Collaboration, Collective Intelligence and War in Construction

COVID-19 accelerated maturity of collaboration technology and made users more receptive than ever; here’s how to define what collaborating can do to improve construction performance and profit

By Stein Revelsby, founder CEO of Hoylu

Collaboration is in the eye of the beholder: everyone says they do it but in practice it means different things to different people. 

Diverse industries – from logistics to energy to education to the military – report strikingly similar requirements and pain points. However, there are several challenges unique to the construction industry.

Collaboration challenges

One challenge unique to the industry is the fragmented supply chain and procurement methods. This can distort incentive structures to focus on managing risk over increasing overall project efficiencies. In some cases, the absence of collaboration can make it easier to reduce exposure and shift risk. Solutions that introduce transparency can be met with reluctance.

Another is the focus of industry systems on reporting – not supporting – the execution of work. The requirements for documenting construction projects are immense, so systems investments prioritize features with a “rear-view”, not a “windshield” perspective. Collaboration tools need to be focused on planning and enabling work, not documenting what was already done.

There is a challenge that is the direct result of a highly capitalized industry tech startup community: software is not eating construction – it’s overwhelming it.  The proliferation of technology innovation in the market has been a very good thing for solving discrete challenges, but tracking all of the new solutions and deploying a standardized tech stack across a construction enterprise is very difficult.  Some incumbents in the market (notably Autodesk and Procore) have built their platforms to make it easier to integrate many point solutions, but in practice more applications can actually lead to less collaboration – especially if they are procured by different stakeholders and focused on narrow requirements.

War and construction

In General Stanley McChrystal’s book, Team of Teams, he recounts the challenge he faced when appointed as commander of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force, formed to address the ascendance of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.  The traditional command and control structure of the military proved too rigid to effectively address the fluid nature of the insurgency, so they were forced to adapt their organization so that it was agile enough to respond to changing conditions on the ground.

In the book, wars are described as “complex systems”, consisting of interdependent elements and actions which interact dynamically and unpredictably. This is different from a “complicated system”, in which constraints can be defined and the various elements can be decomposed and interact in predictable ways with each other. Both of these types of systems may exist on a construction project: the pre-fabrication of modular HVAC equipment skids in a factory are part of a “complicated” system, but its delivery and installation on a construction site is part of a “complex” system. There are many different variables (environmental conditions, logistics challenges, workers in the field, the client) that impact whether or not that pre-fabricated skid can be implemented on time and within the project budget.

McChrystal focused on two key areas that are relevant to collaboration in any industry, and especially in construction.  The first is building “shared consciousness”, in which everyone on the team is made aware of the big picture, understands their role within it, and sees the benefits of collaborating with each other.  Another is “empowered execution”, in which decision making is delegated to the person who understands best how to solve the problem. Anyone who has participated in a Pull Planning session can appreciate the relevance of these ideas within the industry.

Construction projects are not quite as complex as war (although they can get contentious!), but they are more likely to be successful if the teams have the characteristics McChrystal built into his organization: agile enough to move quickly, adaptable to changing conditions, and resilient enough to quickly recover from setbacks. This cannot be achieved with ad hoc collaboration, it requires a systematic and holistic commitment from all project stakeholders.

Make projects greater than the sum of their parts

Construction project teams have vast depth and variety of expertise. However, it is imperative that the expertise is well coordinated to successfully execute work. Several years ago Google launched an internal initiative called Project Aristotle, in which they sought to identify common characteristics of successful teams and found unexpected results: ultimately the dynamics that mattered most were much more qualitative (e.g. Meaning) than quantitative (e.g. I.Q.). Even if the smartest people are assigned to the job with the most experienced trade partners, it’s not a guarantee that the project will be successful.  There are many factors that impact the ability to assemble the right team, but a simple place to start is to implement systems that enable them to collaborate and enhance the overall experience of working together. 

When you consider which collaboration tools to use in the project technology stack, here are some good rules of thumb to apply:

  • Make it simple to collaborate. This has the effect of making the process more democratic, engaging a broader set of users, and making it easier to scale collaboration across the project. This has a positive multiplier effect at all levels of the project and across stakeholder groups from the back office to the field. 
  • Create visibility in the collaboration process. In an interdependent environment, everyone must participate or the interests and ideas will not be represented when decisions are made. If there is visibility in the process you cannot hide from the process or act alone. This has the effect of simultaneously increasing the engagement and accountability of project team members. 
  • Introduce flexibility into the process. Collaboration doesn’t have to happen within a single application or during formal meetings – it should be possible to collaborate with multiple tools, informally and asynchronously as needed. Some constraints are required to manage the process, but it is easier to introduce agility on your project if flexibility is granted to the people who need to collaborate.

There is a sociological concept called “Collective Intelligence”, which was inspired by Aristotle’s quote “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (also the inspiration for Google’s initiative). It refers to the intelligence that is generated by a group working together, and in the correct circumstances it will always far exceed the intelligence of a single individual. It is as beneficial to modern warfare as it is to software development as it is to construction – and at its core, it is dependent on collaboration.

There are barriers to collaboration unique to the construction industry, but between the incredible acceleration of new technology and the constraints forced by COVID, the tools on the market are more mature and their user base is more receptive than ever. It may not always be easy to define collaboration or precisely measure its effectiveness, but most people, after a collaboration, could probably agree as to whether or not it had been successful. And if project participants were satisfied with the collaboration process on the project, then a successful project was likely delivered.

Stein Revelsby is founder and CEO of Hoylu. He is a serial entrepreneur with more than 30 years of experience within investment banking, venture capital and private equity. He has extensive experience as a board member and manager of tech and IT companies in Scandinavia and the U.S.