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By Neal Flesner, Ventura Consulting Group

Every so often, I get to travel to some far-out places to work with construction teams in developing their strategic plan for project success. Kauai is no exception. With a day to spare prior to some work at the PMRF site on the Southeast side of the island, I thought I might travel up to the North Shore to check things out. The beaches were beautiful, the foliage was green and lush, and on this day, Laird Hamilton (a surfing legend, who calls the North Shore of Kauai his part-time residence) was surfing on a hydrofoil surf board. It was almost like he was walking 2 feet above the wave!

I was baffled, amazed and befuddled. In speaking to someone on the beach, they informed me that Laird had helped design this type of board and that he is out there all of the time doing this kind of crazy engineering. So, I left the beach with my jaw dragging in the sand and headed back into town to grab some food. Walking through a store I noticed a copy of “Force of Nature” by Laird Hamilton. Still perplexed by his Jedi like movements above the wave just an hour ago, I picked up the book to see if I could find any insight, inspiration or explanation for what I witnessed.

Turning the pages I found some great nuggets that really stood out. It was a how-to guide of being just like Laird Hamilton….or at least drinking the same smoothie diet and ab exercises that he prescribed. What if anything does this have to do with construction you might ask? Well, here’s where the application begins! Sometimes goal setting on construction projects can get a little bit stale. Someone in a group might refer to the old “3-legged stool” on a construction project. Another person might doubt if we can do anything extraordinary on our project. These perspectives occasionally lead to a set of uninspiring, boring and limited goals on construction projects. Laird had a different mindset when it came to goal setting. He talked about the importance of charting your destination and understanding that you are not just going to “wake up one day as a World Champion.”

Laird sets out 5 key steps to goal setting, which can be applied to construction projects.

1.  Visualize. Clearly define what it is you want to accomplish. What will the final product look like? What will be the results if we finish this project and it is extraordinary? Laird gives the example of Michelangelo, who is quoted as saying that he could see the sculpture in the rock before he began to carve, his job was merely to remove the excess stone. You can use this process on your project. Engage with your team members. What would be the benefit of having an amazing team on this project? What would be the results? Where would we sit at the end of our job if we delivered a championship level product? We have done this in our workshops and the answers and ideas will astound you. Everyone wants to win. Visualize what that place looks like.

2.  Make it Challenging. Laird makes a great and really eye-opening point, “when it comes to setting goals, people often underestimate themselves. Everyone suffers from a collective case of low self-esteem.” What is possible? Contractors, owners, subs, CM’s often get bogged down in this part of goal setting by limiting themselves to the contract. “Well the contract states that we have 2 years to complete this project.” I’ll let you in on a little secret. First, the contract was constructed in a bubble, by a bunch of engineers making their best guess. Second, many aspects of the contract (RFIs, submittals) have deadlines that aren’t based on any scientific data. Just an arbitrary line drawn in the sand. The CM has 30 days to review submittals and provide responses just because someone thought that is how long they should get. Seriously. Not kidding. Many of the deadlines in construction have no real basis, except for years of human procrastination. Challenge yourself. If you are setting a high goal, don’t set it too high, or you will quit very soon. Conversely, if you set an easy or uninspiring goal, you will not put in much effort, you will avoid planning you will participate in procrastination and the easy goal suddenly becomes hard and things can go South. Set up a challenging goal that will take work, collaboration and preparation. When you focus on these elements, things happen….and not just by a matter of chance.

3.  Improvise Along the Way. Laird really says it well here, “Don’t be rigid about how you are going to get to your goal. Life doesn’t necessarily obey the schedule that you have come up with in your head. If things are going according to plan, take a fresh look at the plan.” Man, do some project managers need to hear this. I see this quite a bit. Circumstances, people, conditions and loads of other things can change at the drop of a hat on project. It is not what happens, but how quickly we can change or modify its impact to our project. How quickly can a decision be made? If we have an impact, what else can we do instead? Point being is, quit looking at challenges. They are going to be there. Look for the opportunities that they can present and make hay. Laird says, “If there are no waves, or it is too hard to go surfing, conditions might be right for another activity, such as biking, swimming or training.” So next time your run into a bad day of waves (I mean challenges on your job), what else can be done? Where is the opportunity?

4.  Accept that there will be Obstacles. This one sounds a little basic, right? Of course there is going to be obstacles. Duh! Here is what separates good teams from Championship teams. The ability to develop and put into place contingency plans for the predictable and unpredictable mishaps that might occur. We say that great teams can often identify 80% of the predictable challenges that they might encounter on a project. If that is really the case, they could probably prevent or at least mitigate almost any impact to the project., quickly. Acknowledge amongst the team that we will have challenges. Put in place a plan to deal with those challenges. Most importantly, when solving the challenges, put your relationships first. Don’t let the team sour because of some adverse conditions. Work together and through the problem. Remember its not the number of issues that you encounter, but rather how quickly you can solve the issue and keep things moving forward.

5.  Allow Satisfaction (But Keep Your Edge). After an accomplishment, achievement of a goal or maybe just reaching a critical milestone there is a benefit to recognizing the achievement and celebrating with your peers. Laird talks about the let down or depression that might follow a big accomplishment or milestone. He also makes a reference to Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam, who talks about the post-big-show blues. Which can happen, but is not what I want to focus on here. Rather, looking at a championship team that reaches a critical milestone, has a long standing safety record or is rating themselves as extraordinary. A client once said, this can be a danger zone. Once great becomes the norm, complacency and stagnation can follow. You can’t get complacent, don’t get satisfied. Celebrate the moment and then set some new goals and commitments.

Two closing thoughts that were mentioned to me by an Admiral in the US Navy. The first, he asked, “Have you seen that book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff?” He went on, “Well, that book is bullshit. You have to sweat the small stuff.” Large construction projects are challenging and the devil is in the details. Do it right! The second thing he said was, “Don’t be a ‘but’ man! Don’t be the guy that is always saying we can’t do things because of _______or we could do that, but.” Don’t be a ‘but’ man! Set your goals, work hard to achieve them and celebrate your success! Here’s to riding waves like Laird Hamilton…..or at least trying.

  • Reply

    William Davis

    15 08 2013

    good article Neal. right up your/our alleys!
    best regards, bd-tim ARTIC

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