On Collaboration: Complexity, Effectiveness, and Choice

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Slide Deck by Markku Allison of the American Institute for Architects prepared for Infocomm-100, April 2010.

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  • we’ve all been hearing about IPD, and it’s been the focus of my work at the institute for the past five years. the IPD model rests on the coming together of stakeholders as equals built on a foundation of collaboration. there is resistance to that concept in some quarters that seem to believe that the status quo (siloed performance, individual responsibility for risk and reward, etc) better ensure predictable project outcomes.
    it’s my hope to argue through this presentation that collaborative models aren’t just a warm and fuzzy fad but rather the logical--and most effective--response to current industry context.

  • let’s start with complexity.
  • let’s start with some terminology i’ll borrow from a guy in the UK named dave snowden; his organization is cognitive edge and definitely worth looking up.
  • let’s start with some terminology i’ll borrow from a guy in the UK named dave snowden; his organization is cognitive edge and definitely worth looking up.
  • here’s a diagrammatic representation, what are known as dave’s ontologies or as he calls it his “cynefin framework.” snowden explains it like this: consider the earlier part of the last century focused in the world of the simple; things were known, we could define best practice. the latter part of the last century recognized the increasing sophistication of management and decision making and we entered the world of the complicated: we believed things were still knowable (and here i digress from dave’s stuff to say) and we strove to bring the complicated back to the simple through an analytical process of carving up, breaking into parts and then managing the parts.

    i share dave’s assertion that we have now entered an era of complexity, where at a certain level, especially when things are fluid, that outcomes are not knowable, and to manage them as such results in failure. to succeed here we need new ways of making.



  • here’s a simple way to think about complexity. let’s take four decisions.
  • we can connect those four decisions in six different ways...
  • but the number of patterns we can generate--the different ways we can group or arrange the four--is 64.
  • and if we make it 10 decisions...
  • we get 45 connections....
  • three and a half TRILLION possible ways to combine ten decisions.
  • and here are a few characteristics dave suggests we consider about complex systems.


  • in a complex project we aim for managing toward desirable project outcomes, as opposed to complicated and simple projects where we strive to control. designing to a detailed estimate, rather than estimating a detailed design.
  • so what does this have to do with architecture?

    we can think about buildings as the built record of a series of decisions.

    a visual analogy:

  • while the creation of buildings has never been simplistic, it has certainly increased in complexity. what not so many years ago may have been a relatively simple set of decisions...
  • ...began to grow, as we learned more about construction, material science and design...
  • ...and then those decision sets began to break up and to evolve in their own right, becoming...
  • ...increasingly complicated systems involving many decisions. which, while more challenging than simple systems, were still analyzable, knowable.
  • ...with the makeup of those systems evolving into subsystems...with subsystems and subsystems
  • ...resulting today in an virtual constellation of decisions.
  • three and a half TRILLION possible ways to combine ten decisions?
  • think about the number of possible combinations, patterns and connections in a diagram like this. think about masterspec’s new 48 division organization, or about uniformat; think about the number of pieces and the decisions behind them that make up an effective project. it’s staggering. while this is clearly a visual metaphor and not any kind of scientific analysis, our own experience tells us that design and construction today is hugely complex.


  • so clearly we have a complex picture in the AEC world. let’s talk about how we’d effectively navigate that environment.
  • what becomes interesting and important isn’t so much the decisions themselves as the systems they define, their boundaries and who shapes them, and how. it’s also interesting and important to understand how we navigate those environments.

    i suggest that at one point in time that the decision sets involved in the design and construction of a work of architecture and its systems were of a nature that a primary responsible party could predict and control cumulative outcomes pretty much on their own.

    decisions could be made in a simple, linear fashion. think checklist.
  • ...and as those decision sets began to break up and approach complicatedness others minds start to play a significant role...

    decision flow becomes a bit more sophisticated...think gantt chart.
  • ...the boundaries become increasingly non-linear as the decisions that shape them grow ever finer, and more new players emerge to handle their specific areas...

    but still here we’re mostly in the realm of complicated; a primary party could generally predict project outcomes using increasingly sophisticated project management techniques. think critical path method.
  • ...resulting ultimately in an extremely complex web of relationships between systems with many players, where a decision in a small subsystem can ripple out through all connecting systems.

    but now we’ve arrived at complexity--the flow of decisions is no longer necessarily linear in nature.


