High Performance Teams Design High Performance Buildings

A connection of mine on Linkedin last month posed this question on her feed: “How did you become a REVIT expert?”

This struck me as a particularly good question to ask because I think many firms at the moment are trying to improve their performance on BIM projects. To answer with enough substance to affect change, however, requires a non-trivial effort. A challenge I am up for. Furthermore, I find leaving long replies in those little comment boxes in poor taste. So while they might not have been the right venue for substantive change, I still think a full answer has value. Therefore, though it has taken me a while to circle back around to the topic, what follows is my best attempt at answering her question honestly and thoroughly. We begin by describing some of the answer’s characteristics before returning to the ideas alluded to in the title of this piece.

The first step any organization can take to start increasing its expertise in BIM is to separate the issue from graphic design. This point is often missed in discussions about BIM. I advocate making a hard break between the topics because they’re two different skills sets in my opinion. To understand how they’re different it’s best to use an analogy; they essentially require different types of exercise to improve. The cause of this oversimplification is understandable when comparing senior drafters with three decades of CAD experience to recent graduates using REVIT. Thinking critically about these differences reveals new solutions.

Once the separation is made, one suggestion to improve drawing quality is to consider implementing more Information Design in the production phase. I love construction drawings; draft for fun in my free time; and would happily hang good examples on my walls. But I’ve always adopted the approach clients are better served by looking at the output of a complex physical building in 2D linework as essentially an exercise in information design, of which graphic design is a branch.

Having thus established reasonable limits on our discussion, I wanted to take a moment to deconstruct the system we are trying to develop expertise in to make potential solutions clearer. The formal subject of Systems Theory has a lot to say about how we should approach complex software because it immediately excludes certain problem solving strategies one often sees employed in the field which can lead to frustration on the part of the user. My six years of experience as a systems analyst at a telecommunications company has many parallels with my expertise in REVIT now because of similarities in the nature of the complex software we trying to use to solve non-trivial problems. Taking moment to quickly outline my background, my previous department of 140 people provided technical support to 3000 frontline agents. Our department was their technical helpdesk (among other duties such as analyzing order fallout). As it turns out, telecommunications systems are pretty complicated, and sometimes even helpdesks need helpdesks. That’s where I came in. A core group of 12 of us had advanced system access and training to support our team members, with the additional responsibility we try to pass on this knowledge to other team members when possible. The point to remember is that everyone in the department would have described themselves as an excellent problem solver, but how was I able to distinguish myself to join that core group of 12? I really loved the challenges of that position. It basically assured all the hardest technical problems across the country found their way to my desk; which is exactly where I wanted to be. The nature of the system meant many problems were totally one-offs––never to be repeated––mysteriously disappearing after being fixed. These are the sorts of unique non-trivial problems Systems Theory tells us to expect in a complex software platform like REVIT as well. I observed through my interactions with team members, however, that many sought explicit rules to solve them, and this creates a direct obstacle to engaging the creative problem solving needed to tackle unique and uncertain problems. Experience is of limited use when faced with totally new problems like these. To start making headway on them draws upon skills that fall outside direct experience of building, such as critical and analytical thinking. Now we are truly ready to turn to what I saw in these problems which allowed me to help many team members and clients for my time there, and what makes me a REVIT expert and BIM champion now.

The Rocket Fuel of Creativity & Curiosity.

Returning to my colleague’s question, my first answer by reflex was “Creativity!” but I paused just long enough to overcomplicate it, remembering that curiosity, as the twin characteristic of creativity, was also worth mentioning. Considering another, and then another point that would support my expertise, I finally thought better of leaving a long reply. One needs to turn to the strategic decision-making literature or the cognitive neurosciences for the rigorous proof that such a connection exists between curiosity and creativity––that they are indeed opposite sides of the same coin––but a story from my problem solving experiences is probably more appropriate: When I sit with a colleague and try to help them through a difficult problem, one that I might initially be stuck on too, either in REVIT or telecommunications, what becomes apparent is that I’m magnitudes more curious about how these systems work, and how to use them effectively. I’d describe it as a burning and all-consuming desire to know how these systems work. And this approach, after a period of time, indeed bears quite a body of knowledge that can be helpful to the team if shared. Creative problem solving methodologies suggest one should be able to come up with as many alternatives as possible as a way of finding a solution. As a dimension of intelligence I’ve heard this quality be called analogical thinking. Working through a problem this skill is represented by the ability to ask many questions of a it––more than anyone else. Curiosity is the engine of this approach. Where some people can think of two or three good questions, I can fill pages. And as the problems become more complex, and more ambiguous, with more uncertainty, this curiosity in fact creates structure to the problem from which a solution can be found.

