Strategic Relationships in
How to Partner for Performance
by Carl E. DeVilbiss, PE & David C. Carrithers
D e l i v e r i n g S o l u t i o n s , B u i l d i n g R e l a t i o n s h i p s .®
Synopsis: When looking at any type of construction project, contract or team,
it is important to look beyond the obvious physical, technical, and execution
elements. It is managing the relationships, inter-personal skills and efforts that
can be the most challenging. Formal partnering provides a common focus and
open environment allowing construction project teams to look at the underlying
drivers, needs, concerns and people making it happen. Gaining alignment at the
start, or re-alignment when things are not going as planned – partnering is a
smart investment to allow the full value of any construction project to be realized.
Have you ever gotten to the middle of a construction project, looked around
and asked, “What happened?” Schedules are slipping, mistakes are piling up,
materials are not delivered on time, accidents seem to happen inexplicably,
concessions are demanded, people are guarded in their communication and
mistrusting, there is a threat of claims, and pretty much everyone is unhappy.
Things are just not how you expected them to be! Furthermore, there is plenty
of blame to go around whenever you get the parties together to talk about it.
While the concept of renovating or building a facility may seem relatively
straightforward, this White Paper will address the complex challenges associated
with assembling a team of diverse organizations to plan, design, and build or
renovate facilities. In short, it will lay out a systematic approach to recognizing
risks, understanding possibilities, and creating the cooperative culture necessary
to do it right the first time.
Why Partnering Matters: Core Values and Identity
Built facilities don’t just happen. Successful renovations aren’t based on luck.
The details of the requirements for them are never simple or self-evident.
Facilities support an organization’s operations, which are a physical reality of
its identity and purpose. Every organization’s identity is defined by its business
purpose and by the shared culture of its members. An organization’s culture can
be thought of as the collective set of values under which its people interact and
For instance, if a manufacturing business deals in a market of low margins
and high volume, its culture will likely be very cost conscious. Purchasing staff
will probably be inclined to search for the lowest price. While this tactic is
reasonable in many situations, it may not be the best approach to purchasing
highly subjective services associated with facility development. The price of these
services may actually be a very small percentage of the overall cost of operating
the facility through its life cycle. Almost insignificant savings in the development
of the facility could cost the organization for many years in reduced productivity
during operations. Yet a purchasing culture that focuses on lowest price might be
inclined to overlook this reality.
Consequently, effective performance in a facility development project begins with
the organization clearly defining its purpose—Mission, Vision, Objectives, Values
and Needs. Well defined operational conditions allow clarity in quantifying and
communicating the purpose and requirements of built facilities to support the
Strategic Relationships in Construction Environments: How to Partner for Performance
overall business purpose. This clear statement of purpose of the facility is the
foundation required to communicate to team members as they come on board.
As with any relationship there can come a time when there is a need to step out of
the current moment and review where all parties stand in the relationship to gain
alignment with the goals and focus. Traditionally called partnering, this tool has
its roots in the idea that alignment in a business professional relationship is not
spontaneous, it must be cultivated. Partnering is not only utilized when things
go wrong, but also at the start of new projects, new relationships, and as part of
creating long term positive relationships as well.
The Construction Industry Institute (CII) has researched the facility acquisition
process extensively and published many reports recommending productive
approaches. One report, “Input Variables Impacting Design Effectiveness,”
Publication 8-2, July 1987, identifies the ten primary input variables impacting
1. Scope Definition: purpose, requirements, budgets, schedule, etc.
2. wner Profile and Participation: core values, identity, experience in
3. Project Objectives and Priorities: driven by operational objectives
4. Pre-Project Planning: understanding all the pieces and how they fit together
5. Basic Design Data: space, use, staffing, functions, etc.
6. Designer Qualifications and Selection: who belongs on the team?
7. roject Manager Qualifications: who is in charge and what are
8. onstruction Input: design alternatives include understanding of construction
means and methods.
9. ype of Contract: defines working relationships and risk allocation among
10. quipment Sources: these may be most effectively dictated by operational
objectives and requirements rather than market conditions.
