What does real collaboration look like?

3 min read

It is universally accepted that a united team is greater than the sum of its parts and that true collaboration is a vital condition for programme success. 

Yet the construction industry, long built on adversarial relationships, has always had a reputation for collaborating poorly. Rightly or wrongly, collaboration is often seen as a solution to all of our problems – but what does a genuinely collaborative project team look like? What does it mean in practice? 

In this article, Stephen Burrowes, a construction director from Mace’s residential construction business, explores how we can create genuinely collaborative project teams and how this can ensure projects are delivered effectively. 

Getting it right from the start

On a construction project, collaboration can’t be introduced half way through a programme once things have begun to go wrong. It needs to be baked in at the beginning, achieved by establishing genuine shared goals, measurements and behaviours from the outset. Working together from the beginning to make it clear that success is only achieved if everyone is pulling in the same direction.

At Greenwich Peninsula, a complex and challenging residential construction project, we built a true collaborative model from the outset, creating a project charter with the client, consultants and subcontractors. Going beyond regular project milestones, our project charter established shared goals, behaviours and has set out clear roles and responsibilities. 

Creating the charter together and agreeing the targets meant that it had buy-in across the full spectrum of the team – and that in turn led to real trust and commitment. It made a huge difference to how the project team talked to each other and worked together; a reference point to guide good teamworking behaviours. 

Creating a collaborative culture

In order to ensure that risks on a project are flagged in advance, you need to create a blame-free culture where issues are raised without fear of reprisal – and that means creating an environment where people feel comfortable collaborating and working together across teams.  

This is hard to achieve, and it can only happen organically. The leadership team need to instil that attitude in the way they work every day in order for it to become the accepted way of working. It helps to break down silos and gives individuals a wider pool of experts to consult with and learn from.

The old adage of ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ rings true. True collaboration and a blame-free culture lead to problems or risk areas being identified earlier and encourages solutions to be openly discussed. Bringing together the technical skills, experience and diversity of thinking from the wider team helps to find a better solution faster.

Keeping momentum going

Once you’ve got your collaborative approach all agreed, it is easy to sit on your laurels and assume you’ve got the job done. Sadly, things are never that easy. Projects and programme are complex and challenging, and it’s very easy for bad behaviours to re-emerge when the going gets tricky. 

Regular project meetings need to be structured and run in a way that reinforces the collaborative cultures you’re trying to create. If done correctly, they can serve as a regular refresher; an opportunity to discuss any issues, share knowledge, brainstorm solutions and create efficiencies. But those meetings are only effective if they are genuine two-way conversations where all parties feel able to speak freely. 

Again, this has to come from the top – the project leadership needs to follow the rules as well. 

Effective communication 

Unsurprisingly, communication is always the key to collaboration. Effective communication means messages are delivered in the right way, at the right time and to the right people. If your teams are swamped with updates and long reports, it’s hard for them to engage effectively with each other. At Greenwich, our team have made a conscious effort to reduce their email communication, preferring face to face meetings to help messages land with the right tone and allow for two-way conversations.

In order to ensure that your approach crosses not just the project team but also over to the client, you need to consider the relationship itself as something that requires attention. Formal roles to maintain communication across different parts of the project team and client can help to drive this – but more important is a mindset that values the relationship as something that needs to be maintained to ensure operational effectiveness. 

Walk the walk! 

True collaboration works when all parties come together with a desire to reach a shared goal to the benefit of all. The sharing of knowledge, resources and experience can bring a better perspective to all aspects of a project creating efficiencies and inspiring team work.

Bad collaboration happens when people are paying lip service to the idea but aren’t actually communicating effectively. If your teams don’t believe that they can learn from each other, then they’ll never improve delivery together. That means that everyone has to listen – and it means that the leadership on a project need to set an example for others to follow. You have to walk the walk! 

Beyond ensuring project success, true collaboration builds team spirit and trust and helps to create relationships that last the distance, beyond this project and onto the next and the one after that. It’s a vision that Mace was built on – and one that remains at the heart of everything we do.