Don’t Play “Hot Potato” With Responsibility

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All too often a project is handled as if it were a game of hot potato, with the potato being responsibility. The goal of the “game” then, is to shuffle off the responsibility as quickly as possible so that if something goes down, you are not the one who gets hurt. While this tendency is understandable, especially in construction projects where the costs of something going wrong can be high, we will look at whether this “hot potato” approach is more or less conducive to project success. Before delving further into this topic I should provide a disclaimer. I’m not saying that we should not take reasonable steps to protect our interests, business, and reputation. I’m not saying that anyone should unwittingly accept liability for everything on a project. And finally, I’m not a lawyer and I’m not playing one now.

A project can simply be described as something with a specific aim, whether simple or complex, that is undertaken by one or more parties. In construction, even a simple project will have multiple parties involved: property owner, builder, architect, engineer, contractor, subcontractors, material suppliers, etc. each of these parties may also be subdivided adding additional complexity. Suffice to say, that even on simple projects a lot can go wrong. While it is essential that someone is managing the whole it cannot be ignored that the other parties involved play critical roles in bringing a project to a successful conclusion.

Responsible for What?

Ultimately we are responsible to ensure that we faithfully complete our own part of the project as agreed upon, but is that it? In reality, because no single part is independent of the whole the answer is no. What I do, how I do it, and how well I communicate will have an effect all around me. While I may not be responsible for getting someone else’s job done, I do bear responsibility for finding and doing those things that have a direct effect on someone else’s work.

For example, as a truss designer, we provide a layout, engineering sheets, etc. to others for review. A bare minimum layout with minimal extra information may be accurate but it doesn’t help someone else reviewing the job to see those grey areas that need to be resolved. It could be argued that if they are doing their job well that they will catch all those things. But, that ignores a couple things.

One, we assume a level of knowledge/awareness in others that is not realistic. This doesn’t mean they are stupid, but they are not looking at the job from our perspective and so might easily miss those things that are obvious to us.

Two, they may have their own particular emphasis when reviewing the truss design and may miss entirely those areas that do not conform to the plans, don’t work in reality, or have a negative impact on others.

As truss designers, we are experts in our field. Often times, the architect or engineer does not draw something that will work in reality. It may also not be the best, most cost-effective solution. We have a choice then, we can blindly follow the plans or we can bring our experience to bear and present options that make the project run that much more smoothly and bring costs down.

Teammates or Adversaries?

I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to work with many others on many projects. I especially enjoy the projects where the other parties take an active interest in what others are doing, what they need, and ask questions proactively. In short, on these projects these other parties are acting as if we are on the same team, even though we don’t work for the same company. For however long, we are on the same side and working towards the same goal. In this way we should see that our success is tied together. We are a team.

Conversely, there will be those who are obviously out for their own interests. They are not proactive with questions, they don’t think about the others involved in the project, and they make decisions that negatively impact the work that others have to do and even set the project timeline back. These folks are often content to get their own work done, but are not concerned with the project as a whole.

If you have ever played “tug-of-war” you know that it is impossible to make progress if the forces opposing you are too great. Let’s face it, there are already forces at work that are creating chaos and disorder with any project; e.g. macro events, weather, supply problems, labor shortages, legal challenges, etc… The strongest force both for the positive and the negative are human beings. Other parties in a project that act as opposing forces end up pulling the project down. It’s on us to ensure that we do not end up becoming one of these forces ourselves. Seeing ourselves as being on a team is fundamental to ensuring we don’t become an adversary to others and ultimately the project.

I’ve seen these “opposing” forces frequently as a contractor where other subcontractors just didn’t think about anyone else. If they had the option of dropping material in two places, invariably they would put it in the place that would make it harder for trade “A” to do their job. I’ve also seen this with employees who would grab a tool you were using and then not bring it back. They are getting their work done, but they thoughtlessly hamper the work of others.

Mitigate Risk

As I stated at the beginning, I’m not saying that we should put our own interests at risk. What I am saying is that projects will go that much more smoothly and risk avoided if we are actively looking out for the interests of others.

If we all watch the back of each other, then theoretically no one will end up with the hot potato at the end of the project, it will have safely cooled off.

Tim Hoke

General Manager – Gould Design, Inc.

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