The Jury System

by Sandy Nelson on May 22, 2012

Architecture has been on my mind a lot recently, as those of you who read these musings regularly may have noticed. Today, a colleague and I were kicking around ideas for updating and bringing to market a book that I wrote years ago but never got around to publishing, The Architecture of Innovation. In it, I delineate a replicable, scalable framework and systematic approach to innovation that I developed over decades of practice, and that we routinely use with clients today. During the course of our conversation, I mentioned one of my early inspirations for crystallizing the concepts that form the substance of the book—the Jury System—a foundational building block of architectural education.

Within design studios in schools of architecture, students are given briefs describing “problems” to be solved. For instance, design a house for a family of four to be located on a sharply sloping lot in a mudslide and earthquake prone zone in Northern California. Include five bedrooms and baths, a large family room with a separate dining area, etc.

Another example, rethink early childhood education and propose a prototypical curriculum and stimulating built environment to serve as an inspirational center of discovery, learning and fun for up to one hundred children between the ages of three and five. Assure that children of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities and economic status will all feel comfortable and welcome—not intimidated by scale, materials or imagery.

Of course, a typical brief will have a much deeper level of granularity, but you get the idea. Dates are set for in-process reviews, and a final, formal Jury where each student will present their ideas and solutions to a panel of invited experts (jury members) and fellow classmates. Jury members and classmates ask questions, offer critiques and generally provide each presenter with opportunities to explain, defend and debate their thinking and solutions.

Once the brief is received and collectively discussed, each design student dives in and begins to explore a process of problem-solving (innovation). From time to time, each students designated studio design critic stops by to review progress, offer insights, criticisms and advice. At set intervals, there will be “pin up” sessions along the way as one prepares for the formal jury, where the studio critic and fellow students provide in-process input.

As the day for the final jury approaches, students typically go into charrette-mode, working day and night, often for weeks on end. “Charrette” is a French term adapted in design circles to signify intense periods of creative problem solving (innovation) organized around achieving specific outcomes within a defined period of time.

By the way, innovation charrettes, when effectively structured and facilitated, are immensely value-additive in business settings. However, it is wise to structure charrettes in manageable blocks rather than revert to the architecture school model of extended 24/7 intensity—an unsustainable and unhealthy model of operations over the long haul.

When jury day arrives, students rush home for a quick shower, food and clean clothes before returning to the studio to pin up drawings, display models and make their pitch to critics and peers.

Jury sessions can become quite intense. Diverse perspectives, legitimate intellectual and creative disagreements are likely to arise and be voiced. From time to time, out-of-check egos can and do lead to heated discussions and animated debate. Even so, a culture of professionalism and respectful civility overlays and supports the process.

Once complete, this sequence of events is repeated over and over, month after month for the three to five years of studio work required for most professional degrees in architecture. And, this is just the beginning. The process continues and stakes grow infinitesimally higher as one transitions from school to practice.

Within this system, some thrive while others move on or burn out. At the end of the day, valuable lessons have been learned, awareness expanded and skills developed. As a consequence, passionately held ideas—rough in the beginning—are honed to high levels of refinement and practicality.

Now, fast forward in real time to a key product, service, problem solving or innovation meeting within your team. You, for the moment, are a fly on the wall unseen by all other meeting attendees.

Notice the character and tone of dialogue, mood and professionalism of participants. Do openness, candid give-and-take and professionalism govern? Are rough ideas systematically and civilly refined and simplified into exciting solutions through enthusiastic debate, frank exchanges and open disagreement. Is professionalism obvious? Do conversations and other interactions seem authentic and sincere?

Or, do you see defensiveness, withholding, turf being protected, political posturing and maneuvering? Are you concerned that the real negotiations are happening indirectly or under the cover?

Think about it. Your answer will reveal much about the likelihood that you and your teammates are poised to lead in your industry and markets.

In this, the Creative Economy of the early 21st Century, an ability to play the game without defensiveness, to welcome the “Jury” and use it to frame opportunities and catalyze innovation is essential. No matter how challenging, regardless of whether you agree or disagree, are you and your colleagues prepared to walk openly into the next critique, mix it up, learn from diverse perspectives and rise above the fray to innovate your way to the top? Please say YES!


Sandy Nelson


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