There’s actually quite a lot of further details that can be added to the model, mostly found in the two above mentioned topics in addition to the self-directed learning literature; a subject that for a long time was science’s only guide into unknown fields. The source of this creativity and curiosity in my character is a mystery to me, but I know as an adult it is not without conscious intent that I aim my creativity, which now offers us the requisite point to pivot toward how attitude plays a role in becoming a REVIT expert.

One of the best hints for problem solving at a high level is to quickly and easily admit what you don’t know about the problem, and to be able to make very fine distinctions in that regard––and again it’s curiosity that discovers ways to get that unknown information afterward. “I don’t know” are very easy words for me to say. I came into the world, and will exit it, knowing far less than all there is to know. Standing at the edge of my ignorance is like standing beside a vast and dark ocean. I don’t often get credit for this attitude because another characteristic overshadows it; I approach problem solving with great confidence and positivity. I learn exceptionally quickly; love architecture; and am so thankful that with practice I’ve gained an understanding of how things are designed and built. This positive attitude nourishes the problem solver as they encounter false starts, failures, red herrings, and yet more failure. If readers are looking for a more formal description of how a positive attitude supports professional expertise, researchers Andreas Fink and Mathias Benedek’s in the 2013 book Neuroscience of Creativity (MIT Press) comes to the same conclusion: Positive affect, and even humour, are very relevant to creative problem solving. Now we finally have the background to consciously deploy these attributes on a team to more effectively use REVIT, or any software.

Cultivating a positive attitude in the office.

Working under the assumption that the main goal of a design or engineering firm is to build a lot of valuable architecture, and accepting my suggestion that attitude is a key characteristic defining BIM expertise, then how can one get a whole team going that direction?

Identifying obstacles that come up in the office which inhibit a positive attitude quickly show how to cultivate its opposite. In a stressful environment with a micromanaging supervisor, it will be hard to look upon a difficult task in a relaxed and positive manner. I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my writing I take a very ancient view of leadership, believing the human condition just too complicated to ever order someone to have a better attitude, and then have that directly translate into an increase of expertise. Our aim here is to try to unleash people’s motivation. The shocking view that leadership by listening is an effective way of creating a positive atmosphere in the office will come as a surprise to some. But UK business writer Jo Owen’s research in this direction concludes many leaders who others describe as a great leader have this trait. Helping so many people work through complicated ambiguous problems, I’ve observed they will often tell you what obstacles they are facing to completing the task successfully. Ask a few more questions to understand their motivation and then that can be engaged as well. As Jo Owen notes, the vast majority of people come to work and want to do their best. But how often do we let them? Part of my success on my previous company’s helpdesk was that I was effective at passing on my knowledge (and cheerfully fixing their problem). And this hinged on my ability to listen. I was sensitive to how my teammate was thinking about the problem regardless of how I was zooming toward its resolution in my own quirky way.

Design studios and engineering firms are not well served by assuming courses or experience alone bring expertise. It’s much more about preparing the ground to be fertile to positive ideas. No farmer knows how to––or would seek––to direct the growth every stalk. Instead they work to make the field itself healthy to better their chances at a fruitful harvest. This is the best frame of mind in which to try to affect positive change. Hiring for experience is a double-edged sword. Though certified expertise and length of service is an easier metric to compare across individuals, it doesn’t guarantee a hire has any inclination of giving their best effort toward the team’s shared goals, nor holds a positive attitude towards passing their expertise on to others. I leave the role of formal teaching to others who really have a passion for the subject. But I absolutely recognize that an important characteristic of good leadership is the ability to teach and pass on one’s sometimes unique and valuable knowledge in just the sort of cases discussed above. One can’t expect everyone to be at the same level initially, but it’s clear that sharing one’s knowledge is a winning strategy as it has the power to raise the expertise of an entire team over time. And if one’s goal is to build a lot of valuable architecture, the only thing better than one BIM champion, is being able to field a team of them.