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Did you spot the gorilla? Or were you too fixated on procurement?

Posted by On Mar 26, 2019 In Essays, Ideas, Opinion Tags

Article first published Architecture Bulletin Vol 75 No 4 March 2019

My four-person practice Redshift Architecture & Art loses far more jobs than we win. No doubt it’s a common story.

Redshift chooses not to do requests for quotations, expressions of interests and design competitions. But we have prepared RFQs and EOIs in the past. Preparing submissions cost thousands of dollars – often going into five figures – and the cost of winning small projects represents a significant proportion of the final fee. From a business sense, it’s hard to justify.

Redshift doesn’t like to do work for free or to subsi- dise someone else’s project through free work or cut-price fees. This approach only serves to bring the value of the entire profession’s work down.

My contention is that by focusing on the procurement process, the profession is at risk of inattentional blindness. This condition is best illustrated by the Invisible Gorilla Test, where test subjects are asked to watch a video of people in black or white T-shirts passing a ball and instructed to count passes by the white or black team. A person in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of the game halfway through the video. Through inattentional blindness approxi- mately 50% of the test subjects fail to spot the gorilla.

What is the profession failing to see by focusing on procurement? The issue is much bigger than procurement. It’s an issue of our culture and a failure of our leadership. Leadership throughout the profession, not just at the top.

The profession continues to say yes to unreasonable fees; to doing work (including submissions and competi- tions) at significantly reduced rates. The profession has to start saying no. Instead of spending its time not being paid for unreasonable submissions, start spending the unpaid time advocating a more reasonable position and fees with client bodies. Explaining why they are saying no. Explaining the problems with procurement. Explaining what value they bring. Explaining the importance of design excellence and what that takes in time. Explaining what the true cost of the work is. Let’s be clear – the true cost is gender equity, mental health, long hours, poor pay, staff subsidising businesses with their own time and profits.

There are many pressures on the profession. Rather than fighting to regain lost ground, the profession must seek out new ground, using its vast skills and expertise. It’s time for the profession to pivot – to generate work in alternate ways. Nightingale Housing is an excellent example of this. It raises the question: how might architects learn to say no and better lead the way in procurement?

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