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Lessons Learned


Collaborative Leadership: Success Stories in Transportation Mega Projects
A "Lessons Learned" Approach to Collaborative Leadership in Mega Project Management


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What are the keys to successful collaborative leadership for transportation mega projects? The Federal Highway Association (FHWA) asked six graduate students from the University of Maryland University College to conduct a study to identify the keys to successful collaboration necessary to implement large-scale transportation mega projects. The FHWA asked the students to research three successful mega projects; the I-15 Reconstruction Project in Utah; the Infrastructure for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games; and the Alameda Corridor Project. In addition, two smaller successful projects, the Big I in New Mexico and the Hyperfix Project in Indianapolis, Indiana, were also studied.

Collaborative traits presented by David Chrislip were compared to those identified by the project managers of these successful projects in order to identify the keys to successful collaborative leadership for mega projects. The results of this study will be extremely useful for future mega projects or programs as project managers develop their collaborative approaches to achieve success. The document will serve as a basis for a "lessons learned" approach to collaborative leadership in mega project management.

Target Audience and Stakeholders

If you are a public official, a member of a grass-roots organization, a business or a citizen interested or involved in the planning, funding, development or implementation of mega projects, this paper is a must-read for you. Since by their nature, mega projects require collaboration with numerous entities with different interests, objectives and needs, excellent collaborative leadership is the key to bringing these projects from inception to fruition. All stakeholders, whether in a leadership role or not, can benefit from knowledge of collaborative leadership. This paper will provide each stakeholder with useful information gathered from several successful FHWA mega projects and will guide you through the collaborative leadership process.


Collaborative leadership is an important tool in the planning, design, and implementation of mega projects. Transportation mega projects are defined by the total expenditures of $1 billion (or more) for the duration of the project or when the interest in the project is at the national level. Mega projects are inherently complex and difficult, but a review of several mega projects shows these extremely complex projects can be completed on time, under budget, and maintain the public trust using the collaborative leadership model. The purpose of the case study is to review previous successful mega projects and highlight the collaborative leadership efforts utilized by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), state transportation agencies, local governments, and community based organizations that helped to make these projects successful.

Collaborative leadership will be defined along with details on how collaborative leadership was successfully utilized in several transportation mega projects. The mega projects we examined include; the I-15 Reconstruction Project in Utah; the 2002 Olympic Winter Games Infrastructure in Salt Lake City, Utah; and the Alameda Corridor in California. We also examined two other projects that were extremely successful, but did not meet the $1 billion threshold. These projects were the Big I (I-25 & I-40) in Albuquerque, New Mexico and the Hyperfix Project in Indianapolis, Indiana. The collaborative successes of these two projects provided additional insight into successful collaborative leadership.

Each transportation project will be described in detail, identifying the requirements for the project; the stakeholders; and a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis. In addition, budgets, marketing ideas, and collaborative leadership examples within the project will help identify the key reasons for each project's success.

The project team at the University of Maryland University College that compiled the research will perform an assessment of lessons learned by previous mega project managers and provide insightful recommendations to serve as a beneficial tool for future project managers of FHWA mega projects.

What is Collaborative Leadership?

A good way to begin discussing collaborative leadership is to first discuss what it is not. Leadership in the industrial age has mostly consisted of a hierarchical, command and control structure. In an industrial environment, a production-line approach led to stable and predictable processes with a clearly defined power structure. Those at the top owned and controlled the system and the information. In the hierarchical model, people at the bottom of the organization were rewarded for hard work and loyalty by the potential to move up in rank and seniority. We accepted the concept that the success of a venture depended on the leadership skills and directions of the one person at the top (Dentico, 1999). The hierarchical approach is no longer enough since public and private entities are now faced with complex and rapidly changing environments where information is abundant but answers are few. This familiar linear workflow has evolved into a multi-faceted problem-solving effort that needs to be flexible and quickly adaptable. Today's information age presents complex issues that need a different problem-solving approach: collaboration.

Collaboration, as defined by Chrislip and Larson (as cited in Chrislip, 2002):

"...goes beyond communication, cooperation, and coordination. ... It is a mutually beneficial relationship between two or more parties to achieve common goals by sharing responsibility, authority, and accountability for achieving results. ... The purpose of collaboration is to create a shared vision and joint strategies to address concerns that go beyond the purview of any particular party"

The collaborative approach within an organization is based on the concept that all workers within that organization need to be fully engaged in pursuing a common goal or vision to ensure success. When the common goal or vision has buy-in from the workers, productivity is increased within a group setting when compared to individual efforts. The collaborative approach centers on the concept that innovation, creativity, and leadership can come from workers at all levels. The job of a leader becomes more focused on ensuring the work environment is supportive of these workers allowing them to succeed on a personal level, which then benefits the entire organization. The goal of the leader is to foster collaborative relationships within and between work teams thereby bringing diverse viewpoints into the decision-making process (Dentico, 1999).

