More and more owners and contractors are agreeing to partner to avoid the dysfunctional conflicts that can result when differences arise on projects. In most cases, partnering results in successful outcomes for all parties. Yet, sometimes, problems persist in spite of the partnering effort. Your project management team can avoid these problems if you follow a few simple guidelines.

Partnering Is a Process

To some construction professionals, partnering is considered to be a charter workshop activity. But it’s really an ongoing process and commitment by everyone to communicate effectively and rigorously throughout the project to avoid misunderstandings and solve problems. It takes time and effort to pull this off, but anything worthwhile typically does.

Keep Your Own House in Order

Often we see problems arise on projects from internal conflicts within organizations. Maybe the contractor’s project executive and the project manager are having disagreements. Perhaps middle management is in conflict with project engineers in the owner’s organization.

For example, a new managing engineer came on board at a state agency. His style was radically different from that of his predecessor, and it grated on his direct reports, leading to infighting. The contractor and subcontractors had to deal with surly attitudes and lack of responsiveness to their requests for clarification when the engineers were having a tiff. When this happens, the internal conflict spills over to the project team, creating unnecessary ambiguity, conflict, communication breakdowns and inefficiency.

Dom Cingoranelli

Similarly, the lower level staff may be given what appears to be authority to make certain decisions on the project. However, their boss or manager makes a habit of second-guessing their decisions. We saw this recently when an owner’s project-level people agreed with the contractor on a method for dealing with traffic control in a high-profile section of a job after a half-day meeting.

Later, the owner’s people had to come back to the team and redo the traffic control plan for this part of the project because their manager put the kibosh on their original plans after the fact. This incident caused the staff to have to change their position, and the resulting change caused rework at the project-team level leading to trust, communication and efficiency issues.

The other parties to the contract suffered as a result of constantly changing decisions. Partnering requires effective management and delegation of authority for decision-making. Unless the decision will result in safety issues or economic changes, managers should not override their people’s decisions.

The Tone Is Set at the Top

If top management really believes in partnering and really wants to have a successful project, they must ensure that their people conduct themselves accordingly. All too often, however, top management provides only lip service to the concept.

In some cases, top management simply ignores inappropriate behavior among their people and provides no real follow-through. For example, an owner’s young inspector with no outside construction industry experience, but with an abrasive style about him, managed to continually cause disruptions on the job with the contractor’s foremen and superintendent. But his manager seemingly looked the other way. He was not held accountable for his actions, which caused problems throughout the project.

Start Now

Often we are called in for some partnering assistance only after the project management team has realized a high level of dysfunction, conflict and anxiety. And that’s a shame, because the proper use of partnering tools and process would have obviated the need for special intervention later.

On partnered projects, the emphasis is on finding ways to solve problems collaboratively. Done correctly, it can reduce dysfunctional conflicts that might result in litigation. The result is a win/win situation for all parties.

Dom Cingoranelli and his company, Succession Institute LLC, assist management teams responsible for large, complex projects with partnering, team building and organizational development.