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Debate | Behavioural assessments

Increasingly clients are using behavioural assessments in their procurement processes. But are they just another box ticking exercise?

Behavioural assessments are not a new thing, but their use by clients to assess contractors’ behaviours is on the increase. In theory this should be a win-win situation for client and contractor, as it has the potential to identify the most effective project teams and the most productive partnerships. But is this always the case?

“I’m sceptical” said Steve Farmer, chief executive at Mabey Hire at a recent round table discussion on the subject convened by NCE and Mabey Hire. He likened the assessments to a first date. “You go along to a behavioural workshop and you’re asked what your favourite colour is. Someone says blue and everyone else agrees.

“It’s not a true representation. As the project commences we remember who pays our salary and we revert to type.”
Severn Trent Water programme and project manager Richard Seago, who hadn’t used behavioural assessments before, took it one step back and argued that “organisations need to consider their own behaviours first, before they can start to judge others”.

Round table: Behavioural assessments

Attitude question: The discussion covered a range of views towards behavioural assessments

Those around the table who had used behavioural assessments agreed, but added that it was not always that simple. Highways England procurement director Sharon Cuff said: “Because of the huge competing priorities for Highways England at the moment we have been using behavioural assessments. [But] the client has to understand that their behaviours need to be in the right place too if we are going to meet our challenges.

“It would be naive to say that there are always the right behaviours within an organisation.”

The process of assessment is not to be taken lightly continued Cuff. “It’s a big commitment in terms of time, resources and energy. Thought needs to be put into how you think it is going to make a difference to what is being delivered, or the assessment is a complete waste of time if they are just completed as part of the procurement process and then forgotten.”

“When we get to the assessment stage, it’s just fine tuning. Learning about and applying behaviour is for life not just for Christmas”

Alan Cheung, Costain

When the Environment Agency’s Thames Estuary programme director Peter Quarmby was asked about his experience of the assessments, he spoke of training managers in-house.

“Our solution was to use managers in our national development programme, who weren’t necessarily experts in that field, so it allowed them to concentrate on observing the behaviours shown and learn from the process” he said. “Getting the right assessors is crucial.”

Mike Vessey, managing partner at MDV Consulting, which designs and delivers behavioural assessments and trains assessors, denied he was part of a “cottage industry” that had emerged as the assessments became more common.

“We don’t want to breed a dependency on consultants, but rather encourage in-house training of managers as assessors as they will know the business far better than us. Good behavioural assessor skills are also good line manager skills. Those internal resources should be utilised.”

“There is still a culture in the industry that contractors do not want to offend their clients”

Nick Cleary, Galliford Try

Costain director of behavioural management Alan Cheung agreed. “We have spent the past nine years learning about behaviour and embedding it into our business,” he said.

“When we get to the assessment stage, it’s just fine tuning. Learning about and applying behaviour is for life not just for Christmas”.

The design of the contract is as important as assessments argued Laing O’Rourke’s rail sector lead Graeme Castle. “The contract has to be an enabler, not a blocker, and everything needs to be aligned to get the right outcome. There’s no point having behavioural assessments then a fixed price lump sum contract.”

Project outcomes

“It’s about what’s best for project outcomes,” he continued. “[It’s about] the right people with the right values and behaviours and aligned objectives - getting rid of the barriers within contracts.”
Galliford Try managing director, highways Nick Cleary disagreed. “It’s not so much the contract” he argued, “but the rules, the procurement, the incentives that drive behaviours. If you say price is the most important thing, you’ll get a cheap price. If you say behaviour is the most important part, but the price is the biggest mark, you’re driving the wrong behaviours - giving mixed messages”.

Mabey’s Farmer was still to be convinced of the benefits of behavioural assessments.

“I’m pro- behaviours but you don’t hire people and tell them to be nice to customers, you hire nice people that don’t need training to go to behavioural assessment centres”.

Behavioural assessment versus collaboration

Vessey pointed out that it is important not to confuse behavioural assessments with collaboration.

“Collaboration is one of the areas you might measure as part of an assessment, but that shouldn’t be confused with being sociable. There is a lot more to collaboration than being nice to people.”
Galliford Try’s Cleary said assessment were changing the industry’s client-pleasing attitudes. “There is still a culture in the industry that contractors do not want to offend their clients.

“However, behavioural assessments are pushing away from this, and we are more critical of ourselves and the clients. Instead of offending we can actually help our clients get better”.

Improving relationships

When asked how relationships between clients and contractors could be improved Balfour Beatty new business director Tony Gates argued that more dialogue was needed earlier in the procurement process. 

“If a customer is still developing their documents after the shutter has gone down and big surprises appear during the tender, contracts may end up being awarded to the best guesser.”

Mabey Hire engineering director Tom Williams said he thought that work needed to be done to make sure that the whole supply chain was up to speed with a client’s behavioural requirements .

Filtering behaviours

“It takes a lot of work and consistency to filter those behaviours down through the chain. We haven’t witnessed much change in the past few years, but those behaviours in larger projects we would like to see in smaller projects too”.

Regardless of the contract award, the Environment Agency’s Peter Quarmby thought there was a lot that could be learnt from the assessment process. “You need to give as much feedback as you can as there is always the potential of a future relationship. We do ourselves a disservice if we don’t give feedback”.

When the discussion turned to the best way to train future generations to display the correct behaviours, Invennt director Tim Fitch doubted they would even need behavioural training. “This generation is more naturally collaborative. We need to nurture, not train them. They are potentially great already”.


Round table attendees

Tony Gates new business director, Balfour Beatty
Peter Quarmby Thames Estuary programme director, Environment Agency
Tom Williams director of engineering, Mabey Hire
Sharon Cuff head of procurement, Highways England
Steve Farmer chief executive officer, Mabey Hire
Tim Fitch director, Invennt
Graeme Castle rail sector leader, Laing O’Rourke
Alan Cheung director of behaviour management, Costain
Nick Cleary managing director, highways, Galliford Try
Richard Saego programme and project manager, Severn Trent
John Deehan principal consultant, Turner & Townsend
Mike Vessey managing partner, MDV Consulting


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Readers' comments (1)

  • Jason Le Masurier

    I totally agree that behaviours need to be consistent throughout the whole supply chain. In the 1990s s I came across examples of 'PARTNERING' where there was a partnering charter stuck on the site office wall. The behaviour of some main contractors seemed to be PARTNER UPWARD and SCREW DOWNWARD

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