Avoiding Conflict Escalation on Projects

Posted on October 20, 2011


A couple years ago I tuned into an AIA webinar that described ways architects could avoid legal issues on projects. Some of the points I picked up have sufaced from time-to-time, luckily on projects I have not worked on. It seems relevant to relate a few of the more useful, universal ideas, which are particularly applicable to healthcare owners on their projects with designers and builders.

Legal troubles grow from escalated conflict, and there are three main areas where conflict escalation is ripe on a project:  contract, project-specific, and behavior issues.

Contract Issues

For a professional providing service to a hospital, the Scope of Services and Terms and Conditions in a contract receive the most attention, and the four aspects of a contract that get the most negotiation focus are issues of time, scope, fee and indemnification. The value of the contract is a tool should not be underestimated, as noted by Barry LePatner in his book Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets. However, it is a tool that is legally equitable where one-sided contracts may not even be enforceable—and driving a hard bargain on every issue starts a project off on the wrong foot. Professionals provide services for a fee, and that fee includes profit.

Key Contract Concerns:

  • Manage expectations from the beginning
  • Clearly define basic and additional services
  • Understand a contract is never perfect or complete
  • A change in service requires an equitable adjustment in fee


Project-Specific Issues

No two projects run the same path, but each project has industry-recognized and defined stages:  master planning, schematic design,…warranty / close out. This is where a clear scope of work is important to define what will be done, by whom and when, what can be done for additional fee, and what will be the responsibility of others. Communicate the urgent or essential decisions that enable work to proceed. Everyone must understand some activities are prerequisites for others, and will hold up work if not done. Everyone’s relationship to the critical path, defined as the coordinated order of work necessary to accomplish the project in the expected time period, is important to delinate.

Key Project-Specific Issues:

  • Professionals can only recommend to an owner based on past experience; ultimately the owner must make the value decisions, those choices involving time and money
  • A project is, at times, a fluid, non-linear process involving a lot of people and activities every day; a “small change” rarely affects only one person or discipline, and…
  • …Any change has the potential for a ripple effect—and ripple effects cost more money the later in the project they occur
  • Owners should have a clear and consistent decision-making process with final project direction coming from one person
  • Checks and balances benefit everyone, which is why an architect performing construction administration (CA), or securing multiple and frequent cost estimates are good ideas


Behavior Issues

Project or not, each person has the potential to rankle another person—even if everyone wants what is best for the project. Eliminating behavior and personalities as project roadblocks includes being a proactive, direct communicator who is reasonable and professional. Egos cost a lot of companies a lot of money.

Key Behavior Concerns:

  • Each participant has legal red flag behavior to manage.  Be aware:  delayed decisions or not prompt payment by the owner; CYA memos from the engineers; never-ending or expensive design development by the architect; excessive RFIs or claims for time by the builder
  • Share information. Confront issues asap. Talk through assumptions.
  • De-personalize the process and focus on project issues and conmmon interests:  participants need not be fishing buddies, but they do need to get the project designed and built

A healthcare project is a complex enough challenge, maybe the most difficult of all design and construction out there, without the additional drag of avoidable team conflict. Everyone involved needs to hone their conflict recognition, prevention and management skills to be successful in avoiding legal issues. And remember:  many hidden costs lurk in legal concerns. The legal system provides no financial discount if you are correct—it still costs money to fight. Many a Pyrrhic victory has been claimed to the benefit of no one. 

Good luck and get designing and building!