Kittelson & Associates, Inc. is a company spread over more than 25 offices, yet we don’t silo project work by location. Due to our “one firm, many locations” mentality, it’s pretty rare to find a Kittelson project team that doesn’t represent more than one office.
How does that work, especially as we grow?
Every time a Kittelson staff member identifies a potential project using our custom-built, internal project management system, a notification goes out to the whole company that acts as an invitation. Those who are interested in working on that project can express interest with the click of a button. Then, if the project materializes, the project manager has the flexibility to select staff for the project team from across the firm based on interest expressed, prior experience, and skillsets. Our project teams collaborate using technology and the occasional office visit to see each other and workshop together in person (a form of connection for which there is no replacement).
It’s one thing to talk about this approach in broad terms. It’s another thing to see it play out, because it takes a unified mindset and collective commitment to make each project successful when we’re not down the hallway from one another.
We thought it would be an interesting case study to get a few project teams together—after they had delivered a series of projects successfully—to talk about what that cross-office collaboration looked like for them.
Case Study: California Systemic Safety Analysis Reports
In 2017, Kittelson began developing several Systemic Safety Analysis Reports (SSARs) throughout the state of California, most of which had concurrent timelines for analysis, agency coordination, and project delivery. (At one point, more than 20 grant applications were due on the same date for the various SSARs!) Most projects ranged in length from 9 to 18 months depending on the local jurisdiction’s size, needs and scope.
As the SSARs were completed, the final reports enabled jurisdictions to compete for state grant money under the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP). To date, Kittelson has prepared more than 20 grant applications, helping our clients secure approximately $17 million in funding for safety improvements, and several SSARs are still in progress.
How did Kittelson accomplish this feat while delivering highly competitive grant applications on time and on budget? We did it through the collaboration of several integrated project teams comprised of staff in Sacramento; Oakland; Orange, CA; Tucson; Portland; Bend, OR; Boise; Orlando; Reston, VA; and Washington, D.C.
A handful of people involved in this work met recently to share about their experiences collaborating. Here are some snippets from that discussion. Keep reading to the end for a summary of their takeaways.
How were the project teams formed?
Matt: It happened pretty organically. As we always do, we started out by staffing the projects with individuals who had expressed interest in them. Because they were California-based, the project teams started out mostly with folks from Sacramento and Oakland.
As we won more of the projects, we continued to pull people in, and that circle continued to expand outward. We really leaned on the value of being connected across the company to find folks who were interested and had capacity to help.
Meredyth: Really, a lot of the groundwork for these projects was done even before they started. Because we had established connections with each other through office visits, meet & greets, and other avenues, we were already talking to one another, so it became natural for us to jump in on the project—including for those of us across the country.
What roles did you all play on the team?
Mike: Erin and Matt managed the projects and Brian Ray, Senior Principal Engineer in our Portland office, led quality control and project management support. For the analysts on the projects, the roles were quite fluid; it was more about what was needed at the time. In a couple I worked on, I did some early analysis work, handed it off to others, and in some cases came back and worked on the design. In other cases, someone else started the analysis, and I came in to help with it. The responsibilities were different for each person on each project. With all this collaboration, people could hop in and there was collective support to answer questions and continue doing strong work.
Matt: Staff teamed up to cover multiple tasks. Meredyth and Jacki (an engineering associate in our Bend, OR office) were a great example of a planner and designer tag-team. By the end of their work, Meredyth (a planner) was learning from the concept design development and Jacki was involved in the planning tasks. People had the chance to work on things that were new for them and had support from others in the group. Meredyth and Jacki engaged Brian to help them learn by sharing insights on concept design.
Erin: At the peak, we had about a dozen SSARs going at one time, which involved a lot of staff, and more than engineers and planners. Our graphic designers and writers produced the reports and created templates oriented toward each jurisdiction—essentially taking all the technical work and turning it into something digestible for the general public. These were critical roles, and it’s important to note that it was the combination of everyone’s contributions that made the projects successful for the local agencies.
What tools and strategies did you use to make the collaboration successful?
Erin: We used some good old-fashioned recurring project team meetings with folks. Also, for a very long time, I did a weekly email that went out to everyone involved, listing the work activities coming up and the deadlines of all the SSARs. We called it the “weekly SSAR digest.” It kept everyone informed of what they were responsible for, who else was involved, and what other SSARs were at similar stages.
Matt: Once we have a critical mass of SSARs and a team expanding beyond Sacramento and Oakland, we brought a bunch of people together for an in-person work session. We walked through the technical processes, goals and constraints of the HSIP grant applications. This set us up to break into smaller groups to take on the individual projects while still having a host of people to support individual SSAR teams.
Chris: A Microsoft Teams channel connected the whole group. This was helpful because there was good documentation of things that had already been done. Several SSARs had been completed when I joined the effort, so I wasn’t starting at ground zero. There were resources already developed, and I could connect with a person or team that had just completed something similar to the task I was starting.