This list clearly indicates the complexity of issues faced in the early project
development stages and should be included in criteria used for assembling the
overall project team. In addition to the business core values and identity, it is
best to define and communicate the overall project core values and identity to
everyone associated with it.
Before a Partnering Session
Many times individuals within a construction project realize that something
needs to happen to make changes to the current path of the relationships.
While it may be to embrace, sometimes you need to approach outside help to
plan a partnering session. It needs to be an objective individual who can speak
the difficult truths of the reality the current situation. This is likely someone
outside the political hierarchy of the current partners. Whether this is a trained
consultant or someone on a different team with experience around this topic, it
helps greatly to get an outsider in the mix.
There is also a need to get over fighting the concern for time and cost needed to
invest in a partnering effort. Just imagine the investment all parties have made
to get a project approved, funded, bid, and under construction. It is worth the
small fraction of time (hours) to either launch a project correctly (or with the best
shot at success) or gain alignment on a relationship that has gone sideways. Being
penny wise and pound foolish on relationship issues can only lead to problems
and the potential of the project going over budget, over deadline, and leaving a
bad mark on everyone’s career. Partnering is a valuable tool to help align teams,
get teams out of the preverbal ditch, and provide poor performing teams a chance
to turn around.
Intention and Strategy
There are some basic concepts that can be thought of as the navigation beacons
of success in construction. These concepts are: Strategy vs. Tactic, Performance
vs. Qualification, and Cost vs. Price.
• trategy vs. Tactic – A strategy is the big picture. A tactic is an action to
achieve the strategy. For instance, being cost effective overall may be a strategy,
while the specific steps of achieving cost effectiveness are the tactics. More
specifically, lump sum bidding is a tactic which may or may not achieve a
strategy of overall cost effectiveness.
• erformance vs. Qualification – In federal contracting, a bidder is considered
qualified if it is Responsible and Responsive. Responsible means licensed,
financially sound, insured and bonded. Responsive means capable of
performing the work called for in the bidding documents. Under this definition,
a bidder can be qualified to receive the work because they have done a
similar project before, yet they might have performed in a marginal manner.
Conversely, a high performer may not “qualify” because of some aspect of
• ost vs. Price – Price is not a direct indicator of cost. Beyond the price of one
element of work there can be many costs impacted by that price. For instance,
a low-price, but poor performing drywall contractor can delay finishes,
demoralize the jobsite staff, or cause problems in contract administration.
Each of these negative impacts has real costs associated with it. It is very
important to understand ALL the costs associated with the project, and the
myriad systemic interrelationships that are impacted by the price of each
element. Low price can wind up costing you a whole lot in money, time, stress,
lower quality, or disputes.
The backbone of strategic relationships in construction environments is focus.
When you clearly define the overall project intention, it makes it is easier to pick a
strategy that is aligned with that intention. Then with a rational strategy defined,
it is possible to actually define the types of Strategic Relationships associated
with success within that strategy to achieve the desired intention.
If an organization’s intention is to be highly cost effective, yet produce state-ofthe-art facilities, it is prudent to explore the CII research into partnering. A 1996
report, The Partnering Process: It’s Benefits and Implementation, summarized
the benefits of partnering. After compiling data from multiple organizations and
many dozens of projects this report concluded it reasonable to expect:
Strategic Relationships in Construction Environments: How to Partner for Performance
• Reduced overall project cost on the order of 10%
• Increased contractor profit as high as 25%
• Engineering/Design labor costs reduced as much as $10/hour
• Improved schedule performance
• Increased quality
• Improved safety performance
• Reduced rework
• Mitigated and shared risks
• Reduced claims and litigation
In this application, partnering in the CII context is tantamount to planning to
develop and conduct Strategic Relationships throughout all aspects of project
execution. Therefore, the intention of highly cost effective project execution must
include development and conduct of highly effective relationships.
Strategic Relationship Contracting
A contract is conceptually simple. It is an agreement between or among parties
that 1) defines the performance of each party – including payments, and 2) assigns
or allocates risks to the various parties. The structure and details of a contract
can become significant and complex. For instance, general conditions for a lump
sum contract to build a facility can be dozens of pages. No contract is foolproof.
A contract is an agreement; therefore it is only as good as the parties’ intentions
to honor that agreement.
