The Hammer vs. The Architect

More Than A Hammer

“If all you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails”

A friend, and fellow architect, recently emailed this quote to me. This particular friend is constantly looking for big hairy audacious goals to further his quest of saving the planet (through architecture). People like this inspire me, so we talk often. We collect ideas, trade inspiration, and challenge each other to be more realistic and grandiose all at the same time. This quote was the latest addition to our collection.

Thinking myself clever, I emailed back, “What if all you have is an architect?”

His response: “That guy would be way more versatile than a hammer… which I think is exactly the point”

And as an architect, I’m inclined to agree. But why is that the point? It’s not because architects have more tools for solving problems. A carpenter’s toolbox would also be more versatile than a hammer. But there’s a fundamental difference between an architect and a hammer, or a toolbox. That difference becomes preciously relevant when you’re dealing with a particular kind of challenge.

Wicked Problems

During the 1960s and 70s German design theorist Horst Rittel, along with colleague Melvin Weber, developed the concept of wicked problems. He deemed this class of problems wicked because of their inherent characteristics that defiantly resist resolution. In 1968 C. West Churchman described wicked problems as “a class of social system problems which are ill formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.” (“Wicked Problems,” Management Science, vol.14, no. 4, December 1967). A brief look at political, environmental, economic, and technological news-makers of the day will readily disclose an abundance of wicked problems. It turns out that such problems are also common in the practice of architecture.

How we define such problems is critical, because the problem definition frames how we attempt to solve it. The diversity of stakeholders often leads to conflicting definitions of the problem which undermines any attempt at creating a meaningful solution. And this is where the toolbox gets into trouble. The hammer, the screwdriver, and the crescent wrench, each with their unspoken biases begin working toward a solution. None of them recognizes that although they’re presumably working in concert, they’re actually attempting to solve different problems based on their unreconciled perspectives.


Architects approach problems differently. We’ve had another method drilled into our mindsets. Design problems are often ambiguously defined and involve stakeholders with conflicting values. It can be difficult to understand and anticipate how our decisions will affect seemingly unrelated aspects of the design. And best (or worst) of all, there is no such thing as a “correct” answer. Wicked problems are the reason architecture students are notorious for spending the night in their studios and working right up until the deadline. It’s common knowledge that you never actually finish a project. You just stop working on it because time runs out.

One of the most important lessons we learn in architecture school is that design is a process. Having a solid process does not guarantee a successful solution, but it significantly increases your odds. At the beginning of our process we do something called problem-seeking. The goal of problem seeking is threefold:

  • Understand the problem
  • Clarify the problem
  • Communicate the problem

The reward of problem-seeking done well is a broadened perspective, a sophisticated understanding of the challenge, and a mutual respect for the values that each stakeholder brings to the situation. This lays a strong foundation for your problem solving effort. And maybe, just maybe, your hammer won’t be so important this time.

Musical Stairs

This is a brilliant example of design thinking applied to an interesting challenge: How do you make people want to climb the stairs when it’s easier to use the escalator?

What Summer Camp Taught Me About Architecture

Summer Camp vs. Architecture
Most architecture students look for summer internships to gain work experience before graduating from college. But when I was a freshman in the Rice School of Architecture  I opted out. I figured the experience would be useful for life after college, but that wasn’t so urgent. Plus I had an opportunity to be a summer camp counselor, and I suspected summer camp would be a lot more fun. I also knew that Rice would set me up with a 9 month internship after my senior year. So I spent my college summers playing games with elementary-aged campers at Pine Cove in Tyler, Texas.

Several years after my transition to professional life I realized that my naive decision in favor of summer camp would pay huge dividends. One of the reasons Rice arranges 9 month internships is that it takes time to learn about the intricacies of architectural practice in the real world. A firm won’t expect to get much value out of a student who can only give three months. And many firms are wary of investing too much time in a summer intern who may end up working for a competitor. In other words, if I had picked architecture over camp, I would most likely have spent my summers doing tedious work that was less than deeply satisfying.

Unexpected Benefits
Summer camp, on the other hand, was a blast. As a rookie counselor, Pine Cove depended on me to make sure that every week my group of campers had a fun, safe and memorable time. My leaders couldn’t afford to micro-manage me or stick me with the work they didn’t want to do (although I did clean a few toilets). Instead I had a job that tapped into my intrinsic motivation to mentor youth. Within our clearly defined guidelines, I enjoyed a high degree of creative freedom (and accountability) in leading my campers, and  a deep sense of purpose. And because I had a new group of campers each week, I had the opportunity to continually improve.

I didn’t understand until years later that the organizational culture of Pine Cove was ripe for fostering the creativity, personal development and leadership skills that have served me well as a professional architect. My three summers at Pine Cove offered many lessons that became surprisingly relevant to my architectural career. They continue to profoundly shape my attitudes toward work and success. Below are just a couple of them.

1. Never Say “I don’t know” (Even If You Don’t)
At summer camp we were in the hospitality business. Our campers (both kids and their parents) were on their vacation, and they paid good money to spend it with us. My job was to serve. Our leaders trained us to never say “I don’t know.” If a camper requested something, and you didn’t know how to accomplish it for them, the correct answer was, “Let me find out and get back to you.” You see the difference? “I don’t know” is a dead end. It signals that no more effort is required. The need goes unmet, and my obligation is fulfilled. On the other hand “let me find out” means that my challenges instigate inquiry, not paralysis.

