CE Roundtable – Managing Multidisciplinary Teams

The ASCE News Civil Engineering Roundtable showcases insights from a cross section of ASCE members on a variety of industry topics.

Today’s roundtable considers the increasing importance of expanding your workplace collaboration not just beyond your own discipline but beyond the boundaries of your entire field.

When managing a multidisciplinary team, is there a difference between how you manage nonengineer and engineer project specialists?

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Tony Kulesa


Senior structural engineer, Burns & McDonnell, Overland Park, Kansas

“I think it’s important to treat them equally, each responsible for their respective role in the project. I trust and rely on the engineering lead for any analysis and calculations, but in the same way I have complete confidence in the non-engineering lead’s knowledge and execution of the 3D modeling, CAD standards, production and designer review.

“Many topics, like safety and constructability, involve both engineering and nonengineering specialists to weigh in collectively, and that’s when we really start moving toward a successful project, drawing on the expertise of diverse backgrounds to find a common solution.”

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Lawren Pratt


Senior technical advisor–civil, KBR, Birmingham, Alabama

“Yes and no. First, there is a difference between leading and managing. Leading is global and overarching, establishing the vision and setting project goals.

“There is no difference leading a team of nonengineer and engineer project specialists as each team member collaborates toward a common goal, and everyone should hear the leader’s unfiltered direction.

“Managing is different because team members have different backgrounds and perspectives and see things through various paradigms. They have varying levels of technical expertise and provide different contributions toward the project. Thus, it is the manager’s responsibility to ensure that the team member understands their contributions to the project. The manager must convey project goals in a manner so that each team member’s individual skills are recognized. This interface between team member and manager should be conducted differently based on the team member’s attitude, skills and knowledge; and these attributes can vary between nonengineer and engineer project specialists.”

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Brad Aldrich


Founding partner, Aldrich + Elliott, PC, Essex Junction, Vermont

“I don’t distinguish between engineer and nonengineer project team members per se. I assess each team member’s strengths and try to create partnerships where various team members can complement each other’s skills to complete the various project tasks.

“I prefer a very flat hierarchy where everyone is valued and can provide input on the problem we are trying to address. I’ve seen some rather technical ideas come from nonengineer team members. Bull sessions where we talk through the project alternatives is a great way to assess your team and determine who can work well together.”

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David P. Devine


Senior project engineer, Fort Wayne, Indiana

“It is my experience that the differences between people –  i.e., diversity of backgrounds, interests, skill sets, experiences – is more [of] an issue than differences between nonengineers and engineers on a project team. Certainly, the technical abilities and backgrounds of nonengineers and engineers are likely much different from each other, and these differences directly impact the tasks and assignments of the respective individuals. Nevertheless, while managing many persons on a team, other differences not directly related to the person being an engineer or not have been more significant.

“As a manager working to achieve the best project result within the budget, making a profit, and on schedule, these other differences are more significant. Who on the project team is better suited to deal with stress of multiple tasks? Who on the project team has performed the tasks before? Who on the project team likes to work more hours and who has other duties or distractions not related to the project? Who on the project team is eager to take on more of a role, i.e., on their way working up to a higher position, and who is content in their role as it is now? Who is more dependable based on their past, which could also just be who on the project team do I personally have some previous relationship/rapport with?

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Jon Zufelt


Senior professional associate, HDR, Anchorage, Alaska

“As a water resources engineering professional, my project teams are almost always multidisciplinary, consisting of engineers and other technical and professional staff. “These may include hydrologists, biologists, chemists, GIS modelers, right-of-way specialists and cultural resources professionals. The success of any project team is clear communication, not only with your team members but also your client and other stakeholders. Communication styles and methods differ among team members, so understanding how your team members deliver and receive information is important in developing a successful team management plan.

“Rather than a difference in how I manage engineers and nonengineers, it is more of a difference in how I manage task-oriented people versus process-focused people, or those who prefer to work alone versus those who need to discuss a solution among the team.

“Craft your message with the recipient in mind.”


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