Sunday, January 21, 2018

Repost: Serving Others

The past 2 weeks at church, I've been thinking of my friend Mark. This was primarily brought on by my own reflections in January and by the music selected for the Mass. Steve Angrisano played at Mark's funeral and they were friends. We've closed Mass the past 2 weeks with "Make A Difference" by Mr. Angrisano, so my thoughts usually go to Mark. 

I want to repost this blog because Mark is still a part of my life and his lessons to me still resonate. Mark's widow, Carol, was at Mass tonight and it is always great to see her. We've also reconnected this week with our former youth minister. We shouldn't let these folks out of life but connect with them more regularly!

Monday, January 01, 2018

Happy New Year!

I've been off work for a few days and its been nice. I monitored email and took care of some minor items, but mostly I've spent some time with family, tried to be helpful around the house as my wife has been under the weather and generally just enjoyed some down time. Tomorrow, work calls again, so I'll spend part of today getting ready: mentally and physically!

I've also spent part of the morning (I'm writing this at 10:30A) reflecting on 2017 and looking forward to 2018. I've reached some notions of what I need to do in 2018 both professionally and personally. Generally, there's a small handful of things that I want to do that I believe will make a huge difference for me in 2018. I won't bore you with those here because they're really about me and not anything else.

Today, I also plan to exercise some and do some work around the house. Its too cold to do anything outside, but I also don't want to veg watching bowl games all day. We have a busy week this week and really for the coming several weeks, so we've got to get ready!

I encourage each of you to do the same today. Its the start of a new year so embrace that and work to make 2018 your best year yet!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Collaboration Fail

This is the fourth in a series that I'm calling "The Lost Blogs" - I discovered recently that I have 5 draft blogs that have never been posted. I also have a 4-part series in the works on leadership. I decided that I'd wrap up these posts and post them before the New Year. Then, in January, I'll post the 4-part series at one per week. 

For the past several years, I've been blogging and giving presentations on collaboration in construction. It has been my experience that when the owner, contractor and architect can all work together, the projects go much more smoothly and the end results are better. When either of these three parties is uncooperative or even combative, the results are less than desirable for all parties involved. I have case studies of several projects to help justify these statements. 

However, I fear that my personal feelings about the great benefits of collaboration have clouded my judgment. I've recently been involved in two projects where either one or two of the three primary players was not interested in creating a collaborative environment with the project team. I tried to force the collaboration by being overly accommodating and trying to "work things out" verbally rather than following the CSI rules. I have come to realize that this caused me to lose my teeth and become less effective as an architect in the field. 

This is a difficult thing for me to admit, to accept and ultimately to change the way I function on the job site. When I was young, my father owned a light commercial and residential HVAC and electrical contracting business. One of my closest relatives is a retired architect. I've spent most of my life hearing their stories of things going right and wrong and how things should be done. I've spent much of my career trying to break down the walls of the adversarial relationships and make sure my teams work together to the benefit of the owner and project. To see not one but two of my projects be less successful because of me is difficult. Even as I write this, I'm not sure I'll actually publish it!

Accountability is the key to collaboration and in these instances, I did not do enough to hold the construction team and the owner accountable for what they said they would do. Its difficult to hold some owner's accountable, particularly in the higher education realm where I practice. The owner has to want to be held accountable for it to work. In these instances, the owner did not want to be held accountable.

However, I also did not do enough to hold the construction team accountable. In the interest of team work and camaraderie, I let things slide. Both projects were schedule challenged and I let the construction team do some things in the interest of meeting the schedule rather than holding strictly to the contract documents. In both instances, the owner became upset with both me and the construction team. Fortunately, in both instances, I was able to change my working manner, make the owner happy and get the job back on track. However, it was at the detriment of my relationship with the construction team. 

I realized two things. The first is that we don't all have to be friends. We have to respect each other, conduct our business in a professional manner and be accountable to each other. But if we walk away from the project and don't like each other, that's okay as long as the job finished in a timely manner, with good quality and limited, if any, cost overruns. 

