Posted in practice on March 29, 2017 3:33 pm EDT

Talking Business: Control Issues?

Dealing with real-life clients on real-life projects can be a mixed bag of tricks. Put multisite church design into the picture, and the bag can simply rip open.











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TAGS: business, church, collaboration, design,


By Christian Doering

Not my circus; Not my monkeys.

Just in case you haven’t heard that one already, it’s a reminder: don’t stress out over problems and conflicts that you don’t own and can’t control. Excellent advice, when you can follow it.

Only, sometimes you really can’t. Like that time your client appears—on paper—

as a single unified legal and bill-paying entity. But inside the circus tent, you find lots of individual monkeys, plus three rings, a missing circus master, and a whole bunch of stuff going on: lions and tigers and bears, oh my… even clowns.

Now please understand that I use these terms solely for purposes of metaphorical consistency. I would never disparage an actual client in this way, and neither should you, even in the privacy of your own thoughts. Negative thinking is all too likely to come out when you least expect it, which, more often than not, is also the worst possible time. This is your design, but it’s the client’s project. Every client has the right to express its preferences and to exercise its best judgment. Professionalism means respecting that right.

All clowning aside, a client’s internal conflicts and factions are most definitely not your business. On the other hand, they can create big problems for your business. What do you do when it’s past time to make critical design decisions and the client, for one reason or another, can’t seem to make up its collective mind?

Planting a solution

To illustrate the potential difficulty, let’s consider a hypothetical situation. (Hypothetical means that this has never really happened—at least to my direct knowledge. And even if it did, I have total deniability). You have presented a pair of design solutions. One you really like. The alternative … well just between us, that one was really developed to give the client the illusion of choice. Any fool can see that one solution is elegant and efficient, while the other one is just a bunch of problems wearing funny hats that say “solution” on them.

Only, the smooth follow up meeting doesn’t go as smoothly as you were hoping it would. Instead of a clear agreement on the real solution, you’re hearing divergent opinions, perhaps even a “mix and match” proposal that is totally unworkable except as a political compromise. What can you do to move the project forward to a successful conclusion?

First of all, don’t ever take sides. Never. Not even if one of those sides is in favor of what you firmly believe is the right solution. The disagreements within the client organization could be very clear-cut and limited to technical issues relating to the specific design challenge. But really, what are the odds? I’m sure you know how to do your job. But that in no way qualifies you as an expert on resolving whatever internal issues are being mixed up with this discussion about your design proposal. So don’t try. In any discussion that begins to sound like part of an internal dispute, there’s only one viable position you can occupy: that of a strictly neutral advisor on technical issues.

Power plays

Now, the language used in the meeting may sound very technical, very objective. So how would you know that an ostensibly rational discussion has taken on emotional and political overtones? By listening carefully to what’s being said, and what is not being said. Give it your full attention. Try to make sure that you are the last to speak on whatever aspect is up for discussion. If there are factions, all of them will be trying to recruit you. That may be in their best interest. It is not in yours. Your job is to serve this project and this client: the whole client, not part of it. That should be your only interest.

Sometimes even careful listening will give you nothing more than an uneasy feeling that there’s more going on here than meets the ear. Time for a reality check. Arrange a private conversation with your best relationship on the client team. You can say something like, “I’m a little confused, because I got the feeling that there are some issues that did not surface in our last meeting. Am I imagining things here?”

Hopefully you were imagining things. But if you weren’t, your careful listening has helped you catch on to the fact that this project has—or might soon—become a political football. Any discussion about budgets and priorities across multiple sites will have implications for people who are closely tied to those sites. You’re not going to take sides, but perhaps you can be the referee for this contest? Not your job; not a billable use of time.

If you’re not taking sides and not acting as referee, what is your role? That can be hard to define, but it is not that of the football. The client has the responsibility to deal with any intramural issues internally. That’s their job. You can’t do it for them. It may be tempting to accept the task of designing a way out of a budget conflict, or a disagreement about the best way to use the space. Resist that temptation. Part of your job is pointing out when choices have to be made. It’s the client’s job to make those choices. How they manage that process is their circus, not yours.



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