Conscripted Collaboration

January 3, 2011 · by Ken Bishop

Smart managers embrace this horror: What most likely makes a project successful is the thing they control the least.

"The rise of ‘teamwork’ has made it difficult to trace individual responsibility, and opened the way for new and uncanny modes of manipulation of workers by managers, who now appear in the guise of therapists and life coaches. Managers themselves inhabit a bewildering psychic landscape, and are made anxious by the vague imperatives they must answer to.”
—Matthew Crawford

Have the consequences of failure in our work and on projects become so punitive that entire structures of avoidance are necessary to survive? Office work has become unsatisfactory to workers because the standards for success have become highly elusive, according to Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. In construction administration, the design professional (if not all project constituents) is adversely affected by the same issues.

Impoverished forms of collaboration propagate because the metric for success is not focused on successful prosecution of the work as much as it is on maintaining adherence to the ethos of team play. An internal contradiction is created in each of us, a conflict between the requirements of our private belief systems and our ambiguous membership on the team. How are we to reconcile these competing narratives?


Objective standards are self-explanatory, requiring little or no clarification. Measurement of performance is clear, and success or failure is self-evident:  The floor is level or it is not. Conversely, subjective standards are inarticulate, not self-explanatory, requiring continuous clarification. Whether the stairs have been completely detailed in the drawings, suitable to price and to build, is open to interpretation and manipulation. The margin between pass and fail here is wider and dependent on opinion. True success (or failure) becomes hard to measure; it is a moving target. Objective standards leave almost no room for interpretation, while subjective standards are all about interpretation.

Design professionals are fee-for-service-based companies engaged in the production of information into brands rather than the production of materials into goods. Every firm differentiates itself by promoting its own best version of expert orientations, including performance-oriented, results-oriented, customer service-oriented, proactively oriented, and team-oriented. The dilemma presented to management becomes defining criteria from which to judge how well workers have produced the company’s correct orientation. In the absence of objective criteria, the manager must, as Crawford says, “direct his attention to the states of mind of workers” to evaluate their work. Performance benchmarks for worthy work quickly become subjective.

Vacuum of Teaminess

The advent of corporate culture and the rise of teamwork converged some three-plus decades ago. Today, however, team play is often no longer about authentic collaboration. It is more about the appearance of collaboration, wherein project participants carefully but vaguely position themselves on many sides of issues in order to preserve opportunities to shift their positions later. To fill the void of objective standards, management must exercise authority to install a culture of team wherein individual success is measured by the degree of conformance to that culture; employ standard makers around which the team can orbit; and deploy orders, the power of which is disseminated delicately lest it be construed as unpalatably authoritarian.

To be judged successful in this setting, “It seems to boil down to an imperative to develop a disposition of teaminess,” says Crawford. The prime directive from peers, colleagues, and management is to remake one’s self in a way simpatico with the team and its mission. The standard by which performance is judged is how effectively the individual ego is realigned, reconstituted, and purified in service of the team. Value can be determined on the basis of the degree to which one is committed as a team player. Sincerity to the team is more important than the truth. Demonstration of loyalty to the team displaces loyalty to the work itself. The team is not the means to the end anymore; the team itself has become the end. In a strange reversal, the work becomes a vehicle by which one demonstrates commitment to the team. Chronic non-team players must be reprogrammed or removed so the mission is not jeopardized. Resistance is futile.

Collaboration: Team or Crew?

How is real collaboration to be found in this team play? Coexistent with our natural urge to resist the demands of teaminess, the need to do a job well also persists in us. Unwilling or unable to completely suppress our internal self, we want to do a job well for personal satisfaction. We want fulfillment from our work: The desire is hardwired into our DNA.

Whereas collaboration on a team emanates from the demands of loosely specified standards of membership, collaboration on a crew emanates from the practical demands of the work itself. Matriculation is the aim of the team; expertise is the goal of the crew. Embedded in the following passage are important distinctions that Crawford draws between teams and crews:

“On a crew, skill becomes the basis for a circle of mutual regard among those who recognize one another as peers, even across disciplines. … An apprentice may aspire to be a journeyman so he can enter that circle, quite apart from considerations of pay. This is the basis on which his submission to the judgments of a master feel ennobling rather than debasing. There is a sort of friendship or solidarity that becomes possible at work when people are open about the differences in rank, and there are clear standards.”

