Collaboration or Cooperation

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
— Princess Bride

Without a doubt one of my favorite movie lines of all time.  Of course I am referring to “Inconceivable!” and the classic The Princess Bride, but that’s not what I’m thinking about here.  If our industry has an equivalent to this classic it has to be “Collaboration!”.

General Contractors and Collaboration

8020 Builders believes it is more than just working together.

As buzz words go this one has got to be the most over-used in our industry.  With the advance in usage of design-build delivery the concept of partnering relationships between owners, designers and contractors has become highly desirable.  I am a big advocate of this as I have grown most of my career in a very integrated delivery style.  However I find myself turned off by so many firms’ use of the term “collaboration” as a justification of their ability to truly partner with others in a project.

To be clear, in the vast majority of cases I’m not suggesting that people’s misuse of the term is nefarious.  I think the term has simply been used so much that it has simply become synonymous with mundane problem solving or people’s ability to cooperate.  In fact, Webster’s defines collaboration as “to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something”.  In this definition helping your spouse to make the bed is collaboration.  This is a good thing, please don’t stop helping your spouse and tell him or her it was my idea.


I realized that true collaboration comes from not just working with others to achieve results but actually caring about the intentions of those you’re working with. It came down to being responsible beyond my job description.

My problem with all of this is that, in the context of the complex issues we deal with every day in the development and construction of the built environment, simply working together to do something just isn’t enough.  I learned collaboration as something that felt magical when it worked.  True collaboration, in my opinion, produces results that are synergistic.  Solutions that are more than the sum of their parts.  I had a supervisor tell me once that you don’t learn or teach this type of collaboration, you experience it, and then you understand.  It took a few years but I discovered he was right.

About 10 years into my career I started working for a firm that integrated design and general contracting services under one roof.  I was drawn to them because of this integration but I didn’t realize at first the real power.  I figured the advantage was when I had a question or problem with something with the design the fact that I could simply walk over to the architect’s desk would be transformational.  Other than getting me away from my desk more this simple fact did not change much about how I did business or the results I achieved.  After I experienced it as I mentioned above I realized that true collaboration comes from not just working with others to achieve results but actually caring about the intentions of those you’re working with.  It came down to being responsible beyond my job description.  No longer was I just a project manager with quick access to the designers.  I became more aware of the issues my designers were concerned about and once I took on those concerns as my own, as in fact the concerns of the project, I believe I became a true collaborator.

Behaving in this way was certainly easier when I was working with designers who got their paycheck from the same guy as me.  It created an intrinsic alignment of sorts.  I have found, however, that this same type of magic can be created in conventional 3rd party relationships.  It takes leadership and the faith to trust when sometimes it’s difficult.

Lexi Steele