Who’s in Control?

Mary Ellen Wilkes (Joseph C. Towler)

As a Principal who is very engaged with mentoring (and trying to do it well), my communication focuses on finding the right communication tools for each person. A large part of this is figuring out how to deliver the same information to different people. This means different examples and different metaphors, adapted to someone’s communication style.

An important example I come back to is trusting your gut. As soon as your gut starts to tell you something, you need to stop and listen to it. If you assess that your gut has you 10% uncomfortable, then you’re probably in a good spot. You can manage that, and it will likely result in professional growth and personal development. As soon as it’s more than 10%, it means that you are truly uncomfortable with something… and I bet that it’s because control over the situation is in doubt.

EVERY situation needs to have someone in control. This person needs to recognize that they have control. They need to accept this control OR quickly defer the control to someone else. In order for a situation to progress well, the right person needs to be in control. This requires that we listen to our guts to assess whether we should be in control or not. The whole concept falls apart when someone is deluded into thinking that they should have control, but they aren’t the right person (they have a dysfunctional ‘gut alert’). This means that we WILL experience a combination of negative impacts on schedule, budget, quality… and morale. (It also falls apart when multiple people try to exert control)

Within our firms, we can manage this system of ensuring someone is in control. It’s really difficult to do this when we are subconsultants, and we look to our prime consultants to exert the control we need from them to ensure our projects go smoothly. Some previous posts referenced the challenge that subconsultants face when we’re put in a place where we need to “manage from behind” (Managing From Behind – Part 1). As subconsultants, we have to walk a line of deference (for lack of a better word) and try to work within what we have. It’s pretty uncomfortable to be in a place where we need to request our primes do better. It seems that the only way we typically do that is when we bring up scope/fee modifications. This is likely an indicator of lack of clarity, and lack of clarity means that someone isn’t in control.

So, let’s try to be clear about control. It makes us all look good.

[As to going back for scope/fee modifications, the reality is that we anticipate these kinds of bumps, and when they’re bad, absorb them as we can. Scope/fee modifications tend to need to be valid with a client, and these internal team misalignments are not valid to a client.]


As a visual example of putting control in the right place, I previously created a flowchart for staff (Know What Not to Do – Part 3). This also dealt with listening to your gut, but it was aimed more at staff inefficiency/mistakes with things they hadn’t done before. A different way to discuss the same fundamental topic: who should be in control?

About the Author: Peter Briggs is a landscape architect who has an ongoing preoccupation with the business of design. For more bio information, please see: www.highestexpertise.com/who-is-peter/

Remote Work – It’s Okay to Not Be in the Cloud! (…fully)

NOT the cloud – Two programmers work on the ENIAC (U.S. Army Photo via Columbia University)

I decided to move my final paragraph here to save you the time of reading to get to it.

The point of this post is to say that it’s okay to cobble things together for remote working. Don’t listen to the person who says all the smart people are fully in the cloud. We don’t need to know everything all at once. Gradual evolution is possible. Each of us has different needs for what we need our technology to do for us in delivering our services. Technology (and the cloud) is not necessarily the savior of working remotely. The savior is knowledge and knowing what tools to use and when. Oh, and back up your work. Definitely back up your work.

(And… you should at least be somewhat in the cloud. I think/hope the cloud will be pretty awesome when we get there fully…)

The beginning of the post:

April 1, 2010, was the day we opened a Juneau office and entered into the world of long-distance communication and collaboration. Last Friday, (just two weeks short of ten years of remote integration), Anchorage’s Mayor declared that we ‘shelter in place’. All non-essential businesses were told to stop their on-site operations. This was our turn for what seems to be a global watershed moment for remote interactions. We saw this coming, and I thank my lucky stars that I’m in the professional services sector where we have ongoing projects and can replace face-to-face with screen-to-screen (unlike the approximate 12,000 food services employees in Anchorage that have lost their jobs). And again, I feel lucky that we already have our infrastructure in place, have recently upgraded laptops, and it’s easy to set up our in-office desktop computers for use as remote workstations as needed.

I programmed games in BASIC as a kid, and I provide much of our firm’s IT because I enjoy it. I actively look at resources to try to figure out how to spend our money most wisely when it comes to hardware and software. I thought I’d just share where we are right now, getting into the weeds since some of you might find this of interest.

So, below is a bit of a stream of consciousness. My goal is to get my firm fully into the cloud within the next few years, but we’re not there yet.

(Note: We are a landscape architecture firm in the Architecture/Engineering industry. We use AutoCAD, Civil 3D, the Adobe Creative Suite, 3D modeling software and other similar packages. That’s what our technological needs are based on.)

Our Connection to the Interwebs 

Our offices have 150mbps download, and 20mbps upload. This means that communication between them is limited to 20 up/20 down. Established 14 years ago, we are on our third server, replacing them on a five-year cycle. While I hope that our next server will be cloud-hosted, I’m still a bit unsure about that… but continue to assess that as a very desirable option.


We hosted our email locally on our last server. When it crashed (due to an update!), within a day, we were using cloud-based email through Office 365. That was a great thing to happen to us! More than just email, it exposed us to and encouraged us to use the other features of Office 365.

A Side Note on Back-Ups

I recently had my personal external solid-state drive crash (1TB Samsung EVO NVMe M.2 in an external enclosure). I didn’t have a backup!!! I cobbled together most of it from other drives (undeleting many of them from a previous hard drive the files had been on – thank you Recuva), but I lost 1.5 years of some important word and excel files where I stored information. I can rebuild it, but that takes time. Those files SHOULD have been backed up or in the cloud. There was no reason they weren’t.

