Architectural Interns – “Just Follow the Recipe”

December 2, 2013 — 33 Comments

Gather round the drafting table kids, now that I’ve replaced my computer, it’s time for Grandpa Borson to dole out some more important and life altering advice. If you swing through my site with any regularity, you’ll probably have noticed that the kernels of wisdom I share are derived in two manners:

1. I’ve lived through it and I’m speaking from my own personal experience;

2. I believe whatever “it” to be true with every fiber of my being.

All in all, it’s a pretty straight forward method for choosing topics. Since a big part of my role in the office is to mentor and shape the younger architects and interns (Lord Corbusier, please have mercy upon their architectural souls), when I find myself going over “a lesson” it becomes the seed for one of these advice posts. Today is one of those posts – maybe the most important advice post I’ve ever tackle.

Just Follow the recipe

This is my latest teaching phrase – “Just follow the recipe” and I think it conveys my message in a way that doesn’t come across as condescending, although the recipient may not like it at first. When I have a design task for someone, particularly when they are young or generally inexperienced in the real world of design-related problem solving, I am trying to teach them how to go about solving a problem in a fast and efficient manner. [cue the narrative – my other favorite teaching technique]

Bob (to enthusiastic intern): Would you mind making some lemonade? Here is the water, sugar and lemons and recipe card … you should only need about 20 minutes for this exercise.

Enthusiastic Intern: Sure!

…. 1 hour later

Bob (looking at watch … then to enthusiastic intern): Where is that lemonade?

Enthusiastic Intern: I’m just finishing it now … let me say, you are going to love it!

Bob (looking at glass full of pink liquid): What is this? I asked for lemonade…

Enthusiastic Intern: This is the lemonade you asked me for … except I went to the store and picked up some organic raspberries, crushed and strained them, and added them to the lemon, water, and sugar you gave me.

Bob: This isn’t what I asked for.

Enthusiastic Intern: It’s got ginger in it as well, it beautifully complex … quite delicious really.

Bob: I’m sure it is … but it isn’t what I asked for. Why didn’t you follow the recipe?

(Less) Enthusiastic Intern:  I thought this would be better – this IS better.

Bob: No, it’s not. I’m allergic to ginger and don’t care for raspberries. And you spent 3x as long preparing something I can’t drink.

I have been fortunate to work with really talented younger people and to a person, every time I ask for something specific and get handed back something different from what I asked for, they ALWAYS have a reason for their deviation. Sometimes they’ve deviated from the directions for a really good reason but that’s not the point here. I still always need the thing I was asking for, and as a result, they still have to go back and do it again. That’s when the “just follow the recipe” lesson comes in handy: you should always give the person initially what they asked for and if you think there’s a better way to accomplish the same task, do your modification after you’ve prepared the original request and present them both.

You will find yourself in a far better position if you do both what was asked of you and a little extra – and that’s what I like to call solid “Career 101” advice. What’s NOT solid “Career 101” advice, is to not follow directions … even if you’re right. The difference between these two paths might seem subtle to you but they aren’t – it’s not even close. In one example, you’re an employee who can’t follow directions, while in the other, you are an overachiever who does what I need and presents me with additional options/ information that might protect me from myself. Which one seems like the better path to take?

Just something for you to think about … and you should follow my lemonade recipe, you won’t be disappointed. Afterwards you can add all organic raspberries (or gin) to it you want.

Good luck,

Bob Borson signature


ps – for the record, I’ve never actually asked an intern to make me lemonade. I have asked them to pick up the Friday beer but I paid for it and they generally seemed really happy about it.

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  • Sanja Busatlic

    I acctually like this advice… I suppose this is one of the “soft skills”… It is important to know WHEN and HOW to present our ideas, and it certainly is better to do it as an offering alternative… and not replacement for original solution. Maybe if he brought original lemonade AND ginger lemonade… maybe it would be easier to give ginger one a shot… thanks for making me think about this 🙂

  • Mark Mc Swain

    Directions are important.
    “Get refreshments now!” is a direction.
    Not one a good leader gives unless they have the willingness to accept whatever comes of such direction. (Sadly, this is not a common occurance.)

    “Pour glasses of water and wait.” Is also a direction (two, actually).
    Sadly, there are those who will become angry and upset when directions are followed.
    “Make lemonade for the office” is a decent direction, unless the only thing i nthe office is half a packet of Splenda, and some sketchy Crystal Light from the mid-’80s/
    Success in delegation requires precision, it needs thoroughness, it begs attention to detail.


    this is common sense. that’s what “boss” means. grit your teeth and do twice the amount in half the time, it’s called work. At the same time, don’t be a stupid boss, people are not gophers. If you request menial crap ALL THE TIME, don’t expect a creative water closet design. And this last one is for everyone: read the 7 habits of highly effective people and either get used to teaching or stop tolerating the ineffective people – they bring the whole ship down with them.

