It isn’t often that I get to be in a room full of Design Managers, so it was a refreshing opportunity to present to some of the team at Sir Robert McApline at the Offsite Construction Show. If you ever search for ‘design management training’ you will find that many courses relate to the construction industry, where Design Managers routinely work alongside other project managers and on-site suppliers to see projects through to fruition. Construction projects are large scale and complex, and come together over years rather than months. They also involve a wide range of planning and building regulations, so you can see why Design Management in this sector requires specific training. As someone who doesn’t work in the construction industry, I wasn’t there to advise the McAlpine team on how to do their jobs, instead what I put forward were a number of common themes that come into play regardless of whether a design project relates to the construction industry or the creative industries.

Setting the brief – the important early stages

Getting everyone together at the beginning of a project is about preventing problems further down the line and being open to innovation and creativity before a solution is set. This may seem like stating the obvious, but it is a difficult thing to do. It’s still common that briefs are fixed first and then opened up for suppliers to come forward, either by tender processes or other pitch methods. So, the process often begins as a closed competitive situation where trying to win a project is the main aim, rather than creating a collaborative environment where scenarios and partnerships can be openly explored at the outset.

Understanding the whole process

The other aspect of reviewing and mapping an entire project before it begins, is to appreciate the complexity of the entire process ahead. Deadlines are important. They focus and anchor projects into the practicalities of delivery, but if they do not reflect an understanding of the whole process, they will just increase the need to cut corners and rush things through. This can send everyone into fire-fighting mode as each new stage is put under yet more pressure as deadlines loom. Walking through the entire process at the beginning is about clarity, and should involve people who have previous experience of what’s ahead. This means that areas for efficiency can be discussed before fire-fighting and frustration sets-in.

Making room for iteration

Even when a project has been openly explored at the beginning, if it involves creating something new, you can guarantee there will be learning along the way that could not have been predicted. Rethinking and iteration are then required, which means time and money to overcome unexpected barriers. But iteration improves the outcome and is an important part of the design process. Frustrating as it might be, the alternative is to gloss-over problems and push ahead. However, those problems are unlikely to go away and will pop back-up later down the line - where they will cost more money and there will be even less time to find a resolution with any quality.

Tensions between creativity and implementation

Big thinking or visionary creative concepts are rarely based on the details of how they will be implemented. And rightly so. If every design was based on what is quick, easy and cost effective we wouldn’t push boundaries or innovate. But true innovation, creativity or uniqueness will present more unknowns and therefore the delivery stages need more room. Implementation usually requires the major share of the blood, sweat and tears in projects, but clients become far more excited and place more value on ‘the creative’ and get impatient and frustrated with the ups and downs of making it happen. It’s another reason to involve everyone early on to understand the balance between not compromising the big vision whilst appreciating the detailed practicalities.

Relationships and culture - it’s all about people

Ideas, concepts, strategies, processes and procedures are all straight forward on paper and can all seem so obvious when discussed in small groups of like-minded people (this is one reason why small groups and individual entrepreneurs can move fast and achieve great leaps). But in wider teams, supply chains or bigger organisations people have different views, varying levels of experience and authority, conflicting priorities, vested interests and personal preferences that massively effect the dynamics and success of projects. Communication, negotiation and emotional intelligence are all invaluable. It doesn’t mean project relationships all need to be cosy – business is tough and knowing when to push back and say ‘no’ is essential. But ultimately, relationships built on trust, transparency and open learning, shares the responsibilities of decision-making and will support success.

 

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