Monday, October 27, 2014

Collaboration as Competitive Advantage?

The concept of a collaborative planning and design process is hardly novel. In fact, it sounds so commonsensical that it hardly seems worth promoting. Except for the fact that it is so needed in our industry.

Fragmented is a popular adjective to describe the AEC industry. It's easy to point out the adversarial relationship that often exists between designer and contractor. But designers make their own substantial contribution to the lack of collaboration among project parties. This is true even when the different disciplines reside under one roof.

Consider some of the evidence: Half of construction change orders, according to RediCheck's Bill Nigro, are due to coordination errors in the design phase. His research found an average of five coordination errors per contract drawing! Anecdotal evidence suggests that rework consumes 10-20% of project design budgets, with improper sequencing of work between disciplines being the most common cause.

We've all witnessed that last one. For example, since the electrical department is anxious to get started (their workload being light), the architectural department pushes work to that group before floor plans are finalized. When the preliminary floor plans are revised, the electrical engineers have to redo their design to reflect the changes.

Another example from my time with environmental firms: Geologists plan and execute a remedial investigation of a contaminated site. Their findings are passed on to the risk assessment staff who determine that they don't have all the data they need to do their work. The field crew goes back to the site to collect more information. Later the engineers get involved and find they need still more site data to design the remediation system. More samples, more costs.

These are hardly isolated situations; in my experience, they're quite common. Inefficiency due to the lack of an interdisciplinary collaborative process is prevalent in our industry. More typical is a compartmentalized, sequential approach where work flows from discipline to discipline with coordination limited largely to the points of handoff. What's needed is an interdisciplinary team that together guides the work through planning, design, construction, and startup.

This need has been the driver for the emergence of Integrated Project Delivery, which involves the owner, designer, contractor, and potentially others entering into a single, multiparty contract that forces the parties to collaborate. But the onerous contract terms have scared most parties away from using IPD. Interesting, isn't it, that the goal of better cooperation—the need for which we can all agree upon—is thought to be attainable only through contractual coercion. 

Why can't your firm create and market its own collaborative process without having to resort to compelling parties to participate? Everyone is a winner when better collaboration is achieved, so it should be relatively easy to sell in concept. The difficulty comes in overcoming the culture of competition that has characterized the AEC industry for decades. What can you do? A few suggestions:

Start with mastering collaboration among your own staff. I've helped many firms address internal coordination issues over the years. The genesis of the problem is usually structural—how offices and departments are organized and incentivized. Look here for obstacles to collaboration. I've written about breaking down disciplinary silos previously, as well as removing competition among offices by going to a single profit center.

The secret to better collaboration is rethinking the usual sequential approach to planning and design, and getting parties engaged throughout. Designers can help strengthen planning. Planners can bring a valuable perspective to design. Architectural schematic design can be improved by early engineering input. Construction specialists can help designers reduce costs and improve constructability. And so on.

Commit to integrated project planning. All the relevant disciplines and stakeholders should have input into planning the work. Unfortunately, the work is often planned in stages (if at all!), with the different parties contributing only to the stage that directly involves them. No collective vision emerges, nor a shared understanding of precisely what each party needs to make the project successful. The more disciplines and stakeholders involved in the project, the more opportunities for disconnects when proper planning is neglected.

Strengthen collaboration with regular teaming partners. On several occasions, I've had the opportunity to help firms improve their working relationship with other firms—either with familiar teaming partners or members of a design-build team. The process always reveals some valuable, previously unknown insights about what each party needs from the other to be more successful. This happens even when the firms have extensive experience working together. They had simply never taken the time to explore how to make the working relationship even better.

Some areas to focus on: Aligned project goals, project planning, sequencing of work tasks, lines of communication, decision making, roles and responsibilities, interim deliverables, coordinated quality control, addressing problems, and delivering great client service.

Advocate for partnering sessions with design-build teams. Ideally, these should involve the owner and key members of the design and construction teams. The scope of discussion will be much the same as above, but make sure you start with goal alignment. I typically send the owners, designers, and builders to their respective corners and have them define success for the project. The goals emerging from each group are always different, sometimes in significant ways. Aligning these goals is critical to creating the environment for effective collaboration in other aspects of the project.

Sell clients on the benefits of your collaborative process. Most clients still favor the traditional project delivery model that promotes competition between partners. They seem to think it offers checks and balances that hold the parties more accountable. But the truth is that it dramatically reduces productivity—increasing costs, schedules, and headaches. Of course, the contractual relationship between planning, design, and construction partners may prevent you from extending your collaborative process over the full scope of the project.

But you can promote the advantages of that which you can control—if you have the evidence that it works. So it's vital that you compile data that demonstrate the benefits of collaboration. Start collecting this information now as a baseline, then compare it to the results that come from a more integrated project approach. Once you can demonstrate the advantages within your realm, you'll be in a stronger position to promote it from start to finish.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why You Should Consider Splitting the PM Role

Could your firm use a few more good project managers? It's a tough job and the really capable ones are in short supply. If only you could stretch your best PMs across more projects. Well you can.

Here's how: Divide the PM responsibilities among two people. Create one role that handles the higher-value aspects of project management—serving as primary liaison with the client, developing project strategy, leading the project team, ensuring adequate resource allocation, providing technical oversight, and responding to problems that may arise.

