Can everybody be Right?

We had a job on a major airport runway about eight years ago. Our engineer assigned to lead the project sent a very nice email to the design engineer regarding the paving elevations at a curve on a taxiway leaving the main runway. He stated that if this one point was lowered two tenths of a foot, the other spots around it would be good. The engineer sent a reply after a month changing no less than fifty spot elevations around the “wrong one”. This also required the engineer to change the infield grading as the water was going to pool around the ONE high point that could be lowered to fix everything.

It was a great laugh around the office for a while. I just thought about it again because we had a similar situation last week. None of us have any time to deal with these distractions. We see an issue; propose an elegant fix just to get told we are wrong. OK, we are all adults here, but if you give me an answer just to contradict my logic you are being petty. It’s tough when someone’s ego turns them into a right fighter, (sounds like Dr. Phil).

We have a myopic view of the job; we are concerned with all things site. Our attention is on the grading, paving, utilities, pads and retentions. When we see a wrinkle, we report it up the food chain and work out the fix. No ego’s involved. In about 95% of the jobs we do, the engineers are happy when we spot an issue. They thank us and appreciate the team work. I can drive across the country and drink free beer from all the engineers we helped look good. I’m not patting myself on the back; this is what we get paid to do.

The other 5% are what we are addressing in this article. What do we do to make sure the project moves along and everybody stays happy.  I wish I could do it, but it’s not advisable to hand out a personality profile questionnaire at the pre-construction meeting. One of the questions could be are you a narcissistic child who needs constant compliments or you will throw a tantrum? I can dream.

My experience dealing with these individuals over the years have taught me many lessons. The process involves two major areas; identifying the people that could cause problems and next how to deal with them. As the title asks, can’t you both be right? Usually; no. When something as finite as an elevation in question the answer is not flexible. When the discussion comes to something that can be an “either or” response, all bets are off. We have gone from decision to discussion. The two choices will eventually end up in one being picked, but neither may be wrong.

Feeling out the players
Here are some tips for finding out who the high maintenance joint venture partners are.

•Use the internet. With all the social media out there, we are all too some extent visible out there. Do a bit of research and you will know something about the firms and their people you are going to be married to for the duration of the project. It is also a good feeling to know more about them than they know about you.
•Listen at first. I have a big mouth and resist the opportunity to offer information at the early stages of a project. I would rather people show me how good they are instead of telling me, be that way. Take notes and respond to issues if they become important. During the life of the project you will find out what is important and what can wait.
•Throw bones. To test the waters and get a feel for what people are like, I will ask about something small and maybe not important at the moment, like; “You mentioned a revised utility plan is coming out soon, what’s the expected date?” Do this verbally, more on that later. The response will give you insight into the character of that individual. Are they helpful or argumentative? If they ignore the verbal request, it’s another red flag.

Working with difficult people
With an idea about what the personalities are, you now need to function with a different set of rules for these people. Here is what I do.

•NEVER say or do anything that was not in writing. Yes, email is fine. People have often worried that email can be manipulated. It usually resides somewhere so if somebody changed it, the original can be retrieved. You may talk on the phone but without fail make sure the resulting action items are spelled out in an email. You may need to send an email that states what you talked about and ask for approval in return. Do nothing until you have it in writing. This has saved people millions of dollars.
•Always cc (carbon copy) other people in your emails. The sticky people like to ignore things. If they see their boss and your boss cc’d on emails they will respond. They will also ask you to take the bosses off the email, politely refuse.
•Never ask a question unless you know the answer. Ask the question and propose an answer, multiples if it is appropriate. This shows you know your subject, did your homework and gives them an easy way out if they want it. The whole purpose of this article was for the one time the person makes a decision that means more work. That is going to happen; these tips just reduce the interval.

Hope these ideas help you when you are trying to do nothing but get as job done and go on to the next one. Email me with questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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