By CORE Consultants, Inc. (CORE) Senior Marketing Manager Paula Frisina and Project Engineer Jess Kordziel, PE, CFM
At CORE, we play a crucial role in building a better tomorrow – through the work we do, the clients we work with, and the future engineers we nurture and inspire. Our charge brings great responsibility to provide safe, ethical, and sustainable design while meeting the needs of clients and developing the next generation. Effectively managing these aspects is essential to ensuring that our projects are conducted responsibly, sustainably, and in the best interests of society. Yet, striking the right balance between what our clients desire and what our projects require can become a complex and delicate task.
We sat down with CORE’s Land Development Team Leaders Jeff Killingsworth and Rob Hansen, and Senior Project Manager Drew Kidder to explore how the legion of projects, clients, and challenges they’ve faced have shaped valuable insights and lessons learned on this salient topic.
Each contributed a unique perspective, but it was evident that the guiding principles behind their actions were more universal – and deeply rooted in CORE’s purpose and values.
CORE exists to develop successful long-term relationships, provide outstanding client experiences, and deliver impactful projects by improving the communities and environments where we work, live, and play. We accomplish this through our values of Strive for Balance, Find a Way, and Don’t Be an Asshole – which serve as the foundation upon which we align our activities and decision-making to ensure consistency, integrity, and a clear identity.
CORE VALUE #1: Strive for Balance
It is important to avoid extremes that hinder success. Balancing the various aspects of client and project needs requires careful consideration, goal setting, adaptability as circumstances change, and a focus on both short-term and long-term project objectives.
Collaboration is key
Healthy collaboration among all project participants leverages diverse expertise which leads to more creative solutions and better outcomes. It helps a project be less vulnerable to disruptions caused by absence, errors, or limitations which helps mitigate risk and ensure continuity. Team members can brainstorm ideas, challenge assumptions, and develop new solutions to problems. Collaboration ensures that everyone’s interests and concerns are considered, leading to better buy-in and support.
“Design is a collaborative process, the more you can engage clients, the better the outcome. Additionally, I like to provide options that maybe they didn’t 100% ask for. If you can keep that in your budget and still present it to the client, that’s inherent value that they may or may not find somewhere else, and I think this is something CORE does extremely well.”
Jeff Killingsworth, PE | Land Development Team Leader
Know the difference between ‘need to have’ and ‘nice to have’ items
Does your client WANT three additional residential lots added to the master plan, or do they NEED them? These two categories have different levels of importance and priority, so it’s important to understand the difference. ‘Need to haves’ are essential, nonnegotiable items that are critical to the safety and functionality of a project. They are core elements that must be included to meet the project’s primary objectives and deliver value to the client. ‘Nice to have’ items, on the other hand, are elements that in your client’s mind would enhance the project but are not critical for the project’s core objectives. But they can improve user experience and provide extra value.
During design, it’s crucial to identify and prioritize must-have items first to ensure that the project meets its primary objectives and constraints. Once addressed, you can consider adding wish list items as resources and time allow or as the client’s preferences evolve.
“More than anything, we referee between what the client needs, what the City’s criteria is, and then determine how to establish common ground. It comes down to a lot of communication. You must really be spearheading the conversation and finding the people you need to reach solutions.”
Rob Hansen, PE | Land Development Team Leader
CORE VALUE #2: Find a Way
A client-focused mindset sets the stage for providing the right answers and solutions.
Begin with the end in mind
Understanding client and stakeholder expectations, identifying critical success factors, and achieving consensus on the project’s objectives and goals will all contribute to reaching and maintaining harmony and balance as the project progresses. For clients to receive deliverables on time, the schedule must be established and agreed upon at the project’s inception and then maintained, which helps to keep internal budgets in check. When establishing the schedule, account for adequate quality control phases and the various aspects that can impact a schedule such as lack of experience, lack of communication, lack of transparency, and any resource constraints or software bottlenecks. Proper planning helps to conserve the budget, keeps the project on-track, and avoids time spent re-revising plans and reports or fixing issues that could have been addressed up front.
Practice proactive, consistent, and transparent communication
The importance of effective communication at every phase of the project cannot be understated. Transparency, consistency, and being proactive are fundamental when it comes to keeping clients and stakeholders informed about progress and any deviations from the original plan.
