Why Must We Fight, Dear? A Look Into Conflict On Our Projects and How To Stop The Fighting

In social settings, whether business or personal, we meet new people. A common conversation starter is to ask what the other person does for a living. When I get asked this question, I say “I work in construction." The other person will often press a little further and ask “so what does that mean?” I have some generic answers like “I manage projects” or “I help contractors with their projects." Sometimes, I offer a more descriptive answer like “Right now, I am scheduling work for an airport runway project” or “I am overseeing work for a building foundation." However, recently my frustration has gotten the best of me and I simply answer “I fight."

The inevitable next question I get is: “What do you mean – fight?”  

The answers are many:

  1. Contractors fight with owners over interpretation of the contract terms and scope of work, mostly AFTER they both sign it attesting that they understand its contents.

  2. This leads to owners fighting with their engineers and architects over why the contractor is misinterpreting the drawings.

  3. To cover themselves, engineers fight with contractors to enforce specifications because they perceive the contractor to be skipping important details.

  4. During all this office fighting, superintendents and their crews fight unforeseen conditions, weather, labor shortages (both in skill sets and headcount) and impossible schedules.

  5. All parties fight over money – how much should some material or service cost, how much should be paid to those who provide it, when should it be paid (if ever) and what should be withheld (a result of some other fight).    

  6. When we can longer fight for ourselves, we pay lawyers and experts to fight for us.

Photo credit: vladacanon/Shotshop.com

Photo credit: vladacanon/Shotshop.com

This list is not intended to offend or cast blame among any of our friends in the business, whether contractor, engineer, owner or lawyer.  We all play a necessary role in our projects. However, if you ask anyone on a project what they enjoy most about their work, I am certain that fighting isn’t on the list. Most people just want to get the job done well and move on to the next one.  

So, how do we stop fighting and get the job done? Two examples of the solution come to mind:

  1. I’ve recently been working with a claims expert on a client’s project and he offered some advice: “Begin every project as if you are going to court.” I agree, but this often gets interpreted as documenting every possible nuance and variance we walk past that could be used either to make a claim against or defend a claim from another party. While documenting work is a good practice on many levels, I think it might promote more fighting than it prevents all the while sucking time away from actually leading the project.  

  2. On the flip side, I attended a conference on improving field productivity where a fellow attendee and contractor posed this question to the group: “When are we going to get back to doing work on a hand-shake and stop throwing paper at each other?” While I am an optimist, I am not naive enough to think that we don’t need contracts and the occasional support of lawyers and experts.  

Photo credit: Pixabay.com

Photo credit: Pixabay.com

Perhaps the solution is a blend of agreeing as professionals, first, how we will work together and second, documenting how we’re going to do that.  This first step is really about trust while the second step is so we don’t forget.  Any successful relationship is based on the trust that each party, while rightfully guarding their own agenda, does have the other’s best interests in mind.  It seems the first step is often skipped or quickly forgotten when projects drift off course.

At this point in time, our industry desperately needs people who can work together, especially considering the challenge of just finding enough people to do the work.

In a future posts, I will be exploring methods on how to learn to work together and build trust between parties. Your ideas and comments are welcome.

Mission Critical Operations (MC Ops) is a construction management & advisory consultancy focused on improving quality, schedule and financial performance on high-profile and potentially contentious projects throughout the nation.