Team Selection for an Imperfect World

Posted on February 28, 2011


I was asked recently how design-build would stack up against other project delivery models if all projects went well. ‘You mean no problems’ I asked?  ‘It wouldn’t matter.’  I rationalized if all the projects went perfectly, then each owner, architect, builder and subcontractor should be happy. Team composition and work relationship are irrelevant if the project is perfect; a perfect project—isn’t that what everyone wants?

On some level yes.  If a project was perfect, there would be no disputes or problems. In fact, there would be no need for a contract. If all projects were perfect, it would not matter how many people were working on the project or how much the teams were getting paid because the owner was getting what he wanted:  a building with no issues, right?

To dig into things a little deeper, sure, we realize there are no perfect projects, and the way teams are assembled affects if a project approaches perfection or not. Even if a project was without conflict or cost overrun (or whatever other criteria against which someone would deem a project ‘perfect’), we cannot assume all parties are happy.  Each partner could hate the other’s guts and still find a way to do an error-free project.

In addition, an owner’s experience, even in a perfect project, can be negatively affected by things like perceived profit margin, perceived waste / inefficiency, etc. A consumer (owner) has to feel like they are getting a good deal all around. Negotiation research has proven that it is not only the result (perfect project) that makes both parties happy, it is more about the way you got there. For example, one side can get a really good deal, but still feel slighted if he felt he could have received a better deal.  This same perspective can happen on construction projects.

That said, assembling a project team is traditionally approached from the negative viewpoint.  By this I mean most decisions are made expecting things to go wrong. This is helpful in many respects because we often make choices related to the budget, contract, etc. for things that might go wrong, for piece of mind. We learn to ‘expect the unexpected’. These decisions matter because a perfect project does not exist, and our choices are for reality, or as a type of outcome insurance:  ‘a result I can live with.’ 

On the flip side, when picking our design and construction team we often discount good opportunities while anticipating the bad. Approaching from the negative side, we are leery, suspicious, even distrustful and condemning. Where’s the catch? They’re not really going to give me what they said they would. Everyone is a snake oil salesman! We can miss the chance to pick up on a human connection and the choice to work with someone who feels good in our gut, rather than in some impersonal risk profile analysis we do in our organizations. Usually on a tiebreaker between two candidate teams will a selection committee finally play the Humanity Card and say, Jones and Associates just feels like the right team to work with. 

For this reason, I am surprised more people do not trust their instincts and try to hire people outside of a structured selection process. Do your research and choose the team, delivery method and approach you feel the most comfort with regardless of what it is called or how it is described. Obviously you have to get everything you need to feel secure from a risk management standpoint, yet more of an effort can be made to take things at face value and approach selection positively. This starts a project relationship out with high satisfaction and good momentum, which is important if you want to land anywhere in the zip code of perfection.