Why good communication is essential for getting it right26 Sep 22
The consequences of communication failures were highlighted at the GIRI autumn members’ meeting by Alex Marler from Weightmans who used a series of cautionary tales to illustrate how lack of clarity can impact projects and lead to claims. “Communication is the key to getting it right first time,” he said.
Among the real-life examples, Alex related the circumstances of a project to build a sewage treatment plant for a new care home. When the job was completed and there was a problem with the sewage treatment plant, which meant it had to be shut down, the care home sued the contractor who, in turn, sued the engineer.
“One of the main arguments concerned what had been agreed between the contractor and the engineer as to what was within the engineer’s remit – whether or not the engineer was supposed to specify the plant and the drainage. They disagreed on what they had communicated at the outset and so ended up in the position where a judge had to decide. No one wins in that situation, not the care home or its residents, not the contractor or the engineer.”
The lesson from this, said Alex, is that communication needs to be clearer from the outset. The contractor should have been clear about what they wanted the engineer to do and should have put it in writing so the engineer could have said yes, they could do it, or no, someone else needed to be involved.
In another example, a school urgently needed new buildings and appointed a new architect late in the project when the plans were reasonably well advanced. “Again, the school was not clear about what the architect was taking on, and so both parties had different ideas of what needed to be done,” he said.
This project involved the use of a modular system that had not been tested in the UK; the client believed it was the architect’s role to review, advise on and approve the new system, whereas the architect believed the solution had already been chosen and his job was simply to help with some final aspects.
“There was no contract, just an exchange of emails and the key points about what the architect was to do were never nailed down. Once again, this shows the need for clarity at the outset rather than muddling along and discussing details as the project progresses.”
Too much information rather than too little was at the heart of an example of a fire safety issue on a mixed-use development. When the contractor bought the wrong cladding by mistake and didn’t want to waste it, he consulted a fire safety consultant with a specific question about its use. The fire safety consultant provided the advice requested, but thereafter remained copied in on continued project communications. When the cladding was then used in a way he had not been consulted about and issues arose, the contractor argued that the fire safety consultant had been copied into all the correspondence and should have notified the contractor that it was unsafe.
“In this case, the consultant was exposed to too much communication, or if not too much, then it was not focused enough,” he said. “Good communication means that the right information goes to the right people, and it must be focused and relevant.” In other words, it is no good simply sending everything to everyone.
Alex’s final example was a project that was built successfully but wasn’t what the client wanted. The issue arose over the choice of glass for an extension to an existing structure. Clear glass was used for the extension, but the original structure used low-iron glass, so the extension was noticeably greener than the existing building.
“On this project, no one asked the question or specified which glass was required, and the client didn’t like the outcome. The communications failure in this case was a failure to establish what the client wanted and confusion over whose job it was to establish this. If we haven’t got it right in the beginning, then something could be built perfectly well, but if it isn’t what the client wanted or needed, then it is not right.”
Alex underlined the importance of record keeping as part of the communications process; many of these cases were complicated by a lack of any record about what was discussed or agreed. “Record keeping is a form of communication with yourself and other people in the future about what it is you have done, discussed and agreed. Because people do forget things and years later it can be harder and more expensive to prove what was or was not done, found, or advised.”
To have any prospect of getting things right first time, said Alex, you have to focus on getting communication right at the beginning of a project.
“It takes time and money to commit everything to writing, but record keeping and good communication will pay off in the long run. Ask the questions early on. Most of these claims arose because of people not asking at the outset what the client wanted, or what the options were, or what they should be doing. Have the right people in meetings who are not afraid to ask questions, don’t make assumptions, be clear about what you are and aren’t doing, and keep communications under review as things develop. And all this should be recorded in writing and shared so that everyone knows what has been agreed.”