For work, our server is Raid 10 and is backed up on a Synology 4 drive unit, and then duplicated onto a Synology 2 drive unit that is off-site with incremental daily updates to keep it current. FYI… I love the versioning capability of Windows Server 2016. Everyone can smoothly go back to a file from yesterday, instead of needing to go to the tape back-ups, we stopped doing three years ago.


I’ve been specifying workstations for almost 20 years, and have usually had a target of spending around $2000 for a workstation (when I used to purchase from DELL). I could lower that when I started building them on my own. The two critical things are whether your software is single-threaded or not, and what kind of graphics card you need. AutoCAD is single-threaded, so the best processor is the one with the highest processor speed. The number of cores is irrelevant (but relevant to the other software we use that is multi-threaded). For graphics cards, Nvidia Quadro or AMD Firepro have the best compatibility for AutoCAD. Their error checking is not as crucial for rendering packages, where high-end gaming cards give you much more bang for your buck. In a desktop, it might benefit you to have one of each (allowing working on AutoCAD on the quandro/firepro and rendering on the gaming-type card).


We have Surface Pro Tablets for our principals and have been using Lenovo laptops for staff when they want to be remote. I just got a great deal on two Lenovo Flex 15 laptops at Costco. Their specifications are great for what they are. Consumer computers now often provide more than enough horsepower for what we need them for.


We can easily VPN into our server to gain direct access to everything. This is limited by internet speed, and you definitely don’t want to try to look at pictures on the server or work directly on more complex workflows. In other words, an excel spreadsheet is fine to open direct, and maybe a small CAD file, but not photoshop or other more resource-intensive files.

Remote Desktop Connection

Our workstations are enabled for Remote Desktop, and it is incredible how well this works, depending on internet speeds. When latency (as evidenced by mouse arrow lag) is good, it’s like being in the office. If latency is off even a little, it’s like being drunk… and angry.

The Right Tool at the Right Time

We know when to package an InDesign or AutoCAD file and put it on our desktop to work on it directly. Then we know to put it back on the server to ensure it gets backed up. THAT is the challenge of remote working. Having access to your files in a way that they are backed up and safe(!!!), and there’s not a worry that someone else was working on the same file. Luckily we’re a small firm, we typically aren’t working on the same files.

I’ve been cobbling together effective solutions for a long time. I know how to optimize my efficiency with the tools we have. I certainly look forward to when we have our server in the cloud, and we use our laptops as terminals to access virtual desktops from anywhere. These virtual machines will have all of our software in them and be a dream to use! We’re not there yet. I imagine we could be, but we don’t NEED to be yet. I’ll blame where I live for lousy bandwidth or some other poor reasoning.

Microsoft Teams

Talk about good timing. We started using Microsoft teams a few days before Anchorage went on lockdown. MS Teams is a game-changer for us. Within a week, it has resulted in us chatting within our firm instead of emailing, encouraging us to video chat more often, and allowing us to integrate project management and other tools directly into one workflow. This has not been an incremental change; Microsoft Teams has provided us with an opportunity for a significant leap in how we work. But… I think that probably deserves another more focused post.

Stay healthy. Stay safe. Enjoy what you do.

About the Author: Peter Briggs is a landscape architect who has an ongoing preoccupation with the business of design. For more bio information, please see: www.highestexpertise.com/who-is-peter/


The Sudoku of Site Design

Grading plan and sudoku comparison by Kristina Zalite

Grading plan and sudoku comparison by Kristina Zalite

A friend posted a grading plan on facebook and commented: “If you love sudoku and you are wanting a creative career, consider landscape architecture because site grading is real-life sudoku (with real life consequences).”

If you’ve played sudoku (or created grading plans), that’s about the best comparison I’ve seen. It also underlies how reliant on three dimensional problem solving landscape architecture is. You know where you’re starting (bottom of a hill), you know your destination (top of a hill), and you either brute force your way through solutions (trying different combinations until it works) or you have developed strategies that reduce (but don’t eliminate) the variations that you use.

This will resonate with anyone who has ever done a grading plan, and even more-so for those grading plans where you have multiple starting and ending points and you need to connect them to meet accessibility needs. For those of you that haven’t done this exercise… imagine a three dimensional sudoku game. It’s not a 3×3 grid, but a 3x3x3 grid. That’s what we’re solving on a complicated site. [ED: I’m also hoping you take a bit of pity on us… this stuff can boggle the mind.]

You also have to keep track of your solution iterations, and make tough choices on which ones are better than others as you assemble them into a cohesive plan. Balancing access, constructability, cost, aesthetics and client opinion… and what the architect is pushing for to blend with their thoughts, and the civil engineer is pushing for in their approach. Imagine playing sudoku where you have the pen, but it’s a bunch of people around you telling you how to do it.

So… landscape architecture is about aesthetics and design, but it also involves us trying to find the simplest and most graceful solution to complex puzzles under the pressure of countless variables that should be considered. When most people think of what we do, they think of planting plans. The reality is that math and strategic problem solving and client/team management are likely closer to our reality.

[ED: I love brilliant flashes of the obvious and things that help me understand (and describe) my world better. Thank you Kristina for this lovely revelation.]


