Sport is competition and competition, for me, should be about sport. In business though I believe there is a better way. It’s called collaboration.

I certainly feel that thrill when positioning for a project; getting on the bid list, preparing a proposal, presenting expertise at interview and the buzz of getting that call to say “you’re on”. So far, so good. But quickly the doubts start to creep in – did we under-price the job, can we meet the client’s expectations and still turn a profit? Margins are tight, fees are low.

When the folly of rampant capitalism and unchecked commercial competition came to hit us all in the face in 2008 it brought about a global shock that you would have thought would have made us stop in our tracks and look for a better way (except of course that it had all happened before and the lessons remained unlearnt).

The aftershocks have continued and even in the relatively sheltered economic conditions that Australia has enjoyed the construction industry has seen a series of failures of significant builders and sub-contractors. Consultants have soldiered on through even tighter fee competition that is fuelling a commercialisation of our profession and leaving staff and clients alike increasingly underwhelmed.

As a Principal at Arup I am pretty convinced that I can call upon the expertise of the finest collection of engineers and specialists that any global organisation has assembled. Our record stands for itself. But I also know that we don’t have a monopoly on the best ideas. Whisper it quietly but … there may be some things that other consultants do better than us. And for sure there are some projects that are just too large, complex and high risk for us to take on ourselves. In these circumstances we collaborate with our peers.

As a building services engineer I know how reliant we are on the expertise of the whole supply chain to get our designs turned into reality. I don’t want to have to pretend that my opinions are correct just because “I’m the consultant” and spend my energies arguing with the sub-contractor even though their views are perfectly valid. And let’s be honest, sub-contractors know a lot more about the practical challenges of actually installing and commissioning systems than consultants.

Projects should be a collaboration between clients, consultants, main contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers. The process should be designed such that each party adds maximum value whilst respecting the necessity of a fair commercial return for all concerned. This has to create a better outcome for the client than a series of dumb price driven competitive processes to get everyone on board at the tightest possible margins followed by arguments over cost-cutting and variations.

Doing so may be easier said than done however. In the world of work, and certainly in the construction industry, we like to think that we are living in our heads, making rational decisions that will create the best outcomes in a measured and logical manner. In reality, we are driven as much by our emotions and in a competitive environment we tend towards the alpha male (or female) emotions of fear and anger.

Collaborative processes on the other hand require us to adopt a more emotionally intelligent approach involving generosity, support, mutual respect, even being prepared to expose our weaknesses and vulnerabilities in pursuit of a better experience and result for all.

By demonstrating collaborative behaviours throughout the supply chain we have the opportunity to show that there is a better way. A humanistic approach we might call it.