Saturday, April 30, 2011

Wishing a competitor ill

A developer client asked two firms who often compete for work to provide the fee that they would charge to design a major project in China. One firm gave a very low fee and the other, a much higher one. The client asked the firm with the higher number if it wanted to match the other firm’s lower fee, but the high-bidding firm refused to come down, not because it didn’t want to do the project, but because it wanted its competitor to have to do the work and lose money in the process, weakening its ability to compete for other, more desirable opportunities.

In Chinese martial arts, one strategy involves using competitors’ energy against them, letting them exhaust themselves by not resisting their attack. That same strategy seems at play here, with two competing architectural firms engaged in a kind kung-fu-like competition to see which would succeed in attaining a commission. The Chinese client clearly thought that both firms could do the project, so their capability or capacity to deliver didn’t seem decisive in determining which firm to choose. Instead, it came down to price: which firm would do it for less.

Fee bidding may seem straightforward, but in kung fu competition, paradox often prevails. The client’s wanting the two firms to propose fees immediately put all three in an oppositional stance: not just the two firms against each other, but the two firms against the client. That may seem like a smart thing for a business-oriented and price-sensitive developer to do, but as often happens, fee bidding is anything but smart. In an architect-client relationship, in which collaboration is paramount, starting the interaction in a competitive and overly cost-conscious way seems unwise. It’s like arguing with your heart surgeon over the price of the operation before going under the knife? You can do it, but you might live to reap the rewards.

Here, the client’s wanting the work done as inexpensively as possible led the one firm to decide that it did not want the work, giving a high bid to ensure that the client would select the other firm or pay dearly if not. The other firm obviously felt otherwise and so it seems that everyone won: the client got low fees, the one firm won the bid, and the other one avoided what seemed like a conflict-ridden commission.

There remains, though, an ethical issue here, not in the fact or the outcome of this competition, but in the intention of the firm not selected in wanting the other firm to lose money on the project. Such a desire goes beyond a healthy sense of competition to an unhealthy antagonism and animosity. The martial arts involve not just physical competition but moral conditioning, training not just the body but also the mind and spirit. As a result, kung-fu shows us how to compete ethically as well as effectively, how to defeat an opponent without hurting them, knowing that the desire to harm another only harms one’s self.  

It may not seem as if any harm had been done here. Neither the client nor the selected firm need know about the other firm’s ill will. Maybe the two firms had tangled before in ways that led to such acrimony and maybe the one firm had acted in ways in the past that deserved the enmity of the other. But none of that matters ethically. Wishing harm on another, however well deserved it may seem in the eyes of an antagonist, represents a loss of self-respect. Morals matter more than money when determining who wins or loses in life.    

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Unions and Strikes

An architect took a job with the government job, which required that she join the union. She did so, even though she did not believe professionals should unionize. That conflict came to a head when the union went on strike and she was asked to walk picket lines even though her projects needed her continued attention. Which trumped the other: her duty to the union or her duty to her work?

Ethics come into play whenever we have to decide where to draw the line between what we will and will not do in a conflicted situation. Some ethics, like that advocated by Kant, emphasize the purity of the position we should take in such situations, doing what we believe to be right regardless of the possible negative consequences to others or us as a result of our actions. Other ethics, like utilitarianism, takes a more contextual approach to problems, urging us to assess the possible outcomes or effects of one action versus another before we decide which course to take.

That difference may reflect different personality types as well: those who see things as black or white versus those who see them in shades of gray. Architects, generally, fall into the latter category. Not only does the design process demand that we deal with a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty, but the buildings that often result from that process almost always have permeable or overlapping areas that are neither completely public nor absolutely private, but partly one and the other at the same time. While buildings may appear clear cut, with definite edges and distinct dimensions, the designed environments we inhabit comprise almost entirely of shades of gray.

That does not necessarily apply to our principles, however. There, shades of gray can look like a shirking of our duties and a shunning of our responsibilities. That question faced the architect in this situation, in which her obligations as a member of a union on strike run counter to those she owes her projects as an architect. A strike represents a black and white choice, a cessation of work, in a world of grey, in which the flow of money and materials involved in the construction of buildings continues unabated. That becomes even more problematic, ethically, if we disagree with the organization to which we have an obligation, as in the case of this architect, who did not believe that professions should belong to unions.

While she accepted joining the union as a requirement of her job, should this architect go on strike when the union demands it even if she doesn’t want to? How do her obligations to her union compare to her duty to her projects or to her beliefs as a professional? The answer such questions may depend upon how much we are willing to pay the consequences of our convictions. The architect here can disregard the strike and disobey the union for reasons of conscience, but she may lose her job or have to pay for her principles, such as paying a fine to the union.

