Taking cues from Kurt Russell’s character in “Miracle,” a film about the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team, Travis Underhill has cultivated creative ways to build teamwork among project stakeholders.
Improve communication and get projects done better and faster by building healthy relationships among Indiana’s private and public road construction stakeholders.
In 2017 a transportation funding plan for the state of Indiana made it possible for the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) to complete large projects, including the Interstate 69 corridor between Evansville and Indianapolis.
For a state institution serving 7 million people on a $2 billion budget, the stakes were high. Although there was a lot to celebrate, INDOT faced significant challenges.
Upon his arrival at INDOT in 2017, then-Deputy Commissioner Travis Underhill wanted to ensure new funds were used conscientiously. But he had concerns. Tensions were high among design, construction and ownership teams. Some contractors wondered if INDOT had their best interests at heart, and some people at INDOT worried that contractors might prioritize profitability over the public good.
Fortunately, Travis brought tools with him that would help bring people together. His leadership helped the INDOT team complete major projects on schedule — and create a new way of working for the long term.
Forging friendships in Franklin
During his tenure as City Engineer for the city of Franklin, Indiana, Travis had learned how to break down barriers among road construction stakeholders to get things done.
“There can be distrust among design, construction and owners,” Travis said. To break down barriers, he used methods that reflected his own values, optimism and faith in people.
“Deep down, most of us have good intentions,” Travis said. “I tried to remind people about that — and who we were working for. At the beginning of every project I’d say: ‘We’re all on this project team. If we can’t find a level to discuss issues and get to the bottom of them, then the project will fail — and we all will fail.’”
Travis’s approach helped change the way the Franklin city government did business, and as a result he and then-Mayor Joe McGuinness began to receive positive feedback from consultants and contractors. “Franklin became a place where people wanted to do business,” Travis said. The city’s contracts received more contractor bids than ever, and collaboration among stakeholders led to projects being completed on time — with improved quality.
“When you prove that you’re going to do what you said you would, you increase your opportunities,” Travis said. “Partners know you’re not just blowing smoke, and they know that when something doesn’t go as planned, you’ll be honest about it.”
Building teamwork at INDOT
On the larger scale that is state-level governance, implementing the strategy that had served Franklin so well required much sturdier scaffolding. Travis hired a private consulting firm to gather facts from road construction firms via preliminary questionnaires followed by “kitchen table” interviews. Instead of jumping into a formal joint conference, which has the potential to stifle critiques and suggestions, consultants met with Indiana road construction professionals informally and in person, which allowed interviewees to speak with greater honesty about their concerns.
With this candid input, the consultants developed a workshop that would not only present those findings but provide a platform for comments and engagement. Just like in Franklin, this approach helped contributors feel heard and understood, and put them in the right frame of mind to communicate effectively and deliver a great project as a team. Team members found new ways to support each other and problem-solve in a more collaborative way.
Later in 2018, Travis and INDOT leaders went on the road with a follow-up workshop series — one for each of the six INDOT districts. Meeting with people on location in each INDOT district helped build trust. Travis and Joe built personal conversations with leaders at road construction companies that helped to ameliorate problems for workers at all levels. Every workshop closed with a group picture of attendees, commemorating the trust and partnership that had been shared that day.
But the commitment didn’t end there. Each district had homework assignments addressing the various challenges faced in the field, from the technical to the emotional. One region created and shared partnering guidelines, a pocket guide to help foster team camaraderie at the beginning of each project.
A final workshop brought together Indiana road construction leaders as the Indiana Transportation Team under a charter that highlighted mutual respect and transparency, with the goal of continuing to deliver an annual record-breaking capital improvement program. ITT continues to pursue that goal today, with an annual conference that guides ongoing industry relations.
- American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) Indiana
- Indiana Constructors, Inc. (ICI)
- Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT)
New fuel and vehicle registration taxes increase road funding statewide, but discord among road construction firms threatens to stymie effective planning around the new budget.
- INDOT spearheads a survey of Indiana’s road building leaders, seeking comments on interorganizational relationships
- Each INDOT district participates in a workshop to discuss this data and actionable change
The Indiana Transportation Team charter is signed The Indiana Transportation Team’s partnering conference continues today.
“Travis Underhill is good at stabilizing things and helping people stay focused on their goals. He works with people to understand risk, assess it and develop a plan to mitigate it.”
“Travis Underhill tells it like it is. He doesn’t sugar-coat. Because of that, you know he’s not going to say one thing and do another. He’s a man of his word, and I trust him.”
Former County Engineer, Boone County, Indiana
“When you get Travis Underhill to make sure people are flowing and Joe McGuinness to make sure money is flowing, you end up with a project that moves.”
County Engineer, Hancock County, Indiana
Want to keep your projects flowing? Partner with a team that knows how to pull people together and get things done.