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Nuts + Bolts #11: CAPitalizing on Culture Change

How candor, authenticity, and provocation (CAP) can create a firm culture that drives thoughtful, positive, and creative change.

By James Crispino, AIA, NCARB
February 19, 2015

Great architecture takes great people to do it. So, how do you build a strong firm culture that makes it happen? And how do you leverage your projects and the expertise of your people to build a strong reputation for your firm? These are the questions that our firm Francis Cauffman asked, and then answered. We believe that we have learned valuable lessons that can help others as well.


Like many architecture firms, our partners believe that great work, great delivery, and great relationships are mutually reinforcing. But at Francis Cauffman, like many other architecture firms, it wasn’t always that way. The changes that we have started to make are creating a healthier internal culture, better opportunities, and higher quality design.


The firm was founded in 1954. A big turning point came about 20 years ago. Until that time, the principals invested primarily in client relationships and project management. Not surprisingly, project managers were pushed to the top of the firm leadership. Things like design excellence and critical thinking – which were important to some of the principals – took a back seat to other priorities. However, since all architecture firms claim that they provide excellent project delivery, the only thing that could differentiate our firm from the competition was aggressive fees.


A few of us who were then rising through the firm leadership thought things should be different. We were architects – meaning designers, technicians, planners, and managers – who had a stake in the quality of our work and how it contributed to the greater good. We wanted to work for clients who saw the value in what we did. So we shifted to focus on meeting both clients’ and our own goals, not just delivering a product.


This represented a significant change in the culture of the firm that occurred when we took ownership. At the time, in 2003, the younger partners had been with the firm between eight and 15 years. We were invested in Francis Cauffman and in each other, but we had to show our colleagues and clients our way forward. Most important, we emphasized that the work itself was primary.


What this took really came down to three things: Candor, Authenticity, and Provocation (CAP). My partners and I have placed special emphasis on this approach.



Candor is an absolute must. All of our communications – with partners, staff, colleagues, and clients – are forthright. Culture change starts with the leadership. The leadership must be candid with the staff, especially when describing goals and the status of the firm in relation to where we want to be. We catalyzed this change in the culture of the firm by turning the microscope on the leadership.


Going forward, that kind of openness creates its own roadmap. Planning for the firm becomes easy when differences are understood, and there exists a common drive to close those gaps.



This brings us to authenticity. Your vision must be true to you, and you have to be true to your vision. Be who you are. Make that the basis of your practice. Your candor will be genuine and your communications will resonate only if you are able to do this. There really is no alternative. How you spend your time, allocate your resources, spend your money – these actions all reflect who you are and how you think. Your vision for your firm should amplify these things. They should be realized in your day-to-day culture.



Provocation is the fuel of a creative life. It is necessary for the genesis of new ideas and the evolution of behaviors. It is critical to changing the culture of any organization, not just architecture. You must create an environment that is open, skeptical, and welcoming of the tough questions that are born of thoughtful, critical thinking.


If you can synthesize candor, authenticity, and provocation into a positive and supportive environment, you will drive real and meaningful change in your firm.


Communications is key


This is an ongoing process. Once that wheel starts turning and the culture begins to move, it only accelerates. Culture is not a task. It is a way of thinking that has no end, it simply is.


So begin by being candid with yourself and each other about what you need to do. Be authentic about who you are and what you can do. Be provocative and catalyze the change you seek. If you can do these things, you will realize the benefits in ways you never imagined.


Then you need to deliver that message, clearly and consistently, because communications must be understood as key to effective culture change. To realize the culture we sought, we had to take specific steps, not just talk, but also act. Here are some of the takeaways:


Work collaboratively

We replaced offices with collaborative workspaces in an open-studio environment. Partners’ titles were changed to focus on the work rather than the firm. We created task teams with a cross-section of staff to examine issues regarding our practice and work.


Communicate with staff

We instituted senior staff meetings, junior staff meetings, and all-staff meetings, where we share thoughts and ideas about the overall direction of the firm and key aspects of our work. We also put in place an intranet that serves as an internal blog. The staff is kept informed about strategy, finances, and progress.


Encourage engagement

At the initiation of each project we assign a team to write a design brief that defines its intent. We encourage the staff to participate in design competitions in addition to competitions the firm enters. We also encourage them to write, publish, and speak on topics of interest to them, the firm, and our enterprise at large.


We do everything we can to be open, inclusive, candid, authentic, and provocative. We have been rewarded with healthy relationships, opportunities for advancement, a continuous flow of creativity, and ambitious, high-quality design. As a result, we have created a firm culture that drives thoughtful, positive, and creative change.



James Crispino, AIA, NCARB, is design partner and president of New York City- and Philadelphia-based Francis Cauffman. He has focused his career on the creation of programmatic hybrids and buildings that synthesize new patterns of human behavior as supported by new technologies. Crispino lectures frequently at conferences and industry forums, and his award-winning work and research have been published in numerous industry magazines and journals.


See also:


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Nuts + Bolts #9: The 80/20 Architect: How to Spend Wisely by Investing in Your Clients

Focusing on your top clients can increase your confidence, stability, and profitability.

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Nuts + Bolts #8: Best Friends Don't Make the Best Partners
For the successful partnership, it's all a matter of balance.
By Michael M. Samuelian, AIA, AICP


Nuts + Bolts #7: Leveraging Your Passion
Principals already know what they love to do. It is learning to let go of the other, more mundane tasks that they find difficult.
By Steve Whitehorn 


Nuts + Bolts #6: Changing Habits: The Secret to Successful Time Management
Some practical steps to make time for business development when you've been avoiding it or aren't sure how to fit it into your day-to-day practice.
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Nuts + Bolts #5: Why Mid-Sized Design Firms Should Hire a Director of Operations
Hiring a DOO has the potential to significantly increase revenues while creating an environment where designers design, not manage!
By Michael Bernard, AIA, and Mary Breuer


Nuts + Bolts #4: Spring into Growth Mode: Organize Your Process to Maximize Your Potential
Internal organization, clearly defined workflows, and a focused approach to the things you do best will put you on the right track to long-term growth.

By Steve Whitehorn


Nuts + Bolts #3: Focus on the Future: Keys to Steady Growth in a Slow Recovery
Business forecasts are looking brighter, but steady, measured growth is still your best strategy for success.
By Steve Whitehorn


Nuts + Bolts #2: You Can't SELL If You Can't TELL
You talk all the time but are you communicating clearly? Use your words effectively to build your influence.
By Tami D. Hausman, Ph.D.


Nuts + Bolts #1: Mission Possible: Increase Your Value Without Lowering Your Fees
Fact or fiction: Lowering your fees makes you competitive? You decide.
By Steve Whitehorn


(click on pictures to enlarge)

Johnathan Ward