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AIA: building transparency: straight talk in the A/E/C community

Let’s face it: there is always room to improve project team communication. The industry as a whole is making progress, but a handful of remaining barriers and myths prevent owners, architects, contractors, and others from excelling in this market. This universal hurdle was the focus of the full-day forum on January 9, AIA: Building Transparency: Straight Talk in the A/E/C Community. Presentations from various firm leaders, including GLY’s COO Mark Kane, provided insight on how to forge stronger relationships for more enjoyable, innovative, and profitable projects. Read on for my top three takeaways from this great AIA forum.


1. Focus on the identity, mindset and structure of a group when building a project team, said Keynote Speaker Dr. Michael Johnson, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Washington.

Identity [how teams define themselves]: Our sense of self always overlaps with the team. We have multiple identities and being able to identify with a group has emotional significance. The degree to which our personal identify overlaps with the group’s identity will have an effect on communication, cooperation, coordination, satisfaction and performance. So, the more we identify and connect with a group, the better! 

Want to increase team identification? Decrease group size, increase time members spend together, stimulate competition with other groups, give rewards to the GROUP and not to individuals, and physically isolate the group.

Mindset [how team members view their abilities]: Our ability mindset can be fixed or growth-focused. Those with a fixed mindset tend to believe their abilities are inherent, or fixed traits. These people often want to prove themselves and focus on winning. Those with a growth mindset believe that through hard work, education and constantly challenging themselves, they can improve their abilities. Fixed mindsets tend to have a negative impact on team collaboration. How do you create growth mindsets? Create a work environment where people feel they can take interpersonal risks. Don’t resent or punish team members for making honest mistakes or asking for help. As a leader, practice humility.

Structure [social architecture of a team]: Sometimes, the slightest tweak in team structure encourages more collaboration. Task Structure refers to how work is assigned across the team. Who relies on who? There are four types: pooled, sequential, reciprocal and comprehensive.

  • Pooled structures require the lowest level of coordination. Members act independently and then work simply piles up to produce group output [i.e. swim meet].
  • Sequential structures require tasks to be done in a prescribed order [i.e. assembly line].
  • Reciprocal structures require members to perform specific task, but members interact with each other to complete the work [i.e. food service staff].
  • Comprehensive structures require the highest level of team member interaction and coordination [i.e. a symphony].

There is no right or wrong structure, but there are structures that work best in certain scenarios. How do you enhance team structure in the A/E/C world? Choose structures that encourage collaboration.

In the A/E/C Mythbusters panel discussion, “Not the Usual Suspects”, three A/E/C panelists representing the architectural [Walter Schacht], structural [Jon Magnusson], and construction [Mark Kane] worlds answered questions about industry processes and practices that help or hinder project teams’ best work. The group touched on the ongoing development of Integrated Project Delivery [IPD], its transformation into what it is today and where it’s headed.

As the IPD approach continues in its adoption period, it’s important to recognize the teams involved and understand each member is integral to success. Key to IPD success is:

  • Go slow to go fast – know what the owner wants and create reasonable and specific fees / deliverables around this.
  • Early team involvement – great outcomes start in the design and precon while having a common end goal.
  • Trust + Respect – team members need this and it starts with the owner. Don’t be artificial.
  • Risk – fees, documentation, technology all play into this and need to be open and transparent for team success.
  • Teaming approaches in AEC – from generational to technical.
  • Modular or component buildings – we need to work and deliver basic building blocks for humanity for less money but with greater efficiency.
  • A sophisticated, experienced, and involved owner = best results. Without these could result in adverse cost / timing effects on the project.

In “Show me the Money!” Jay Halleran and Dan Peyovich discussed their business models—what works and what can be harmful. A company’s success relies heavily on an Owner’s characteristics, personality and work ethic. While some of these may seem like no-brainers, it’s important as a leader to keep them in mind:

  • Trustworthy + Respectful
  • Accountable
  • Knowledgeable
  • Humble
  • Include Precon in Contract – So Owners Get What They Pay For
  • Involve Teams in Project As Early As Possible
  • Outline What Success Looks Like
  • Instead of Beating the Stick, Dangle the Carrot

In the morning discussion “Not the Usual Suspects,” panelists explored non-traditional strategies firms take to build strong and successful project team members. One strategy is outsourcing specialty services. Design firms are outsourcing CD documents offshore. At GLY, we are looking into the potential for doing more in house and pushing deeper into the early coordination effort.

This made me think … in the end, are we doing more for less? In regards to cost, we might not be spending less, but the benefit is the high level of upfront coordination that takes place. We virtually build more before boots are on the ground and hammers are swinging. We push the Think. Plan. Build. mantra and are actively doing this with our self-performed work. However, how do all our subcontractors approach modeling? MEP trades are using it to increase efficiency, why not the partition, CMU, misc. steel, rebar, etc. subcontractor teams? Everyone is adopting new technologies differently but at what cost and to what extent? Is more less, or less more?