It’s good to talk: bridging the gap between disciplines

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In an industry like construction, where developers are tasked with implementing large infrastructure projects, people from a wide range of disciplines have to work together to enable delivery. This can present challenges for project managers in terms of how to unite specialists from different fields around a shared vision, but it can also pay off – particularly when such a wide pool of knowledge is successfully tapped to deliver the project on time and on budget.

In a discussion thread on the APM forum, project managers recently shared their thoughts and advice on how to foster an environment where inherent preconceptions regarding other disciplines, which can sometimes manifest as mistrust, can be overcome so that everyone works more effectively as a team.

Recognising the value in each other’s role was mentioned as one factor that’s crucial to this. While each role is backed up by its own professional body with its own standards and certification, when the individuals come together to form a team, recognising what everybody brings to the team is key.

Exceptional project managers recognise that value and effectively bridge the divide between disciplines that in some cases can seem diametrically opposed.

Worlds apart

HS2 is one of the largest infrastructure projects to be undertaken in the UK in the past 50 years, and the St James’s Gardens excavation near Euston Station, which forms part of the work for HS2’s London terminus, is the largest archaeological excavation of a burial ground in Europe.

Caroline Raynor, project manager and principal archaeologist for the Costain Skanska joint venture that is developing HS2, has played a key role in facilitating progress on the excavation by enabling the demolition of existing structures, organising diversions for utilities and supporting the archaeology and heritage teams. Although there was the will among the various disciplines on the excavation project to work together, Raynor says there is “not necessarily a shared language and a commonality of drivers” between them.

Raynor and her associates wanted to foster a culture of openness and eschew a blame culture, which can occur in projects with multiple phases, deadlines, elements and stakeholders. From the outset, there was a clear plan to form a “lean control board”, essentially a communication tool that distilled all of the elements of the excavation project down to the basic units of people, materials and time. The control board become the focal point of meetings, updated with daily and cumulative data to understand where the project was succeeding and areas requiring attention.

“There was a no blame culture in terms of where things hadn’t happened because we could look at it in a very dispassionate way using the control board,” Raynor explains. “As a team of engineers, construction managers, planners, health and safety people and archaeologists, we could come together to make a clear decision for the next step and how we mitigate and manage risk.

“It is very difficult to get such unique skill sets and different groups of disciplines into one place and foster open and honest communication if you don’t make that the original starting point for the project,” she adds. “It is not something that will happen naturally.”

As Raynor observes, people may be introverted, guarded in their opinions or wary of saying something that sometimes others might not agree with. But by actively encouraging people to talk about the hard facts and take the emotion out of the situation, it led to a better team ethos.

“It was very clear what everybody had to do and what their responsibilities were,” Raynor says. “Their main responsibility was simply to speak up if they weren’t getting what they needed or if they saw something that was unsafe or unsuitable.”

Getting another perspective

Project managers, or anyone aspiring to be one, may want to take a leaf out of Raynor’s book. On returning to the UK after working at archaeological sites across the Middle East, she realised that within large, tier-one contractors there was no one embedded in these companies who really understood what archaeologists do.

Raynor then undertook additional qualifications in construction, health and safety and related areas. This helped her to “to understand construction’s needs and drivers in a way that meant I could then integrate the two disciplines – archaeology and construction – and bring a more balanced and measured approach”.

This ability to see the other side’s point of view was another factor acknowledged in the recent APM forum thread. The suggestion was that some basic understanding of other key disciplines, whether engineering or technical, can help with foreseeing risks and managing any issues that may arise.

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Image: giggsy25/Shutterstock.com

Sara Verbruggen

Posted by Sara Verbruggen on 11th Nov 2020

About the Author

Sara Verbruggen is a freelance journalist, editor and copywriter providing content services for websites, magazines, corporates and trade associations.

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