Christopher Avery (1999) presents the collaborative leadership challenge as a two-part problem. The goal of the collaborative leader is to focus the participants on two concepts: results and meaningful experience. A typical challenge for the collaborative leader is the fact that most of the people brought together into a group are not under the leader's direct control. In addition, many of the people in the group are the ones causing the problems in the first place. An effective collaborative leader uses the dual-focus approach to enable the people causing the problems to solve the problems themselves. The leader prepares for the task by studying the issues and what motivates the various players and then helps them implement a solution.

In addition to being able to bring together the right people at the right time, a collaborative leader must be flexible. Yeakey (2002) describes how recent developments facing today's military such as technological changes and the constantly changing flow of information in the operational environment require the use of adaptive leadership in order to succeed. This concept has parallels to transportation mega projects that are illustrative of the challenges faced by project managers and collaborative leaders. Yeakey discusses the U.S. Army Field Manual (FM) 22-100, Army Leadership wherein it is stressed that leaders must adapt their style to the situation and people with which they are faced at any given time. A military leader has two primary tasks: the task specialist who accomplishes the task; and the social specialist who focuses on the relationships within the group. This is similar to mega project management in that the group dynamics need to be in good order for the mega project task to succeed. The leader must adapt his or her leadership style in accordance with the maturity level of the person being tasked. People in a group will range from being technically able to do a task and having the self-confidence and responsibility to accomplish it alone to people who are neither able to complete a task nor willing to take the responsibility upon themselves to actually get the job done. A mega project often does not get to choose who will participate on a given task from the public's side. Another parallel with mega projects is that the military leader is imposed, as is the mega project management staff. The ability to help those who are being led or managed to look beyond this fact requires the ability to adapt to the given situation.

The collaborative approach is in contrast to an authoritarian federal government approach that has been used for many years. Chrislip (2002) presents several assumptions about public decisions that support the practice of collaboration and collaborative leadership that are keys to successful interactions for transportation mega projects.

  • The quality of public decisions stems directly from the quality of the engagement used to make them. There must be a conscious decision made to engage the public that has come to mistrust the government with the goal of arriving at better decisions.
  • Public decisions must respond to the real needs of the community or region. Imposing a solution from "Washington" will only cause resentment. Engaging the local citizens and authorities can bring to light their true needs and foster a sense of ownership in the project.
  • People in a place should have some control over forces that affect their lives. The world is changing at an incredibly fast pace. Competing interests threaten to divide the public into ever smaller and competing groups. Collaboration helps counter these effects.
  • Understanding of others and of essential information about public concerns comes before judgment and decision. Collaboration looks for common ground before moving forward. While it may take time, the effort expended in gaining mutual understanding results in trust and a willingness to compromise.
  • In order for collaboration to work, all participants must engage as peers. All participants have equal weight in a collaborative environment. While this may not be possible for all mega project decisions, allowing as many decisions to be made in a peer environment as possible will gain the project credibility and participant buy-in.

Benefits of Collaborative Leadership for FHWA

Mega projects, by their nature are inherently complex because they involve many entities with different interests. There is usually much opposition and controversy surrounding these projects making them even more difficult. There are numerous problems to resolve, many of them involving competing and conflicting interests. The following generalized SWOT Analysis briefly illustrates some of the issues that must typically be addressed and offers possible strategies to resolve them using a collaborative process:


Table 1 - Generalized SWOT - Mega Projects
  Strengths Weaknesses
  1. Strong need
  2. Grassroots support
  3. Political support
  4. Funding
  5. Strong, creative leadership
  6. Collaborative process
  1. FHWA tends to be large, slow government
  2. Mega projects are very complex
  3. Mega projects are very costly
  4. Mega projects are likely to present many unforeseen problems
  5. Mega projects always have Environmental impacts
Opportunities S-O Strategies W-O Strategies
  1. Improve the economy of the effected area
  2. Improve safety for those that live in the area
  3. Conserve the environment by eliminating other impacts
  1. Use creative leadership to strategically initiate the project
  2. Use a collaborative process to define the benefits of the project - economics, safety and environmental
  3. Use grassroots and political support to gain funding
  1. Perform detailed cost benefit analysis to show the public that the project is worth the cost
  2. FHWA should focus its attentions on building an efficient mega project management organization in order to take advantage of the opportunities these projects offer
  3. Using a collaborative process, show the public how the project eliminates or improves existing environmental problems (i.e., rail system eliminates smog by getting trucks off the road)
Threats S-T Strategies W-T Strategies
  1. Environmental constraints
  2. Limited funding
  3. Scope creep
  4. Time - delays increase costs
  5. Politics - People use large projects to satisfy personal needs
  6. Opposition - People hate change
  1. Balance environmental constraints with need
  2. Design the project such that existing environmental impacts are eliminated as a result of the project
  3. Leaders need to control scope creep by carefully defining the project through a collaborative process with the stakeholders and be tough on any deviations from scope
  4. Use an open, collaborative process to validate the opposition's concerns and address issues
  5. Creative leaders should encourage supporters to lobby for increased political support and funding
  6. Leadership should perform extensive research through environmental studies, obtain property data, cost benefit analysis, etc. to ensure that time delays are avoided due to unforeseen issues
  1. Mitigate environmental impacts by replacing lost resources as a part of the project (i.e., reforestation, wetlands mitigation, storm water management, etc)

