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Forging Successful Partnerships in the Construction Industry: Talk Ain’t Cheap

By Marty Kaplan, PhD



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:

  1. What’s our vision for the future?  First and foremost, it is critical to create a common definition of success across all major entities. In addition to being clear about the task at hand, it’s powerful and compelling to have stakeholders craft a shared dream about how they’d like the project to proceed in the best of possible worlds. What will we be creating?  How will we be working together?  What words would we want to use to describe this project when all is said and done?
  2. What questions do we have about each other’s roles and responsibilities?  In addition to “who’s doing what,” every owner, designer and contractor brings concerns and biases to the table that must be addressed. At one point during the project we hosted a public debate between teams – where each group openly critiqued the other’s presentation for genuineness and authenticity. This went a long way in getting the real issues out in the open so that we could deal with them directly.
  3. What are the specific processes and procedures we will use to make decisions, solve problems, communicate effectively, handle conflict, celebrate successes and bring new team members on board? For example, when weekly project meetings were getting overloaded with too many updates and not enough action, a new mechanism – the “Red Dot Strike Team” – was invented to identify and prioritize the most critical issues using red dots. This helped make sure we stayed focused on controlling schedules and costs.
  4. How do we want to relate to and work with each other? And what’s the quality of the business relationships we want to establish with each other? We determined upfront who the right people were to involve in every situation; for example, sub-groups were created to host more intense or focused sessions, and depending on the issue, help protect sensitive information. We also determined how and when we would involve and defer to a “core team” comprised of executive management.
  5. How can we avoid the one-shot deal? Or, what practices do we need to put into place to continuously monitor the agreements we’ve made with each other, and to make changes as needed throughout the life of the project? Live surveys were conducted on a regular basis where managers could rate how well we were working together. This opened the door – and put the onus back on the team – to figure out how to fix something that was off.

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.