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Commentary: Tips for Achieving World-Class Project Teamwork

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The excuses. I have heard them all by now: “You’ve got to have good people to have a good team” or “You can’t have a high performance team on a public, low-bid project” or “There has to be sufficient resources and funding.”

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Consider that great or world-class project teamwork has little to do with your project’s circumstances. Rather, it is about how your team deals with those circumstances—as a team.

On Caltrans and Kiewit-Pacific’s $700-million Benicia-Martinez Bridge, the geotechnical conditions found were at variance with the geo-tech report.  This led to an enormous change order that delayed the project for well over a year.

Was this team a failure? I say “no.” They quickly and fairly negotiated a complex change order, agreed on an aggressive partnership completion goal and hit it. The project was named Road and Bridge’s “Bridge of the Year” and won a Marvin Black Award for partnering excellence from AGC of America.

How does a world-class team deal with incomplete plans and specs? They talk about it without placing blame or becoming defensive and mutually agree on what needs to be done to complete the plans together to stay ahead of their construction goal.

But what about projects with insufficient resources? The issue is brought up well in advance of the shortfall, and team members jointly agree on what needs to be done, as a team, to mitigate the impact on their goals. This requires a high level of trust and transparency, even if means openly discussing awkward or uncomfortable topics. In his best-selling book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” author Patrick Lencioni says that expressing vulnerability is the best way to develop real trust.

Here are five other tips for creating trust and solid project teams:


1. Create compelling and measurable team goals that trump any individual’s or organization’s agenda.

The Camp Pendleton Dining Commons project with Whiting-Turner as design-builder involved two facilities with identical concept drawings.  While developing team goals, the Marine in charge of the project said that their purposes were different.  “One,” he said, “is for recruits learning to become Marines. The other is for real Marines.”

“So,” the architect said, “what if the recruit facility actually helped them learn how to become Marines?”

Soon, the design team was talking with Marines, recruits and recruiters, with creative results.

“We’re now building something other than two structures,” a highly motivated subcontractor later told me.

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