Too often, organizations use a tactic of putting a “standard” contract in place,
and then after contract award, decide it is a good idea to partner. Partnering is
a strategy. Strategic relationships as part of a contracting environment requires
a well thought out intention supported by a rational strategy. If the intent is to
be highly cost effective, which requires strategic relationships; then the strategy
for project execution must include contracting practices that enable and support
open, trusting, shared-risk relationships. A contract should reflect the parties’
agreement. If all agree to conduct strategic relationships to mutual benefit, the
contract should reflect commensurate terms and conditions.
A contract is not a relationship document. Most focus on what to do when things
go wrong, accountabilities of blame, issues being identified before they happen to
explain who is responsible for the risk, etc. Contracts are not the place to begin
building a relationship, but if they become the only way a team operates it can
easily become the end of any bonds of common agreement and relationships.
Everyone on the team, on all parties, must know every detail of the contract –
what was bought, what was agreed to, what is expected. They also need to go
beyond this basic transactional level of the project and clearly understand the
people, the individual drivers, motivators, and desired ways of working together.
The owner of a facility construction project or ongoing renovation program is
ultimately responsibility for its success or shortcomings. It has been said, “You
can delegate authority, but you can’t delegate responsibility.” The majority of
the ten design input variables previously discussed are dominated by the owner.
While the designer produces the design documents, the owner dominates the
effectiveness of the design process.
Similarly, the owner selects the team members, chooses a contracting strategy,
designates the overall project manager, secures the financing, and more. It may
be tempting to think, “I’ll pay someone to do that for me.” However, the ultimate
responsibility for success or failure lies with the owner.
In the partnering process, it is important to define what success means to
everyone in the partnership. This is typically accomplished by producing a
Charter or Covenant, a simple document that says, “We agree to cooperate to
do this…..” A simple format might be to define success in terms of a Mission
Statement and Objectives.
Typical construction project objectives could include:
1. Leadership and Management Excellence
2. ooperation and Mutual Support
3. Timely Performance
4. Quality Work Throughout
5. Be Cost Effective, Produce High Value
6. Be Safe
7. Produce High Customer Satisfaction
Of course, the ultimate beneficiary of successful project completion is the owner,
so it makes sense the owner would look at this Charter and ask, “How can I
create this?” One way is to do a cause/effect analysis of the objectives, and focus
most of your attention (Pareto’s Law, or the 80/20 rule), on the 20 percent of
critical activities. If you put those seven objectives on a piece of paper and draw
an arrow from one to another – the arrow pointing in the direction from cause
to effect, the result is always the same. The two primary drivers of success are:
Leadership and Management Excellence, and Cooperation and Mutual Support.
In other words, Strategic Relationships are the key to creating successful
construction outcomes! If the owner doesn’t have a rational plan, or process or
approach to conducting Strategic Relationships with team members who can
perform effectively, the chances for success decrease.
To summarize, the owner cannot delegate responsibility for its project. The
owner must understand enough about the construction process to know how
to participate effectively in the elements that require owner input and develop
a contracting strategy that supports cooperative, shared risk relationships.
Next, the owner must undertake a rational process to pick the right partner
organizations and individuals.
Finally, there must be a well conceived execution strategy that includes a
measurement process to track what is working well in the causal aspects that
Strategic Relationships in Construction Environments: How to Partner for Performance
How to Hold a Partnering Session
The Partnering Process
The next logical question is, “How do you do it?” Here is an overall strategy
• Five Phases of the CII Partnering Process Model (Implementation Process)
• The Structure of Partnering (Triangular model of 3 key components)
• Partnering Principles (5 categories of governing laws of conduct)
• ey Dimensions for Partnering Success (4 behavioral dimensions that
must be operating)
CII Partnering Process Model
The CII report referenced earlier identifies a five phase model for implementing
the Partnering Process. This process can be applied to either Strategic Alliance
Partnering or Project Specific Partnering.
1. wner’s Internal Preparation – this is akin to the section on Core Values and
Identity. The owner must do an honest assessment of its culture, including the
kinds of beliefs that might be barriers to successful Strategic Relationships.
