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The Power of Focusing on the “How”

November 30, 2009

Focusing a group of stakeholders on “how” to solve a complex problem is a powerful strategy to get everyone into the spirit of collaboration, especially when the stakeholders are doubtful on whether or not the problem can be solved in the first place.  The story of the planning, design, and construction of the San José Martin Luther King Library (“King Library”), which I am partially recalling below, demonstrates that even the most daunting vision is achievable when a team is capable of developing a collaborative culture of “can do.”

King Library, which opened its doors on August 2003, is one-of-a-kind in the United States, since never before has the merger of two such different institutions as a university library and a city library been attempted.  Allowing a community of patrons as diverse as young children, teens, senior citizens, university students and faculty to meet under the same roof is a revolutionary experiment that redefines a library’s mission as one of supporting a whole community, with all its diversity.  The idea of a joint library was born in 1996 from the minds of two visionaries – former San José mayor Susan Hammer and former San José State University president Robert Caret – who successfully broke the pattern of indifference and disdain, which had been representative of the relationship between the two entities over decades.  Indeed, on the one hand, the city of San José had been struggling over the years with urban decay downtown; the university, on the other hand, faced internal cultural changes and had become very insular.  Very little was shared between the two institutions.  However, with Caret and Hammer, things began to change. On her side, Hammer viewed the urban university as a main “player” in restructuring downtown. On his side, Caret considered San José State to be a “metropolitan university” and started to develop partnerships that benefited both the university and the community.  Both the city and the university had inadequate libraries and were in need of more space; neither of them, however, had a budget that permitted them to expand on their own. Both Hammer and Caret realized that by bringing their resources together, they could build a landmark building that neither could afford alone.  The result was a $177.5 million library jointly funded by the university and the city.

The challenges faced by the King Library project team were daunting at many levels: contextual, operational, organizational, cultural, procedural, technical and architectural.  The project was very high profile and much was at stake as patrons from both the campus and the city watched the merger of the two major institutions. The clients had never worked together in the past and had the reputation of being insular.  Because there was no precedent for a joint library, they had to innovate to combine their respective operational needs into a single set of requirements, while maintaining the integrity of two completely different cultures.

Hammer had defined the main library challenge as making the library operationally smooth, efficient and user-friendly.  The library had to provide “seamless services” to its users.  Because of the novelty of the concept, many believed the experiment would fail.  Opposition to the project quickly developed, in particular on the side of students and faculty, who worried that the availability of the university materials to the general public, i.e., 800,000 potential library users, would impact student access to required materials. The difference of users’ needs – from a graduate student working on a thesis to a toddler playing near-by – was perceived as a gap that could not be filled.  The merger of two institutions with different missions and goals was believed to be a huge mistake and the very reason why it had not been done before.  On the city side, some worried that city patrons would not be welcome on the campus grounds and that the joint library would cost more to operate.

At the early stage of the planning process, King Library clients had engaged an architect experienced in library design to do a program analysis of needs for the joint library.  Strangely, that architect held a very negative attitude toward the project and was openly skeptical about its success.  Realizing that the project could not be successful if participants did not believe in its potential success, San José Public Library Director Jane Light influenced the project team to hire the local firm Anderson Brulé Architect (ABA) to facilitate the feasibility phase and the development of a joint operation plan.  Having gained the reputation within the San José community for being a very good facilitator, ABA brought to the project a completely new approach to problem analysis and resolution – an approach conducive to collaboration and learning.

When Light hired ABA, she entrusted the firm with a very powerful charter.  Light told Anderson-Brulé, ABA president: “I am hiring you to be the optimist.  I am hiring you to never ask the question if, but to ask the question how.”  Focusing on the “how” question was very inspiring for Anderson Brulé and her team; this charter became central to ABA’s method of facilitation.  When, at the earliest stages of the project, the question in everyone’s mind was “What if…,” ABA challenged the client team to answer questions such as: “How would you do this?” “What gets in your way?” “What would stop you?” “How could you move past that thing that stops you?”

The focus on “how” provided a structure to librarians’ discussions and ensured that the team members were maintaining their focus on important questions.  It thus helped the librarians to hold their level of anxiety at times when they were uncertain about whether they would succeed in achieving a common solution.  The focus on “how” counterbalanced the project uncertainties and helped the librarians to overcome their fear of failure.

The “how” questions helped the project team to create a project “philosophy and personality…that was so contagious that it ended up feeding out the seven long years that it took to build up the library.”  This attitude toward resolving issues by figuring out how to make things work was re-emphasized at each main project phase, as new participants got involved.  This method help develop a culture of collaboration and an attitude of “can do” rather than “Why? Why do?”  The project philosophy became so pervasive that it spread out to all the participants, down to the general contractor and subcontractors.  The focus on “how” was used in partnering sessions, for instance, to help team members, subcontractors included, align their goals with the project vision.

Despite the complexity of the project and the inherent uncertainties faced by the “two-headed” client and the project team, King Library was delivered on time, below budget and without a single claim.  Months later, the two clients were still highly satisfied not only with the quality of the building itself, but also more importantly, with the joint operation plan they had developed.  Even early opponents had to admit the library provides what the city and university patrons needed.

Note: The above story is a slightly modified excerpt of King Library case study included in my Ph.D. Dissertation: “Managing AEC Project Organizations at the Edge of Chaos: An Analysis of AEC Project’s Adaptive Capacity from a Living Systems Perspective” (Completed in Fall 2005)

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