Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Corporate Chickens

In recent weeks, I was all stressed up due to my works in the office. I've been working for the same client and the same project for almost 2 years now. The client has been difficult since the beginning and I've been living with these difficulties ever since.

One day, that was after few days of thinking, I thought that I've had enough. I need to talk to my boss. I have been drafting the words that I'm going to use when I meet him - "Firstly, I love working here together with those wonderful friends and secondly, quitting is the last thing on my mind. But, in between there is this problem...".

The client is a very reputable developer in the country. They are refuted as being the number one in the industry. They built good townships, sometimes with refreshing concept to what is available in the market. Their sales are always good except for one commercial development, perhaps due to their lack of experience in developing one. With all these, comes the reputation that they must maintain. To stay as a leader in the industry, maintaining alone is not enough. They need to grow that reputation. They need to come out with something new.

Now, that is the problem. The main problem.

To be able to come out with something new, one needs to understand few things. In my opinion, the past achievements are important because now what they need to do is a tricky balancing act of connecting and disconnecting with the past at the same time. They need to connect to know what has been done that contributed to the success and later to ditch it totally when exploring for the new future. Finally, a delicate balance between the two to create an ideal product that will show the market of what is their direction for the future, and at the same time bridging it all with their glorious past.

I was instructed to come out with something new and locally radical. I wouldn't call it revolutionary because it is not totally new. Other people have done it elsewhere but not here in Malaysia hence it will be easily perceived as radical in the local context. To the client, when it's radical, the 'wow' factor will always come with it. They want to wow the market and their competitors.

To make matters worst from my point of view as the consultant, it's not just the external competitors that their trying to beat but the boundary has dissolved to be within their own - between their subsidiaries, townships and senior execs. It is widely regarded that competition is healthy but in a way here, most of the time it has become a personal agenda for them to climb up the corporate ladder. It has turned into the devil within.

I have to deal with few devils of various ranks. Imagine the last person sending out instruction to me has at least more than two tiers above him to get the approval. I assume with his authority to send out instructions, he is equally accountable and responsible for whatever decision he makes. He should be able to make the best decision that in general not only will benefit the company, but in particular to the immediate boss above him, where in return will favor the boss above his boss, and so on. The chain is long but the void of this capability in making the best decision (not necessarily the best, at least to make a mere decision and be held responsible for it) has made the design process a big joke.

To pen it down easier, I'll give an actual scenario. The product is always a building, be it a house, office, shop etc. The highest management has decided that a sellable product must be available in 1 year time. Instructions passed down until it reached me as the architect. In between the highest management and the architect, all the executives are big cowards in determining the actual description of the product. The product is still left as the 'product'. They did not properly define it. None of them want to hold the responsibility and accountability if the product fails. They passed it down to the architect to formulate the product.

When I start, it was always under big vagueness of what I have to come out with. Constant grey and general instructions such as "it has to make an impact" and back to "it has to be sellable" put more pressure on me to come out with the perfect product.

Definitely, a lot of time consumed in developing the vague instructions. When I have come out with some visuals, there goes the process of gaining approval from the upper layers. Most of the time it was met with rejection, or at least with major modifications required. Blame is always on the architect. Here, time is ripped off me. And the budget too. Surprisingly, they can't afford it. Not because they don't have money but being a pure capitalist, minimum spending of your revenue will in return increase your profit margin.

It is very indeed true. But not when you are inventing to grow. Inventing is investing. Either time, brain source, effort or financial.

So, if they want to continue making profit, they should just stick to the already winning formula. Why bother to be new? From here, what I can see is that the vision of the leaders is lost halfway through the weak execs they employed. The leaders see what the future holds but the execs are well tied to the past fearing their decision making will turn into a failure and jeopardize the good paycheck they're enjoying every month.

In my opinion, the best practice is for the client to come out with a clear brief, a brief that they have to commit to. The architect will work around that. It is the common ground of understanding for both parties. Do not ask for something that you can't afford. Architects are not your fairy goddamn-mother.

As I mentioned above, I am stuck with the same client and the same project for almost 2 years. The loss is to my office, even to any office. Even though the project is prolonged, it is not reflected in the fee. The fee is still the same and will only entitled to claim once the project hit on site. Despite all that, I am still getting paid every months.

However, the biggest damage on my side is the mental stress I have endured somehow has affected me. The full extent is still unknown but there have been negative symptoms. I would prefer a prevention before it's too late.

Sadly, from the third paragraph onwards are what I wanted to say (or something pretty much similar to it) but it didn't happen when I finally met my boss. Understanding his already limited options if I ever to back off and noticing the needs to continue the project for the sake of the office, I realized actually my job is not just to fulfill the client's requirement but the most immediate urgency is for me to recognize and protect the interests of my boss.

With that realization, somehow it frees me up and I will continue on that project with an aim to finish it. I remember a light joke I made to my colleague when he mentioned about the recent achievements by two of our friends. Put aside that foreign award one of them is receiving and a professional title for the other, under current circumstance, my career goal is short termed and that is to just complete this project. At least, having it short termed has freed me up of my worry from the future and lifted the stress away from me. When I walked home that day while listening to a new nice song, the day felt so beautiful. It was also the day my wife received a good news - she has landed a job finally.

Cineplexx - Cosas De La Vida Normal

(seriously, I don't understand a single word. OK, only one - 'normal')

Monday, October 8, 2012

One Of The Sessions

Recently, I began to start playing futsal again after almost a year of hiatus. It was still held at the same venue, as it was 8 years ago. I still enjoy the game as it was.

I am not about to dwelve further on the game but more on the routine we used to have after the game. We used to go for drinks and late night meals at a nearby restaurant and talked about the game. Usually, it quickly turned into a catching up session.

We talked about our career, our life, our ambition - of how much we have achieved so far, or of how much we have gone astray from our strong beliefs, or rather what we used to believe. We talked about the places we wanted to go or already went. We talked about politics though we know little about it. We talked about architecture, the very thing that is running under our skin. We talked almost about everything around us or surrounding us. We cared.

Since I was on a hiatus, thus I have missed the post-game routine for at least a year. Then, 2 weeks ago I had the chance to be again in one of the session.

At one point, a friend recalled of an intention I once had to publish a collection of writings on the dilemma I faced as young architects. ‘The Young Architect’s Dilemma’ as I wanted it to be called at that time, was merely an effort to document my early experience as a practicing architect.

I remember at one of the previous sessions, we were talking about the places I have worked for. I have worked for an award-winning design firm, for a developer, for a big and established practice, and then for the government before lastly at present, I am working for a relatively new setup here in Kuala Lumpur, however with a strong and established base in Singapore. In between, I have returned to work with the design firm for a second time but it only lasted for just 3 months. Also, this is my second employment with my current employer after having a very short stint under different director about 5 years ago. For a record, in the early days of my second employment at my current office, my service was sought for the third time, to work for the design firm.

Leaving the employers were not all smooth. Apart from the normal resignations, there were instances where I was escorted out of the office. The short stint I had at the current office previously was short-lived because I had a heated argument with the director in a coffee shop just below the office. I have once being called into the principle architect’s room and learnt the hard truth about economy recession.

With those, came the despairs but not without the valuable experience. In a way, I am grateful to have chartered those paths and it makes what I am today. Hence, I think it is worth every word I type to have it composed and finally become a series for ‘The Young Architect’s Dilemma’.

Hope not that I need another year lapsed and have another session to remind me of what I have written today.