This interview with one of the owners of Boston-based Bruner/Cott Architects, listed #17 in the latest Architect 50 rankings in the USA, is the second interview of a series where we connect with senior executives to discuss the state of leadership under continuously transforming market conditions.
During our conversation, Jason Forney, partner, and principal at Bruner/Cott Architects describes his and the firm's dedication to enriching lives and transforming place through thoughtful, well-crafted, and sustainable design solutions. Jason believes architecture is a site-specific art: a creative response to place, a reflection of each client’s program and mission, and a dialogue with surrounding communities. Jason has over 25 years of creactive leadership experience, and holds degrees in environmental design and architecture from North Carolina State University.
Henrik Totterman (HT): Jason, I've known you for several years, I've been always very impressed with your business and of course, also your creative mind and the way that you couple these together and run a very successful architecture firm together with your partners. I’m also impressed by your highly interesting and widely recognized work. In this interview, I'm going to be asking you questions related to creactive leadership. I'm very curious about how you see it and, of course, how you put that into good use in your daily work. My first question is:
HT: How do you define your leadership style?
Jason Forney (JF): Thank you for having me here, I would say that my leadership style is heavily influenced by the fact that I am an architect and a designer and see leading a business as a design excercise, one where we're trying to first define it and then come up with a whole bunch of different ways of maybe solving it and seeing what works. I think that personally, my style is one of empowering people and leading them by letting them know what's important at the very highest level, the big picture goals, but giving them the freedom to find their pathway to get there, but also being there to give them feedback and criticism and encouragement when they need it.
HT: Why do you see an increasing need for creactive leadership in society and also in business and perhaps specifically also in your line of business?
JF: Sure, so I think that the old way of doing almost everything is gone and we have to invent ways of doing our work in a more focused manner. We have to invent ways of responding to all the different forces that are making themselves known in the economy, on the kind of work that we do, the kind of projects that we might be doing at any moment. Societal change and social norms are all changing. And so I think this requires us to be nimble and ready to respond to a lot of different things. And then, as I said, I think also the world is changing in many ways, but also the kinds of people that are doing the work are changing generationally. People's values are different. And so I think, you know, the old way of the kind of command and control leadership, it just doesn't work very well in today's world.
HT: And then, in a disrupted world, how do you maintain a positive outlook and direction?
JF: It can be hard. I think one of my biggest ways to deal with that is to understand that you can't control everything on a sort of long-term or even medium-term basis. And then just look at what's in front of you and understand that all of the choices that you make are going to link together and lead to something really good. You may not know what it is at the time, but if you have the faith and confidence in yourself that if you string together a bunch of really good decisions it can lead to good outcomes if you just kind of go with your full force into it. Also by looking at things in little pieces, you can keep the outlook positive.
Then I think often when the team is feeling uncertain or maybe worried, you know, not having a positive frame of mind, I kind of swoop in and just pull everybody together and just say, ‘the world is complicated, things are happening to us, but we're committed to finding our way through to the other side.’ Also, sometimes you just have to ask people what they need at the moment, like ‘do you need not to work today? That is going to be OK because you can come back and work tomorrow.’ So I think we have to realize that everybody is a human. And there's a lot of pressure on us right now with, you know, political change and societal change and public health that just requires a different way of looking at things and realizing that we indeed are human. What is important in the long term is what you’re able to achieve in our projects. Designing and constructing a building takes years, so we have to think about success as something that happens over a long period.
HT: How do you keep your winning concept current? And perhaps you can also talk about how you define your winning concept?
JF: what do you mean by winning concept?
HT: The concept that has led your business to success, again and again, the secret sauce, if you will.
JF: Well, I think we are always working to try to boil down the mission and core values and sort of five-year goals into a single page that we can share with everyone and talk about it. We also have a set of core design principles. One thing that's hard to do is to work on a bunch of different buildings with a group of 30 people and have them all feel like they're going in the same direction. So we're able to kind of look back at our portfolio and the work that we've done in the past. Look at what we're doing right now and then talk about what we want to be doing in the future and think about what the attributes are of those projects. Are they making the world a better place? Are they beautiful? Are they making a commentary on what the world used to be like and what the world could be like in the future? You know, the sort of blend of old and new together. And so by talking about, you know, ahead of time what we think the qualities or positive attributes of a building or a design will be, that helps us kind of set ourselves up for future expectation and success. And I think a lot of those things can apply to, just like I said at the beginning of this interview, designing a company, which can be a lot like designing a building if you approach it that way.
