How to Build a Nuclear Plant on Schedule and Budget

THE CHALLENGE

TNG was tasked to resolve the antagonism and create more of a “team” among the adversaries.

One of the three largest construction companies in the world had been given a three-year contract to build a nuclear plant for a large state utility. The culture of the utility supported a climate of politeness, limited competition, high levels of collaboration and little turnover. The construction company, in contrast, had a “take no prisoner” culture, and demanding, aggressive leaders with rigid views of accountability and retribution. In retaliation, the utility engineers responded with passivity and inactivity to counter the egregious behavior of their counterparts. Since the construction was on a cost plus basis – the engineers’ indifference could really hurt. It was oil and water from the first day.

THE PROCESS

We invited ten of the key engineers from each organization responsible for driving the project to a two-day offsite retreat. There were mixed problem-solving simulations to help the groups see the value added of the other members. Eventually, they were involved in problem solving activities that helped them move forward. But the high risk design that broke the back of the antipathy and got the two groups to change their attitudes and, eventually, become allies demonstrated the kind of creative flare that such conflict management often requires. 

About halfway through the first of the two days of the retreat, we let the groups go off by themselves and create a five-minute sketch that demonstrated how members of the other group acted in their work together. Things that drove them “nuts.” They were encouraged to have fun, and to exaggerate. Thirty minutes later the four groups reconvened after gales of laughter could be heard across all of the groups. Listening to the other groups acted as an incentive to “up the ante” on the level of outrageousness in their feedback.

THE OUTCOME

People tend to know who they are. However, it is rare that the mirror is held up for them and others to see. The individuals within the group of twenty almost expired from laughter, first, at their own characterization of the other group. And, second, from how wildly funny and on target the other group was in depicting them.  They were then asked to go to lunch in mixed groups of four. The laughter continued.

It was all smooth sailing from there. Each group knew that their behaviors had to change. That was the topic after lunch. The second day was devoted to maintaining the respect that had been generated, to change the dysfunctional working norms to more constructive ones and to insure that the lines of communication remained open and clear.

Our learning, again, was that “same old, same old” would rarely alter such a challenging situation.