The Human Touch


The project - that grand stage of human creativity where plots unravels, melodrama is the norm, the characters put on award winning performances and best of all it is live.  This is where I have had the privilege of observing and learning so much about human interaction and behaviour.  Each project is in many ways like a living story, movie or theatrical production and each story is different, with unique characters, plots, twists, turns and sometimes even a good cliffhanger.  Whether you are the leading or the supporting character in your current project you can easily take center stage to steal the show and all you need is the human touch.  In this article I will explore a few scenarios where the human touch made all the difference.


Human beings are known to be creatures of comfort and consequently migrate toward routine and the realm of the known.  However, this propensity does not necessarily lead to growth and development.  The road less travelled can make all the difference according to Robert Frost and this statement can be corroborated by noting the characteristics of successful organizations.  Human tepidity will yield detachment and ultimately imbalance, much like those unsuspecting stories that can fall victim to the stubborn writer’s block that can render it disengaging to the audience. 


This indifference can slowly overtake us in our daily work and the repetitive nature of our tasks can erode our passion for it and affect our performance and others who depend on the quality of it.  For example, when performing quality control checks it is common to catch the same errors and deficiencies in layout designs and drawings and often from the same designers.  The impact that these oversights can have when they end up on construction front can be significant and this is true whether they and are caught on site or worse carried out as shown.  When we fail to appreciate the little things for granted we lose that essential human integrity that can either reinforce our professional credibility or weaken it.   


Act 1, enter the design team.  It is the early stages of the project and there are many new faces.  The deliberations begin and the tensions are high.  Trades jockey for position and fight for territory.  At the front lines is the humble design professional [Imagine your role here].  In bellicose manner mechanical ducts displace electrical conduits, luminaires overpower sprinkler lines and structural columns swallow up service areas.  Tempers flare and strategies are redrawn.  But then suddenly, rather than maintain ground and hold the position the design professional does the human thing and actively listening to all sides finds the best solution for the team rather than just serving self-interests. 


Being a balanced person and to live the human experience is to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes.  This is the unexpected twist in the story.  The saga should not continue and the empire should not strike back because mutual understanding enables better collaboration.  It is a give and take and in the balance hangs the welfare of the client and the team rather than individuals.  In the spirit of human collaboration if today you take then tomorrow you will give.


I would like to bring your attention to the need for building meaningful working relationships.  Good healthy professional relationships are essential for any successful project.  In the context of a construction project the office to field bond is imperative.  My advice is to work on your character development and get to know your field staff.  Get to know the project managers, coordinators, general foremen and superintendents and then maintain this bond through the entire project lifecycle.  This is generally a good idea because chances are that you will probably work with these individuals again on some future project.


In our office I have seen the benefits of the office to field bond.  We are currently building 100 Adelaide Street West, a commercial office high rise tower and we are coordinating electrical, mechanical and fire safety systems as well as mechanical and some electrical fabrication.  Rather than working in a silo our design team has integrated themselves with the site team and met with them on a weekly basis especially at the early stages of the project.  The site team has invested time with the design team to impart to them a better understanding of constructability and to resolve any issues.  Not only is this a successful design project it is also evident that this human touch has empowered our designers with tons of good experience that will come in handy in future projects.


While the technology is there to improve collaboration it is no substitute for human interaction.  Using the optimal ratio of technology to human contact will achieve the required level of balance.  Technology can be a great tool or an impediment and it is important to develop the awareness and ability to discern when to use it and when to avoid it.  Technology for the sake of using technology is like a movie with too many special effects and no plot.  For example, automating certain design processes for repetitive tasks will certainly boost productivity.  But take care when “setting it and forgetting it” and also carefully review and check for those anomalies that should have been excluded from the automation. 


The technology has given us the power to “overdo” it.  With the intent of doing a great job a designer can easily go beyond the call and gold plate a task in the blink of an eye.  Our team leaders have to remind them to stay within scope and keep it within the budget.  This same technology has also made it easier to “change” the design in an instant.  Changes are ubiquitous and constant.  While these changes may seem innocent enough it usually means frustration and additional effort and cost for the site teams.  The technology should not displace the human attention needed to keep this under control.


For my closing point I make the case for the human need to stop and smell the roses.  In theatre it is called an interlude, in projects it is referred to as lessons learned and it can be the prelude to a good start of a project.  Lessons learned workshops are the least performed project management activities but among the most important to keep your firm in top shape.  It is said that history is one of the least studied topics which is why humanity repeats the same mistakes.  Documenting lessons learned and then sharing it with the project team is a noble act.  More importantly, it is also a means for developing your organization’s human capital and process assets.


For the project team a well-executed plan and a happy client are the best way to end the story.  Some of you reading this article maybe like me and will on occasion replay scenes from some of your most memorable project moments and reminisce as you would your favourite movie or book.  You will undoubtedly recall some of those human exchanges that have shaped and developed you.  As you embark on your next swashbuckling project just remember that we all need the human touch.