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It’s important to focus on the positives of major projects. How do you do it?

June 10, 2018

By Diane Ingraham

Struggling with negative perceptions? Here’s how to involve local workers, build lifelong relationships, and get the community on board

Major projects are not all about the money. They are more and more about communities where you live. The problem of major projects in the news today is the fixation on negative aspects like costs, noise, dust, influx of workers from other places, legal woes, and conflicting and confusing agendas of special interests.

I want to move our focus from the negatives to the positives. I want to celebrate the ways that projects—and how they are managed—build skills and competencies for people working on them, who are from the surrounding communities.

Field archaeologists examine a site before construction. A major project is usually complex, using specialists and skilled labor from multiple disciplines.

I want to share what my team and I learned while working on two different but similar major projects. These projects, in Atlantic Canada, have very huge impacts on the communities around them.

First, the Sydney Tar Ponds and Coke Ovens Cleanup Project in Nova Scotia was located amid the communities of downtown Sydney, Ashby, Membertou, and the Pier. One hundred years of steelmaking destroyed the Muggah Creek estuary. People were fed up waiting for the cleanup. “Get ’er done!” was heard throughout the early days, while frustrated people waited for the cleanup to complete.

Further east and north in Labrador, I also worked on the Muskrat Falls Hydroelectric Development, located on the lower Churchill River. The river was a transportation route into the forests used for hunting, fishing, and food gathering by the Innu and Inuit, and others living off the land. Culturally and historically important lands would be changed forever. The scale of the project dwarfed the landscape, altering everything and everyone near it.

Both projects had local benefits requirements built into them. Both changed the communities in a large way.

Aside from these two examples, major projects can include a new bridge, a commercial and office complex, a subway system, or a transcontinental pipeline. A major project is usually complex, using specialists and skilled labor from multiple disciplines. It has a definite start and end. Major projects are often lengthy—on the order of many months to a few years. They may require critical thinking and innovation to solve all the challenges they face. And, they impact people in a very noticeable way.

Two workers look over the Sydney Tar Ponds site in Atlantic Canada. One hundred years of steelmaking destroyed the Muggah Creek estuary. 

Focusing on the positives

So, how can you change the conversation, to focus on the positive side of such projects?

Well, companies do best if they are already part of the community, near the project as a neighbor—and not just showing up when the work is awarded. Your neighbors know you and trust you and can see your involvement with the project. You are known to them. You know who to talk to—to find out who has what skills in the community that can contribute to the success of the project—and they know you.

Does your company actively support training? If it does, you seek out local training organizations and programs, and work together to develop training to give you access to local talent you can rely on. Doing this provides a huge savings in reduced travel and housing costs and gives steady work and income to local people and local businesses. Health and safety on construction sites, cultural awareness, field procedures and reporting, archaeology, and wildlife field training build skills and confidence. It is important to actively participate in the training.

I want your experience to benefit from actively considering and involving the people who live in the communities near that project.

When local people participate in a project, knowledge about the project spreads. For example, children in the local community might learn about the project, see it, and feel it in their interactions with their moms and dads and other family members working on the project. Investing in the local talent provides loyal workers, and this helps the project financially. It gives you familiar faces—and friends—coming back year after year (“retention”). Promoting from within the local team builds confidence and capacity, which is reflected outside of work in how families and communities can grow with hope and pride. It’s the right thing to do.

Following are five additional things to consider when it comes to large projects:

1. Start early

Involvement and engagement prior to project start lets people know who you are and what you stand for, and you will learn the same about them. You will have the time to talk about concerns and to prepare the next steps together. Changes in approach and solutions can be made when it is least expensive to do so.

2. Focus on engagement

Community engagement and communications can be both formal and informal. Use new technology and old-fashioned face-to-face conversations. Openness, inclusiveness, and honesty builds and maintains trust for everyone. You will need support for a successful outcome.

3. Facing challenges

We must proceed as we say we will, listen when it is best to listen, and talk when it is best to talk. Share what we know respectfully together.

Diane Ingraham worked on the Muskrat Falls Hydroelectric Development, located on the lower Churchill River in Atlantic Canada. The project had huge impacts on the community around it.

4. Long-term benefits

Beyond the obvious financial ones, lifelong relationships add a legacy in the community long after the project is over. Skills shared, learned, and nurtured stay with the people to benefit them in other endeavors.

5. Anything else?

Don’t shy away from major projects. You will grow in experience and understanding. Personally, on a major project, I have discovered the immense benefits of learning from people from different cultures, languages, and beliefs. I take these learnings with me in everything I do, and they influence how I conduct myself as a leader on every project. These experiences have made me a better decision maker. They make me a better manager for all my clients. I am a better person.

Whether you are a community leader with a major project coming soon, or a project manager heading up a major endeavor, I want your experience to benefit from actively considering and involving the people who live in the communities near that project. You can gain understanding, and profit by it, through making better and more inclusive decisions that have an improved return on investment. Then, you’ll have turned the conversation from negative to positive.

  • Diane Ingraham

    With a Ph.D. in civil engineering and 30 years of professional experience across diverse sectors, Diane understands projects down to the finest detail.

    Contact Diane
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