The complex programme of work that went into building the London 2012 Olympic Park has been hailed as a great success and proof of a growing capability in the UK for large organisations to work together collaboratively. And yet you also hear a counter argument that goes – “well building the Olympics was relatively easy” “everyone had such a clear common goal and all the incentives were there just to get people to do one thing and get it all built on time”. Now that’s all well and good but I was speaking about collaborative leadership at an Association for Project Management (APM) conference last week (the slides are available on the APM website here) and we got into an interesting debate about the difficulty of generating an environment of collaboration on projects that could be seen as a ‘one-off’.

I was arguing that a key skill for people leading multi-party projects was the ability to get others engaged for the long term in a relationship of reciprocity – where one good turn done now would be storing up goodwill and would be likely to repaid at some point in the future. A number of people countered that one of the difficulties with large one-off projects like HS2 or Crossrail was that once all the big contracts were signed the suppliers had no incentive to go the extra mile because the customer organisation only existed to do one thing and so wouldn’t be placing any more.

So there is the paradox – does characterising any large project as a ‘once in a lifetime’ contracting opportunity make it easier or more difficult to build an effective set of collaborative relationships to deliver the project?

My personal view is that in the age of LinkedIn and twitter there is no such thing as a one-off project any more. The reputation you establish on one contract will quickly influence how others see you on many future bidding opportunities – stories cross boundaries at great speed these days. And so whilst it is an advantage to be able to focus efforts on a single delivery goal it’s also useful to get all involved thinking about the longer term reputation they are building on the way. The way people (and organisations) are seen to collaborate on one project does have an impact and will help or hinder their chances as being seen as a good partner anywhere else around the world.