Situational Judgment in Construction Administration, Part 1

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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 1

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"

Even in full working order, construction is messy. No amount of process "innovation" seems to alter this basic reality. Owners today remain apprehensive about the risks of construction and the ability of designers and builders to reliably deliver. In what seems to be a nearly permanent state of demand for the next best thing, the marketplace is responding to calls for change of status quo project delivery paradigms. Project constituents never quite seem to catch up. Productivity suffers as the learning curve seems never-ending. However, when notice to proceed is given and schedule pressure takes hold, discussion of collaboration must give way to actual collaboration. One of the most valued collaborative skills for design professionals is expert proficiency in situational judgment. Situational judgment tells us how to go about solving the problem by first understanding what really constitutes the problem. “Making discriminations of pertinence” is just a fancy way of saying "figure out what matters and what doesn’t" when solving a problem. Throughout the challenges in the construction process, it is the one expertise that really keeps the project where it wants to be, out of deep kimchi and in tall cotton.

What exactly constitutes "a situation" in construction administration anyway? A situation usually means that a technical or process problem needs to be solved. It can be a precarious moment that requires using proportional measures of delicate diplomacy and blunt talk. It can be a pernicious jam where exists some unresolved train wreck, or potential train wreck, of competing interests or narratives. Simply stated, a situation is "the environment of the moment” (as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman put it).

Situations demand that design professionals be part sleuth, part sage, part cool customer, and part improvisationalist. That means well developed ability in four areas is crucial: 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. Our experience is the repository of the knowledge 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. In the construction environment, problem solving is always under some form of duress. The "hurry up" mantra of schedule pressure, cost constraints, and expectations of quality all exert enormous influence on everything we do. Even the politics of vague imperatives demanded of us by conformance to team-play reveals unexpected facets of the situation. Under these stressful conditions, our mindset is vital; it must promote action over paralysis. Last, we need to develop creative skills that synthesize solutions by using tools on hand, left to us by the situation. Emphasizing development in these four areas should be the goal of every professional involved in the construction process. In this part of a two-part installment we will discuss how the first two skills, diagnostics and experience, work together to sponsor good situational judgment.


1. Diagnostics: Sleuth

"Excellent!" I cried. "Elementary," said he. – Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Adventure of the Crooked Man"

Situational judgment is a craft that is diagnostic in nature.  The ability to diagnose and adapt to the environment of the moment is something we share with the rest of the animal kingdom. Animal thinking is diagnostic. Mother Nature has provided us with the ability to focus and discern cognitive dissonances for survival. Kahneman distinguishes two kinds of judgment skills innate to humans. Both are operational all of the time. “System 1” is a sensibility that continuously monitors all situations for violated expectations. When threat levels subside or more detailed analysis is required, our brains transfer the work to “System 2” to crunch the data in detail. This one–two punch methodology from the wild is the basis for our investigative acuity in construction administration.

Some problems have complex interdependencies, and tending to one aspect of the problem may reveal or precipitate other collateral problems.  Design theorist Horst Rittel characterized these as “Wicked Problems.” Diagnosing situations and creating solutions for "wicked problems" arguably can be reduced to three imperfect methodologies, according to Professor Nancy Roberts of the Naval Postgraduate School. Sometimes the number of participants involved is intentionally limited due to schedule pressure. This influences the number and composition of possible solutions. Decisions are made with limited information by using this authoritative method. Other situations require us to solicit competing solutions from different sources that can be weighed against each other. The Darwinian process of colliding these viewpoints produces better choices from which to make the best possible choice. This competitive method by definition produces winners and losers and an outcome where one trade can be fouled or disadvantaged by the chosen solution. Lastly, it is sometimes possible to solve a problem by optimizing the diagnosis, involving all of the appropriate people, and selecting the best (i.e., the most comprehensive) solution. While this collaborative method is obviously preferred, the process prerequisite is adequate time – a commodity in short supply in construction.

