Immortal Tasks; Is there a Silver Bullet?

We’ve all seen it before,  a task that re-appears on the to-do list over and over again perpetually interfering with any effort to move on.  It can be tough to see why this happens, which makes it especially hard to know what can be done to make it stop.

Immortal tasks are brainless, tangled, and sting everyone they touch

The first step with any problem is to identify the cause.  In my experience, immortal tasks are caused by:

  • Poor planning
  • Miscommunication
  • Lack of follow-through
  • Debate based on speculation
  • Bypassing the chain of command
  • Difficult people

There is little more vital to success in construction management than perspective.  Specifically, being able and willing to look beyond the current task at hand to see how it fits into the big picture.

 

 

In a bacon and eggs breakfast, what’s the difference between the Chicken and the Pig?

 

The Chicken is involved, but the Pig is committed!

 

The whole reason we use the term “Contractors” instead of “Builders” is because contracts legally and financially commits the firm to the project.   As the responsible party, it’s critical for contractors to understand that their project may be imperiled by involved parties who have completely different priorities than their own.  As a result, it’s very common for involved parties to introduce delays for the contractor. In order to be successful, the contractor must develop and communicate their plan accordingly.  One of the surest signs of poor planning is when the first response to every problem is finger-pointing.

Incomplete information can raise more questions than answers which is especially frustrating when the information was slow in coming.  Plan for every predictable problem by providing timely communication about what’s needed and when.  In the absence of clear direction, communicate the contingency plan you’ll be taking so that all affected parties know what to expect. 

Not having a contingency plan leads to situations where everyone is “doing their best” while  patiently watching as the window of opportunity closes.  Contractually speaking, when the risk of rework is less than the penalty for delay, the contingency plan should default to prudent and defensible action.   Conversely, when the risk of proceeding in error is greater than the penalty for delay, the contingency plan should define the work that will stop, in terms of the critical path delivery of the overall project.  Where reasonable and prudent, develop mitigation strategies such as out of sequence work, while being careful to coordinate unconventional deliveries with the inspection requirements of the Authorities having Jurisdiction. 

Incompetent managers prefer to remain silent on the sidelines in hopes that they may claim successes or deny failures.  Contractors working with or for these managers should understand that the “plan” is to let nature take it’s course on the project.  If this approach worked, nobody would ever hire a manager.  

Power struggles 

Lets address an elephant in the room.  Many contract relationships are adversarial by design.  We may dress up the situation by calling it “checks and balances” but many owner representatives have an obvious conflict of interest.  It doesn’t matter whether the Architect or the General Contractor, (GC) is the owners representative, the contract terms will create incentives opposed to the owners best interest.

Modern marketing would like to suggest that this is easily overcome by finding “the right firm”.  Contractually speaking, it’s a far better approach for the client to make it profitable for the “wrong” people to do the right thing.

This speaks to one of the fundamental principles of power-struggles.  People who are concerned about ethics and fairness often find themselves reluctant to reward avaricious motives.  Just doing your job shouldn’t require extra incentive.  As a result, the focus shifts from the proverbial carrot, to the stick.  Construction contracts are predominately a list of obligations with corresponding consequences for compliance failure.

The focus on preventing malfeasance (not doing your job) often creates a very real incentive for misfeasance (doing your job in a harmful way).  It has been my experience that misfeasance is at the root of most power struggles.  A superficial observation of this practice will appear as though the misfeasant professional is merely defending the integrity of their work.  This happens at all levels and all sides of this industry.

Here are a couple of examples;

Design professionals often rigorously enforce specifications that benefit favored product representatives.  Curious people might ask how the representatives responsible for overpriced products reward that kind of loyalty.  

It may not be wise to attract the Architects attention…

Estimators often find problems in the CD’s that have the potential to add cost.  Some GC estimators conveniently overlook subcontractor bidders who bring these costly items to their attention.  They do this in hopes of winning the contract before revealing the issue to justify a change order.

The misfeasant actor in either case exploits their client while proudly thumping their chest for “venerating the integrity of the plans and specifications”.  If you’ve ever heard the expression “The process is the punishment”, you’ll see the role that process plays when it comes to abusing authority. 

So how do we work around this mess?