The second thing that I realized is something that was said in a partnering session I was involved in several years ago: collaboration has to be top down and it has to involve everyone - owner, constructor and architect. If any of those three parties are not interested in true collaboration, it will fail. In both instances I reference above, the construction team and owner were not truly interested in the same level of collaboration as me. Or at least they didn't understand collaboration the same way that I do. Regardless, I had to change my way of operating to make the job the most successful that it could be. 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Next Frontier in Construction

This is the third in a series that I'm calling "The Lost Blogs" - I discovered recently that I have 5 draft blogs that have never been posted. I also have a 4-part series in the works on leadership. I decided that I'd wrap up these posts and post them before the New Year. Then, in January, I'll post the 4-part series at one per week. 

Anyone who knows me well knows a couple of things about me: I love practicing architecture, I have a deep commitment to making our industry better and I feel that only through collaboration and inclusion can we make our industry better.

I live in a suburb of Baltimore, MD but our office is downtown on Pratt Street in the Inner Harbor area. I drive through neighborhoods of poverty and blight on my commute to and from work most days. I have no experiences in my life to compare with what these neighbors go through every day. I watch and read the news daily and it seems that we are failing much of our inner city. And not just Baltimore but most cities in the U.S. My parents live outside of Dallas and we talk about the same issues facing the folks who live in the impoverished areas of that city.

I see it on our job sites and I discuss with others in the industry: we cannot get enough people to come into construction as skilled or unskilled workers. I don't know what the reasons are, but there seem to be some barriers to entry.

I also see something else: a gender gap. Our office has 92 people and 38 are women. There clearly is no shortage of women interested in studying architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning. When I was studying architecture in the late 1980's, we still had professors who felt that women did not belong in our professor and actively attempted to fail them. We've come a long way, but more work is needed in design professions, especially ensuring both genders have leadership opportunities.

But, when was the last time you saw a women working on a construction site? I occasionally run across a plumber or electrician who is female, but they are so few and far between it seems incredible. That's not to mention the harassment, chauvinism and pay inequity that these women experience when they actually start working. I see the graffiti on our job sites, so I can only imagine what women see, hear and feel if they step on those sites.

I think we need to start a dialogue on these issues and I know some already are having conversations. We also need to remove as many barriers to entry into construction as we can. Part of that effort is taking place in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania with a program started by the Greater Lehigh Valley Chapter of CSI called "Let's Build Camp." This is a program for high school age girls in the Greater Lehigh Valley to attend a free camp to learn about the building trades. Check out GLV CSI's web-site for information on the camp.

It's inaugural year was earlier this summer and was a huge success. There are other CSI chapters considering starting a similar program to help break down some of those barriers to entry into the construction industry. What else can we do?

Friday, December 29, 2017

Coaching or Mentoring? Why Not Both?

This is the second in a series that I'm calling "The Lost Blogs" - I discovered recently that I have 5 draft blogs that have never been posted. I also have a 4-part series in the works on leadership. I decided that I'd wrap up these posts and post them before the New Year. Then, in January, I'll post the 4-part series at one per week. 

Long time friends and readers know that mentoring the next generation of professionals is very important to me. In recent presentations I've given on mentoring, I've drawn a strong distinction between the mentor and the coach. In short, the coach helps you do your current job better and the mentor helps prepare you for your next job.

While out for a run the other day, I listened to NPR's "Marketplace" podcast. The specific podcast was for Thursday, February 25, 2016 and can be found at In one piece for this episode, several people involved in corporate coaching were interviewed: both coaches and the professionals utilizing their services. It is a growing trend for busy professionals, usually upper management or sole proprietors, to spend some time each week with a coach to help them organize themselves, tackle important issues in the appropriate order and generally do their jobs better. 

