Daily Archives: August 30, 2009

Leaderless BIM

Are you a starfish or spider? You might be wondering what this has to do with BIM and Integrated Design. It turns out – quite a lot.

While Integrated Design is still a relatively new and untested process for the vast majority of organizations and teams, the trend is catching-on with many owners, traditional design firms and contractors. One of the consequences of this change is the make-up of the Integrated Design team. No longer limited to the Owner, Architect and Contractor, the Integrated Design team expands to include engineers, consultants, subcontractors, suppliers, construction managers and other stakeholders in the design and construction of the project.

In other words, the team has flattened with an inevitable blurring of roles as collaborative teams integrate activities especially early in the design process.

starfishspiderWhat we are talking about here is a Leaderless BIM.

You might think that the transition to BIM and Integrated Design are scary enough without suggesting the removal of a centralized leadership role from an already expanding team but in a very real sense the entire process may in fact improve with the removal of the top-down command and control hierarchy of many already existing project teams and design firms.

Project teams today are often described in industry literature as fragmented, assembled on “just-as-needed” or “minimum necessary” basis, strongly hierarchical and controlled. Integrated Design teams on the other hand offer an attractive alternative – composed of all project lifecycle stakeholders, assembled early in the process, open and collaborative.

One can eliminate the silo mentality of the centralized firm by collaborating early on with stakeholders and others on the project team by meeting with current and potential owners, construction partners and suppliers to determine how to work more effectively together. In other words, by being more starfish than spider.

The many-legged creatures mentioned above allude to the title of an astonishing book from several seasons ago, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Stanford MBAs Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, a book that addresses the differences between starfish and spider organizations – which analogically describe design firms and their project teams.

A spider, of course, has a head and legs coming out of a centrally positioned body. A centralized firm or team has a clear leader who’s in charge. Get rid of the leader and you paralyze the process.

A decentralized firm or team is a starfish. Since the starfish doesn’t have a head, the major organs are replicated throughout each and every arm.

Though a starfish and a spider generally share the same shape, their internal structure is dramatically different—a headless spider will die while a starfish can survive by regenerating itself from a single amputated leg.

Integrated Design offers the possibility of a truly decentralized project team. It turns out that the gains and outcomes are huge – without having to sacrifice leadership. It’s the type of leadership that changes.

The book provides both new and old vivid examples of decentralized organizations – such as the internet and eBay, and the self-policing Wikipedia and Craigslist. The authors go on to describe a decentralized organization as one that stands on five legs. As with the starfish, it can lose a leg or two and still survive. But when you have all the legs working together, a decentralized firm or team can make a great deal or progress and profit. These five “legs” include:

Leg 1. Circles: small, nonhierarchical groups of people with each group maintaining its own particular habits and norms.

Leg 2. The Catalyst: the person who initiates a circle and then fades away into the background.

Leg 3. Ideology: the glue that holds decentralized organizations together.

Leg 4. A Preexisting Network: infrastructure or preexisting platform to launch from.

Leg 5. A Champion: a relentless promoter of the new idea.

A particularly insightful chapter titled “The Hidden Power of the Catalyst” contains a chart summarizing the different tools that the (centralized firm’s) CEOs and (decentralized team’s) catalysts type of leader draws upon:

CEOs are The Boss, who Command & Control, are Powerful and Directive, operate In the Spotlight, thrive on Order and Organizing,


Catalysts tend to be Peers, who operate based on Trust, are Inspirational and Collaborative, working mostly Behind the Scenes, comfortable with Ambiguity and effective at Connecting.

The Integrated Design process is led by catalysts.

Perhaps most pertinent to this discussion is the role of the catalyst to activate leaderless teams and firms. “Catalysts are bound to rock the boat. They are much better at being agents of change than guardians of tradition. Catalysts do well in situations that call for radical change or creative thinking. They bring innovation, but they’re also likely to create a certain amount of chaos and ambiguity. Put them into a structured environment and they might suffocate. But let them dream and they’ll thrive.” (p. 131)

So how does this all play out in Integrated Design?

“There will be architects who chose not to change their current process, just as there will be owners who prefer traditional methods. The global demand for buildings will continue to support both approaches to architecture for the near future.” Both approaches: Starfish and Spiders.

As Autodesk describes the integrated design process in their wonderful workflow diagram, integrated design enables project teams to use the BIM information “in an integrated environment, increasing efficiency and enabling new ways of working that inspire more creative and sustainable designs.”

How do you determine if your own firm or project team is a starfish? By asking the right questions, including: Is there a single person in charge? Is there a clear division of roles? If you take out a unit, is the organization harmed? Are knowledge & power concentrated or distributed? Is the organization flexible or rigid? Do working groups communicate directly or through intermediaries?

If you’ve answered “no” to each of these questions, we’re looking at a starfish – and you’re onto the right road (and by that I mean the most effective, the most profitable, the most enjoyable to work with firm and team.)

Smaller firms have the same opportunity as larger firms since small firms tend to be agile, reacting quickly to change, and as described by the AIA, “moving independently to adopt new processes and technologies, and their close one-to-one relationship with clients and suppliers give them an advantage.”

For those still concerned about going leaderless – or score a few no’s and some yeses – the authors describe many successful hybrid firms that share qualities of both concepts. As we know from sustainability, there’s much to commend the hybrid – whether automobile, firm or team.



Filed under collaboration, Integrated Design, people, workflow