I suggest starting with acceptance.  The only thing you can change about human nature is how you feel about it.  While it’s a tragic shame to see so many professionals guided by avarice, your duty is to get things accomplished.  This whole mess was predictable, which means these problems are due to poor planning.  All of which strongly suggests that the avaricious stuff always was the plan.  Any contract which does not reward timeliness, transparency, and accountability, for all involved, effectively rewards avaricious behavior.

This leads us to the next snagging point which is miscommunication.  In order to define what you say or write, we need to recognize how you will be heard.  It’s critical to understand the tactics used in a power struggle.  If everyone was just doing their job, there wouldn’t be any conflict to stall things out. You won’t “kill” the immortal task without addressing the root of the conflict.

What they’re really doing is protecting their interests which may be completely opposed to the best-interest of the project.  If it serves that purpose to play dumb, or keep-away, you must recognize what is not being said.  Ultimately, they want to know that their interests are secured before they’ll perform their duties.  To that end, it’s important to maintain diplomacy.  I have found it’s helpful to project a persona of kindly compliance who just so happens to communicate on-the-record with an unusual level of transparency.

This diplomatically communicates that their avaricious concerns will be secured, while establishing a precedent for full disclosure.  Many professionals will recognize the  connection between my disclosure and the potential for their exposure, which encourages cooperation.

Kind-hearted readers may object to this cynical view.  After all, it’s entirely possible that sincere professionals are simply confused, or misunderstood.  I’ve certainly encountered this in the working world, especially so when working with rookies.   

Rookies are often hard-headed about soft skills.

The reason I presented my solution to the cynical view first, is because it works equally well with sincere people.

Following through

Entropy is the natural tendency of stored energy towards disorder in a closed system.  In construction, estimators put all this energy into pre-construction efforts which get bound into contracts to build the project.  If that was all it took to successfully build a project, nobody would ever hire a General Contractor.  This coarse example serves to illustrate why follow-through is so important to actually getting things done.

I’ve won projects that required dozens of bids over the span of several years before the contract was awarded.  That’s long enough that some of the firms involved will have new staff and no records of what was quoted.  We see similar challenges on projects with lots of addenda before the deadline.  It can be downright difficult to know what is, and is not, in the final project.

As an estimator, it’s often your job to guide everyone through these changes which can feel like an immortal task.  One popular approach that aggressively doesn’t work is to simply dump all the available information into a file-sharing site and expect everyone to wade through it.   The unspoken truth in these situations is that most of that information is obsolete, unnecessary, or redundant.  It doesn’t take long for people to get nervous about what risks might be hiding in all that nonsense.  If the presented information is arranged to conceal risks, people won’t trust you.

Proper follow-through builds on the communication principles for dealing with power struggles.  Address their concerns in a manner that displays transparency.  I’ve found it worthwhile in some situations to build a “follow the bouncing ball” narrative which directs the person through the relevant issues, arriving at the necessary outcome.

I prefer to use email for these communications to generate time-stamped evidence of what was sent.   Don’t forget to use the email title to communicate effectively.  A lot of tasks fail to make progress because the recipient refuses to answer communications in order to maintain plausible deny-ability.  I’ll forward the original email with the title revised to include “second request”, “third request”, etc.  Depending on who I’m dealing with, I may copy proportionately more higher-ups in the respondents firm with each follow-up request.  Sometimes I temper this action with messages conveying my concern for the health of the unresponsive recipient.

Evasive people will often respond with some variation of “I’ve just been busy, I’ll call you soon”.  If they call but fail to resolve the task, I memorialize the conversation and all the promises, in a summarizing email which I send immediately after the call.  If they don’t call, I’ve found it helps to copy their bosses on an email where I ask for someone who’s got time to resolve my task.

Talking in circles

Hardworking people who cannot get a task completed day after day can get frustrated.  It’s natural to ask yourself; “Why is this not getting done?”.  After all, you know that’s the first questions your boss will have for you.  Sometimes a task will involve multiple unseen players who must complete their portion in sequence, according to chain of command.  This creates situations where the visible players are anxiously waiting for something to happen.  As critical time passes, you’ll be called upon to provide progress updates.  When hardworking people have nothing to go on, they might start picking at loose ends in hopes of finding a thread to unravel the snag.  This is where people start debates based on speculation.  I’ve worked with professionals who have an incredible ability to generate delays and confusion by pursuing fruitless arguments over things they did not understand.  This is a good time to focus on solving problems you understand.

Research efforts to improve the coordination of design teams are ongoing.

