Teams Matter: Q&A with Renée Cheng

In 2009, the General Services Administration (GSA) received the extraordinary charge to stimulate the U.S. economy, put America back to work, and raise the level of building performance for Federal buildings. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), GSA managed a $5 billion investment in over 260 projects across the nation.  

GSA then partnered with Renée Cheng and research fellow Katy Dale (both Architecture) to study eleven ARRA projects in the Great Lakes region to discover factors and practices that most positively or negatively impact team collaboration and performance. The findings appear to be similar to what Google found in studying the performance of its teams: team culture—as evidenced by mutual trust, respect, shared goals, and “psychological safety”—is critical for high-functioning teams. We sat down with Cheng to learn more.


Why is this research important?

ARRA represented a unique opportunity to study a set of cases with very similar contexts. Since building projects are typically “one-off”, it’s difficult to meaningfully compare a set of projects. In this case, the Great Lakes Region began eleven projects under the ARRA program within the same time frame. All projects shared larger aspirational goals of job creation, financial transparency, and ambitious building performance goals.

Our researchers had the opportunity to study how the eleven project teams achieved these goals and what factors seemed to contribute most (and least) to successful building outcomes.

Could you expand on what you found?

We concluded that there were factors that had a causal link to positive outcomes: mutual trust and respect, aligned goals and clear communication were key. Other factors such as co-location of team members, use of Building Information Models, and sharing financial information had mixed results: in some cases they could positively contribute, but they needed to be done well to be effective.

How could your findings impact the building industry?

This is the third of three in-depth comparative case study reports that we have done. We believe the findings are valuable to the building industry and make the case for investmentments in future project teams, especially those faced with ambitious goals.


What’s next?

Our research team is currently studying private sector projects that use many of the collaborative mechanisms found in the federal projects, and documented them in formal legal contracts. We hope to better understand not only the team culture studied in previous work, but also how owners can use goals and metrics to reliably gauge and achieve success.

In addition to the private sector work, I’m also advising the GSA on ways that the choice of project delivery method and contract type can be more structured and integrated into their current best practices. As this moves forward, it will inform the approximately $1 billion annual budget for federal buildings.  


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