Article - December 2003
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 Design Team Communications:  Keeping a Perspective on Personalities

Don't ever let team members' personalities override the technical merits of any design development. 


Thomas Hartman, P E
The Hartman Company

Years ago, I wrote a technical article and was surprised when shortly after it was published the editor sent me a letter he received from an engineer that I knew fairly well who was quite openly critical of my technical conclusions. I remember that it bothered me because it seemed that the criticisms were stated very strongly and seemed to ignore what I thought were well documented arguments for the case I made in the article. Some months later, I saw the fellow at a conference. He asked me if his remarks had at all offended me. I took a big swallow and said that to the contrary, having an honest dialog is essential in this industry and I appreciated his straightforwardness. He thanked me and said he'd been criticized in the past for being too aggressive with his comments and was working on toning them down. In truth, I didn't think he'd succeeded in doing so, but I was very taken that he had indeed expended some effort to make his comments palatable. Whatever his present views were (and they appeared unchanged from those expressed in his letter), I appreciated his being concerned about how they were received. Any unpleasantness I may have entertained about his comments evaporated at that moment. And I was very happy I responded as I did when he asked me about his remarks!

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That experience returned to me as I followed ASHRAE President Richard Rooley's remarks at the CIBSE conference in Scotland and again at the APC Conference in Hong Kong this fall. Rooley believes a lack of effective communications is a primary cause of building HVAC systems failing to live up to expectations. Amen! Last month my essay in this publication discussed the disconnect between designers, contractors and operators as a major reason for failure in our industry. Communication is severely limited across those divisions and is an important reason for projects failing to succeed as expected. However, Rooley's remarks got me thinking about communication problems that too often occur among members within design teams. Rooley points out that our engineering training usually does not include any emphasis on developing effective communication skills. In my experience, ruffled feathers, such as nearly occurred between my fellow engineer and me a number of years ago, are all too frequent among the technical personnel within design teams.

I have learned first hand that criticism is tough to take even from a distance, but up close within the confines of a design team, disagreements over elements of a project can be very difficult for engineers. I know that I am at times miffed by engineers who seem to have no good reason for wanting to do things "the old way." Similarly, I know that other engineers are sometimes miffed by my desire to focus first on the potential for new approaches in the design process. In the confines of a design team, irritations from differing approaches can too easily make truly open discussions about appropriate technologies uncomfortable. This can lead to the team members avoiding such discussions. But discussions of differing approaches and concepts during the design stage are critical to making certain the entire team is on the same page as it works to keep up to date with the newer technologies being developed in and around our industry.

Keeping communication among team members open and mutually supportive is even more difficult because interdisciplinary coordination and shifting responsibilities must be addressed to incorporate new technologies effectively into building designs. Over the years our industry has pretty much settled the boundaries for each engineering discipline's turf. The problem is those boundaries need to be flexible in order to make projects that incorporate newer technologies successful. For example, the integration of HVAC and lighting control based on actual zone occupancy conditions is recognized as essential to good comfort and energy efficiency in office buildings. But I continue to see building designs that incorporate entirely separate zoning for lighting and comfort systems, and often separate controls for each system as well, making truly effective integration between lighting and comfort systems nearly impossible. The primary reason for this internal disconnect is poor communication between the mechanical and electrical design engineers. The source of this breakdown in communication is often a discomfort that arises from the understandably different focus each of these team members has, and is usually compounded by the long accepted boundaries that separate the two disciplines.