About the Author: Peter Briggs is a landscape architect who has a current preoccupation with the business of design. For more bio information, please see: www.highestexpertise.com/who-is-peter/

“Thank You” as a Part of Your Brand

image  Thomas Leuthard https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ cropped from original

image Thomas Leuthard https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ cropped from original

Feeling Good About Ourselves

When was the last time that you received a hand-written note or card, where the sentiment was crafted by someone other than Hallmark? When was the last time that someone stopped to offer genuine thanks for something you did?

We often don’t remember the power of taking a few minutes of time to reach out to someone to thank them, compliment them, or otherwise add value to their lives.

When we take the time to reach out, we have the opportunity to reinforce the good that we see. When you are thanked for something you’ve done, you are more likely to do it again.

Building Your Brand

You want to be the person who is known as thoughtful. Your company/department should be remembered as having thoughtful staff. Instituting a ‘culture of thanks’ takes a little effort and support. By doing this, you reinforce your brand and create a positive atmosphere surrounding how people perceive you.

Case Study

We decided that we wanted to celebrate thanking people, make it was easy as we could, and to integrate it closely into our brand.

  • Step 1: What form would it take?
    • We like getting thank you cards, so we decided that having thank you cards on hand would be great.
  • Step 2: How does it reinforce our brand?
    • We are designers, so we wanted our card to emphasize our personality and ability:
      • Brand: With a raven as our logo, we already had a strong visual identity that we could draw upon.
      • Story: One of the reasons we chose our logo was that many cultures have stories revolving around Raven.
      • Approach: We wanted the card to be interactive so that not only would they get a thank you, they would spend a little time experiencing our card.
  • Step 3: A card.
    • Our card comes to you in a square envelope (with lots of stamps… more on that later).
    • You open it, and there is a round card  with a grommet in the center. It spins!
    • You notice that when you spin it, it shows you a word in a language that isn’t English and tells you what the language is.
    • You spin it some more, and you see that they’re mostly Native Alaskan languages, with some other languages commonly spoken in Alaska as well.
    • When you get to ‘English’, you see that the word is ‘Raven’
    • When you turn the card over, there’s a message from one of us to you.
  • Step 4: The psychology.
    • We hope that you are happy we’ve reached out to you to say something.
      • We’re trying to build and reinforce a relationship with you. We value you.
    • We hope that you see the card as something cool, and because it has a purpose/value, something you might keep.
      • You may show it to others, and expose them to our brand.
  • Step 5: Implementation
    • We have cards, envelopes and postage handy at all times.
    • We encourage staff to send these cards whenever they have an interaction that would benefit from a thank you.
    • We remind people that this includes all people, from the CAD tech who sent us a file to the Principal we had lunch with.
    • We keep a record of to whom they’ve been sent.
    • We also have Corvus Design Stickers, so we usually put one in the envelope. Everyone likes stickers, or knows someone young who does.
  • Step 6: Lessons Learned
    • We’re super excited when we go into an office and see our card on a cubicle wall. Success!
    • There are people we’d like to thank more than once, and this card would have minimal impact a second time. So, worked with a photographer to do a set of cards with winter, spring, summer and fall photos of ravens. Now we have the option of five fresh cards to send to any given person.
    • As an interesting “unintentional consequence”, we chose square envelopes because they are cool, and are perfect for a round card. Little did we know that the postal service charges $0.21 extra for square envelopes for special handling.
    • There are so many good times to earnestly thank someone. It’s a meaningful exercise for us to stop, and think about who we’d like to thank.

The Card

It’s hard to convey the card in a photo since it’s interactive, but here it is along with the sticker we include, and our branded USB drive. The USB drive is also a bottle opener, which aligns with our desire that people interact with our freebies. It’s also fun to hand to someone and say, “It holds memory… but helps you forget.”

Corvus Design Circular Raven Card, Bottle Opener USB Drive, and Logo Sticker

Corvus Design Circular Raven Card, Bottle Opener USB Drive, and Logo Sticker

Design: What Are You Buying?

My ultimate goal in these posts is to try to provide concrete ideas and actions. A previous post (The Beauty of Being a Hack) was more along the lines of musing, but a few minutes after I posted it I realized one of the more concrete things to which it might lead: you get what you pay for. [brilliant flash of the obvious!]

One of the tangents in the post was that I’m in a creative profession, but as a landscape architect much of our work relates to function. When we are scoping new projects, I usually have two very important questions:

  • For the client’s aesthetic, how ‘high’ of a level do they want? (I see the simpler version of this now which is, “How much design/art do they want?”
  • How linear do you expect the project to be? (I see the simpler version of this now is, “How actively will we have to manage the process to keep it on track?”

We work in a city with a landscape ordinance. At the simplest, our projects provide a client with a landscape that meets local requirements. We have systems in place for this that allow us to do it quite efficiently, and we have the design experience to add some flair within it as well. These projects can be super linear, without the intricacies of reflecting a higher design aesthetic. We can be confident in providing a very reasonable fee.

BUT… realize that you are hiring us for our project management capabilities. We have an agreement based on the very high level of knowns required for that very reasonable fee. You are not hiring us as designers/artists. Luckily, that’s what you generally DON’T want for this particular scenario. You’re looking for fact and a successful permit, not design and opinion.

When we are approached as designers, the interesting by-product is that we need to provide an even higher level of project management services. Design is incredibly messy and opinion-based, and takes significant time and effort to create what might seem to be a linear design process. The fees will be higher.

