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Successful thought leadership lessons from outside the box

09 January 2020

An architect’s training is in many ways an education in lateral thinking. The best architects are able to come up with ingenious solutions that address a problem from a surprising vantage point.

So it is unsurprising that architects hungry for ideas might turn to other sectors for tips on how to do things a little differently. Recent years have heard a clamour of voices from construction leaders calling for the built environment to learn from other sectors that have seen rapid and dramatic evolution, such as the automotive industry or the internet start-up culture.

Finding inspiration from outside the profession is the theme of the RIBA’s first book club event of 2020. Three innovative architects – Grimshaw’s Angela Dapper; Millar+Howard Workshop’s Tomas Millar, and Carl Turner of Turner Works – will be sharing insights they have gleaned from thought leadership books that changed the way they think about practice.

Tomas Millar, a self-confessed addict of the management self-help book, has found particular resonance for architecture in ‘Creativity, Inc’, written by Pixar founder Ed Catmull.

"This is a wonderfully dense book, full of fascinating stories of a company whose output we all know. They are stories about how Pixar solved real world problems that were both complex and messy," Millar enthuses.

On one level, there are clear parallels that can be drawn between Pixar’s efforts to build up a team, based on a fine balance of collaborative creativity that complemented each member. But Millar finds the most compelling anecdotes are those describing Pixar’s nimbleness in discovering ways to match its creativity to new technology that makes the book such a good read for designers.

“Reading about an organisation dealing with the same issues, but through a different lens, reminds us that architecture is not unique,” Millar points out. “Catmull values people and gives them space to create their best work.”

It is significant that, for all Pixar’s embracing of technology, its success relies on recognising that people are its greatest asset. Catmull regards it as a basic truth that people driving forward complicated projects will at some point become lost in the process, which is where collaborating team members can come to the rescue and regain perspective.

“Running a practice is infinitely complex,” admits Millar. “It ought to get simpler as it grows and responsibilities are shared, but actually it becomes more complicated. Catmull recognizes that running a company will always throw up new challenges – the future is not a destination, it is a direction. His is a management philosophy to aspire to.”

Thought leadership, time management and cultural critique can provide inspiring lessons applicable to an architect’s daily workload.

Drowning in the details and losing oneself in multi-tasking is the problem dealt with in Carl Turner’s book choice, 'The One Thing', by Gary Keller and Jay Papsan.

This is a no-nonsense management self-help book that starts with the precept that multi-tasking simply does not work. Its central message is that achieving extraordinary results is down to how narrow you can make your focus: identifying the one thing crucial to your business.

The founder of Carl Turner Architects recently rebranded the practice as Turner Works. He has been trying to apply the book’s principle of doing fewer things but much more effectively, weeding out the issues that sidetrack us. At the RIBA book club event, he will be explaining how he has changed his approach to design process systems in his own office.

Grimshaw principal Angela Dapper, who is also the practice's diversity champion, has found classicist Mary Beard's 'Women and Power: A Manifesto' to be an inspiration in her work. The book traces the roots of misogyny and details attempts to sideline powerful women from antiquity to the present day, from Athena, founder and patron of the Greek State, to Hilary Clinton.

Beard’s thesis is that power structures have historically been conceived without a role for women - an expectation that still frequently persists today unless challenged.

For Dapper, the book is extremely instructive over why power and management structures are set up the way they are.

“The book shows how far we have come, but also how these persistent assumptions about power mean there is still a need to move forward,” she explains.

“It looks at the way powerful women have been portrayed. There are lessons for any organisation that wants to set itself up for diversity and inclusion from the top down.”

Dapper also noticed an unrelated parallel between Grimshaw's revolving managing partner system and the two-year consulships that ran Rome in the days of the Republic, proving that there was one idea about positions of power and their duration that was worth keeping.

RIBA Book Club: 'How thought leadership changed the way I practise' will take place at the RIBA on 31 January 2020. Attendees will be able to purchase all of the featured books at the event.

Thanks to Tomas Millar, Director, Millar+Howard Workshop; Angela Dapper, Principal, Grimshaw Architects; Carl Turner, Founding Director, Turner Works.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas

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