Posted in practice on September 15, 2015 12:57 pm EDT

Talking Business: Working Together (Effectively)

7 key points on productive partnerships among multiple creative disciplines.











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By Christian Doering

What was the last project you started, continued and completed entirely on your own, without any form of outside input, assistance or cooperation? If it was anything much more involved than a load of laundry, I’d be surprised. In the real world, and particularly in the world of architecture, construction and engineering, nothing gets done without partnership.

In the real world, and particularly in the world of architecture, construction and engineering, nothing gets done without partnership.

Usually, multiple partnerships are required to get from design to delivery. An architect will usually work with outside consultants such as structural engineers, lighting and audiovisual designers, HVAC and mechanical engineers. A general contractor will have several specialist subcontractors.

In the heat of a difficult moment, it’s easy to forget that nothing gets done without collaboration, but that’s probably the most important time to remember this simple fact. We can’t always choose our partners, but many of us act as if we could. If you’re facing some challenges midstream, remember your alternatives: make things work with the people in place, or abandon the project.

1. Partnership and partnering are fundamental requirements for getting the job done.

2. Define both collective and individual goals at the outset.

3. Identify mutual dependencies between project team members. Define deliverables and negotiate scheduling conflicts as early as possible.

4. Do your best to align priorities and incentives.

5. Be aware of differences in work styles and make necessary adjustments to different ways of getting the job done.

6. When problems arise, deal with them in the context of shared goals: partner, or fail.

7. Make the client a member of the team, but never, ever sabotage another team member in a client meeting.

Dissection of the term “partnership”

Partnership is essential, but it’s a means, not an end in itself. Just being a cooperative “team player” is not enough. Neither are project websites, Building Information Modeling (BIM) data-driven drawing programs and other computerized tools. They can facilitate partnerships, but can’t create or maintain them—only people can do that. A good way to start is by getting cards on the table. The whole project team needs to know what each member wants, and understand why. This is called aligning priorities, and it’s best done as early in the process as possible. You need to give this more than lip service: incentives and risk need to be balanced between the collective and the individual.

Once you know the goal—where we’re all going—you can start to figure out how to get there. What are the key pieces? Who’s going to take responsibility for delivering each one, and when? What does each team need from the others? When does the HVAC designer need to know how many watts of lighting and projection will be operating in the space? When can the AVL designer provide that piece of information? Map out a sequence of deadlines with cross-discipline input targets and the form of information required. There will be pushback before you can come to agreements, but it’s much better to have these discussions as part of a planning process rather than in the midst of the workflow. Defining goals and milestones clearly at the start provides a reference point for discussion and negotiation later on in the process. It helps everyone understand that while no individual may get everything he or she wants, together you can all get something that everyone wants.

The art of working together

Aligning visions and incentives and scheduling interlocking deliverables is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. You still have to actually work together. The members of each firm involved in the project have learned to do this: at least, we certainly hope they have. If not, they are going to have trouble meeting their deadlines, which puts them in danger of letting the other partners down on the job.

But let’s assume that each firm has learned how to function internally. There are many ways of doing that, and it’s important to know what your firm’s is and how it differs from other, perhaps equally effective company cultures. Does your company celebrate individual achievements, and reward star performers? Is it OK to express disagreement? Your company culture is on the individualistic end of the spectrum. At the other end, in collective cultures, it’s hard for an outsider to figure out who the “players” really are: influential people tend to operate behind the scenes. Collective companies have group rituals like eating lunch together. Expressing disagreement tends to make everyone uncomfortable, even those who aren’t directly involved.

Companies on the extremes of the individualistic / collective continuum can work together, but they must adapt their working styles in order to do so. A collectivistic coming into a meeting at an individualistic company will have to tolerate open disagreements, and will need to remember to acknowledge individual results.

In the reverse situation, the individualist will have to tread very carefully when disagreeing with a collectivist counterpart: that’s a good way to turn the whole firm against you and possibly derail your partnership. Don’t single out particular employees for praise, either. If you need to point out a problem, don’t point to any particular person as the cause: this group succeeds or fails together, not as independent operators.  continued >>