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Achieving 1+1=3 Results in Design and Construction Conversations: Why, What and How

MEP PM:  How did your conversation with that architect go?  You know, the “great designer?”
Construction PM: Same as always. I told her, her RFIs are unclear and unacceptable.
MEP PM:  How did she react?
Construction PM:  Same as always.  First, she got offended, but I stayed the course, laid it on a little thick about how inspiring her designs are, and I finally wore her down.  She gave in and said she’d try.
MEP PM:  Do you really think she’ll change?
Construction PM:  (Brief pause)… Probably not.
Why:  We’ve got to get better at conversations 
Every day, all over the world, thousands of design and construction professionals use conversations to accomplish key tasks, solve problems, and explore opportunities.  Architects, engineers, contractors, subcontractors and clients talk with each other to solve the inevitable problems and explore the opportunities that arise on every project:  unforeseen conditions, materials price increases and shortages, unintended miscommunications, extreme weather, staff changes in any of the many members of the construction team, etc., etc. 
Every day, all over the world, many of these conversations underperform.  As in the example above, some result in shallow, meaningless agreement.  Some cannot achieve even shallow agreement, result in escalating conflict and, in worst-case scenarios, trigger costly lawsuits.  Some reach agreement but produce a solution that barely gets the job done.  Only occasionally do any achieve 1+1=3 results, solutions better than the ideas either person initially brought to the conversation.
What: 1+1=3 conversation results in action
1+1=3 results occur whenever a conversation produces outcomes better than the ideas either person initially brought to the conversation.  Here’s a non-work example:  
Two old friends discuss which restaurant they’ll select for their monthly get-together.  Each brings a few recommendations to the conversation.  They explain the reasons for their own recommendations, but also explore the pros and cons of the recommendations the other person brought.  As the discussion grows, they ultimately decide not to go to any restaurant but rather to go bowling.  Later that day, they each feel pleased with their decision, realizing bowling will be a much more enjoyable experience than just eating a meal in any restaurant.
Tom Buie, leader of Massachusetts based Commodore Builders’ new Scheduling Department, noticed, “I saw 1+1=3 results in many of the conversations we had forming our new department.  One example that stands out in my mind is the 4-setting process we devised for giving people access to the schedule.  It differed significantly from any of the initial ideas we thought we were going to use.”
Toni Loiacano, an architect who’s held leadership positions at both EYP and Cannon, has noticed 1+1=3 results in many design conversations with clients.  “When the conversations are effective, things come up that nobody could have planned in the first place,” she explains.  One example she recalls is the surfacing of “L”-shaped combined advanced teaching/research laboratories for a science and engineering building design.
How: Potentials, Challenges for 1+1=3 Conversations 
1+1=3 conversations are possible in nearly all design and construction conversations because so many of them involve people bringing unique knowledge and experience.  The broad range of interests people bring to these conversations provides extensive raw material for them both to use as they discuss problems and opportunities on the job.
Unfortunately, the diverse knowledge and experience that provides the strong potential for 1+1=3 conversation results also creates significant obstacles.  The design firm and construction company that pay the two people who bring the widely differing knowledge and experience often rewards them in ways that pit these two against each other.  Their individual professional training and career paths often reinforce these conflicts.
Design and construction conversations also struggle to achieve 1+1=3 results because they often address complex problems.  Discussions might address:

  • building details that may cause leaks,
  • materials substitutions that threaten the architect’s design intent,
  • new materials and methods that baffle the people responsible for them,
  • design changes that undermine the contractor’s profit.
Achieving any solution to such problems can be difficult, aiming for improved performance of the solution may ask too much. 
Finally, daunting personal challenges add further roadblocks for 1+1=3 conversations.  Actively working with another person’s ideas requires that people loosen their grip on their need to be right, their wish to be in control of the conversation, and their comfort with solutions that worked for them in the past.
How: 4 To-Do’s
  1. Before the conversation, check your stance.  If it is your frame of mind entering the conversation includes thoughts such as “Convince,” “Put him in his place,” “Prove,” “Tell her off,” or “Say my Piece,” replace them with thoughts like “Collaborate,” “Engage,” and “Both present my ideas and work to understand his.”
  2. During the conversation:
    • Aim for both people to take part about equally.  If one person did noticeably more talking than the other, it’s unlikely you’ll generate 1+1=3 results.
    • Put equal effort into presenting your ideas and listening, working with what the other person has to say.
    • Don’t settle for the first idea you both agree with as a solution.  Keep asking, “What else might work?
  3. After the conversation, ask yourself:
    •  Did we come up with solutions better than what either of us brought to the conversation in the first place?
    • If the solutions you came up with really came from your dialog and not primarily from one of you
  4. Consider getting some professional training.  As with improving your golf game, it’s easy to describe what you can do to improve your communications skills.  However, you’re trying to both to break old, deeply entrenched destructive habits and apply skills that are likely to feel uncomfortable and strange at the outset.  Find a coach or trainer you can work with if you’re serious about making improvement.
Improve your own 1+1=3 conversation skills in our new online course, “Achieving 1+1=3 Results in Design and Construction Conversations.”  You can sample 6 of the course’s 60+ lessons for free.  If you decide to register, AGC member receive a discount of 50% off the course price of $450 at this link>>
Not an AGC member?  Use this link to sample the course and register here>>