Words by Naomi Shragai
We are all taught to believe in the power of collaboration, but what really drives the relationships that create our built environment?
They’re fragile units, the teams that come together for a short time to design and construct our built environment — regularly forced apart by egos, power struggles and even the technology that’s supposed to bring them together. Software tools such as building information modelling (BIM) are supposed to make collaboration easier, but they also exacerbate tensions around intellectual property and liability for failures, and threaten to overturn established power relations. Meanwhile, projects are becoming vast, global endeavours, often designed by networks of professionals around the world who may never meet in person. So what does all this mean for group dynamics and individual job satisfaction? Psychotherapist Naomi Shragai puts the construction industry on the couch …
“A masterpiece without a genius” is how Rem Koolhaas describes the Rockefeller Center in his book, Delirious New York. The description neatly summarizes the multitude of talents that contribute to buildings, from their conception to completion.
But as building projects have grown in scale and complexity, understanding what underpins successful collaboration has become more valuable than ever. While much attention is paid to the systems and procedures involved in the practice of design and construction, much less thought is given to the vital interpersonal relationships within these diverse teams.
For people bring much more than their professional expertise to the table. Teams comprise of individuals with their own psychologies, ambitions, emotions and interpersonal conflicts, their unique ways of making decisions, taking risks and tolerating complexity and uncertainty — which is why collaboration is potentially such a messy affair.
Three key elements for a successful collaboration
Collaboration can be successful as long as three factors are in place, according to David Archer, partner at consultancy Socia, which specializes in helping organizations with collaboration. The first involves the governance arrangements, including the legal contracts, which spell out accountability. The second is about having the correct operational process between parties. The last, and most important, is to ensure the right behaviour.
“This is like a three-legged stool,” Archer says. “If you have all three, then it’s stable on rough ground. If you pull one of those legs away, then it falls over. And often what we see is that people spend a lot of time on governance, quite a lot of time on process or systems, and not enough on behaviour. And that’s where the points of conflict often happen.”
One reason why conflict can arise is that projects, by their nature, start out as transactional relationships, where there is a clear and predictable agreement about what is expected. As building projects become increasingly complex, such relationships cease to be effective because changing economic and other factors force team members to adapt to new circumstances. “All the things you could have written into the contract will need to be changed, so you need a relationship which is much more symbiotic in order to deal with uncertainty,” says Archer.
In symbiotic relationships, individuals are mutually dependent on one another. This involves tolerating the varied stresses that such relationships inevitably bring. Issues of trust, dealing with conflicts and working with diversity become crucial. Those who are comfortable with dependency will feel more able to delegate and compromise. People who are anxious about it because they fear, often irrationally, that others will let them down, will struggle in symbiotic relationships. At the opposite extreme, those with more passive personalities, who are overly dependent, may rely too much on colleagues to get the job done.
“Compromise — the antithesis of synergy — will undermine the good ideas of a project and make its experience banal”Andrew Pressman, author "Designing Relationships"
Collaboration, not compromise
There is a danger that such passivity, and an over-willingness to compromise, can be confused with collaboration — a point that Andrew Pressman reflects on in his book, Designing Relationships: The Art of Collaboration in Architecture. “Collaboration shouldn’t be compromise,” he writes. “Compromise — the antithesis of synergy — will generally undermine the good ideas of a project and make its experience banal.”
Tensions are an inevitable part of collaboration and, if well managed, often lead to creative solutions. Knowing when to compromise and when to hold steadfast to one’s views is essential, not only to innovate but also to prevent “groupthink”. People should ask themselves: “Am I giving in simply to avoid disagreements, or is this for the good of the project?”
This is a very pertinent question in construction, where strong personalities and opinions are the norm. Collaboration can be particularly difficult for architects, according to one principal from a leading practice. “In architecture we are all trained to work alone,” he says. “Everybody is thinking about their credit, their ego. It’s very personal. When you’re collaborating you can’t bring that expectation to large projects.
“In architecture we are all trained to work alone. Everybody is thinking about their credit, their ego. It’s very personal”Andrew Pressman
“If you have individuals working for a team where it’s important to have personal recognition, there will be a lot of conflicts if they have that need for validation all the time. But if the project comes out well, and it makes the office look good, then we should all be happy.”
This is an important point — as Pressman points out, it can pay off to nurse an ego or two on a creative project. “A degree of narcissism, or confidence and even arrogance, helps to innovate and transcend mediocrity.”
Yet when collaboration is undermined, either by a silo mentality, a need for control or a lack of understanding of other people’s positions, the project will suffer.
Archer believes that a reluctance to share control is a significant factor that can undermine collaboration — particularly as project teams become dispersed around the globe. “In the construction world, the biggest factor in sharing control is sharing risk,” he says. “I know if I have control of risks I could manage them. To have to share control with someone who may come from a different organization, different culture, maybe speaks a different language — am I actually putting myself at risk in sharing control with them?”
One senior architect describes how an inability to share control with a construction team led to friction on a recent project. Again, the problems tended to revolve around authorship and ownership of risk: “The people working on it now in construction, they forget where it originated and it becomes their project,” he says. “And there’s a huge control thing because they weren’t around when the first ideas were discussed and developed.
“The way they gain authorship is to gain control of information, like making decisions during construction and not telling anyone else.”
There are myriad other reasons why tension might explode into open conflict on a construction project. Archer points out that different members of the team may favour different outcomes: “In a typical construction project the various parties will have different priorities. Some are completely time-driven, for some it’s quality of customer care and some are very focused on cost.” There may also be conflicts over capability, he adds, with one party doubting the ability of another.