I spent the weekend of Sept. 9 through 11 at the SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) Graduate Thesis Weekend.

What skills drive success in professional services? Share your insights in this short survey.

SCI-Arc is kind of a big deal in architecture and design circles. It is known as a school that pushes the edge and pushes its students hard to innovate, think and to question themselves and others. The Graduate Thesis Weekend is open to the public and students get their work critiqued publicly. Observing this for the past few days has got me thinking about how poor most of us are at giving and accepting criticism and how important this is to our careers and skill development.

What are these skills? I looked on TeamFit but the skill graph is thin in this area (something worth wondering about) so I went and talked to students, faculty and visiting critics at SCI-Arc about what makes this work in their context.

To give good criticism (and good criticism is a gift to the receiver, though often under appreciated) you need the following skills.

  • Listening
  • Empathy
  • Connecting ideas
  • Domain knowledge
  • Eye for detail

To receive criticism, and be able to use it to take one’s work to the next level, one needs the following skills.

  • Listening
  • Ability to consider alternatives
  • Openness
  • Asking questions
  • Confidence

(Are all these things skills? Some are attitudes or aptitudes. But the debate on what is or is not a skill tends to go in circles, so at TeamFit we use the term as a catch-all and then analyze how it is used.)


It is not enough for people on either side of the table to have the necessary skills. Equally important is to create the context in which criticism is expected, respected, encouraged and rewarded. How many companies are good at this?

As the TeamFit skill graph deepens, I want to research this more deeply. My critical questions will be things like…

“Does having the skills associated with giving and receiving criticisms relate to project success?”

“How many people on the team need to have these skills in order for it to make a difference?” (Everyone, a majority, a few people, just one?)

“Do these skills transfer?” (If you work on a project where people have these skills do you tend to adopt them?)

Observing the critique sessions at SCI-Arc and reflecting on some recent design reviews at TeamFit and our professional services affiliate got me thinking about roles as well.

On the receiving side of the critique, I think one needs three independent roles (ideally these roles are played by three different people).

Presenter: The person presenting the design, talking about the design decisions and options considered, answering questions.

Facilitator: The person drawing out questions, making sure the discussion is balanced, keeping things on track, preventing personal attacks.

Observer: This role is often overlooked but I am now convinced it adds a lot of power to any sort of critical review. The observer observes, notes who is smiling and frowning, when certain people lose interest, who is leading the opinion making, who is agreeing (as shown by body language), who disagrees (even if they are not willing to say so).

I think it is very difficult to play all three of these roles. A well run critique will make provisions for all three roles, and will ask all three for independent feedback and assessment after a review.

How do you approach reviews? What lessons can you share? You can comment below or e-mail me directly to share your insights.

E-mail me and let me know.

Photos of Kenji Hattori’s thesis presentation at SCI-Arc.