Sam Hassoun is the founder and president of Global Leadership Alliance, Inc. (GLA), specializing in the development and implementation of Collaborative Dispute Mitigation (CDM) systems for agencies, organizations, and construction projects. He started his engineering career with Bechtel, then joined the California Dept. of Transportation (Caltrans) in 1988. In the Office Chief of Partnering, he was responsible for developing and incorporating partnering principles and specifications into construction projects, and pioneered Caltrans as the first public agency to have on-line performance measures for partnering. Hassoun holds a certificate in Mediation and Conflict Resolution from UC Berkeley. One of his current projects is the Gerald Desmond Bridge Replacement.
When did you form GLA and why? Has it been growing? What are some notable projects you’ve consulted on?
GLA was founded in 2001 for the sole purpose of partnering and working collaboratively on construction projects utilizing talent, skills and expertise of stakeholders and people involved in “building” the project, rather than placing their energy in positioning, filing claims, and resorting to arbitration or litigation to resolve their disputes.
You started off at Caltrans with this kind of partnering work. Who or what inspired you to push this more collaborative approach?
The trend of filling arbitrations as a method to resolving disputes on construction contracts was on an exponential rise at Caltrans. In 1999 I was appointed as the Office Chief to incorporate Partnering specification and principles as an alternative way to arbitration and litigation for mitigating disputes.
Over time, I realized that specification alone is not enough to have a cultural change. Showing the hard data and results of collaborative working relation vs the traditional us and them was needed. Engineers and contractors are data-driven result-oriented beings. That was my inspiration to demonstrate factual outcomes.
How long did it take for a cultural shift to occur?
It was a top-down approach. The message came initially from the Director of Caltrans and the Chief of Construction. The second and immediate step was enlisting partners from the Construction Industry at the highest levels, who also believed in the same mission and form the Caltrans Construction Partnering Steering Committee, made up of ALL Caltrans' district construction chiefs, and CEOs of prime contractors who do the majority of the work with Caltrans. It took that level of commitment, meeting quarterly and sometimes more frequently, to draft the Partnering Specification, and making partnering mandatory on projects over $10M.
Investment in statewide training for all Resident Engineers and Project Managers as a prerequisite to being on any project with the Partnering Specification paid the highest dividend. The training was co-delivered by two people: One from Caltrans and one from the construction Industry. That gave legitimacy, credibility and momentum to the program.
Lastly, we instituted the annual Excellence in Partnering Awards, a prestigious recognition of project teams (not individuals) who met and exceeded the criteria. It was modeled after the AGC's Marvin M. Black Excellence in Partnering Award.
Can you describe some of the ROI manifestations that started to occur?
The number of arbitration filings against Caltrans has gone significantly down, despite the growth in construction contracts. Currently, Caltrans has calculated $88 in savings for every dollar invested in partnering.
You talk about being an “ambassador.” What are some specific examples of ambassadorship?
The title of my presentations (and my future book) is The Ambassador: How to become the envoy of your industry and why your survival depends on it. The first two years were targeted towards Resident Engineers representing owners, mainly public works agencies. The main points are:
- We are going through rapid and exponential change due to technology explosion in our everyday life. This change is fast and disruptive to the old ways of doing business
- Unless we embrace and manage this change, we will be left behind and become obsolete
- The way to remain relevant and to attract youth into our industry is to develop our “ambassador” skills, and become coaches and mentors
- The best way to do that is to find our natural strengths, what we are gifted at and born to do. There are may websites and tools that can assist in this diagnosis (Gallup Clifton Strength Finder is an example)
- Develop those strengths through professional groups or coaching. The intent here is to grow these strengths and have others (youth mainly), look up to us as Ambassadors representing our industry.
This message is beginning to resonate. I will be conducting workshops at the end of the year targeting engineers and construction industry professionals who have expressed sincere interest in being Ambassadors to their industry or organizations.
What are lessons learned? Surely there were some outlier cases where someone on owner or contractor side wouldn’t accept this concept?
Some public works agencies have fully adopted partnering as their way of doing business, such as the Contra Costa Transportation Agency (CCTA). It took their top leader to push it, walk it and live it. Now CCTA as an agency has had zero claims for at least the last five years. In addition, the bids are on average 20% below other agencies. Contractors know they will be treated fairly and do not have to budget for claims, delays or mediation. CCTA eliminated Dispute Review Boards from its specs, and still get A-list contractors bidding on projects.
CCTA recognizes that cash flow is critical to the livelihood of contractors. Though its specification calls for 15-day prompt payment on invoices, it manages to electronically pay contractors within four days of approved invoices.
Outliers still exist on both sides. Some owners copy the Partnering specification from Caltrans or other agencies, and go through the motions, without full knowledge of how it works. Same with some contractors. They will attend a kickoff partnering workshop, check the box and go about business the old way.
How do you entice engineers and leaders, who are notoriously like “herding cats,” to attend meetings so regularly?
Sessions are streamlined and do not last more than 4 hours for kickoff sessions, 2-3 hours for follow-up, and 2 hours max for executive sessions. In many instances, we ask the project team to vote for the MVP (Most Valuable Partner). We emphasize how each one of us can make a difference and celebrate milestones when they happen.
We utilize technology to measure project partnering goals monthly with software that compiles the data from surveys of all stakeholders. Data is transparent and shared with project team members. Also, on a monthly basis, we are utilizing video conferencing for no more that 30 minutes to cut down on meeting times and to keep the issue resolution moving with accountability.
Describe some innovative solutions that were able to occur thanks to the collaborative culture (whether on Desmond or other projects).
Shifting focus from individual or position interest to project focus is what partnering success is all about. Convincing and demonstrating project success is a gain for all stakeholders.
At the Gerald Desmond Bridge, reminding stakeholders of the significance of this iconic structure and how the best talent is assembled at this project, where no possible issue cannot be resolved. That challenge and the constant reminder of why are we on this project, helps keep the focus during challenges on the issue, not individuals or the entities.
Innovation happens, which leads to exponential results. The Fix I-5 project in Sacramento was another example, where the contact called for over 300 working days (detours, night work and delays) and ended up with only 60 days of full closure with detours, media communication and traffic management. Everyone was a winner!
Do you think the next generation of engineers will be more skilled in communication due to our changing society? If not, any recommendations for how to enhance training and education to facilitate these “soft” skills?
The next generation of engineers is growing up with collaborative tools, open and transparent communication via social media and others. Training engineers at the college level on public speaking, presentation skills and effective communication—not as elective classes, but mandatory—will lead to less conflicts in the field. What is today referred to as “soft” skills will end up being the “hard” and needed skills for the future generation of “leaders” as well as followers.
I am very hopeful for our future. Within the next ten years, we will have five generations working together. Being Ambassadors of our industry and coaching the next generations will be our legacy for building future infrastructure monuments and leaders.