The solution to these communication issues cannot be found in any of our engineering reference books. Rooley points out that today's design engineers usually spend the equivalent of about one day of their work week on technical issues for which they have been trained. The remainder is spent on management and communication issues for which we often have little or no formal training. And quite rightly, Rooley sees this as a professional issue that associations such as ASHRAE should forthrightly address with their members.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Developing an effective cooperative atmosphere within a design team while at the same time encouraging open discussions that challenge existing design assumptions in light of newer technologies and approaches available is a challenge that every design team must accept and successfully meet in order to be successful. There are some rules we can all apply to improve our communications skills with our fellow professionals to help meet this challenge. Here are several rules that I recommend:

  1. Take care to avoid having your colleagues be caught by surprise in critical issue discussions: In this age of instant communications, it is very easy to provide a heads-up to one or more colleagues that something needs immediate correction, change or discussion. As the work progresses, an email ahead of critical meetings that provides some outline of the more challenging issues and perhaps some options - but most important, your view openly expressed - can be very helpful to having your colleagues be ready to discuss solutions rather than become defensive in the meeting in which the issue is discussed. Although the heads up will also mean you will have to be well prepared, that's helpful as it will permit a more useful discussion of each such issue.

  2. Include neutral colleagues in meetings that will discuss divergent views: It is not always best to conduct one-on-one discussions in meeting during which the more challenging issues critical to the project must be decided. Particularly if you feel the technical merits involved in the issue might become compromised by ego or a turf encroachment, it is well to have others of the team that are respected by (or of higher authority than) those in the direct technical discussion. This approach enables wider views be considered in the discussions and can also provide some calming influence if the discussion starts to overheat. 

  3. Try to be direct, honest and straightforward when expressing your views: It's not always easy, but it's critical to be entirely honest and direct in expressing your professional views and opinions regarding a design option or alternative you propose, or one championed by a colleague that you find technically weak. Carefully construct your statements so that they accurately reflect your views and do not appear disingenuous or rely heavily on the views of others to make your points. Most important, keep personalities entirely out of your comments! The design team communication needs to be thought of as a process aimed at reaching a consensus as opposed to a debate. The process that leads to a successful end product, the design, is what is important. Being a part of a team is a very rewarding experience and the most effective method of implementing newer technologies. But it requires that each team member fully support and take responsibility for the design. It is not sufficient simply to prevail with a point of view or specific technological solution. It is also necessary that those whom you have convinced become advocates of that view or solution. In order to attain this level of acceptance, all relevant aspects of the issue must be made clear in the discussion. Finding that the resolution of an issue was accepted by a team without full disclosure by its advocate of its potential weaknesses will not contribute to strengthening the team bonds, and it can destroy its advocate's credibility in future discussions.

  4. Never discuss an issue behind the back of the colleague with primary responsibility for that issue: When we're part of a team, we need to support and rely upon the other members. The team needs to be supported by all its members and none can be allowed to feel left out or bypassed. There can be times when one individual becomes obstructionist, but that issue must be dealt with directly. If the team process is allowed to be compromised, no matter what the reason, the ability to operate effectively as a team in the future is severely diminished.

  5. Accept the design team consensus and work to make it successful: Some compromise by each member is almost always necessary in any team activity. That's why we work as a team instead of one or more individuals. In this age of ongoing technological development, no single member can have a complete vision of the best overall solution. To achieve that view, the team needs to work together and individuals need to develop the perspectives required to embrace the common vision. This is a process that inevitably requires some adjustment by each team member. When developing designs that incorporate new technologies, it is essential that all design team members cooperate to their fullest to understand and support the less certain attributes of those newer technologies incorporated into the design.

From a technical perspective, this list is quite intuitive, but because of the unique personality each of us have, elements of good and effective communication can easily become compromised. That's the reason I refer myself to these rules when I work with team members that are new to me.

So the most important rule for effective team communication I have is this: Keep personalities of the team members in perspective! Don't ever let team members' personalities override the technical merits of any design development. Taking a moment to think before responding is often wise. Acknowledging from time to time, especially in difficult discussions, that we may not be as tactful as we would like to be will often help keep such discussions on technical merits rather than permit the focus to switch to personalities which is always a dead end path. In the end, so long as the different personalities of the team members do not become an issue, maintaining effective design team communications is surprisingly easy to accomplish!

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