As our practice has grown, we’ve come up with a few of our own guiding principles. One of these is “We keep our own report cards.”
As designers and project managers, we receive near constant and wide-ranging feedback from our clients. Our clients express their gratitude and appreciation, as well as their frustration. Criticism, sometimes constructive, other times less so, comes with the job. Taken as a whole, the feedback helps us hone our craft and improve on the quality of our professional service. Open doors and constant feedback can, however, mislead. For homeowners, the design process is intimate and emotional, and unfailingly, expensive. Although invariably genuine, comments are often biased by perspective, and whether we are the recipient of glowing reviews or heartfelt criticism – often a bit of both – we have come to realize that a more objective evaluation system is warranted. Over time, we have built a grading system that seeks to tune out emotion and to internally and accurately evaluate our performance.
There is a particular danger, especially for our young associates, of endorsing the variable report cards proffered by clients, consultants, and contractors. Competing agendas abound, and we find ourselves frequently pulled in different directions attempting to satisfy conflicting needs. Different points of view are difficult to satisfy and, invariably, clients or contractors have needs that are inconsistent. This subtle manipulation is common enough that I often have to remind our associates that the client has hired our firm, not retained them individually. Given the constant feedback and evaluation, we have discovered that we learn more and become better practitioners when we rigorously track and chart our own performance.
Buried deep in the Owner-Architect and Owner-Contractor agreement forms published by the AIA is the concept of the Architect as the neutral arbiter between the Owner and Contractor. This concept is a core building block of the architectural profession. To become the Solomon-like neutral arbiter our profession demands, we have had to develop and use evaluation tools that discount emotion and bias. We’ve learnt to listen, but also to tune things out; to not overreact to competing agendas, but to follow our own standards and best practices.
Following this concept to the end, we have designed and implemented a project report card form, which we fill out at the conclusion of each project. Utilizing the same abbreviated narrative style of our weekly design and construction updates, we meet as a team and answer a handful of questions about the performance of the job. These questions include the big picture (how did the project turn out and was the client pleased?), as well as more detailed ones (how did contractors and consultants perform? how was the budget managed, both during design and during construction? what particular obstacles were overcome? did the project incur delays, and could they have been avoided?).
Lately, we’ve taken the concept a step further and convened a celebratory lunch so the project team can present to the office as a whole.
This firm-wide debriefing process utilizes specific examples to reinforce broad themes. Most importantly, keeping our own report cards provides a roadmap for improving the quality of our work.