Sue Dyer is the host of the Construction Dream Team podcast, as well as the president of OrgMetrics. Listen to Sue’s conversation with Dodge’s Ben Johnson, host of “A Podcast That Builds”, where they discuss Sue’s report “7 Root Causes of Poor Project Communication”. You can read the full construction podcast’s transcript below and download the original report here.
Hello and welcome to “A Podcast That Builds”. I’m your host Ben Johnson. And on the show today we have Sue Dyer who is host of the Construction Dream Team podcast as well as the President of OrgMetrics in Livermore, California. I believe. So welcome to the show Sue, and perhaps you could give a bit more on your background in the industry.
Well, thank you for letting me be a part of your podcast. I’m very excited to be here. Yeah, I actually worked in the industry since about 1980 when I became the executive director of what is now the second largest construction trade association in California. And in that role, I negotiated with all the construction crafts and developed a process that we call non-adversarial negotiating and took a non-adversarial approach to everything that we did. A and then that eventually I was invited to be on the president’s council productivity improvement. And on a committee that where we created a, this outrageously interesting process we call tripartite, which was bringing together the owner, the contractor and the designer so that they could then cooperate, communicate, and collaborate. And in 1987 the corps of engineers named that process partnering. And so, I have been working on developing collaborative processes for teams since 1980 so a long, long time. And, we have worked on over 4,000 projects now and have in that role we really kind of see what works and what doesn’t work for a team. And so that’s kind of my background and I just love construction and this my life’s work to help teams to become more collaborative.
Well, we’re very pleased to have you on the show today, sue. And a, the reason where specifically our having you on the show today is to talk about construction project management communication. And more specifically to answer the question, what are the root causes of poor project communication in construction breakdown. Now I know you’ve created the list outlining seven root causes that lead to the breakdown in communication linked to that. A pdf can be found in the show notes for today’s show. But before we jump into the list, would you want to give some background on, on how this list was created?
Yes, please. That would be great. So, one of the things that we do at OrgMetrics is partnering facilitation, as I said, for different projects. And so, my team and I picked 140 oh, excuse me, 134 different projects where we conducted an exercise with the team as part of our partnering process and we ask the teams, okay, think about the very best project you’ve ever been on in your career. What was that made it successful? And then we ask the converse question. Think about the very worst project you’ve ever been on in your career and what was it that made it so awful? And the most interesting thing is that over 95% of the team members said that good communication was the reason for their success. And over 95% said that poor communication in construction was the reason for their failure. So, we’re going, this is very interesting.
Clearly the team believes that communication in construction is a key attribute to project success. Then after working on over, you know, all these different projects. At this time, it was around 2000 projects. We began to see that what the teams identified as a communication issue was actually a symptom of something else and not the root cause of what caused the communication problems. And then after working with these teams for the duration of the projects, we began to see that no matter how hard a team works at trying to improve their communication, it really doesn’t change. They can’t make a significant improvement until and unless they work to overcome the true root cause of the problem in the first place. So that’s really how this list came about. So, what we have identified so far, our seven root causes, and we still see these playing out on projects every day. So that’s how, that’s how it came to be.
All right, that makes perfect sense. Of course, anyone who spent time in construction knows that everything revolves around the team. Whenever you’d be asking someone how a project is going, they’re more likely to say something about their partners on the team going well or their partners going badly than even the actual construction itself. And of course, they are blaming communication. We had a lot of training about communication in construction and working with our project teams to help keep lines of communication open. But as you said a at it often seemed like a, there was something behind the lack of communication. There was, it didn’t just come out of a lack of communication that came from some deeper problem. So, your list goes directly there to the, the root causes of these communication breakdowns. So, do you want to take us through some of the list of seven that you’ve created?
I would love to do that. So, let me just walk them through these seven and I’ll tell you a little bit about each one of these. So, so the listeners will have a chance to, I kind of understand what we mean by each of these. So, a root cause, number one, fear. A fear makes the team feel they need to, their interests. We see this all the time in construction project management. When we feel the need to protect, we’re certainly not going to be open and honest and transparent. Therefore, our communication becomes stifled. Worse yet, our communication is likely to be an argument about why we are right and why you are wrong. And of course, this leads to all sorts of other things like letter writing, e missiles being sent, positioning, the inability to solve even simple projects can result. And so, fear like what people say, well they don’t even recognize its fear.
