Team Relationships on Collaborative Projects: What’s So Different?

By James T. Cicero and Rocco Gallo | Jul 31, 2018

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Featuring Sara Bidar, Natasa Cekic, James Dudt, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Matt Morgan, LEED AP BD+C, and Matt Nutter, PE

In the AEC industry, we’re always hearing, “It’s all about the relationships.” What does that look like on a design-assist project? What difference does it make?

In this post, we’re again turning to members of the Karpinski Engineering team who’ve worked with design-assist: Sara Bidar, Natasa Cekic, James Dudt, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Matt Morgan, PE, LEED AP BD+C, and Matt Nutter, PE. (You can learn more about each of them and read their first post here.)

They talk about five specific areas of relationship building that help collaborative project teams excel.

Developing Relationships Early Pays Off

Typically, design and construction teams have little interaction. The construction team has nothing to do with design, and the design team is present during construction primarily to clarify the design and to answer any questions. There is no real collaboration between the two parties.

With design-assist, though, the construction team begins contributing to the project during design.

As a result, Natasa said, “We get more face-to-face time, and we create relationships. It’s more comfortable.”

Then, when there are questions or issues on the project, “We’ve developed trust.”

Another benefit? “You get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

With trust and solid relationships, the team is able to work through issues or questions more easily and keep the project moving forward. Which ties into the second point.

Don’t Come Without a Collaborative Attitude

For design-assist to succeed, team members need to do more than pay lip service to collaboration. They need to embrace the give-and-take of a collaborative project environment.

James Dudt talked about the relationship between designers and contractors on design-assist projects.

For designers, James said, “You have to be open to the challenge. You’ve got to be willing to listen to your teammates’ ideas, and you have to be willing to communicate design intent. The attitude of ‘I draw, you build’ doesn’t work.”

Similarly, for contractors, “The attitude of ‘I build what you draw’ doesn’t work. As a designer, I want input from you so I’m drawing what you’re actually going to build.”

“If you have a good design-assist partner,” James said, “They’re seeking to understand the project goals first, and then they’re challenging what you’re doing to make it better. A good design-assist partner is someone who actually becomes part of the team and is both reviewing and providing me feedback on the projects we’re doing together.”

A Purposeful and Engaged Owner Makes an Impact

When using design-assist or other collaborative delivery models, the owner sets the course for the team. James believes that one of owner’s responsibilities is “to create a collaborative environment for your team to work in.”

Sara Bidar commented that, conversely, if the owner doesn’t participate in the collaborative environment, the rest of the team will have a more difficult time.

For Matt Nutter, who worked on two projects that used design-build with design-assist, both the owner’s rep and the design-build firm provided strong leadership. He credits them with setting the tone and keeping the project team on track in terms of collaboration.

Previous Experience with Design-Assist Is an Advantage

Not surprisingly, experience with design-assist helps a team perform well.

“The more experience you have with design-assist, the better you’re going to be,” said Matt Morgan.

Similarly, working with the same team from one project to the next can benefit teams and projects. Matt worked with the same mechanical contractor on two design-assist projects for the same owner. During the design phase of the second project, he said, “We were pushing the envelope” in terms of collaboration, workflow, and project responsibilities.

Matt Nutter had a similar experience. As he finished one substantial project and moved on to the next, most of the project team was the same.

“We were able to hit the ground running. Everyone knew everyone,” he said.

But, as Matt Morgan said, you can’t expect to have the same team on every job. When new design-assist partners join a project, “We all understand there’s going to be learning.”

The Contract Facilitates Collaborative Relationships

The contract is an important part of collaborative project delivery. It defines the relationships among and expectations for team members.

Both Natasa and Matt Nutter worked on projects where the whole team was on the same contract working for the same entity.

“Contracts make a difference,” Natasa said. “Usually we have a design team and a construction team. In this case, there aren’t two teams. They’re all one team because they’re all working for the same person.”

For Matt Nutter, the contract freed the team to resolve issues more quickly. Rather than going through the lengthy RFI process and waiting for questions to travel through layers of project hierarchy, he said, “The contractor would call me directly, and we would work through the question or issue.”

Early relationship development, collaborative attitudes, an engaged owner, previous experience, and a collaboration-oriented contract: These five ingredients combine for a strong, empowered team.

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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Gallo Rocco Web

Rocco Gallo

Karpinski Principal Rocco Gallo brings a sense of teamwork to projects. As a leader, he prioritizes people, helping connect them to the resources they need.
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