  • Adam Word Gates

    Thanks + A note to my peers :
    As a young, enthusiastic lemon squeezer I can definitely appreciate this advice (because I’ve been guilty of making raspberry ginger lemonade). To curb this tendency I’ve employed the following practice:

    Find something outside of the office to be enthusiastic about!!!
    That hyper innovative energy has to go somewhere, and investing in a hobby, rather than my job, has proven to be much more fulfilling and also makes me a more efficient employee. I also don’t have to worry about having my masterful raspberry ginger lemonade poured over my head. 😉
    Thank you Bob


    • xoxo??


      • Adam Word Gates

        xoxo – – – because hugs are important. even in correspondence.

  • Julie Howard

    I get where you are come from with this one Bob!! And for those claiming that this is tyranical… It is not! The current tendancy with young interns is the re-invention of the wheel! ALL the time!! It is important to know how to follow simple instructions, to work efficiently and how to be critical of ones own work… and… I always say that when life gives you lemons – make lemonaide!!

    • [clapping]

      I was a little surprised at how some folks responded but since you seem to agree, I’ll save my response to being a tyrant to those who made the claim.

      Bonne journée mon ami – profiter de vos vacances de Noël!

  • miloe88

    I’m not an intern, but technically still being mentored because of my (very) few years of practice (a few months short for 3 years since graduating college). Our boss’s view is similar to this. It does sound tyrannic in a way, but maybe the better word is discipline. I can understand from the boss’s point of view. He explains that this way has less to zero abortive work. Usually though, if we noticed something wrong with the drawing (or have a better solution), we’d discuss it first before completing the drawings. He’s open to that, and I think we saved more time because we can tackle them head-on. Rather than finishing what we were told to do, and doing our own suggestion, then presenting to him both drawings. He says that he appreciates it, because it shows that we are interested in what we are doing and are also learning.

  • Alex Millatiner

    Allow me to disagree. I’m sorry, I am your big fan, but here you just made yourself sound like a tyrant. I think a person should be able to taste the raspberries, even if they didn’t expect them. Then check yourself: are you allergic to the raspberries just because you weren’t the one to think about adding them?
    If there was a good reason why not add raspberries, you should have communicated it with the recipe, or you’re not doing your job as a mentor.

    • This is important so please keep an open mind:

      When your boss (or supervisor) gives you directions and you choose to not follow them, you will not be putting yourself in a good position for future advancement. Being considered a tyrant for expecting my employees to do what I ask of them while giving them the latitude for additional exploration is absurd (and I mean that with complete sincerity).

      I am not going to waste my time – and more importantly the client’s money – by telling the intern everything that they are not supposed to do. Based on your comment, I would need to tell them not to add raspberries, or plastic, or heavy metals, chewing gum, pencil shavings, etc. If I want raspberries, I’ll ask for them. If I give you 20 minutes to complete a task and get it done in 10 minutes, feel free to add all the raspberries/ blackberries/ loganberries/ strawberries *whatever* you want in the remaining 10 minutes.

      That’s why I am an awesome boss. I give clear directions while allowing for the additional opportunity for personal exploration.

      • Alex Millatiner

        Maybe, if they want to add the raspberries, they should suggest it, before starting spending time on it, and then if you’re open to listen to the suggestion, that’s the best solution.

        • There is always room for options, and the more efficient a person is, the more options they can explore.


  • Andrew

    Very interesting article. I recently found your site and I’m really enjoying it. I think you make some good points in this one, but I have to say that I have a bit of an issue with you suggesting that interns shouldn’t deviate from instructions “even if they are right” to deviate. That’s a tricky one…. I think too many architects (myself included!) are too quick to dismiss the opinions of other “greener” staff. If it’s a subjective item – sure, follow the instructions first and then try your deviation if time allows. However, if it’s an objectively wrong item, we owe it to interns to be open-minded enough to admit a mistake. If you sketch something with a dead-end corridor that’s too long, and the intern catches it and drafts a viable solution, instead, while they are doing everything else, I think they should be rewarded for that. Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of architects out there whose egos can’t take that kind of thing….
    It takes a team (generally….) to do what we do. It’s ok if an intern catches a mistake and corrects it. Not that I’VE ever made any, of course….

  • kerry hogue

    It is generally about expectations. Make sure they are communicated sufficiently and are understood. I use the repeat after me method to make the individual understands what is being requested of them. You soon learn who is the overachiever and who needs to be managed a bit closer.
    ….and I prefer my lemonade straight up with no additives. besides as a recovered drunk, I can’t do the distilled spirit route.

    • good on you for both items – technique and discipline are generally highly prized traits, glad to have you peddling both here on the site.

  • Kymberly

    Having mentored many students, I can say that your advice and analogy are spot on. Aaaand they are dependent on getting a clear and thorough recipe in the first place. Most interns I have worked with want to do well and have great attitudes. They simply need a LOT of direction. Go grandpa Bob!

    • Thanks! Good point about the attitude. Sometimes enthusiasm with all it’s positive traits creates the issue and the person who has no other intention other than doing the very best feels rebuked for trying to excel. How it gets handled presents a slippery slope for management. Reinforce while providing guidance and direction.

      PS – I think I’m going to change my moniker back to “El Presidente”

    • Thanks! It’s a good point to bring up – positive attitudes. Finding a way to course correct the enthusiastic intern without dampening their exuberance is the key.


      ps – I think I’m going to go back to “El Presidente” for my nickname, I like it way better than “Grandpa”

      • Kymberly

        Si, I think “El Presidente” is muy mejor!

