How to Educate the Perfect Design Student

ArchDaily had posted another question: What do you wish you had learned in Design School?

[And since I had first drafted this, they posted their article based on the comments they received: What Should Architecture Schools Teach Us? ArchDaily Readers Respond]

Accredited design programs really are in a tough spot when it comes to preparing professionals. They need to not only develop us as competent/skilled/artistic designers, but they also need to grow our ethical underpinnings and the knowledge and skills to meet the minimum competency requirements for the protection of public health, safety and welfare. Undergraduate programs have the benefit of a few more years to do this, but graduate level programs need to jam a whole bunch of stuff into three years or less.

It’s easy to list the most common things we wish we had learned: technology, project management, business development and a bunch of other skills. I think in some ways that these miss the point. The most successful landscape architects that I have known are successful due to their initiative and a drive to learn and apply. Their design programs provided them with a framework for one big independent study project – a design degree.

If I were to choose one thing that I wished had been stressed in school, it would be that for every class, the instructor put their information into context with how and when it would relate to me professionally. I think it was around Grade 9 during geometry when my teacher explained that our lessons actually had (or would have) real-life application. And guess what? As someone who builds things, the 3-4-5- triangle is an essential tool to me for checking how square something is. Understanding complex geometry is also essential to being able to communicate complex shapes within construction documents. Something as simple as being able to mechanically find the center of a circle is invaluable.

In a previous post (What Does Mentoring Mean?), I outlined the phases of our career and how our mentoring needs change as we grow. The same goes the knowledge and skills we possess.

So, the above addresses the one thing that I wish was presented to me in school (putting knowledge into a career context). I’d also like to offer my thoughts on another question, “What do you wish that students learned in design school?” My answers:

Initiative & Desire

How do you teach this? I think that to a large part someone will have it (or not have it) long before they make it to school. The question as an employer is how much we can foster or encourage it? I’m really unsure. I think there’s an important realization that every person is driven by something different. For some people, their career is just a career… not their life.

The point of this item is that initiative and desire are essential to a highly performing team. Each person delivers 110% (or more) of what the other people expect.

Critical Thought

My background is initially scientific. My training had me grounded within the importance of scientific method. Experimental methodology certainly made sense to me at the time (and was a favourite of mine), but it’s not until now that I appreciatehow it prepared and shaped me for my design career. During my Master of Landscape Architecture degree, my previous experience with methodology and statistics was tempered with design process (design classes) and for my thesis (graduate research seminar). Whether we recognize it or not, good design usually comes from a rigorous approach. I believe it becomes stronger when we apply critical thought explicitly, rather than the implicit (or subconscious) overlays that it normal goes through.

The point of this item is that people need to come prepared with their own framework for how they apply critical thought to a problem.

Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking in part comes out of critical thought… or is at least a partner. We explicitly create strategic plans for organizations and businesses, but there is an implicit underlying plan for almost everything we do in our lives. We don’t need this for successfully getting a bottle of milk, but most tasks will benefit from some explicit level of: stop, analyze, synthesize and act.

The point of this item is that we need to contribute to a strategic pathway that adds value and increases the chance for success.


Well… I think you get the point…

I just realized that I’m summarizing the blog posts I’ve made to date and those I have yet to write. I’m trying to describe the qualities that make for someone who is successful at the business of design.


A challenge in programs is teaching what the majority of the students need. Business development, business planning, etc… are subjects that only a small portion of students will need within their first ten years of practice. They’re also the subjects where mentoring and being exposed to them on the job is critical. It’s not that our academic programs don’t give us what we need, it’s that our profession doesn’t seem to have been indoctrinated into life-long learning. Initiative and desire drives learning for those who understand that they need to learn at any given point. The challenge is to know what we need to know before it’s critical we know it? Senior professionals could likely be more aware of how to assist their ‘higher functioning’ staff in learning, and also those who might just need a little guidance. My experience has been that professional learning is something that we talk about, but firms are few and far between that actively assist their staff with this life-long growth.

So, I’ll be bold and say that the question at the beginning of this post doesn’t get to the core of where it needs to go. It’s the easy question. It was a good first question, because it leads to understanding the real concerns. I want to pose another question: What knowledge do you wish someone had actively offered you on the job? Education doesn’t stop with school.

In closing, the most important thing that school could teach us is how to actively engage with mentoring in order to provide what we didn’t learn in school. And, engage senior professionals into their essential role in this.

(ONLY SENIOR PROFESSIONALS READ THIS: If you don’t engage as a mentor, you decrease your odds significantly for having the right person to lead your firm when you are gone. And if cash drives you, someone who will want to buy it from you.)

Engineers Are Good With Numbers Until…

Conversation #2 of my 100 Conversations had a structural engineer state that a focus of his ponderings related to “Engineers are good with numbers until you put a dollar sign in front of them.” This certainly doesn’t only apply to engineers. The reality is that most people who are closer to the beginning of their careers are focusing on learning their professions, rather than project management and profitability. If the proper company safety nets are in place (good fees and good project management), then the negative impacts of their ‘task delivery only focus’ is minimized. This blog post will be short, because a few years ago I had put together a mini-manual that tried to put profitability into context for staff. The main realization I had was that we miss our budget targets when unknowns are not managed properly.

