Chris Hornstein began his fellowship in Pittsburgh two months ago, and he’s already well on his way to designing a systemic approach to developing a strategic plan for clean, safe, and functional public facilities.
It’s become clear at the outset that collaboration is going to be imperative in getting any traction on this project, as is the case for every complex, multi-stakeholder initiative. For Hornstein, who has experience in developing strategic plans and construction programs for the Department of Defense, collaboration is not just sitting in the same meeting, but actually working on projects together by identifying issues, leveraging the talents and knowledge of the group, and ultimately solving problems in real time.
For it to work well, true collaboration must have several components: information sharing across disciplines, providing access to decision influencers, and outsourcing problem solving. When dealing with public facilities, stakeholder groups become many and diverse; no one or few individuals can retain all the knowledge necessary to make good facilities-related decisions. True collaboration becomes one of the few opportunities to share information and influence decisions. To that end, Hornstein is trying the following five tactics:
- Creating Working Groups. Hornstein is leading a multi-faceted project that requires convening groups of people together who may have either never collaborated on a project, or have done so, but infrequently. The value of working in groups is to build bridges between departments, shed light on departmental and/or legal requirements, create opportunities for knowledge and resource sharing, and build trust and camaraderie among group members that inherently fosters creative collaboration. Forming working groups requires building discipline towards a clearly defined end-state or goals, often centered on tackling a known problem or identifying issues. Without these goals or objectives, shared purpose can be lost and members can lose interest. But when groups are working well together, the efficiency gains of sharing often become immediately apparent. An added benefit is that team members often take valuable information back to their respective areas of responsibility and socialize it, creating cultural transparency between organizations.
- The Power of Simple Questions. The realm of facilities management and construction is incredibly complicated. There are many stakeholders, processes that stretch out for years, confusing and confounding issues, and careful deliberation to abate risk and determine the best course of action. To cut through all that clutter, asking simple questions in collaborative settings often provides clarity to stakeholders about what information is needed, creates a window into respective goals, and can yield surprising and insightful results.
- Crossing Departments. Though Hornstein’s project resides within the Mayor’s office, to get the work done, he needs collaborative help from other departments. Although a single facility is often sole service (like a police station or fire station), creating a strategic plan for all facilities requires an approach that involves all departments and the general public. Working across departments to identify specific needs and special requirements creates transparency in the process and creates a common language through which stakeholders can engage. For example, a police station has multiple stakeholders: the community, the police, the city public works staff, city budgeting teams responsible for approving large expenditures, city planning, city procurement teams, and outside contractors all have a stake throughout the life of a building. Creating a common language is necessary so that all stakeholders can collaborate around identifying issues and developing solutions. The collaborative dynamic can also create interesting value considerations that can change perceptions, influence budgetary decisions, create opportunities for at-risk populations, and lead to better, longer-lasting pieces of civic architecture.
- Informed, Not Data-Driven Decisions. As an informally trained systems engineer, Hornstein knows the value of using data to make important strategic decisions. However, lost in the focus on “Big Data” is the fact that facility-related decisions are still made by people, and will continue to be in the future. Data does, and will continue to, valuably inform decision making. But too much information can encumber the process, become costly to obtain and maintain, and create a false sense of security. Therefore identifying the right data sets, and their relative complexity, becomes a critical component to strategic planning. Data points are often thought of in terms of numbers (like size, quantity, or cost), but qualitative data is often equally important. To get the data, he needs the collaborative efforts of multiple parties to identify data needs, leverage data capture responsibilities, and share the right information to make informed decisions. For example, whether or not a fire truck adequately fits into a fire station is an important data point that can be measured in a number of ways, and will inform decisions about how much money should be spent on building rehabilitation. How the community feels about a police station ( is it welcoming? do community members feel safe there?) can become just as, if not more, valuable: It can inform the investment decision (the scope of construction and the urgency), the procurement process (identifying special requirements for contractors performing the work, for example), create greater understanding between city police and the community, and lead to better outcomes for everyone involved.
- Informative and Transparent Processes. From his years of experience doing planning and programming for the DoD, Hornstein understands that individual processes are not just box-checking exercises, but also present opportunities to inform other decision-making opportunities that may happen further along in the life-cycle of a project, even if those processes are happening years out, or in parallel. For example, valuable stakeholder data gathered during the budgeting cycle may not only inform budgeting decisions (i.e., how much is spent on a community center renovation), but can be equally useful when developing partnerships or grant proposals, soliciting bids for construction, and working with designers and engineers. This level of information sharing is only possible through transparent processes that capture data, and becomes shareable with stakeholders at appropriate times throughout a project life-cycle. Often lost in the intensity to make decisions and solve problems, data capture of the strategic decision-making process itself becomes equally important. Facility life cycles span generations, and the issues, challenges, and solutions will ultimately be a reflection of the time and culture when decisions are made. Stakeholders and data will evolve over time, as well: Changes in elected officials, government employee turnover, technological advancements, climate variability, demographic changes, and regulatory requirements are just some of the factors that will influence strategic planning, and create an almost imperceptible culture of perpetual transition. An informative, transparent decision-making process literally becomes the repository for information and cultural values. True collaboration, under this lens, becomes an integral step and creates a window into the strategic process.
Photo credit Pascal Swier