Good communication: keep it simple

6 Oct 22

Communication is the single biggest cause of error in the construction industry, said Jack Smith from Platform at GIRI’s autumn members’ meeting. To get it right, keep it simple, know your audience, and get rid of distractions.

Platform advises and delivers property development projects, dealing with the multiple stakeholders involved in projects. “A significant proportion of our time is spent articulating the needs of others in such a way that everyone can understand and respond to them,” said Jack.

“If communication is the delivery of information, effective communication is when the information is received and understood in the way we intended, and the receiver can pass on that information in the same way to a third party. The delivery doesn’t matter if the intended information is not received.”

Jack highlighted GIRI’s research on the cost of error. “Two of the top 10 root causes of error were identified as ineffective or poor communication – poorly communicated design information and ineffective communication between team members. However, one could argue that there are several other communication-related issues in the top 10, such as late design changes. This means more than half of the root causes relate to poor communication. It is the single biggest cause of error in our industry.”

He pointed out that good communication means adapting your message and delivery to your audience. “No two conversations are the same because no two people are the same. To address this, we must be agile and capable of adapting how we communicate. And while there is an onus on the person delivering the information to ensure the recipient has received and understood it, the recipient must also be actively engaged. If they are not focused and participating, no amount of preparation will enable effective communication to occur.”

This is where simplicity is so important. Meetings without a defined objective, too many attendees, drawings, reports, and distractions all get in the way of effectively passing on information. “Saying too much is one of the main barriers. When we talk longer than necessary, people switch off. Far better to get to the point. Simplicity is key, and terminology is important. We can use the same terms but understand them differently, so it is important to ask questions rather than make assumptions.”

He argued that good communication also means listening to others without bias. “It’s not about you, it’s about your audience. And trust is important. We must trust that the information we receive comes from a reliable source. Actions promote or nullify your words. Reputations are formed by actions. It’s why what we do matters.”

Jack finished by providing two examples, with very different outcomes. For the reinstatement of a restaurant facility in an office building in Paris, a French design team was appointed to develop the brief with an English interior designer. Platform led the pre-construction phase and delivery of the project.

While language was perceived as a barrier, the fact that participants had to think carefully about what they were going to say and how they were going to say it meant that questions were to the point, and everyone checked they had been understood correctly. The result was a project completed on time, on budget and to specification. “We finished the project on excellent terms with the design team and trade contractors and we have subsequently worked with them all again elsewhere.”

In contrast, Jack related Platform’s experience working on a recent development in London that involved the demolition of an existing medical facility and the creation of a new one. Various issues during the project led to practical completion taking twice as long as predicted.

Jack highlighted one issue in particular where a series of communication failures led to an expensive delay. The contractor initially attributed a basement flood to the failure of one temporary water pump and incorrect sizing of another. A secondary cause was claimed to be water ingress from a dry-lining operative cutting a temporary weathering bund on the ground floor. But the contractor delayed telling Platform about the flood for 72 hours, and later changed the narrative, attributing the flood to the simultaneous failure of both pumps. This caused a breakdown in trust between the two parties. The whole basement and lower ground floor unit had to be stripped out and the building fabric dried out, adding 10 months to the programme.

“If the contractor had communicated effectively with team members and the supply chain, the pump would have been correctly sized. The temporary weathering strategy would have been reviewed daily to ensure its effectiveness. The operative who cut the bund on the ground floor would have reported it, and the contractor should have advised us sooner about the flood and not changed their story. It was an expensive mistake to fix. Communications were strained, emotions were high, and relationships were lost. In contrast, effective communication saves time, money, emotions, and relationships.”

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