But if you’re not telling somebody your truth behind that is, I’m fairy to do it, I’m afraid to tell. So, fear is number one root cause. Number two is misaligned expectations. And when a team member, each of them has a different expectation on how things are. Quote, supposed to and quote work, you really have misaligned expectations. And we see this all the time, particularly when project teams are new to an organization, new to a type of delivery method. They’re using new kinds of technology. And so, if there’s confusion or misaligned expectations on how things are supposed to work, who supposed to do what? And no matter how hard each side tries, they just can’t seem to get together because they don’t understand there’s a misalignment. So, in a project team, what happens is that we both go into this project with the best of best in mind to do this wonderful thing together and it keeps playing out that we just are hitting these friction points over and over.
We don’t understand why. So, it has to play out for a while. Usually some time, some projects, the entire project before we understand that, oh you thought we you were supposed to be doing that. I thought I was supposed to be going that as well or no, I thought your role was this and my role was that. And so, it plays out and so communication in construction and relationships get damaged significantly. Root cause number three is confusion. Where there is confusion, chaos always breaks out. So, you look, and you look at your project and say, where is there sort of a chaotic thing going on. You probably have some confusion going on. And again, this can be over roles and responsibilities or over processes when people aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do. Not only does the team lose productivity, there is chaos and people move around trying to figure out how things are supposed to do.
So, they move around, let’s try, let’s try that, let’s drive here. And of course, eventually they just sit down and wait to the gas to go away or wait to find out what we’re supposed to do, get direction. And this, this is really true at all levels of construction project management. We see this happening at executive level, at the core team level, the design phase, the construction phase. We see this can happen anywhere. And if a decision isn’t made and no one understands how to implement it, then you’re going to end up with different people implementing different things and different solutions. And this is going to always lead to chaos. So, it, but it appears as though we just aren’t communicating and that’s what the team will tell each other. Well, we need to communicate better, but they’re probably communicating fairly well. It’s just that they don’t understand what they’re communicating is off a different playbook.
So, they got to get on the same playbook. Root cause. Number four, loss of momentum when everyone on the team is not in the boat facing the same direction, picking up the oar and rowing together for towards project success. Not my own interest but what’s the project success. The project loses momentum and the more frustration there is, the more loss of momentum you have. And we all know a project, you know, you’re trying to get your project to get into the flow and if you don’t get enough momentum, you don’t get into the flow and then frustration begins to grow. And it can be anywhere in your project. It could be from a subtrades to a design team. It’s really, really will flow everywhere because frustration a doesn’t have boundaries. It goes wherever it needs to for whatever the issue is. But it keeps, the team keeps trying.
They keep putting resources in energy. They try to get themselves excited, they move forward and then they get pulled back because of the frustration of not being able to move forward. And if this happens enough, the team will go flat and on a lot of projects, particularly on a long-term project, the teams go flat because of this reason. They didn’t gain enough momentum early on to kind of let the team sore. I think of an airplane taking off. It goes pretty steep upward trajectory to get a liftoff and then it can kinda store project teams have the same issues they need to get that liftoff and gained momentum and then watch their momentum. But when you don’t have a lot of momentum and you have frustration; a schedule gets behind communication switches to finger pointing and of course this just creates more loss of momentum.
Root cause number five. Dissatisfaction research shows that when project teams look forward to going to their job, they have a high level of job satisfaction. The project is highly likely to be on time and on budget. When the project teams get up in the morning and they dread going to the project, then this project is likely to be in trouble when a project is not fun to be on. Like we don’t have that level of satisfaction that we’re solving issues where identifying issues, we’re staying ahead, we’re meeting our milestones, we’re doing what we need to do. We have the decisions we need to get the momentum we need. Then the team starts to feel that sense of dread and it appears that the communication is hampered. And it does become hampered between the project teams because relationships get strained because we’re not feeling or believing that we’re, we can be successful. And so, dissatisfaction is root cause number five.
Root cause number six is lack of commitment. When people aren’t really committed to the success of your project, you have what we call in strategy slack. So, it’s like slack on a rope. It’s not taught you really don’t have a strong team focused on what it will take to succeed. Inadequate resources can cause slack. The construction project management team loses faith that they can achieve the project goals. Lack of communication in construction is usually the result. We’re seeing now teams that are fairly new and being thrust into uncomfortable, complicated situations often don’t feel that sense of commitment to achievement of their, of the overall project goal. It could be a specific milestone. And so, you’ve got others lack of commitment. Or if people have one foot in and one foot out like, well, I’m about to retire, we see that or I’m new, so I don’t really have to engage whatever the, the paradigm is.
