Press Article

The Seven Deadly Sins of project collaboration

Posted on: February 3rd, 2014 by Staffan Engstrom

Staffan Engstrom takes a sideways look at the best ways to kill project collaboration.

There has been a lot of hype generated over recent years around the benefits of project collaboration approaches for delivery of complex projects with multiple partner organisations. Despite nearly everyone claiming to believe in it passionately, we all struggle to make it happen at times. So here are the most common deadly sins that are almost guaranteed to kill any attempts at collaboration:

1. Select people only on the basis of technical and management competency

Choosing key project people on the basis of their technical skills remains a widespread practice, which, if you do it, will give you what you have always had: a project team that cares about the end task, but that fails to understand that how that task is delivered will significantly enhance its value to you.

To unlock the potential that your partners have to help you, it is critical to realise that technical and managerial competencies are the “hygiene” factors (or the “givens”) for anyone even to be considered for a role. The most important selection consideration is that person’s people skills.

2. Choose partners and suppliers only on price and expediency

Similarly, when choosing whom to work with as partner organisations, price and expediency usually become the main consideration. It is all to easy to allow your buyers to make the “easy” choices on partner-suppliers on the basis of price alone, without consideration of their track record and ability to work with you. This can cost a great deal more in money, reputation and distraction.

In other words: collaboration can save you a fortune – but it doesn’t come cheap.

3. Maintain adversarial reward systems.

Whether for individuals, subcontractors, or joint-venture partners, traditional reward structures usually reinforce “them-and-us” attitudes over “all-of-us” thinking, incentivising against delivering the best results for your organisation.

How many times have you seen two or more great companies combining forces in a JV to conceive and deliver a fantastic, complex, project? Then they split the work to be done between them under a “thin” JV in such a way as to create multiple hand-offs and unnecessary interactions that cause friction, blame, and competition among the partners. It is much better to create a “thick” JV where both partners put agreed resources in at cost, then share the fruits of their toils at the bottom line.

4. Leave BIM to the technology people.

There are too many “old-guard-type” managers (some in their twenties and thirties) who think that technology is something for the IT department. Modern collaboration technology cannot be left to the back-room boys because it is more about transformation than it is about software and servers. The crucial issue is how people interact with the technology and each other, and how creativity and productivity are thereby conceived and delivered.

Front-room business people must take responsibility for front-of-house technology.

5. Ignore team-building

The scourge of the modern age is to treat people as if they were just resources, rather than as actual humans. People need time to get to know and understand one another, including the behaviours that are expected from them. So why do we thrust people together with no real introduction and expect world-class results?

I don’t care how you build cross-project teamwork – with workshops, in the pub, or on “outward bound” exercises. Just do it, and you will create more value.

6. Keep “your” people in “your” office

Managers normally blame “them-and-us” thinking on the hapless employees who they think just don’t seem to understand what team working and cross-organisational collaboration is about. In my experience, very often the true culprits are the managers who can have an almost insatiable appetite for power and control.

When you have a complex project to deliver, the most helpful aid to achieving real progress is letting go of them by putting key people together at the same location, in the same space, regardless of employer. People respond to working with other people on a common purpose.

7. Leave all the relationships to the project teams

We are all of course avid supporters of empowering the people in our project teams to get on and deliver. Speaking as a past project manager myself, there is nothing worse than being micro-managed by your boss. But take care lest empowerment becomes abdication.

The project teams need to be empowered to deliver the project, but they also need the support of their organisational leaderships in having senior relationships in place. These pre-existing relationships prevent and alleviate problems because there is the understanding of what everyone is trying to achieve and the trust to get them sorted.


This article was written by Staffan Engstrom and originally published on 2nd February 2014 by Construction Manager.