In any diagnostic methodology several factors are in play. We consider the acceptable balance of self-interest to self-sacrifice, managing risk versus reward. Knowing when to act is also very important. Because time is a factor, we learn to recognize the minimum amount of information necessary to act, relying heavily on a “salience threshold” (as discussed in "The Art of Integrative Thinking," by Roger Martin and Hilary Austen). There is an appropriate “dwell-time” for each diagnosis where patience and urgency must temper each other, according to author Richard Sennett. The ability to discriminate, to rapidly rank large or complex amounts of dodgy information by significance and discern the most important stuff (and disregard the rest) is key. No two hairballs are alike; each problem in construction is unique to its circumstances. The ramifications of relocating a partition 6" on paper during design is very different from doing the same early in construction when the bottom track is installed, and yet different again late in construction when that partition is fully built.

Hemingway gave us the famous directive about developing a bullshit detector. The art of the hidden agenda is commonly practiced in construction. According to Professor Harry G. Frankfurt, author of "On Bullshit" from Princeton University Press, lies and bullshit are both forms of misrepresentation. Unlike a lie, bullshit is more of a program than a single act. It is a promotion whose sole purpose is to serve a concealed purpose – the hidden agenda. Its function is the biased recruitment of our thoughts to sway opinion and gerrymander situational boundaries – to manipulate outcomes that serve the appointed ruse. Under schedule pressure, no project constituent is immune to this ulterior motive. "Bullshit" is the ubiquitous tool of choice to game the system for partisan benefit when backs are against the wall and the clock is ticking.

However, if “one man’s bullshit is another man’s catechism” (author Neil Postman), then effectively diagnosing "crap" in a situation also requires us to recognize our own parti pris. We need to understand how and when our own bias inappropriately influences our assessments. While crap-detecting and recognizing hidden agendas and other modes of fraudulence are essential diagnostic tools, we must continually battle against our biases when evaluating situations.

Any situation has many aspects, some obvious and others ambiguous. Finding all four corners of the problem is often not even possible. Distinguishing among its competing elements is a crucial task and a prerequisite to finding ways forward. Diagnostic ability relies on good instinct built from experience.


2. Experience: Sage


Elder Djigibombo - courtesy of Michael Stoerger

Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes. –  Oscar Wilde

Bad decisions, blind alleys, burnt fingers: these are the episodes that provide us with experience. Our ability to judge is forged by experience. Experience is the mastery we acquire from long practice against "resistances, those facts that stand in the way of the will" be they found or made (as Richard Sennett wrote in "The Craftsman"). How do we gain experience in construction administration?

Many construction problems are solved by predictable recipes. The required depth of a beam can be calculated by using a formula, the result of which comes with a nearly full guarantee. This is an example of algorithmic problem-solving wherein the result is the predictable outcome of an objective "equation." However, wicked problems are seldom overcome by predetermined formulas. For these we rely on our best guess, based upon judgment using experience. This heuristic type of problem-solving relies on selection of the solution from a set of promising solutions based on imperfect information on hand at a specific moment. Here, there are no guarantees of the outcome.

Industry preoccupations today are to reduce the process to a more predictable formula so as to reduce uncertainty, manage risk, and increase efficiency. Put more ironically, “extraordinary human ingenuity has been used to eliminate the need for human ingenuity” (as Barbara Garson wrote in "The Electronic Sweatshop: How Computers Are Transforming the Office of the Future into the Factory of the Past" ). However, heuristic problem-solving is a technique that refuses to go quietly into the night, despite all efforts to the contrary. It is insurgent, primal, and even Darwinian in nature to us. The fallacy of reducing the construction process to algorithm is that the system is too quickly overwhelmed by the enigmatic qualities of continuously emergent construction circumstances. These situations require fit-for-purpose solutions that predigested formulas overlook. As these algorithms break down under the weight of problems turned wicked under schedule pressure, we must default to our wiles. When formulas fail, heuristic problem-solving is our ace in the hole.

Creating imperfect solutions and choosing between them based upon a calculated best guess requires superior situational judgment. Situational judgment draws upon a repertoire of precedents. Experience is our cataloging of those accumulated precedents, our struggles against resistances we have encountered before. Experience can mean the difference between an inspired hunch and a thoughtless whim when diagnosing situations. Expert intuition results from the combination of diagnostics and hard-earned experience. But the voice of intuition can be drowned out by excessive reliance on an overly emotional or unprepared mindset. In the next piece, we will discuss how our mindset and ability to improvise are also crucial components of superior situational judgment along with diagnostic skill informed by experience.

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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