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No Such Thing as Business as Usual

Even in failure, there is success. Finding the bright spot and celebrating it is the key.

By Viveca Bissonnette

Even in failure, there is success. Finding the bright spot and celebrating it is the key.

Throughout my career, I've had great conversations with a number of architecture and design students, emerging designers and interns—even random folks on planes and trains—all trying to figure out the best way to operate in this changing economy (not to mention how it has impacted the way we used to do business). We'd share funny tales of "remember when," ideal client scenarios, job interview war stories, and simple ideas for defining and managing careers in the new economy.

Over the past few months, I've had several opportunities to hear some amazing speakers through IIDA sponsored events. These speakers, different as they all are, have helped me keep my mind open for change and provided examples of different approaches to business.

Last June at NeoCon World's Trade Fair in Chicago, keynote speaker Majora Carter inspired me to consider the difference I could make as one person in my own community. Some days, it feels like I can't move a project forward fast enough, smart enough or collaboratively enough.

This kind of excuse, however, doesn't fly with Carter. She is driven, internally, by a strong, emotional desire to change things (e.g., cleaning up an oceanfront park near her old neighborhood, which eventually lead to the creation of hundreds of jobs).

Talk about the power of passion! That emotion led to her very successful, sustainable consulting business, not to mention a magnificent park and public waterfront area for all of the South Bronx to enjoy. I wouldn't miss the chance to hear Majora Carter again if/when the opportunity presents itself. More than sustainability and green, her message encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone to make a difference anywhere, anytime. It's a lesson we can all put to good use.

Carter made me think. But another prominent, relatively lesser known woman made me laugh and think. Alison Levine, team captain on the first American women's Everest expedition, recently spoke in Los Angeles for the IIDA Leaders Breakfast sharing stories of her own internal drive. There's a very, very big gap between dealing with a life-threatening heart disease that precludes you from being able to take the stairs one flight without assistance, to climbing the world's highest mountain—twice. Levine filled that gap and more. By the age of 40, she has attempted and succeeded at more than I could ever begin to do physically, yet I can understand her motivation. Like her, in my own world, I feel elated that I get to do the one thing I'm really passionate about every day: design.

Levine's wit, wisdom and ability to laugh at herself helped so many of us in the audience to identify with what she has accomplished. Lately, I've been able to translate that passion into some mentoring of new, young professionals. It's been refreshing to be able to share my ideas and experience with the future leaders of our industry. Even better, I think I get as much out of mentoring as I give to the mentees. What a great opportunity to share my experience and help encourage a future design leader.

"Change is hard"—a quote I've asserted more than once—is actually a fallacy, according to Dan Heath, co-author (along with his brother, Chip Heath) of the New York Times best seller Switch, How to Change Things When Change is Hard. I purchased this book earlier this year in hopes that it would guide me. It's been a bonus that Dan Heath—one-half of the dynamic brother duo researching and writing about business—has spoken in different cities for IIDA Leaders Breakfast events and inspired attendees with his collective insight.

Heath has a great illustration to demonstrate the best way to "switch" (a more agreeable word than change). He gives our emotion the image of an elephant—a strong, stubborn, enormous being—with our intellect personified as a much less imposing figure: a rider (the rider of the elephant). This graphic is the first of several humorous, yet enlightening, images used to literally paint a map to change. The book, which provides great content and well-developed examples, is condensed by Heath as he leads the audience to a deeper understanding.

Without plagiarizing the Heath brothers, I've taken my own notes to share with you. There is no "business as usual" anymore. Recently, whenever something goes wrong, it feels like everyone wants to review where the wheels came off and analyze what should have been anticipated. We want to point fingers to assign blame and then draft a business plan or white paper about how to not "do that" again.

I have a sense that lots of firms, businesses, and even families, lately, are experiencing the same thing. There's another way to view these types of "failure." According to Heath, the key is to find what he terms "bright spots"—the points where everything is in sync and things go right—and determine what's working, so as a group you can figure out how to do more of that. Within every failure, there's a bright spot. Find it. Rather than try to figure out what's broken, and how to fix it, Heath says we should switch our thinking (go from archaeological problem solving to bright spot evangelizing). Even in failure, there is success. Finding the bright spot and celebrating it is the key.

According to Heath, one shouldn't obsess with failures. Explore and duplicate the successes. Now, don't you already feel better about what you experience every day? If you can find the bright spot in a failure, it's even easier to find and repeat in a successful endeavor. And that kind of focus really does make it easier to switch, or change, at any time (so it really doesn't matter if it's business as usual or not).

Our profession presents many opportunities to hear from great designers and industry leaders. Through these presentations, I always try to gain insight into the speakers' thought processes and successes. But these other speakers—organic, business minded, change artists—address a different part of my brain that makes me reconsider my approach and works so well in tandem with the industry pros. In an era of ongoing uncertainty (yes, I referenced the economy again) and constant inconsistencies (change, change, change), it's great to know there really is no such thing as business as usual. I'm looking forward to growing with all of you in the next year. I encourage you to take the time to listen to someone you wouldn't normally associate with our profession, and tell me about it at I'd love to hear about your inspiration!

IIDA president Viveca Bissonnette, associate AIA, CID, LEED AP, is an associate at Carrier Johnson + CULTURE in San Diego. IIDA can be reached at (312) 467-1950, or Learn more on the Web at