Monday, April 12, 2010

Initiative versus communication, or, the Thunderdome Battle in My Head

Lawdamercy, y'all. The last two weeks have been exhausting. I'm taking today off so that I can a) catch my breath and b) get caught up on errands and housework. Yes, I know that sounds lame, but nothing makes me calmer than a clean house, and I could use a venti-half-caff-no-foam cup of calm right about now, funk soul brotha.

I've had four deadlines over the past two weeks, but this biggest among them was the DD deadline for Gestalt. We're remodeling several departments in multiple phases on the main floor of the Bierstadt Building, which is a logistical nightmare. Each department needs to go somewhere else to function while we remodel their space, and they can't all move at once or the clinic can't function. Plus, this will be the first of several multiphase remodels to happen on other floors in the building. By the time we're done, the people who go to Gestalt for their healthcare are going to despise the names Design Associates and the contractor on the project, Glasnost Construction. But they will like having a nicer clinic to work and receive care in, one that doesn't look like it was done in 1989 and all that's missing is Melanie Griffith with a krinkle perm and NFL-worthy shoulderpads in her menswear-esque suit jacket standing behind the check-in counter. It's going to look amazing when we're done.

I've mentioned before that DD stands for design development. This set of drawings and specifications gives a good, clear picture of what we're doing, what everything's made out of, generally how big it is, and so on. The contractor's not going to build off of DDs, but rather s/he's going to price the project off of them. So the general rule for DDs is this: if it costs money, put it in. Show it, draw it, label it, and tell the contractor it's there. If you put something expensive into the project after DDs, contractors get annoyed because they haven't budgeted the money for the solid surface countertop/exotic handblown light fixtures/entire extra five rooms to be remodeled. It's important for the DD set to be complete and well-coordinated as well, because if the engineers' drawings don't match mine, it throws up red flags for the people pricing the drawings, and they will usually just throw extra money into the project because they don't yet have a clear picture of the project.

This DD deadline snuck up on me big time, unfortunately. I came back from a three-day weekend in which I worked on some stuff for my industry group presentation, and I realized that the DD set was due in two weeks and I had hardly anything done on the interior elevations I'd been working on. And I realized that the help I had for the project had, so far, been no help at all. Allow me to introduce Buster, a licensed architect pushing 40 and who has spent most of his 15-or-so-year-long career working on banks and small commercial buildings, an airplane hangar or two, and for the past few years, Gestalt's clinics. Buster came to DA about a year after me, and he had a few more years of experience on me, though neither of us were licensed. However, I got licensed before he did, which he says prompted him to get on the ball and finish the tests. Buster is a decent enough human being, but I'm not entirely impressed or pleased with his professional performance. His emails--to clients, engineers, contractors, whoever--look like he's taking dictation from Nell. No punctuation or grammar or even a clear sense of what he's asking or trying to say. I frequently read his emails and think, "God, if I hadn't been in that meeting with him, I'd have no idea what he's asking." Talking to him in person isn't much better, sadly, so I can't blame a learning disability. I ask him what he's doing on the project right now, and the answer is some broad expression like, "I'm scrubbin' these drawings" or "I'm getting through it" or "Just pluggin' along." Scrubbing for what? Plugging along on what? More unsettling throughout the project was the common refrain of "oh, this set's in great shape."

Let me back up. One of the five departments we're remodeling in this phase of Gestalt is a pharmacy. Buster has remodeled and built several pharmacies, and he was available as this project kicked off, so we all decided together (Buster, Sven [the partner in charge] and me) that Buster would handle the plans, interior elevations, and detailing of the pharmacy, and I would hadn't the other four departments, which were all less intense. What I discovered as the project went along is that Buster took me literally when I said, "You handle pharmacy, and I'll handle everything else." When I went in last weekend to print out and review the set, nothing had been done in the set--the cover page was kinda updated, but the index page had nothing, and all the other sheets--wall types, general info, site, code/life safety plan and info, doors and windows schedule and elevations--were untouched, left as they had been when they were copied over from an earlier project. Even more frightening to me is that the stuff that had been copied was incorrect in some places, such as the address of the engineers on the project--it was their old address from 2007 before they moved into their new office...while I was working on MHRC.

Details, you might say. Mere details, Pixie, why are you losing your mind over that? They're easy to miss, and no one gets hurt. Right? Every detail is important to architects. It has to be important because it's a detail that can make or break a project, that can be the difference between a good project and one that lets water into a building where people are doing surgery. And that's when I was blown away by Buster's seeming lack of attention to detail. I noticed on a project that he did a couple of years ago for Gestalt that he put down the wrong occupancy for a project. The project was an outpatient surgery suite, which was an I-2 occupancy, but he showed on the drawings that it was a B occupancy. That's a big difference, people. And fair enough, the project made it through and got approved and looked at by the authorities having jurisdiction, but I call that luck. And when the health, safety, and welfare of my clients and their clients is on the line, I don't like trusting in luck.

