By Laura Weiss, Vice President of Service Innovation, Taproot Foundation
When I was twelve years old I decided that I wanted to become an architect. This is approximately the age at which someone described to me what an architect was – “someone who can draw and is good at math” is what I recall. It was also around the time that I became obsessed with the Better Homes and Gardens “Houses of the Year” issue, favoring this form of eye candy over the comic books my grandparents would purchase for me and my siblings on weekend outings.
So I started on my journey to becoming an architect. I entered a professional degree program straight out of high school, followed immediately by another, worked for three fairly diverse architectural firms, took a turn at teaching, and got my license. I was on track for a solid, if narrowly defined, career as an architect.
But in the early 1990’s my path started to twist in ways I never imagined. Not only was it the start of the Gulf War recession and an unstable job market, but it was also the time where free agency and brand you were on their ascendancy as personal professional development strategies, replacing the era of a lifetime career and a gold watch.
Meanwhile I had begun to suspect that architects could do more than just the jobs they were classically trained to do. I remember vividly a 1993 symposium at the Harvard Graduate School of Design that was essentially a ‘call to arms’ for architects to pursue careers that would make a difference. I began broadening my mental model of what being an architect meant to include possible contributions to the larger world of design and innovation, and I essentially reverse engineered my professional experience in an attempt to demonstrate problem-solving capabilities that went beyond just designing buildings.
I eventually decided to pursue a business degree as a way to simultaneously showcase and improve on my design credentials – “I am going to figure out how design can influence business” I would proclaim to anyone willing to listen. My modus operandi was to work outside of the architecture profession as a “design-trained business leader.” This narrative evolved to a point where, while participating in a mock-interview training session, I had crafted a rationale for why architects were just as skillful as management consultants. The two just have different tools of the trade, I had argued.
After a brief stint in, yes, management consulting, followed by a much longer one that focused on innovation and design, I took a turn away from serving primarily private enterprise. I was determined to further test my assumptions about what I could do with my design training. This particular bend in the career path was facilitated by a suspicion that nonprofit organizations were underserved by most design professions and were a territory worth exploring. I discovered pro bono service – an innovative way to use excess capacity in the professional workforce to supplement nonprofit staff – as a vehicle to further broaden my professional experience and growth.
Through a productive partnership with the Taproot Foundation’s CEO, my management partners there, and our talented staff and affiliates I’ve come to appreciate that these organizations are inherently innovative, launched by visionary leaders with plans to change the world. Yet as time goes by these dreams can be supplanted by more pressing operational matters. Resources are perpetually limited and the status quo prevails. At Taproot we decided to tackle the latter – in spite of the former – when embarking on an innovation initiative to evolve our flagship Service Grant Program. We decided to examine every design parameter that informed the creation of the program a decade earlier, relying on the know-how of our staff and outside partners and guided by a discovery-driven process. This initiative yielded insights that are now informing the development of new program offerings that will increase our ability to have impact on the organizations we serve. In a sector where very little is undertaken without funding, this kind of innovation bootstrapping isn’t done nearly enough.
Ultimately nonprofits are successful if they can access or develop a capacity for innovative activities instead of relying solely on substantial amounts of grant money. This makes a strong case for the professional designer who wishes to apply his or her tools of the trade to the social sector. So here are at least four ways I’ve discovered that our innate abilities and cumulative experience can be put to good service:
• Working with multiple stakeholders: This is common practice in most design firms because the delivery of services requires coordination of multiple stakeholders – be they consumers, client groups, or sub-contractors. Similarly, nonprofits must maintain productive relationships with a wide variety of public and private sector partners and clients. In all cases management and communication skills are critical to transcending organizational boundaries and enabling a ‘one-team’ mentality.
• Learning by observing: For architects, a building ‘program’ is more than just a laundry list of places and square footages; it’s a framework for understanding the needs of real people when they experience a physical environment. Similarly, nonprofits need to gather and apply fresh insights from the field, to regularly test assumptions about their programs and ensure they remain relevant to those that they serve. Adapting empathic techniques such as in-person conversations with beneficiaries will result in a prospective, not solely retrospective, view of where their programs can go.
• Allowing solutions to come from diverse sources: The concept of ‘precedent’ as the source of many design ideas is a familiar one to all architects, and such ideas can come from almost anywhere (the architect Steven Holl was inspired by a kitchen sponge when designing Simmons Hall at MIT). Similarly, nonprofits need to “diverge to converge” – they must periodically challenge the assumptions on which their programs are based and encourage broad thinking as a precedent for reaching consensus or making important decisions.
• Visualizing the future: Architects and designers routinely rely on sketches and models to develop and communicate new ideas. Nonprofits can improve their collaboration skills by adopting simple variations on these visual techniques. Get materials off of the digital desktop and onto walls where they can be seen by all members of a management team. Make judicious use of basic tools like post-it-pads, post-it notes, butcher paper, discarded copy paper, markers, etc. What’s important is information persistence – making it all visual and visible helps promote non-liner thinking and can spark connections between adjacent ideas that might otherwise never be recognized.
It’s easy to get caught up in a professional routine. As architects and designers we must remember to periodically stretch our thinking about how we manage our careers and consider new ways to apply the tools of our trade. One way is by providing service to nonprofits, expanding their way of thinking, impacting the communities in which they are based, and increasing our own abilities to grow.
Laura Weiss is the Vice President of Service Innovation at the Taproot Foundation, an organization leading the pro bono movement and making business talent available to nonprofits working to improve society. Previous to joining Taproot, Weiss was an Associate Partner and Practice Director with design consultancy IDEO where she focused on service design and innovation. A former architect and educator, Weiss is a member of the Board of Directors of Public Architecture and has served on the Board of Governors of the Association of Yale Alumni. She holds a BArch with honors from Cornell University, an MArch from Yale University, and an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management.