A small fee indicates a discrete and known task. A less discrete and less known task has a higher fee. All of the above is logical and sets the stage for the conclusion of this post. The above has a foundation of us wanting to deliver an optimized client value. Our goal is to find the fee where the client gets best value in our market, and to have our internal processes where for this fee we make money.

So… as a client there is the spectrum between frugal and patron. Reasonable frugality gets good value that leans toward the sparse. The emphasis on control in this relationship lies with us. A frugal client will always hope for more scope for less, and we are in control of what we deliver. My interest is in the concept of patron. The emphasis on control in this relationship is the patron. They need to determine the level of patronage that gives them their desired return on investment. There WILL be a point where the value of patronage is optimized, and beyond which will have no benefit… if not beginning to result in negatives.

The tongue-in-cheek point of the above. Pay us little and you get exactly what you pay for. Pay us more and you get what you pay for, but you do place some more control in our court to exceed your expectations. Pay us a lot, you might just make us lazy.


Beyond the humor intended within this, the summary point is: As creative design professionals (a licensed profession), your fee always gets you a high level of project management to ensure that we meet your expectations. We will be very careful about setting good expectations (which takes a high level of effort for small fees, disproportionate). To enable us as creative designers, we need to be compensated. We are fair in our approach, and our goal is to find the right level of value for you. With the right fee, you will engage us in a manner that you may just get more than you pay for… that’s the beauty of creatives. We develop new and unique things that sometimes deliver much more than what they cost.

Endnote: If you see us driving an Audi… it’s because we eat ramen for lunch. =)

Endnote Two: I drive a 1998 Ford Bronco II… because I grow attached to things… and it has an awesome turning radii for city driving. And I’m frugal. And I like to fix things.


About the Author: Peter Briggs is a landscape architect who has a current preoccupation with the business of design. For more bio information, please see: www.highestexpertise.com/who-is-peter/

This blog post was originally posted on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/design-what-you-buying-peter-briggs?published=t

Survey Says? Fact, Value or Policy.


Sitting down on a plane, within the first few minutes you can probably predict whether the person beside you will be an interesting conversation or not. Some never even get to the point of acknowledging your presence, and most never get past hello. Some… they really get someplace!

Fact. Value. Policy.

When supervising, a goal is to give people the framework within which they can get things done. A fantastic in-flight conversation left me with the memorable fragment that one of the keys to success in enabling people to get things done is to train them to understand whether an answer is based in fact, values or policy.


There are such things as facts. These answers are knowledge-based, and team members should be fully comfortable in making decisions based on facts.


Some answers will lie within value calls. These answers need some more consultation, as answers that lie within values need someone that is responsible for them (and experience/wisdom is also helpful). Typically, this needs to move up the chain of command until someone not only has the power to take responsibility, but also says they will stand behind it.


A form of value, this one becomes more political in that it relates to the organization surrounding you. It may differ from your values, but it follows a similar pathway where something moves up the chain until someone recognizes the grounding in policy, and approves the answer as reflecting policy.

That’s it…

I’ve made the decision that some blog posts should be short. Hopefully the above gives you something interesting to contemplate… and to make into your own thing.

State Your Assumptions


Positive change. How do organizations achieve it?

Part 1 – A mechanism for coordination

“Top-down” and “bottom-up” are familiar concepts for discussing where change originates within an organization. They’re based within some level of organizational hierarchy, with a simplified view being that there are two levels of power: workers and managers. The power they each possess stems from the fact that they need each other.

As an aside, this has been a very hard post to write and edit. It’s been difficult to distill into not only something of interest, but hopefully something useful. The underlying assumption I’d like you to embrace is that our goal is positive change. Let’s take this apart and agree that change is a fact of life, and that there is always room for improvement. Hence: positive change.

With the goal of positive change, success is found when both entities find agreement and are aligned in a common direction. Without alignment, change is difficult. The sheer potential for change is stymied when the groups don’t even have a mechanism in place to listen… let alone an ability to work to agreement.

Another main point I’d like to introduce is that your organization needs to be intentional with how it approaches change, and have processes in place to evaluate whether change is positive or negative. If you wish to be an advocate of positive change, you need to understand how your organization handles change.

Part 2 – Institutional limits on innovation

A concept of which I was recently made aware is that of a conversational ‘anchor’. These anchors are the biases or preconceived views that we bring with us. They anchor us to one way of thinking and as a result shape how others interact with us.

If organizationally rooted, these anchors define the ideology of an organization. If they are leadership rooted, they will have the same general effect. It’s simplistic, and it is a spectrum, but I’d like to introduce the idea that organizations are either solution-focused or ideology-focused. Either entity may have an inspirational vision of the future, an action-oriented mission to support their vision, the goals to support their mission, and the strategies to achieve their goals. But, I suggest that they differ greatly in the anchors that they carry and how they carry them. How do anchors limit positive change? I would hypothesize that the more anchors there are, the more limited an organization is in finding and implementing positive change. At its most open, an organization engages with its staff to tackle issues and develop solutions. This becomes less and less effective the more anchors that there are.

Part 3 – Assumptions vs. Premises

I don’t think there is any judgment of either organization type. Another way to view anchors is to call them assumptions. In our everyday lives (and episodes of Three’s Company), assumptions can be quite damaging because we’re not operating with all of the information. The scientific/logical approach to assumptions can be very powerful (and necessary), when we state them, recognize them and ideally confirm them. They serve the purpose of narrowing down the scope of a discussion, ideally beginning with people having agreement on the assumptions that will be made.

