Being right doesn’t count…

Sometimes the most important lessons are the easiest to state but the hardest to learn. Thirty years ago I was just starting my first job as a graduate engineer at what was then the biggest chemical works in Europe at ICI on Teesside. Armed with all the latest control engineering techniques I was sure I could improve the operation of most of the distillation columns on site, which to my young eyes clearly weren’t running at optimal performance. So do you think my enthusiastic advice was met with open arms? Well no, I was told in no uncertain terms what I could do with all my charts and figures. Eventually a kindly shift supervisor took me to one side and said, “What you graduates need to remember is that being right doesn’t count for much here on site”.

I was shocked – I knew my calculations were right. But it took me several months and many long conversations with experienced operators to see just how well they knew that plant. And gradually I came to understand why you might not want to run a column at maximum efficiency if that would reduce its reliability or why you might not want to operate a process flat out just before a changeover.

Well so much so obvious you might say, but I was reflecting on my own ability to learn that lesson a few days ago when I was took charge of preparing one of the many large family meals over the Christmas period. Armed now with many years of project management experience; I broke the menu down into simple steps, drew up a timetable, allocated tasks to family members (starting with the youngest as least likely to complain), and sat back with a glass of mulled wine, happy that my job was well in hand. Well you can guess the rest. But if I needed a timely reminder of that 30 year old lesson there it was in front of me. Your analysis, solution design, resource allocation and scheduling might be world class but unless you can take people with you, you won’t get the turkey cooked on time!

The rise of collaboration – and why all this matters to Project Managers in 2014?

For the last 12 years my colleague Alex Cameron and I have been working with and advising project sponsors and project leaders across a range of private and public sector delivery environments. We’ve been specifically studying what some leaders are able to do to encourage collaboration and discretionary effort in situations where many different organisations have to work together to deliver results. In that time a number of things have become obvious: first, what 12 years ago seemed a rather peripheral area of work has now become mainstream, secondly the nature of the collaboration is becoming more complex and more project critical, and thirdly (and rather sadly) many project managers seem to struggle with the challenges of collaborative project leadership.

Perhaps this is not so surprising. Looking at most project management training courses, and indeed the latest edition of the Body Of Knowledge (BOK), the emphasis is still on mechanisms of control. Be it in terms of the classic Time, Cost, Quality triangle or managing the 6 aspects of project in the BOK (scope, schedule, finance, risk, quality, resources) the project manager is still taught about systems that enable them to be in control of their project. But in today’s collaborative highly-interdependent delivery environments the big challenge for many project managers is that they need to share control – with partners, contractors, or even government regulators. And in a situation of shared control, you’ve guessed it… Being right doesn’t count for much!

New skills for old problems

So what does it take to be able to share control, to build trust in your delivery partners and to enable them to build trust in you? Well fundamentally it means being able to stand in the shoes of your partners and understand their objectives, their pressures and what motivates them – even if these things are very different from your own. Actually a colleague put it much more graphically when she said “it’s not just standing in your partner’s shoes it’s running a marathon in them and knowing precisely where they are going to give you blisters”.

But to get down to more specific details of the skills and attitudes required in leaders to enable them to deliver projects in collaborative environments I’ve used 360 feedback questionnaires and dozens of structured interviews to try to tease out what it is that successful leaders do differently. The results are summarised in the text box below – this describes the 3 critical skills and 3 essential attitudes that I believe project managers and their employers need to be thinking about alongside the traditional elements of project control when planning development programmes.

Based on our research on collaborative leadership and successful project delivery we have identified 3 critical skills:

  • Influencing – the ability to match the most effective method of influence to the needs of the situation and the parties involved.
  • Engagement – building relationships across organisational boundaries, communicating with clarity and involving others in decision making.
  • Mediation – the ability to address conflict situations as soon as they arise – building the confidence of others in the process.

In support of these skills, there are 3 essential attitudes that collaborative project leaders possess:

  • Agility – to assimilate facts quickly, ask incisive questions, find new options, and handle complexity with ease.
  • Patience – to take a calm and measured approach in a crisis, reflecting on new information and giving confidence to others.
  • Empathy – to truly listen, understanding personal impact and taking an open-minded attitude to the views and opinions of others.


BS11000 – necessary but not sufficient

Of course I’m not the first person to have noticed the rise of collaboration and the need for organisations/individuals to respond to this trend and the challenges that it brings. In recent years many large contractors and their clients have gone down the route of BS11000 certification as a mechanism to manage collaborative project delivery relationships more effectively. Now there is much good practice in this standard but essentially it is a process based approach to tackling a relationship based problem and that can only go so far. In my opinion, systems and approved paperwork count for very little when a relationship turns sour and a project starts going of the rails. At that point what you need are project managers who can pick up the phone and call their opposite number knowing that their call will be answered and their views will be listened to with genuine understanding. Having the right procedures in place for collaborative project delivery is a necessary foundation but it’s not sufficient to ensure success.

Collaboration is always a voluntary activity. You may be able to enforce basic compliance but you can’t mandate active collaboration. At the end of the day on complex interdependent projects the people you count on for successful delivery have to want you to succeed in your role as much as you want them to succeed in theirs. And getting to that point relies on project managers being able to develop relationships across organisational boundaries.

So my simply stated lesson for 2014 builds on the one I started with 30 years ago. It’s because being right doesn’t count for much that project managers need to learn to make friends before they need to call on them in order to deliver successful projects in today’s highly interdependent environment.

(This article was originally published in Project Manager Today – January 2014)