It’s this lack of commitment. So, we really need our teams to be fully committed and unleash their resources on the team, their creativity as well as their, their efforts, physically root cause. Number seven, unconscious incompetence. So, what this really means, it’s a fancy way of saying you have people who don’t know what they don’t know. So inexperienced staff and face a very steep learning curve. And in this market where we have such shortages of, we’re seeing more and more people thrown into the deep end to kind of think of it like the Christians to the lions, you know, we’re going to throw you into the pit there. We’re hoping for the best that you don’t die. But that’s what happens. So even one inexperienced person in a key role is going to make a big problem for your team. Because think about it, if you don’t know, this is the kind of stuff, you’ll get an inspector who will look at the book, look at what the codes are, look at what the contract says, and they’ll be always spouting what the contract says. Instead of looking at, Oh, you know, wait, maybe we could move this around here and we can make that fit here. They don’t because they don’t know how to do that. They don’t know that they could do it. They just don’t know. And so, the focus on what is available to them is really the only thing they have. They have to learn to resolve specific issues as they occur. And so often documentation becomes their focus instead of problem solving. So those are the seven root causes of poor communication that we have uncovered so far.
And that is a fantastic list. I don’t know if you meant to a number of them as you did, but the, the first five I guess really just they seem like stairs downward toward a, you know project failures. They, everyone has fear about, you know, they are expectations are misaligned and they’re afraid to say, listen I don’t actually know what the expectation is for this project because you know, at the beginning it doesn’t, it seems like you’re probably supposed to know what the expectations were and then that spirals and then there’s some confusion because you’re talking to each other, but you’re actually thinking of different goals. Then the project loses momentum because you’re spending a lot of time wasting a lot of time working towards a different expectations or goals. You’d be end up becoming dissatisfied with the project and it becomes one of those jobs where you know, you, you walk into the, the job site office and the mood is just selling because everyone’s on a different page and they, you know, they blame each other and blame anyone they can. But the, the final product is a project that doesn’t succeed. And certainly the, the six and seven fit in to the, the, the sort of, the beginning of, of the, the downward spiral as well. But the fantastic list,
Well, great, well this is what we see over and over. And it’s interesting to see, especially on like loss of momentum. You’ll see that symptom, but people understand that they could actually do something about it or the misaligned expectations. We see this a lot. In fact, one of my facilitators was just telling me yesterday that she kicked off a partnering session in Memphis and she said this project had been going for a year and a half and no one understood that they didn’t agree on their roles
Exactly. And that they were, they were either totally blind to it or they thought, well, no, I’m not going to ask that. I’m afraid that I’m going to look like I have no idea what I’m talking about. It just was never at the beginning of the project. It was never properly gone through.
Yes. So, it plays out and pretty soon instead the vernacular gets to be, oh, this is just a, this project isn’t going well.
Yeah. Yeah. And everyone has a different way of classifying a project that is, you know, in trouble or spiraling or, you know, the being at your px on site every week because they they’re just too many problems to deal with. And there’s a breakdown in communications. So, nobody everyone’s afraid that they’re not representing their company, but you have some other insight into how to help avoid these root causes. And they only have a play out, but also ways that you can, you can avoid these pitfalls to begin with.
Well, I we do know that from looking at large projects and you know, large is, is relative. It really is because if you’ve only done a $5 million project, you’re doing a $50 million project that is a large project for your organization and for the systems you’ve developed bed for it. For us, for us, let’s look at the number of people and just think about the lines of communication that are needed and our potential, the more people you have. So, if you have two people working together, you have one line of communication. If you have three people working together, you have three lines of communication with four people, it jumps to six with 10 with five people, you have 10 lines of communication. Now with eight people, you have 28 lines of communication and with 20, and most of our projects have 20 people on them. That’s 190 lines of communication. And so, the larger your project gets, the more potential you have for these root causes to play out. And so, the more we need to do to really work towards making sure that if we see any of these, we, we put it on the table and start talking about it. You know, let’s make sure that we’re in alignment and that we’re focused on what we want, what we want to have happen together.
The other thing we’ve seen is that what problems on projects is, we call it a snowballing effect. If you look at the forensic studies of really large projects that fail, and really the same thing happens on the smaller projects. We’ve seen that enough. It is usually not a big, huge catastrophic issue, but this little issue that impacted this issue, that impacted this issue, and you start to get a domino effect. So, it snowballs until there is this negative snowballing that’s going on that’s really hard to stop. So, the bigger you are, the bigger the snowball can be. And really the why project teams need to always have a sense of urgency when things are, when you see any of these seven root causes, first thing is red flag. Let’s see if we can figure out what’s going on. Because you can, you can trust that your team is trying to do the very best they can.