It is important to state that profitability discussions need to be positive. No one WANTS to lose money. It’s just that a fully intentional approach to achieving profitability is often not in place. These posts relate to being fully intentional with how we engage our staff resources for a project.

So… conversation #2 inspired me to take that mini-manual and post it on this blog in three different parts:

Know what NOT to do – Part 1

Know what NOT to do – Part 2

Know what NOT to do – Part 3

Conversation #2 – Interviews

Another excellent part of our conversation dealt with how we subconsultants are sometimes on multiple teams. This means that sometimes we are on multiple interviews. Our lessons learned through seeing how different teams deal with the same interview lends some great lessons learned for interviewing. That will be an upcoming post. [ED: the post is here – Getting the Project: The Interview]

Know What Not To Do: Part 3

This is the third of a series of posts that will deal with engaging with staff about profitability. The underlying theme is that we are most profitable when we are working with knowns. Unknowns are what cost us time and effort that we might not have anticipated. The previous post is at this link: Know What NOT to Do: Part 2. This post is composed of flow charts that summarize much of the previous  two posts with a visual framework for intentional decision making.

The Most Important Flow Chart

This one is pretty simple. I like to tell staff to trust their gut. When their gut makes them uncomfortable, I’m here for them to speak with.

The Most Important Flowchart

Task Scope Assessment Flowchart

Before (or after) someone’s gut starts to alert them to something… we should assess tasks in order to validate where they fit within our knowledge.

Task Scope Assessment Flowchart

Staff Delegation Flowchart

This is another way to look at the scope assessment flowchart above, with a focus on the staff who will be working on something. The most important message within this chart is that you aren’t expected to know everything! In our culture, we’re brought up to think that not knowing how to do something is a fault and is embarrassing. Well… pretending you know something is the best way to lose your company money… and to get in trouble when people find out. BUT, as this chart shows, it’s good to push yourself to learn more when the knowledge deficit is controllable.

Staff Delegation Flowchart


So after three posts… the summary of this is that we don’t need to know everything. Your company should provide you with the skill/knowledge support where you can be successful and stretched enough to learn something with each project. This allows us to minimize the negative effect of unknowns. For learning, sleep and profit… that creates a higher level of shared success.

Know What NOT to Do: Part 2

This is the second of a few posts that will deal with engaging with staff about profitability. The underlying theme is that we are most profitable when we are working with knowns. Unknowns are what cost us time and effort that we might not have anticipated. The previous post is at this link: Know What NOT to Do: Part 1

Move quickly and strategically to refine and solve

Move quickly and strategically to refine and solve problems (unknowns)


I’ll introduce the concept of engaging. Engaging means that we review a task and determine that we are the right fit for doing that task. For our purposes, if we choose to NOT engage, it means that we pass a task on to another person or entity. This is an intentional transfer since all tasks need to be completed, or renegotiated.

Assuming that we choose to engage. The previous post discussed that project difficulties are normally associated with unknowns. When we have unknowns, there are a few possible impacts that may have on us:


When we encounter an unknown, it will result in extra effort and hence extra money. As consultants, time = money. We have several opportunities to control unknowns.

  • Budget: We try to anticipate unknowns and schedule appropriate time and effort to resolve them. As landscape architects, we are always dealing with things we haven’t done before. Much of the time we have done similar things, so we can use past knowledge to guide us. Some of the time we are doing completely new things. We do our best to manage budget unknowns. It is important to stress that sometimes we agree to the wrong budget. If we have good project management skills, we can minimize negative impacts, but the most important thing is to identify issues and plan for them.
  • Knowledge Gaps: We are all learning. We are a team. There is almost no benefit from learning something the hard way, unless it is an intentional pathway agreed to with someone who has more knowledge. As soon as something is new to you, you need to assess whether you can learn it quickly and efficiently, or whether you should check in with someone. They may encourage you to go and learn it, they may teach you, or they may give you a few pieces of the solution to help you out.
  • Skillsets: Who is the best person for the task at hand? We should all be in a place to learn, but you don’t need to learn everything today. If someone else can do what you are doing faster than you, figure out how they can assist you. This benefits the project, and means that you meet current project goals and you will be better at it next time because you interacted with them and their knowledge.

Bottom line: Budgets and project management are in our control. The only way we can evaluate success is if we have outlined goals and strategies. The only way we will achieve success is if we have goals and strategies.

Sleepless Nights

If you have a conscience and are passionate about things, you will have sleepless nights in the face of unknowns. It’s a fact. You care. Our goal is to provide the strategies, frameworks and support network to minimize their occurrence. Sleepless nights are a product of growth and upward movement. The more responsibility that you have, the more decisions and outcomes will be reliant upon your actions. The main advice for this is to look to the root of the worries, and assess what is in your control?

If it’s in your control do you have the strategies in place for a pathway to success? You still might worry a bit, but hopefully minimally since you have done your best.

