1600 words: 10-minute read

I was recently in conversation with a Building Information Modelling (BIM) leader. I’ll call her Louise.

She was curious about why project teams sometimes struggle to deliver the productivity gains BIM is there to support.

In our exchange she had a light-bulb moment. I’ve summarised how she got there below in the hope it may help others too.

Me: So tell me what you need to get done but find difficult.

Louise: I guess it’s to do with getting project teams to be more collaborative.

Me: Tell me more.

Louise: The business case for BIM’s contribution to productivity during a building’s design, build and operational phases is slowly being won. We can now point to concrete examples of saved time and costs by using it.

Of course some still think it’s just an expensive, time-consuming, 3-D modelling tool, used only by designers and constructors, but as more adopt the technology these views will start to look a bit dated.

Me: Progress.

Louise: Indeed. In fact that’s what attracted to me to this work in the first place. I have a bit of a disruptive streak in me!

Me: And is there a ‘but’?

Louise: BIM makes it much easier to visualise all aspects of a building and quickly identify problems at an early stage, but I still see project teams struggling to collaborate.

Me: What is it you see?

Louise: It’s not easy to describe. It’s more like an uneasy feeling I get after being with a team for a short while.

Me: Can you zoom in on an example and describe it to me?

Louise: I sat in on a meeting last week. The project team had been up and running for about 3 months. Their meeting focused on clashes in the latest iteration of their BIM model. But I felt they were pulling in opposite directions at times.

Me: Can you be a little more specific, especially on ‘pulling in opposite directions’?

Louise: Mmmm let me think [pause].

I heard the structural and heating engineers start their sentences with “Yes but” a few times. The Tier 2 sub-contractors similarly; rather than build on ideas, conversations knocked them down. People seemed cagey, they weren’t being as open as they might be.

Me: Got it. What else did you notice?

Louise: Listening wasn’t great – I could tell because the responses of the main contractor and mechanical engineer suggested they hadn’t fully heard the question the client had asked.

Eye contact between the constructor’s designer and the architect was minuscule or non-existent. My sense was the former’s focus on cost invoked the latter’s concerns about jeopardsing the building’s aesthetic and context.

The BIM technician got distracted by texts on her mobile and, in effect, dropped out of the meeting to respond to them.

Me: Tell me what happened during any breaks, when people were in a less formal setting.

Louise: I guess there was what you might call “banter.” Though said in jest I can’t help wondering whether comments like “that’s typical of engineers,” “techies who do clicks not bricks and mortar” and “the client is never wrong” tell a truth people aren’t aware of but nonetheless have a negative impact.

It’s strange because the meeting focused on the right topics – costs, schedule, risks, clashes, design changes etc. – but people were driven by their own individual needs rather than those of the collective.

Does that make any sense?

Me: Completely.

I see this a lot. A team’s software tools may promote collaboration, but its culture can get in the way at times.

Tell me, what does collaboration mean to you?

Louise: Many think it’s one of those soft and fluffy words that means you must be nice to people. To me though it’s about working together to deliver mutual benefits.

Me: That seems like a helpful distinction.

I note in your example the project had been under way for about 3 months. That’s typically when tensions arise. It’s the point where trust and commitment are tested because tough decisions – say on time, costs and risk mitigation – need to be made. The so-called ‘Storming Phase’ of a team’s development.

Suppose the behaviours you observed in the team are connected to people thinking they may not get the benefits they hope for. In other words, to them, there isn’t sufficient mutuality. What is it team members want but fear they may not get?

Louise: Mmmm…hadn’t really thought about it like that before. [Pause]

Clients like the level of 3-D detail BIM offers: it helps then envisage how their building will work for its occupants from day one. But, judging by their questions, they sometimes worry that engineers and constructors focus on structural issues too much and take their eye off this ball. Similarly they’re wary about their budget being blown by delays and extortionate design-change costs.

