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August 10, 2017

From Adversary to Partner: Managing Relationships in Construction Projects

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McKissack's Lisa Anders shares three core practices to help keep the peace while keeping a project moving forward.

The AEC industries are not for the faint-of-heart. Managing tight schedules, big budgets, and yes, big egos are part of our daily routine. Under the highly competitive conditions in which we frequently operate, many people are sometimes reluctant to show their cards. But once a project gets going, it’s time to put aside professional or philosophical differences and collaborate. Here are three core practices to help keep the peace while keeping a project moving forward:

  • ‍Partnering session. Getting stakeholders together and creating a plan to identify the custody chain of events (design, changes, approvals, etc.) is essential. This defines the roles and responsibilities of every partner, and sets the tone of the working relationships. If somebody assumes an adversarial stance – or a new partner joins the team – this document can be used as a baseline to help get everyone back on track.
  • Open communication channels. When disputes arise, instead of trying to resolve them in private, one-on-one sessions, convening all stakeholders will ensure that solutions are at the forefront of the conversation. This kind of transparency allows everyone to see what is important to each individual, and then this knowledge can be absorbed by the group. Such behavior builds trust. When trust levels are high, people tend to be less defensive and are more willing to share information to help find a mutually acceptable solution to a problem. If parties mistrust one another, they often act defensively, focusing solely on their own needs and interests.
  • Proactive planning. In my experience, owners who hire a project manager – before selecting an architect or contractor – are at a great advantage when it comes to avoiding conflict. Able to act as a neutral third party, a project manager is a real asset: a person who is strategically positioned to head off any compatibility or communication problems that arise on the team. A project manager is also instrumental in developing a plan that takes into account everyone’s roles and responsibilities and ensures the team is unified, with all partners moving in the same direction.

It’s not easy to challenge the traditionally combative culture of the construction industry. If you present people with reasonable and rational options to the ingrained blame game that pervades the business, you’ll earn the esteem of your colleagues and be recognized as a leader in the field.

Lisa Anders, LEED AP, is the Vice President of Business Development at McKissack & McKissack, an architecture, engineering, program, and construction management firm headquartered in Washington, D.C., She has 28 years of project and construction management experience in both the public and private sector markets. Over the course of her career, she has acquired extensive hands-on project management and field experience in all phases of programming: preconstruction, purchasing, construction administration, cost estimating, scheduling, contract negotiations, and project closeout. Lisa was the project executive for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as senior project manager for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

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