A global pandemic may force us to rethink how Partnering contributes to successful project outcomes

by | Mar 24, 2020

A laptop screen shows construction project team members using partnering strategies in a video conferencing meeting

For over three decades now, Partnering has appeared in the contract specifications of many public works agencies, and often is mandatory on projects over $10 million.

What started originally by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — as an alternative dispute-resolution tool to arbitrations, litigations and courts with great measurable success — has become a one-size-fits-all approach for many heavy civil and other types of construction contracts in an effort to proactively (and early on) establish a good working relationship between the owner and the contractor team members, and agree on common project goals for all stakeholders to commit to and work toward achieving.

Those common project goals have become almost a template for partnering on projects: Safety, On Time, Within Budget and Quality being the cornerstones. Effective communication through Partnering and deployment of Dispute Review Boards are some of the tools utilized to achieve the outcomes every project aims for from the start.

Safety has been and continues to be the No. 1 goal for every project. Advancements in training, personal protection equipment and proactive safety tailgate meetings have contributed greatly to the culture and non-compromising expectation that everyone on the project deserves to return home safely to their families and loved ones.

This vital, focused and measurable goal has brought project stakeholders together, and became the bedrock of the project relationship upon which all other partnering goals are built. The strengths and weaknesses of those relationships will never be more exposed than during an emergency. Safety training and practices are designed to prevent accidents, and to function as a system and procedure to handle situations during an emergency.

With the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept across the globe, the construction industry must go into emergency response mode, and make those relationships work on the fly, given the role of our industry and our public works partners in protecting the integrity of our vital infrastructure and our workers.

True partnering has a core principle that goes beyond a signed charter or a facilitated partnering session. It is a true commitment of every team member to the success of every other team member, which ultimately leads to a remarkable project. That requires open and collaborative communication, mutual problem-solving and trust, which often leads to innovative solutions to the inevitable challenges that come up, large and small, on every project.

Unfortunately, partnering in many cases, has become another task — a series of “sessions” that many on a project team view as something to endure, not to embrace. “Just checking the boxes,” to meet contract specification, or worse, something to be called upon urgently to fend off a looming and costly dispute. In some instances, when project leaders opt to utilize partnering only on-demand, or “as needed” instead of as a regular maintenance and enhancement to their commitment to their project goals, often these on-call partnering sessions end up becoming mediation and intervention sessions.

The other flaw that has emerged with project partnering is that it can be dismissed as too “touchy-feely,” personality and chemistry based, depending on how well key project leaders get along on a specific project. The ability to sustain or replicate the success of one project to the next depends largely on the attitude of individuals, and their ability to work collaboratively and cohesively with the new project team members. Often past history, reputation or perceptions, play a factor before the project even begins.

Finally, partnering is, in my opinion, overdue for a disruption by the use technology, similar to what we have seen in so many other areas of our lives. As currently configured, partnering is too labor-intensive, requiring trained facilitators, follow-up in-person sessions to maintain the momentum at an offsite location away from the daily disruptions. This requires allocation of many hours by attendees away from production. This investment in planning and coordination of key project personnel has contributed to the cancellation or postponing of partnering sessions as team members deal with more urgent matters.

Should we replace traditional partnering with a phone app? Not exactly. What I am suggesting, however, is partnering needs a refresh and a rebalancing, aided by technology. We are seeing this phenomenon with the COVID-19 crisis. Companies and agencies are scrambling to rethink how they perform work with a high degree of emphasis on outcomes over output. Prevention awareness and education, instead of dealing with curing an infection, is one of the lessons we need to apply to partnering, as we battle through this pandemic.

Upfront investment in online training and communication before the project begins will develop skills by all project participants before the actual work starts. The use of technology tools that are available now can be utilized to prompt project participants to take the various steps needed to keep the project moving and track risks and issues as they arise real-time, before they turn into disputes.

In this unprecedented time of our lives, we need more partnering now than ever before. Though our in-person communication may be altered temporarily by the current pandemic, more innovative virtual meetings and communication tools are being utilized to maintain our focus on our common goals. We will emerge from this crisis as a society and an industry, stronger and more resourceful than ever before.

Sam Hassoun is a licensed civil Engineer who worked at Bechtel Inc. and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). In 2001, he founded Global Leadership Alliance (GLA Corp.), a Partnering and management consulting firm based in Sacramento, Calif. GLA consultants have contributed to the success of hundreds of projects across the United States and internationally with a total project value of more than $40 billion. Sam Hassoun was named one of the Top 25 Newsmakers in the United States for 2019 by “Engineering News Record” magazine.

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