For the past few years, I have co-led one of our four architecture studios in our firm. That means working with the project managers and anywhere from 10 to 14 architectural staff to ensure projects are staffed, deadlines are met, and our employees have what they need to be successful. As our firm goes through a leadership transition, we are asking junior leaders to step into new roles within the office. A group of us were promoted to principal and are working on strategic initiatives and need others to step in to day to day management roles. In that vein, a group of our associates, senior associates and principals met recently to review an initiative that will be presented to the senior principals. The idea was that a small group of associates had created this initiative and they were looking for buy in from the principals before presenting it to the senior principals. While listening to the podcast yesterday, I realized that what the associates really needed was coaching in what and how to present that information to the senior principals. 

For a number of years, our firm has had a formal mentoring program. We pair volunteer mentees and volunteer mentors for a year of goal-setting, reflection and growth. It has been highly successful and we enjoy broad involvement through most portions of the firm. I'm wondering now if there is benefit to a formal coaching program. Historically, coaching has only existed between project manager or project architect and the younger staff or through our QA/QC processes. As we ask junior leaders to take on larger leadership roles, perhaps there should be some coaching, even if it is just one hour per week or less, but a formal time when junior and more senior leaders can meet to discuss expectations, goals and priorities to make the transition these junior leaders are going through smoother and more meaningful.

In the coming months, we are going to be relooking at our studio groups both from a staffing standpoint but also a leadership standpoint. There are some of us promoted to principal who should probably step out of the studio leader role to allow others to fill it. Many of us were thrown into leadership without any training, coaching or mentoring. We want the next group to be successful, so I am looking for ways to make that happen and set up the next generation to succeed. 

One way to help might be a meeting prior to our weekly studio leaders meeting to review agenda and discussion points along with a follow up after the leaders meeting to review what we learned. I've been trying to do that with the associate that I co-lead our team with. Sometimes deadlines, out of office meetings and other things get in the way, but generally we can meet to review our studio personnel and their needs. From time to time, that meeting does expand into a discussion of broader ideas about leadership. We have not been as good about the follow up meeting on what we learned, though sometimes a brief discussion does ensue at the coffee pot following the 9:00 AM studio leaders meeting. 

The important notion I want you to take away from reading this is that we all need help. We all need coaching and mentoring, no matter how old we are or how long we've been in our chosen professions.  I see young people in construction thrown into the fray by their companies without appropriate coaching or mentoring. They struggle because they didn't learn the nuisances of our industry in college. I used to get upset when I had to help train young project engineers on our construction sites. I now realize that if I don't train them, the companies they work for may not so they don't get the training they need. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Strategies for Successful Collaboration

This is the first in a series that I'm calling "The Lost Blogs" - I discovered today that I have 5 draft blogs that have never been posted. I also have a 4-part series in the works on leadership. I decided that I'd wrap up these posts and post them before the New Year. Then, in January, I'll post the 4-part series at one per week. 

At CONSTRUCT 2014 in Baltimore, I gave a presentation called "Building A Highly Collaborative Team." At CONSTRUCT 2017 in Providence, I gave a similar presentation called "Symbiosis: The Importance of Collaboration between the Owner, Architect and Contractor." Both presentations were based on my experiences in construction over the past 20 years and focused on three projects from the past 15 years. In those presentations, I offered 7 strategies for increasing collaboration on construction projects as examples of real world ideas to help the attendees in their jobs. While space won't allow me to give all the background to the stories like I did in the presentations, I think these are still good strategies for anyone involved in team projects, whether in construction or not.


Strategy 1 - It's Sometimes Okay to Work Around Obstinate Team Members
We've all seen them: the one team member who is obstinate or obstructionist and unwilling to compromise. The person who will say the sky is red when the rest of the team says its blue. That's okay. Some people welcome negativity and thrive in that environment. It does not have to bring the whole team down. Work around that person by improving communication with the rest of the team and doing your best to avoid unprofessional situations. As the team gels and everyone does their job and holds each other accountable, the obstinate member will be revealed for the obstructionist which will make the team's success shine more brightly.