If there are components that are not in your control, have they been delegated to someone that can control them? All items need to be identified and associated with delegated (and accepted) control. If that’s not the case, the unknowns that are worrying you need to be assessed again and a strategy developed. If there is no pathway to control, then disengaging needs to be examined.

Bottom line: If you don’t have control, and can’t gain control, then it needs to be someone else’s worry.

Opportunity to Learn

We include opportunity to learn within this since this is the most intentional way to look at solving unknowns, and is based within positive thinking. If the proper framework for learning is provided, then the negative impact of Money/Time and Sleepless Nights will be minimized. We have already discussed ways to minimize negative impacts above, so the key component to learning is their implementation. Underlying it all is that an intentional pathway validates actions and allows us to define and control success. For example, a project may lose money, but it was recognized as a possibility and validated through a positive result: a new client, a new skillset or another positive outcome.

Bottom line: You can’t (and shouldn’t) learn everything you need to know on your own. You are part of a team.

The Pathway to Success

Whenever a task is contracted, part of the contracting effort is taking the time to understand the required effort, and all of the components that will need to happen for success. This can merely be thinking it through and discussing with your supervisor/team, or developing a written task strategy. The underlying goal is that a pathway for success is identified and agreed upon by those involved.

Raise the Profile of our Profession!

We have the power to be visible!!

We have the power to be visible!!

If you are reading this, it means that you interact with social media.

If you are a landscape architect, you have likely bemoaned the fact that our profession doesn’t have much visibility. (If you are another discipline, you likely also feel the same way.)

I have the secret to raising our visibility, and it involves you and social media.

Create Content

  • Share your knowledge and experience, whether insightful blog posts or photographs of your projects.
  • Learn how to share it in the best way for the online platform you use. There are ‘secrets’ to maximizing the chance that people will want to read it.

Share Content

  • This is the TRUE secret. Online visibility ONLY develops when people ‘like’, ‘share’, ‘retweet’, or similar. This should be your goal, and this is why it’s important to craft your content to maximize its relevance to the platform you will publish on.
  • Just like you want people to help you make your content viral, you are needed to do the same for theirs!
  • So… when your friends, associates, competition, LA program, students, etc… post relevant to landscape architecture… it is your DUTY to ‘like’, ‘share’, ‘retweet’, or similar.
  • Elevating landscape architects to visibility within our social media networks is your new goal.

Rinse and Repeat

Social media and online platforms might be the first time where landscape architects have some control over their destiny and visibility to the general public. We don’t all have to be savvy social media mavens… but we DO have to approach it knowing that we can help others around us get the word out there.

So… get started. Share this post on your social media networks and encourage your network to ‘like’, ‘share’ and ‘retweet’ landscape architecture!!! (*this isn’t intended to be blatant plug… copy and past this post and take credit if you want. Take it. It’s free! Do what you need to do for the good of us all!)

(This post was inspired by me looking at fantastic posts by other professionals, and seeing they have a few likes and no shares… and wanting to prod people to realize that social media visibility is driven by ‘like’, ‘share’ and ‘retweet’.)


Know What NOT to Do: Part 1

This is the first of a few posts that will deal with engaging with staff about controlling unknowns. The underlying theme is that we are most profitable when we are working with knowns.

Managing Organizational Disruptions

It is a fact that positive growth requires interruptions. Growth requires innovation, and innovation happens at the face of encountering unknowns. Unknowns require an intentional strategy.

Positive Growth Punctuated by Organizational Disruptions

Positive Growth Punctuated by Organizational Disruptions

Unknowns = Cost

Any time that we encounter an unknown on a project (or life), there is a cost associated with it. We need to assess what that cost is, and intentionally plan whether we wish to expend effort or to refuse to engage. The goal is that an informed choice is made, and that a plan is put in place to minimize or eliminate negative consequences. (We will assume that our goal is to always maximize positive outcomes.)

For the sake of our work, cost can typically be viewed as:

  • Cost = Time/Money
  • Cost = Sleepless Nights
  • Cost = Opportunity to Learn

A Strategy to Minimize Costs

A key first assessment is to ask the following questions:

  • What is in my control? What is out of my control?
    • If it is out of my control, can I get it in my control? Who will help me?
    • If it is outside of ability to function, who will do it?
  • What do I know? What do I not know?
    • If it is out of my knowledge, how do I learn it? Who will help me?
    • If it is outside of ability to learn, who will do it?

These questions are the foundation for you to develop a plan, and to engage with those around you whose role is to help you succeed. Learning new information is important to growth, but expending unbalanced effort to do things that those around you can assist with is not effective. You are surrounded by a team.

Key Themes

  • You are part of a team. (you are surrounded by help)
  • Learning is a long term-effort. (you can’t go from 0 to 100 in one project)
  • Engage knowledge to meet project needs and long-term learning. (collaborate for project success and learning)
  • Delivering a quality product to our client on schedule and on budget means that we will all have jobs tomorrow. (be realistic about what and who a project really needs)

Managed Expectations = Success


It’s All About Setting Expectations!

