Monday, June 2, 2014

Breaking Down Disciplinary Silos

The Integrated Project Delivery movement is the latest attempt to solve an age-old problem in the A/E/C industry—the lack of adequate collaboration and coordination between technical disciplines. Our business has been accurately characterized as fragmented and inefficient, with productivity gains trailing other industries. Technological innovations such as BIM are helping close the gap, but much of the problem is rooted in a culture that promotes functional silos.

The challenge is daunting, but let's focus here on what you can control—how disciplines work together in your firm. Being a "full-service firm" is routinely touted as a competitive advantage, but in my experience multidisciplinary firms often struggle more in integrating disciplines than those that must team with other firms to offer a similar breadth of services. I suspect it's the greater sense of accountability felt between partnering firms than often exists among colleagues.

Whatever the reason, we can do better. Having worked over the years in trying to improve coordination between disciplines, let me offer the following suggestions:

Strengthen the project manager role. As the primary liaison between the client and your firm, the project manager is the most important member of the project team. Yet in many firms, project management is merely another department on the organization chart and it's unclear whether the PM or department heads are leading the charge. Clients expect PMs to have the authority to direct the project across disciplines regardless of your organizational structure. When departments fail to work together effectively, the lack of a strong PM is more often than not a principal cause.

Engage the different disciplines in project planning. This assumes that you really do project planning. I'm surprised how many firms I encounter that do little more than develop a task list, schedule, and budget. A proper project management plan describes not only what needs to be done, but how. And the how must include definition of how coordination will be handled between disciplines and other parties. Cross-disciplinary planning not only facilitates the working relationship, but combines differing perspectives and areas of expertise to shape the best possible solution and how it will be delivered.

Map work flow across the departments. Whenever I've helped firms or teams diagnose project delivery problems, I've always uncovered misunderstandings about what other departments needed or expected. The best way to expose these is to map work flow using a precedence diagram, which clearly illustrates the sequencing of tasks, decision points, dependencies, and critical paths in the schedule. You can do this based on generic project types or for a specific project—either as part of your planning (ideal) or in debriefing at the end.

Colocate the project team at key points during the project. Many firms (especially architectural firms) favor a studio model that brings project teams together on a long-term basis. That has distinct advantages in promoting coordination between disciplines. But I've seen success when project teams worked in the same space for short periods over the course of a project (particularly larger projects)—assuming you have space where this can happen. Collaboration is a natural byproduct of getting people together physically when working on the same project.

Hold regular project team meetings. Meetings deservedly have a bad reputation, so many PMs are reluctant to hold them, fearing they drive up costs without demonstrable benefit. But the right number of meetings that are well planned and facilitated help alleviate the coordination problems that are all too frequent when team communication is reduced. To control the cost of meetings, limit your agenda to items that are best addressed collectively, stick to your agenda in terms of the time, and stage participation when appropriate (dismissing people from the meeting as the discussion shifts to topics that don't really involve them).

Review interdisciplinary coordination during project debriefings. All significant projects should at least undergo a debriefing at the end, where the basic agenda is twofold: (1) How did we do? and (2) What can we do better next time? A good portion of that conversation should be devoted to how well the disciplines worked together. It's important to have the different departments represented, and to have an honest, but not overly critical, dialogue. Document the recommendations for improvement and share them as appropriate with the rest of the firm.

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