Looking Up to Birds For Better Project Teams

I have just been accused of being a bird-watcher.

With all the discussion in the design and construction sector about the collaborative project delivery approach for healthcare facilities, is this leading where we are going, or is it “for the birds?”  I say both.

The main premise of the collaborative/IPD concept depends on having the right team, with the right areas of expertise, in an environment of trust, with appropriate motivation and focus among the team members to be successful. These attributes would contribute to the success of any project, but on complicated healthcare projects where the design and construction team is assembled early, these elements are absolutely vital.

Birds came to mind for this discussion when my wife and I caught one of the last open-air “Birds of the World” shows at the State Fair of Texas. Steve Martin (not the comedian, the acclaimed bird-trainer) has been leading the bird show for 25 years, and retired after this year’s fair. He took time to answer questions, tell stories, and talk about his experience working with all kinds of birds over that 25-year period. He never lost a bird, he said, even though they fly from as far as the “Texas Star” Ferris wheel, a quarter mile or so away.

He said “you can’t punish a bird into doing what you want”—in fact, when they do what you want, perhaps after being stubborn, you give them even more feed. Steve went on to say, “This may be a useful way of dealing with people as well . . .” This inspired me to draw some conclusions about collaborative teams, taken from observations about birds (thus the amateur bird-watcher transformation).

Here are five bird-related associations to collaborative team concepts, gleaned from working with IPD teams, which may be applicable to project delivery success going forward:

1. Feed: It may be counter-intuitive to feed a bird after he fails to follow the command strictly as desired, but punishment would result in losing the bird to the wild. Collaborative team members need to be rewarded for their contributions—or they will be disinclined to contribute freely their best ideas to save costs or improve quality. All team members may not like or need the same reward: respect, time away, recognition, and comfort are all rewards that are not given out enough in our industry. Rather than criticize or call-out unwanted action, a collaborative team will find a way to reward nearby desired results for the team to see. In a collaborative environment, rewarding outstanding outliers in front of the group for their innovations, contributions to decreasing time or cost, better solutions, or other value-add can be a huge motivator.

2. Flock: “Birds of a feather flock together” yet birds in flight (or on a wire) know exactly how far from the next bird they need to be. Finding the right strengths of each team member, and teaming them with the right, complimentary colleague has produced outstanding results. Focused team activity is exemplified in target value design, where major-discipline teams (design and construction specialists working together) are tasked with developing a component of the project within a pre-agreed portion of the budget that fits the overall project goal.

3. Follow: Eagles may not flock, but teams need leaders who can work as an accountable part of the team, not just delegate from a treetop. Collaborative project delivery requirements often dictate that different members of the team take the lead, and alternately follow at different points in the project. This requires a certain amount of humility on the part of the “credentialed” leaders and trust on the part of the team as a whole.

4. Foster: Birds will be very protective of their babies in the nest, but when it is time to go, they push them out. Continuous improvement starts with a certain amount of protective nurturing, and continues to encourage reasonable risk-taking, initiative, and open-exchange of ideas in a non-threatening environment. The “good news/bad news” story for team members brought on to the team early is sobering:

“Good news is you’re on the team sooner than a typical project”
“Bad news is you’re responsible to coordinate your scope and cost to fit the (invariably tight) project program and budget.”

Welcome to the collaborative environment.

5. Fun: As Martin was talking about working with birds and how they are specifically unpredictable, but ultimately reliable, one bird flew into a tree to the side of the stage and appeared to be “showing off” to the crowd: hanging upside down, lured back to Steve only by the sight of his feed.

If you didn’t have to work, what would you be doing? Is “what you would be doing if you didn’t have to work” one definition of “fun”? How can the project team find ways to bring their definition of “fun” to others in the group, to the “daily grind”, or to a specific project deliverable? And, how can the team be most efficient and respectful of each other’s time, to allow them to get home, or do whatever they do for fun on their own time.


As more collaborative delivery and IPD projects are completed, and the metrics of their success are shared, these concepts will be integrated into the fabric of more project teams and the “early birds” with this experience will lead where we are going in delivering better healthcare facilities to patients, their families, and for the staff who serve them.

I look forward to any observations (bird-wise or not) you may have.

Steve Whitcraft, CHC, CPC edac, is director of healthcare for Turner Construction Company and may be reached at swhitcraft@tcco.com.

4 comments on “Looking Up to Birds For Better Project Teams

  1. Also be ware of people who claim to have “never crashed.” For those are the ones whose advice might be only applicable in fair weather.

  2. Great article Steve! I think all too often we stifle innovation by sticking to the ways we have always done it. The latest generation we see coming out of school these days, despite their “millennial” stereotype, is incredibly creative and innovative. If you can find the right mix (or “flock”) with their enthusiasm and senior leadership experience, the entire team can bring so much more to the table. Thanks for your insight on this ever growing discussion. I hear more and more about IPD, but have yet to see a project team formed for that purpose. I agree that as the benefits are realized across various market sectors, this will become more relevant and hopefully the norm instead of the exception.

  3. Steve

    It was great meeting you and thank you for sharing your article. As we get ready for our first sales meeting of 2014 this brings allot of perspective to us as a team. I agree with the part about bringing in fun to the daily grind. Have a great year.


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