Skip to main content

When Did Excellence Fall From Grace? A View From an Architect Turned Forensic Investigator

Registered Architect, 40 years experience, investigative forensic specialist, engineering trained, college teacher, NCARB mentor, MBA.


An Interest Is Sparked

It’s early morning on a Monday, in early January 1978. A bright-eyed 16-year-old (soon to be 17) high school senior walks into the office of an architect for the very first time. It was a dream I had for at least the last five years of my life. The office replaced going to school that morning, as it was part of my OJT (on-the-job training) for my vocational educational drafting class. OJT allowed me to go to an internship in lieu of going to class three mornings a week and was in the office after school the other two days for the entire second semester of my senior year. The term “internship” was not even a coined phrase at that point in time, it was only OJT. It marked the hopeful beginning of my career that was supposed to lead me to become an architect at some point, the fulfillment of my childhood dream.

I had no idea what I was getting into, nor where it would eventually lead. Looking back now, almost 40 years later, I know that the dream came true. The path getting there was a ride I never expected. Back then, I never knew, and still do not know, why I had been drawn to architecture. No one in my family was in construction, yet it appeared to be in my blood from a very early age. By 1980 and 1981, I was working for an architect that started teaching me structural mechanics and calculations. This was a whole new world of inquisition for me. At the same time, I also met a man that was an irrigation design engineer, who had an architecture degree from Arizona State University, the place I had always hoped to go to one day. Over the next two years, I was taught the basics of hydraulics and irrigation design. From there I learned fluid mechanics, which led me to understand the design of HVAC, plumbing waste systems, gas distribution systems, and electrical systems as I spent a couple of short stints in Engineers’ offices. I worked in all the disciplines; civil, structural, mechanical, electrical, and landscape architecture.

Over the upcoming years, I started to become very versed in building codes. I found the topic extremely fascinating. As accessible design became a growing topic, I too became very versed in accessibility and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). Some 15 years ago, I entered code development, which is to say code writing. I really liked that as I saw code development as the leading edge of the design/construction field. I started to learn the stories and reasoning behind specific code sections, giving me a better understanding of what the codes were truly about. Then it happened. I unearthed what I saw as the cutting edge of code development, forensics. Now that was the most interesting and fascinating area I have ever been exposed to. I realized that the foundation for the code development I was working on had often been grounded in some facet of forensic investigation and study. I really wanted to go into forensics, but I did not have a Ph.D. after my name, so I figured that would never be a place I would go, but I still continued to learn and study.

As I grew professionally, many remodeling and renovation projects required me to go and examine what was existing. As a result, I developed quite a forensic methodology. My advanced code knowledge was an especially valuable tool in those endeavors as I not only had been familiar with the building codes, I was familiar with the past building codes as well, which served very well in these forensic investigations. Soon I was being called on when there appeared to be system failures. My background gave me great insights into many areas that helped me solve many issues.

Professional Responsibilities as a Registrant

In 2001, I was granted registration as an architect in Arizona. With that came the legal responsibilities all registrants possess. Like most other States, Arizona had a prime directive for Registrants. That directive is founded in Arizona Revised Statutes (A.R.S.) §32-101(A), where these words appear, “The purpose of this chapter is to provide for the safety, health, and welfare of the public through the promulgation and enforcement of standards of qualification for those individuals who are registered or certified and seeking registration or certification pursuant to this chapter.” Most other states have similar wording in their Professional Registration statutes. The key words here are “safety, health, and welfare of the public”. Absent are such words as client, project, and budget. It does not say that the registrant represents a specific person or entity, but has an obligation to protect the public’s safety, health, and welfare. Certainly, a very different charge than say a lawyer has been conferred. I would like to also note, that at least as far as A.R.S. is concerned, the legislature did not use the word “license” as with other occupations which seems to indicate that this “registration” or “certification” is intended to be valued differently from a “license”. I would think that would be reflective in that an architect or engineer acting as an “expert” is seen differently than a licensed contractor, possibly even as a higher level of expertise.

While the market, and the need to earn a living, make a registrant susceptible to “representing” the client, the first legal obligation of a registrant is always to the public, a public trust one might say. That sometimes means that a client’s want may not be possible to be provided for. The client may want only one staircase, one exit/entry, or no bedroom windows. All of which is forbidden by the building and safety codes. It is the registrant’s responsibility to make the client aware of such issues and inform the client why their want cannot be provided for in their project. A registrant places immense risk on their registration by ignoring issues such as these and providing the client what they want uninhibitedly.

