Have you heard the one about the two college friends who set up in practice together? They were great mates, one was married to the sister of the other, things went swimmingly at first, the practice grew, and then it started to go horribly wrong . . . If this sounds extraordinarily familiar, so did it to the people on the first Business Management Training for Architects course run under the auspices of the riba.
The mythical pair, named Simon and Jeremy, formed the basis of the case studies that the participants grappled with on the six half days of the course. So recognisable were the duo that one architect issued a spoof complaint accusing Caroline Cole and Chris Andrews, the organisers of the course, of bugging his office.
Tackling the problems of Simon and Jeremy both gave a soap opera theme to the course and ensured that it dealt specifically with the problems that the participants faced.
At the last session of the first course, all those present were buzzing with enthusiasm and ideas, and had accepted the concept of management as integral to their practices and not a stick-on extra.
This was particularly impressive because the architects present were from practices with a high commitment to design - exactly the kind one envisages believing that if you look after the design the business will look after itself. In terms of size they were diverse - from the two principals plus assistant of Ash Sakula, through van Heyningen & Haward, David Marks Julia Barfield and orms to Michael Hopkins & Partners. By the end they all showed an appreciation of how integral proper management was to everything they did.
Simon and Jeremy certainly helped. How could things go so wrong for two such talented and well-meaning people? Very easily, as the case studies showed. After those easy early days of all going down to the pub on a Friday night, they became absorbed in their own problems and lives, ceasing to join the rest and leaving them to grumble. Then there was the hideous faux pas of promoting one person and ignoring another, only to be surprised that they minded since they 'weren't ambitious'. Throwing responsibility at people in a crisis works well if you get the right person - if not, it may result in the job going seriously wrong, disgruntled clients and untold horrors.
So what is management? A lot of it surely is only common sense? Yes, but in a crisis or just the day-to-day rush of work, common sense can be ignored and insufficient time set aside for running the practice. Caroline Cole, one of the two course tutors, said: 'Try treating the practice as a project. Architects instinctively work on projects.'
Cole is an architect, who has worked in practice, and now runs her own consultancy and manages the riba's Clients Advisory Service. Her partner in the enterprise, Chris Andrews, is a management consultant with wide experience of training and business analysis. Between them they have considerable knowledge and relevant experience.
Management theory has softened a lot since the tough days of the 1980s when it seemed to be simply concerned with getting as much as possible out of people, and with a mechanistic approach to profits. Now there is more concern with motivation and personal satisfaction and achievement - an approach far better suited to those on the course.
One of the major aims of the course was to help participants see where they needed to change their business approach, and how to set about it. But where radical change is needed, there was no pretence that it is easy. 'It is a very painful process,' said Andrew. 'You are right to take it slowly.'
Discussing the way that Simon and Jeremy were to get their practice out of the doldrums, one group suggested bringing in an architect who had decided to specialise in practice management. Cole gently pointed out that there were few people around who would choose solely to do that, would do it well and would be affordable. Instead, she felt, the burden of responsibility had to be carried within the practice - and devolved.
One delegate recognised the importance of this for the first time: 'It has made me feel that as people become champions, you let them invest quality time. If you give them responsibility, for example for marketing, you don't then treat it as extra-curricular.'
The good feeling that was obvious at the final session was reflected in the participants' comments, both during the course and on assessment forms:
'It has given me the ability to stop and take stock'.
'It was vaguely reassuring that none of the things were completely unthought of in our amateurish way - but we didn't give any time to them. By giving us some structure we can give some time to them.'
'One of the key benefits is that you can have a gut feeling that things are going wrong. Each sector has given us a structure for debating it - instead of navel-gazing. You draw up and say, it's worthwhile to manage your way out of this problem.'
'It made me think about the future of our practice properly for the first time. It also made me more ambitious. It has opened our eyes to the way the world works.'
'It allows us to break down a problem into smaller definable tasks each of which we have been shown will contribute to our knowledge of the practice/outside world.'
Interestingly, several of the delegates chose to send different delegates to each module. The course offered a discount to practices sending two people together, as Cole and Andrews felt they can reinforce each other's resolve when back in the real working environment. In her summing up Cole said: 'One of the most difficult things you are all faced with is going away and implementing the things you have learned. If you set up meetings, keep on having them. If you set up formal procedures, keep on with them. Keep your action plan active and relevant.'
A sobering thought, but one which did not discourage the delegates. Two of the practices, Anshen Dyer and Noble Associates, have signed people up for the next course which starts on 24 February.
There are still places available on the 24 February course, and further courses are planned. For details and prices tel 0171 580 3058 or 0171 627 8311.