Collaborative leadership in a transportation mega project environment can help the managers of the project successfully deal with the complexities of the project by bringing those affected into the problem-solving and decision-making process. The task of the project managers is to bring together the various stakeholders as soon as possible.

The sense of buy-in gained by the stakeholders, as well as, the detailed information on stakeholder concerns gained by the project managers outweighs the challenges in managing a mix of public and private groups. The following section describes how collaborative leadership has worked in the successful completion of recent mega projects by the FHWA.


Successful Collaborative Leadership Examples

Collaborative Lessons Learned

As can be seen from the project material above, there are many positive lessons learned that can be used in future transportation mega projects. At first glance, these examples seem to address typical project management issues that arise consistently across projects, but their magnitude increases with the additional complexities of mega projects:

  • Support and involvement from leadership at the highest level
    • The Hyperfix project needed support to completely close the highway for construction which resulted in reduced construction time
  • Extensive planning
    • Preparing and enforcing the use of a standard superstructure design in the Big I project took time to prepare but resulted in rapid completion and consistent implementation
  • Flexibility in solution
    • Willingness to try a non-standard design-build approach in the I-15 project simplified implementation and brought the project in early, under budget, and with minimal traffic disruption
  • Partnerships
    • The One DOT approach brought cohesion and a sense of identity to the participants in the Olympics project
    • Figuring out a way for local communities to participate in construction contracts benefited the Alameda, Olympics and I-15 projects
  • Keep the customer informed
    • Creative use of technology in managing accident response during the Big I project and giving the public up-to-date information on traffic status for the Hyperfix and Olympics projects reduced public frustration and increased willingness to tolerate inevitable inconveniences

Clearly the above projects were well designed, managed, and implemented. Additional scrutiny will quickly bring your attention to the type of leadership that was used. In this context, Chrislip (2002) provides some additional guidance. According to Chrislip, there are four keys areas that must come together for success in collaboration.

The first is a constituency for change. The concept of constituency is of a broad-based stakeholder group that brings together many different perspectives. If this group is well formed, then it will have credibility and influence to have its recommendations followed. In the context of a transportation mega project, another aspect that must be considered is the complex public-private partnership that must be established and nurtured throughout the implementation of a mega project. Often public mistrust based on previous experiences must be overcome. The public can be seriously affected during the course of the project so their buy-in is critical. If the public's needs and concerns are recognized and addressed, their support will be greater. The openness and credibility of the process is very important. There have to be real reasons for engaging in a project in the first place. Bad timing, for example during a period of economic downturn, can create tremendous obstacles for gaining public support for the project.

The second key area is process expertise. This concept recognizes that broad-based stakeholder groups will have varying levels of process or management expertise. Bringing in outside facilitators who can help train the group and guide discussions from a neutral position can be beneficial. It is also a good idea to consider including junior people in the various project teams. Training the next generation of project leadership takes time and experience.

The third area is content expertise. In a collaborative methodology, instead of having content experts prepare and present completed recommendations, content experts are brought in to present information to the stakeholder group. This gives the stakeholders continued control over the evolution of the project. In addition, this approach can result in innovative ideas and solutions. People often design solutions based on their area of expertise and comfort. Many organizations, including those who would participate in mega projects, have developed standard processes for developing and implementing projects. These processes are often bureaucratic and slow in implementation. Opening up the processes to innovation can lead to some creative and effective solutions that can result in faster completion of mega projects.

The final area is strong facilitative leadership. Leadership within the stakeholder group is critical. There must be several key players who are able to keep the group focused on the task especially during difficult phases. Choosing the right people to participate from the public agency side is very important. In addition, transportation mega projects can span many jurisdictions. As a result, there are many leaders at different levels who can stymie or facilitate a mega project. Getting commitment and support of the various key leaders affected by a mega project is critical.

(Please see Appendix A for Chrislip's four-phase guide to implementing collaborative leadership for mega projects. Another very useful tool is the Maryland State Highway Administration's Field Guide to Partnering on MSHA Projects. It is available online at (PDF, 1 mb). With the permission of the Maryland State Highway Administration, the concepts in this document could be borrowed by the FHWA to provide a step-by-step guide to monitoring mega projects.)

