December 5, 2022

One Project, One Team: How to Set Collaborative Expectations on Projects – Part 3

At Miller Valentine Construction, we use a number of delivery methods — but all of our work is grounded in collaborative principles. This four-part series explains what collaboration means in the construction industry and how we pursue it. This article explains how to establish collaborative expectations.

In traditional contracting methods, power flows downhill. An owner decrees a vision, then hands it off to an architect or construction manager, who assembles trade partners, suppliers, and so forth. Each link in the chain is distanced from the owner, and their influence is diluted by that space.

Because the relationship is built on uneven ground, partners are reluctant to share information, especially about financial factors such as labor rates or profit. And issues are kept quiet until they become problems.

None of those habits breeds success.

Shutdowns and labor shortages made it clear: everyone on the project matters. Without full and dedicated teams of project partners, none of the work gets done. But that’s not a reason to “tighten the screws” and exert more power over the project team. Instead, owners can collaborate.

The best way to start a collaborative relationship is at the beginning, long before construction begins. Setting expectations at the front end has cumulative effects and ensures you have the right partners on the job.

To set collaborative expectations:

  • At the owner level, make sure internal stakeholders are aligned first. Often, end users have different priorities than the finance or accounting folks do. The owner has to define a single, overarching version of success before they can invite others to share it.
  • Sharing is key. In a collaborative approach, owners aren’t asking architects and trade partners to “go do it.” They’re inviting them to create something together. Collaborative projects aren’t 100% designed at the selection phase, and owners should welcome input from multiple stakeholder groups.
  • Collaborative owners establish selection criteria for the partner team, not an absolute price. Instead of asking for a number, ask partners how they work or how they would assemble a team. Look for signals that partners are a good fit for the team culture. Collaboration can attract diverse teams, but everyone needs to have the same attitude about collaboration.
  • Once a team is selected, bring everyone to the table to define success for the project. Ask every participant how they would define and measure a successful venture. Every participant should get the chance to co-create the final scope and schedule. Then, you can create a path where everyone has a role, understands their contribution, and is shooting for the same outcome.
  • Reinforce a culture of psychological safety, where partners feel free to contribute. In collaborative models, the goal isn’t to break down siloes it’s to connect them. Make sure everyone knows and feels that their expertise is valued. Trust is a critical element of collaboration.

Selecting the right team yields the greatest possible benefits once you break ground. Sometimes that’s the best price, but collaboration often delivers even more. As McKinsey & Company documented, collaboration can reduce complexity, lower cost and improve efficiency.

Collaboration can also prevent schedule growth, according to a project delivery study by the Construction Industry Institute (CII) that was presented at the 2021 Construction Industry Roundtable. CII researchers analyzed 96 construction projects. Based on participants’ responses, they concluded collaborative approaches were better at staying on schedule, especially on projects with tight milestones or complex components.

Collaborative contracting drives value by eliminating “cut and run” handoffs. When everyone is clear on the deliverable and invested in the outcome, they’re incentivized to deliver a better product. It pays to be on the same page.

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