HT: Very impressive. Any advice on data collection and analysis, especially thinking of companies who are waking up to generating intelligence? I think this question is particularly interesting with you in mind. I remember when you showed some of your data management tools, allowing you to collect and mine through huge amounts of complex data, including even email floods from customers and stakeholders. It's very impressive and I've not seen in many other industries that kind of tools in place.
JF: Yeah. So I'll be honest, we're struggling a little bit with that right now because there’s so much of it. And I think collecting too much data can send you in the wrong direction because you're thinking about how do you organize it all. So I think focusing on the most important things is key, and we're doing a bunch of training right now in our team on the data that we use to manage projects. Try to reorganize it, boil it down to just the essentials so that we can use it more powerfully and more sort of on a daily or monthly basis. I would say that our business is one where data is important in terms of running the business and managing the business. But for people in a creative industry where you're delivering a product, in this case, a building, I think the big ideas and sort of the alignment with our work to the mission of the particular client or the needs of the surrounding communities are always going to outweigh what the data is telling.
I think of data as something current, something that fluctuates. And if you're thinking about designing a building that you want to last for, ideally a lifetime, it needs to be built around things that are slower moving than the numbers, in my opinion. That being said, there is a lot of data that you can use to help understand if you're being efficient and if you're using resources in the right way. One of the things that we like to try to do is eliminate the waste in our business because ultimately, our business is a talent-based one where we're spending time and we're designing and creating things. So every hour that we spend not doing that is not as good as the time we spend really generating ideas and following them through.
HT: With creactive leadership and overall performance in mind. What key performance metrics do you prefer?
JF: That's a good Segway, sort of continuation from the question before, I tend to look at the ones that are sort of at the higher level. We often look, and this has been hard to follow in the last two years because everything has been so different, on net revenue per employee. We follow market wins and losses, because getting new projects and making sure they're the kind of projects that we can be successful with and that communicates through design an important positive outcome. We look at utilization rates as a company and per employee. We look at operating profit project by project, but also as the overall business. And there are several key performance indicators in our business that a lot of people use. There are good reports that come out every year from the American Institute of Architects or other similar organizations like that. The software we use to manage our work has a ton of things people can look at. I think we have chosen the ones that can be evaluated on a longer-term basis, like monthly, quarterly, and yearly, and then we can adjust as we need to.
HT: Very impressive. Let's move over to talk a little bit about examples of employee engagement in corporate innovation activities. How do you engage your people? And then the follow-up question is, how does this impact the overall well-being and retention?
JF: Yeah, that's a great question. There's a really strong example in our work right now. I think that everyone wants to feel satisfied and challenged in their work. We have a pretty incredible group of young people in our office who feel very strongly about equity and social justice in the built environment. So we've formed a working group with five to eight younger employees. They have pushed us as a company to do better in so many ways, in the way that we operate, in the way that we engage with our community, and in the way we design. I think they feel a real sense of satisfaction in being able to do that as a part of their job as opposed to just something extra or, you know, outside of work. So that's one thing that is very relevant right now.
I also think people in our business like to feel that they have a sense of authorship, a sense of contributing to the end product. So we tend to, something we did a lot more when we were still working person, but, you know, share projects across different teams, also with teams that aren't working on the project to sort of just put yourself out there. It's a big part of the design. Culture is being positively critical and coming up with new ideas from someone who might be looking at your project from a different point of view.
HT: Well, in your industry, how are companies safekeeping their intellectual properties and keeping their knowledge base intact?
JF: I've seen a huge shift in the realm of intellectual property for architects. I think that in the last 10 or 15 years, the door has opened instead of closed and there's a lot more sharing of what might have been considered intellectual property in terms of how to make a more sustainable design, how to program a building to make it work effectively on the inside. People are so much more open and sharing because we all want to contribute to some of the larger problems in our world by working together. I think sustainable design and battling climate change is one example where that has been the case. I would say the intellectual property has been a lot less guarded and a lot more kind of open source in that way. That being said, there are still some things that we do protect, but the needle is changing on intellectual property as it relates to architecture and design. So it's better to just always be thinking about what the next thing is and trying to be the first one to get there. Then knowing that everybody's going to catch up eventually, and then trying to think of what the next thing after that is going to be, and the next thing after that, and so on.
HT: You clearly embrace it. I've seen that you've been involved in projects that have been taking you to very interesting places, making you a forerunner.