So… for the sake of this post, let’s say that an anchor is something subconscious (or undeclared) that we bring with us… whereas a premise is a declared assumption. A solution-focused organization is likely to be built on declared and agreed upon premises that are open to change. In other words, the organizational type predisposes itself to always questioning. Whereas, an ideology-focused organization will need to protect itself from the potential negative impacts of anchors. It is an organization that is already predisposed to a particular way of thinking. Extra effort will be required to ensure that any ideology has a solid premise, and is only applied the way that is intended to be applied.

Part 4 – Engaging the Highest Level of Expertise

Back to positive change. Each of us has our highest level of expertise. We are at our best when we focus on that, and others consult with us for our abilities. That’s where we provide our highest value, and often it provides us with happiness when we are engaged at that level. In a perfect world, that means that everyone is vested with vision and mission where they understand and support the goals and strategies. When this is the case, challenges are approached with a more comprehensive understanding… and we open an organization to an opportunity: people will offer solutions that may solve multiple problems… or… they might stop and challenge the question, helping the right question be asked.

This requires an organizational approach that is open to critical thought. This is a very simplistic discussion as it’s not as easy as saying, “you need to be solutions-based”. That could lead to amazing chaos with everyone being enabled to suddenly be philosophical. There is a hierarchical overlay of a number of levels of leadership, but the idea is to enable people to grow and initiate growth.

[As an aside, are you familiar with kaizen? A system of continuous improvement. If you’re not familiar with it, take a moment to check it out on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaizen). The foundation of this system is a solutions-based system where everyone is integrated meaningfully within every corner of the organization. If someone sees an opportunity to improve the organization, the systems are in place to hear them, evaluate ideas, and implement positive change.]

Part 5 – Right Person, Right Place, Right Time

Let’s also realize that an organizational challenge is to find the right place for the right employee at the right time of their career. The Peter Principle (not named after me) is summarized as being people rise to the level of their incompetence. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_principle.  People usually receive promotions based on how well they do their current role, rather than assessing their effectiveness and skills as suited for the role they will rise into. So, you are amazing at your job and you get promotions… until you are in a role that you aren’t as good at. Then you stay there. Ideally, everyone would be at the level just below their incompetence. Easy to say. Our culture is grounded in the idea of upward mobility, and organizations and individuals aren’t good at saying when they’re in the right place.

So, a solutions-based system needs to enable all employees and ensure that the right person is in the right role at the right time in their career.

Part 6 – Bringing it home

So… I’ll pick on ideology-based systems. I’m maybe really getting into the realm of opinion and bias here, but the reason for this is to address a system that has preconceived notions. An example of this is polarized government. Investing any organization with vision and mission is a challenge, and has an inherent weakness in the face of people who aren’t integrated. If they are just ambivalent, the system rolls on with them in it (but not the better for it). If they work counter to the system, a few can severely damage the whole. Unfortunately, being an elected system, government doesn’t typically reflect an integrated system of vision, mission, goals and strategies (sadly)… people are often elected based on specific strategies or goals (election friendly soundbites). Organizational effectiveness requires a continuum, so in a system where vision/mission/goals/strategies can change drastically… long-term benefit can be crippled.

What I’m getting at in this is that a solutions-based system maintains a high level of flexibility in how to achieve a vision. An ideological based system has more constraints on how to get there. It’s the difference between trying to solve a problem with a single tool versus having a tool box. “Our mission statement guides us to use a pipe wrench,” versus “Let’s assess the problem and figure out the ideal way to solve it.”

Part 7 – Epilogue

Phew. The above was hard to write, and I’m uncertain I did a great job of leading you with where my brain was going. At the end of it, I likely just restated the obvious. I think the most important part of this is to state that to work toward positive change, we need to understand the system within which we are working. Each system can offer advantages, and it likely depends on how much of a paradigm shift is needed for the positive change that is initiated.

The point is that we recognize that we are surrounded by systems that are grounded with assumptions/premises of which we may or may not be aware. Many entities predispose themselves toward certain solutions for one reason or another. This could be politics, religion or just doing it the same way it’s always been done. My worry is that these organizations are complacent to existing within these anchors, and they become an accepted organizational mentality with unintentional (?) limitations. If an organization has been taught that direction comes from the top, it doesn’t encourage personal engagement. People begin to show up, do their job like they’ve been told, and go home.

So. Does your organization clearly state its assumptions/premises? Do they recognize that these do frame how they operate? Do they have strategies in place to ensure that these premises are used correctly and don’t influence other areas? Do they have strategies in place to ensure that these premises encourage and spur positive change around them? Can these premises be changed? And to take it back to something I asked at the beginning of this post, does your organization have a mechanism in place to genuinely listen, assess and implement?

Getting the Project: The Interview


As a landscape architecture firm in a remote market (Alaska), we tend to be on multiple teams pursuing the same projects when we are a subconsultant on architectural project pursuits. We share this tendency the most with structural, and somewhat with electrical and mechanical. For most proposals this is a fairly clear and straight-forward process in that we provide generic proposal information to each team and then ask them to be specific with what we will generate tailored for their needs and approach. Things get a bit more complex when project or design development is needed for the proposal, but we’ve become good at compartmentalizing and ensuring that we are always acting in the best interest of our prime consultants.

