Collaborative project delivery creates a terrific opportunity for all members of the project team to work together in a cooperative, trusting, and transparent environment. Unfortunately, this opportunity can be quickly squandered if project leadership loses sight of what it takes to create and maintain this collaborative environment. It is inevitable that something will go wrong at some point on the project. When that happens, the strength of the bonds among the team will be tested. Will project leadership ultimately resort to protecting their individual interests – e.g., “It’s not my fault and not my problem”? Or will project leadership find a way to rise above it, solve the issue cooperatively, and move forward?
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I have had the chance to see both ends of this spectrum. The delivery, procurement, and contracting approach for some of my projects were tailor-made for successful collaboration. Unfortunately, when challenges were encountered, it was apparent that all the talk of creating a cooperative, trusting, and transparent environment was just fluff and lip service, with parties resorting to bad behavior. Perhaps an owner got upset with costs exceeding expectations, and quickly chastised the design-builder for being too greedy or conservative – instead of getting to the root cause and details of the budget bust. Perhaps a design-builder was afraid to tell the owner bad news – whether it was personnel issues, subcontract issues, or realistic budget numbers – for fear of a backlash. Is there a common theme that causes parties to resort to bad behavior? I often find that it starts when the project experiences its first big challenge and the initial response from one of the parties is defensive – blaming someone else instead of openly discussing the issue and trying to work it out.
Fortunately, I have also seen some incredible examples of how teams have continued working together collaboratively when things could have gone south. The common theme for this is telling. It’s all about senior project leadership. Leadership that is truly trusted by their counterparts. Leadership that solves problems rather than shifting blame. Leadership that is reasonable and objective, and willing to accept responsibility for problems, even if they aren’t responsible. Leadership that won’t let challenges affect the working relationships in the field. Leadership that has the courage to remove personnel who are ineffective or who do not have the interpersonal skills to work in a truly collaborative environment. Leadership that is confident enough, and well-respected enough, by their organizations that they can deliver “bad news” and take actions that are in the best interests of the project.
The reality is that human nature makes it easier for us to blame others rather than look inward about what we might have done to create the problem, or, even if we didn’t create the problem, to find a way to fix it and help out our fellow team members. It happens between owners and their prime contractors. It also happens, maybe even more frequently, between prime contractors and their subcontractors/subconsultants.
It is much harder to truly create and maintain a meaningful and lasting collaborative project environment. Is your project’s senior leadership really up for the task?
Mike Loulakis is an at-large director of the WDBC and provides project delivery, procurement, and contracting services to public owners on their capital projects. He is widely published on design-build topics and has been the author of Civil Engineering magazine’s “The Law” column since 1981. Mike can be reached at email@example.com.