Keys to Successful Conflict Management: Look for It, Don’t Run, Play Fair

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As an owner’s rep with deep experience in design/construction and management consulting, I sometimes feel I am in the conflict management business. I don’t have a problem with that. Constructive conflict is useful. Different ideas can be beneficial to the project.


The nature of the building industry as it currently exists is such that there tends to be a reasonable amount of ongoing conflict that is poorly managed. A number of different organizations (subcontractors, professional service firms, vendors) as well as the people who work for those organizations implement projects. In a project I coordinated in Las Vegas, there were in the neighborhood of 30 different organizations and about 250 individuals that put work in place on that project. Maybe more. With so many people and specializations involved, there’s bound to be conflict at some point. Good owner’s rep firms are effective at successfully orchestrating conflict management.


Conflict can be constructive or destructive depending on what type of environment is established from the get-go and how the conflict is handled when it emerges. As an owner’s rep, I know from experience that it’s good to institute a value system on the project that emphasizes being fair. I have watched some projects where the owner takes the position that it’s his way or the highway. When an owner takes such a position, this tends to invite similar behavior. In fact, it is almost like an invitation. Then general contractor says to himself in response: “OK, I know how to play that game.”


To add to the potential difficulties, I dare say there are few projects in which the design documents are not without flaws. And/or there are scope gaps in subcontracts (perhaps due to document problems), meaning that there are blanks in the scope of the project that need to be filled to create a complete project. When any of these happen, it is good strategy for owners to have a sense of fair play. You tend to get what you give. Creating an atmosphere of being fair and reasonable is beneficial to the project. (Even before a contract is inked, your criteria for selection should be based on more data than the price. Do you suspect that the proposed contractor or professional services firm shares in your value system? That’s important. The industry tends to default to the simplest economic criteria—the low bid—and that’s essentially a flawed model. Make sure you’re matched well in values and you’ll be ahead of the game.)


Successful management of conflict must include a solid communication strategy. I suppose the downside of too much communication is that it is time consuming and let’s be honest, who has time? But I believe that the problems that emerge from communication failure have a multiple in the time they take to resolve. In my projects where I serve as owner’s rep, I have regular meetings for various players. Regular OAC (owner or owner’s rep, architect, contractor) meetings were we get in a room and review the project, review the constraint log, and review design development progress. I suggest weekly trade contractor (subs) meetings, where we discover the rocks in the road—issues we haven’t thought about that will affect forward progress (i.e. constraints). If you don’t identify conflict, how are you going to manage it? We also do once-a-month SMT (Senior Management Team) meetings where all the owners of the key parties sit down and review the project. This is a way to create an environment so the top guns are looking at the project and talking about the project.


Finally, it’s important that you deal with conflict as soon as you find it. I’ve seen people know a conflict has emerged—they sense it, they can read it, they feel it, and then they ignore it. My experience is that these problems do not go away. In fact, they tend to get worse. How does this show up on in a capital-intensive project? Through the phrase that everybody hates: change orders or claims. Change orders cost money and many of them can be avoided.


To recap, when you are approaching a project, it’s important to have an effective strategy for managing conflict. Champion good communication, look for problems before they blossom into large hurdles, deal with them appropriately, and be fair.