Where things get weird is when we are on multiple interviews. Maybe its a strange skill to have, but we’ve shown how effective we can be when this happens. For the sake of this post I’ll just say that it’s exhausting being on four out of five interviews for a project where landscape architecture is brought forward as a significant role. I’ll just say that you need to become a character actor where you funnel each specific team and fit into who they need and want you to be. But… that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is to provide an opinion on what a good interview looks like. An opinion developed from being on multiple teams having the same interview.

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but I’d say it covers some of the basics and the obvious things that experience shows.

This is THEIR Project

For me, the most challenging part to an interview is anticipating what kind of interview is best for the client and their panel of interviewers. That influences everything that I list below, because something that works for one interview may be wrong for another. A good example of this is whether an interview is a presentation, or a conversation. Based on your proposal and being invited to an interview, the client should believe that you have the skills and experience to complete their project. They have a good feeling for what you can do. An interview allows them to get a better idea of who you are, and how well you perform. Part of performing is how well you listen and respond, and interact not only with your client… but the team that you bring.

Much of how you operate within an interview depends on your knowledge of the psychology of your client, and how quickly you can read the room when you are in the interview. Post interview debriefs sometimes relate to how a team just talked about themselves and what they can do, OR that they took the time to converse with the client and to speak about themselves and what they will bring to the client’s project. The same information can be conveyed two ways, but one illustrates that this is about the client and THEIR project.

Own the Space

You may be interviewing in the nicest room in town, or a basement storage closet. It’s always good to know ahead of time what you will have for a space in order to anticipate how you will use it. The number one thing that sticks in my head from successful interviews is how the team creates their own stage within an interview. This is as simple as bringing a number of graphic boards to put on easels behind them. This allows you to shape your space and to differentiate the visual memory of your interview from other ones. Keep them simple. Ideally they also provide the content for any presentation that you might have. Digital presentations can be good, but it just seems like they have the power to change the dynamic from interaction to watching. Some clients need their presentations though. Everyone is different.

Team Roles

You have four important roles on your team, that can be combined within person.

  • The conductor. This person is the leader of the team and sets the feeling and theme for the interview. Their role is to keep things flowing and on task. This is the person the client will remember something along the lines of: ‘that dynamic and trustworthy person with great skills’
  • The improviser. This person is focusing on the client in order to understand how to adapt the interview to their needs. You’ve already discussed some flexibility as to how the interview might shift, and they assist with this.
  • The time fascist. Just like you want to deliver a project on schedule, you want to show the client that you have an agenda for your presentation and that you are keeping it on time. Ideally you reserve more than enough time for questions.
  • The experts. You will have the people at the table that can apply their experience to this project, listen carefully and answer questions succinctly, and engage into the right level of dialogue.


Introductions are a fantastic opportunity to gain intelligence that you can apply within your interview. Ideally have the client introduce themselves first, and assess if it’s appropriate to have them each answer why this project is special to them in their role, and also to them personally. When introducing the team, a similar tailored answer may also be appropriate. Depending on the client and project type, identifying personal ties/interests can help to illustrate commitment and also humanize the conversation. If possible, start with some easy humor within this to assess the feeling of the room. If people are open to laughing, you’re in a good spot. (*but… at this point it’s important to understand that I have my personal approach to how I’ve learned to interact with clients. When humor fails, it’s not a pretty sight.*)

Agenda & Framework

Set an explicit pathway along which you will be leading your presentation, and be clear about when you move into the next part as you are presenting. Your interview should be like a good story with a start, middle and end.

Set the Message

When you are preparing for your interview, ask yourselves the question: When the interview is over, what will the interviewers actually remember? They will remember how your interview felt. They will remember if they felt any obvious emotions (hopefully they laughed). They will remember that you gave satisfying responses to their questions. They will remember you prioritizing discussion with them. They will hopefully remember one or two take-home messages that you felt were critical. And hopefully they will have some kind of ‘theme’ that they associate with you.

The above are the qualitative aspects that you have significant control over. Within your interview planning, consider what theme(s) you want to be remembered by. And don’t be afraid to be completely literal with starting your interview with, “Our goal is that you leave this interview remembering us as the team that listens carefully and provides our clients with innovative solutions that reflect who our clients are.” I love it when presenters tell me what I’m going to learn! It makes it easy for me, and then at the end I know how I will evaluate them. Did they achieve their interview goal?

When interviews include quantitative assessment tools such as scoresheets, then you need to make sure you provide them with what they need to ‘check the boxes off’. Such scoring does usually have a qualitative overlay that benefits from how socially competent you were.

Personality & Process

Bring the right people to tell your story. An important part of this is whether they interview well or not. Don’t bring people that don’t interview well unless you can put them in a place where they can be their best. Sometimes subject area experts are essential… even if their social skills aren’t ideal. They might just need more practice.

Focus on illustrating that you have an integrated team. This gets easy when you have pre-existing relationships. When you don’t, make sure you take the time to have your team members get to know each other. This allows you to find the places during an interview where your team can speak about one another to illustrate such integration and a comfort in interaction.

Flow & Segues

With a rehearsed presentation there should be an easily followed and logical flow that is reinforced by good segue ways. As mentioned earlier, your interview should tell a story with a connected start, middle and end.

Message, message, message

Each part of your presentation should reinforce your themes. It doesn’t hurt to be explicit and explain how each part of your story relates to the whole message that you are providing.