Many times, I have heard someone in an office make a flippant remark like “the City will review this so we don’t have to catch everything.” I fail to understand this attitude. Some people have the nature that “no one cares for my interests more than I do.” So why transfer responsibilities with such great consequences to someone else? Many years ago, before I completed my registration, I designed a house for a couple that I had known for many years. The house ended up with a four-foot-wide mechanical room in which the water heater was set behind the HVAC unit. I tried to explain how bad that idea was, yet both the husband and wife insisted on the idea. As a non-registrant at that time, I really had no liability as the design of the detached single-family house was not regulated in Arizona, yet I still struggled with that decision. What do I do to get the client to grasp the magnitude of such a decision? So, I wrote a formal letter explaining all the issues and sent it to the client registered mail, and return receipt (yes, I just dated myself, it was a long time ago). I received a phone call probably minutes after the wife opened the letter, mad as a wet hen, but in the next couple of days, they both agreed to an alternate solution. I felt like I did my job and protected the public’s trust at a time when that trust had not even been bestowed on me yet.

The trick for the design professional is how to walk that razor-thin line of meeting the client’s needs / wants (economic force), and yet protecting the public’s safety (legal obligation). I think that is absolutely the greatest single challenge a professional faces in everyday practice. The basic economic pressure, in a capitalistic market, is to provide a service that the market will absorb and thus provide a profit for a professional to survive on. Welcome to the great ol’ USA, where tension is our heritage, e.g. Federal Government vs. States’ Rights, etc.

Being a “Hired Gun”

The concept of the “hired gun” goes way back to the history of the American West. When you hear that phrase, it is almost impossible not to have a picture in your mind of two guys in the middle of a dusty street hands at their sides waiting for one to “draw.” Yet, that is almost the same function that many expect when commissioning professional services. A client/owner wants the design professional to execute their desires as that is the most (only) important thing in the world. Why not, the client/owner has nothing at stake, but the professional certainly does. It is not like the owner is going to be hung for murder, and, by the way, wasn’t that often the case in the American west when a hired gun was obtained by someone?

Reality check time! It can be perceived that professionals are “hired guns,” but that should always be tempered by professional standards. Especially when one is under the watch of regulators. One would not take too great a risk if it would mean losing the capabilities of earning a living. So, most professionals should be experienced, knowledgeable, and understanding of those issues when walking such a line.

Even outside the regulatory realm, why would one risk a professional reputation by taking such chances? There is some truth to the thought that bad news travels faster than good news. It always seems that way. I have come to learn that the view of society has transformed into “what have you done for me recently.” I have had vendors do many projects very successfully, yet they have one bad project, and that is the one that everyone remembers, tainting one’s reputation immediately and having a very difficult path to overcome. It is almost like a vendor must always be perfect no matter what. That is huge pressure on any vendor or person for that matter. After all, who is that perfect? That does appear the way that society has become. It is very tough for firms to survive in this environment of total perfection. Yet in this type of environment, I do not understand why all firms do not set a standard of excellence in leu of minimum or acceptable. Would not excellence be the best combat for this short-term, instant gratification value that society has grown towards? It seems that I am seeing more and more firms acquiescing to a standard of mediocrity. Why is that? That just lowers the quality of the pool clients can choose from. Maybe consumers/clients have driven the market that way with unrealistic expectations on costs and prices. I see it in the reviews of projects internally where I work. There is a focus on the total dollars spent for professional services, without consideration of the percentage of those fees with respect to the total project dollars. If published guidelines reflect about six to eight percent of construction costs for design fees, a roofing project with design fees that equal four percent should not be considered too high, yet because the aggregate amount of those fees is tens of thousands of dollars, it is viewed as too expensive. Would that not be reflective of an owner/client having unreasonable expectations on costs?

Is this really an appropriate focus for an owner or client? After all, anyone can provide something cheaper, but if it does not meet the intended needs or does not have the quality to last in its intended use, how beneficial is it really? I would think that the best way to serve a client/owner/project would be through having all experts involved in the project and leaving the experts to do what they do best. I would even go as far as recommending Dr. Dean Kashiwagi’s Best Value Procurement. Experts are the best value a client can get for a project. The expert is really the best “hired gun” for the client’s interest, providing the client allows the experts to do their job.