Life on the chain gang

Contractually speaking, chain of command is set up to mitigate risk for all concerned.  Any communications or agreements outside of the contractually defined processes have no legal bearing on the work.  This is why GC’s rigidly enforce requirements that subcontractors do not communicate directly with the design team or client.

There can also be a chain of command at the individual firm level.  Some firms create administrative blockades tiered to protect senior staff from trifling concerns.  This approach is common in firms of all sizes.

Chain of command has a couple of shortcomings.  Communication is slow, and the structure is prone to abuse by misfeasance.  In my experience, quite a few immortal tasks are due to bad actors in the chain of command.

Before we get into how to handle this, lets look at how chain of command is likely to prevent tasks from getting completed.  We need three things to contractually resolve an issue;

  • Permission/Direction: This is contractually binding instruction on a specific issue.
  • Responsibility:  This is the risk of being held accountable for negative outcomes pertaining to the specific issue
  • Process:  This is the perfunctory stuff which connects the specific issue in question with the contract terms.

When issues get “stuck” in the chain of command it’s generally because someone in a position of authority is withholding at least one of those three things without explaining why.   This kind of problem is common in professional groups which lack the necessary leadership and accountability to perform.  It bears mentioning that many firms intentionally put inexperienced, and unsupported people in gatekeeper positions.  Some people are better students than others, so invest your teaching time wisely.

Running out the clock

Everything in construction is time sensitive, so any issue that won’t resolve will eventually threaten a project.  People who can’t or won’t do their part within the chain of command, are often insulated from the pressures of your time constraints.  Where possible, and with permission, it may be possible to communicate with the person holding things up directly.  Although it may seem obvious to some, the success of this approach hangs upon strong social skills.  The goal is to define what motivates their actions, without questioning their integrity, or competency.  Be mindful of the limits of your knowledge, let them tell you what they think is going on.  Show appreciation for their courtesy and their time, by asking how you can bring the issue to resolution.  If you’re talking to a “junior buckaroo” gatekeeper, they will often allude to senior staff making decisions behind the scenes.  Where appropriate, offer to help explain things to those senior staff.

If they transfer you over to the senior staff, be prepared for an earful of information.  There are often really good reasons that an issue is difficult to resolve.  That being said, remember to ask this professional to outline the steps to resolution.  Where appropriate, ask what you can be doing to help.  Don’t forget to ask for specific timelines.  Be positive, helpful, and insistent that everything goes “on the record” so it’s done according to the contract.  Remember that you wouldn’t have this problem if the team had effective leadership and accountability.  It may prove helpful to memorialize the action plan from this discussion with an email entitled “Thank you for your help with (the specific issue) on the (name of project) job”.  Where possible, prudent, and appropriate, copy that email to the relevant affected parties.

Be sure you understand that last part.  Any viable action plan has the potential to cast an unflattering light on the individuals involved.  It might be possible, and arguably appropriate, to work around an individual it would be imprudent to offend.

Remember that any solution you work out this way is contractually meaningless until that solution is communicated through chain of command, via a formal process.  Wherever possible and prudent, incorporate the memorialized action plan into your paperwork for formal approval.  This is especially helpful in situations where you suspect that unsupported junior staff will be processing the paperwork.      

The bane of all productive activities

If an issue lingers on long enough, someone will call for a meeting.  This is a popular approach to solving problems that is affected by the same lack of leadership and accountability that caused the problem.  Getting the most out of these meetings starts with understanding what is likely to happen.

Companies with administrative blockades tiered to protect senior staff have two primary strategies.  The first, and most common management strategy is to send in the rookie.  This is likely the same person who can’t or won’t perform their duty because their superiors have left them unsupported.  Expect them to emphasize process, without touching on the responsibility they’re trying to avoid by withholding permission or direction.  Pay attention to any names you hear in case the rookie offers to “loop someone in” on this issue.  This is invariably the senior support staff of the rookie that didn’t attend this meeting about the issue they wouldn’t address.  Most of these meetings conclude with a commitment to wait and see what the hiding senior staff member comes back with. 

The second most common strategy is for senior staff to arrive at the meeting claiming to be unprepared to make a decision.  Be very careful here, especially if there is no reaction from team leadership.  This is a common ruse to trap the unwary.  I’ve encountered plenty of professionals who came to the table feigning cooperative ignorance, who revealed the depth of their knowledge later on.  You’d better have your facts and figures at the ready, or they’ll trip you up.  I’ve also encountered situations where a professional played dumb to protect their colleague(s) and/or cronies from exposure.

