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It’s Not You It’s Us - Building a Client* Team That Stays Together

I am feeling a little nervous about writing this blog, because I’m not just writing about the perfect client relationship, but the ones that have gone wrong, soured and how to come back from the brink. This blog is inspired by my observation that there is still a great deal of the idea of ‘us and them’ being reinforced at the deepest levels when we approach working in a client or stakeholder team. There is a need to start breaking down the barriers, make the starting point about people and work on removing the ‘us and them’ from our mindset completely. Could we reshape the way projects are run by starting with the humans? And what can you do when the rot has already set in?

*I’ve used the word client here but the ideas in this article apply to the whole stakeholder spectrum, the full supply chain.

Let’s start with the story of what the ideal day to day relationship looks like. You get to work, pick up the phone and talk to your teammate about your teenager’s attitude, their house move, Saturday night out and, quite naturally, the ups and downs your teams are experiencing. You share ideas and experience on how to deal with any of those. Then, you brainstorm together how you are going to solve the upcoming deadline issues on the project and minimise the financial impact to everyone involved. You understand and empathise with each other’s drivers enough to be able to agree some options and a good way to float these to both your teams/senior leaders. The thought that the person on the end of the line technically works for another organisation doesn’t even cross your mind. Psychological safety built early on in the whole project team allows you to be completely honest with each other about all the factors impacting the issue you are solving together. No one is engaged in impression management.

Sounds ideal, yes? So how do you get to this happy, highly functional place? Where possible, begin at the beginning, place less focus on the contract and the technical side and more on the people at the beginning of the bid process. To the converted, this might sound blindingly obvious, but it’s not happening in too many cases. For those working on the bid and/or to be on the project team, bring them together early to focus only on the human context (controversial, I know).

Begin your project by asking these questions as a team to frame (more here on Framing) the project for sustained success, build psychological safety and motivate all parties from the outset:

Why are we here, what is our individual and team Why?

Why is each person on this team important?

How do we want to work together?

What can we learn from each other and from this project?

Work hard to ensure this is not just an add on to the technical work, but the most important workstream of the bid and then mobilisation. The workshops we have created at People Not Tech allow leaders to truly communicate and integrate Psychological Safety into project teams. Then when the opportunity arises, repeat with the whole project team - all stakeholders. And repeat, consistently, throughout the project. You will surprise and delight everyone by creating a team that can empathise with, understand and challenge each other resulting in continuous learning and success.

Case in point - I recently came across a successful developer company that makes evidence of a team approach and commitment to long-term collaborative relationships central to it’s supply chain partner selection process. They don’t just pay lip service to this, it is the real deal and they proudly attribute their significant success in no small part to this approach. There are lessons to be learned from these people.

Now for the trickier part, the bit that can really save companies money and reputation if they are willing to dig deep and collaborate when it’s hardest. What do you do when the intended collaborative relationship breaks down or doesn’t even get started? We’ve all been there. The early talk of ‘one team’ has faded and people have been driven down rabbit holes of non collaboration by internal demands for better financial performance from their cost centre and much discussion of who is responsible for what contractually.

What are the behaviours that cause collaboration breakdown?#

  • Defense of ‘territory’. Each of us is hard wired to react instinctively to all situations with our fight or flight reflex, perceiving threat to ourselves and reacting defensively. Often we don’t recognise this in ourselves or others until we are made aware of it. One of the models I find most impactful to help people understand this behaviour in themselves and others is The Chimp Paradox by Dr Steve Peters. On a project this can manifest itself as the blame game, even bullying, driving deep divisions in a project team across multiple organisations. Nothing kills collaboration faster than the defence of contractual territory.

  • Fear. If we create a team environment in which people live in fear of recrimination for making mistakes, rebuke for being open about personal issues or know their ideas and concerns will be ignored they will not feel psychologically safe enough to be open and honest with external stakeholders. Clients, stakeholders, supply chain, all humans, sense fear and know instinctively when the full story is not being told and it drives the same behaviours across the project. If we cannot tell the whole truth however vulnerable it makes us feel, collaboration is placed beyond our reach.

  • Impression management. If the above are occurring, people will be engaged in impression management, quite apart from the fact that many of us have been conditioned throughout our lives to do so. This means people are placing other people’s perception of them above the good of the team and the project. This creates a culture of ‘yes-people’ and as Amy Edmondson writes in The Fearless Organization, “The traditional culture of "fitting in" and "going along" spells doom in the knowledge economy. Success requires a continuous influx of new ideas, new challenges, and critical thought, and the interpersonal climate must not suppress, silence, ridicule or intimidate.”

You may say to yourself, phew - I would never do any of these, but I would exhort you to closely reflect, self examine and observe those around you on the whole team as these behaviours can be subconscious and subtle. When financial, performance and competition pressures are in play and you are in the trenches on a long term project, everyone on the team needs to be self aware enough not to pull in opposing directions.

What can you do when you realise collaboration has broken down?

  • Curiosity, passion, empathy. Go back to basics, remember that you are a human being and everyone you work with is also a human being. It sounds beyond simplistic, however you will be amazed by how quickly you can begin to rebuild a damaged relationship by taking some time to reach out to understand someone else’s challenges, show them how committed you are to the work and show empathy for their situation.

  • Bring in the experts. A third party can be the perfect tool to help you get back on track. You will know someone in your network internally or externally with group facilitation skills. Their impartial observations and ability to facilitate discovery discussions and workshops on barriers to collaboration and ways to refresh your collaborative approach can make all the difference to your project and it’s future success. Better still, continue to use those third party facilitation skills for the rest of the project.

  • Have the difficult conversation. If behaviours are really toxic, for example bullying, aggressive behaviour, inappropriate language or attitudes, the right people need to be told that this will not be tolerated. Don’t write it off as the attitude of the company or sector, you can make the change at a local level by empowering your team to speak up and supporting them or conversely by challenging them strongly on their behaviour. Projects don’t succeed when these behaviours are present because people don’t produce good quality work in these environments. All your colleagues will respect you for it and it will resonate through the whole team.

  • Break up. Hard as it is to take, on occasion the appetite for collaboration is not present and working together is no longer a viable option for the success of the project and it’s people. If this is the case, continue to uphold your behaviours and values to the end so you can carry these on to the next project team.

  • Early intervention. Any and all of the above should happen as soon as you get a sense that collaboration is faltering. If issues have been left to fester, do not bury your head in the sand. Take a deep breath, be the person the team needs you to be and start the conversation as soon as you can.

When you are in a complex, multi organisation team, reach across the proverbial table, better still don’t sit across the table from each other in the first place, even better throw the table away completely and just focus on being people and working together. Your project, your finances and your humans will be immeasurably better for it.

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