Newsletter Sign Up

Changemakers On: Teams

Strong teams are the cornerstone of successful projects. For this topic, we spoke to three changemakers from the worlds of architecture and industrialized construction to explore the issue of teamwork. Our focus: How can leaders unleash the best in their teams?

All of our changemakers agreed that ensuring teams have access to project information as early as possible, regardless of their level of seniority, can unlock serious potential. 

They told us about models leaders can use to better understand and improve how teams work together on projects. Why team leaders need to embrace vulnerability to create a strong culture of teamwork. And outlined the old habits that need to die so new ways of working together can flourish.

Stan Chiu, Gensler

Ronnie Belizaire, JLL

Laura Antony, DIRTT

Why Set-based Design Enhances Teamwork

For teams who make space, don’t start with the entire building, says Stan Chiu, director of healthcare at global design and architecture firm Gensler. “It’s kind of a wild idea. Instead of studying the whole thing all at once, you study each component, and you study them for as long as you can.”

This approach has a name: set-based design or SBD. Inspired by Lean methodology, it’s a practice where build requirements and design options stay flexible for as long as possible during the development process. With SBD, teams look for knowledge and data first before making design decisions, rather than the legacy practice of committing to a set of requirements and a single design strategy early on.

Take a hospital as an example. Instead of thinking about the entire project or the whole hospital, says Chiu, a SBD approach would take the nursing unit, emergency department, and exam rooms, and study each component independently without trying to coordinate everything up front. The size of an exam room will be important, so decisions for that space can be made early on, but design decisions about a public restroom in the building can be done much later, he says.

Once you have components, Chiu says leaders organize the team and cross-functional groups that need to study the components, so it’s not just an architect.

“You've got this team that has the ultimate knowledge involved at the front-end of the design. The recommendations that each subgroup makes with regards to which component goes forward is based on the criteria you set ahead of time.

For Chiu, a large-scale healthcare project in California opened his eyes to set-based design because the team moved together rather than in silos.

A large-scale healthcare project is a great opportunity to used set-based design

Image credit: © Laura Peters / CannonDesign

It’s kind of a wild idea. Instead of studying the whole thing all at once, you study each component, and you study them for as long as you can.

Stan Chiu, Gensler

“That was the a-ha moment. The team itself chose the direction, we knew we could hit the schedule, we knew we could hit the budget, and we knew this was best in terms of care. And, in the midst of that, we still said ‘Okay, no one needs to approve it because everybody's embedded within the design team’.”

Key Takeaway

Design setbacks happen when assumptions are made early in a project that don’t hold all the way through. Projects that run in waves where decisions are made as more information becomes available, and those that involve more than just one viewpoint, are more likely to be successful.

Vulnerable Leadership Empowers Individuals to Excel in Teams

“All teams go through the same stages of development over time across four phases: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing —or FSNP,” says Ronnie Belizaire, Vice-President at JLL and the recent President-Elect at the International Interior Design Association (IIDA). “It’s that final stage – performing – that is so powerful if an organization can realize it.”

FSNP was developed in the mid-1960s as a framework for recognizing a team's behavioral patterns over time. 

In the forming stage, a team comes together and learns about each other, the project and the goals. In storming, teams are at their most chaotic as they determine how things are getting done collaboratively. In norming, the team has an understanding of how they are working to achieve the project goals and the productivity increases. At the performing stage, a team is continually making significant progress to the goal. 

Performing is the elusive phase, says Belizaire. “Because someone from the team is going to leave whether they find another opportunity or something pulls them away from the team, or they get promoted.” 

What FSNP makes clear is the reality that team dynamics are always in a state of flux, she says. “So it’s about being comfortable knowing that change is inevitable and whether or not each teammate recognizes they can still function in the midst of storming and norming.” 

Belizaire offers advice for anyone looking to navigate through the tumultuous nature of change on a team: Build trust. Vulnerability is a way to create trust among team members, which is foundational to empowering individuals to navigate change when working as part of a team.