Matt: Also – we did a lot of screen sharing, waving at things with the mouse, quick sketching over CAD concepts…
Amy: We chuckle at what Matt said, but it matters: the literal act of sharing a screen and looking at the work together. Collaboration technologies seem basic to us at this point, but it’s all about how we use them. And Erin’s “weekly SSAR digest” was a big deal when that came online. It provided stability, as I could count on an update each week. When it wasn’t practical to have weekly check-ins with the whole group, I still knew what was going on.
What were the challenges of the remote collaboration?
Mike: There’s always the logistics of different time zones. There were quite a few early morning meetings for those of us in Oakland and Bend, OR. For the East Coasters, that meant some late evenings, too.
However, the time zone challenges also have their unique benefits. Sometimes it’s helpful to send something off and have someone on the East Coast look at it before you’re awake so that it’s waiting for you in the morning. You can plan strategically around these things, and it helps in crunch time.
Chris: We made the system work for us. I remember one time I was working on something and I sent it to Matt at 5pm my time to look at it, which was 2pm his time. I left for dinner and hung out with some friends. I came back around 8pm to finish it up, and I had gotten some feedback from him on it!
Matt: Since we had a large group, one challenge was that some of the folks on the team were new to different work activities and scope. Many people were learning as part of completing the work. It was helpful to have senior experts such as Brian and others who were willing to invest extra time and energy to teach while also advancing deliverables and pulling in specific experts when needed.
Chris: Probably the biggest challenge for me was communication. At one point, I turned something in to Matt thinking he only wanted the final product, when he actually needed the steps leading up to the final product. Thankfully I had done all the steps, I just hadn’t communicated that. Had we been in the same office where we could have seen each other throughout the week, he would probably have known I was doing all the steps.
Amy: Chris’ example is especially meaningful. We have to bring a greater level of diligence to our face time when we don’t have the benefit of down-the-hallway, over-lunch conversations. When we only meet during scheduled times, we lose the benefit of the cumulative information that gets shared ad hoc. We have to intentionally seek out information from others. Ask, “Is there anything else?” and pause…
Is this a representative example of the composition of your project teams at Kittelson?
Erin: The scope of this one is unique, but all of my current projects include working with people from other offices. 90% involve collaborating with Kittelson staff in offices outside of California.
Matt: I’ve worked on a lot of project teams where people were supporting California work remotely. When I started my career, I worked quite a lot with our Florida offices and then with folks in the Northwest (Portland, Bend, and Boise). The scale of the collaboration on the SSARs was unique, but it’s very representative of my typical project teams.
Beyond project success, what was the value for you of working collaboratively across the firm?
Chris: For me, it was a good opportunity to connect with Erin and Matt, two people I had wanted to work with. One of the SSARs needed some help last minute and I had the time to help. And because I had more capacity to work on it, rather than them tapping someone locally whose plate was already full, we were able to exceed expectations rather than just get it done. Overall, I thought it was fun getting to know new people.
Amy: Because of the opportunity to work with Kittelson staff in other regions, I now have deeper relationships with those people. Now, they’re people I can approach to collaborate on other projects. Through the relationship, I picked up on the insights they have and now have a conduit to others in their region. It has helped me build a stronger internal network. And a strong internal network offers unlimited benefits over time.
Erin: For me, it was exciting to see how many more folks are becoming involved, knowledgeable, and experienced in safety work. It’s rewarding to now see we have a lot of people involved in projects using safety guidance. We have more staff now who can lead and do that kind of work.
Amy: This discussion paints a picture in my mind of what it really looks like to operate as one firm—this is how we get things done. Many people are involved start-to-finish, from pursuing the projects to preparing outstanding deliverables to having happy clients. Not just engineers, not just planners, not just people in one office. This whole story is possible because we really act as one firm that brings our strengths together.
Erin: People helped each other to make it work. Seeing the commitment that folks outside of California put into these California SSARs goes to illustrate that we are really successful when we work together as a team and are solution-oriented. We have each other’s backs.
Takeaways: How to Make Remote Project Collaboration Work
There’s much to take away from a discussion like this, and here are a few highlights:
- Technology offers good tools, but it’s more about the thoughtful use of it rather than expecting it to connect the team magically. For example, it’s been a long time since email has been considered innovative, but it a made big difference on these projects.
- Communication requires attention. Team members need to make an effort to be sure others actually hear and understand their need or key point.
- Successful projects can be made successful before the project starts, by fostering coworker relationships and taking a thoughtful approach to building project teams.
- Time zones don’t have to be a barrier—they can make your team more efficient if you make them work for you.
- When a project is staffed out of convenience (i.e., who is local), you run the risk of your project team being stretched thin or missing out on the strong interest or experience that those in other offices can provide.
- A unified mindset is critical. It is only through a collective commitment, where we all see ourselves as one firm, that an analyst in Orlando will be working at 8pm Eastern to meet a California SSAR deadline. When high standards are shared, successes will be shared, too.
Visit our Work page for more recent examples of how our “one firm” collaboration plays out in projects across the country. Feel free to reach out to any of us to talk further about these ideas!