The Rise of Mediocrity

Originally, I was going to write about forensic investigations in this article, to reflect on some of the “problems” I have encountered on mediocre forensic work I have encountered in the recent past, but then I realize while those do reflect less than stellar performances, I came to realize that this was only a shadow of the real problem. The real problem is society’s acceptance of mediocrity in place of good ol’ American excellence. That became the frightening realization I discovered as I worked on the information for this article. Society has become so accepting of the capitalistic rule of customer sovereignty (the customer is always right) that vendors and firms have lost the incentive to be the expert since they are the professionals and the client/owner/customer is not. If the reverse was true (client knowing more), the vendor would be paying the client/owner/customer to provide their product or service not receiving earnings for providing that product/service. The very flow of the money proves which side of the equation the expert is on. I hope that makes sense, I hope I am not the only one that sees things in this manner. What we have come to see is the supplier, that should know the most about the subject, is being forced to take a back seat by the one that has, at least tacitly, acknowledged a nonexpert need by seeking the vendor’s expertise.

Professionals have allowed themselves to be intimidated by clients/owners/consumers that have no other agenda but to serve their own needs. Let me support my assessment with the following quote:

“Far too often, you, the Architect, against your better judgment, go along with your clients . . . permit yourselves to be intimidated by developers, builders, and owners who want to make quick profits at the expense of our entire society . . . Unfortunately, I’ve come to this conclusion after building for many years and making many mistakes and discovering on my own that the greater the investment in ‘the top line,’ the greater the results on the bottom line. I think you (the Architect) should have told me this a long time ago.”

Herman Chanen, President and Chairman of the Board
Chanen Construction Company
1984 AIA National Convention
Published in Architecture Record, June 1984

I would contend that society’s acceptance of mediocrity over excellence is the very root of those words spoken many years ago, and are as penetrating, or more, today as when they were first spoken. I would submit that those words may hold even more value today. Why have professionals deferred their expertise to the untrained and inexperienced? It has been my experience that a basic capitalistic principle exists. That is, if there is an unfulfilled need, someone will find something to fill that need, no matter how inadequately it fulfills that need. We see it all the time. How often is some new product “improved” not long after it starts to catch on and sell? How often is a new software package or game in need of some patch or update shortly after its release? Do you start to see the trend? Is this a result of Peter’s Principle? I find a lot of fodder in these questions to chew on. Allow me to provide some examples of how this mediocrity is so readily accepted today.

Examples of Mediocrity: Fire Damaged House

One time, a few years ago, a couple came to me after their house had a fire. I went out literally days after the fire to inspect the house. The smell of the fire still filled the air, especially in the house, the floor was covered with charred and destroyed personal items, still damp from all the water used to extinguish the fire. I carefully walked up the stairs, at the front of the house, to the second floor and saw quite a bit of blue sky and the A/C unit partially hanging through the gaping hole in the roof. Many of the roof trusses were destroyed and several were charred from the flames. I saw much of the back wall of the second floor damaged with holes. Quickly noting the damage I saw, I retreated to the safety downstairs. I continued to the kitchen in the back of the house, the origin of the fire, and could see how the fire went straight through the floor/ceiling assembly above, charring a major structural beam running through the house that supported half of the second floor and roof above. The fire went through the stud cavities and up to the roof, just as I had seen when I was upstairs looking at the wall. Two major structural elements supporting the roof and second floor had extensive damage, it was so obvious that there was no way to salvage any of the structure without costing more than tearing down to the slab and rebuilding. And that is what I reported to my client.

A short time later, my client’s insurance claims adjuster sent me a report from the insurance company’s Structural Engineer stating that the structure could be salvaged. To begin, the report was not sealed and signed by the Engineer as required by the Arizona Board of Technical Registration (BTR), so I rejected it immediately and told the claims adjuster he had 24 hours to get me a sealed report or I would file a complaint on the Engineer for not complying with the standards of practice. I have seen this before, a Professional that gets a lot of work from an insurance company so they begin to take on the perspective of the client and not the perspective set down by statute. Soon I did receive the sealed and signed report, but not until after I had received a nicely worded letter from the claims adjuster stating I was wrong, that the report did not have to be sealed because the project was not a “public works” project. I responded to the claims adjuster and offered to refer the issue to the BTR so they could rule which of us had been correct in our interpretation. The claims adjuster eventually gave in and soon I had the sealed report in my hand. However, both my Structural Engineer and I held opposing opinions.

