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How AEC Industry Professionals Can Approach Their Roles as Integrators


This is a guest blog by Mike Burns, PE, PgMP, DBIA

Last month we discussed the collective value of our voices: Speak Up, Take a Chance, Your Voice Matters! Today, as we see unrest in our streets, it is more apparent than ever that we actively seek platforms where holistic, inclusive discussions can be leveraged to solve our challenges. Discussions that start with a sense of belonging for everyone in our communities. Discussions that accept that there is not one single path for the next phase of our solutions. Discussions that lead to policies and programs whose governance and investments sustain a shared vision. This month’s blog is far from an answer to this existential crisis. It is simply a personal reflection on how we, as members of our communities and AEC industry professionals, can approach our roles as integrators.  

Let us start by considering an assertion from Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, captured in a recent TED interview:

“A majority of people are positive, good people. You can lean on them. And there is a minority that is hateful, fearful, and also very loud. So good people, speak up. Spread the sense that we are in this together, and we’ll get through this together.”   

I choose to accept Mrs. Georgieva’s premise that a majority of people are positive and good. I do not see my life challenges as the result of bad intentions. My many mistakes, failures, and conflicts are the basis of my most valuable learning experiences. This personal perspective benefits greatly from my privileged life as a white male, allowing me to grow from challenges, an unrealistic expectation for those who society systematically undermines.   

Building on this good-person premise, we can’t allow headwinds to prevent us from accelerating a sustainable roadmap, aligned to a common vision for our communities. Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk” sets the stage for our most prevalent roadblocks: 

“If your ambition is to maximize short-term gain without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems. There is an upside to ignorance and a downside to knowledge.” 

Working past these headwinds, which are driven by short-sighted greed, requires extensive debate and difficult compromises, establishing a collective willingness to support incremental progress. Organizations whose culture supports transparent governance, human investments, and a long view can move us past this debilitating short sightedness by:   

  • Addressing system risks, 
  • Delivering sustainable soft and hard infrastructure improvements for our communities, and   
  • Maturing AEC delivery models to balance near-term deliverable profitability with long-term empowered talent retention.   
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As AEC industry professionals, we have an opportunity to play a role in delivering projects that truly make the world a better place, informing infrastructure solutions for some of the most complex problems facing society. The interdependencies of these needs are great, as we concurrently seek to ensure clean water for every community, enable learning with robust broadband networks, expand access to affordable housing, and provide inclusive resilient transit systems. Moving from policy through project development and delivery into operations is an incredibly complex balancing act, necessitating inputs from a broad range of talented individuals and community stakeholders. I love, and am proud of, my profession. Yet these inherent complexities can leave our teams feeling disconnected from the value of our projects, like a pebble dropped into a lake, whose value wanes before their ripples add value to concurrent enabling efforts.   

TB AEC Integrators

My perspective on governance and enabling investments stems from experiences working for and with very different businesses: small entrepreneurial groups deeply connected to their markets, mid-sized companies patiently sustaining relationships, and large multinationals struggling to scale their business across markets. Reflecting on these experiences, my perspective on why certain teams thrive has bounced between the benefits of deeply structured organizational systems to purely organic business models. One approach relies on continuous systemic investments in communications and education aligned to transparent delegations of authority. The other relies on hopeful connectivity between well-intended conversations. Yet, in each environment, I have been exposed to amazing colleagues whose teams thrive. What allows these teams to thrive across what appear to be polar opposite management approaches? 

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Daniel Coyle’s brilliant book, “The Culture Code, cuts to the heart of this question, identifying critical aspects for sustained collective and individual growth. Teams that thrive utilize positive belonging cues in order to mesh. Organizations that thrive entrust a dynamic culture, allowing belonging cues to ripple through clusters of communicators. 

The evolution in our project delivery models aligns to this cultural guidance, seeking to create belonging for our teams and hoping to drive this behavior deeper into our supply chains. Program Management, Design-Build, and Public Private Partnering (P3) have all evolved from the loss of master builders and the limitations of design-bid-build. Each is built on governance and investment models that align risk to incentives, enabling robust team communications. Design-Build in particular, with continuous investments from the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA) link and its members, are rapidly accelerating this positive transition.  

Design-Build Done Right emphasizes active owner participation and suggests co-location for our delivery teams, concurrently leveraging the benefits of virtual work environments. DBIA’s adaptive programs are an excellent example of governance driving intelligent investment. Look no further than the recent success of Progressive Design-Build, which, as adoption broadens, will play a significant role in Public Private Partnerships (P3) efficiencies in the United States. On a recent DBIA webinar, I was reminded that the basis for success across their platform is mutual trust and respect. This is a core value worth enabling, especially now as infrastructure delivery plays an important role in our economic recovery. It is a core value that is foundational for diverse and inclusive benefit from infrastructure investments in our communities. And it is a core value that requires:  

  • Leaders who systemically invest in governance models promoting dynamic discussions, energizing thought leaders, and  
  • Talented teams that accept that strength of opinion and collaboration are not mutually exclusive. 

Our infrastructure projects, irrespective of funding, are informed by public demands and private capabilities. David McCullough’s brilliant books, “John Adams,” “Truman,” “1776, and many others portray the deep, often tragic, sometimes inspirational, and always clunky path of progress. “The Path Between the Seas” is a particularly troubling story of a mega-infrastructure program that brutalized environments, massacred humans, and destroyed a republic as we added another link to our global transportation network. Of course, these stories trouble me.   

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As we continue to grow from unimaginable challenges, I choose to conclude with some inspiration from “The Ezra Klein Show.” link A recent episode included a broad debate on human nature with Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian. Mr. Bregman described recent studies of the concept of “survival of the fittest.” Focused on our hunter-gatherer, then sustenance farming history of 95% of human evolution, these studies concluded that the fittest were the friendliest — not the smartest, and not the strongest. It is early days in this post-industrial revolution experiment.

I hope, and believe, that this period of deep pain and disruption will accelerate the development of inclusive infrastructure systems. We must hold our organizations accountable for the requisite governance and investment models.  

About the Author

AEC Industry Professionals

Mike’s 27-year career has included planning, design, construction, and finance roles across a broad set of public and private development projects. His empathetic leadership style and program management experiences honed his understanding of complex governance and economic models, deepening his enthusiasm for leading teams delivering sustainable infrastructure in our communities.You can learn more about Mike here

“Progress is Incremental, Belonging Sustains”

We would love to hear any questions you might have or stories you might share about how AEC industry professionals can approach their roles as integrators.

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To your success,

Anthony Fasano, PE, LEED AP
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success 



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Originally posted 2020-06-16 12:31:16.

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