The best leaders are the ones who are vulnerable enough to say to their teams ‘I don’t have all the answers and that’s why you’re here’.

Ronnie Belizaire, JLL

“Leaders often feel they have to present themselves as all-knowing,” says Belizaire. “To me, the best leaders are the ones who are vulnerable enough to say to their teams ‘I don’t have all the answers and that’s why you’re here’.”

Another area where leaders can play a critical role is intentionally building a team with a mix of perspectives and experience. “Often times, when we're in the process of building an internal team, we look for people who are similar to us. That leads to teams with the same perspectives and that lack of diversity of thought will undermine performance,” she says.

“Ultimately, team building is not a design firm problem. It's not a construction firm problem. It’s not a corporate real estate problem. It’s an everyone problem,” Belizaire says. “When it’s done right, teamwork can yield amazing results. That’s part of my challenge in the next few years – to help make that come to life.”

Key Takeaway

Building strong teams is important to produce successful outcomes in the face of constant change. Leaders who want to build high-performing teams will admit when they don’t know something and recruit from a diverse talent base that can draw from different perspectives and experience.

Building Great Teams Starts With Breaking Old Habits

Old habits need to die.

Laura Antony, Director of Operations for Strategic Projects at DIRTT, has very simple advice for anyone building teams that need to deliver construction projects more efficiently and effectively: Kill off the outdated, hierarchical management of construction projects where information is siloed and only some are in the know.

“Typically, architects lead the design effort, general contractors lead the construction effort, and then those two teams manage everyone underneath them,” says Antony, who works with clients and design and construction partners that build interior space.

“I think in a more collaborative project — especially when prefabrication is a means of construction — forward-thinking leaders in the architectural and construction communities understand the value of bringing specialized consultants and other project contributors to the table, engaging them throughout the project and welcoming everyone to contribute on a more level playing field,” she says.

To Antony, that level playing field includes not assuming the most senior person on the project is the one who has the best answers.

“When there’s a challenge, you’re often best served by bringing in the ground-level people who are closest to the project. They’ll often have the best insight and answers. It’s typical for an executive at a client to be talking to an executive at, for example, a manufacturer. While this is the accepted standard practice in our industry, it’s one that needs to evolve,” she says.

In addition to flattening hierarchies, the accelerated and increasing demand for space in workplaces, healthcare facilities, and higher education also requires teams to build working processes to support better collaboration.

“I've been in too few projects where we have the client, the architect, sub trades, and general contractor at the same table,” says Antony. “A project kickoff that brings all parties together has a remarkable impact. If you can do a kickoff with your team early in the design phase, and again before you go into construction, it can really help the overall success of a project.”

None of these things will eliminate bumps in the road. There will still be conflicts and effective conflict resolution will be instrumental in project success. But as part of that, it’s worth remembering – even in our often-virtual, Zoom-centric world – that everyone is human.

“Every person on a team has their own personal things going on,” Antony says. “Recently, I had a team member who is a marathon runner, and she was dealing with dehydration issues. So, we sent her a water bottle that helps you track how much water you’re drinking. And she was so thankful that we understood that running was a big part of her life.”

Antony is a big fan of small gestures and believes that smooth teamwork is often about finding moments where we recognize one another as humans.

“We can go far when we do that,” she says.

Image credit: Kevin Belanger

IMAGE CREDIT: James John Jetel

When there’s a challenge, you’re often best served by bringing in the ground-level people who are closest to the project. They’ll often have the best insight and answers.

Laura Antony, DIRTT

Key Takeaway

Creating silos when construction projects are kicking off is a death knell. To produce successful outcomes within the built environment, all key participants and decision makers should be at the table early on.

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.

  • Why collaboration should be managed to enable team performance.

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

Share this article

Newsletter Sign Up

Get inspired with design and construction perspectives, fresh innovations, and eye-popping projects delivered to your inbox.

Copied to clipboard

© DIRTT 2024