After talking to the claims adjuster, the insurance company agreed to have the entire house cleaned up and all the gypsum board stripped so a complete inspection of the entire structure could be made. The inspection of the exposed structure showed even more damage than could be seen previously, further substantiating our opinion that it would be more cost-effective to demolish and rebuild the walls and roof. The major support beam, holding a major structural second-floor wall and supporting half of the roof all showed even more extensive charring than first seen, with many wall studs destroyed. Half of the roof trusses were damaged or destroyed. By now it was beyond obvious that over half the structure was damaged and unrepairable. The west wall of the house was a zero-lot-line (sat right on the property line), which required the wall to be a fire-rated construction by the building code. Yet the insurance company’s structural engineer stood behind his original conclusions. I was not sure even sure if the engineer ever came back after the structure had been exposed.

As with opposing expert opinions, the issue went before an arbitrator, and the “hearing” was held at the site where everyone could walk through the structure. When I arrived, I was taken back to see the claims adjuster was alone, not even having the insurance company’s engineer. He did not have his engineer or anyone else, after compromising the insurance company’s position so very much by the previous misinformation he provided to my client. I quietly thanked him, under my breath, for making my job so much easier. That decision placed me as the only expert present to give an opinion to the arbiter. That is always difficult, if not impossible, for one side to dispute without an expert. One of the first points I made was how the insurance company had attempted to mislead my client through the information provided that did not comply with the law and rules by having an unsealed report.

The claims adjuster further testified that in “his opinion,” the structure was repairable because all that had to be done was replace some studs on the second floor, replace some roof trusses and that the main beam was fine to leave, even though it was charred. I asked him what his background was to provide such an opinion to which he said it was his “experience.” I asked if he was a registered architect or engineer to which he said no. I told him that his opinion had no place as he was not a registered architect or engineer and could not legally opine on such matters as he had no recognizable expertise. I then provided my report sealed and signed by me, a registered architect, and told the arbiter that since there was no other registrant present I had to be accepted as the only expert.

The claims adjuster further testified that if the zero-lot-line wall just had one layer of 5/8” type ‘X’ gypsum board it would classify as the required one-hour fire-rated wall for the building code. I then asked the claims adjuster if the insurance company had any intention of removing a section of the wall after the gypsum was installed to have it tested in a laboratory to see if the assembly was really a one-hour assembly. His response was no, it did not have to be tested because the building code said the construction was one-hour. I gave him the building code that I had with me and asked him to show everyone where he found that in the building code. He said he could not, to which I informed everyone that he had finally said something correct, true, and accurate. I drew everyone’s attention to the blue insulation board (expanded/extruded polystyrene insulation) that was visible on the inside face of the exterior finish of the wall and noted that the insulation visible indicated that the “stucco” system on the exterior that the claims adjuster was referring to was actually not a “stucco” system as defined in the code, but an EIFS (exterior insulation and finish system) and demonstrated in the code to everyone that the building code did not have any prescriptive standards for that type of system to be a one hour rated construction method. I also indicated that the building code required these EIFS systems to be tested in a lab to establish any required fire ratings. I then established the tables in chapter seven of the building code have to contain the prescriptive fire-rated standards for some wall systems, but they only had standards for cement-based stucco systems included, nothing with the synthetic (acrylic) “stucco” systems as found in an EIFS system. I told the arbiter that when the claims adjuster grew up and got his registration as a professional he could espouse his opinions, but until then only another expert could give an opposing opinion to mine, and as I was the only expert present there was no means to counter my professional opinion. My opinion had to stand unchallenged. The arbiter eventually agreed with me and sided with all claims of my client.

More Examples of Mediocrity and Not-So-“Experts”

In another instance I was reviewing the report of an “expert” in a case, that has made large sums of fees over the last five years, and the building code he cited in his report was not even the correct building code for the project being reviewed. To begin, the project was a multi-family project with eight or 10 units per building, as I recall. His report was based on the IRC (International Residential Code). The first problem that jumped out at me is the full title of the IRC is the “International Residential Code for One and Two Dwellings”. Need I say more? Duh, maybe?!?! Maybe the “forensic expert” hired was not so expert. Another problem he made was many of the references were with respect to state amendments to that code, that were from another state! Need I say more, again? Another duh, maybe?!? The “expert” did not even seal the report. This person has made hundreds of thousands of dollars doing pathetic forensic work like this each time potentially undermining his clients’ position because of his mediocre work. Did his clients understand that mistakes like this cause his expertise to be called into question and prevent their prevailing in the case? How valuable does that make his word in court?

