A Big Room is more than a space. It’s a state of mind

Tammy McConaughy is the global lean director at CRB Group, a Switzerland-based engineering, architecture and construction firm with offices across North America.

Today’s multi-faceted construction teams find ways to break down silos and tackle challenges as a fluid, single unit. In the face of mounting issues such as supply chain and labor shortages, a problem-solving attitude and openness to new ways of thinking is no longer a “nice-to-have.” 

But how can teams foster this culture while continuing to work at speed? Meet the Big Room setting, an idea that stems from lean construction principles but can benefit all types of contractors and projects.

A Big Room has little to do with location or space. It’s a smart approach to collaboration that leverages the talents of a cross-functional team. 

So, to get up to speed on this effective approach, the question is not “What is a Big Room?” but “How can I Big Room successfully?” 

Big ideas, big collaboration, big results

Tammy McConaughy

Permission granted by ClarityQuest


In a traditional working session, you might have a room full of people, with each person taking turns reporting to the group. This one-way flow of information fails to engage participants and hierarchy reigns. As a result, everyone and no one owns challenges. Issues pile up and stagnate.

Not in a Big Room. Everyone has an active role, knows the agendas and expects collaboration. A Big Room creates an opportunity for project teams to advance work rapidly. 

A Big Room transcends seniority and title. Built on a foundation of trust, a Big Room fosters a culture of respect for team members and the work they bring to the table. It celebrates successes big and small, continuously motivating the team and its individuals to improve. 

Aspects of a Big Room

To start, you need a Big Room champion or small core group to establish the room and set its purpose. The champion can hold any role on the project, but they must be empowered to speak up, make changes and to lead. 

To be in the Big Room you have to have a purpose. That’s where the structured agenda comes in. Everyone has a clear role and an understanding of what it is; to answer questions, to add insights or to be actively participating. The agenda drives each participant to be prepared, engaged, and on point. 

The facilitator is in the room to manage the meeting and keep it on track. This allows participants to focus on the task at hand and stops the group from heading down a rabbit hole. A facilitator can step in with an ELMO (“enough, let’s move on”) if needed, and anyone in the room is empowered to do so as well.

Your timekeeper does exactly what you’d expect, and a scribe captures action items or constraints, and maintains the decision log.

Finally, everyone needs to see what the Room is working on. Visual displays of all the information needed, the current state and the goal state, helps guide the team in decision making, problem-solving and coordination. 

It’s important to note that the Big Room will change over the course of the project. That’s the point; it’s a flexible approach that allows the venue, meeting type and even participants to vary. When a member has contributed, they can move on, and another may enter the “Room.” 

As the Big Room progresses over time, the champion facilitates the Room to ensure that it continuously improves to maximize its impact.

Where does a Big Room happen?

Although we’ve established that a Big Room does not need to be a big space, teams do need to congregate. There are a few models that work:

Co-location: Big Room participants are physically located together in the Big Room, with no virtual attendees. This could be a permanent space onsite or in an office or a company HQ. 

Virtual: It will come as no surprise that Big Rooms have frequently been located on Zoom over the last few years. Collaborative digital tools can support the virtual environment.

Hybrid: A combination of in-person and virtual attendance by select participants.

Tips for success in virtual and hybrid Big Rooms:

  • Actively engage people and give them tools to contribute and take turns.
  • Cameras on. Mute buttons off.
  • Pause often.
  • Use breakout rooms.
  • Don’t try to cram too much in. 
  • Employ collaboration tools that meet the needs of in-person and virtual participants.

Your team should onboard new participants so they are comfortable with the technology, and a strong facilitator is essential to sharing floor time and information between participants.

Every project can benefit from a Big Room mindset

It’s never too early to put a project into a Big Room, and it should run throughout the lifetime of the project. Big Rooms can solve issues that might have halted a project in the past: scheduling, supply chain impacts and design challenges all vanish in the face of a well-run Big Room. And bonus points: they foster a positive team culture.

When the Big Room is working well, people want to be there. They find value in it, because it helps them move work forward; it’s not just another meeting. Make this commitment to a project, to the team and to working together, and it will pay dividends to the process, and importantly, your end result.

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