Fewer Siloes, More Fun: How Collaboration Fosters Engagement on Projects

By James T. Cicero | Nov 06, 2018

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In this post, I’m going to talk about something people might not associate with engineers: Feelings.

Let me give some background.

For the first 20 years of my career, all the projects I worked on used traditional delivery methods. I’d often find myself in meetings with contractors wondering what holes they were going to point out on my drawings and how I was going to defend my work. The environment was combative and tiring.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve had opportunities to work with design-assist and other collaborative project delivery methods. You know what? These projects have been a lot more fun. Working on a team toward the same goal is extraordinarily satisfying.

I’ve also found these projects far more engaging than traditional delivery methods. And in an industry where we’re struggling to attract and retain great people, can we afford to overlook engagement?

So what is it about collaborative project delivery that makes it more fun?

Here are three qualities.

We Focus on Common Goals

Common goals are an important component of successful collaborative project delivery. There are two parts to this.

First, what are the goals for the team?

According to Gallup, knowing what is expected of you at work is a basic component of employee engagement (Source: State of the American Workplace).

For the AEC industry, collaborative project delivery is a new way of doing things. At the outset of the project, it’s helpful to talk about the team. What is the team’s mission? What are common goals and metrics? How can we collaborate and improve as a team? In my experience, and in talking with colleagues, this process helps build incredible trust among team members.

Second, what are the goals for the project?

As a team, we need to know what we’re trying to accomplish.

For example, everybody has a different view of what quality is and how to achieve it. Are you building a Chevy or a Ferrari? Both will last 15 years, but they’re very different products.

With a collaborative delivery method, you talk about a quality project. You create metrics. You can get people on the same page. When expectations are clear, the team has something to work towards.

Further, if you feel as though you are working on something that is meaningful, chances are you will take more ownership in the project.

According to Rodd Wagner, a New York Times best-selling author who writes about employee engagement, showing employees the connection between their work and larger business success reinforces a sense of purpose (Source: “Why Meaningful Work Trumps Money”).

Working on a project with purpose is a different experience than working on a floor plan on a white sheet of paper.

How many times have you started on a project, and the only goals that you were made aware of were to get it done as soon as possible and for the least amount of money possible? Now that’s motivation, especially if this is the umpteenth time you have heard that for a project’s goals.

Wouldn’t it be nice to understand how this project is going to affect the owner’s business model? Wouldn’t it be nice to know how this project will affect the community? These real-life drivers help motivate the team to a different level.

We Are Invited to Contribute

People want to know they’re being heard.

We all have stories of not having a voice, even if we have a solution, because it’s “not our place” to speak up.

A friend in the contracting world was in a project meeting where ceiling types were being discussed. The architect really wanted the look of a certain ceiling. From previous experience, my friend understood what the issues with that ceiling were and what they would have to deal with during construction, but he didn’t say anything because it was not his “official” area of expertise.

The same kind of thing can happen when a client wants a certain brand of equipment. Based on our experience, we might know the issues that other clients have had with that brand and believe the client would be better off with a different brand. But if a client is insistent and not interested in other options, and their preference will not cause harm (even if it may cause hassle), we might choose to keep our mouths shut.

That doesn’t feel good.

That also doesn’t keep people engaged. According to research on workplace communication, employees who don’t speak their minds are also less engaged. On the flip side, employees who speak their minds are more engaged (Source: The State of Miscommunication: 6 Insights on Effective Workplace Communication). And organizations with engaged employees, according to Gallup, are also more productive and profitable (Source: State of the American Workplace).

In a collaborative project environment, the owner (or project lead) has laid out different ground rules than in a traditional project environment. They invite team members to be active contributors. They expect team members to be part of the solution, specifically as a team.

With a collaborative approach, I’ve found that people feel much more at ease speaking up. For example, on one design-assist healthcare renovation, we were designing a replacement air handling unit. The unit was serving the renovated area along with a 24/7 inpatient care area. Our solution offered minimal downtime, but we still needed 4–6 hours to transition from the old to the new unit.

When walking the jobsite prior to the changeover, one of the mechanical trade workers suggested an approach that would reduce the transition time from 4–6 hours to 1–2 hours. The team quickly saw this was a viable solution, and we shifted gears.

Under traditional delivery methods, this trade worker would probably have kept his solution to himself, since he wasn’t part of the design team. Yet his know-how allowed the team to reduce downtime by more than half.

Projects are far more satisfying when you know your voice matters and when you feel you can make meaningful contributions. And as organizational management expert David Cooperrider said at the 2018 Cogence Town Hall, when individuals feel they matter, that drives ownership.

We Find Solutions Together

With collaborative project delivery, people get out of their siloes and into the same room.

We develop ideas together. An idea that I might have thought of and dismissed (especially if it’s outside my discipline), I bring to the table instead. The atmosphere is completely different.

In fact, working collaboratively can help teams produce better solutions. According to research, in groups where there’s a lot of conversation and people are equally able to participate, you tend to find more collective intelligence (Source: Humans Could Be Smarter In Groups, If Their Groups Had These Features).

I’ve also found that the team environment encourages people to develop their ideas, because others are around and encouraging you to be on the forefront. It adds another level of motivation. I don’t want to let my team members down. I don’t want to be the only one on the team who’s not contributing. That positive pressure helps get the juices flowing.

Effective collaboration can also reduce stress for everyone on the team. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, for the first 20 years of my team I found myself in some pretty stressful, high-conflict situations. I was on one side of the table, and the contractor was on the other.

With methods like design-assist, we’re on the same side of the table. We’re looking at the design together to fill in any holes (whether from hidden conditions, means and methods, or other causes), which produces a much smoother construction process. If we later discover any holes during construction, we’re in a better position to close the hole. Because the contractors were involved during design, they work with us to resolve the issue with as little cost impact as possible. We aren’t in conflict with one another.

When the designers and contractors aren’t in conflict, there’s less stress. When change orders are limited, because the design is thorough and the team collaborated, the owner feels much less stress. It’s good for everyone.

Another component that goes with finding solutions together is celebrating team successes.

During the course of a typical project, individual team members may have done some incredible things. They may have developed a clever design solution, saved the project money, or caught a mistake. Many times, under the traditional model, their achievement goes unnoticed because other team members are focused on their own role for the project.

With a collaborative project approach, team members often brainstorm solutions together. When someone offers a unique solution that improves the project, their teammates see and acknowledge it. When we celebrate successes, we help create an environment that people enjoy working in.

So much of our work focuses on creating places for people to experience life at its fullest. We create places for collaboration, because we believe that collaboration has value. Shouldn’t we deliver projects in a similar way?

Cicero Jim Web

James T. Cicero

Jim Cicero is President of Karpinski Engineering. While his focus is leading the firm and managing its growth, he remains an electrical engineer at heart and enjoys digging into new engineering challenges.
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