The crew model offers several key alternatives to the team model from an operational standpoint.

There is hierarchy. Professional differences in experience and responsibility are accepted inequalities but not understood as inequities. There are masters, journeymen, and apprentices. There is willingness to suspend disbelief for the positive purpose of learning. Persuasion (influence through debate) rather than coercion (influence through intimidation) is the preferred teaching and learning tool.

The rules of engagement are more or less clear and ordered. One’s place in the hierarchy is known, largely unambiguous, but not necessarily permanent. Upward mobility is based on skill and expertise. The rules are not transient and divisive. The need to get the work done generates the requisite authority to lead.

There is clarity of individual responsibility. Group dynamics depend less on jockeying for position and more on position play. Defined results are expected based upon clear job assignments. Mutual aid becomes possible when people understand their own duty first.

There exists a pragmatic acknowledgment about the interdependence of the work. (Failure to do my job successfully affects your job adversely.) The most effective tool for collaboration is doing one’s job so well that the next person’s is made better.

The work is progressive because the rationale of the work becomes apparent to the novice through doing it rather than talking about it. Sociology professor Richard Sennett writes about craftwork as a process of encountering resistance, both found and made, and working through it toward the development of skill. Resistance is defined as “those facts that stand in the way of the will.” Expertise is gained through progressive revelation and achieved by focused trial and error.

Standards for evaluation are based on pass/fail criteria to the greatest possible extent. But failure to get the job done rather than failure as a crew member is the issue. Either the task was done or wasn’t, but failure is not punished with debilitating disciplinary action or demotion. Failure is remediated by doing it again and getting it right, with the objective being pedagogical, not punitive.

A culture of frankness exists in which the language leans to the laconic so that the real self is present on the job in the doing of the work. Coded language is less important, and thicker skin is required. Reasonable decorum and mature situational judgment are required but not to the extent that the self is totally submerged.

All of these elements seem to promote a central theme: championing clarity and directness over ambiguity and vagary. But is there anything useful here beyond a peculiar academic comparison of crew versus team mentality? What are the practical realities?

Black Marketeering

Owners demand information such as continuous pricing and scheduling information with which to make their decisions. To organize their resources effectively, designers want builders to prioritize information needs continuously. And builders want continuous constructible information flow to the field to get the job done profitably. Construction administration is highly transactional in nature, and these transactions require the constant input of others to advance the information flow that is crucial to building a building. In pragmatic terms, construction administration is all about leveraging information under schedule pressure. Process becomes the servant of schedule pressure. Conversely, control of information flow becomes a vital counterbalance to the negative effects of schedule pressure, including the ownership of risk. The tyranny of urgency is at issue every day on a project that is under construction.

Urgency almost always dictates to process, saying “Collaborate by any means necessary, or else.” When process bogs down, stalemates, or otherwise fails to deliver information to the hungry mouth of schedule pressure, other less official processes and methodologies step to the fore to get the job done. As with most high-demand, low-supply environments, the shortage of a fetishized commodity (information, in this case) sponsors black marketeering. Black market or underground collaboration becomes the organic workaround we use in construction when official methods fail to produce.

But the currency of this market is trust; the deals and transactions are relationship-driven. At the heart of these undergrounds resides a circle of mutual regard based on skill, expertise, and reliability. Small circles of people constitute the basic organizing unit. It can start with two people and grow. The catalyst for growth is demonstrated reliability in the trafficking of information. As in most black markets, it is not what you say but what you do that counts and gains you access to the community.

Competing Narratives

This collaborative underground underpins crew mentality, and its organization is decentralized in nature. Decentralized organization is characterized by loose (but not ambiguous) affiliations between members whose numbers cannot be easily counted. Members communicate peer-to-peer, not typically through intermediaries, and communication avenues are less formal although not less reliable. The purpose of decentralized organization is unencumbered information flow carried out behind the scenes in relative anonymity. Work transactions are incremental and selectively chosen; they are fit-for-purpose, targeted to overcome a specific problem at hand. Decentralized organization cannot be effectively controlled by management, and this makes it less comprehensible and therefore far scarier to many management leaders.