There is another “forensics expert” that has been used so much by a particular insurance company that on several occasions the conclusions drawn by that expert, in favor of the insurance company, had been disproven by additional testing that I had made. In one of these projects, the “expert” concluded that the cracks in the walls were a result of settlement of the walls because of underground plumbing pipes leaking. Our testing found that the plumbing pipes had no leaks and the walls were actually being pushed up from expansive soil—the exact opposite direction of movement. Again, I question does the insurance company realize that in litigation, these are issues that undermine an expert’s opinions? This track record may even collapse a case under the pressures of litigation. Yet, the insurance company still uses this “expert” extensively. I would love to know how many court cases have been won by that team.

At two recent trade association shows, I heard the owner of a “security” firm give a presentation on the Sandy Hook shootings. Now if you have read my four-part series on the event, you are aware I am very familiar with the events on that tragic December morning in 2012. In his presentation, I noticed the floor plan he used in his slides was not accurate to the floor plan of the building at Sandy Hook. He also made the statement that no police officers arrived at the school until after the shooting had stopped. The facts of that morning are, the first shots occurred at 9:24 AM, local time. The shooting stopped six minutes later at 9:40:03 AM, local time. The first officer entered the back of the school at 9:39 AM local time, according to the State’s Attorney report. After hearing the presentation I approached the presenter to discuss some things he said. When I told him that he was incorrect about the police officer’s arrival, he looked at me and told me I was wrong. I politely insisted that he was not correct and asked where he received his information and I was told that it was through his research. I asked him if he had read the Connecticut State’s Attorney’s report because that is where I received my information. He abruptly walked away.

As I stated previously, I am very well versed in building codes, better than most, and certified in multiple areas by the ICC (International Code Council). Not long ago, I had been commissioned by a client to do a small tenant improvement project in one of the surrounding suburbs. There was a grade difference outside of the one door to the space, so I created a ramp that would have a short (2’ – 5”) “retaining” wall, but the footing would go down another three feet so that it would rest on a natural grade to reduce chances of future settlement. First of all, 2’ – 5” is the height of many planter walls in houses, and no one requires engineering for those elements, but because the footing went down further than he normally would see, the City’s non-registered plan reviewer for my project thought he knew more than I did, as the Registered Architect for the project, and said that the “retaining wall” required engineering. I asked him what retaining wall and he referred me to the detail I had drawn. I contended that it was not a retaining wall and that would be no different than if the footing had to go below the frost line. He responded that there was no frost line in the City and I told him I was aware of that fact; however, the structural forces were no different than if the frost line had existed. As long as the soil was equal on both sides of the wall, there was no loading that would induce forces that caused this condition to become a retaining wall design. He said that was not correct and that the height of a retaining wall was measured from the top of the footing to the top of the wall. Really? Please refer to the illustration below from an engineering book (Simplified Building Foundations, by James Ambrose).

Retaining Wall Detail


Ignorance Can Be Fixed, Stupid Cannot

Please note the height of the retaining wall is designated by “H,” which indicates that the retaining wall height is the height of the retained soil. This is a very different definition than the definition espoused by the city’s non-registered plan reviewer. How “expert” is this city plan reviewer if he is oblivious to basic definitions of the industry? Why would he insist on making an “expert” decision that would cost my client more money? I thought my professional registration proved that I was more of an expert than he is? Did this plan reviewer have a need to “control” the project? If so, did he realize that if he directed me to do something against my best judgment just to get the permit, the city may find liability with such a direction?

I could go on and on with more examples of these types of “pretend experts”, but suffice it for me to offer up just one more before I give some closing thoughts. I often tend to think that many of these “pretend experts” are created by the very practices that we see in life and work environments. For instance, the very basics of the scientific method are you first theorize an idea, then you derive an experiment to test the theory, then you test to prove the theory recording the results. Of course, the results are peer-reviewed, I know, but I want to focus on just the first three steps. To boil it down it can be said in its most basic form: an idea, a test, and a proof of concept. By all appearances, this looks like a pretty good and stable form. I would pose this as a chink in the armor of this approach. Let us place this in the environment of research. Large funds have been given to obtain a proof of concept for something. Success may bring large revenues to a benefactor, notoriety to the person/team making the discovery, etc., and there is a great deal of pressure to show success. Sometimes that pressure may cause one to not critically think a solution all the way through and something is missed or overlooked, something that does become apparent until in the peer review stage, and then everything falls into the house of cards. Let us remember sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s it was thought that cold fusion was discovered at the University of Utah. After publishing the paper, the team was informed by others throughout the world that the test of the system had a flaw and was not really a discovery of cold fusion. How embarrassing was that for everyone involved?