(*this is post#1 from my 100 Conversations mission*)

Our fundamental role as designers and project managers is to be effective translators. We need to recognize that our skills and specialties are alien to most of the people that we work with. Extra effort IS required to inform them about what we do, and how they fit into a good project process.

I will be adamant about this. Almost ALL of the pain that you and your staff (and your consultants, and your prime, and your children, and your dog) feel is due to expectations not being managed effectively. I’m not blaming you… I’m blaming the typical process that we consultants seem to keep on using over and over. Namely… no process.

This starts to get metaphysical, but probably the best discussion you could have with your client is establishing expectations for setting (and maintaining) expectations.

RULE #1: Set a Process for Expectations

Think about any friction that you have had in your life. I bet that most of them likely came down to (mis)communication, and probably could be described as being due to mismatched expectations. Mismatched expectations become conflict when we don’t have a process in place to deal with them.

Imagine a different approach to project management where we made the time at the beginning of  job to better define HOW we would manage our management process. Yes… that sounds kind of dumb when I re-read that sentence, but the intent is that we simply explain to our client that our goal is to:

  1. Establish their criteria for success and the extent of expectations that should be understood. (contracting)
  2. Take the time to confirm our mutual understanding. (confirmation)
  3. Recognize that changes will be needed, and potential conflict may arise. (anticipating)
  4. Establish a process for how we will address any need for resolving changes to expectations. (recontracting)
  5. Determine how success will be measured based on their criteria and expectations. (achievement)
  6. Validate an opportunity for lessons learned. (growth)

I think we do an okay job of numbers 1 & 2, but the rest have varying levels of success depending on our communication skills, and whether our client has someone with previous related experience or not.

If you already ‘get’ where I’m going with this, check out some of my other blog posts now. If you’d like to hear more, read on.

Flowchart: Managing Expectations

Flowchart: Managing Expectations (a work in progress)


Our days are full of implicit contracts: I’ll pick up some milk. Sometimes they include explicit contracts like the Prime and Subconsultant Agreements I signed yesterday. We are very intentional when we are signing and dating a document, and less intentional with our implicit agreements. The latter has defined and legal ramifications if we don’t follow what we’ve agreed to do. The former doesn’t really have the same level of potential ramifications, except perhaps annoyance.

The purpose of contracting is to orchestrate the various components that need to be completed in order to achieve successful completion of a task. We can only achieve this is if we agree upon what success looks like. “We would like dessert tonight for my birthday. We need milk. I have a meeting, so you get the milk. I’m looking forward to my favourite tasty dessert.”

If you forget the milk, then we don’t even get to the point of assessing whether the dessert is tasty.


Communication is challenging. It’s a little easier when we have shared experience and shared vocabulary. I spoke to this a little in: Asking the Right Question . “I know you like it when we make it with whole milk, so I’ll pick up a half-gallon of whole milk. Are there any other ingredients we need?”

With that we take the first step in confirming the specific request (milk) and we do someone the favour of bringing it back to the big picture of success (the dessert and how they like it). This shows shared management and responsibility for success. We step up from being a mere errand runner, to someone with illustrated buy-in. “No. I checked the cupboard and we have everything else we need.”

Your errand is confirmed. You have helped confirm a pathway to success.


Stuff happens, so why not anticipate a process that builds-in an expectation that change or flexibility might be needed? “I’ll call you from the store to see if you think anything else we should get.


So we have a system in place to plan for the fact that life is messy. “I’m at the store. Apparently the cows are on strike and there’s no dairy available. Can you believe that? I know you wanted that dessert, but I was thinking maybe I could bake your favourite cake instead?”

You could have simply not picked up the milk and gone home, and explained that they had no dairy. This would have illustrated that you missed the point of the whole exercise: a special dessert. Instead, you check in and develop mutual control over the situation. Not only did you check in to recontract, you also showed initiative in offering a potential solution to the situation.


Weird about the cows, but since you mention it, cake does sound pretty good.” You have a discussion and you revise your plans to accommodate the unknown. The pathway to success is significantly different, but you achieve the end goal of a tasty dessert.


When you have finished eating the whole thing(!), you both agree that next time contracting with a contingency plan would be helpful. “The cake was delicious. If cows ever go on strike again, cake can be a pre-approved alternative.

Rule#2: Establishing and Managing (the right) Expectations

Let’s bring it back to consulting.

You’re probably familiar with the concept of time, quality and cost. It’s also visualized well with the saying, “Fast, cheap and good… you can only choose two.”

Since quality is normally a final assessment, we can look at scope, schedule and budget as being the main factors to achieve desired quality. Risk and resources are important as modifiers to the ‘formula’ as they can add additional stability (like more skilled workers), or instability (eliminating schedule contingencies). The more pressure that is put on any or all of scope, schedule or budget… the more likely it is that things will deviate from expectations.

So… make no promises is the best solution! (joking)

As consultants, we have great systems for establishing scope and budget expectations. Where we (and our clients) get into trouble is with management of scope. I’d like to think that we’re too nice or too naive, but regardless… the fact is that we don’t set up realistic expectations that balance scope/schedule/budget, and we certainly don’t act in anyone’s best interests when we don’t tightly manage these.