Create a second role that handles the more mundane tasks that occupy most of the PM's time, such as coordinating activities among team members, monitoring work progress, tracking budget and schedule performance, and carrying out other administrative duties normally reserved for the PM. In my experience, these tasks consume 60-70% of the PM's time on a project.

For this arrangement to work well, let me offer a couple suggestions: First, save this practice for your larger projects where there are significant project management hours to divide. Second, don't call either person the project manager. Whenever you're creating a new role (or service, process, etc.), call it by a different name. Some of my clients attempted this by adding the position of assistant PM. But their PMs tended to approach their job much as usual, relegating the assistant PM to mostly menial administrative tasks. I prefer the titles of project leader and project coordinator to distinguish the two roles from current practice.

So why should you consider doing this? There are several benefits:

Enable your PMs to work on more projects. Most A/E firms suffer from having too few good PMs. It limits their ability to win more work, creates bottlenecks in the work flow, and results in more project problems and lost profits. By splitting the PM role into two, you extend the capacity of your current PMs. They spend fewer hours per project, allowing them not only to work on more projects but give greater focus to the higher-value elements of those projects that really require their skill and experience.

Deliver better value to your clients. Clients love this arrangement because they're paying more appropriate rates for the PM tasks performed. Much of the work a $130-an-hour PM typically does on a project can be capably performed by a junior professional under appropriate supervision at $80-90. The savings can even enable principals and other senior managers to take on a more active role in your most important projects (see below). 

Distinguish your firm from the competition. Because this approach appeals to clients, it becomes a significant competitive advantage in winning new work. Your firm is probably the only one offering it. When we first created the project leader/project coordinator roles at my former firm, we were pursuing work with a new client where the key decision maker had a previous relationship with one of our principals—when he was still managing projects. We gave him the role as project leader and won the job. Our project coordinator then performed most of the PM tasks at half the principal's rate. I believe this arrangement also contributed to several subsequent big wins for our firm across the country.

Provide hands-on training to your future PMs. One of the things I am most proud of from my time as operations manager is my role in helping prepare our younger professionals become the competent PMs they are today. They benefited from serving as project coordinators, where they performed the bulk of PM tasks without the risk of taking on the more difficult aspects of the role. They did so under the guidance of the project leader who also showed them how to handle the high-end elements of project management.

If you're wondering if this approach might benefit your firm, I'd encourage you to try it on a project or two. Pick a PM—hence project leader—who is willing to embrace the new role. Be sure to clarify the division of responsibilities (which may vary by project) and carefully track the results. Even if you split the PM role only occasionally, it's a strategy worthy of your consideration.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Beware of Misusing Personality Assessments

Years ago I came the closest I've been to leaving the A/E business when I became a finalist for the national sales manager position with the country's largest commercial wildflower seed distributor. Apparently the company was impressed with my business development background, but they expressed concern about my lack of related technical expertise. The other finalist was a botanist who had a limited sales background.

At a follow-up interview, I was asked to take a personality test. A few days later I was told that I didn't get the job because my personality profile indicated I was less suited for sales than the other finalist. That was my first experience with the misuse of personality assessments.

The use of personality testing to screen employment candidates has exploded in recent years, with an estimated 60-70% of candidates being tested. That's up from 30-40% just five years ago, according to a survey by Deloitte. Workplace personality testing has become a $500 million-a-year business and is growing 10-15% annually.

Such growth would suggest that these tests have a proven track record. But that's not the case. Research indicates that personality typing is a poor predictor of job performance or fit. Even the company behind Myers-Briggs, the most popular personality assessment, warns that their test shouldn't be used to screen potential employees. Besides being unproven as a hiring tool, they believe that it's use in this manner is unethical because it's not voluntary.

Myers-Briggs and similar tests have a fundamental flaw: They attempt to lump people into mutually exclusive categories. For example, you are either an introvert or an extrovert. But most people fall somewhere in between (hence the recent term ambivert). The dividing line between the two is arbitrary, as it would be if all of us were categorized as either short or tall.

There are also serious questions about the replicability of the tests. For example, studies have found that retaking the Myers-Briggs assessment as soon as just five weeks later has a 50% chance of reclassifying you as a different personality type. Reproducibility, of course, is a key measure of scientific validity. But the fact is that the science behind these tests is sketchy at best.

Even if personality tests were accurate, the assumption that certain personality types are a better fit for certain jobs is largely a myth. A salesperson, according to conventional wisdom, should be an extrovert—which conveniently excuses most technical professionals from the role since they are predominantly introverted. Except that studies have shown little to no correlation between personality type and sales success. Same is generally true of leaders.

Despite the above criticisms, personality assessments do have their place. They can be useful in helping us recognize our personality tendencies and how they compare with those we work with—assuming they agree to share that information. This awareness can help us significantly improve communication and collaboration.

Identifying employees' personal strengths is also very valuable. Gallup research has found that focusing on developing strengths is a much better way to improve performance than the more common approach of trying to remediate weaknesses. I'm a fan of the StrengthsFinder assessment that came out of the Gallup research. It is used by many of the world's leading companies.

With any of these assessment tools, however, you want to avoid the temptation to oversimplify. I think that's one of the primary reasons personality typing is so popular, because it seems to reduce the complexities of human personality down to a few understandable categories. But such a "paint by the numbers" approach to leadership is naive. People are not so easily pigeon-holed, which makes us both fascinating and sometimes a bit frustrating to figure out.

A shortcut to understanding others would be welcome, but none are really proven.