JF: Everything is changing in our business right now. It used to be that architecture was about making a building that looked nice and that was number one. Now that is still important, but we're also trying to address climate change and social concerns to understand what the people who might be in and around that building are expecting, wanting, and needing. So there's just a lot more that architects and also the general public are expecting from a building than just having it look nice.
HT: Then a follow-up question, thinking about your role in society and I happen to know that you are quite active in the industry as well. Could you talk a little bit about that, how are you engaging with stakeholders more specifically?
JF: Buildings are in neighborhoods and most of our work is either on college campuses, university campuses, or it's an urban site, you know, in smaller or larger cities. There are a lot of people that have something to say and it can derail things if not handled well, so meet with stakeholders very early and decide to agree in words before we start putting pen to paper on what's important and setting high-level goals and objectives for a project. So that way, when those have been agreed to, we can evaluate our success relative to those goals instead of relative to something arbitrary, which is what happens if you don't do that. I do think we see that in the last year or two there has been a huge shift in society, a positive change, and people wanting to make the world better for everyone. So we feel that to this point, design has not always addressed the needs of everyone, and as I mentioned earlier, the community of architects in Boston, New England, and in the country has been working for the last few years on how architecture and climate change intersect. So I think our next big frontier is how architecture and social change intersect, and I'm looking forward to seeing what we all come up with as a community.
HT: Very impressive and important, of course, in this day and age. The next question is about risk and how do you assess risk and opportunities when it comes to key partners and suppliers?
JF: You do a lot of research on your partners and your clients, and you just want to make sure that you're working for people that have a solid track record. Ideally, it's somebody that you know or somebody who knows them and can make you feel comfortable that they're going to be good people to work with. Key partners for us, really, first of all, it's the client. So we need an understanding if the client understands what it means to design and construct a building because it's a pretty complex act. Our external partners are consulting engineers who work on our team, say a structural engineer or a mechanical-electrical engineer. We do tend to work with the same firms multiple times and try to match them to specific client assignments. So if someone's very good at new multifamily or residential projects, we will work with them. If someone's very good at needling things through the complexity of an existing building, we'll work with that team.
Then another important partner is the construction manager, a contractor who builds the building, knowing that we're going to need to work together. This is another shift in our industry, where that used to be a very adversarial relationship from the beginning, sort of architect versus a contractor. I much prefer to be working together. There are new ways of setting up contracts and owners are encouraging us to start to work together earlier while we're still designing and developing our drawing so we can get feedback. I think that partnership can be very beneficial to the end product relative to quality, relative to cost, and relative to the people who build. Sometimes we can think together of ideas that we would not have thought of just on paper. I find those to be satisfying moments when there's someone on the construction team who comes up with a great design idea that we implement, and I hope they like it when we come up with a good construction idea.
HT: How do you prepare and make decisions? Describe a typical process from strategy to implementation. During this interview you have mentioned a lot of different stakeholders and of course, a lot of complexity as well. So how does that process unfold?
JF: There are three partners in our firm who make the big final decisions, but we ask for input along the way. We don't tend to just kind of make them in a vacuum. So we will work with small groups of people that we think might have a good insight into a vision. Sometimes we research how other people might have approached a certain decision. Then there are situations where we just feel like our instincts are very strong and decisions can be made very quickly. We've been trying to get better at realizing when a decision needs to be made by listening to our gut feeling and not spend hours or days sort of agonizing over a decision. Instead, maybe arriving at one quickly and saying, OK, this is what I think we should do, and let's let that sit for two days and come back to it. Almost always we feel like, our first thought or our second thought was the right one. So we're trying to get into a mode of acting more effectively and more quickly so that we can then get on to other things.
HT: The next question is about the explorative activities that are going to test assumptions. Would you say that a big complex project follows kind of an exploratory mode where you have a vision, you have a target and you're going to test your way forward trying to, of course, get the best outcome possible? Or how does that kind of reality unfold?
JF: One of the things that I've learned from knowing you and from talking to some of the students and other people that you've been working with is that small experiments and small successes can lead to sort of larger changes and just trying stuff and taking the pressure off yourself to make it perfect. You almost always find new directions and pathways to continue when you get started. Whereas if you try to figure out exactly what to do on a piece of paper, I find that you're rarely correct about the outcome. If you just start doing something, knowing mostly the direction that you want ahead, you'll pick up momentum, you'll pick up new ideas, you'll pick up energy, and you might even talk to someone about it as you're doing it that you wouldn't have talked to. That can inform and amplify and accelerate, make the ideas even bigger sometimes, and advice on how to get there.
