Managing the working relationships on large-scale construction projects has become increasingly complex, and will only become more so in the future. Contractual arrangements have become more integrated – but also raise new questions. Specialized technologies and software applications require new levels of sophistication. And an increasing number of primary and tertiary stakeholders are getting directly involved, whether offshore designers, new service providers or statewide planning agencies. It’s not uncommon to have 100 or more management team members on a large project – each with differing goals, structures, business practices and work cultures. Compound that with decreased budgets, shortened schedules and higher owner expectations, and you’ve got yourself a real leadership challenge.
The Problem with Team Building
AEC projects are successful to the extent that the right working relationships are established and maintained between the owner, builder, designer and contractor community throughout a project's lifecycle. Typically, however, partners on a complex building project will invest substantial time and energy defining their contractual arrangement, but precious little time defining their work relationship. This leaves the all-important "people part" to chance, fate, good fortune or guesswork.
To make matters worse, most team building exercises don't produce sustainable change. While going to a ballgame, floating down the river or comparing personality types may be fun and even enlightening, it’s not likely to make much of a difference in how well a group of people work together. Other team building attempts fall short because they take a “one-shot” approach – a big event is rarely followed up on with specific processes and procedures that hold team members accountable. These kinds of sessions offer little help when new entities join halfway into a project, or a dramatic change of events throws plans in a new direction.
Nowhere was this more evident than on the Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Hospital Expansion project, a $150-million phased hospital campus expansion, renovation and upgrade program. Completed in 2010, it consisted of a new 148,400-sq-ft, six-story hospital tower, including an expanded emergency, radiology, intensive-care unit obstetrics and surgical departments, and continues now with ongoing renovations throughout the hospital. While a highly successful project it met its fair share of bumps along the way that tested everyone involved, for example, when a capped supply pipe ruptured and led to an estimated 400,000 gallon flood of water into the construction site and the adjacent basement of the existing hospital.
Kevin Brooks, project executive with Swinerton Builders Sacramento, explains, “These types of extreme issues have the potential to derail a project, or can force you to ‘up your game’ when it comes to partnering, which is what we did. Teamwork is an overused term in our industry, but it only really works if people are aligned and trust each other. The most important step in building trust is communication – and without it, you will fail.”
The Power of Conversation
So how did we build a team of people that was successful not only with the task at hand, but still works well together today? It may sound simple, but great teams are built around a series of conversations that define the work relationships and result in agreements and commitments that enable cooperative effort. As Kevin explains, “It’s natural to gravitate toward technology for communication – such as collaboration software or email – but these tools can also put a significant barrier between key stakeholders and the hard discussions they need to have.”
In my experience as a consultant to hundreds of groups, here are five of those conversations:
Great teams are built when the right agreements and commitments are established upfront and monitored over time to enable cooperative effort. You know your team is "built" when people know what they're doing together, they're in agreement about how they're going to do it, and they're energized about doing it. And once built, the team is continuously attended to – not unlike any living, breathing organism – to keep its members in alignment and on the same page.
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