So last weekend, I marked up the set heavily and was blown away that he hadn't looked at any of these sheets on the project that he could totally work on. He would occasionally come up to me and say, "well, I've got the pharmacy almost to CD-level, do you need help with any of your stuff?" and of course I'd say "no" because I thought he meant "did you need help with the other departments", not "did you need help with the entire rest of the set". I especially heavily marked up the code info and life safety plan, because I found it startling that we appeared to have no information on the location of rated walls in this existing building that we'd been doing work in for at least five years now. When I insisted that we go take a peek regarding locations of rated doors and walls, he was extremely resistant, saying "We're a B occupancy and we have sprinklers--it washes away our sins!" yes, but the building is 13 stories tall, which makes it a high-rise, and there may be some rules we don't know about regarding rated walls. Frankly, though, after seeing the occupancy mistake on drawings he put out not more than three years ago, I don't trust his word regarding code matters. It's apparent to me that he's not looking at details, and that gives me great concern. In general, he seemed reluctant to do much of anything--each request for effort or assertion that x or y info should be on the drawings, Buster balked. "This isn't Glasnost's first project," he'd say. My reply was, "Just because we've worked with them before, and worked at this building before, that doesn't give us an excuse to give them half-ass DDs." Buster would make some weird grunting noise. I couldn't tell if he was complaining but trying not to use actual profanity, or if he was reluctantly conceding a point.

I expressed my concern about the state of the set to Bosley and asked his advice. Bosley said, "If it was my team, I'd want to know. I can't fix problems unless I know they're there. But bear in mind that each partner is different." I went to Sven and discussed the problem, and Sven's reply was that he trusts Buster, and when Buster works on a project alone he gets everything done. Having said that, Buster does sometimes taking direction from people at his level or below his level. Ultimately, Sven felt like after the DD set went out, we should all sit down and figure out who's in charge of what from here on so that we close any gaps in getting work done.

Over the past week, I've vacillated between two points of view. One is this: "Pixie, you're the head of this project, and as such you can't blame other people when things aren't getting done. If you're working on four other projects for Jann and Bosley and Howie while working for Sven, you can't expect people to know that you need help, even if they know you're working on other stuff. People aren't mind readers, and it's your job to direct workflow."

The other point of view is this one: "Dammit, Buster is a licensed architect, too. Not only does he have more years of experience in general, but he's done several projects for Gestalt before. This isn't his first set of DDs, and he knows what goes into a set of drawings. If he's done as much as he can with his original portion of work, there's nothing stopping him from taking some initiative and being useful and working on the more general sheets in the set. This isn't Pixie's set, it's DA's set. It's our set, and everyone has to give a damn. He's a decent enough guy, but that's no excuse for doing slack work."

After all this internal dialogue, I finally come back down on the side of my original complaint. Buster doesn't take a lot of initiative to solve problems and make the set a good one, nor does he take ownership of a project if it's not him and just him 100%. Had I know this when I started working on the project, I certainly could have made myself clearer and prevented some of these lack of communication issues. The reason these communication issues blow me away is that I have interns that can do this stuff without being asked, so why am I not getting similar performance out of a licensed professional? I suppose some truth lies in something Bosley once said: "The ARE only tests for minimal competence in architects."

So, at the risk of starting another firestorm on WAD, having just gotten through a firestorm, what's everyone's take on the communication versus initiative debate? How much must we be explicit about, and how much "should" people know?

7 comments:

paul mitchell said...

I have never NOT worked with a Buster. What I have found is if you get stuck with someone that is not motivated to take on the work that they know needs to be done, you have to treat them just like an intern.

And I know exactly what you mean when you say that Buster has more experience and should take the initiative to do work he knows needs to be done. Some folks just suck, it is their nature.

Bronwyn said...

I'm just a student, but if a partner in a group project was trying to pull this stuff on me, I'd never ever want to work with them again. Consider:

- somebody somewhere ought to have a list of what in the drawings needs fixing, even if it's red pencil on a spare copy or a list on a loose piece of paper.
- at least one person has to be responsible for the metadata (the extras, like schedules and addresses), otherwise it might not get done.
- Even if you are the leader, it seems unfair that you have to do 80% or so of the work on this project when you have 4 others. What about Buster, how much other work does he have?
- I know exactly what you mean about details. When I proofread documents for my fellow students, I am blown away at the number of typos and formatting errors and inconsistencies left in a supposedly finished document. Even in a resume! Being ESL they have good reason for the actual English mistakes, but they have errors that are just plain sloppiness.

It sounds to me like you need to sit down with Buster and do a mutual status check. Go over the set and make notes and lists on what still needs work and who will do it. No laying blame, just making sure that everything is covered and assigned.

Next, do that once-over meeting at the start of every project, so that the edges of everyone's to-do lists agree. Develop some checklists, especially about the metadata stuff, to make it harder to miss items. I feel much better when I know what I have to cover and what other people have to cover, because then I'll do all my stuff and won't waste time doing someone else's job over for them.

