The Generals

As I started a study of cooperation in school construction in 2013 while working on a Masters in Architecture at CalPoly in San Luis Obispo; I began with a study of leadership. I had a plan to elaborate on why and how school construction projects got into trouble.  I was looking for a central theme to guide my work as to why some projects were fraught with difficulty. It occurred to me, and I heard someone say, that some projects just have the right people there and all the problems get solved quite efficiently, leaving not a lot of room for improvement by some lofty organizing principle, other than good leadership which seemed to be the central quality of successful projects.   

Of course, I have seen such projects.  Many things seemed to go wrong, yet the project was completed with a minimum of delay or extra cost. In these projects problems arose and were solved quickly. I have always presumed that it was simply excellent leadership that made the process work well. When everything started to go wrong on projects that I was in charge of, I liked to think that my leadership sometimes did something to help, but I wasn't sure.  I needed to dive deeply into this issue.

From the opposite side of the situation, looking at projects that became disputes; I have worked as a consultant on construction disputes for over 35 years.  Hundreds of them.  I have often said that I haven’t seen a construction dispute without some personal issue near the top of the list of controversies to be addressed. Leadership, or the absence thereof, seemed to be an easy way of identifying the source of the problems.  

Having my own self-doubts about my own leadership qualities, I embarked on a study of leadership while working on a Masters Thesis at CalPoly last year.  I started with Thomas Ricks book, The Generals.  I was fascinated by his scholarship and conclusions.  To oversimplify his excellent book, it was John Marshall that provided and developed the leadership necessary to put the right leaders in the right places for us to win WWII.  Marshall’s practices have faded in the modern US Army.  Ricks goes on to say that some of our current military problems arise directly from not following Marshall’s practices for finding and evaluating leaders. Ricks was describing successes and failures in the "Command-and-Control" leadership style of the military as it transitioned from WWII to the current time. 

Rick's book prepared me for my interchange with my first giant, Greg Howell.  (See, “On the Shoulders of Giants” in the Book section of this site)  Greg was a SeaBee and his enormous skills were forged in the Command-and-Control world of the military.  Greg’s first assignment for me was "Power to the Edge," a 2003 publication by a program in the Department of Defense. 

The basic idea is "Power to the Edge" is that Command-and-Control is over. The new military requires an openness to non-linear analysis and command.   "The Edge" is about the edge of thinking in analysis of an issue, in comparison to the linear command structure throughout the military world.  Often, according to "Power to the Edge," good ideas are lost simply due to the hierarchy of the command structure.  In slogging through Greg’s assignment, I was reminded of my very strange experience when working as an estimator on the project management staff for an airport terminal in San Jose. I jumped into rewriting a door schedule for 420 doors and generated a two-week long controversy where many folks were telling me that I was doing something that wasn’t my job.  I was just being cooperative!  It was easy for me and the door schedule was desperately needed.  The contractor barely finished the door hardware on the day of the opening of the terminal. 

It seemed to me that I was experiencing the hierarchical nature of a large project, and suffering under a militaristic command and control nature of most of the staff.   I chalked the entire experience up to the command and control necessities envisioned by my fellow managers.  In reading the assignment from Greg Howell, I learned that I was short sighted in my assessment. The controversy arising from my development of a revised door schedule was a conflict because of changes in larger aspects of leadership structure underway at the time.

The point is that I was experiencing the transition from one world view to another.  Alvin Toffler called this transition a change of “Ages.”  In his book, "The Third Wave," he defined what is now commonly known as the Information Age.  I was experiencing the transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age.  It merely looked like a militaristic problem, and to a large extent it was a problem for the military too.  "Power to the Edge" is a poorly-named but exhaustive analysis of the military’s transition from the Industrial to Information Ages.  Written in 2003, it is now referred to in many other texts as a guide to this transition of the entire society even though it was written for the Department of Defense. 

The DoD book was an attempt to guide the military as Alvin Toffler’s "Third Wave" crashed into it.  Perhaps I was sensing this wave hitting the industrial construction industry in 1989.  It turns out that The Generals were having just as much trouble as I was forging a transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age.  Greg Howell incorporated all of this in his development of Lean Construction.  

The whole experience of studying leadership reinforced to me that the concept of cooperation is important and urgent for the construction industry.  This will be an early chapter in my "Cooperative Construction" book.