You cannot build something you do not understand.

Architects need to be more than just creative people. They need to understand form and function, structural and material engineering, thermodynamics, and many more things to succeed. An architect must understand these areas because without the understanding they are likely to introduce some fundamental flaw.

This thought came after watching Ready Player One on a flight. It was a good book (not great, but good). But the movie stripped out everything that made the book good in a vain effort to give the movie mass appeal. Why bother understanding what made the book popular when you can strip the story down and use it as another boy meets girl teen save the day movie.

If you do not understand something, you can’t hope to build it. A few examples:

  • You can’t build an ERP system without understanding all of the ways a large business needs to run.
  • You can’t design a distribution network if you don’t understand the mechanics of moving products from manufacturing to customers.
  • You can’t take on Facebook without understanding why people keep coming back to it.

This is why pure technologists fail to build ground-breaking apps. Understanding technology is not enough, you need to understand your target subject matter as well. Similarly, no one in real estate can build tech for the industry without understanding how tech works. You also can’t take two separate people with two separate knowledge sets and hope that they can blend it successfully.

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Never design for a theory, always build the solution around reality.

Reality can be a cold, hard, vicious thing. Plenty of ideas that work in theory fail miserably once they are introduced to the cold light of day. It’s a situation that is easy to pretend doesn’t exist but it’s the cause of so much failure.

My favorite example of this is in technology roll-outs. In theory, some new technology is going to solve a problem and make everyone’s life easier. However, after it is rolled out everything breaks. The reality was that the problem turned out to be one that involved people and no change management efforts were implemented to overcome that (considerable) hurdle. It shouldn’t be a surprise but it often is.

Another great example is around finance. Often, an idea makes perfect sense and offers so many “soft saves” or “cost avoidances” or “operational benefits” that it seems a no-brainer to the team involved. Sometimes the idea even progresses almost to the point of implementation. Once finance is brought in to validate the investment everything falls apart because their view of the world wasn’t accounted for in the project planning. Unprovable savings are often useless in a true financial evaluation.

Finally, another favorite of mine is when project assume that user feedback they’ve received was accurate and/or comprehensive. I’ve experienced both extremes of this one multiple times. Users provide a “must have” feature list which a team scopes and prices assuming that it really is “must have” to only later discover that 80% of it is actually “wish list.” On the other side, you get a list of feature requirements that was thrown together in 5 minutes that doesn’t include 80% of what is actually needed. Moving forward significantly based purely on user feedback can be disastrous.

The problem with reality is that it expands the list of variables from a handful to an infinite amount. Operational situations that theory doesn’t have to address suddenly become front and center. If your design process hasn’t gotten muddy, you haven’t actually started. Real project managers always pack a rain jacket.

How well do you incorporate design into your work?

CNN has a great article up about how Finland is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Fiskar’s iconic design of scissors. It’s a fascinating story that I had not heard before. I knew that Finnish companies were strong at design generally but this one blew my mind.

It gave me a great opportunity to think about how I incorporate design into my work. Design isn’t just about the look of the PowerPoint deck or the branded colors in use. Much like Fiskar’s biggest breakthrough was in the materials they used, design is often about the unnoticed things. The best design slips past your observation.

Design is about making sure that your bullets are written to match and are the same length.

Design is about ensuring you have edited yourself down to the things that actually matter.

Design is about choosing the method in which you communicate, not everything has to be email and PowerPoint.

Design is about choosing what you don’t communicate.

Design is how you tell the story of your problem or solution. There’s a reason that they say a good story is well designed.

Everyone does design, not just marketers and graphic designers. We are all responsible for telling the story of our work. The message, medium, audience, and tone are all part of the design considerations we have to think about. It’s not just look and feel.

Do you know how your workplace is actually used? #WorkplaceWednesday

One thing that I’ve seen over and over in my career is that few people actually realize the ways their workplace is used across the business. It’s not uncommon for a real estate group to have a complete misconception of the day-to-day reality of a site they are about to run a project in. This isn’t to say they are operating without asking first but it’s just as common that managers at the site don’t realize it either.

Most of our perceptions about how an office is used come from anecdotal information. We experience a shortage of conference rooms on the occasions that we go looking for them or we think things are too loud because we do a lot of heads down work. It also comes from hearing about things that are going on – but the things people usually share are bad events. Most anecdotes around the office are the negatives.