It’s really hard to say no to a client (until you have shared systems in place). That’s why pre-development delivers bloated space planning and project programming to schematic design. We waste so much time, effort and money because we don’t establish realistic expectations grounded in scope/schedule/budget. The ultimate blame for this lies with the prime consultant, but it also sits with the client. Well… us subconsultants are also guilty when we don’t speak up, but we often aren’t invited into the big picture. Most of the time the problem lies in the fact that the client doesn’t have the money for the project they WANT… and we certainly wish that we could always give people what they want!

Finding the project they NEED is essential before project expectations are set. See Trying to Avoid Work to Benefit our Clients.

The take-home message from this is to set a process for managing expectations, and this is grounded in some intensive work at the beginning of your project. During this period of expectation contracting, make sure you ask the HARD questions at the beginning of the project. If experience is worth anything, I’d say we need to talk about:

  • We will have some tough conversations. We’ll have a process in place for these conversation, and we’ll try to anticipate them to the best of our abilities.
  • We need to both have a shared understanding of what ‘perfect’ means for this project. Let’s try to visualize what success means. What are the ten things that you need to see when you are looking around at the ribbon-cutting?
  • You probably won’t have the budget for what you want. We’re going to focus first on making sure you get what you need. We don’t want to ‘value engineer’, we want to ‘value design’. (**for those that don’t know ‘value engineer’… it’s a hilarious industry term for deleting things to reduce costs***)
  • We’re going to work hard with you to make sure this project is right-sized for you. You save a tonne of money when you don’t build things!
  • Let’s have a discussion about how you will learn to use your new building/landscape… and that there will be challenges. Imagine reorganizing your kitchen for efficiency. You know you’ll spend a month or two trying to remember where something is, but in the long term it will be better for you. New buildings and sites are the same, and come with frustrations until you’ve learned them.
  • What other painful conversations did you have during a project which you could have had at the beginning? There’s nothing wrong with discussing previous challenges with your clients in order to show them that you learn, and you don’t want to revisit them again.

It’s impossible to write one blog post to cover setting and managing expectations. Remember that the take home message is not just set expectations. You also need to recognize that they will need to change, and that a process for expectation management is critical..

The Power of Being Heard


The Importance of Asking the Right Question

Questions serve many purposes, but for the sake of this post I focus on asking questions with the goal of understanding a situation and the needs and wants of the people within it.

For the purpose of a concrete example, let’s say we’re tasked with understanding people’s thoughts on the development of a new park. Whether meeting in person, in small groups or a large public meeting… the right questions are critical. (It is also critical to understand HOW to ask those questions, but that delves into facilitation and won’t be covered in this post. An example of that is the difference between verbally asking questions of a large group with direct verbal responses, versus asking people to write their responses down on cards. Those two methods can result in drastically different results from a group session.)

So… let’s start with the fact that an answer is only as good as the question that inspired it.

If as designers we are to be good listeners, we need to understand how to ask the right questions.

Remember that your goal is to try to understand everyone around you, and that you are irrelevant except as a facilitator. A friend once told me that when she is running a public meeting, her goal is to leave that meeting knowing as much as possible about the attendees… but having attendees know as little as possible about her. The meeting has absolutely nothing to do with her, so her opinions, ideas and frames of reference shouldn’t taint the process.

We speak only to ask questions ad seek clarification.

Know Your Purpose

  • Why do we want to ask questions?
    • Understanding the situation: The most common reason to reach out to people is to understand a project’s fundamentals. What are the opportunities and constraints? What are the strengths and weaknesses? Problems to be solved? Let’s open it up to understand the situation.
    • Gain Support: When you engage with people, they will hopefully gain some ownership over the process. This can be used for the powers of good, the powers of evil or somewhere in-between. Within the context of wanting to genuinely consult people, we’ll discount autocratic, ritual or placatory reasons for a planning process (Boothroyd, 1986). For our purposes, gaining support is an outgrowth of a good planning process.
  • Research:
    • The Task at Hand: You will need to know enough about what you are doing in order to develop your questions. You will likely learn and refine your questions by interacting with your client or stakeholders. I find that questions change after you ask them a few times. They refine themselves as you discover the unintentional consequences of their wording.
  • Who will we be questioning?  Know your target audience. You may just be asking your clients questions. You might be consulting a whole community.
    • Their level of knowledge: Be careful about the shortcuts that you might take. Your client might be the only person that you question, and might have worked with you before, but don’t assume that your “shared language” is in the best interest of getting good answers. Don’t skip levels within a process if you can avoid it. When you do a full process, you might find that you’re asking the right questions on the wrong project (see Trying to Avoid Work). The ideal project starts with no assumptions.
    • Their level of communication: Cultures have communication shortcuts. We need to be very careful about these, as they are assumptions (see bullet above). Working in a cross-cultural context is an ideal way to understand the fundamentals of communication. Shortcuts are not necessary, and they are sometimes not fair. If we approached all processes with the tools developed for the challenges of cross-cultural communication, I believe that it would clarify communication. A little extra time in the beginning usually saves more time later.

