Too often in the construction industry, all-important client outcomes are lost in a sea of contractual wrangling that can be conflict-ridden, overwhelmed by complex jargon or disregarded due to the approach of ‘well, it’s always been done this way’.
Construction projects are inherently unpredictable, so it is essential that, when risks begin to manifest, the project team works together, rather than in opposition. It is not uncommon to work on projects where a fundamental lack of openness between the contractor, design team and client leads to conflict, delay and additional costs – which ultimately fall on the client.
A recent example from my own experience is when a contractor had an issue with its supply chain. Instead of coming to the team, accepting liability (contractually, this is a contractor risk) and openly discussing solutions, it sought to change the completion date to avoid potential damages. The first the client knew of the issue was when the programme was delayed. This lack of open communication and an unwillingness to take responsibility can lead to mistrust between client and project team.
Projects may begin with all parties committing to collaborative working. But, too often, this can break down. Poor pricing at the outset can be a cause of friction in project teams. A contractor might win a competitively tendered project, and its pricing might turn out to be too low. This leads to issues with delivery as it seeks to procure sub-packages at a very low cost, resulting in delays, and attempts to place the blame elsewhere. Once one party realises a project may be operating at a loss, engagement can drop still further, which negatively impacts the rest of the project team. Of course, this results in financial losses and delays for the client.
We should not solely consider these to be contractor issues. The culture of blame and unwillingness to accept responsibility is also evident among other members of the project team. For example, an architect might produce inadequate design information that only comes to light when the subcontractor is not able to install the specified solution. While the ensuing delay can, in itself, be a cause of wrangling, it is all the more worrying for the client when the party at the root of the delay is also responsible for approving the extension of time and administering the contract.
For this to change, it is essential that all members of a project team work together to deliver projects that satisfy clients by understanding their expectations – and keeping those expectations at the heart of the project for its duration. Project managers should work to establish client outcomes at the start of the project and ensure the project team is aligned to them. Sometimes, it is necessary to take half a step back before leaping into a project; while this can seem time-consuming, it is worth the effort. Investing time in understanding what your client wants from the project will prove invaluable, not least when an unexpected challenge appears and the team really needs to be united behind a clear goal.
We should never assume technical knowledge. Clients come in all shapes and sizes: some will be experienced in delivering capital developments for their organisations, while others will be working on a one-off project and have a strong reliance on their expert consultants to keep the project on track and deliver the exceptional building they require. The construction industry is awash with technical jargon, which can sometimes baffle even those who have years of experience in building contracts and know their BIM from their BREEAM.
That means good communication is key. It is always better to over-communicate and risk making one unnecessary phone call to clarify a decision than to make assumptions that could lead to misunderstanding – or worse. Invest time in building relationships and implementing good communication practices at the outset. This will help a new team develop a culture of disclosure, openness and clarity. Clear governance is also vital. Implementing a robust structure for project governance is essential to retain focus on outcomes and guide the project through changes.
Finally, we should regularly review client expectations via direct feedback. One way to ensure satisfied clients is to listen to what they say to the project team, and to act on their words. A happy client is one that feels that it has been listened to throughout a project and that anticipated outcomes have been met. For this to be the case, it is important that the project team first understands the client’s vision, and then works together to deliver the outcomes.
With an agreement to work towards a common goal, listen and respond to feedback, manage ongoing risks, and be open-minded about changing the way we behave, a truly collaborative project team that works with satisfied clients in construction can become a reality.
Anna Etherington-Smith is head of project management at Clarkson Alliance