. They proposed an alteration that allowed the building to integrate into an existing public square, this freed up another portion of the site for private development and that delivered a $42 million dollar offset that covered the cost of the new building. Who wouldn’t want to pay for a designer who shows them the money?

By the way, Rem Koolhaas won that job in a closed competition.


Peers and colleagues whose names and firms shall remain nameless in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, India and America.

Farrelly, Elizabeth; Another Bastard for the Colonies, Sydney Morning Herald, December 23, 2009

Ferguson Adele and Rosenberg, Jen; “Grocery Giants to get Grilling Over Grog Wars” The Sydney Morning Herald, March 24, 2011

Hewitt, Rachel “Supermarket Gian Coles Triumphs over Woolworths” Herald Sun, April 2011

Hockley, Catherine; “Coles on the Attack Again in Milk War” The Advertiser, April 21, 2011

Kuang, Cliff, “Architecture That Boosts the Bottomlilne” Fast Company Blog

Mitchell, Sue; “1.5m More a Week Flock to Coles Stores” The Australian Financial Review, April 21 – 26, 2011

Staff Writers; “Milk Price Report Delayed until Oct” APP, April 21, 2011

Distractions March 3, 2011

Distractions – Issue 58

It is so hard to get work done these days, particularly when the people who sit next to you are not only distracting, but annoying, such is the case with the person next to me right now.

Did you think I have a problem with my Geyer neighbours Jennifer and Alanya? Good lord NO, those girls are lovely! I was talking about my other office,; a Qantas flight or whatever the heck it happens to be today. Up in the air is where I do my work these days and from the looks of it, I’m not alone. As I peruse the cabin there are plenty of people working away on laptops, meeting with colleagues, reading official looking documents. Looking at them, I intuitively know they share my annoyance at the other traveling population who think planes are for entertainment and leisure.and We secretly hate the shorts wearing, red wine drinking, with love handles over the armrests of their reclined seat smashing my laptop type of passengers.

Most definitely bad behavour, but not as bad as those who have the gall to have conversations with each other. Chitchat yack yack yack what do they think an airplane is, the start of a vacation? You may not agree with my definition of the primary purpose for Qantas flight 530, but if you’re like 48% of workers you would agree that the most time consuming distraction in the office today is a motor mouth co- worker gas bagging next to you. In fact, according to a global survey conducted by the recruitment company Robert Walters, talkative colleagues are the top office distraction for workers; Australians are particularly annoyed as is demonstrated by their ranking this particular distraction at 44% compared to other countries 39%.

Second on the list of office distractions is surfing the Internet, followed by getting personal e-mails at work. It is somewhat disconcerting to note research conducted by Microsoft indicates that employees spend a third of their time reading and responding to e- mails! Talking at work has overtaken our all time old favorite workplace distraction of smoking breaks. Now that we are committed to good health this distractions has fallen to a mere fourth with personal telephone calls at work in fifth.

Interestingly, wasting your time on Facebook has had less of an impact than what many old grumpy people think it has. , oOnly 2.63 per cent regard social networking sites as a distraction. One could even argue that Facebook has helped eliminate distractions, saving us from listening to other people’ss banal conversations about their weekend and what a nasty hangover they had. The reality is that when one appears to be working away like a Trojan, they may be in the midst of an important pet or hairdo conversation, but you don’t need to listen, so who cares. An overall productivity gain for the company.

A trick 46% of workers combat annoying distractions by arriving at work early to wallow in the solitude of no e-mail, no company crises and no co-workers wanting to know if you too developed a lump in your throat watching the Biggest Loser elimination last night. Unfortunately, when others discover the new work pattern, they may cleverly decide to come in early as well in an effort to overlap and pass on important cooking, gardening or fashion tips. It goes without saying that going in early and leaving late does not warrant a happy face for the company’s work life balance report card. , Eemployees may have extended their day, but they have done so at the expense of their personal life.

The ability to shoo away annoying colleagues is a vital skill in today’s workplace. After all, not only are workplace interruptions annoying, but they lead to mistakes and a loss of concentration. When the old trick of not making eye contact fails to appropriately convey the message, the experts suggest simply saying “piss off mate” may not be the best avenue to take. Anna Musson of The Good Manners Company suggests starting with a compliment and then you can safely proceed to tell them to piss off. For example “I really like it when you tell me about your mother, but can you do it tomorrow”. This ‘two–stage let down’ has the benefit of getting rid of the offending colleague, but is meant to also make them feel valued.