  • i suggest effectiveness in complex environments bring us directly to collaboration.
  • of course, what we’re really looking at is the concept of “team.”
  • there’s a great document called “the bioteaming manifesto” about leaderless teams; it has some excellent language about what’s missing in our understanding about teams, and how we might think about them differently.
  • here’s the AEC industry diagram reflecting our most common depiction and organization of “teams.”
  • here’s the AEC industry diagram reflecting our most common depiction and organization of “teams.”
  • and what if instead of managing like this, command and control, slicing, dicing and analyzing
  • and what if instead of managing like this, command and control, slicing, dicing and analyzing
  • what if we start to manage like this, with leadership on a project in constant flux in response to the specific needs of the project at that moment?

    what if we use contracts and incentives that encourage realtime communication between all group members to make informed decisions about managing systems of decisions toward desirable outcomes?

    i suggest that no longer can a single responsible party effectively control or predict the cumulative outcome of the constellation of decisions now required on a design and construction project.

    complexity demands that we organize in new ways, allowing real-time probe and response, with fluid leadership in order to effectively manage systems of decisions toward desirable outcomes.
  • what if we start to manage like this, with leadership on a project in constant flux in response to the specific needs of the project at that moment?

    what if we use contracts and incentives that encourage realtime communication between all group members to make informed decisions about managing systems of decisions toward desirable outcomes?

    i suggest that no longer can a single responsible party effectively control or predict the cumulative outcome of the constellation of decisions now required on a design and construction project.

    complexity demands that we organize in new ways, allowing real-time probe and response, with fluid leadership in order to effectively manage systems of decisions toward desirable outcomes.
  • what if we start to manage like this, with leadership on a project in constant flux in response to the specific needs of the project at that moment?

    what if we use contracts and incentives that encourage realtime communication between all group members to make informed decisions about managing systems of decisions toward desirable outcomes?

    i suggest that no longer can a single responsible party effectively control or predict the cumulative outcome of the constellation of decisions now required on a design and construction project.

    complexity demands that we organize in new ways, allowing real-time probe and response, with fluid leadership in order to effectively manage systems of decisions toward desirable outcomes.
  • what if we start to manage like this, with leadership on a project in constant flux in response to the specific needs of the project at that moment?

    what if we use contracts and incentives that encourage realtime communication between all group members to make informed decisions about managing systems of decisions toward desirable outcomes?

    i suggest that no longer can a single responsible party effectively control or predict the cumulative outcome of the constellation of decisions now required on a design and construction project.

    complexity demands that we organize in new ways, allowing real-time probe and response, with fluid leadership in order to effectively manage systems of decisions toward desirable outcomes.
  • but what if we take advice from the manifesto and think about it like this?
  • and start to look at it like this? something much more organic, less structured, fluid, responsive, adaptable.
  • collaboration is about how teams work together; everything points to a future of increasing collaboration in the AEC world.
  • but what exactly is it? (poll)
  • in research for another project, we’ve been discussing collaboration to try to get at some underlying principles, some truths--if we’re all going to work this way we really need to know what it is.


  • in a meeting last year of the LCI design forum we asked the group to help with these questions, trying to get at the nature of collaboration.
  • the list was pretty lengthy
  • but in the end could be narrowed down to four major areas. they’re not warm fuzzies: these are things we can really sink our teeth into. they’re things we can study and implement. we can write better agreements, recognize complexity over complicatedness, learn to trust and respect. but in the end...




  • ...here’s where we stop. in the end, it’s all about choice. we each can choose to pursue a path of effective collaboration or be left behind by those who embrace it. the benefits are becoming evident not just in design and construction but in many other businesses and disciplines: software engineering is an excellent arena to examine.
  • in the end, it’s all about each of us. it’s about you.
  • my charge to you.
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