I see this as a classic example of these “pretend experts” attempting to force a direction that is not the best path to take in the work being completed. I believe that there are many motivations for this. Mostly I believe that this is a result of non-experts making decisions when these decisions should be deferred to true experts. I would once again encourage everyone to look at Dr. Dean Kashiwagi’s book, I believe that these concepts have a very widespread application throughout all aspects of a person’s life.

Now that I have laid that foundation, I want to continue with the last example I wanted to use. Dr. Laurence J. Peter published a kind of tongue-in-cheek book called the Peter Principle in 1969, as I recall. Aside from the almost derogatory terms we have to know for this, e.g. people rise to their lowest level of incompetence, etc., there is actually something underlying this concept that may be in fact quite accurate. That is that most promotions for individuals are largely based on the performance of current functions, not the needed functions in the higher position. That being if you perform well at what you are doing, you should be able to perform at the next level up. I ask you to stop reading for a moment and reflect on how often you see this or have seen this. For me, in my career, it has been so extensive I cannot even count.

I remember in my undergraduate work the main topic covered was critical thinking, and for my graduate work, the theme covered was strategic thinking. I have found after 40 years in my industry, neither of these are practiced traits by most people. As a former baseball/softball coach I will tell you for certain that it is not common for a person to make a major role change and perform the same in the new position which is inadequate for that position. Often the new position requires a skill set change and not just making adjustments.

How does a person compromise the company’s position to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, because he/she has to justify a mistake instead of admitting to the mistake? How about the person that gets a big promotion and associated pay raise, just to continue doing the exact same job they were doing before the promotion? In another situation, where a manager makes all the decisions and micromanages the staff saying that “this place cannot survive without me.” My question to that manager is, if the place cannot survive without you, how do you get promoted, or are we stuck with you until you retire?

I must reflect on something I reckoned with a long time ago. Many people that have been promoted to leadership often have no training or background to be a leader, they fall into it almost as a result of Peter’s Principle. They compound that problem with little or no desire for learning how to become a leader. I learned at a very early stage in my career that most ladder climbing is done with one of two basic strategies. We see this exhibited not only in individuals but also in organizations as a whole as well. The most common approach is to tear down those around as a means to look better. Even organizations do this, do not believe me, just look at the advertising being made by some businesses. Often it is a comparison of how “others” are not equal to their own. The other approach is to actually be better than the others around. That is much harder because, for one, you have to really work hard to get there. I saw a really great TED Talk video about this. When I first showed this video to my wife and our oldest daughter, my wife said a few times, I have heard you say that before. I thought, of course, this is just an observation anyone could have made, it is not just me.

I view many of these “pretend experts” being created out of this scenario. One gets moved up and now must know everything to prove they belong in the advanced position. Why? I am very much a continual learner. I love to learn and mentor, and I hope that comes through to everyone I come in contact with. Now that I have said that, I have come to conclude that the more I learn, the more apparent it becomes how little I really do know. I do not hesitate to admit that I do not know something, however, that usually spurs me to go do some sort of immersion so that I am more versed on the topic, but I have no problem deferring to an expert on the subject. That is the true sign of a learner. This, however, also requires a measure of personal responsibility; do not look to blame others, take responsibility for what you do. Ignorance can be fixed, stupid cannot.

Closing Thoughts

Let me begin with this premise, not knowing something is not a sign of weakness (contrary to society’s view), but it really is a sign of wisdom and awareness. We almost always tacitly admit this fact most every time we make a purchase, of services especially, this becomes even more obvious when we purchase something from a regulated industry. i.e., see a doctor, call a plumber, meet an accountant, visit a lawyer, etc. If that is accurate, why would I as a non-expert insist on directing an expert, if it is clear that I am not the expert? If I choose a direction contrary to what the expert directs, on what basis do I expect a better result? If I am not the expert, then do I become “pretend expert” when I direct an expert? Conversely, when I am the expert, should I watch out for my client’s best interest despite themselves? Should I, as the expert, not take enough care to do the task correctly the first time? Should the expert, by nature, seek excellence over mediocrity? Should I not protect the non-expert that I am working for from undermining their own goals?

