10 July 2013: I’m a sports fan. When Gareth Bale finishes a dazzling run with another goal for Tottenham Hotspur, or Brett Stewart runs in a try for Manly at Fortress Brookvale, I’m up out of my seat punching the air. I understand the lure of competition; it’s a primal need met, the thrill of the chase, and the satisfaction of the win. Sport is competition and competition, for me, should be about sport.
In business though I’m not so sure. I certainly feel that thrill when positioning for a project; getting on the bid list, preparing a proposal, presenting expertise at interview and the buzz of getting that call to say “you’re on”. So far, so good. But quickly the doubts start to creep in – did we under-price the job? Can we meet the client’s expectations and still turn a profit? Margins are tight, fees are low.
When the folly of rampant capitalism and unchecked commercial competition came to hit us all in the face in 2008 it brought about a global shock that you would have thought would have made us stop in our tracks and look for a better way (except, of course, that it had all happened before and the lessons remained unlearnt). The aftershocks have continued and even in the relatively sheltered economic conditions that Australia has enjoyed the construction industry has seen a series of failures of significant builders and sub-contractors. Consultants have soldiered on through even tighter fee competition that is fuelling a commercialisation of our profession and leaving staff and clients alike increasingly underwhelmed.
But there is a better way. It’s called collaboration.
As a principal at Arup I am pretty convinced that I can call upon the expertise of the finest collection of engineers and specialists that any global organisation has assembled. Our record stands for itself. But I also know that we don’t have a monopoly on the best ideas. Whisper it quietly but… there may be some things that other consultants do better than us. And for sure there are some projects that are just too large, complex and high risk for us to take on ourselves. In these circumstances we collaborate with our peers.
As a building services engineer I know how reliant we are on the expertise of the whole supply chain to get our designs turned into reality. I don’t want to have to pretend that my opinions the best just because “I’m the consultant“ and spend my energies arguing with the sub-contractor even though their views are perfectly valid. And let’s be honest sub-contractors know a lot more about the practical challenges of actually installing and commissioning systems than consultants.
Projects should be a collaboration between clients, consultants, main contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers. The process should be designed such that each party adds maximum value whilst respecting the necessity of a fair commercial return for all concerned. This has to create a better outcome for the client than a series of dumb price driven competitive processes to get everyone on board at the tightest possible margins followed by arguments over cost-cutting and variations.
I am currently working on a project where an informed client procured a consultant team considered best for the job and had appointed a main contractor before the DA had even been submitted.
We had access to key sub-contractors during the design process and benefited from their value engineering input as we developed the design. They are now undertaking design finalisation on a D & C [design and construct] basis, hand in hand with our engineers and with the objective not of points scoring or cheapening the scheme for commercial advantage but of creating the best outcome for the client in a collaborative manner. Not only do I genuinely believe that the client will get a better result from this process but it has been one of the most enjoyable projects I can remember being involved in.
Clients in the private sector have choices in how they set up their projects and the gains are there to be had if they are bold enough to do things differently. In the public sector the spectre of probity acts as a deterrent and we need even braver and more visionary leadership to break the mould and demonstrate how collaborative processes can be achieved using fair and transparent procurement.
For our economy to thrive it needs a stable and secure construction industry operating efficiently and delivering a quality product. By demonstrating collaborative behaviours throughout the supply chain we have the opportunity to show that there is a better way and to thereby encourage our clients to believe that simple competitive tendering of services, be it in consulting or in contracting, is not the best way to achieve a successful and enjoyable project.
Doing so may be easier said than done however. In the world of work, and certainly in the construction industry, we like to live in our heads, making rational decisions that we believe will create the best outcomes in a measured and logical manner. In reality we are driven as much by our emotions and in a competitive environment we tend towards the alpha male (or female) emotions of fear and anger. Collaborative processes on the other hand require us to adopt a more emotionally intelligent approach involving generosity, support, mutual respect, even being prepared to expose our weaknesses and vulnerabilities in pursuit of a better experience and result for all. A humanistic approach we might call it.
Andrew Pettifer is a building services engineer, Arup principal and Tottenham Hotspur supporter. Twitter @andrewpettifer