skip to Main Content
July 28th, 2016

July 28th, 2016

Quality, Consequences and the Construction Industrial Complex (part 75) – All IMHO:

Breakthroughs come from unlikely places. Recently one came from a Malcolm Gladwell podcast referencing a book called “The Numbers Game” (a book about soccer by two economists, Chris Anderson & David Sally). Personally I could not care less about soccer if I was in a coma but Anderson and Sally’s conclusions are IMHO profound and applicable to professional team management, even in building design.

In basketball, one or two superstars can dominate a game. They regularly get the ball at one end and take it to the other end and score. Basketball is a “strong link” game, the superstar matters more than the other team players.

In soccer Ronaldo rarely scores with a run from one end of the pitch to the other, he relies on several great passes to set up a shot on goal, he needs a team for him to be a superstar. Mistakes at the lower levels matter to Ronaldo. Anderson & Sally concluded that soccer is a “weak link” game i.e. the worst player matters because mistakes matter.

Therefore if you own a soccer club and want to win games, instead of hanging out with Ronaldo and selling shirts the owner should really spend money on replacing the teams worst players rather than blowing the budget on a single super star striker. Think about the 50,000 to 1 win by Leicester City Football Club this year.

So what has Ronaldo got to do with anything, particularly building design and engineering? 

Malcolm Gladwell saw “The Numbers Game” as an effective argument against elite USA universities with massive endowment funds. In a world that is short of engineers, massive endowment funds concentrated in the hands of a few elite universities do not make a difference.

Philanthropists who really want to make a difference would be better off spending their money at mid level engineering schools to increase the number of graduate technicians and engineers. He suggests there is evidence that Britain’s advantage during the industrial revolution was down to its high number of artisans, technicians and engineers who took innovations such as the steam engine and made them work at scale.

In other words, spend the money where you get the biggest difference not the most prestige.  For example on air transportation, Malcolm Gladwell cited the idea of removing politics and spending billions in priority of the worst performing airports (e.g. NYC LaGuardia) as they effect other airports and create cumulative systemic issues.

So what has Malcolm Gladwell, air transportation and systems thinking got to do with MEP building design and engineering?

My breakthrough was seeing the management of MEP building design via Malcolm Gladwell’s analysis, seeing it as a weak link game. The main problem I see is the failure to manage the design team and produce a set of building design documents without errors and omissions.

Looking back I now see the teams I worked with that were dominated by a superstar, produced the worst outcomes and ultimately failed. A mistake at the mid or low levels not caught by the superstar can result in embarrassment, additional costs and law suits. IMHO, MEP building design is a weak link game and team building needs to be approached more like a soccer team, because mistakes matter. 

If I were putting together a MEP building design team today I would ensure the following:

  • No reliance on a single engineering superstar
  • Spend money on the mid and lower levels of the team, there must be extreme competence and ownership at all levels
  • Have agressive internal design review meetings (a bit like a comedy roast where “engineering lives matter” and everyone must wrap up the meeting friends), the game is to locate errors and faulty thinking before the design process completes

It comes down to what matters more, how good is your best or worst engineer?

I now think the worst engineers matter most. They disproportionally affect the outcomes and are the weak links. No single superstar can police and catch all their errors, and in building design, mistakes matter. MEP design hiring budgets should target competent engineers and technicians rather than the “lone wolf superstar”.

This is not to say that leadership does not matter, it most certainly does. However leading a team of weak players is a fools errand and a leader without competent followers is ultimately taking a long, lonely, singular walk. 

PS: Apologies to readers outside of North America. I had to call football “soccer” or there would be misunderstandings. We all know football is the correct name for soccer!

We are now in the dog days of summer so I will be off for August and back first week of September. Have a great summer everyone. 

Related posts & links:

# Business Insider: MALCOLM GLADWELL: ‘Anyone who gives a single dollar to Princeton has completely lost their mind’ ( )

# Malcolm Gladwell podcast: Revisionist History )

#46 – Fantasy Project Team – Assemble!  ( )

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top