The case of the manufacturing company which has purchasing staff very price
conscious is an example of this. What aspects of the owner’s organization
support the strategy, and what aspects are potential barriers – then what will
be done to address the barriers.
2. artner Selection – this is aligned with a contracting strategy. If the owner
needs outside support and desires Strategic Relationships, there must be a
significant alignment in the cultures of the organizations. The partner selection
process must look at functional performance for that work package, yet also
the cultural alignment in terms of values and intentions.
3. elationship Alignment – regardless of the strategy and selection process,
there will be a need for cultivating a shared culture for project execution.
This must start by jointly defining success for all parties, then examining
competing organizational sub-objectives and how to work around them.
It must also include well-defined roles and responsibilities and relationship
process definition. For instance, how will conflicts be addressed and
4. roject Alignment – this requires all parties to look at the project execution
strategy and develop joint plans for cooperative work. How will schedules and
budgets be managed? What will be done to cultivate and measure teamwork?
Who needs to know what and when? How will decisions be made?
5. ork Process Alignment – Project Alignment is more akin to Strategy,
while Work process Alignment is akin to Tactics. How are materials
received at the site? When and where are safety meetings? How are MPE
coordination drawings developed? How are schedules updated? Who
coordinates trade interfaces?
We Are Able To
The Structure of Partnering
This is a simple triangle model of the three key components that define how
partnering as a process works on a day to day basis. Those three components are:
1. osition (Who, Where, Why) – Who are you/am I/are we together? Where
are we coming from and where are we going together? Why are we doing this?
Thoroughly discussing this component and developing a clear picture of the
consensus position that defines success results in the Partnering Charter.
2. Skills (What) – What specific behaviors constitute partnering: listening,
honesty, openness, concern for others, understanding, trustworthiness,
teamwork, group problem solving, etc.
3. Process (How, When) – what are the processes we will use to do the work
together and create win/win results?
There are five categories of principles, or governing laws. Partnering is as exact a
science as the physics of gravity. Follow the principles, they are time tested and
they work; break them and you have trouble:
A. urpose – clearly define and communicate the collective purpose of the
undertaking. Have faith! Know that mistakes will happen, but stay committed
to coming together to mutual benefit.
B. haracter – build trust by being competent and keeping agreements. Be
responsive to your partner’s needs – seek to understand them and help
C. irection – prioritize objectives and actions to provide rational guidance. Face
problems early, do whatever it takes to resolve them before they grow bigger.
D. greements – make clear, appropriate, doable agreements. Be willing to
renegotiate an agreement if something makes it undoable.
E. mprovement – periodically poll participants’ attitudes and opinions, hear and
honor them. Constantly seek opportunities to reinforce your commitment to
your partner, and affirm his value to you.
There are three key dimensions that must be operating to conduct honorable
partnered relationships. They are the foundation of Strategic Relationship
1. Dependability – consistent, predictable behavior
2. esponsiveness – proactively seek to understand your partner’s needs and
help meet them
3. Ability to Resolve Conflict – acknowledge it and engage in it productively
4. Faith – in yourself, in your partner, and in the process
Strategic Relationships in Construction Environments: How to Partner for Performance
Tools to Help During a Partnering Session
Facilitator: The first tool to consider when planning a partnering session is
the Facilitator. Many people offer facilitation services, from Psychologists
to Engineers and from Lawyers to Corporate Trainers. What is important is
to pick the Facilitator based on rational selection criteria, the same way any
other team member is selected. It helps to have someone who understands the
construction process, can speak the language of diverse team members, and who
has experience with the myriad challenges faced in delivering facilities. By far
the most important criterion is the facilitator’s willingness and ability to listen.
As a team member, the facilitator should demonstrate a desire to hear others’
perspectives, to understand project criteria, to collect data and assess where
people, groups, and issues stand, and to move to where the project team is,
rather than telling them where they should be. The partnering facilitator needs
to be a trusted advisor.
Agenda: The next tool is a jointly developed agenda. A partnering session is an
event that is part of the overall partnering process. Each session should have
a clear set of objectives as to what the desired outcomes are. Is this a kick-off
session where we are building the Charter, agreeing on a Conflict Resolution
Process, and establishing group Operating Norms? Or, is this an Intervention,
specifically targeting a key issue that has arisen during project execution? Session
participants should generally know what to expect and agree to participate.
