By Neal Flesner and Jim Eisenhart

While many of us have mastered the art of emailing, texting, tweeting, Facebook Messenger and other electronic communication, verbal communication is still the best way to effectively communicate on a construction project.

A form of digital communication we try to discourage when facilitating problem projects is email. Although email is trackable and can deliver a message to a team member quickly, it’s not appropriate for all types of messages, it may be overlooked and it can be easily misinterpreted. As part of the project turnaround process, we tell our project teams, “When you can meet, don’t call. When you can call, don’t email.”

We’ve found that email tennis wastes at least 60% of your time and the time of your fellow team members. Do emails or letters ever solve problems or create opportunities for success? Rarely. Are emails invariably misinterpreted by those who read them? Yes!

If you want to improve communication on your project, suggest to your project team that, from this point forward, team members will exchange zero email communication except to communicate facts or data. If necessary, mutually and verbally agree if it would be useful to have a confirming email of your important conversations.

Here’s how it works:

  • If any team member receives an email from a teammate that should have been discussed first, he or she should immediately call the teammate back and suggest having a conversation.
  • If necessary, visit the site jointly and verbally agree or disagree on the circumstances.
  • On international teams and even on domestic teams, supplement your conversation with drawings and pictures if it adds clarity to the conversation.
  • If you find it necessary to complain, do it directly one-on-one. Address the process rather than blaming the individual(s). For example, you might say, “Jack I’m concerned that this submittal package is going to be late unless we expedite it. Can we get a team together before the end of the week to talk about it?

Many problems on a construction project stem from different assumptions about interpreting drawings, site conditions, priorities, one another’s intentions, how a design-build project should work, how submittals should be expedited, and so forth.

One of our clients provides a solution for this challenge: “When we start a project and get an 8,000-page set of drawings, it’s important that we understand the owner’s meaning behind them. Only by talking about what they want and how the system is really supposed to function for them makes it easier for us to truly satisfy them.”

How do world-class project teams communicate? Here are some useful guidelines:

  • Solve it verbally or, better yet, face to face and follow the communication protocol suggested above.
  • Avoid surprises or if there are surprises, immediately communicate them verbally to your partner.
  • Avoid whining or complaining. Make requests to meet or resolve the problem.
  • Be inclusive. Bring those who can contribute to a solution into the conversation.
  • Enter the conversation with recommended solutions.
  • Seek mutual understanding of the situation or of what happened, without case building or blame. Solve it first, as a team, and then deal with accountability for what happened if necessary. Acknowledge what you do not know.

A senior project manager whose been involved with two projects that have won AGC of America Marvin M. Black Awards for Partnering Excellence, explains how this works: “Get all the people in the room and get real with them. Make sure they know they have a stake in the game and can affect the outcome. Hear their concerns and treat them with respect. Then, get a personal commitment from them to work on the solution and stick with it. Finally, follow through with your commitments and keep them accountable on theirs.”

Here are examples of what that looks like in action:

  • A GC talks with an owner: “Sue, I have a concern that we will not have access to area C in two weeks to enable us to complete the structural steel in accordance with our schedule. Can we have a meeting with Bill and Sam to talk about how we can prevent or mitigate this?”
  • A designer verbally communicates to the project owner, and the GC: “Given the number of RFIs that we can expect in the next two to three months, I’d like to meet with Larry (elec. Sub), Ted (elec. Subconsultant), Joe (CM), as well as you all no later than next Friday to talk about how we can keep the job moving and ensure our resources are being deployed efficiently. Is there anyone else to invite who might contribute to the resolution of this issue?”

We have seen problem projects improve by at least two points on our 10-point “Good-to-World-Class teamwork scale just by adopting and adhering to the aforementioned communication protocol.

Parts of this article are based on an excerpt from Jim Eisenhart’s project success guide, Turning the Problem Construction Project into Extraordinary Success, which is copyrighted (2016©). All rights reserved. The author grants permission to reproduce and distribute if credit to the source document and Jim Eisenhart is maintained.

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