Collaborative working in the UK construction industry has never been more on-trend. But what is it and what does it mean in practice?
In a nutshell, it means working in a co-operative and trustworthy manner, even when others around you may not be doing the same: it means having integrity. It doesn't mean capitulating in order to be seen as co-operative - that doesn't make good business sense and your stakeholders won't be impressed. Nor does it mean sharp practice (although there is a place for shrewd commercial deals). Contractors, don't underquote and then claim later and do conduct due diligence thoroughly. Employers, don't squeeze cashflow by paying late and don't skimp on your design or specification. Both contractors and employers, take time to invest in establishing and maintaining open relations. Nothing reduces a project's chances of successful delivery like communication failures. Communicating honestly and clearly and acting robustly (but not aggressively or recklessly) are characteristics of collaborative working. Without integrity, however, none has lasting impact, in my view.
How to achieve true collaboration? I suggest the starting point is the basis on which the parties come together: the contract. The agreement which, at its essence, sets out who will do what, for how much money, to what quality and to what timescale. There may be other bells and whistles, but if you don't get the basics right, you're onto a loser from the off. Taking time to conduct contract negotiations is paramount: it provides the opportunity to agree in advance on a mechanism for business discussions when risks or differences arise. The aim is to encourage the parties to maintain open dialogue and, in so doing, they feel secure about procedural fairness and confident that the best way to resolve things is "through", not "out".
Once the contract is signed, it's delivery time. Act on the statements you made, the promises, the undertakings. Show the other party by your actions that you haven't underpriced, that you won't underpay. Show that you have thought carefully about your position, and the other party's, in each communication. Earn and build trust by exhibiting integrity. Do what you said you would do. Risks and differences of opinion will inevitably arise. To manage those risks on a corporate and project level, difficult conversations with stakeholders as well as the other party may well be required. This is where integrity is tested. Projects often go wrong once trust is lost and relationships spiral downwards to the point of no return (or tortuous return through legal proceedings). Of course, commercial considerations underpin any negotiation, but, without trust, even commercial interest may not be enough. Collaboration is key to working a contract through. But paying lip-service to collaboration won't work. When the going gets tough, you will need integrity in order to maximise the chance of true collaboration.