Reaping the Rewards of Building a Collaborative Future

When the Highways Agency announced its Collaborative Delivery Framework in November 2014, it emphasised collaboration among all partners as the key ingredient in the successful delivery of the £24 billion investment to transform England’s major road networks up to 2021.

This is very encouraging. Throughout my career I have seen how effective collaboration can bring tangible benefits to major infrastructure projects both in terms of time scales and budget. Great teams outperform collections of talented individuals because collaboration knits the organisation and its supply chain together in the pursuit of the vision and purpose.

What is collaboration? It is about making the whole more than the sum of its parts. When teams are empowered to operate and cooperate with other teams across processes and break through bureaucratic silos, pronounced performance improvements are common. Built on dialogue and mutual influence, teams can produce new answers to old problems and innovative ways to serve the customer even better by adapting quickly to changing circumstances.

Cultivating a collaborative culture

In Costain’s Highways Sector, we have been actively building a more collaborative culture by embedding and benchmarking a set of key behaviours to meet our vision of leading the industry in the delivery of end-to-end highways services. We are actively monitoring those behaviours and how they relate to performance with the aim of shifting from more short-term project thinking to a focus on longer-term programme and framework outcomes.

These behaviours are increasingly being seen as one of the company’s strengths and apply equally across all our activities and to all interactions with our stakeholders.

This is not about being soft and ‘cuddly’, but about collaborating to be more effective and efficient by having aligned objectives to accomplish collective outcomes. We have grouped those behaviours which encourage sustained collaboration, such as reliability, openness and empowerment, under a number of headings such as ‘Be positive’, ‘Be trustworthy’, ‘Be inclusive’, ‘Deliver on our promises’ and ‘Share’. We constantly assess ourselves and our teams against this checklist.

Gaining consensus

We can’t pretend it is always straightforward. When presented with difficult challenges there is a tendency for all of us, particularly when working under pressure to achieve short-term results, to revert to our comfort zone. But we continue to make progress by using our influence and being open to other people’s influence to ensure that our own teams, along with other teams involved, are all geared towards the same outcome. People buy into what you are doing rather than feel it’s just another meaningless company directive. There has to be a clear focus on the bigger picture, backed up by supportive relationships and agreed mutual benefits from a collaborative approach. The most persuasive argument is to show the actual fruits of collaboration, including the creation of new or improved services, better financial management and performance, competitive advantage, knowledge, good practice and information sharing, the ability to replicate success, better coordination of organisational activities, and a more mutually-supportive culture. It’s an investment in relationships that definitely pays off in the longer term.

Collaboration in action

A good example of how genuine collaboration can work in practice on a highly complex high profile project is the programme overseen by Transport for London (TfL) to repair the corrosion in the Hammersmith Flyover, one of London’s leading arterial routes. TfL decided that the traditional model of contract tendering once for a designer to develop a detailed design and once for a contractor to build a scheme would be too inefficient, too costly and fail to meet very short deadlines.

Instead, the new delivery model was designed to involve all relevant parties from the start and based on integrated project delivery teams. This resulted in better flows of knowledge within and between projects, shortening completion time scales significantly and minimising disruption to motorists from closures.

To overcome ingrained habits and consider putting the ideas of other people and other outcomes before your own, even when it is demonstrably the sensible thing to do, is difficult. So we have to start with ourselves, leading by example, encouraging the right behaviours and proving that collaboration does measurably pay off for everyone.

Simon Ellison shared his opinion at Highways UK: Roads for a Modern Britain, 25-26 November, 2015, ExCel, London