They want to be successful. I’ve never seen a team that didn’t want to be successful. They do. So, see these are going on and see how you can stop it, so you don’t get into the snowballing effect. The other thing we’ve seen is that certain types of delivery methods kind of predispose them to sell to some of these root causes. So yeah, that’s definitely a thought in my head of what are the differences between the project delivery methods. Yeah, so let’s start with design bid build, because still like 80% of our projects are done that way, even though we know we’re working towards a better, better ways. But this is really where most projects are. So, with low bid you often get plagued by fear and fear usually surrounds dealing with changes because the designer thinks that, you know, they, they’ve designed a perfect design, which we know, isn’t its possibility, but also the law says they don’t have to have a perfect design.
And the contractor of course bids it as if everything is perfect and we know that the design isn’t perfect. We know nothing is going to be perfect in the field either. So, this fear just plays out and gets you a loss, loss of momentum and a lot of dissatisfaction where the team feels they can’t stop the madness of rehashing the same issues over and over because everyone says, well, it’s not my problem. So that’s kind of what happens with design bid build in CMGC or CMR. You can have misaligned expectations around roles and responsibilities. I’ve worked on some really large projects where people believed that their role, they were very adamant that they believe their role was one way and the other side believed their role was a different way. And this played out to the tune of a one project. I recall it was they were two and a half years into the project.
They were two years behind schedule, and they had $100 million worth of claims and it all had to do with this issue until they finally sat down, and we realigned. Hey, what do we mean by CMGC? What is your role? What is your role during design? What is your role during construction? What is everyone’s role? How do decisions get made? Who, what is the, what is the process here for working together as one team? And that’s the kind of thing that happens on construction project management teams with these misaligned expectations. Design build projects of course design build has many flavors and it’s kind of plays out in different ways depending on how you’re, you’re dealing with your guaranteed maximum price or people will call it design build when it’s really the selection process. So, it has lots of different flavors and ways that it goes.
But we do, we do see that plagued with the same kind of root causes as CMGC and CMR. There are unique challenges for design build when the designers are pitted against one another. The very first design build project I ever worked on a was a Utah was a, it was a mega project and we had our first meeting, our partnering session. And in that partnering session, the designer first question to the team was, how do I sue the contractor? Yeah, yeah. So, it’d be we do have, we do have challenges with that. And a lot of times we’ll see an owner creating bridging documents. And so, the bridging documents somewhere between 15 and 45% completion and then you bring in your design builder and that designer then goes, well, what does this mean? What does that mean? So, we see the guys get this battling over the bridging documents and, and the designer of record that happens quite a bit.
And so, you have these misalignments there and it makes it hard to get a buildable set. It often leads to confusion, especially in the field, like how, who makes the decision, what’s actually happening. So, we get a loss of momentum, maybe a lack of commitment from the team when they feel they can’t do what they need to do to achieve the success they need. IPD, and I also put progressive design build in this because progressive design build is really coming up in the industry. And it really, both of these require collaboration. In order to work, you have to have this, this collaborative environment so that the teams understand what it is they’re doing and how they’re going to work together. So, teams that don’t understand this need for collaboration often bring their adversarial mindset to the project and they don’t realize they actually have unconscious competence around the need for collaboration.
And that’s actually creating their inability to succeed. So have a lot of these processes, you’ll say, well that design build doesn’t work, or progressive design build doesn’t work, or IPD doesn’t work. A lot of times it doesn’t work because their mindsets and their processes are incongruent with collaboration, which is a requirement for that. So, you see confusion, you’ll see dissatisfaction grow as the expectation that this delivery method is supposed to provide better results, but it’s simply not on this project or for this team. And then you mentioned p threes. So, we’re seeing a lot of p threes around and I think P3’s are evolving but they’re often challenged with this multi-headed owner. You know, who really is the decision maker. And I’ve seen, I see them structured in lots of different ways. Sometimes it’s clear who the owner is, but most of the time is not.
And a lot of times the they designed builder who is now the developer feels like they’re the owner, the people funding it feel like they’re the owner or the facility feels like they’re the owner and you get into this battle over who’s the owner, who’s going to make decisions. But also, they focus on shifting risk through the contract. You know, P3 contracts, it’s not unusual for them to be like 15,000 pages. So, the focus in the, the gets to be on the contract and which is a contract say and interpreting the contract as opposed to executing the work and a, so it’s just very complicated in that way. So, then you get the leads to a lack of commitment to helping the project really succeed. The design builder and the operator are left only to figure out how to make things work. Sometimes in an impossible scenario really can be really, really tough. So, this leads to fear, dissatisfaction and loss of momentum. So that’s kind of what we see in the delivery methods that we’ve seen out there and the projects that we’ve worked on.