The above projects reflect many different successful uses of a collaborative leadership approach. In an attempt to focus on the key elements that would be most beneficial for a transportation mega project, this graduate study group conducted several interviews with various former members of the above mega projects via e-mail, telephone, and in person during November 2004.

When we asked, "what is the single most important key to successful collaboration on mega projects and why", the answers from the experts pointed to the following areas:

  • Communication - Be prepared for public scrutiny. The projects are huge and will naturally attract attention. Prepare to be audited. Manage expectations about impact - physical and financial. Good scope, cost, and schedule estimates help to maintain credibility.
  • Relationships/Collaboration - Good interpersonal skills are needed. Co-location of teams from various agencies can facilitate communication and problem solving. Working relationships developed from daily interaction can result in open and honest discussions. This is the basis for solving the problems that a mega project inevitably encounters. Humility and willingness to hear and recognize solutions from others is necessary.
  • Recognition of complexity - Mega projects are inherently complicated and resource intensive. Reusing past lessons can help save time and effort. Extensive upfront planning is needed. Recognition that a mega project is not just a big construction project is needed. The complexity lies also in the funding area. Flexibility and willingness to look at creative solutions is important.
    • P. Barnes, personal communication, November 22, 2004;
    • J. Basso, personal communication, November 15, 2004;
    • J. Broadhurst, personal communication, November 23, 2004;
    • W. Dooley, personal communication, November 22, 2004;
    • M. Huerta, personal communication, November 22, 2004;
    • J. Kolb, personal communication, November 22, 2004;
    • M. Morrow, personal communication, November 29, 2004;
    • D. Platz, personal communication, November 22, 2004;
    • J. Sinnette, personal communication, November 22, 2004;
    • D. Wood, personal communication, November 23, 2004)


By definition, mega projects create a great amount of national interest with their scope or their $1 billion (plus) price tag. The interest of national leaders, the media, and the taxpayers in mega projects is heightened in this age of fiscal responsibility. Those individuals selected to be project managers for mega transportation projects must pay a lot of attention to the public opinion. The public's trust in the FHWA and mega projects is a delicate matter and must be cared for openly and honestly.

The project manager for the FHWA's future mega projects must remember Chrislip's four keys areas that come together for success in collaborative leadership; constituency for change, process expertise, content expertise, and strong facilitative leadership. Combined with his four phases for implementing collaborative leadership, the mega project manager should be well on their way to completing the project on time, under budget, and with the public trust still in tact. The quotes from some of the personnel involved in recent successful mega projects clearly indicate that extensive planning, a broad range of partnerships, and open and honest communication are vital to meeting the needs of the public and their transportation needs.

Appendix A

Keys to Implementing Collaborative Leadership for Future Mega Projects

Chrislip, in his book The Collaborative Leadership Fieldbook: A Guide For Citizens And Civic Leaders (2002), presents an outline of practical steps that can be used to move from the theoretical to the practical implementation of the planning needed to implement a project based on a collaborative leadership approach. The outline is divided into four phases with the first three dealing with planning and only the last phase being actual implementation.

Phase 1 - Getting started
  • Analyzing the context for collaboration
    • Understanding the political dynamics
    • Understanding how citizens think about public issues
  • Deciding on a collaborative strategy
    • Determining the feasibility of collaboration
    • Defining the purpose, focus, and scope
Phase 2 - Setting up for success
  • Identifying and convening stakeholders
    • Understanding the principle and practice of inclusion
    • Finding the credibility to convene
    • Identifying stakeholders
    • Inviting, recruiting, and convening stakeholders
  • Designing a constructive process
    • Defining the decision-making method
    • Establishing ground rules
    • Designing a constructive process
  • Defining information needs
    • Defining information and education needs
  • Defining critical roles
    • Selecting process experts
    • Selecting content experts
    • Identifying strong, facilitative leaders
  • Managing the process
    • Establishing a steering committee
    • Staffing the effort
    • Documenting the process
  • Finding the resources
    • Developing the budget
    • Funding a collaborative process
Phase 3 - Working together
  • Building capacity
    • Building relationships and skills
  • Ways of engaging
    • Engaging through dialogue
    • Working with written information
  • Informing the stakeholders
    • Understanding the content
    • Understanding the context
      • Analyzing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats
      • Developing scenarios
  • Deciding what needs to be done
    • Collaborative problem solving
    • Visioning
    • Strategic planning
Phase 4 - Moving to action
  • Reaching out
    • Building a broader constituency
    • Engaging with decision makers and implementing organizations
  • Managing action
    • Developing action plans
    • Organizing and managing implementation


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