Matt has been playing dumb for so long, that nobody believes otherwise

Getting the most out of a meeting starts with mitigating wasteful behaviors.  If you are setting up a meeting, you might ask all the senior staff to provide a brief overview of what they need to resolve the issue.  Compile that into an agenda which is copied to all invitees.  By developing a meaningful meeting agenda, you might accidentally solve the problem!

If an invitee won’t answer the email, they’ll probably avoid the meeting too.  Anyone who can’t/won’t make a meaningful addition to the agenda is communicating something.  Use their lack of response as an opportunity to request access to their superiors.  Again, I find it’s helpful to couch this in terms of concern for the unresponsive person’s health.  It’s truly remarkable how often people will find time to reply after I’ve asked their boss if they’re out sick.

If you are asked to join a meeting, you might suggest this process by volunteering the items you need to resolve the issue on your end.  Be careful to “stay in your lane”, because weak and unaccountable leaders are often counting on someone else taking charge so they can claim success, or lay blame.  If you don’t know who should handle some item you need resolution on, admit it.  Hopefully things go well and you arrive at the resolution to your issue.

Be thankful for the difficult people in your life, for they teach you who not to be.

Construction is a field which attracts a unique blend of skills and personalities.  It’s truly remarkable how the various combinations can come together to make an individual really good at their job.  Still, it’s not for everyone, and some people take longer to make that discovery than others.  Many people are in a difficult situation after they’ve invested heavily in higher education, to begin a career that’s nothing like the coursework they enjoyed.  Others suffer from the Peter principle; “People in a hierarchy tend to rise to their level of incompetence”

These are just a few examples of how squandered human capital tends to create difficult people.  I’d like to stress that “difficult” in this context, is simply referring to the relative complexity of getting an individual to either do their job, or stand aside so others can make progress.  

I’ve had some success with the following strategy which works well with most people.

  • Respectfully set a precedent of positive productivity
  • Establish guidelines for success, and an escalation strategy for course correction
  • Define timelines for performance
  • Evaluate and follow through
  • Maintain records to develop a narrative which defends or promotes the necessary course of action.
  • Escalate as necessary

Hopefully these ideas will bring some of your immortal tasks to an end.

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© Anton Takken 2021 all rights reserved

 

About Anton Takken

I chose to focus on estimating for a few reasons. Chief among them was that it's a position that's hard to fill in most companies. Job security and advancement is easier as a result. Unique to this job is a higher vantage point over the company and its place in the market. Bids are generally over in a few weeks which keeps things from getting boring. The reasons few of my colleagues pursue estimating comes down to a few misconceptions. The first is that it's the builders version of accounting - perceived as a lonely and quiet life among the charts and plans. The second is that it's not engaged in the construction process. Lots of the appeal of the construction industry is the sense that individual effort brought a plan into reality. The teamwork and camaraderie present among tradesman seems conspicuously absent at the estimators desk. Finally, I think the last reason is that it's daunting to be responsible for setting the price of something that's never been done. The good news for folks in estimating is that it's much more social than advertised. An estimator's phone is constantly ringing. Taking the opportunity to build relationships with the bidders creates a positive atmosphere and encourages everyone to do their best. It can be too much of a good thing which is why it's common to arrive at their voicemail when you're calling with a question. A strong rapport with the bidders can be invaluable. Subcontractors have much more exposure to what's going on in the market and they're often eager to share their knowledge. Learning from these experts is a priceless opportunity that's often overlooked. More on this in a bit. I decided to start this blog because I noticed that estimating has applications in many arenas. Over the last few years I've helped estimate in fields ranging from software development to blacksmithing! The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it's not about knowing what everything costs, it's about knowing how to figure that out. I believe the very first step to knowledge is to seek it, the second is to retain it, and the third is to pass it on. I hope to share some insights into how estimating is done and hopefully have some fun doing it. My experience is mostly commercial construction, but I'll try to make everything as generally applicable as I can. There are many aspects of business that all markets share yet it's remarkable that one of the most consistent is the failure to recognize that estimating is the very first step to a successful project. So if you're frustrated that work isn't profitable, or exasperated that there's never enough time to get the job done, this blog will be worth your time. Feel free to email me at: estimatorsplaybook@gmail.com View all posts by Anton Takken

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