Peer Pressure Transforms our World, but Can it Transform our Industry?

In an interview for my book, BIM and Integrated Design: Strategies for Architectural Practice (Wiley, 2011) I asked Perkins+Will CIO, Rich Nitzsche:

IT is constantly changing. P+W, founded in 1935 in Chicago, has 20 North  American offices and three overseas, with a total of 1,500 employeesat, is one of the world’s largest firms (#1 in Architect Magazine’s 2011 Architect 50.) How exactly do you turn a firm the size of an aircraft carrier around to embark on an entirely different IT direction?

Rich Nitzsche responded:

“Sometimes you feel like you’re in a dinghy pushing against that aircraft carrier. Not making a lot of progress. We didn’t do anything entirely different.”

“First of all,” he continued, “you have to have buy-in from the top.”

How effective is peer pressure in changing behavior?

“One of the things I’ve learned is we’d be sitting in an operations meeting with the guys who run our offices every day from a practical, bottom-line and staffing point of view.” 

This is where peer pressure came into play:

“One guy would grumble about how BIM is going,” Nitzsche added. “There’s a great opportunity to find the people around the table who have success stories to tell, who have already done the labor to get there. You need to let them shine – and let peer pressure do its work. Not in a mean-spirited way. It’s a way of saying ‘This can be done.’ You’ve done it – why not have a conversation about what it took? Try and highlight the success stories.”

“That’s something we’re trying to do a lot more of in IT – focus on communication. I’m finding that peer pressure is one of the most effective tools to try and persuade other groups to move ahead.”

I was a bit surprised by his response. So I asked:

With reference to BIM and other related technologies, how do you – in your role – create and communicate value for a firm as large and diverse as P+W?

Rich again answered in terms of peer pressure:

“There’s not an RFP that crosses our threshold that doesn’t have BIM as a requirement. And now we’re starting to see IPD show up. So if we’re going to compete with what we consider to be our peer group – and even with people who are smaller than us – we’ve got to be ready on all of these levels. So we’ve got to go in with a great BIM story and not only a great sustainability story but a leadership story about sustainable design. We have a green operating plan and green IT is part of the green operating plan. We’ve done a pretty good job of that. My goal this year is to get us into a leadership position about BIM and IPD – in the eyes of owners and our peers. Because we all measure ourselves to some degree in terms of how we measure ourselves in relation to our peers. And I would say we’re on the front edge when it comes to those two things.”

How did you know Revit was right for P+W?

“We have folks who insist that they can’t design in Revit. And I have other designers – who are just now emerging – who say that they can accomplish 95% of what they need to do in Revit. Designers who have taken it on as their personal mission who say that they’re going to wrestle this beast to the ground and bend it to my will as an architect. As these people emerge, we’ll do the peer pressure thing.”

“That said,” he concluded, “we can’t get stubborn about it and say we can’t use these tools – SketchUp and Rhino – to author your design idea. We would have open revolt.”

Peer pressure can transform the world, but can it transform our industry?

In National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient, Tina Rosenberg’s “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World,” she explores the thinking that human behavior is defined by our relationships with our colleagues and acquaintances.

Why did she make peer pressure the subject of her new book?

“Problems were in endless supply,” she writes. “But it was starting to seem more interesting and valuable to write about solutions.”

Solutions, that is, such as the virtues of peer pressure.

Rosenberg builds the case the most powerful motivator of our personal behavior is the search for status and peer approval.

But can peer pressure assure that we, as a profession and industry, will adopt the new technologies and collaborative work processes enmass?

Motivating through fear

A review in The New York Times pointed out that Rosenberg’s examples, while impressive, also raise doubts about peer pressure’s effectiveness.

“Many of the efforts that she reports on are successes in the short run but not in the longer run, or on a small scale but not a large scale,” reminding us that peer pressure alone cannot transform the world.

The Times review reminds us that our success as a society “depends on the strength of our communities, because the development of our best traits — trust, honesty, foresight, responsibility and compassion — depends upon our close interactions with others.”

So, peer pressure may not be able to transform our industry, but perhaps “it illuminates one crucial piece of the complex puzzle of social ­improvement.”

Join the club

You might recall from your youth peer pressure’s reputation for less beneficial behavior: doing what your friends did to go along with the pack.

Doing something just to fit in, to not rock the boat, to not stand out.

This behavior is perhaps understandable in a large corporate firm, where standing out is professionally ill-advised, and fitting-in the name of the game.

But here’s the rub:

If you have a good reason for using the tools you’re using, you ought to be able to explain and justify your choice.

You shouldn’t give-in to the powers that be because “everybody is doing it.”

It ought to be a choice, one that you make and most importantly, are free to make.

And yet, this admittedly can be difficult.

The concept of peer pressure implies the power of a group to impose its will upon an individual, “to coerce a state of being that might not otherwise exist.”

For as Rosenberg says, “We are all good boys at risk of the bad crowd. Peer pressure is a mighty and terrible force—so powerful that, for the vast majority of people, the best antidote to it is more peer pressure.”

Habits run deep

Many design professionals still refuse to change from their tools of choice – no matter the incentive.

And are just as unwilling to leave their silos and work together collaboratively.

As Rosenberg says in Join the Club, “No amount of information can budge us when we refuse to be budged. The catalog of justifications for destructive behaviors is a tribute to human ingenuity.”

Can an unwillingness to move to BIM, and not taking part on integrated teams, be considered “destructive behavior?”

Absolutely.

Can we be pressured, even coerced, to change against our wills?

I wouldn’t want to wait to find out.

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Filed under BIM, collaboration, construction industry, design professionals, Integrated Design, Integrated Project Delivery, IPD, people

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