Strategy 2 - Communicate More, Email Less
Nearly everyone in our society carries a smartphone in their pocket. The operative part of that title is "phone." Yes, it is a powerful computer that can facilitate messaging in multiple formats - text, email and social media - but it is a phone. All of those other message formats are one-directional: the sender messages someone who can choose to reply or not. Telephones are truly two-way communication, so use it and embrace it. Face to face, two-way communication will always be superior to one-directional email or texting. However, we can't always answer our phones. When you receive someone's outgoing voicemail message, leave a message. Don't rely on them to look at their phone and see that you called in the caller ID. And when you receive a voicemail, return the call. It sounds simple, but many of us simply don't do it. We say we're too busy or we'll get to it tomorrow. Have some common courtesy to return the call, even if it is to say, "can we talk more tomorrow? Your communication with the team members will increase exponentially.

Strategy 3 - Recognize the Situation
Whether good or bad, recognize the situation that you are in. If you're put in a tough situation, recognize it and work to make it better. Try to make other's jobs easier by doing your job better. If you do that, you will appreciated as a go-to person and a team player. Your job will then be easier. Also know that all projects and teams have a culture that is cultivated in the early days of the collaboration. Sometimes it's a good culture and sometimes it's a bad culture, but recognize what it is. If warranted, buck the culture in an effort to make things better.

Strategy 4 - Top Down Collaboration
Behaviors start at the top of teams: with the highest managers and executives. If the top leaders buy in to what needs to be done, the rank and file employees will fall in line. It is imperative that leaders exhibit and practice good collaborative behaviors in order for the team to be successful. Show up early for meetings and be prepared. Listen first and then speak. Have respect for the other team members, their needs and their goals. Seek consensus. If our leaders do all of these things, our teams will function more collaboratively and be more successful. 

Strategy 5 - Tension Breeds Tentativeness
Bad news is right around the corner. Sometimes you can see it coming and sometimes you cannot. It is almost better when you don't see it coming because many of us become tentative when we see it coming. Tentativeness can lead to the unhealthily form of tension on our project teams. Be willing to embrace the bad news because being tentative will not make the bad news go away. Embrace it, work to fix it and then the whole team can move on. Be a part of the solution and you'll feel better about the news because you worked to solve the problems.

Strategy 6 - Take Care of Your Business Because No One Else Will
In many project teams, perception is reality, however unfair that might be. If you or your firm presents an image of low confidence, low performance or timidity, the rest of the team may move past you. That's a corollary to Strategy 1. Be confident, be believable and be right and things will go more smoothly for you. Being right does not mean always having the answer or knowing everything there is to know. Sometimes the right move for you and for the team and project is to take time, research, analyze and discuss before acting. That is the definition of "taking care of your business."

Strategy 7 - Don't Be Afraid to Communicate and Hold Others Accountable
I saw a presentation once that said projects fail for 1 of 3 Reasons:
1.       Technology Failures
2.       Individual Failures
3.       Stakeholder Failures
It was noted that two of those three reasons are PEOPLE. We need to communicate with each other in order to be successful. But as I noted above, communication must be two-ways, not one-directional. Use the telephone to communicate and then follow up with email if a "written" record is needed. That communication should also include the follow up of doing what you say you'll do and when you say you'll do it. That is accountability. Don't be afraid to hold your team members accountable. If a deadline is set and not met, ask why. Not in a negative way, but in an open and honest way: if there's something that you could have done to help the deadline be met, you want to know what that is.

These are simple ideas but ones that are not always easy to practice. It takes work to be able to do all of these every day. I welcome all comments on this list. It is not inclusive, but is a list of things that we should all do in our day-to-day lives, whether work or personal, to make things better. 

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Collaboration in Action

For those of you who follow my work on the Baltimore CSI Chapter's blog, Felt Tips, you may recall a series I've written across the last few years detailing a formal collaboration program I've been involved in on a project our firm currently has under construction. If you've seen me present on collaboration recently, that same project was a major part of those presentations. The project is a biomedical research facility for a public university in the middle Atlantic region and is $220M, 430,000 GSF of labs, support spaces and offices. My firm is the associate architect with a large, international design firm as architect of record. There is a complex A/E team, complex contracting team and an owner who is very active in every facet of the project. 

