Situational Judgment in Construction Administration, Part 2

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Site supers or general contractors should make the tough calls on the job and still deliver on time. What's the right balance?

Situational Judgment in Construction Administration, Part 2

Knowing what kind of problem you have on hand means knowing what features of the situation can be ignored. Even the boundaries of what counts as “the situation” can be ambiguous; making discriminations of pertinence cannot be achieved by the application of rules and requires the kind of judgment that comes with experience. — Matthew B. Crawford, "Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work"

Situations in construction demand that design professionals be part sleuth, part sage, part cool customer and part improvisationalist. Emphasizing development in four areas should be the goal of every professional involved in the construction process: diagnostics, experience, mindset and creativity. If diagnostic skill is all about analysis and discernment of what is relevant, then the foundation of that skill rests on our experience. Experience is our knowledge repository that we use as a basis of comparison to identify with the elements of the situation. However, great diagnostic ability that is firmly rooted in solid experience is not enough. Be it schedule pressure, cost constraints, team pressure, or something else, in the construction environment problem solving is always under some form of duress. Under these stressful conditions, our mindset is vital; it must promote action over paralysis. And we need to deploy creativity to synthesize solutions using tools left to us by the situation. In the previous article we discussed how proficiency in diagnostics and experience work together to sponsor good situational judgment skill. In this second part, we discuss how expertise two other areas, mindset and creativity, round out the crucial components needed for advanced situational judgment.

MINDSET: Cool Customer

… To get things done you need to understand the resistances you encounter rather than aggressively conduct war against them. Richard Sennett, "The Craftsman"

Situational judgment has some particular requirements when considering a proper mindset. Clausewitz stressed how warfare is the most confusing during battle. He famously noted that no plan survives the first battle in the fog of war. During construction, ambiguity is present in large measure because intangibles, unknowns, and iffy information all conspire with schedule pressure to create uncertainty. To function we must manage this ambiguity. However, to manage ambiguity is to first accept ambiguity as a fact of doing business in construction.  Cultivating a mindset capable of adapting to this operating parameter is not an easy skill to master. Acceptance helps us to overcome paralyzed judgment and conquer fear of making a wrong decision under suboptimal conditions.

Pucker up snake - courtesy of Michael Stoerger

Next, it is important to understand necessity of action. Owners need to use their projects at the earliest possible date. That is what generates schedule pressure and gives it almost unlimited authority during construction. Schedule pressure subordinates all project constituents, but it also sponsors our necessity to act. Inaction in construction usually invites unacceptable consequences and even failure. This provides us some freedom exactly because we are relieved of the responsibility of knowing every possible aspect about the situation before acting. However, this is not an excuse for design professionals to be sloppy and irresponsible.

The other aspect of necessity of action is a personal mandate to get the job done for its own sake. It is a realization that authority to act comes less from the permission of others but is self-chartered within each of us. Design professionals must be willing to make decisions under imperfect conditions that do not guarantee bullet-proof results. The need to act is both bestowed upon us by schedule pressure and cultivated within us by our individual sense of professional dignity.

Many of us think it a sign of weakness to admit that we do not know something or are not in full control of a situation. This attitude does not necessarily belong exclusively to the uninitiated, either. In the politics of "team," the newbies do not want to appear overly green or weak to the bosses. Also, the gray-hairs do not wish to be perceived as obsolete or incompetent. These attitudes can interfere with good situational judgment. As design professionals, we need to adjust our mindsets so we do not become preoccupied with these distractions. Smart managers understand this and will foster environments where saying "I don’t know" is not a sin.

Lastly, like a batter in baseball we learn to overcome the temptation to swing at bad pitches and develop a "plate discipline" that enables us to work the count to our favor. We need to learn how to check emotions that would prevent us from successfully dealing with the situation and exploit emotions that would assist us. Remaining operational in the environment of the moment is largely determined by our outlook. It requires operational fortitude to transcend resistances that are put before us by each situation. There is a correct mindset for each of us that facilitates our creative problem-solving abilities.

