In many presentations, I have asked these questions:
“How many of you consider yourselves to be effective collaborators?” (Most people raise their hands)
“How many of you have worked with someone who wasn’t an effective collaborator? (Everyone raises their hands)
“And if those people were in the room today, how many of them would say they are effective collaborators? (Everyone laughs)
What appears to be funny at first, is the symptom of a fundamental issue: we have no common, shared understanding of exactly what effective collaboration looks like, or how to do it.
We work on group projects throughout our life, in school, in our communities, and in our workplaces. And we get them done somehow because one or two people take over the lead and push through. Often, this is not easy, and rarely what we’d call “effective.” We rather muddle through.
With very few exceptions, at no point in our education or careers, do we have someone watching us, stopping our collective work, and saying “What you just did was (or wasn’t) supportive collaborative behavior.”
So it’s not a surprise when teams in the workplace struggle. But we can do better!
Why Lean is your ticket to wellness
Businesses spend massive amounts of resources trying to solve symptoms rather than the causes of problems. As medicine tells us, this isn’t the smartest way to go about solving chronic issues, we are always better off trying to dig down to the root causes, address the problem at its source, alleviating and eliminating symptoms and moving to wellness instead of an elusive “cure."
Collaborative methodologies, such as Lean IPD, are helpful in understanding causes versus symptoms. Research has shown that most project owners are not explicit about their goals. They express their goals in terms of solutions. And the first step an architect has to do is reverse-engineer this list from the owner to better understand the problems that the owner is actually trying to solve. This is usually a difficult process.
One of the benefits in a collaborative environment is that the team can challenge and question the owner from multiple directions and perspectives to get a better understanding of the business case, which results in a group of people focused on providing an optimum solution for the owner, and a much stronger solution can emerge eventually. In other words, we can collectively arrive at a clearer state of problem definition than in traditionally tendered projects.
The team needs to agree
What’s pivotal, though, is that the project team comes to agreement. Because once we have this consensus, we can put procedures in place to better hold everyone accountable to the same standards: a common, shared understanding, or common purpose, driven by the owner’s business case.
Common principles of collaboration that teams can center themselves around include:
Change your mind, change your culture
This shift requires fundamental changes in behavior. It requires a change in workplace culture, which is not easy, as most people are initially change-resistant. Collaborative behavior is not in our cultural DNA. We are by nature (or maybe more by nurture) inclined to forge ahead toward a solution as soon as we are presented with a problem. Whereas in a collaborative culture, there’s an immediate pause, a space of mindfulness, a questioning of who else needs to be included, involved, or consulted.
An even bigger challenge lies in our interpretations of what our definitions of collaboration mean. When I say “active listening” or “respect,” it is very likely that your specific understanding of what those terms mean is somewhat different than mine. These differences in understanding influence thinking and behavior, and can undermine effective collaborative work.
In the end, it all comes down to language.
Language is the fundamental currency for any relationship. We are challenged because many times what we say, or what we think we say, is not exactly what we mean. Similarly, what we hear is not always what we thought we heard. We can dramatically improve the flow of understanding by being more rigorous in making sure we are on common ground with the words we use and the meanings we intend.
Collaboration right from the start is crucial for success because our projects in the AEC space are complex and everything is connected. Small changes can have far-reaching effects with unintended consequences. One decision can have long-reaching implications that may not be understood. Read more in my article The Impact of One Decision in Your Lean Project Team.
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