Plan Your Question

There are good resources on line for more specifics or guidance than I give below. Search for “asking a good question”.

  • Simplicity!
    • Context: Provide information and context to allow people to develop answers, but avoid anything that would seek to shape their answer (intentionally or unintentionally). This can be SUPER hard for us designers where we are taught to try to convince people that our ideas are the right ones for them.
    • One Question at a time: Ask one question at a time, and make sure it is simple and clear.
  • Don’t Influence! Don’t influence people’s answers by the context that you provide, or the questions that you ask.
    • Neutral Wording & Avoiding Leading Questions: Simplify your question as much as possible. No adjectives or adverbs. Use words like ‘describe’. Don’t influence the outcome.
    • Open ended vs. specific:
      • Open ended questions allow for brainstorming. This is needed to allow freedom of thought and to find the unexpected.
      • Specific questions allow clarification and refinement. This is needed when narrowing down ideas or prioritizing.
    • Only limit answers when appropriate:
      • Either/Or: There will be times where one option or another is a good question, but remember that asking a question this way limits the options to those you are listing.
      • Yes/No: A yes or no answer can be very useful, but they have the same use/constraints as either/or.:
  • The power of why. The first question will likely not get to any root cause. When you have an important question developed, a good exercise is to ask why five times and encourage people to drill down to truly understand something. Intentionally asking (and answering) “why?” encourages people to stop and think (and perhaps discuss) what is behind their answers.
  • Plan it from start to finish: You will use different questions and different tools as your group gathers, distills and synthesizes information. You should have this whole process planned out and optimized. Then, you also need to be prepared with a Plan B and  Plan C… and be able to adapt and clarify.

Adapt and Clarify

  • Be a Flexible Expert Facilitator: I started this post with saying that HOW the questions are asked wouldn’t really be touched upon as it delves into facilitation. You will need to have a variety of tools and techniques at your disposal as it is YOUR job to understand how best to help each and every person find the right way to answer your question and/or contribute to your session. This will only come with experience. Skillful facilitators are the ultimate communicator in their knowledge of learning styles, psychology, group dynamics, technology, etc…
  • You Can’t Give Up: No matter how strange someone is, they will likely have something valuable to provide to your process. It is YOUR role to help them.
  • Facilitation as a Martial Art: Jujitsu involves receiving energy and redirecting it. Your role is to redirect whatever energy is aimed at you to find the place not only where it belongs, and where it ideally benefits the process. If this energy involves anger/frustration/confusion, it is likely that at their root there might be a useful piece of information. When you discover it, you might be able to re-purpose it for the betterment of your project… and result in someone that feels like they have been heard.

A Listening Framework

  • Listen! Listening is hard until you practice it. We want so hard to contribute and identify with people, but when we do so we wind up risking changing results.
  • Be a good interviewer. This is hard! Your goal is to allow someone to be themselves, and to find the right way to speak and be heard. A good interviewer moves beyond the surface and teases out real information.
  • Respect their time. Always set up meetings with a specific timeline, and respect it. If you get close to the end, check in to see if they value using more time or not. (See this post with relevant aspects about Running a Good Meeting.)
  • Talk as little as possible. Your talking should only relate to helping other people talk to you. Minimize sharing your own stories, except where they are as neutral as possible and might help someone be comfortable with sharing. Every conversation is different. If you find yourself talking more than you’d like, consider that speaking might not be the best way to reach the person or group you are with. That’s where other facilitation/interaction techniques might be useful to reach the information you need (ex. written exercises or online surveys)

We Just Want to Be Heard!

Whether recently, or since the dawn of time… humans just aren’t good at listening to one another. This means that we often don’t feel like we’ve actually been heard. You have the power to listen to people, and actually hear them. Not only hear them, but shown them that they have been heard.

Do not underestimate the power of being heard.

How to Build Mutual Accountability

Infographic Overall

I love the term “brilliant flash of the obvious”. For me, it’s usually the product of long analysis, interesting conversations and deliberation. We get to the point where we’ve overthought something, and realize… the answer is simple and was just waiting for us to get to it! But, the fact is that we had to go through the process. When a thesis advisor of mine (Larry Harder) told me about the phrase, I believe he credited a Canadian landscape architect named Michael Hough. I’ve had this phrase/concept long enough that it’s a goal for me to find this elusive “brilliant flash of the obvious”.

Another thesis advisor (Dr. Robert Brown), left me with one of my most important “flashes of the obvious”. From his research methods course, I realized that if you outline your criteria for success prior to beginning your work, you have the power to define what success is. The power of this is that it encourages strategic thinking, the development of a concrete process to follow, and provides you with rigor that can be applied to the assessment of your final product. The easiest example is a playful one where you intentionally set the bar low for success. For example, if you state that your goal for a park design is to have it be an open space with seating… then success could be a parking lot with a bucket to sit on. Success!!!

The point of this blog post is to emphasize the value of entering into tasks with a goal (or goals), and understanding how these goals will be met successfully.

