Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
“I Didn’t Mean To”
Posted January 11th, 2020

We get a lot right, and we also make a great number of mistakes. Others do as well. This means that much of our time is spent discovering an error, tracing its history, and finding solutions. This navigation of mistake assessment and mitigation follows a remarkably predictable path.

As soon as something goes wrong, everyone’s first great reaction is usually a self-protecting hope that the mistake is not their own. Just as this hope is universal as an initial reaction, it is usually unspoken, and somewhat embarrassing as it has little to do with understanding or addressing a purported error. Research is required to find out the veracity of the error, and then immediately upon confirmation, to assess the impact of the mistake. Eventually the conversation will move on to accountability, but this comes later.

Historically, our professional insurance was referred to as malpractice insurance. The word ‘malpractice’ skews towards negligence, and even Malfeasance, we now refer to our insurance as an ‘errors and omissions’ policy. As an old friend of mine used to say, mistakes take two rather benign forms, those of commission and those of omission. Both types share attributes, they occur either through misunderstanding or miscommunication. Remember the child’s game of ‘telephone’? One person starts a story and as each person relates the story to the person next to them, the yarn varies just enough so that at the end of the train, the tale has changed significantly enough so as to have little relation to the original. In the game of ‘telephone’ the goal is to create playful miscommunication. In our practice the intent is exactly the opposite.

Once a mistake has been identified, the first requirement is to determine whether the incident is fairly characterized as an error. Many ‘mistakes’ turn out to be miscommunications with one party not fully understanding the steps along the way to successful implementation. We are frequently called to a job site to review a crisis, only to find that the crisis is really just due to partial completion, or based on poorly visualized or partially understood design intent. It’s always a relief when the ‘mistake’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.

When mistakes are not misunderstandings but are actually errors, two paths need to be traveled. The first path is aptly defined by the children’s book Beautiful Oops (Barney Saltzberg, 2010), wherein the author demonstrates how to make beauty from blobs of spilled ink, ripped pages, and cross-outs. While certain architectural issues are surprises, sometimes they cannot be changed and need to be embraced (see “Columns are your Friends”). Finding that mistakes are not mistakes at all, or finding exciting new design possibilities, are both happy outcomes to invariably tense situations. As for teaching a methodology, all I can offer is patience and thoughtfulness, personality traits that tend to run for the hills when crises come for a visit.

Patience and thoughtfulness also serve us well when black-and-white mistakes arise. On every project, conflicting client needs and desires push us in different directions, pages and pages of drawings need to be coordinated, the work product of engineers and consultants needs to be integrated with the architectural plans, and hundreds of materials and products require specification. It is fair to say that we have never completed a project without a mistake in one of these areas, and it is statistically improbable to think that we will complete a project without making a number of bone-headed, avoidable, and inconvenient mistakes. Appliance model numbers change or get inaccurately transcribed (remember that game of ‘telephone’?). Decisions change and notes don’t get transferred to schedules. Given the complexity of the documents we produce, it is easy to imagine a critical dimension being mis-typed, and typos can have a large impact. Even the computer, which has made our day-to-day more efficient, has made it easier to propagate false information (the danger of cut-and-paste).

Other stakeholders make mistakes as well. Contractors do, as do consultants and engineers, and even our clients offer conflicting direction. Part of our daily job is to attribute mistakes to the account of the appropriate party and ensure accountability – reasonably so, of course. As we go this process of assessing responsibility, we believe that architects should enjoy no more of a free pass than contractors, consultants and clients. Ownership of mistakes and investing in relationships pays dividends. Covering a re-stocking fee due to an inaccurate specification, or reimbursing a contractor to change the swing of a door is a small price to pay, and demonstrates a sincere commitment to the concepts of partnership, responsibility and accountability.

Having a varied playbook for assessing and resolving situations is essential to any business, and particularly, for architects. While assessment and mitigation efforts allow projects to move forward, we also need to address the emotional landscape surrounding mistakes. People are invariably angry with those who make mistakes, and even when affirmative solutions are found, either through design or remuneration, nerves can fray and relationships can falter. This is particularly true for associates who may have made mistakes, especially those that can be characterized by sloppiness or even carelessness. All too often an associate will say to me a version of “I didn’t mean to.” I recognize this is a short hand version of an apology, but for me it always misses the mark. I can’t think of any associate during my career who (actually) intended to make a mistake, especially an inconvenient, expensive, or avoidable one. That would be insubordinate, and possibly even sabotage.

Even when a matter is resolved, certain situations warrant an apology, and that should be the end of it; unless, of course, a promise is made to take more care in the future – that’s helpful. No matter the cost, perhaps we’ve learned a lesson, and perhaps a better system of checks can be implement to improve our standards so we make fewer mistakes.