Because of the complexity of buildings, building codes and the construction process, I frequently encounter situations in which “I don’t know” the answer. If I stopped at that point, many problems would remain unresolved.  If I get stuck at “I don’t know”, I’m accepting helplessness. But helplessness is largely a matter of perception, not objective reality. Ignorance is always the starting point for knowledge. Even if I don’t know, I can find out. Or I can find someone who can help me find. That little bit of initiative goes a long way.

2. Don’t Assume You See the Whole Picture
Every week a new set of campers would come to Pine Cove. They would see skits, play games, make friends and go home at the end of the week completely oblivious to all of the hard work we did behind the scenes to prepare for them. Then during my final summer at Pine Cove I was a senior counselor. Every six weeks we had a new crop of counselors come in. They would act in skits, eat lunch with their group, and make sure their campers had a great time. At the end of their six weeks, they would go home completely oblivious to much of the hard work done behind the scenes to make sure they would be successful. Then my director’s wife had their first baby, and for a week I had his job as the director of Wild Woods. You’ll never guess what I realized. The pattern became very clear: There’s usually more to the story than what you see.

Every time you function in a new role you gain a new perspective. When I started working, I made a point of trying to understand the priorities of different groups within my firm. Designers, project managers, marketing, IT, accounting: they each have unique challenges, limitations and pet peeves. Occasionally, something that makes my job easier, makes someone else’s job more difficult. Understanding the nuances of how each group works, combined with good communication and a dash of empathy, can alleviate frustration and improve our effectiveness as a team.

The Deeper (Design Thinking) Lesson
Designers give a lot of attention to the way things look. But good design thinking goes much deeper. In my case, the superficial similarities between an architecture internship and my architecture career were not nearly as significant as the leadership skills that transferred from summer camp to architectural practice. Innovation often arises from juxtaposing things that seem marginally related on the surface. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore the appearance of things, because appearances give us important clues. But design thinkers know that it’s important to look deeper. Keep your eyes and your mind wide open. Incredible insights often show up in unexpected places.

The Myth of Learning from Experience

Conventional Wisdom
Conventional wisdom advises us that experience is the best teacher. Many times experience yields its most profound lessons only after much struggle or thought. The force of that “Eureka!” striking our minds leaves a deep imprint. From experience, we learn directly. The lessons aren’t filtered and diluted by a third party. We have a deep bias toward the validity of personal expereince. Third parties can’t always be trusted, but personal experience gives us firsthand feedback.  For better and (as we’ll see) for worse, we trust what we can see and touch. And this is where our beloved instructor shows signs of weakness. The effectiveness of experience as a teacher, it turns out, depends a lot on her students.

The Limits of Experience
The lessons we have learned from experience are often profound. They stick with us, so we regard experience as a skilled tutor. But why is it that we so frequently repeat the same mistakes over and over, long after we ought to know better? Consider how many times you have heard or thought to yourself some variation of the following : Things didn’t work out like I planned despite everything I did. That one small assumption is at the root of many missed opportunities to benefit from our experiences. But what if our default reaction to mishaps sounded more like this: Things didn’t work out like I planned because of what I did. That minute shift in thinking has enormous implications. That first response is how we think when we take for granted that we have all the necessary information to evaluate our methods in the context of our situations. The second response is based on the realization that there is often more to the story than what experience grants us access to.

Feedback Mishaps
Feedback is fundamental to learning. By feedback we correct our mistakes, refine our knowledge and improve our performance. We depend on feedback, yet feedback is often mysteriously absent when we need it most. Below are three common types of feedback mishaps that sabotage our lessons learned from personal experience.

  1. Delayed feedback occurs when cause and effect are separated by a significant amount of time.
  2. Non-local feedback occurs when the effect resulting from some event shows up in a place other than where the event occurs.
  3. Indirect feedback occurs when you are on the receiving end of non-local feedback.

Imagine for example that you are the president of an organization, and you have just pitched your most brilliant idea to be included your company’s new strategic plan. And imagine that everybody is underwhelmed, but they would rather not offend you or get on your bad side. Instead of offering constructive criticism, they will more likely bad-mouth your idea to everybody else. How would you know to make an adjustment in your plan, or perhaps in how you communicate your plan? You won’t because the feedback is non-local. So you bulldoze ahead, working for months to refine your contribution to the strategic with the assumption that everyone is on the same page. But when it’s time for the company to vote on which initiatives make it into the final version of the strategic plan, your most innovative idea is rejected. You finally receive your delayed feedback. Up until this point, you have only heard positive, though superficial, comments about your initiative. So your assumptions about what went wrong will most likely be skewed. If people simply didn’t buy in to your plan from the beginning, they would have told you, right? So you probably search for the fault somewhere else.

This is where indirect feedback rears its head. And this is where things get really tricky. It turns out your initiative actually is as brilliant as you imagined. And most of the people in your organization agreed. The reason they bad-mouthed your plan behind your back and voted your initiative down at the last minute was because of your hardest working, most vocal supporter: the VP who has secretly held a grudge against you for the past 3 years because you were promoted to president instead of him. You never even knew he was upset about it until you overheard some breakroom gossip (aka delayed feedback) after the vote.

What Did you Learn From That?
When feedback is distant in time or in space, we lose the capacity to associate cause and effect. We miss the opportunity to learn from experience. And we become blind to root causes. So next time things don’t work out like planned, or you’re trying once again to solve a problem that defies your best efforts, remind yourself that you may not be seeing the whole picture. And keep in mind that experience sometimes neglects to inform you of relevant information.