Joan Saba Leverages Leadership and Innovation in a Workplace Without a Hierarchy

Architect Joan Saba spoke with Doreen Lorenzo and explained her “flat and lumpy” leadership approach at her architecture firm NBBJ, which recently topped Fast Company 2018 List of the World’s Most Innovative Companies in the architecture sector. The interview appeared in Co.Design as part of Doreen’s series on women in the design industry.

As NBBJ engages in workplace and hospital design, Joan identified that they are focused on performance in two ways. They focus on the performance of the environment that they create and the experiences of the people within those spaces. To be successful at this, Joan emphasized their efforts at building a culture of leadership. Employees are encouraged to lead “from any chair.” That is, ideas are welcome from employees at any level. The result is an environment conducive to learning, experimentation, and collaboration between teams.

Many at NBBJ have multiple areas of expertise, and because of their supportive and collaborative culture, the most innovative ideas occur at the intersection of two different areas of practice. This is especially important in healthcare amidst the rapid evolution of technology, clinical research, and IT systems. The firm can’t afford to recreate what has previously been done and are therefore constantly challenging themselves.

Joan acknowledged that as a woman in an industry comprised mostly of men, to be successful with her ideas she can’t leave it to the presentation of the idea itself. Rather, she must understand what the client truly values and connect the idea in such a way that it resonates with them.

Finally, Joan’s explained how her view on design has steadily evolved over time. Design is no longer a focus on aesthetics. It has evolved to encompass the thinking and the process. For architecture, this means the feel and experience of a building. It is still a built object in the end, but the true soul of architecture is felt in the way it performs and the experiences lived.

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