Interview with Collaboration 2017 Speaker Russell Clough

DRB Specialist Russell Clough led a workshop at Collaboration 2017 called "What You Know That Ain't so Affects Collaboration."

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Collaboration 2017–May 18th

9:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m.

Participants learned from and actively engaged in exercises designed to resolve dispute or partnering issues (actual examples of personalities, biases, misperceptions, deceptions, and negotiations).  Each attendee practiced calibrating their own uncertainties regarding risks in our business.


About the Speaker


Russell Clough

3rd Generation Engineer and DRB Specialist


Russell Clough earned a BS and MS in Civil Engineering from Stanford. He has 30 years of construction experience and has served on more than seventy Dispute Review Boards. In 1994 he joined the Stanford faculty, teaching classes that emphasize the importance of technical fundamentals, failures, costs, ethics, leadership, and people challenges in business. He retired from full time teaching in 2010 but continues to do short classes for various companies and universities. He maintains contact with the industry through consulting work and mediation.

We interviewed him to learn more about his work with personality and perception, and how these affect collaboration in construction:

The title of your workshop is “What You Know That Ain’t so Affects Collaboration.” What are the common negative assumptions that people can have that lead to conflict in construction?

There’s been an increase in challenges to collaboration that we did not face 50 years ago when I started. The work is more complex, there are more parties involved, and some of those designing and managing construction work have less field experience building things.

I ask everyone who comes to this workshop to submit a brief form giving me their background and what they would like to get out of the class.  I also ask them to do an exercise that helps them to better calibrate and practice their uncertainty which is a skill we use constantly in construction. We allow the people in the workshop to see what it looks like when they are sure they know something but then find out they were not as correct as they thought. These class exercises help us to learn more about ourselves and others in order to better partner.

What is the difference between personalities and thinking styles, or how are the two related?

Thinking styles are an aspect of personality which helps us to understand the difference between the analyst, realist, idealist, synthesist, or pragmatist. This is both nature and nurture.  It impacts how we negotiate and partner with others.

How has your understanding of personalities and working with difficult people changed over time?

I think I better understand how differently we think about things.  I learn in my classes how people perceive things differently by using optical, physical, and verbal illusions where part of the class see the same thing one way and the other see it another.

You teach a class on how working with different generations brings with it its own set of preconceptions. Where does communication break down?

My daughter (three tours in Iraq and Afg) was in the Marine Corps (as was I) and I may bring her to class to share her experiences. I have great respect for Millennials in the Marine Corps who don’t fit the stereotype sometimes held by those from my generation.  We will focus on people’s perceptions of generational differences that create false realities.

You teach a class on how success requires failures. At first glance, that looks like an oxymoron. Tell me more about that concept.

That has been my favorite class at Stanford. One of the reasons is that many of the students have been so successful and they are petrified of failure.  I help overconfident students to fail in minor ways and learn it’s not significant before they get out in the work world—they learn a lot more from failure than success.

I was lucky to be in tunnel work which is fundamentally about learning from failure. We build tunnels by trial and error.  In a building, we design steel beams that won’t fail except under extreme conditions. In a tunnel, we do the same thing but usually reduce the support until it fails. Everyone who works in tunnel headings as I did has seen people hurt because of our failures.

In the description of your workshop it states that participants will “practice calibrating personal uncertainties regarding risks.” What do you mean by that?

Whether you are a contractor, designer, or owner, estimating the time and cost for a project with the appropriate understanding of the uncertainties is an essential skill.

Your ability to calibrate your own uncertainty can be improved and that is why we do exercises in class to practice that skill.  These exercises came from work in the oil fields where geologists and engineers found that some estimators were more accurate after they had classes calibrating errors and confidence with simple every day questions unrelated to their expertise.  The workshop will help attendees better calibrate what they know and what they don’t know.

What is one of the most important things that more people in the construction industry should understand in order to collaborate effectively?

What concerns me about my recent dispute mediation is that so many people are in positions where they make critical decisions based on the fact that they are good at “explaining things,” but they don’t truly understand what they are explaining. Unfortunately, we have developed a system where many of the people making decisions aren’t responsible for the consequences.

Interested in learning more? Register for the workshop! Registrants for Collaboration 2017 who sign-up for "What You Know That ain't so Affects Collaboration" will be emailed a brief questionnaire to make the workshop a one of a kind experience.