As a landscape architect, the most obvious application of this is the development of an agreed upon scope with your client. You need to establish not only what they want, but what they actually need. They often don’t know the ‘need’ part… and that is exactly why they have hired you with your expertise. Our success in this effort is directly proportional to our experience (knowing what to ask) and our communication skills. Good habits are often reinforced by avoiding bad outcomes. Losing money sticks in our minds.

The “brilliant flash of the obvious” part of this relates to the fact that we apply special tools and techniques with our clients in order to achieve solid communication (to avoid losing money)… and then we turn around and wonder why our staff do strange things? Why they didn’t approach a task the way we’d want them to approach it? Have we stopped to see if we’ve invested the time and effort into this the same way we do for things like losing money?

When we do think about it, I think the answer is that we didn’t establish an appropriate scope with staff… and perhaps more importantly, we didn’t establish how they would be accountable for their work.

Flogging Is NOT an Option

Our coping/communication skills are dependent upon the level of familiarity within our relationships. I can remain perfectly calm with a grumpy client. When I’m at home, an empty toilet paper tube in the bathroom can trigger an evening of passive aggression.

We spend most of our waking hours with our staff. This creates complacency with our relationship, and complacency leads to losing sight of the importance of good communication skills. We spend so much effort with effective client communication, but we just can’t seem to ‘find the time’ for staff. It’s not to say that things are dysfunctional, but there are certainly some things that we should be doing to set us all up for success. We can do better!

We Are a Product of our Baggage

Many of the strategies and processes that I employ are based on not wanting to revisit something bad that happened. I remember that fee where I forgot to include a certain typical scope item. My response was to create a fee template where irrelevant tasks are deleted, in order to benefit myself when I need to create a fast fee. Past Peter did Future Peter a favour by trying to protect him. So I say, “Thanks Past Peter! This one’s for you!”

So… back to criteria for success. If I’m working on a project on my own, I already have my own ingrained criteria for success. It’s easy to agree with myself and have a joint vision of where I need to go. In this case, there is an I in my Team. My Team is I.

Add another person to the mix (or more), and the need for a common vision and criteria for success becomes obvious! Right? Well… think about your project initiation process and see how it actively engages your team into shared accountability. If you DO have processes in place for this that you are successful… please share a comment on this post. Regardless… please read on.

Shared Accountability

We’re adults. We do our job. We can support those around us when they ask us to help out. BUT… until they bring us into a shared vision that we understand, we won’t be operating at our highest expertise. AND… we won’t be operating with initiative and passion until they craft a vision that somehow includes us. It’s human nature… we’re most involved when our tasks reflect us.

So… I’ll go back to the importance of establishing criteria for success. Below is a quick example of how this could happen. It relates to the importance of having a shared company vision that relates to all of your projects, and then project-specific vision.

Task 1: How Do We Measure Success?

Let’s assume that you haven’t had an office discussion like this. If you have a business or strategic plan, you’ll likely have all or part of these. The question is whether ALL of your staff have been involved in a discussion like this. The point of this is to develop a common language of common expectations that everyone is invested in. This should relate to everything that your organization does. Here’s a brief example of what it might look like organized within a hierarchy:

  • Happy Client (and most of these are for Happy Firm)
    • Meets Budget
      • Stay within design fee
      • Project within construction budget
    • Meets Schedule
      • Project bids on schedule
      • Meetings happen without rescheduling
      • Meetings are efficient
    • Meets Quality
      • Helps them achieve their organizational mission
      • Meets their operations and maintenance needs
  • Happy Community
  • Happy Environment

A good way to do the above is to give employees post-it notes and ask them to write one answer to the question “how do we measure success”, one per note. Use markers to make them bold and easy to read. Use different colors of post-its and markers to make it distinct and cool. Do not underestimate that the process itself it super important, and that includes how it looks and communicates.

Have each employee read their note, and put it up on a wall (whiteboard is great). As people add them, they should star to group them into similar groupings. As more are added, these groupings may also be divided into sub-groups. An important part of this is to discuss and examine hierarchies. Some of them might start to be specific, and they will lead into well the next phase of this process.

Use this as an opportunity to  stop and have those amazing “business of design” discussions that could result from this. You will likely find the perfect place to discuss your company’s mission and vision… if not even realizing that they can be improved to better reflect your company, staff and all. I’m assuming you have a business plan or similar that outlines your mission and vision. You do have that, right?

Task 2: How Do We Measure Task Success?

This discussion is specific to a particular project your office may be doing. It will expand upon and add specificity to items in Task 1. With this exercise, we’re walking a line between an internal agreement on what your firm is expecting of itself and its staff, and the development of project programming. That’s okay… final programming will lie with a client on any project, but your brainstorming may help you identify the questions you should be asking your client.

The conversation that spurred my thoughts on this blog post relate to a shared discussion of quality in my office. Our goal is to have our staff state what they feel represents the level of quality that we wish to achieve.

We’ve been talking about infographics in our office. We want to use the development of infographics to investigate our passions, refine our graphic design skills, and develop our approach to simplifying the presentation of potentially complex information. I could have issued this task by stating my top ten criteria for a successful infographic… but… that’s really kind of useless. Seriously. We’re designers, and as soon as I do that… I WILL limit what comes out of others. It might look like the easy way, but it does no one any good.

