Failing Faster and Leaps of Learning: Innovation in an Era of Rapid Change

For much of the history of architecture, change has been plodding. Shifts in building typologies, construction methods, and dominant styles occurred over centuries, not months.  In the modern era, our level of interconnectedness and technological access continues to accelerate the rate at which change occurs. Some changes are anticipated, such as the long-term impacts of emerging technologies, construction materials, or market shifts. Others are abrupt, such as the global pandemic which necessitated a rapid transformation of the ways in which we work. In the face of such changes, the old adage still applies: if you sit still, you die. Firms must either adapt readily or struggle mightily, whether change occurs over years or minutes.

Adopting an Agile Posture
The process of evolution can be challenging, especially for large and established firms. LS3P has operated for 57 years and currently has over 350 team members. We know for any design firm to remain relevant, it must view itself as a learning organization. To be nimble in the face of the social, economic, legal, and technological forces driving change in the design profession, we must continuously examine our practices as well as our organizational culture. How do we look beyond our entrenched habits to embrace new elements of practice that will elevate our work? How do we identify new problems to solve, and know when to direct our resources accordingly? In this time of reconfiguration and transformation at all levels of the industry, our enduring values have been a touchstone to guide our decisions. We have also honed and refined a vision statement which keeps us focused on future:

In our commitment to the Southeast, we create architecture that enriches community through a culture of design excellence, expertise, innovation, and collaborative engagement.

Formalizing our commitment to our culture of innovation within this vision has encouraged LS3P to explore new edges, individually and collectively, as we seek to advance our knowledge and the profession.

Fail Fast, Fail Often
In implementing change, the urge to take small risks or narrow our focus to one change at a time is understandable- but flawed. Instead, launching multiple initiatives at once and testing them at the same time can be a surprisingly effective tactic. Will some of them fail? Undoubtably. However, other explorations will succeed, or at least generate productive conversations and lessons learned. Sequential changes may require a significant investment of time and resources to eliminate one option at a time, but simultaneous changes test ideas rapidly and with maximum learning opportunities.

Cultivate Opportunities for Growth
Creating a culture of learning and innovation may necessitate a shift in organizational structure or mindsets. As part of our internal focus on upholding our new vision, LS3P has restructured and expanded our internal Knowledge Teams dedicated to design excellence (Alchemy), risk management (Advance), sustainable design (Integrate), interiors (Image) and innovation (Ignite). These teams draw from the expertise of passionate, committed team members representing each of our eight offices and have helped us to carve out time to dig deeper into important topics without ego, with the goal of continuous improvement of our process and our product.

Virtual Innovation Lab
Our firm’s Ignite Knowledge Team is envisioned as a “virtual innovation lab.” Our first meeting was held in August 2019; the ripple effects of our work have already been exciting, unexpected, and far-reaching. We began with an LS3P-sponsored design studio in partnership with NC State University on rural healthcare that generated thoughtful and viable responses to the issue of healthcare access for rural populations. We have begun work on the first large-scale multifamily cross laminated timber (CLT) project in the Southeast and are compiling ongoing research on this fast-growing construction type for our area. We are planning collaborative research on designing for coastal resilience and are diving deeper into the concept of design thinking in services to our communities. In January of 2020 we announced that our firm has joined the 1+ organization for pro bono design; our initial projects to date have led us from school playgrounds to a WHO study on how to convert a hospital in Burkina Faso for Covid-19 treatment to a concept design for a women and children’s clinic in Uganda. Any employee is invited to bring ideas to the Ignite committee for consideration, and we have been inspired by the wide-ranging, deeply impactful results over just a few short months.

Architects as Problem Solvers and Innovators
At its core, innovation applies design principles to address myriad challenges. From the small-scale architectural details that can contribute to a building’s success to sweeping organizational changes, innovation lies solidly within the designer’s tool kit forged through a unique and invaluable education in design thinking. Design can be an act of service, entrepreneurship, or experimentation; applied to the pressing issues of our current era, it has the potential to generate sweeping positive change.

Nothing can be static and continue to thrive. By embracing innovation, we position ourselves to adapt to, and instigate, the changes that will help us to evolve, learn, and grow.

About Katherine

Katherine Peele serves as LS3P’s Chief Practice Officer. Katherine joined the firm (then Boney Architects) in 1988 after she graduated summa cum laude from North Carolina State University’s School of Design with a Bachelor of Architecture degree. She was the valedictorian of her class at the School of Design.

In her 31 years with the firm, she has managed over $1 billion worth of construction, with projects ranging from educational to workplace and community focuses.  Her current role as Chief Practice Officer includes oversight of design excellence and quality, growth of practice expertise, and innovation.

Katherine served as the 2000 President of AIA North Carolina and in 2017 was appointed by the Governor to serve a five-year term on the North Carolina Board of Architecture. She was elevated to AIA Fellowship in 2003 in recognition of her extensive expertise and commitment to educational facility design.  She also serves as the Chair of the Membership Committee for the Leaders Council of NC State University College of Design.  In 2009, she was awarded the William H. Dietrick Service Medal by the AIA North Carolina Chapter for her service to the profession in North Carolina.