Best Practices for Developing Teams to Support Physical and Digital Infrastructure Needs


For ports, infrastructure and supply chain projects are often intricately complex operations that require the expertise and input of a wide variety of stakeholders and external partners. Aligning that many partners into a successful, collaborative team is no simple feat. Viewpoints will vary, and interests can diverge. Building a team with a shared vision and sense of purpose is essential to ensuring the project is a success.

For ports, the question is often, “Where to start?”

best practices for developing teams to support physical and digital infrastructure needs

Emphasis on Expertise

Because of the nature of port infrastructure projects, Brandon Bergeron, director of engineering, Port of Beaumont, said that the teams assembled to collaborate on them should be multifaceted.

“Unlike other infrastructure developments undertaken by state entities that may focus specifically on roadways, stormwater management, structures, etc., port infrastructure projects often involve multiple genres of infrastructure,” Bergeron said. “Instead of seeking out experts in a specific field, ports must seek to compile a team of experts across a variety of fields. This ensures that the quality of the project is maintained across all areas.”

In addition to physical infrastructure projects, digital infrastructure projects are of critical importance and also require diverse, collaborative teams. Andrew Scott, CEO, QuayChain Technologies, noted that digital infrastructure projects require a mix of technology and communication providers who build tools that can be used by the entire port ecosystem. Ports must create teams and guardrails that keep providers aligned while also providing room for them to thrive.

the port of lake charles
The Port of Lake Charles’ Wharf and Shed Reconstruction Project has required consultants in areas such as damage assessment, grants management, and asbestos remediations. Design and funding required two years, and a planned three-year construction schedule is now underway. LAKE CHARLES HARBOR & TERMINAL DISTRICT

“Ports do not have senior staff in digital, technology or information positions that are focused on the needs of the stakeholders,” Scott said. “The engagement of stakeholders and their digital needs, and providing infrastructure to support them, is a different skill set. Similar to the concept of landlord ports, port authorities do not need to build or operate digital tools, but they need to ensure the infrastructure is in place for the private companies to build and operate their own tools.”

Involving external partners as true teammates in the initial stages of a project, such as a physical infrastructure project, will pay dividends in a variety of ways, said Nick Pestello, director of engineering, maintenance and development, Lake Charles Harbor & Terminal District.

“The contractors, for the most part, when it’s early on, they’re actually excited that they’re getting to contribute, so you get a lot more input than you would expect,” Pestello said. “They’re so used to the old traditional way, where the engineer goes off and designs it on their own, and then brings it to the contractor. Whenever you actually can bring everybody to the table at the very beginning, you get a lot more interaction than you’d expect, just because they’re excited to be able to contribute and make a buildable project before it even gets started.”

The long-term benefits of involving a range of partners in a collaborative team are evident, Pestello said. “You get a more constructible project,” Pestello said.

“You get to run down these ideas before you’re out in the field where it’s costing a lot more money. You get to go through different options with the person that’s going to be building it or with someone that has built it before. They can actually bring their real-world experience.”

A Sense of Collaboration

External partners are essential to infrastructure project teams, in part because most ports do not have the staff to take on large design projects internally and must rely on consultants, Pestello said. Creating a strong sense of collaboration between the internal and external teams takes work.

When combining teams, Pestello said it is necessary to establish a team leader who will oversee meetings and ensure that true collaboration occurs and that all voices and ideas are heard and considered.

“This can be a challenge when the owner has one idea in their mind, the designer is going another direction, and then … the contractor has their own,” Pestello said. “It’s important to give everyone equal footing and allow all ideas to be brought to the table and evaluated. In-person team meetings are critical for this – there’s something to be said for having everyone in the same room and not only virtual.”

Trust within teams is essential to genuine collaboration and overcoming possible differences, said Pavel Skournik, managing director, Tidalis America.

“If there is no trust – it is a non-starter for me,” Skournik said. “Ports might select the vendor or partner based on the price (as example), but it will not provide the best result. I think ports should always pick a partner they can trust to deliver what the port expects.”

pictured is port of beaumont
Pictured is Port of Beaumont’s Main Street Terminal 1 project during its construction. Slated for completion in April, the project has required various phases of modular building requiring extensive coordination of the project team. PORT OF BEAUMONT

The Port of Lake Charles has an ongoing infrastructure project that has depended on strong teams in action. The $131 million Wharf and Shed Reconstruction Project required consultants in areas such as damage assessment, grants management, and asbestos remediations before moving to an actual project team. Design and funding required two years, and a planned three-year construction schedule is now underway.

For such a large, complex project, each phase brings a new team and new challenges.

“We tried to bring in the experts at each step of the process and had to work to make sure we all coordinated smoothly,” Pestello said.

A recurring challenge has been keeping team members in step with each other, especially when there are additions or other changes to the team: “Then you’re having to catch them up, and they don’t have that long history of going through every step of the process,” Pestello said. “They might present ideas that you’ve already spent six months working your way through and have already addressed, and it’s a challenge to keep everybody moving forward and not having to backtrack every time someone new comes in, or someone has a different guest personnel on the job.”

Managing Change

Port of Beaumont’s Bergeron said external partners provide crucial fresh perspectives on port infrastructure projects and potentially “bring elements and successes of general or private industry into ports.”

“However, this can be challenging if the port’s internal team is resistant to change or only concerned with maintaining the status quo,” Bergeron said. “There can be value and benefit when ports are open to entertaining new and creative ways to solve age-old infrastructure problems.”

That makes change management critical, Skournik said. Some internal team members will have worked in the port for many years and be accustomed to certain routines and processes, he said.

“They are resistant to change, and if that is ignored, any change will not be easily accepted,” Skournik said.

In a couple of recent Tidalis projects, Skournik said ports excelled at establishing diverse teams and empowering them through the duration of the project, including keeping the team together to help users adjust to a new system after it was implemented. That emphasis on change management led to positive results, he said.

“Everyone in the port knew what was coming – when, why, what to expect, how it would affect them, and so on,” Skournik said.

Navigating Budget and “Speaking Port”

Assembling effective teams is rarely straightforward, and procurement can be among the twists in the road. “Different ports have different procurement requirements,” Pestello said. “Our port has an official policy for soliciting qualifications for professional services, and then we are required to follow Louisiana public bid law for the actual construction. These processes limit your options for procurement.”

Budget can also cause challenges, sometimes due to the ramifications of port employees taking on additional project responsibilities.

“To build a proper team you need to allocate people to the team, and it might require hiring someone who will do their work or rearranging shifts or making some other adjustments,” Skournik said. “When the budget is initially set, this is not taken into consideration and it is very hard to find the additional budget after the initial budget is approved.”

In addition, Bergeron said developing teams for port infrastructure projects should mean finding partners who are wellversed in the regulations that govern ports at the local, state and federal levels and who understand the operational demands that ports face. Expertise needs to be at least partly specific to the ports field.

“We need people who ‘speak port,’” Bergeron said. “A port’s internal team can teach and guide to a degree, but when an external partner joins a port infrastructure team with a background in ports, I believe the project is already headed toward a level of success that would otherwise be difficult to achieve.”