3 methods for improving the complex relationship between the office & the field
by Gregg M. Schoppman
January 30, 2018

The Hatfields and the McCoys. The Earps and the Clanton Gang. The Yankees and the Red Sox. The Republicans and the Democrats. Adversaries make for the greatest plot lines. But what about the office and the field? A group that should be as cohesive as peanut butter and jelly often ends up as diametrically opposed as the gunslingers of old. How does an organization grow and prosper when the two elements of the business that are closest to the finished product exist in a strife-ridden environment? While the conditions in any firm may not be as dramatic as an old Western movie, there are often rocks in the road that create conflict.

What drives this conflict in the first place? For some organizations, there exists an age or generation gap. Superintendents are often the more senior officials in many firms. In other instances, there is sometimes a clash between college-degreed, white-collar employees versus trade-oriented, blue-collar employees. Lastly, there is simply a distance gap. Superintendents may be isolated on jobsites, with little interaction with the back office.

These circumstances are examples of barriers that need not exist. Whether the conflicts are simply constructs of personalities gone awry, cultural stereotypes or geography, it is imperative for firms to overcome these divisions to develop world-class teams.

1. Define the Alpha

Who is driving the truck? It sounds extremely basic to talk about the leader of projects, but all too often, firms fail to identify the project leader, which creates friction. This is about establishing roles and responsibilities. Some organizations rely on managing with the proverbial two-headed monster approach, in which both the project manager and superintendent lead. This can be a huge mistake. It is often said that teams with two quarterbacks have no quarterbacks. The same can be said for this model.

Without a true project lead, where does the buck stop? Who makes the difficult decisions? How do you create organizational accountability with no single point of leadership? In the end, firms struggle with this because it creates an uncomfortable internal dynamic. How do I tell this 50-year-old superintendent that they report to this 30-year-old manager? This should be less about barking orders to the veteran superintendent, and more about how the two will collaborate. More importantly, where does the fiscal responsibility lie within the firm? If the manager is the custodian of the cost report—with obvious input from the field—that is where the alpha designation should lie. To use another illustration, the project manager and superintendent are the right and left arms. Both are equally important, but one is dominant because they control mission-critical functions.

2. Force the Collaboration

With roles defined, it is important to institute processes that drive true collaboration. Without collaboration, the superintendent becomes an isolated player on a remote island, even if the project is just around the corner. Firms talk about collaboration, but what does it even mean? Margaret Heffernan, a businesswoman and public speaker, talks about creating superior teams. Heffernan describes the three aspects of successful teams:

  1. High degrees of social sensitivity—There is a high level of emotional intelligence amongst the team members
  2. High interactivity—The teams converse on a routine basis in a way that it looks less like work and more like water-cooler chatter
  3. High number of women team members—For many construction organizations, this remains a hurdle

Notice there was no mention of superior talent. In fact, Heffernan discusses this in a recent TED Talk. She refers to a study conducted by William Muir, a Purdue scientist studying productivity in chickens. In short, the population of “super chickens” that Muir studied as one sample failed to excel and destroyed itself through over-aggression, destruction and waste. The “normal” population was profoundly more productive without the superstars. So, what does this say about the construction industry? There is constant clamoring about the lack of talented people entering the industry. What if firms were to focus on their internal machinations to drive superior performance? Create the following processes with a different mindset:

  • Preconstruction planning—Rather than simply using the perfunctory checklist, have the manager and superintendent answer the question of how they will build a successful project and what issues they must overcome to do so.
  • Closeout—Much like preconstruction planning, what does the project need to be truly complete? What issues will the project encounter? How will the team respond to those issues?
  • Budget generation—Enlist the field to create their own budget. Realigning the costs where the field feels it will serve the project interests, rather than simply regurgitating the estimate with little to no buy-in.
  • Collaboration is quickly becoming an overused business term. To avoid the cliché, focus on real interactivity that supports the project goals.

    3. Reward the Unit

    In football, there are plenty of trophies for everything, from the most valuable player to the league champion. For the firm, what trophies do the team members hoist in the end? Is it the nice, fat bonus check that comes as the result of superior buyout, or some other accolade that is achieved through individual merit? First, it is important to note that firms should celebrate superior individuals and top talent. Meritocracies are great for driving superior performance. However, if this is the only metric system the firm relies on, there is a serious danger of isolating groups that contribute equally to project successes, but do not have the ability to show directly through a work-in-progress report or other financial instrument. Assuming the project is successful and was driven by successful adherence to the firm’s collaborative processes, the team should be recognized and celebrated. Consider the football analogy—the team is acknowledged as a whole. While they may be singled out for individual accomplishment, the team name is on the trophy.

    It is easy to look at the successful firms and say, “Wow, that team must have really connected.” The challenge is in creating systems that allows the connections to occur. For many firms, teams are driven by the status quo related to their traditional organizational structure or some medieval compensation system that fails to drive any behaviors. The only result is the antiquated paradigm of “us versus them,” or “the field versus the office.” Change the system to avoid being another cliché.