Mile High Pixie said...

Paul Mitchell: LMAO! You sound like my husband. He told me that I've gotten lucky with my two highly motivated interns and that he's worked with more Busters than Intern Timmys and Intern Kimmys.

Bronwyn: Indeed, I'm going to have to do just what you (and Paul) suggest here. We'll have to sit down at the start of each project with the explicit statement of "if you've finished the part you were assigned and something else in the generic sheets needs doing, please feel free to do it." And I'll also have to be explicit about the code study--my rule of thumb is that if you're doing the CA on the project, you should do the code study, period, because you're the one that will have to enforce that code out in the field.

Anonymous said...

If I can play devil's advocate... Buster doesn't want to establish himself as the Winston Wolf of the firm, i.e. the guy in Pulp Fiction who gets called in to fix others problems. He probably knows from experience that if he busts his ass and assists you in turning out a spectacular set- Mile High Pixie looks like a rock star. Buster on the other hand, gets a pat on the back and graduates to a more challenging "help dig us out" project next time. Not that I know or anything...

I guess the best way to address the situation is to be a hard-ass PM so there are no assumptions or grey areas of responsibilities. I realize that's hard for you since you should be working full-time on the building, not micromanaging. It's a shitty position, and I wish there was some book or something for aspiring PAs or PMs. Until then a lot of trial, error, and xanex.

Mile High Pixie said...

Anon: LOL! You make a good point about not wanting to solve other people's problems. I've certainly had that experience myself. What I failed to mention in the above post is that I made it clear on more than one occasion to Buster that he would be doing the CDs and CA on this project. In essence, the DD set being in good shape would only help him and make his life easier.

Part of the problem on my end is that (also not mentioned in the above post) I was having to work on four different projects during the past three weeks (though I recall mentioning this to my team, including Buster, more than once), plus run all the user group meetings for this and another project, so I really needed someone to step up. I suppose if my team isn't going to take the initiative, then I need to be extra-clear with them that my attention is going in various directions and I need them to do said stepping up. I thought I was being clear, but evidently I was dropping hints and not being clear enough.

Good observation, though: at some point, when you see someone else failing, you want to let them fail so that it's clear to management that this person isn't doing a good job. On the other hand, it doesn't make our company look good, and we could lose future work by allowing others to fail.

BaxtersMum said...

wow. so much wow.
I had a great manager once draw his managerial philospophy...

He drew a single horizontal line and one end he wrote "freedom" and on the other he wrote "direction"

He said he likes to sit more on the freedom end because he had faith in his people to do more than just the minimum.

That said, the team members who were minimalists needed him sitting on their ass on the "direction" end of the management.

I guess I would have probably approached it either
A:List drawings/tasks for the entire project and assign every fucking one to someone
B:Divy up general areas of work and go on the merry way.

Given the rep of our little snowflake, I would say that option A would ahve been flashing PICK ME PICK ME. The problem with option A is that it takes For. Fucking. Ever. AND can be perceived as a bit "we don't trust you." Given the busy level you were operating at, you kinda would like someone who doesn't wear a bib and eat pureed carrots for lunch.

sigh. Been there. And to anon's point, I've been the "look dude, I want no part of getting screwed on this project or any after" for various reasons - there are quite a few for not being a go-getter or a supa star...

Yes, annoyed beyond belief is correct. But put in the Pixie File Of "Aw, Hell No" for later when you deal with this non-motivated, mainstream, "I'd just like a "C grade" thanks" fellow.

You're right - money is in the details. Details left out or not communicated often result in lots of face time with lawyers. And remember, no matter what WE DON'T WANT THE LAWYERS TO WIN.
:)

BaxtersMum said...

wow. so much wow.
I had a great manager once draw his managerial philospophy...

He drew a single horizontal line and one end he wrote "freedom" and on the other he wrote "direction"

He said he likes to sit more on the freedom end because he had faith in his people to do more than just the minimum.

That said, the team members who were minimalists needed him sitting on their ass on the "direction" end of the management.

I guess I would have probably approached it either
A:List drawings/tasks for the entire project and assign every fucking one to someone
B:Divy up general areas of work and go on the merry way.

Given the rep of our little snowflake, I would say that option A would ahve been flashing PICK ME PICK ME. The problem with option A is that it takes For. Fucking. Ever. AND can be perceived as a bit "we don't trust you." Given the busy level you were operating at, you kinda would like someone who doesn't wear a bib and eat pureed carrots for lunch.

sigh. Been there. And to anon's point, I've been the "look dude, I want no part of getting screwed on this project or any after" for various reasons - there are quite a few for not being a go-getter or a supa star...

Yes, annoyed beyond belief is correct. But put in the Pixie File Of "Aw, Hell No" for later when you deal with this non-motivated, mainstream, "I'd just like a "C grade" thanks" fellow.

You're right - money is in the details. Details left out or not communicated often result in lots of face time with lawyers. And remember, no matter what WE DON'T WANT THE LAWYERS TO WIN.
:)