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 assessing an error, tracing its history, and finding solutions. This navigation of mistake mitigation follows a remarkably predictable path.
As soon as something goes wrong, most initial reactions are of a self-protective nature, hoping the mistake was made by others, dreading that perhaps not. This sense of hope is usually unspoken, and also irrelevant, as it has little to do with understanding or addressing a purported error. Research is required to find the nature and veracity of a mistake, and then immediately upon confirmation, to assess the impact of the error. Eventually the conversation will proceed to accountability, but this comes later.
Historically, our professional insurance was referred to as malpractice insurance. As the word ‘malpractice’ skews towards negligence and even malfeasance, political correctness dictates that we now refer to our professional insurance as an ‘errors and omissions’ policy. An old friend of mine used to say, “mistakes come in two forms, those of commission and those of omission.” Regardless of semantics, both types occur 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 can be 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 attributable to partial completion, or based on poorly visualized or design intent that is not fully understood. It’s always a relief when the ‘mistake’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.
When mistakes are not misunderstandings but are actual errors, efficient resolutions are a must. One methodology is beautifully rendered in the children’s book Beautiful Oops (Barney Saltzberg, 2010), with its demonstration of 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 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. 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, no different than the game of ‘telephone.’ Decisions change and notes don’t get transferred to drawings and 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. While the computer has made our day-to-day more efficient, it has also 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 clients do. Part of our daily job is to attribute mistakes to the account of the responsible party and pursue accountability – reasonably so, of course. As we go this through this process, 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 do so demonstrates a sincere commitment to our partners and projects.
Having a varied playbook for assessing and resolving situations is essential to any business, and particularly so 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 something akin to “I didn’t mean to.” This shorthand version of an apology, even if genuine, 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. “Oh yeah, that really dumb thing I did? I meant that.”