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Nuts + Bolts #15: From Adversary to Partner: Managing Relationships in Construction Projects

Three core practices to help keep the peace while keeping a project moving forward.

By Lisa Anders, LEED AP
August 10, 2017

Editor’s note: This is the 15th installment of Nuts+Bolts, an exclusive ArchNewsNow series to provide A/E professionals with practical tips for a more successful, profitable practice.



The AEC industries are not for the faint-of-heart. Managing tight schedules, big budgets, and yes, big egos are part of our daily routine. Under the highly competitive conditions in which we frequently operate, many people are sometimes reluctant to show their cards. But once a project gets going, it’s time to put aside professional or philosophical differences and collaborate. Here are three core practices to help keep the peace while keeping a project moving forward:


Partnering session. Getting stakeholders together and creating a plan to identify the custody chain of events (design, changes, approvals, etc.) is essential. This defines the roles and responsibilities of every partner, and sets the tone of the working relationships. If somebody assumes an adversarial stance – or a new partner joins the team – this document can be used as a baseline to help get everyone back on track.


Open communication channels. When disputes arise, instead of trying to resolve them in private, one-on-one sessions, convening all stakeholders will ensure that solutions are at the forefront of the conversation. This kind of transparency allows everyone to see what is important to each individual, and then this knowledge can be absorbed by the group. Such behavior builds trust. When trust levels are high, people tend to be less defensive and are more willing to share information to help find a mutually acceptable solution to a problem. If parties mistrust one another, they often act defensively, focusing solely on their own needs and interests.


Proactive planning. In my experience, owners who hire a project manager – before selecting an architect or contractor – are at a great advantage when it comes to avoiding conflict. Able to act as a neutral third party, a project manager is a real asset: a person who is strategically positioned to head off any compatibility or communication problems that arise on the team. A project manager is also instrumental in developing a plan that takes into account everyone’s roles and responsibilities and ensures the team is unified, with all partners moving in the same direction.


It’s not easy to challenge the traditionally combative culture of the construction industry. If you present people with reasonable and rational options to the ingrained blame game that pervades the business, you’ll earn the esteem of your colleagues and be recognized as a leader in the field.



Lisa Anders, LEED AP, is the Vice President of Business Development at McKissack & McKissack, an architecture, engineering, program, and construction management firm headquartered in Washington, D.C., She has 28 years of project and construction management experience in both the public and private sector markets. Over the course of her career, she has acquired extensive hands-on project management and field experience in all phases of programming: preconstruction, purchasing, construction administration, cost estimating, scheduling, contract negotiations, and project closeout. Lisa was the project executive for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as senior project manager for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.


See also:


Nuts + Bolts #14: Start Me Up: Taking Cultural Cues From Our Tech Sector Clients
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Nuts + Bolts #13: Safe Harbors: A Case Study on End-game Strategies

A new way of dealing with ownership transition that can benefit some principals who face difficulties in achieving successful exits.

By Peter Piven, FAIA


Nuts + Bolts #12: Hiring Interns for the Summer? What You Need to Know
Architecture and engineering firms engaging unpaid interns can avoid liability in connection with their internship programs by meeting six specific requirements.
By John Balitis


Nuts + Bolts #11: CAPitalizing on Culture Change 
How candor, authenticity, and provocation (CAP) can create a firm culture that drives thoughtful, positive, and creative change.
By James Crispino, AIA, NCARB


Nuts + Bolts #10: Charting a Course from Career Bewilderment to Career Betterment 
Be curious, be adventurous and, when necessary, be assertive.
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Nuts + Bolts #9: The 80/20 Architect: How to Spend Wisely by Investing in Your Clients

Focusing on your top clients can increase your confidence, stability, and profitability.

By Steve Whitehorn


Nuts + Bolts #8: Best Friends Don't Make the Best Partners 
For the successful partnership, it's all a matter of balance.
By Michael M. Samuelian, AIA, AICP


Nuts + Bolts #7: Leveraging Your Passion 
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By Steve Whitehorn 


Nuts + Bolts #6: Changing Habits: The Secret to Successful Time Management 
Some practical steps to make time for business development when you've been avoiding it or aren't sure how to fit it into your day-to-day practice.
By Donna Maltzan


Nuts + Bolts #5: Why Mid-Sized Design Firms Should Hire a Director of Operations 
Hiring a DOO has the potential to significantly increase revenues while creating an environment where designers design, not manage!
By Michael Bernard, AIA, and Mary Breuer


Nuts + Bolts #4: Spring into Growth Mode: Organize Your Process to Maximize Your Potential 
Internal organization, clearly defined workflows, and a focused approach to the things you do best will put you on the right track to long-term growth.

By Steve Whitehorn


Nuts + Bolts #3: Focus on the Future: Keys to Steady Growth in a Slow Recovery 
Business forecasts are looking brighter, but steady, measured growth is still your best strategy for success.
By Steve Whitehorn


Nuts + Bolts #2: You Can't SELL If You Can't TELL 
You talk all the time but are you communicating clearly? Use your words effectively to build your influence.
By Tami D. Hausman, Ph.D.


Nuts + Bolts #1: Mission Possible: Increase Your Value Without Lowering Your Fees 
Fact or fiction: Lowering your fees makes you competitive? You decide.
By Steve Whitehorn


(click on pictures to enlarge)

Johnathan Ward