Yeah. P3, a particularly as a, it’s difficult to wrap your head around. I only was, was involved in the tertiary of a few P3 projects, but it never seemed clear who, who, who the acting owner was who wanted to be that acting owner. And more importantly, how do we get rid of liability in this contract, which has nothing to do with making a successful project that’s just spending a lot of time not executing a project. So, what are some things that a project teams can do to help start their projects off on the right foot? I know what we always talked about believing the, the adversarial attitude before walked into the trailer and, you know, start with an open and sorta like comfortable atmosphere very, you could start like sort of go in with the, the assumption of, of trust which you can’t just say in that and may have it happened, but that was, that was the idea that we always tried to set up when a project began. But what are your thoughts on, on the, the best way to, to start a project out? Right.
Well, you know, I can only talk from my own experience and what I believe in and I really do believe that a structured process for collaboration is really important. And the more people you have involved, the more complexity there is, the more important it becomes that, you know, you have, think about it, we’re a team of teams and you may have a hundred different companies and organizations coming together to work on a project that’s not unusual and we need them all to be committed towards something. And so, we need to cocreate. And I also believe that people don’t argue with what they help to create. So, we need to have a process that allows them to cocreate our goals. And the goals really are your target for how the team is defining what success is. And so, without that sort of like you’re in the boat and you’re rowing together perhaps, but we have no destination, we have to have a destination.
So that’s the first thing. Be really clear on what your destination is. Then you need to be structured in a way for success. I can’t tell you how many projects, I can look at their org chart for how they say they’re organized, and I know they’re not going to be successful by looking at the way they’re organized. How are they going to make a decision? Who’s the decision maker? How were they going to communicate? Because there are just a bunch of silos. They’re not an integrated team. So, I also often make the teams that sit together in our partnering processes, go to the flip chart or whiteboard and actually draw one organizational structure that integrates everyone into one team. So, if you could do those two things, now you’ve become an integrated team that is focused on the success of the project as one team.
If you just do those two things, you’re going to be farther ahead than most of the projects. And of course, the third thing you do is you’ve got to stay together. So, we have a construction scorecard that measures how well you’re doing at following through with what you committed to doing. And the team sees this every month and we have an algorithm that we’ve created that looks at all the scores across all of the different measures from every team member and calculates a momentum score. And that momentum can be positive momentum, it can be negative momentum, but it is a high predictor of what’s going to happen before it’s actually happened. So, the team then can steer. So those three things I think will take them a long way. And of course, I really believe in a structured, collaborative partnering process. So, the team stays together and continues to line realign on a regular basis so that they stay together and grow the momentum. And you can see it in the momentum scores.
Yeah. I particularly love the one org chart that’s, that’s a, it doesn’t seem like that novel and idea, but I certainly have never seen that actually done.
It takes a while for the team to wrap their mind around it, but once they do, it really unleashes the energy for the team to go forward.
Yeah, I love it. So, Sue, thank you so much for joining us today. Do you want to talk for a second about, about OrgMetrics and what you do?
Well sure. I’d also like to just talk about Construction Dream Team Podcast too. So, as I’ve mentioned, my life’s dream is really to share with the construction industry ways that teams can collaborate and become highly successful, maybe even extraordinarily successful. And so that’s really what the podcast is about, is about tapping into the collective wisdom of the entire construction nation so that we can share with one another and help each other learn so that we don’t have to go through these challenges. Construction is so fun, but many times it’s become unfun. And so, we’re trying to put the fun back into construction or metrics. We’ve been in business for 33 years and we have created a process we call structured collaborative partnering. And I know some people don’t like partnering, but this is not the partnering like happened in the 90s. This is actually a system of creating this congruence of the teams bringing together and then staying together over the course of the project and we’re setting norms of collaboration and then holding the entire team accountable to those norms. And so, it’s quite a structured process, which I won’t go into, but that’s what we do. And we’ve worked on about 4,000 projects now, so we kind of see what works and what doesn’t work and hopefully can be a resource for teams so that we can help them be highly successful.
Well, with the 4,000 projects under your belt, a, I thank you again for sharing your wisdom. You certainly have a more extreme experience with more projects than most anyone in working in the construction industry will ever have. So, thank you again for joining us.
Thank you so much, Ben, for letting me be a part of this. I really appreciate it.
And that will do it for this episode of “A Podcast That Builds”. To reach Dodge, you can visit us construction.com or at 877-784-9556. A link to the Seven Root Causes of Poor Project Communication can be found in the show notes. That’s it for this episode. We’ll see you next time.
The 7 Root Causes of Poor Project Communication
Construction Dream Team…