So… even on what might seem like the simplest of tasks, why don’t we take a few minutes and engage into this discussion of “what are the characteristics of the best infographic ever!!??!”

At the Task 2 level, here’s some of what we discussed:

  • What are the elements of a high quality infographic?
    • Tells a Story
    • Graphically Engaging
    • Simplifies complex information
    • ADDS to the discussion rather than duplicates
    • Comes from passion

Infographic Zoom

So now we have more details as to what we as a group consider to be the qualities of a successful product.

Task 3: How Do We Quantify Success?

This task gets down to the point of this entire blog post. We’re tying to remove opinion from assessment in order to increase the potential not only for success… but awesome success. If I were to have asked for a “great infographic” without any other information, I run the risk of setting my staff up for failure. Odds are that we would NOT have a shared vision of success.

So… down to the details. The discussion went into what exactly does something need to have to achieve it’s goals? The best part about this discussion is that we are working on a shared dialogue within the office that will benefit every project. When we understand what we mean by quality, by going through a specific case study, then we will start to open ourselves to small and large “brilliant flashes of the obvious”. OHHH!!! Peter has no idea what an infographic is!? He just wanted a bar chart??! Now we can open his eyes to how an infographic is soooo much better.

Or… we can at least talk about being intentional with story, graphic layout, etc…

  • The product is high quality
    • Tells a Story
      • Has a start, middle and end… and hopefully tension, conflict and the other things a good story has.
    • Graphically Engaging
      • Has a visual flow
      • Good color scheme

Task 4: Accountability

Where all of the above leads is that you have achieved a shared group vision. As a supervisor, you now have specific components to measure product success. As a peer working on the project, you have the tools to push each other when you say, “Is our story strong enough?”. Without this shared language, pushing another person can lead to conflict. With it, we can guide the conversation to how we get to our agreed upon goal.

Since we have agreed on what quality means, then we can review the product and congratulate the team on achieving success. If the product falls short, we can speak to what might be lacking and measure it against our group benchmark. I bet that most of the time people respect this accountability tool. BUT… recognize that communication is elusive. There might be the chance that what is lacking was not fully understood. Use it as an opportunity to continue the discussion. It’s about finding a shared understanding, and embracing the growth that will be a by-product of the right approach.

This shared vision is incremental, and experience dependent. You will hopefully have a common shared language with a person you have worked with for ten years. Don’t get complacent. These approaches have value, and allow evolution with each repetition. Also… they are critical to bringing new staff into the vision… AND… allowing the vision to shift with the good change that they bring.


Thanks for reading all of the way. The summary of this is that we spend our lives facilitating our clients and stakeholders, but we don’t seem to use those same tools to benefit ourselves and our staff. When we stop to do that, we reap many benefits… with the most important being strengthening shared communication and establishing accountability.

The only real accountability is that which we enforce on ourselves. In order to internalize accountability, we have to be a meaningful part of the process.

Postcript: For my staff that eventually find this blog, I truly wish that I were the perfect boss/mentor for you. I’m human and miss the obvious a lot. Please reference the ‘benevolent manipulation‘ post. Remember, you can also initiate things like the above. That would make me happy since it illustrates a shared understanding. Understanding is good. =)

Understanding the Secret Value of Value

When we are subconsultants, we are aware of our place within the world. Site design and landscape often aren’t the highest focus of attention within a project. We’ve developed approaches and skills where we try our best to deliver high value, even in the face of a lack of engagement or sub-optimal processes.

We operate at our best when our teams recognize our role no matter how small, and provide us with what we need. Sometimes we just need some sympathy, but more importantly… it comes down to understanding what we do and supporting our role.

Landscape architecture is a profession for a reason. We bring a high level of value for understanding and acting on how people use and enjoy their lives outside of buildings. This certainly relates to health, safety and welfare. This might be off the radar for some clients, but there are many small decisions on a site that could bring immense value. Without anyone ever knowing.

I think that we gain some pleasure realizing that much of what we do will never be actively recognized. We realize that what we do actively and positively shapes people’s experiences and quality of life. Conversely, I think we also gain guilty pleasure when our advice wasn’t heeded, and you hear grumbling about how a site design doesn’t function so well. We’d love to say, “We told you so!”… but we don’t. One of the best descriptions of landscape architects is that “we are a shade loving species.” There’s more in that for another post at some time.

When we work with architects and engineers who have realized our secret value, they see it as something that they want to harness in order to deliver value to our client. They have developed teams where no matter how small, they work with the people that they value. It’s human nature that we all work at our best when we are valued.

If you are a client, architect, engineer or another person who might work with us… if you don’t fully understand what we bring to your project, please ask us. Our goal is to create a site and atmosphere that benefits your business or mission! We will only be successful when our clients are successful.

This applies to everyone. When you seek to understand the value that someone brings to you, you will create value that wasn’t there before.

(In short… if you actively engage with us to encourage our expertise, we’ll do even more to try to help you. It’s human nature. See Benevolent Manipulation.)