Well. That’s about it. The key to all of this is to do your best to understand your client and what they need and want to get out of an interview. Then, it’s about good communication skills, psychology… and illustrating that you are the team that will deliver a product on scope, schedule and budget with a clear process. And if all goes well, that you are the team that will make it smooth, painless and as fun as is appropriate.

The Power of “Tell Me More”

Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Tell me more

Dialogue. We hear the word often, but how much consideration do we give achieving it? Dialogue is defined as a conversation between two or more people, and it also relates to discussion with the aim to resolve a conflict. When I looked up definitions, I was surprised that it didn’t quite address how I view the word. I think that a definition I would add would be “conversation with a goal of fully understanding som eone’s views and finding a common resolution.” For the sake of this blog post, please humor me and consider that as the definition.

So, conversation #4 of 100 Conversations seemed to have dialogue at its core… specifically with placing an emphasis on understanding someone else in order to find appropriate solutions.

I Don’t Have Time to Help Myself!

The beginning of the conversation started with looking inwardly, and how we get caught up in our lives. Specifically we often do not place intentional focus on where we put our energy. We wind up focusing our energy on those things which ‘seem’ pressing. These often deal with our interactions with others. Simply put, it’s easy to fall into putting a lot of energy into thinking about and addressing the negative things in our lives. A parallel I’ll draw is the statement that within the professional world, 5% of our clients take 95% of our effort (or something like that). The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

It’s difficult to stop and intentionally reprioritize our efforts to focus on the positive.  There will certainly be times where we need to focus on the negative, but it should be within a recognition that it leads someplace. If it doesn’t lie within some continuity toward an end, then it might not be worth it. [Note: have you seen the movie Inside Out? It’s worth it in how well it makes the case that we sometimes need to embrace the things we see as negative. I don’t know how well it relates to my professional life, but it does illustrate a meaningful concept.]

We Can Control Negativity

The reason I bring the above up is that in my experience, negativity in my professional life can be traced back to poor communication. This blog has presented setting expectations and other aspects of trying to achieve positive communication, but it hasn’t dealt with some of mechanics of dialogue. Setting expectations sets the groundwork for this post in that it reinforced the need to truly understand someone by verifying what they say. This is the first step in dialogue. I think that we all crave validation. The first step in validation is feeling that someone has heard you.

Tell me more

How often do we stop and ask someone to “tell me more”? These simple words illustrate that someone is listening, and that no conditions are being imposed on how the information might be delivered. The listener has shifted importance to the speaker with an open question/request. They illustrate that we have found something of such interest, that we just want to hear you speak about it. (see post: The Power of Being Heard)

I joke about facilitation being a martial art like jujitsu. Facilitators seek to engage with and direct communication energies to where they have their highest benefit. Asking someone to “tell me more” places focus on them and puts them in a space of inherent validation. They can be in a place where they tell their story. Our culture of online comments, trolls and reduced accountability (we wouldn’t say the things we write if we were face-to-face) has exacerbated our already “all too human” tendency to expect the worst and act accordingly. My reference point is a heated public meeting. My reference point is a skilled facilitator who creates a space of dialogue where before there was unidirectional anger. Most of the time, it’s about using the right tools to listen.

Tools That Say, “We want to hear you.”

Dialogue is about understanding the tools that allow us to identify with one another and ideally find common ground. In the absence of common ground, at least feeling heard and understood. These tools allow us to understand and put order to complexity. Communication can be very messy, but if we can tease apart information and its relationships, we can help to bring order to things.

Good facilitation is beyond a single post, or even a university degree. To be an effective listener, you need a suite of tools to give someone the atmosphere within which they can communicate. It’s also important to realize that facilitation can be exhausting and take it’s mental toll. Our tendency is to absorb things, even as we redirect them. It takes a special kind of person to internalize that they are merely a conduit to help people be heard. THIS is why having someone on a project who is purely a facilitator has great benefit when things are complex. If you are on the design team, it will be very difficult to separate yourselves from the fact that you may be the target for people’s concerns.

Compartmentalizing our Roles

I’d like to wrap up this post with the ‘sanity’ side of how much we invest ourselves in what we do. As designers, it’s hard to not love your work… and imbue it with pieces of yourself. There is a fine line to walk within this to ensure that your client is getting a product that is theirs (and not yours), and to ensure that you don’t suffer when your ‘vision’ is subject to whatever winds that blow. Your project is NOT you. If your project IS you, then hopefully you tend more toward the art side of things and have patrons that support you.

In our lives, all people can’t be all things to us. There will be some people that give, some that take, and some with which we find balance. We accept trade-offs. We intentionally shift a relationship to meeting the needs of others without meeting our needs. Just as others might do the same for us. Within our professional roles, we can recognize that in the end, our projects are not about us. We place our focus on our clients and stakeholders, with us merely there to help facilitate their visions. We may need to work with their anger, confusion and other feelings… without letting them reflect on our view of ourselves. I’ll reiterate that there will be times where you will NEED someone else to be facilitator… for your well-being.

This brings this post full circle. Professionally we are at our best when we subvert or eliminate our personal needs, our ego. We are there to listen to our clients and to help them achieve THEIR needs. This may not be easy, but these interactions are not about us in any way, shape or form.

If you are involved with complex communication situations, do NOT look to your work as where you get your personal validation. We need to ensure that the other parts of our lives provide us with the validation that we need. That these parts provide us with the balance we need in order to subvert ourselves in order to get done what we need to get done at work.

