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Changemakers On: Collaboration

Collaboration is core to making design and construction projects come to life. Yet, it requires a certain alchemy to get right. We asked two changemakers with decades of experience: What makes the collaboration magic happen?

One changemaker drew attention to the risks of too much collaboration in organizations and shared a short-term, and long-term approach to avoiding this exhausting issue. 

The other outlined what’s needed to create a one-two punch of collaboration and technology. Leadership and clear objectives are foundational to successful collaboration. Once established, technology can be added as an accelerator to achieving goals. 

Collaboration is a part of our day-to-day work. To continually improve project outcomes, it’s critical that we keep searching for ways to more effectively work together.

Rob Cross, Babson College

Mark Greffen, DIRTT

Rethinking Collaboration to Avoid Overload and Burnout

We’re living in a world of collaboration overload and it’s not helping architects and designers deliver better work. Rather, it is leading to stress, negativity, burnout, and less innovation.

It’s time to rethink how we collaborate, according to Rob Cross, a Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College, Founder and Chief Research Scientist at Connected Commons, and the author of Beyond Collaboration Overload. 

Cross believes the increase in collaboration tools and the growing volume of meetings across industries has created an environment where everyone is collaborating too much, and — worst of all — ineffectively.

We know that physical spaces play a major role in effectiveness for architect teams. Distances of as little as 10 feet reduce the degree of connectivity in a workspace.

Rob Cross, Babson College

“Over the last 12 to 15 years, the collaborative demands on workers have risen by about 50%,” says Cross, who draws his conclusions from his work with more than 400 organizations. 

“That’s not necessarily because workload has increased. That’s because business leaders have been ‘delayering’ their organizations to make decision-making more efficient.”

Cross says the impact of that is increased complexity of work, and an increase in the number of meetings everyone is required to attend. 

“In all these meetings, people are constantly multi-tasking and trying to satisfy the demands of all these expanded collaborative efforts,” he says. “It’s overwhelming them.”

One major reason that this organizational focus on collaboration is backfiring is that companies aren’t measuring it properly — or at all. Organizations typically measure project budgets or timelines, but not the collaborations that produce those outcomes. 

Organizations can address this by devoting analytical efforts to identifying high-performing projects and people that run them, then understanding what truly drives success. From there, they can structure future projects based on the insights surfaced through analysis. 

In his work, Cross maps the points of collaboration in an organization or project and then compares the patterns of connectivity against the ideal state. The gap between the two provides direction for how best to collaborate in the future.

The insights from his analysis often leads to looking at physical workspaces as well as meeting schedules.

“We know that physical spaces play a major role in effectiveness for architect teams. Distances of as little as 10 feet reduce the degree of connectivity in a workspace,” he says.

When you locate highly connected people — the high-performers who are between 18 to 24% more effective than their peers — in strategic places, you create natural points of collaboration without adding on more meetings or tools that will overwhelm your team, Cross says.

Instead, Cross says organizations can stimulate collaboration by strategically positioning well-connected people in open offices, or relocating them during moves.

“A lot of times the same people who collaborated in the cubicle farm will do so in the open space context,” he says, advising that analytics can be used to determine the right location to place individuals in order to enable effective collaboration.

Key Takeaway

Collaboration that produces successful outcomes can — and should — be measured alongside financial performance and project schedules. Take a look at high-performance teams or groups and study what they do differently to model it in other parts of your business.

Propelling a Project Forward Starts With Leadership and Clear Objectives

Mark Greffen may be the Chief Technology Officer at DIRTT, but a tech solution is not the first thing he reaches for when seeking to enable collaboration to achieve better outcomes in the built environment.

“I’m a technology guy who always believes technology is the last thing you apply,” he says. 

So if tech isn’t the first solution for helping the construction, architecture, and design industries work more collaboratively, what is?

Greffen explains that a clear objective — and leadership — are key elements to successful collaboration at the onset of a project. The initial objective needs to be clearly defined and aligned for the entire team, rather than each individual team having different expected outcomes. Original goals can be lost without objective alignment, he adds.

Discipline and absolute clarity of objectives are essential when you're trying to achieve and maintain an outcome focus.

Mark Greffen, DIRTT


“Discipline and absolute clarity of objectives are essential when you're trying to achieve and maintain an outcome focus,” he says. When goals and leadership are in sync, projects can come to successful conclusions in a faster and more collaborative manner. 

As for the project head or manager: “Having really strong leadership, not just at a sponsorship level, but also at the daily working team level that is in real-time, or close to real-time, communication is really critical,” he says, because it keeps teams aligned and on track to the outcome.

When information and intent aren’t “democratized'' and known by all team-members in near real time, problems can arise. 

Designers, for example, may know the intent behind a design choice but the construction element may not have access to that information. This, in turn, can lead to construction choices not aligned with the overall project goals.


Greffen says the barrier to collaboration becomes the lack of real-time access to intent, “and intent is everything.” This is where software and technology come into play. 

With emerging technology — such as cloud, augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR) — collaboration can start earlier and give everyone access to the same information to work through their challenges. “The earlier you can clearly share perspectives, the more you shorten the actual on-site construction schedule and time,” he says. 

The next step in using technology to enhance collaboration is using artificial intelligence (AI), says Greffen, to add expert support to the process. 

“The way that expert software is enabled today is through AI and machine learning. It’s about building a system that has the ability to accelerate decisions, [and] AI enablement is the best technology we have today to provide value added accessibility to automation without barriers,” he says.

“Ultimately, without giving people a great collaborative technology and without doing the leadership work, the alignment work, setting the outcome, and the management, you'll achieve nothing,” he says.

IMAGE CREDIT: James John Jetel

Key Takeaway

A lack of access to real-time information — and more specifically design intent — is a major inhibitor of collaboration success. Technology can be used to enhance collaboration among various stakeholders while also giving everyone access to the same information.

Explore More of DIRTT's Changemaker Series

This article is part of a series where we talk to industry leaders about the issues, changes, and opportunities facing design, construction, real estate, and business leaders. Explore more topics and hear from more changemakers.

  • How imagination can power breakthroughs.

  • Why education should teach and challenge us to think and grow.

  • How leaders can unleash teamwork to its fullest potential.

  • What the changing business landscape means for construction and design.

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