can scrum help interior design?

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I’ve been hearing and reading the word ‘scrum’ a lot lately, and not in reference to rugby. The word itself still makes me giggle and blush a little (my twisted mind takes it to a dark place). Scrum, it turns out, is more than just a group of very dirty people locking arms and huddling together across a grass field to get a ball from here to there. When applied to business, it is a fascinating management concept well worth study. Scrum, a type of  ‘agile design’, may be the fix that the worlds of interior design and architecture have needed for a long time.


Scrum is a term and an idea that was developed in the mid-eighties to move the software industry in a more productive direction. We have Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland to thank for setting the industry off on this path. The basic idea was born as a result of the repeated failures of the waterfall method of management. Edicts and pronouncements from top management that trickle down through the ranks to the worker bees (programmers in their world), are not efficient and lead to projects that are delivered both late and over budget. Using the scrum method, small, autonomous, multi-disciplined teams are formed. These teams work very closely, meeting frequently and with extensive input from all players, in short bursts on smaller pieces of a larger project. As input changes, dynamics change and each piece changes until eventually a working whole is formed. The teams are facilitated by managers whose purpose is to remove obstacles, not dictate what to do nor how to do it. A very different paradigm from the waterfall method of management with nary a Gantt chart to be found (sorry MS Project).

design process

Historically the design process has followed a singular linear path from inception through construction.

  1. Programming: gathering all necessary information from the client
  2. Concept development: determining how the design will meet both functional and aesthetic requirments
  3. Schematic design: creating a preliminary visual presentation for customer approval
  4. Design development: developing the details of the design to verify appropriateness in terms of function, cost and availability
  5. Construction documentation: documenting the design for permitting and construction
  6. Construction administration: aiding the construction team and verifying construction follows design intention

In my experience, many interior design and architecture projects go over budget and often struggle to meet a timely schedule. And the methodology for attempting to keep these two bad boys from continuing to occur is typically loud vocalizing from above. Not a very effective management style. And this doesn’t serve the bottom line or the customer. Based on the linear list above, there are a number of places where problems occur. To begin with, stages one through three are typically handled by a design team, then stages four through six are moved to a technical team with minimal overlap. In addition to switching teams mid-stream, there are a number of weak points at various stages. Weak points create problems that will cost unanticipated time and money.

  • Programming: clients change their minds, and often information either changes or is missed early in the process and must be amended or gathered later leading to changes in the final design.
  • Concept development: depending on the effectiveness of the designers involved, function can be subjugated to aesthetics or vice versa leading to a less than ideal solution.
  • Schematic design: because the client is only minimally involved in the process, the schematic design becomes a critical point at which communication becomes the most important factor. If the design is not well communicated, even a good design will send the designers back to the drawing board.
  • Design development: since this is where the project typically moves from the design group to the technical group, many issues that might have been averted early on by someone who understands detailing (no, you can’t really float a ceiling), now become problems to solve.
  • Construction administration: the project is now in the field being built by people who had nothing to do with how it got here. Even though a good design team will have worked with their contractors and fabricators during design, things always come up. The tile specified doesn’t have a bullnose available, the hvac requirements changed and now the lights don’t fit, someone forgot to measure the elevator and the countertop has to be craned into an upstairs window, etc.

a better path

Certainly not all firms manage projects the same way or fail in the same places. Some are better and some are not. But I wonder if this idea of Scrum might be worth a look. Bruce Feiler applied ‘agile programming‘ to his family with profound results. He describes the basics succinctly and his video is worth watching. If something developed for software works for children, then I posit that it would work quite well in the world of design and architecture. No offense intended.

Tell me what you think. This is an exciting area and well worth some investigation,

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