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Itís a very good time to develop your firmís collaboration skills

April 2009

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By Andrew Pressman, FAIA

Building trust, goodwill, and respect among all the multidisciplinary players is also essential to integrated project delivery. How do you do that? “Transparency, openness, and a willingness to share information,” states Jim Summers, an associate in the Boston office of Burt Hill, “will enable the change of focus from individual to project.” Their team members will spend a significant amount of time together to understand a clear scope of responsibilities, design objectives, degree of risk, and bottom line; this “fleshing out” is part of the discovery process resulting in a contract that supports a unique work flow. Summers is amazed at “the soft skills you need to work through that process and come to an agreement,” and this is even before the project itself starts.

There is consensus that there is nothing better than face-to-face sessions to foster collaboration and meaningful relationships. Socializing can also help a group to coalesce into a team. Other mechanisms to facilitate the work range from sophisticated software for BIM and video- or teleconferencing to simple donuts and coffee. Thick markers and large sheets of newsprint or a whiteboard are standard. Architects have a huge advantage in working collaboratively because they can use the language of drawing as a means to create with others — and let’s not forget, architects like to play.

Leadership and ego management

Orchestration of a collaborative work session usually involves a complex and subtle manipulation on the part of leadership so that the inevitably talented and distinctive personalities that make up a team may interact positively and productively. Management of healthy egos is a priority because it is not always realistic, possible, or even desirable to follow the conventional wisdom that egos must be checked at the door. Participants must believe they can do the impossible.

Trust and goodwill are, in practice, subservient to and a product of protection by the team leader of the self-esteem and respect of the individuals on the team. A great leader should be able to reference one individual’s excellent comments and how they may complement another’s, and in this way, promote, even coerce, collaboration. Self-conscious but genuine appreciation of the contributions of each team member bolsters confidence and is crucial to sustaining effective and efficient process and outcome. A specific invitation to each team member to modify, challenge, even offer starkly contrasting alternatives to the consensus goes a long way in supporting a team’s capacity to drive an evolving synthesis of ideas.

It behooves the leader to simultaneously encourage individual participation and “foster an environment where the team owns ideas, rather than each member owning his or her own,” says Morris A. Nunes, a Fairfax, Virginia, attorney who represents practices and privately held businesses. He underscores that the team should be coached, nurtured, and incentivized as a team. Nunes claims that Ben Franklin’s famous quote, “We must all hang together or we shall surely hang separately,” should be a constant refrain.

A team leader or champion must be identified early on, and it must be agreed that final authority rests with that individual. Sarah Harkness, one of the original partners of The Architects Collaborative with Walter Gropius, has quoted Gropius’s proclamation that to “safeguard design coherence and impact, the right of making final decisions must be left exclusively to the one member who happens to be responsible for a specific job, even though his decision should run counter to the opinion of other members.” The point is that one way to avoid the cliché “a camel is a horse designed by committee,” is to have a leader who makes informed decisions after listening to, understanding, and appreciating the perspectives of all team members. This is consistent with the notion articulated in No More Teams! by Michael Schrage: “Collaboration does not curtail the architect’s overarching vision. Collaboration becomes a medium that makes the vision possible.”

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Some degree of hierarchy and authority is necessary even in the most democratic collaborative groups. There must be a distinct leader who keeps the team focused and directs decision-making. Free-form approaches may waste precious energy, time, and money, and in the long run, may sow the seeds for further anarchistic impediments. However, there is certainly a light touch to leading teams at Gensler. Jordan Goldstein, AIA, managing director of the Washington, D.C. office, describes its team leaders as “facilitators and conductors of the larger symphony, which includes the design team, client, contractor, consultants, and vendors.” The leader is frequently the one who initiated the client relationship. He says that Gensler aims to have horizontal team structures in which every team member is contributing to decision-making so that it is not being delayed by levels of internal bureaucracy.

Leading by example — demonstrating how to be a good team member and team leader — is an important ingredient for success. Nunes succinctly underscores the message: “The overall tone must be set from the top and must be lived and embraced day-to-day as part of an organization’s culture. When an organization’s leaders are successful in inculcating that spirit, teamwork becomes second nature.”

Team composition and size

Team-size matters — and typically varies as a function of project scale, complexity, and phase, ramping up from preliminary design to construction documents, becoming smaller during construction. In general, the larger the team, the more time-intensive and difficult it is to manage relationships, performance, and the quality and coordination of the collective work product. Mentoring is certainly more challenging with large teams, claims Roger Goldstein, as “younger staff feel like small cogs in a big machine, dissociated from the essence of the project.” His firm mitigates the fragmentary nature of this situation by having each person take responsibility for all consultant coordination related to their domain, with oversight by the project manager.

The most effective teams are composed of highly competent individuals with at least a modicum of interpersonal skills and a balanced mix of personalities and passions. At Gensler, team leaders staff their projects with a combination of junior and senior people from multiple disciplines so there is a range of voices around the table. That, together with launching projects in a charrette fashion, amounts to a bit of “design combustion that focuses the team around a shared vision for success and innovation,” asserts Jordan Goldstein. After design direction is addressed, frequently there are “breakout sessions by trade to do deep dives into more intricate design issues.” Moreover, participation by everyone in the charrette activity itself contributes to motivating the team.

Charles Darwin was wise when he said, “In the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” Learning to collaborate effectively under the spiritual and substantive guidance of a real leader — with the right attitude, compelling goals, talent, and commitment — will ensure that a firm evolves to provide great service, innovation, and design.

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