I hear advisors and consultants talk a lot about how long things take. Perhaps that’s because they’re used to working from 2-D technology or are concerned about their number of billable hours, quality and professional reputation.

Contractors focus on what they tendered for compared to the current plan, perhaps because change requests are where they make their margin.

Me: These could all be factors. What about any personal worries team members may have?

Louise: Everyone has a home-team to report to as well as their project team. I guess some may be worried they will be seen to have failed if this project doesn’t generate enough revenues or deliver within a pre-set funding envelope.

I see contractors behaving as though they have the world on their shoulders. They carry the expectation that they’ll have to resolve client and sub-contractor issues alone. It’s as though they’re the ones that squeezed in the middle and perhaps why they often appear defensive.

More junior team members worry about not having the authority to take the kind of decisions the rest of the project team need them to. Others find the idea of getting that authority and being accountable scary.

Me: Are you any clearer on what may lay behind that disturbance you feel when with some project teams?

Louise: Much.

But what can I do about it? There’s a lot there.

Me: Take any one of the concerns you’ve mentioned. You’ve faced similar right? Have you ever ruminated on these, then found a way through when you least expected?

Louise: Yes. You mean like a light-bulb moment or an insight? It happens every so often.

In fact it’s just happened now.

Me: Can you describe it?

Louise: I’ll try. It seems to me that anxious thoughts narrow my capacity to be creative. Only when the ruminating stops do new possibilities arise.

Like a moment ago: having put myself in others’ shoes I can see why that team I mentioned might behave as it does more clearly.

Me: Yes, and the expression on your face has changed: you look lighter.

This makes perfect sense. All of us find it hard to contemplate mutuality when in survival mode. We naturally look at problems only from our own perspective. Which of course makes perfect sense if we think our existence is in danger.

Louise: Yes. That limitation is becoming crystal clear now.

It’s not that project members don’t care about doing a good job, the behaviours I see reflect their concerns about money and how their individual performance will be judged. Their capacity to see the long term upsides of BIM and its capacity to help them ingeniously reduce costs AND improve margins, isn’t available to them whilst they’re caught up on these trains of thought. That’s what hinders collaboration.

[Louise looked quite excited now] I’ll tell them and make sure they change their mind.

Me: Will that work?

Louise: Say more.

Me: How did your light-bulb moment just happen? Was it something I said, or did it occur of its own accord?

Louise: It just came to me.

Me: That’s what I saw. And as that worked for you, so it works for all of us. We’re designed that way.

Once we realise for ourselves just how inhibitive our personal thinking habits can be – and neuroscience helps a lot in this regard – we’re open to new possibilities in ways we wouldn’t otherwise be.

Just like you, once you got curious about why you felt troubled when with a project team, and looked at the situation from others’ standpoints, your uncomfortable emotion started to dissolve, clearing a path for new thinking that brought clarity.

Had you shrugged your feelings off and ignored them this wouldn’t have been possible: you’d have been left with just one option – to do what you’ve always done.

Louise: You mean if project teams notice how uncomfortable emotions are held in place by their unique trains of thought, they develop a capacity to shift their mood and restore their focus on mutual benefits?

Me:  Pretty much.

Collaboration comes naturally when we feel psychologically safe. We only lose it when our thinking habits create fear and tip us into survival mode.

In safe mode generative conversations about what’s in our best interests and those who depend on what we do become easier. That doesn’t mean there aren’t differences or challenges to confront – these are inevitable – but it does mean our perception of them changes: they become opportunities to innovate rather than threats to a team’s cohesiveness.

To me this is what high-performing team cultures are about. When people have purpose and feel psychologically safe, delivering the productivity gains BIM investment is usually based on, becomes easier. Not least because teams have light bulb moments of their own whenever things feel a little tough.

It seems to me culture alongside technology makes the difference in ways either of them as two standalones can’t.

Louise: And if as leader I help teams create these cultures, I won’t have to worry about them so much?

Me: That’s how it looks to me. You will have increased their capacity to take the lead by themselves when needed.

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