Identify potential risks and develop strategies for mitigating them. This proactive approach helps warrant that unforeseen obstacles do not derail the project’s progress towards its ultimate objectives.
Provide value add/unique solutions when appropriate
When it makes sense in the context of the schedule and budget, finding opportunities to enhance the project’s outcomes, whether through improved functionality, efficiency, cost savings, or sustainability – can further establish credibility and differentiation.
KILLINGSWORTH: There’s never a single end-all answer to a challenge. The best project outcomes involve everyone and consider various perspectives and a myriad of ideas. I’ve found that when everyone has a seat at the table, it’s the best way to reach an amicable, balanced, well-prepared, and safe solution.
CORE VALUE #3: Don’t Be an Asshole
Guiding a project from conception to completion is a major undertaking that can be stressful and frustrating. Being an effective and respectful project partner is crucial for maintaining positive working relationships with your team members, clients, and stakeholders.
Know your audience, and understand your project role
Understanding and tailoring your communication to each audience’s needs, expectations, and level of technical expertise is essential. For example, some clients may be well-versed in engineering, while others may not have a deep understanding, so your communication should reflect this. Understanding your project role ensures you know what is expected of you, what tasks you need to complete, and how your work contributes to the project’s success. This clarity helps avoid duplication of efforts or neglect of essential tasks. It’s essential for effective collaboration and allows you to coordinate your efforts.
HANSEN: Understanding your role helps to identify potential risks and develop strategies to mitigate them, which can prevent misunderstandings and conflicts. It also can minimize confusion and delays, and aid better alignment of efforts. Learn from setbacks, challenges, and misunderstandings. This approach promotes growth, collaboration, and resilience. Instead of viewing failures as fixed outcomes, they should be viewed as chances to develop new skills and improve. Blame tends to create a culture of defensiveness and finger-pointing. In contrast, a focus on learning fosters collaboration. Team members can openly discuss challenges, share insights, and work together to find solutions.
HANSEN: It’s easy to point fingers and shift blame when mistakes are made, but at CORE we approach them as learning opportunities. It’s key to recognize the way the mistake or issue is framed and communicated to support an open, safe, and collaborative workspace.
“Clients should understand the trade-offs involved in prioritizing certain features over others and be actively involved in the decision-making process. This way, the project team can align their efforts with the client’s priorities and expectations.”
Drew Kidder, PE | Senior Project Manager
Defend your design the RIGHT way
Tricky situations can arise that could compromise our values and/or ethical design principles. For example, there are often variables that can impact the client and/or CORE’s bottom line, such as a detention pond consuming an entire residential lot, or fire hydrants located in visibly undesirable areas. These items are critical to the health and safety of the public, but a client could view them as eyesores or negative impacts to project profitability. To handle these instances, we should conduct thorough risk assessments, highlighting ALL potential hazards, safety concerns, and ethical dilemmas associated with different design choices. This information can be presented to clients and stakeholders to facilitate informed decision-making. Open and transparent communication helps identify issues and arriving at a collaborative solution.
KILLINGSWORTH: You must be able to defend your design and really understand the approach you took to get there. If you have outstanding questions in your design, the light will be shed on those very issues.
Presenting a clear cost-benefit analysis can help to convey the implications of design choices. This includes not only immediate financial costs but also long-term sustainability and safety considerations.
KIDDER: If you have the general design parameters under control, consider how to better the design to help them make their project more efficient or cost effective.
Remember why they hired you
The amount of effort, expertise, and experience needed to achieve a sound design is why hiring a civil engineer is a critical path for any such project. In the event a client challenges your solutions as a civil engineer, it’s important to remember why they hired you and approach the situation professionally and constructively.
KIDDER: It’s your job to educate the developer when required and help them understand the reasons why or why not. You can’t just agree with the client. Remember why they hired you. They generally come around after the situation has been explained.
Remember that balancing the needs of the client, stakeholders, and maintaining a safe and effective design that adheres to regulatory requirements is an art – developed and refined over repeated exposure to numerous clients and projects. And while there are structured methodologies and best practices, there is also room for creativity and adaptability.
Continuously learning and improving your skills will serve you well throughout your engineering career.