The day-to-day reality of most offices is that everything runs smoothly. There’s usually enough desks for everyone. Most people can get a conference room when they need it. Most people make use of the work areas to be productive. The biggest risk in a workplace change is breaking the culture.

How does one actually learn how the workplace really works? The basic blocking and tackling that occurs in any other group: asking people. Surveys on how offices are used go a long way and systems to track usage data around desks/conference rooms/equipment. Blocking and tackling is most of the job in most areas and it’s just as true in real estate.

The biggest difference between real estate and other areas is that a workplace design isn’t going to change much from when it is implemented. That design is going to be in place for anywhere from 5 to 10 to 20 years depending on wear-and-tear. Planning too much around today can actually be a bad thing because the primary requirement of an office space is to be useful for years to come.

Are your design principles forcing you to favor one medium over another?

The mighty smartphone currently rules all information gathering mediums. I much prefer to read the news on my phone versus my computer. I strongly prefer facebook on my phone versus a computer. About the only thing I prefer a computer for is for writing and video.

Too often people confuse a larger screen with the ability to cram more information in. Check out cnn.com. On a desktop, it shows three columns of news with four distinct sections and an enormous headline. On mobile, it’s simply a vertical stream of news you can scroll past. Your brain doesn’t need to sort through the information format.

I played trombone in jazz bands through college. I wasn’t great but I was serviceable. But I learned an invaluable (if cliched) design principle during those many years: value the white space. If you fill every single moment up with sound there is no place for the mind to stop and appreciate what it just heard.

You don’t have to cram as much information as possible into people’s faces just because the screen size supports it. How often have you seen PowerPoint presentations where someone decided to decrease the font size on the text so that they wouldn’t have to edit it to identify the real key points? Editing is about ensuring that the person reading is given the ability to absorb and process. If you focus only on absorption, you quickly overwhelm your reader.

Simply because you now have a 65″ television screen doesn’t mean that you should start including more information into the scene. A clean landscape view actually has MORE power on a larger screen because you can understand the scale and depth much better. Simple should always triumph overcomplicated.

Are you letting simple win?

Technology should influence your internal processes but it should never dictate what you must do.

There is a lot of technology in this world that tries to get you to do things its way. You know the systems – the ones that talk about how you don’t need to customize or configure them and in 90 days you’ll achieve millions in operational savings. Let’s call them “Miracle Systems.”

Miracle Systems can almost always be spotted with one easy test: they promise tremendous value with a very short implementation window.

They usually start with a statement about how they have been designed by industry leaders that understand the process better than anyone ever has before. They’ve done the hard work of building your requirements in so that you don’t need any changes for them to implement quickly.

Here’s the secret: no technology will ever work unless you do the hard work first of understanding your processes and ensuring you can fit the technology into your workflow.

Most technology fails because users don’t use it correctly or at all. It’s usually not intentional neglect either. If a user is required to submit a monthly report to the COO showing the change in square footage but the new system doesn’t allow them to track the change in square footage, you likely aren’t going to get good adoption of the system. If the CFO requires a specific NPV calculation to be used by the new system doesn’t run it correctly, the analysis will likely happen outside of the system.

90 days is never enough time to implement any new process. It takes 90 days just to understand the current process. It can take a year to implement a new one. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Productivity is the ultimate #CRE buzzword

I’ve worked in real estate for over a decade now. Every single year I have been in this industry I come across some new and novel approach to defining real estate’s impact on employee productivity. It’s always worth a laugh to me to see various workplace vendors trying to give a productivity increase number associated with sit/stand desks or collaborative areas. There’s simply no studies or numbers that can prove or disprove this effect while also accounting for all other variables. It’s just not possible.

Yet every year someone new takes a crack at it. It only makes sense. If you can be the one that cracks the code for proving the impact of real estate and workplace on employee productivity, you would be in line for millions of dollars of new business and global acclaim. If you can absolutely prove that your desk designs improve productivity by 10%, companies would be falling all over themselves to implement it.

But alas, that’s not how this world works. Productivity is such a nebulous and changing concept that has different definitions for every single employee in the company. What improves one person’s productivity may kill another’s.

What does this mean to you? Carefully question anyone that claims that can improve your productivity through workplace changes. It may happen, it may not – but it will likely never be proven. All you can really do is focus on making a workplace flexible enough to meet the needs of many different types of employees while also aligning the workplace with company culture. If you can achieve these two things, productivity should follow. Just be careful thinking you can prove it.