A note to remember, if you (the non-expert) direct the expert to go against their best counsel and the expert has a record of it, you may have just displaced liability away from the expert to yourself. There by increasing your risk and diminishing the expert’s risk. For instance, if you as the owner, direct an electrician to wire something in a different way, and it causes a fire, if the electrician has a record of your directive, it may just be possible the electrician will not be held accountable for the damage you sustained because of the fire. In another case, a design professional is forced by the owner’s representative to provide a less costly method to replace a system (roof, HVAC, fire alarm, etc.) but the method is an inferior solution in the design professional’s opinion, then in a public meeting the design professional is questioned why the lower cost was not recommended, does that not reflect poorly on the design professional’s position as an expert? Did the expert lose credibility by deferring this expertise to a non-expert? I have come to realize in my career, that when provided with enough resistance, a non-expert will eventually acquiesce to the expert’s position. It is our responsibility as an expert to take the stand in as firm of a way as possible to get the client (non-expert) to realize the real issues of their want or desire.

My next point must be provided to two different groups, the professional (expert) and the non-professional (non-expert, society as a whole). I will start with the professional group. Especially if you practice or are providing services / products within a regulated environment, why be like everyone else and provide mediocrity? When you provide excellence, clients will come to you, remember the quote from Herman Chanen above. Often your capabilities as an expert are diminished when you select the path of mediocrity. Read the forensic case studies previously cited in this article. That type of mediocrity harms the very client you are supposed to be serving. Once that reputation starts to get out, how easy is it to rebuild that type of tarnish on your reputation? However, your competition that is seeking excellence will be more than happy for you to stay on that charted course of mediocrity, because excellence will produce more positives for the client, and those that are receiving mediocrity will change providers to one’s that provide excellence. After all, who wants to be second place? I have discovered that most buyers are willing to pay for the excellence, and the ones that don’t, well they will reap their own bounty. Let me quote Britain’s John Ruskin (1819 – 1900), “There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man's lawful prey.”

Now for my comments to the non-professional group. The greatest value one can hold is to be acutely aware of one’s limitations of knowledge. There are very few in this world that would willingly jump out of a plane without a parachute or other device. The result is known to almost everyone, making almost everyone an expert in this knowledge. Most everyone sees the result of jumping out of a plane without an assistance device. The word “splat” comes to my mind. This should also illustrate something else, a person does not have to be an expert in everything. The economic principle here is referred to as specialization. One that is an expert may have little or absolutely no knowledge of some other area, but that is virtuous. The value the person generates is in that area of their expertise, not somewhere else. Maybe one could become an expert at being a non-expert, recognizing who are the experts and utilizing them effectively to help the group. WOW, that is a novel concept in today’s world!!! As a group, the non-professionals, could just enhance their functions by demanding the professionals to become more expert in their area of expertise. Talk about helping one to help themselves, or teaching a person to fish, etc. How is that for a concept? I bet no one in the non-professional group (which we all fit into at times) never even considered that as a way of helping themselves. Is this not a way to break away from the acceptance of mediocrity and move to a demand for excellence? Do not allow less than experts to degrade your position and goals because they prefer to do just what is required. Client’s should hold their experts to the standard of excellence, I am sure if one does not excel someone else will be more than happy to step in and replace them.

Part of this attitude must be focused on individual responsibility. Those in leadership must be held accountable to these same standards of excellence. To allow one of our nation’s largest banks to continually misuse their customers with phony accounts, just to make shareholders think things are better has to become unacceptable to everyone. So unacceptable that it demands a reaction. Professional athletes have to be drug tested so their performances stay real and unenhanced artificially, yet CEO’s, directors, and managers of businesses can exhibit this same “win at all costs” attitude without repercussions? Are we saying that no one can get ahead in business if they are ethical? How profound, and frightening, is that concept? It starts with all of us, we must demand more as a society.

I have rambled enough. I think that each of us hold more power than we think to make major changes in our world. Maybe we should start by just demanding a little more excellence and a little less mediocrity. If you have a job, perform it as if the most important person to you is watching you do everything. Do you want to leave a bad impression on that person? Do you want that person see you just skating by? Mediocrity is a cancer that has destroyed the great American standard of excellence replacing it with an acceptance of “it’s the best we can get”. Why? Should we not demand more?

© 2017 Dan Demland