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Understanding Design
The challenge of informed consent

Only three things happen naturally in organizations;
friction, confusion and under performance. Everything else requires leadership.

Peter Drucker

Keywords: Communication, Stakeholder engagement, Complexity. 

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Understanding Design - The challenge of informed consent   [P186]

How much of a design do engineering clients really understand? A simple design document for one group of design professionals can be virtually impenetrable to other professionals, and more importantly their clients.

The need to communicate effectively is vital when an engineer wants to lead a group of ‘others’ in developing a design solution. You cannot lead people if they don’t understand you; ‘blind trust’ may work if the solution is straightforward. When problems arise, uninformed trust evaporates; informed consent from committed followers is more enduring, and people are likely to support any efforts to work through to a solution to the problem.

This paper will use the evolution of the design of the Sydney Opera House roof as a case study to highlight the different perspectives on design information, starting with the free-form curves envisaged by Jørn Utzon to the mathematical (and buildable) curves developed by Ove Arup as segments of a sphere (such as an orange). The metaphor of the segments of ‘orange peel’ that helped make the curves possible was also used to explain the concept of the sails to the public and politicians.

With the advent of integrated design and Building Information Modelling (BIM) on one side, and the emergence of social networking and ‘instant protest movements’ on the other, the importance of communicating complex design information to the clients and wider public will become an increasingly important component of a successful engineering project. This paper suggests that the effective use of similes and metaphors to help people understand what is really involved in a project can convert uninformed protesters (frightened by what they don’t understand) into informed supporters. This applies to ‘client committees’ as well as to the wider public.


Understanding the Schedule - The Challenge of Informed Consent
Construction CPM conference, New Orleans, 2016.

This presentation adapts the main paper to look at the communication challenges associated with communicating controls information in a way that is understood and appreciated by stakeholders (particularly senior managers) so they can use the information to make informed decisions. Far too many controls professionals make the mistake of assuming everyone has the same appreciation of ‘simple’ reports generated from various controls tools. The problem with this assumption is the simple fact you have no idea what is actually being understood by the stakeholder unless you take the trouble to test the assumption.

As George Bernard Shaw once said “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. Project professionals routinely complain about the slow pace of decision making and/or the lack of sensible decisions from management and clients - this is entirely understandable if the decision maker feels they are being denied information needed to make a decision because they do not fully appreciate or understand the information in the format provided. Effective communication gets the right information to the right person, in a format they can understand so they can use it to make effective decisions.  

Author:  Lynda Bourne


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