Conversely, team-think relies closely on centralized organization for the specific purpose of control. Management typically believes that centralized control must be applied to process because this sponsors higher degrees of security and accountability. The idea here is that risk (exposure to monetary loss) is appropriately suppressed, affording greater protection to all of parties involved. And the more unfamiliarity present between project constituents and with project circumstances, the more conservative the approach to process is demanded. Team play is strictly defined and legislated through contract requirements, often superimposed by the latest management tools, including cutting-edge process enhancements. In fact, a whole industry has arisen around offering peace of mind to project leaders through the use of management tools and process enhancements. Management consultants and others have created modes of teamwork that pedal security and accountability as though they were commodities. Let’s look at two examples.

First, in an effort to gain competitive advantage, individuals and organizations in the building industry attempts to market tools that reduce the building process to a simple formula with a virtually assured positive outcome for clients. The more that subjective standards of the team model can be disguised as objective standards, the easier it is to sell to management. (A colleague describes the phenomenon accurately when he says the industry needs to reinvent the same process enhancements every few years so they can be sold all over again to clients.)

Second, process management is also aimed at increasing profitability through increased productivity by reducing reliance on expertise. A colleague posits that teamwork has become a corporate scientific management tool to use the inexperienced (i.e., inexpensive) in place of the experienced (i.e., expensive). Management formulas attempt to compensate for lack of individual expertise or lack of desire by individuals to achieve or pursue the expertise required to perform competently. These plug-and-play recipes facilitate ease of replacement in order to keep the process machine running and do not depend on either the extraordinary individual or employee retention to be fiscally successful.
Pragmatic management understands that there are, in fact, two simultaneous, distinct, and probably mutually exclusive models at work in the building process. The team mentality is not something that can be wished away because it sounds distasteful or morally questionable. Management is stuck with team mentality as long as subjective standards for evaluating performance prevail and the easiest path toward perceived security and accountability runs through centralized organization. But crew mentality supported by underground collaboration in a decentralized mode is fundamentally vital to project success. Smart management embraces the horror that what most likely makes their project a success is that which they control the least.

Centralized team play is far easier to command and control than decentralized crew temperament. But the worst kept secret on a job site is that the comfort of control felt by management in team mode is little more than illusion. Management spends an inordinate amount of resources trying to harness actual collaboration, something that functions best at a decentralized level. The truth is that collaborative black markets orbit around the hairball created by centralized team play. Forward-thinking management knows the real name of the game is to find the sweet spot between the two competing narratives in the same way achieving a healthy balance of good cholesterol to bad cholesterol is the smart approach to cardiovascular vigor.

Management can deploy centralized organizational methods but only enable decentralized organizational methods. Creating an organizational chart that captures reporting structures is an example of the former, and strategically placing staff with superior experience, expertise, or situational judgment skills to act as collaborative catalysts is an example of the latter. One is a strategy of imposing order and the other is akin to gardening. One has the immediate gratification of control, and the other is riskier because it means waiting to see what grows from seeds planted. Even though one appears clear and manageable while the other inscrutable and almost mythical, management should become strategically attuned to the benefits of enabling decentralized organization that promotes crew mentality and underground collaboration.

Is Resistance Futile?

For the individual, there persists opportunities for self-enrichment by setting one’s own standards, even within the onerous confines of team play. Management can be incapable of deploying objective standards. Individuals must self-charter and establish their own benchmarks for success, be results-oriented, and then let those results speak for themselves. It may be riskier to do a good job for its own sake, but it also just might be more gratifying. Hopefully, the standards you set are judicable using self-evident pass/fail criteria to the greatest extent possible.

While the nature of pass/fail may be harsh, it is self-explanatory. It doesn’t care about rank, teams, feelings, or risk. Objective criteria provide individuals with a certain tough love that mostly makes us better. They leave us satisfied about our accomplishments and reflective about our failures.

All that remains is the choice you make about whether you are a player or a benchwarmer in the collaboration game. The choice is yours. Resistance may not actually be futile.

Ken Bishop is an associate and senior architect at Anshen + Allen Architects, part of Stantec Architecture, San Francisco, specializing in construction administration. He is a graduate of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and attended graduate school at Cornell University. He was a founding member of the AIA National Construction Contract Administration Knowledge Community.

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