In 1992, John Gray wrote one of the most significant relationship books ever written. It was wildly popular and sold over 50 million copies in over fifty different languages around the world. The book was entitled “Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus.”The premise of the book is that when we’re in relationships, we sometimes expect our partners to act exactly like we do. But, of course, they don’t. And when they don’t it can feel frustrating and confusing, as though our partners were from a different planet.
This analogy has always struck me as being the perfect comparison to the frequently dysfunctional relationship between contractors and architects even when they are on the same team. Over the years I contemplated hosting an industry event entitled, Contractors are From Mars, Architects are From Venus—A Couple’s Retreat. I still haven’t given up on the idea and here’s the reason why.
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who works in the AEC industry that contractors and architects think differently, speak differently, and often see things differently. In addition, they are charged with distinct specialized tasks. Architects are fundamentally responsible for design, whereas contractors are basically responsible for the budget and schedule. Yet both parties work for the owner and the owner clearly expects these professionals to deliver on all their expectations— to deliver the design they desire, to have that design come in on budget, and to have the entire project meet their schedule. In addition, they expect a quality product delivered safely with little to no surprises. This is the outcome that owners expect regardless of whether the parties were contracted separately under the design-bid-build or CMAR approach, or together as a team under a design-build or IPD arrangement. Easy task, right? Wrong!
What surprises me is how anyone, including owners, thinks that contractors and architects could ever operate as an integrated team focused on an integrated solution when operating from their traditional segregated roles. Or that simply shifting to a team oriented contracting method would be enough to cause these segregated service practitioners to function and perform as one. After all, nothing in their training or education has prepared them to behave as an integrated team member. If anything, their education, and training has taught them just the opposite. You’ll be hard pressed to find a university degree or company training program preparing the next generation of architects, contractors, or engineers to be “master builders.” I know. I tried for years to develop such a program at two different universities. It was like trying to push a rock up a very steep hill. So, is it any wonder that the segregated services mentality is so deeply embedded into the fabric of our industry? And is it any wonder that it’s so difficult to break down the barriers that keep architects and contractors segregated in their isolated roles?
Admittedly, the days of the master builder are over. It’s impractical to think that we can educate our AEC practitioners across all the technical disciplines needed to fully design and build the complex projects that we must deliver. Yet, I believe that we can still deliver fully integrated solutions through a re-envisioned concept of the master builder model. Today’s version of the master builder is the integrated project team. But unfortunately, we haven’t done much to help our teams of designers and contractors make the mental shift to an integrated mindset, and without that, the designer-contractor relationship can quickly disintegrate into the usual tug-of-war battle as to who’s perspective will win the day. The us-against-them, win-lose mentality that we have all been trained in quickly takes hold. And the client, who is expecting us to operate and perform as one, instead gets the short end of the segregated services stick. Making matters even worse, owners don’t recognize the part they play in all of this by continuing to implement contracting methods such as design-bid-build project delivery that clearly segregates services, or low-bid procurement as the means by which they select their team. These approaches only reinforce the reductionist practices that continue to diminish our integrated problem-solving further.
Yes, it’s true, contractors and architects speak different languages. Yes, each discipline thinks differently and approaches challenges from different perspectives. And yes, we have different viewpoints, ideas, and beliefs. But that’s what gives us the greatest opportunity to better mitigate risks, to generate greater value, and to eliminate waste. Instead of letting these differences pit us against each other, or make us skeptical of one another, we should leverage our collective genius and develop the interdisciplinary fluency that would have us teaming as one, and speaking the same language of abundant contribution, to pull together our unused intellectual reserves and resources to create solutions that otherwise could never be envisioned. Even if we can’t bring back the embodiment and practice of the single-source master builder, we can certainly bring back the spirit of the master builder and begin to train our AEC professionals in the effective skills and concepts that are vital to effective integrated teaming. However, several things have got to change if we are to make this happen. The segregated services mentality has got to change. The culture of distrust that has been allowed to fester without intervention has got to be addressed. The disrespect that is exhibited toward one another because of the lack of understanding of the value that every team member’s contribution brings to the table, has got to stop. These are just a few of the leadership and cultural challenges that need to be tackled if we are ever going to knock down the silos that weaken us as an industry. It’s time to realize that contractors and architects aren’t from different planets after all.
Barbara Jackson has written books, taught courses, and developed leadership boot camps to teach the affective skills needed to become an effective integrated team member and leader. She regularly speaks at conferences, in companies, and at various professional venues regarding the need to develop AEC professionals who know how to contribute on integrated teams.