This is best achieved by having a meeting or conference call among project
leaders with the facilitator to discuss project conditions, session design options,
and desired outcomes. Working together to design a session cultivates buy-in
and prepares participants to be more productive.
The Right People Mix in the Session: Another tool is an appropriate mix of
relationship and work process exercises. Strategic relationships don’t just happen.
It is important to honor the value of spending time together simply getting
to know each other and agreeing on how relationships will be conducted.
Referring back to the CII Partnering Process model, there is clear recognition
that Relationship Alignment is an important developmental stage that precedes
Project Alignment and Work Process Alignment. Aspects of each of these
phases can be worked simultaneously at times, yet each serves a different
purpose. To try to engage and jump directly to Work Processes may produce
outcomes that appear to be effective when they have in fact left key trust issues
lurking in the shadows.
No session should be conducted without producing a simple tool, the Action
Items list. Partners listen to each others’ needs, discuss dependability issues,
and identify and resolve conflicts. Every session has its objectives and desired
outcomes. One way to ensure understanding is to make clean agreements in the
session on what is going to be done differently. These agreed upon actions will
then be entered into an Action Item list and project leadership should ensure
that each action is tracked to completion.
Getting Over Rough Spots in a Partnering Session
People are feeling beings. We have emotions. Sometimes issues involve
organizational and personal risks that contribute to feelings being stirred up.
This is only normal. The first criterion necessary to manage these rough spots in
a partnering session is everyone making the commitment to engage honorably.
Next, the facilitator must have requisite skills to support people expressing
feelings appropriately. Then there should be tools and exercises in the facilitator’s
toolbox that enable group members to regain focus on the issues after enough
emotion is released. When feelings emerge in a partnering session, the “surface”
issue is rarely the real issue creating these feelings. This is why Relationship
Alignment is so important. In Strategic Relationships it is necessary to cultivate
a culture of trust that people’s feelings will be respected and there will be
unconditional support to work through them and return to project requirements.
The Follow Up to a Partnering Session
As stated above, a partnering session is an event while the overall Strategic
Relationship is an ongoing process. Leadership must be committed to conducting
the ongoing process appropriately. Follow up to a Partnering session certainly
must include tracking Action Items for completion. Yet there are implied
agreements as well.
As work proceeds there needs to be a plan for reinforcing the Strategic
Relationship culture, identifying issues that need to be resolved, a conflict
resolution process to ensure issues are not left unresolved, and periodic
measurement of the Key Dimensions of Partnering to ensure people are staying
the course on cooperative behaviors and performance. Measuring performance
not only tracks progress, it keeps people focused on the basics and reminds them
frequently of their commitments. “What gets measured gets managed,” is an old
adage that applies.
One approach is to convene an Executive Steering Committee (ESC) whose
primary role is to monitor partnering behaviors and performance. This ESC can
develop a simple Partnering Rating Form that asks direct questions around the
Key Dimensions of Dependability, Responsiveness and Conflict Resolution. By
conducting this evaluation regularly and discussing indications, the ESC can keep
the focus on continuous improvement.
What is working well? What needs improvement? How can we strengthen our
relationships and become even more productive together? Remember, Leadership
and Cooperation are drivers in project performance. Monitoring the driver
parameters (Key Dimensions) is a way to observe trends that might eventually
impact project performance and intervene to resolve unproductive behaviors
before they show up in work outcomes.
Strategic relationships within a construction environment are about
understanding that any construction project must be executed through
relationships. If those relationships “just happen,” they are much less likely to
be productive than if they are carefully planned, team members are selected
through rational criteria, and a cooperative strategy for execution is conducted
to ensure mutual support and shared risks and rewards.
In the article, “How Partnering Benefits the Construction Process,” Pipeline
Gas Journal; December 1, 2007, Jim Keil stated, “Partnering is, in part, the
process of identifying risks to the project and of brainstorming ways to manage
those risks. During the process there is great potential for teambuilding, and,
indeed, that alone is a side benefit to the participants. Partnering has been