You can’t be all things to all people. People can’t be all things to you. We need to juggle all of our relationships so that as a whole, they allow us to stay sane and ideally happy.

So… let’s end with a simple flowchart (eye candy). This expands on the validation component of the flowchart in Managed Expectations = Success to put an emphasis on listening, validating and really hearing someone: Tell Me More.

Tell Me More

Tell Me More: Confirming We Heard You Right

Coaching, Mentoring and Metaphor

1909 - Men Curling in Toronto

1909 – Men Curling in Toronto

Conversation #3 of my 100 Conversations effort. An underlying theme to the discussion was coaching and mentoring. Communication is certainly becoming a theme of this blog, and what I am gaining are additional tools to expand and adapt my ways of listening and communicating effectively. From this conversation, I saw a useful viewpoint that coaching has specific goals in mind, and may have a defined life span relating to achieving those goals. Mentoring is more about an individual’s growth and development over time. Another way to say it might be that coaching gives a person skills and strategies, while mentoring gives them a framework within which to use those skills and strategies. I might not have the perfect explanation (and I could be wrong), but this view serves the purpose of this blog post.

You Can’t Connect without Communication

Key to either coaching or mentoring is successful communication. This conversation #3 quickly delved into how coaching and mentoring are impossible without a very high level of communication. Our professional focus is not on ‘communication in passing’, it’s on communication that establishes successful long-term relationships. So, from here I focus on the importance of understanding how we best hear those we are in a communication relationship with… staff, client, whoever.

The Importance of Metaphor

In a previous post (Managed Expectations = Success), I mentioned the use of a kitchen renovation metaphor to communicate the challenges of a client being in a new building. They won’t have all of the benefits of the new space until they get used to it (i.e. where is the can opener?!). The purpose of the metaphor was to find a common language, with the hope that it is vivid enough to come to mind when they experience the challenges. They still may feel frustrated (and curse your name!), but they remember the overall context that it will be better in the end. Let’s take the time to discuss the power and weakness of metaphor.

According to wikipedia, “a metaphor is a figure of speech that identifies something as being the same as some unrelated thing for rhetorical effect, thus highlighting the similarities between the two.” The power in using a metaphor is to add emphasis to communication, and hopefully find clarity. I’ve stated before that clients hire us for our expertise. Expertise brings with it a different world view, a different vocabulary, and experiences specific to our specialties. Our clients will NOT have these shared experiences. We will NOT be able to us the communication shortcuts that we do with our peers or repeat clients.

Let’s say that each of us has our own unique system through which we best communicate and learn new information. This system reflects our experiences and our developed world view. If sports are integral to your experience, then the framework and subtleties of sports will likely be  a good way to communicate with you. If I am trying to communicate something to you, my challenge is to understand your system(s) in order to best communicate with you.

Without shared experience, we try to find ways to adapt our communication to our clients. At its easiest, we can find the right layman’s terms to directly communicate. It gets harder when we need to access more specific communication styles. Sports can be an immensely rich system to use for communication for how it deals with a broad spectrum of strategies to achieve individual and team accomplishment. Superficial sports references will work for almost everyone since in our culture we are generally exposed to sports. The challenge becomes knowing how far we can use sports before it gets in the way of communication, or might even be negative to successful communication. I understand the importance of being a team player in basketball, and I understand that every position has its own importance… but you’ll lose me if you discuss particular techniques or players. Sports metaphors only go so far for me (unless it’s curling… then let’s take out that rock to clear the house!)

A better approach is trying to understand our clients and the systems that they use for communication. It’s always a good idea to learn about our clients and their way of doing business. Our role is to help them in achieving their mission by applying our expertise to their goals. The more we know about them and their staff, the better equipped we will be to assist. This includes understanding their communication models. When we are at our best, we learn enough about their interests to communicate in THEIR system.

Be genuine, and have mutual agreement when we use tools like metaphor. The pitfalls of genuine can be seen in the plots of many television sitcoms: man likes girl, girl likes opera, man pretends to like opera, girl finds out he’s pretending and so on. Mutual agreement relates to an understanding that we are trying to place ourselves within someone else’s world view, and that we are doing so with some risk. The agreement is that we are trying to improve communication for the good of each other. For the sake of having a sports analogy that is obvious (admitting I’m weak on the sports front, unless you want to talk curling), someone might reference OJ Simpson (or Oscar Pistorius) as an example of something beneficial in a sports career… but I might be appalled for other reasons. Within our mutual agreement, I need to realize that your intent is good… and I should ask for clarification.

This goes back to establishing expectations. An expectation should always be to expect good intent, and that if I’m bothered by something… I should seek to confirm the information I’ve received. I’ve probably misunderstood. We can have those same conversations with clients and staff. “If I ever say something that bothers you, please check in with me. It was likely miscommunication.” [note: it is unfortunate that as humans, we often forget to assess intent within a moment of perceived offense. We go straight to being offended, versus seeking clarification.]

So to summarize this post, it is essential that we find the ways to achieve mutual understanding with those around us. There are short-cuts to a more full understanding, but every shortcut comes with accompanying risks. We minimize risks with doing our research, and with establishing a framework for dialogue and iterative refinement. It can be as simple as saying to a client, “I see value in sports metaphors with you. I’ll do my best… and I won’t be hurt when you laugh at my mistakes. Now tell me again, how many innings in a hockey game?”