“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success”
Previously, we wrote about ways to improve construction efficiency and we thought this warranted further development on the theme of collaboration. Whether this is with clients, subcontractors or other stakeholders who will be impacted by the outcome of a particular project – it’s an important consideration and in everyone’s best interests to work as a cohesive unit and not as egotistical individuals. We define the four ‘pillars’ of collaboration as:
- Expectation Management
- Communication & Accessibility
- Pre-Empting & Alleviating Conflict
- Collectivity & No Blame Culture
Collaboration and efficiency need not be seen as mutually exclusive targets for a construction project manager and this article seeks to underline how to go about creating a culture that facilitates both, and gives your project the greatest chance of success.
Henry Ford’s quote at the top rather neatly encapsulates common misconceptions about collaboration and the fact it should be deemed a continuous process rather than a hollow wish upon your team and clients. OSC discusses three important aspects of collaboration, and how to go about implementing them within your next – or even current – construction project.
Setting a clear contract and/or Project Initiation Document (PID) that is at least accepted, not necessarily agreed, by all stakeholders is an uncompromisable starting point.
But, why not co-design the intermediate deadlines with other stakeholders? Within reason, would clients or subcontractors not be best placed to offer insights into which deadlines have certain contingencies and which are simply immovable? It’s not imperative that you then honour every suggestion but by welcoming them into the discussion at this early stage proves your propensity to take on board outside ideas and not adopt a dictatorial approach.
This is intrinsically linked to expectation management because you are setting a tone of other project workers feeling comfortable raising their opinion. The balance, of course, is to know when to assert your ultimate authority and not be seen as someone easy to undermine.
Similarly, such a tactic at the project’s start will soon be seen through as a token gesture if the project itself reverts back to a ‘do it my way’-type mentality. If consistent, fair and inclusive leadership is prevalent throughout a project, contractors, sub-contractors and staff working on the construction site day in, day out will be far more likely to work hard if they know that the project manager cares for their viewpoints. And, a collaborative culture also lends itself to small issues being reported far sooner.
One key role of a project manager is to justify budgets and manage costs. On major construction projects, it is virtually inevitable that something will happen that wasn’t part of the plan. But, if you’ve created a culture of everyone feeling emotionally invested and connected within a project team, including the client, solutions are more likely to be found. If you’ve adopted a dictatorial tone: yes, you can take credit for a successful project, but any problem will likely be left to you to solve.
Working collaboratively is not about being selfless, it’s about sharing successes, problems and achievements throughout the team. By keeping your finger on the pulse in this way, you can keep clients informed with prompt, accurate information – thus, expectations can be managed.
Great Communication & Reasonable Accessibility
The best project managers, particularly in construction, are invariably the best communicators. This doesn’t mean justifying every decision that you make over the course of a project but it does mean giving the impression that you have considered alternate perspective in such decisions. It’s unreasonable to expect unanimous agreement but it is reasonable to aim for understanding of your pressures from all parties.
This is why communication is a key factor of collaboration. First and foremost, be honest and upfront about how accessible you will be throughout the project and then stick to it. If you tell a client something along the lines of ‘I’m only ever a phone call or email away’ or ‘my door is always open’ and then aren’t accessible for days on end, that’s naturally going to derail any attempts of collaboration, damage the existing relationship between the firm and the client and, even worse, potentially give the impression of lacking interest.
Instead, why not reach a semi-formal arrangement with clients, subcontractors, or whomever you ought to maintain good contact with? Decide upon a reasonable frequency and location of meeting, plus a suitable means of cancelling or rearranging (on both sides). Finally, in these scenarios, make sure to proactively reiterate an apology the next time you meet.
Furthermore, no one likes to feel like they’re asking simple questions or feel guilty about requesting clarification on your use of construction jargon. Whilst it is important to strive for a consistent personality and vocabulary during a project, be prepared to adapt your language in front of different audiences. This applies to both verbal and written communication.
Pre-Empting & Alleviating Conflict
All of the above feeds into a final characteristic of collaborative project – the ability to avoid unhealthy tensions either within the project team or between you and the client(s). Managing expectations and communicating will go some way to achieving this, but here’s a couple of ideas for keeping a positive environment throughout the entire project.
One of the barriers of effective collaboration is the development of an ‘us and them’ mentality between any two stakeholders or groups of stakeholders connected to a project. The problem is both parties, for example, in the relationship between sub-contractors and project managers may have prejudice from previous experiences about the value each can bring. Therefore, good project managers must first reset their expectations and prove more clearly how they would be different.
Sub-contractors may feel they are just there to get a job done (some may actually prefer that) and will not be naturally open to contact with project managers and the chance to have their voice heard. Reciprocally, project managers with no desire or appreciation for collaborative working environments may deem them merely a resource to utilise.
From the off, give all contributors a sense of ownership and accountability for the projects which means quality ideas are more likely to arise. This is because they will be stemming from areas of specialism rather than your more generalist perspective. It is also possible more creative solutions will be developed and an area of potential conflict or passive relationships is instead flipped into a positive dynamic.
As the project continues, so too must your proactive efforts to avoid conflict. Before each phase, week or even day – visualise how it will ideally go and which intermediate steps need to be taken to ensure it happens and the exact people required to complete them. You can then justify delegation and give personal accountability for particular tasks. This is not about blame culture; rather ensuring everyone sees why he or she is important.
Remember, it is healthy to disagree – in moderation!
Collective Accountability & No Individual Blame
Most project managers have experienced a blame culture, either as the architect or recipient. Instead of taking the fall as a project team, people pointed fingers at each other even if the source of a mistake is unclear.
But that’s not the point – any ‘mistake’ is natural and not likely to have been borne out of spite. Instead, whoever thinks they’ve made a mistake should inform the project manager promptly and the manager should respect the confidence in speaking up by keeping the source confidential. This is about an overall culture of empowering people to see the common goal and not push each other out of the way for personal, selfish ambitions.
If it’s an issue the client needs to be aware of then apologise as collective, along the lines of “I’m afraid we messed up and shall fix it immediately”. Obviously, you don’t want to make a habit of such conversations but human qualities - such as selflessness and honesty - will be respected by the client and, importantly, your project team who feel like their leader has got their back.
Then, the team can devise and implement a solution together. Hold regular meetings as a platform for doing just that and keep the team updated about potential future challenges as preparation. It’s also a chance to discuss any problems they may have with each other or time away from live work to plan amongst themselves how the next phase of the project should be conducted. This all adds to a collective, inclusive culture and helps cohesion amongst all team members into a unified, multi-skilled whole.
The main takeaway from all of the above will hopefully be that all of the above is not an exact science, but collaboration is a good and achievable ambition for modern construction project managers.
By making small tweaks to your mannerisms and conversations with clients and sub-contractors, it is possible to leverage project success and ensure you’ll be first choice for the next big project. Success in the short-term and repeat business more likely; everyone’s a winner!