  • Bob Swinburne

    When I was an intern, I found the most difficult thing was knowing what questions to ask when initially presented with a task. Now, being on the architect side of of the conversation I find I spend too much time and effort anticipating what questions they should ask.

    Vodka – the boss architect can hardly taste it in there but makes him or her much more relaxed for the next few hours.

    • glad to see that you are up on your neutral spirits.

      You make an interesting point – I frequently tell people that one of my best skills is knowing what questions to ask. I think it’s an underrated skill, normally the right question leads to getting the right answer … typically a plus.

      I try and point the people I am responsible for in the right direction and if I want something specific, I endeavor to make that part clear. The rest is up to them to figure out how they will get from my starting point to the finish line.

  • MarvinOne

    I like the advice you give, but I have to say (as an intern with a few years under my belt) that following the recipe only works when you’ve been given an actual recipe. In all of my 5 jobs, I’ve rarely been given the parameters that I’m supposed to work in.
    An example: apparently there was a budget of about 350-400 hrs on a project. Several weeks after it was done, I asked my boss about the office’s general process for budgeting and scheduling work. He relayed to us that we had taken over 800 hrs for said project. We were NEVER given the hourly budget information until the project was completed. That’s only one of many examples.
    It’s my hope that other architects in positions similar to yours read your advice (which is always good!) and then read the comments. Hopefully it helps them become better bosses.

    • You are absolutely right – but rather than type it up again, look at my response down below to Paul Scharnett. Basically if the person communicating the directions is a poor communicator, there are going to be problems regardless of the circumstances. One of the biggest complaints the staff at my last firm used to have was that project managers were not kept up to speed on how a project is progressing from a budgetary standpoint – which is a very fair complaint. In smaller firms, sometimes the paperwork can become overly cumbersome – that’s why in my new office, we keep all that information on the office intranet. If anyone wants to know where things are at, just go have a look for yourself.

  • Marcia Kellogg

    Great post with some good advice- I am going to share it with my ACE Mentor Program students this week.

    • let me know how it goes over – almost everyone this post is directed towards is fairly defensive about the subject.

  • Paul Scharnett


    Great advice. From the intern perspective, I’ve certainly experienced that recently, and have found myself frustrated about the results. I often have found that some of the deviation stems from unclear or unconcise instruction, as well, especially when the task is a bigger chunk of the puzzle. Logistically, it is also challenging to add multiple options on a tight timeline, and more often than not, it makes the intern feel pretty undervalued, since their opinion doesn’t matter.

    What I have learned, though, is that the more you develop the “why’s”, the more that the intern is going to understand your intent and complete it the way you want in a timely manner. And sometimes, it’s just that the intern wants to feel more involved in the decision making process, especially when anxious to try their hand at design.


    • Great addition to the conversation. There will always be nuances to this sorts of situations and regardless of the circumstance, a poor communicator makes things worse.

      We strive to find ways that allow the younger designer and interns to flex their skills a bit while trying to balance the amount of time it takes for someone younger (presumably with a lower billing rate) to accomplish a task. While I might be able to get it done the first time, I can afford to let the younger people take 2 or 3 passes through. We do not support the “earn while you learn” business model which makes it that much more important that tasks get done in a manageable manner. Following the directions you DO receive goes a long way towards future opportunities.

  • Wade

    Thanks once again for a great post! I am an Architect with 14 years experience and as an intern I made this mistake many times and know exactly what you are talking about. I have also had to tell an someone to redo something because it wasn’t what I asked for originally. I think the problem comes from the nature of our profession. In school, we are encouraged to be creative and think differently, and the transition to a work environment can be difficult. Thanks again for the post and every intern or non-intern should read this article.

    • The interns in my office sort of “proofed” this post and they weren’t particularly happy about it. I ended up rewriting parts to clarify that I am not advocating that they stop being creative and coming up with their own solutions, just give me some credit that I know what I want and at the very least, provide that to me (in addition to whatever other schemes they wish to discuss.)

      I think all interns and younger architects experience during their careers – hopefully it’s sooner rather than later.

  • justanarchitect

    There’s a related syndrome, to which even those of us who are long of tooth and gray of hair fall victim – the tendency to provide nuanced answers to client’s direct questions. We know that most design elements are interrelated and the reasons for them, complex. So when someone asks, “Can we make this smaller?” (or “larger” or “redder”) we’re too quick to suggest all the conditions that will be affected by that change before saying “yes” or no.” Doing so almost always sounds defensive or dishonest.

    Instead, I try to help young designers who are beginning to have opportunities to interview for or present their work (and myself) to reverse that. They can say something like “The simple answer is ‘yes’, but here are some things you might want to think about.before doing that.” That way you’ve followed the recipe and given them the opportunity to taste the gin, too.

    • That’s a great way of educating the “owner” of the design along the way to better understand why things are the way they are. Being able to articulate the reasons a decisions was made will create an atmosphere where you (the designer) are helpful rather than condescending or protective.

      Great comment