This particular university has been using "partnering" to help build their project teams for some time. This collaboration program is a natural evolution of the partnering that has been practiced in our region for the past decade or more. It was mandated that the construction manager lead this effort and this CM has a psychologist on their staff who acts as moderator for these types of programs. Its been a different wrinkle to the usual "one-and-done" partnering events I've been involved with in the past. 

We've been meeting quarterly for nearly three years. The meetings have gotten a bit formulaic lately, but a recent one had a different tone. That was in part based on our moderator being absent. When we set the date for this meeting at our last meeting, he told us he was unavailable, but we decided to meet anyway. Being a psychologist, I think the moderator thought we might need to be on our own for once and wanted to see what happened. Even though he is employed by the construction management firm, he remains larger impartial in our meetings. 

The meeting opened with the usual review of our quarterly survey results. For an in depth discussion of the survey, read here

During review of the three "free response" questions, the "What is Going Well" responses revolved around communication and cooperation improving and the notion that some field issues are being handled better by the construction manager. Kudos were given to the owner for providing additional personnel to process change orders. Its a large job and there have been a large number of change orders, some due to owner changes and some due to the fast-track bidding process. However, many change orders have languished for a long enough time where the trade contractors feel that they are financing the job. That was a welcomed comment that the owner is moving these things through so the builders can get paid for work already performed. 

The biggest issue under "What is Not Going Well" relate to RFI's and decision making. As I said, there have been a large number of owner requested changes and this owner seems ill-equipped to make decisions as there are far too many players involved in each decision. Between operations & maintenance staff, project management and end user personnel, it is not out of the ordinary to have 12 or more individual players involved from the owner's team. That has dramatically slowed the decision making process. 

That poor decision making carried over into the "What Needs to Be Improved?" conversation. However, another notion was put forth during these discussions. The team was urged to not forget what this team has accomplished. The A/E team started design in June 2012. The CM came on board shortly after that and the design-assist trade contractors joined the team in September 2013. In October 2013, we started these collaboration sessions. We are now more than 3-1/2 years removed from that start and the building is almost in the dry, much of the systems have been installed and finish work is starting. The building is a beautiful addition to the city skyline and can been seen from a major interstate highway nearby. The team was urged to look at all they had accomplished and imagine what can be accomplished if we buckle down and finish the work. 

I agree with that sentiment and used it to challenge myself to do three things:

1.  Review the RFI's that come in each day and give my "2-cents" to the rest of the A/E team. I am the lead CA professional on the project, but given my other responsibilities, the day-to-day processing of the RFI's falls to others. I need to review them, be up on the issues and help push them through the system.  

This will help the team by moving things forward through the A/E and on to the owner. If the RFI's bottle-neck with the owner, so be it. Getting the RFI's through the A/E team as quickly as possible will show the construction team that we are trying our hardest to keep their work flow as efficient as possible. 

2.  I am responsible for reviewing all change orders on behalf of the A/E team. They come in sporadically and tend to come in clumps of three to five at a time. I should review them on the day they come in and respond with comments immediately where possible or send them off to other team members that day with a hard deadline of review in two business days. I must then follow up with them after those two business days and get the comments back to the owner. 

This will help the owner process the change orders more quickly and get them to the procurement department which takes several weeks to finalize the change order. It will also help our owner's project manager keep himself organized. I've observed that when several weeks transpire between his sending the change order to us and our return of comments, the paperwork is not top of mind and we have to repeat ourselves and lose more time in the process. If we continue to show progress in getting the contractors paid for change order work, everyone is happier. 

3.  There is a co-location office where the construction manager, major trade contractors and A/E team all have desks. My colleague and myself are there every day of the week, but my participation tends to be attending meetings. I intend to redouble my efforts to use the space for its intended, collaborative purpose. If there's a change order I don't understand, I'll discuss it with the construction manager and trade contractor. Same with RFI's or anything else going on. By increasing face-to-face communication, I think we can finish this project strong and we'll all be happier.