HT: Oh, cool. Has the industry traditionally used some kind of a stage-gate model where you have certain development phases and then you try to avoid going backward, you try to kind of go ahead, or would you say it's more fluid?
JF: For us, it's more fluid and it's probably not as well measured as I think it could be. As I mentioned earlier in our conversation, we sometimes try to approach business as a design problem. I think that can also have limitations because we also have to realize that you don't always just get to be a designer all the time, sometimes you have to be a business person. So we need to take things from the business community that helps us. We might improve on setting milestones, checkpoints, and evaluating them instead of a more free-flowing pathway. Sometimes we get stuck in not knowing if something is successful or not because we didn't set good metrics on what was going to make it successful.
HT: How are you assisting implementation and driving improvement? This goes back to the previous conversation and perhaps we can turn it around a little bit, thinking about what would be good to measure?
JF: I think we like to measure those key performance indicators, which are mostly financial. We also like to measure where we stand on lists. There's a list that Architect Magazine has every year, and it has a bunch of metrics that they have created on business, design, and sustainability. So we adopt a lot of those metrics that other people create because that's how business in our industry is seen. Last time, they didn't do it last year, but the year before, we were ranked number 17 in the country, which was great. Secondly, design is mostly measured through recognition and awards, which is important in our industry. And then thirdly, I think measuring the culture and the kind of company that we run, and for that we use a so-called nutrition label for companies created by the International Living Future Institute, which is a green building organization.
So we're measuring things like gender diversity, pay scale equity benefits, a living wage, and things like that. That's the third set of metrics that we use to try to improve. We have seen a lot of success in looking at those measurements and focusing on those categories where we are not satisfied and then start doing things to get to a different place. We've been able to do that, and I think that makes me feel like I am running a good company, and it makes people who work for us feel like they are working for a good company. Then we can share some of those successes with our clients because a lot of those metrics are becoming more important as they want to work with firms who have, a commitment to social change and making the world a better place.
HT: My last question is a bonus question. And without thinking too long, what is the first thing that comes to your mind when I mentioned four distinct words?
My first word is Influence?
JF: I think influence is to be the sort of force on the company or on a particular project that is shaping it. These can be internal forces or external forces. But I think of our work as absolutely being influenced by the things going on around it.
JF: I think, agility is being able to change your mind at the right time. In our work, the first day you start a design project, you have an infinite number of choices. On the day that you are cleaning the floors and windows on a completed building, you have almost no choice you can make. So I think being agile in the beginning and then being in a mindset that you have to start being more and more confident. So being free in the beginning, but then being committed to your ideas at the end. That’s a really interesting concept that flows through our work and something that I think takes time and experience to understand. But if you do it the right way, it can be very positive on a building design.
JF: There is sort of two things I think of when I think of resilience. One is building a building in a way that can withstand the kind of climate change that we're going to be seeing, sea-level rise, more floods, severe weather events. We are spending a lot of time in our firm and our larger design community trying to respond to those issues. Secondly, I think of resilience for our company, and we've seen a lot of external forces on our business in the last couple of years. I think it means making sure that we feel confident that we can ride out another recession or something like a pandemic, that we're just not expecting. We need to have the agility from the last word and also the resources to make it through something like that and to be able to act quickly when it happens so that we can adapt.
HT: The final one is efficiency.
JF: I think everybody likes to be efficient, and the way I think about it is that there are some things where efficiency is good. Like the things that are supposed to be easy, like managing your money and invoicing and collecting and doing timesheets and sort of administrative tasks. We're working right now trying to make those things sort of automatic and easy and taking less time or having people help us with it. Then when thinking of the big ideas and sort of key design concepts and the power of design, I think efficiency is kind of the opposite of what you want there. You want ideas that can develop over time. So by making the easy stuff efficient, then you can really dig in and savor those moments when you're trying to work alone or as a team to come up with the big idea that's going to drive a design or even drive the motivation behind the whole organization.
HT: Very impressive. Thank you so much, Jason, for allowing me to interview you. You are such a great role model for creativity, leadership, and someone I always get inspired by just from talking to you and learning from you. Thank you.
JF: Thank you, Henrik. These conversations, I think have a great feedback loop because I'm going to go and think about a lot of this stuff when I sit at my desk tomorrow.
HT: Thank you.