Over my thirty years of real estate development and construction experience I have seen the development and improvement of

  • Word processing and spreadsheet tools
  • Scheduling programs
  • Contract administration software
  • Materials, engineering and computer aided design

Yet what I haven’t seen is the same degree of improvement in the human interactions among the project team members. Consistently, the design team prefers to work without the input from the project manager and contractors and instead they rely on solutions used on other projects to reduce the time required to complete their assignment. Contractors generally insist on being right even when there is more than one right answer as they protect their contract and anticipated revenue. Project Managers tend to be process managers and not inspirational team leaders. And sometimes owners fail to accept the advice of the team and acknowledge that there might be a better way, or that an expectation may be unreasonable.

What I have learned is the one rule that works almost all the time is, “Leave your ego at the door and put the project first!” One of the ways to implement a “Put the Project First” program is to carefully scrub the legal agreements of the team members and eliminate conflicting requirements. For example, often the architect’s agreement is drafted with a seven day review period of shop drawings while the contractor’s negotiated agreement requires a three day review period. Contracts should be specific as to the responsibilities of each party, including payments. An owner should never knowingly enter into an agreement with provisions that the contractor, vendor or design professional can’t fulfill. These can be monetary or time in nature. It makes little sense to begin a long term relationship knowing that a fight is ahead. No one wins should any team member fail.

Selection of the right team members for the project is another important element for success. Consideration of the potential party’s experience is a given, but how the professional worked with others on previous projects is essential. When interviewing owners, design and construction team members with whom the party under consideration has worked with, it should include a discussion about how conflicts and disputes were handled.

Never discount the value of a project kickoff meeting with all team members present. The meeting should be facilitated by the Owner, or the Owner’s Representative. The objectives should be clearly delineated and any constraints or concerns discussed. A communication strategy should be developed and agreed to and the “Put the Project First” initiative should be introduced. If the Project succeeds as defined by the agreed to objectives and the well written contracts are fulfilled by all parties, each participant will reap the financial rewards, satisfaction of a job well done, and future bragging rights.

As most real estate developments include unique designs, site conditions, weather and labor constraints sometimes the unforeseen can occur. While proper planning is based on what is known or can be reasonably anticipated, an experienced team with the support of the owner can provide leeway in a design approach to insure that inviolable constraints are not crossed. For example, one of the key constraints in the development of the Detroit Westin Hotel at the new air terminal was to maintain clear sight lines from the control tower over the building to the runways. Recognizing the critical nature of this criteria, the architect with the project manager’s consent, elected to depress the entire building one foot deeper requiring additional excavation costs. The wisdom of this approach became apparent when a conflict between the roof truss and air handler shop drawings required the contractor to raise the building 8” to achieve the necessary clearance. The additional cost for the extended structural elements and exterior wall was born by the contractor as coordination of these elements fell under his responsibility and the project proceeded without delay.

How the development team reacts to the unforeseen will contribute to the overall success of the project. Attempts to shed responsibility will naturally create an adversarial environment at a time when the team should be focused on solutions that resolve the problem while mitigating adverse cost and schedule impacts. A careful cost evaluation of the proposed solutions measured against increased interest carry cost or loss of future revenue should be the entire team’s responsibility. One should measure every decision and every action by, “What is in the best interest of the project?”

Early in this discussion we mentioned that the lack of leadership is often at the root of many project failures. Every project requires a leader that inspires trust and obtains the best performance from each team member. We have found that the best leaders accomplish the project goals without a lot of commotion. They are like the well-designed hull of a boat that moves smoothly through the water with barely a wake. Look to be such a leader and check your ego at the door.

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