In 1980, the U.S. Olympic hockey team upset the heavily favored, defending gold-medal Soviet Union. Although I was very young, the “Miracle on Ice” is forever etched in my memory. As a hockey player and coach, I’ve thought a lot about what enabled a team of amateur college students to triumph over highly decorated and battle tested veterans.
Throughout my 26-year construction career, I have spent considerable time working within teams. I have also conducted extensive research on team performance that has yielded insights about that improbable 1980 victory. When assembling the team, Coach Herb Brooks focused as much on character and chemistry as raw talent. Most importantly, he fostered a team-first environment that required players to check their egos outside the rink. Before the first set of blades hit the ice, this team formed the building blocks for success.
So what do winning sports teams and high-performing construction project teams have in common? A lot as it turns out. Recently, I had the opportunity to present on the anatomy of successful teams with leading industry futurist, author and mindSHIFT founder Rex Miller. As we discussed the importance of early team alignment and integration, we drew best practice examples from two high-profile Balfour Beatty projects: Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building and The Pavilion at Penn Medicine.
Establishing a Trust-Based and Collaborative Culture
More than any other factor, team culture determines whether a project will succeed or fail.
Noted psychologist Bruce Tuckman's “Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing” model is particularly helpful in understanding how strong project team cultures develop—or conversely, why they fall short. All teams begin projects with the best laid intentions. When tensions arise, people are hard-wired to become adversarial and siloed in their thinking, which often leads to finger pointing and communication breakdowns. Without the necessary tools and training, many teams never advance beyond an endless and frustrating cycle of forming and storming.
There are high and often hidden costs of team dysfunction. From safety incidents to write-downs and schedule overruns, a lack of team unity can produce unreliable or disastrous project outcomes and lead to unrewarding and unhealthy working conditions.
But take heart, there is a better way! Research has demonstrated that across every project delivery method, the likelihood of success improves exponentially if teams dedicate time and resources to the early establishment of a trust-based and collaborative project culture. The first 100 days are especially critical to cultivating the values of connection, empathy and psychological safety.
At Balfour Beatty, we believe this phase is so important that we developed a proprietary framework called SmartStart.® By nurturing behaviors that help teams thrive and providing a customized but quickly deployable project strategy, SmartStart® sets the stage to deliver a better experience for our people, clients and partners from day one.
Moving beyond the first 100 days, we have outlined seven principles that will help teams sustain their commitments:
1. What gets pictured gets done
2. What gets modeled gets done
3. What gets scheduled gets done
4. What gets financed gets done
5. What gets trained gets done
6. What gets measured gets done
7. What gets celebrated gets done
So what do projects look like that have intentionally aligned and designed team cultures and strategies?
Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building
Completed in 2013, the LEED Platinum Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt (EGWW) Federal Building in Portland, Oregon is a prototype of the outstanding execution of all seven principles. From the outset, the owner painted a vivid picture of how this project would be planned, built and managed differently.
Based on the successes of recent GSA projects, the owner was convinced a more integrated delivery approach could best optimize team performance on a project of this magnitude and complexity. By adding six collaborative strategies to the standard General Services Administration (GSA) Construction Manager as Constructor (CMC) delivery, the owner established measurable outcomes for success. Examples include the selection of first-tier trade partners before contract documents were developed, limitation of third-party contracts/contractors and provision for on-site GSA management personnel.
Extensive early planning formed the foundation for a vibrant team culture that influenced every aspect of the project from leadership strategies to logistical and process tools and even community outreach. By dedicating the first eight weeks to team building, the owner modeled progressive behaviors that the team exemplified throughout the project lifecycle. This intentional focus on team integration was carried forward as new members onboarded, ensuring the culture remained strong and consistent.
From start to finish, the EGWW team aspired to achieve the exceptional and delivered. Some of the team’s remarkable achievements include creating process flowcharts to identify and eliminate waste, aligning BIM snapshots with design milestones and incorporating a co-location strategy with a shared information iRoom. With unwavering confidence in their ability to come in under the GMP, the team successfully reincorporated scope details that had initially been eliminated through value engineering.
As a lasting testament to its success, the EGWW project catalyzed transformational improvement in national GSA protocols that remain to this day.
The Pavilion at Penn Medicine
On the opposite coast in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, another Balfour Beatty team has cultivated a thriving and innovative culture on one of the nation’s largest integrated project delivery (IPD) healthcare projects. Collectively referenced as PennFIRST, a six-member, joint venture team is building Penn Medicine’s new, 1.5-million-square-foot flagship hospital, The Pavilion.
Early alignment was critical for a team encompassing multiple companies based in different geographies with distinct internal processes and communication preferences. The PennFIRST team began their journey by conducting multiple SmartStart® sessions. As a formal demonstration of their commitments, team members created and signed a covenant that Balfour Beatty Integrated Projects Manager and PennFIRST team member, Amanda Patton, calls their “true north.” As the project has progressed over the last six years, with its workforce evolving at different phases, onboarding has been key to maintaining core team values.
Even the most high-performing teams eventually meet a challenge that tests their mettle. When the spotlight is brightest, these teams come up clutch. For PennFIRST, that moment came in spring 2020. In response to COVID-19, Penn Medicine requested the accelerated turnover of 120 beds 15 months ahead of schedule. The team worked decisively and collaboratively with hundreds of trade partners to expedite material fabrication, delivery and installation in an effort the owner called “herculean.”
While many tools help us track lagging indicators of success like lost time incident rates, leading indicators include more subjective dynamics such as camaraderie and loyalty. Teams that excel when there are seconds ticking down on the clock aren’t successful just because they’ve practiced more or have greater poise under pressure. They believe they will win or lose as a team. And they believe in each other. The foundation for that belief is formed in the first 100 days.