CREATIVITY: Improvisationalist

Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed. Walter Benjamin, "One Way Street" in "Reflections"

To be skilled in situational judgment is to apply creativity in solution-making. What are the features of creativity that help us synthesize solutions in construction administration? Sennett advocates three techniques for overcoming resistance posed by stubborn problems: find the problem’s sweet spot or most forgiving elements and attack the low-hanging fruit; if the problem persists, improvise by readjusting behavior; and reconfigure the problem by coming at it from a different direction.

Creativity is largely improvisational in nature. Creativity in this context does not mean being ungrounded, ignoring convention and precedent, nor does it mean being creative for its own sake. Schedule pressure aggressively judges every answer we propose. Creativity is a byproduct of a mastery that is cultivated through laborious practice, rather than liberation from that practice, explains Crawford in Shop Class as Soul Craft.  Real improvisation must have a solid foundation in competence. Think of the accomplished jazz musician rigorously learning music structure as the basis of undertaking the ad lib. Improvisation is an unpremeditated means of obtaining an end. The truth is that problem-solving on the fly is a big part of what goes on.

Next, there is a slightly subversive quality to improvisation. Design professionals in construction administration need to employ the shrewdness of an expert handyman in a pickle who will use everything at his disposal to get the job done. The inelegantly elegant solution is a custom solution fit for purpose only for the situation at hand – not always pretty but almost always sublime. Sometimes improvisation requires "dirty" hands and deviation from the norm, but it is an intelligent deviation, not a reckless or irresponsible one.

Creative problem-solving employs the cunning of the fox, who knows many things, rather than the hedgehog perspective of single big idea (as Isaiah Berlin explains in The Hedgehog and the Fox). In The Savage Mind, Lévi-Strauss echoes the fox mentality when he describes the arcane personality of the bricoleur. The bricoleur is adept at putting pre-existing things together in new ways, making creative and resourceful use of whatever is available, regardless of its original purpose. Similarly, Jugaad, a Hindi idea, is an improvised arrangement, an innovative fix or frugal workaround that has to be used because of lack of resources. From the German, a kludge is a quick-and-dirty yet effective solution, not built according to a design or plan, a clever lash-up that involves "ad-hockery" and may even verge on the ridiculous. At a difficult moment in a problem, a hand-drawn sketch quickly emailed to an unlikely specialist, across contractual boundaries outside established project protocols, is an example of the bricoleur approach at work.

Another improvisational tool is participation in collaborative networks that organically develop during construction. Project constituents who prove themselves reliable in getting the work done attract each other. Barter systems based on peer-to-peer deal-making develop as a result. This "black market" collaboration becomes the improvisational workaround used when more official methods of getting things done bog down or fail to produce. Reliability gains you membership, and lack of the same gets your access revoked.

Successful situational judgment relies on one guiding principle: what best serves the situation? This is a difficult question to answer because what best serves the situation is often elusive and seldom static. It varies depending upon many factors, not the least of which is point of view. The environment of the moment can become wicked in a hurry. That is exactly why skill in situational judgment is so important. Avoiding deep kimchi and keeping the project in tall cotton hinges on how adept project participants are at diagnosing and solving problems. The essential tools underpinning expert situational judgment are found in the four areas discussed: diagnostic ability, experienced intuition, enabling mindset, and creative solution-making.

In pragmatic terms, construction administration is about leveraging useful information under schedule pressure. Teams of project constituents transact information using several collaborative processes, some official and others unofficial. Those transactions are almost always conducted under duress from project drivers. It is acuity in situational judgment that promotes action over paralysis, keeping the information machine functioning in proper kilter.

The purpose of examining the subject of judgment is to promote what Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes called a firm grasp of the obvious. The modern construction industry promotes much chicanery that conspires to loosen our grasp of the obvious. Miracle process cures and strict subordination to the team ethos are inadequate substitutes for the power of mature situational judgment. This manifesto is about looking past the diversions, empowering our grasp, and reminding us of how buildings actually get built. There is no substitute for superior situational judgment skills in the construction environment.

Ken Bishop

Ken Bishop is Associate Vice President and senior architect specializing in construction administration for the Healthcare Practice Group in the San Francisco office of HGA Architects and Engineers. He is a graduate of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and attended graduate school at Cornell University. He was a founding member of the AIA National Construction Contract Administration Knowledge Community.

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