Paying attention to workplace distractions is a very smart business tactic. It is estimated that businesses in America lose around $650 billion a year through workplace distractions. I don’t have the figures for Australia, but I imagine that with our love of sport and betting and general jaw wagging it is as high, if not higher.

This begs the question; what can we do about these unwanted distractions? Author Chuck Martin says there is a set of 12 cognitive functions people have including time management, stress tolerance, planning, prioritiszation and flexibility; these are generally unchanging in adulthood. So like being blonde, short or tall, slender or heavy you are blessed with these functions at birth, and they are a factor of how neurons fire in your brain. So sinceGiven the likelihood of your changing is marginal, Martin suggests we improve employees’ focus by acknowledging their strengths and weaknesses and as managers, exercise greater tolerance for people whose behaviours differ from our own.

Many ward off distractions by making adjustments to the physical environment that signal they are not to be disturbed. Interventions such as hanging up a do not disturb sign, or doing what Michael at Studio Pacific Architecture’s does – wear noise reducing construction ear phones in the office – signal the person is concentrating. It is important to be able to distinguish minor disturbances that are good and help build a sense of community and company culture, from those that make the office an impossible place to do work. We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, particularly today when work is as much about social connections as hard yakka.

It is only a little bit ironic that I am distracted by people on planes that I am traveling on to advise clients of workplace solutions, which might include open environments similar to those I can’t work in myself. It is true that for organiszations wanting to encourage greater connectivity and collaborative spirit we almost always recommend an open office landscape. However, as much as an open environment encourages these behaviours, many argue that collaboration has more to do with how people feel at work than whether they can see others; are they stressed out, threatened, do they feel safe. People’s sense of being treated fairly, having autonomy and knowing what is going on in the organiszation are factors that play into their willingness to collaborate, as much, if not more, than being able to see each other.

Before judging how hypocritical this may be, it is important to note that the workplaces we recommend are very different to the ones we reside in now, or those designed even five years ago. Wireless technology, broadband Internet and smart devices have radically changed our ability to be mobile and this will continue to impact the way we do, and can, work. We are in a technology crossroad; new work patterns are slowly being adopted, and that puts us in a position of stretching our clients today to satisfy the demands of a more dynamic workforce tomorrow.

As we evolve as workers and organiszations to a ‘dynamic workforce’ it is even more critical that designers apply the logic of urban planning to workplace designs, taking care to isolate areas of greater group activity from passive individual workpoints. With the exception of Sydney, most city planning laws would not allow strip joints near schools. The same logic goes for a workplace; we need ample space or physical barriers between passive and active spaces. We must also take care of placing people on the main circulation paths, most of us don’t like living on busy streets, nor do we choose to work on the equivalent of that in the office.

Yesterday I received another article (people love to send them to me) condemning open workplaces as being unproductive and unhealthy. The sender’s intention is ”take that Miss Fancy Pants – we told you we needed offices and big desks and now there is proof.” The problem with these articles is that they are simplistic and tar all open workplace designs with the same brush. It is important to understand that workplaces are systems with parts that rely on one another. Providing one part without the other results in an inefficient and poorly functioning system, like a car without wheels.

As much as it would be easy to blame clients for not buying into the whole system, designers have something to answer for too. The people who forward these articles have been influenced by conditions they experience in their workplace, and someone, somewhere designed them. They are also fearful of changes they don’t understand. Either way it is our job to help them see that new environments can satisfy their needs and we must make sure we truly have satisfied them. This takes thought and courage, as it may require us to pull back on the solution rather than proceed with partial adoptions supporting amenity space, such as a desk size reduction and open office landscape without the right technology – and that’s more than a breakout area, or spatial variety.

Designing modern workplaces is a difficult challenge. Businesses’ today deal with a host of complex issue; the designs we create to address a diverse and dynamic workforce demands attention to areas beyond what we typically associate with design: business changes, cultural and age based preferences, corporate social responsibility. Never the less, it is what we signed up for and it is our job to consider all aspects of the contemporary workplace ‘problem’ and intelligently solve it. Delivering spaces that look good is a given, our designs must delight, inspire and also provide a touch point for an increasingly mobile workforce that offers people context and meaning. At the same time spaces must function, be smart and solve all of the problems, not just the easy ones.


Keller, Emily; Why You Can’t Get Any Work Done; Business Week, July 2007

Kind, Kim; Silence is Golden; The Sydney Morning Herald; February 26 – 27, 2011

Office Chatterboxes Australia’s Most Hated; The Courier-Mail; August 18, 2007

Disturbing the Peace: Work Distractions; July 30, 2010
Rock, David; Office Buzz Cuts Into Deep Thinking; September 8, 2010