She might also consider the “both-and” solutions that characterize the shades-of-gray world of architects. She could, for instance, not go to her office or cross the picket line, but still make herself available to and check in on her projects to ensure that they continue to go well. Or she might respect the wishes of her union by going on strike, but refuse to stand in a picket line or advocate for an organization to which she belongs by virtue of her employment, but not her beliefs. Design thinking can improve not only our environment, but also our ethics. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011


A school of architecture received a probationary accreditation and needed to improve its image quickly, so the head of the school wrote letters to alumni urging them to respond to a survey to determine the top schools in the country. Although the school had had a relatively low rating the year before, that mobilization of alumni propelled the school to the number one rank, even though colleagues around the country knew about the probationary accreditation. The organization that produced the ranking saw the school as simply promoting participation in the survey, although others saw it as an attempt to game the system, raising questions about the school and the ranking system itself.

As rankings have become an ever more important way for prospective students to assess the quality of schools, the stakes in getting a good ranking have also increased. A rapid drop in the rankings might mean that a university will disinvest in a program or worse, consider shutting it down, just as a meteoric rise in the rankings can lead to an increase in applications and investment. These rankings systems have real consequences not just in attracting the best students, but also in terms of a school’s survival.

Rapid rises or falls in the ranking of schools, however, should serve as a red flag. Because of the stability of the faculty and the tuition and endowments that fund their salaries, the quality of most schools and colleges do not change that much from year to year and neither should their relative rank. If a dramatic change does occur, it raises questions about the credibility of the school, the ranking system, or both. Once someone has begun to game the system – figuring out how to manipulate the results while remaining within the rules – it increases the likelihood that others will do the same out of cynicism about the whole process.

Some professional school rankings have long suffered from such cynical gamesmanship. Law school rankings, for instance, ask how many former students are employed nine months after graduation, and so schools will often put unemployed recent graduates on the law-school payroll during that particular month in order to boost the number of employed graduates and with it, the ranking of the school. While costly to the school – and a short-term benefit to employed graduates – that practice shows the extent to which, once one school has started to game the system, they all do, making that particular criteria, and maybe the rankings themselves, meaningless as a result.

That law schools engage in such practices shows that it isn’t illegal. But is it ethical? By almost any measure, the answer is no. Gaming a system to increase the ranking of a school violates such virtues as fairness and prudence, revealing a complete disregard for competing with others on a level playing field and a serious lack of good judgment in taking advantage of one’s peers. It also represents an abrogation of one’s duty to engage honestly with one’s colleagues, doing to others what a school would not like being done to them. And, it demonstrates a failure to assess long-term consequences. Whatever the short-term gain, gaming a system will either lead to others doing the same, as has happened among law schools, or to others dismissing the game itself. It may appear that this architecture school has rocketed to the top of the rankings, but it has actually rocketed to the bottom of everyone else’s estimation and esteem, which is the only ranking, in the end, that really matters. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011


An architect who once led a preservation program received a commission for a large site that included a few historic buildings. Rather than incorporate or work around them, he wanted the maximum freedom for his design and called for their demolition, using his knowledge of architectural history to argue that they had no significance. The community, as well as his preservation colleagues objected, but he prevailed and the buildings came down.

Opportunity has a largely positive meaning in capitalistic countries. We associate it with freedom and individual initiative, with having or making a chance to profit from our efforts. In that sense, opportunity becomes both a political idea – America as the “land of opportunity” – and a personal aspiration of taking an opportunity when it comes our way. A somewhat more sinister meaning, however, attaches to the related word opportunism. We often think of an opportunist as someone who takes opportunity too far, who pursues it past the point of reason and does so heedless of the negative impact it might have on others. We like opportunity, but not opportunists.

That distinction has partly to do with intentions. When we seize an opportunity, we typically respond in an open way to the chance before us. Opportunism, in contrast, has a somewhat more malevolent cast, in which people take advantage of others or seek advantage for themselves in the process of seizing an opportunity. But we cannot judge opportunism simply on intentions alone; context and consequences also factor into what we value. We might applaud an opportunist who looks for a chance to overthrow a tyrant, to help a person in need, or to right a wrong. Taking advantage of someone evil or seeking an advantage on behalf of an underdog exemplify the good side of opportunism.

It seems hard to make that case, however, in the situation described here. This architect not only had an opportunity – a major commission on a large site – but he also became an opportunist when he used his knowledge of architectural history to argue against the preservation of historic buildings. That the community or his colleagues objected to his actions seemed not to deter him, as he sought to maximize the potential of what he had and to give himself the maximum freedom to do what he wanted, without any encumbrances. Opportunists tend to see that they have the right to pursue opportunities regardless of their effect on others.

What they rarely see is the effect this has on how others perceive them. The architect in this case may have felt justified in arguing against saving the historic buildings on his sizable site, but what he gained in terms of greater design freedom, he lost in terms of his own reputation as an advocate for preservation and even more importantly, as someone his community and colleagues can trust. Once opportunists become branded in the minds of others as people who will do or say anything to get their way, they can never retrieve their former standing, since every act of sincerity will come tainted with the suspicion that they actually lack sincerity and will say whatever seems to their advantage at the moment. Far better, when architects confront situations like this, to work with the community and colleagues who have protested, engaging them in a discussion of alternatives, and assessing with them the pros and cons of each. That still may not have led to the saving these old buildings, but it will do something just as important: saving the architect’s hard-fought reputation.