Good partnering is the artistic medium necessary for improving performance, creating harmony, building cohesion and promoting success among diverse team members
Just as an artist uses a particular medium to create visual harmony among diverse colors on canvas, project managers can use partnership as a medium for improving performance, creating harmony, and building cohesion among diverse team members.
Creating and building high-performance teams requires a “partnering” mentality. Each team member must have the desire and dedication to make a partnership work. This concept may be a difficult shift for some. In project management a very different paradigm seems to be at work. We have all been trained to work in a litigious and adversarial society. Our firm has been involved in project meetings where customer and contract organizations have brought their lawyers to the table to discuss minor project issues. This is the antithesis of high-performance partnering and synergy. Positive synergy can only be developed if we actively pursue it; we must create an environment in which high performance and close partnerships thrive. These relationships have been called win-win.
We used the term “high-performance partnerships” throughout this blog. It is important for readers to understand what we mean when we modify the term “partnership” with the critical adjectives “high” and “performance.”
It is a serious mistake to view partnering only as building interpersonal relationships among stakeholders. While this may be a result of effective partnering, it is not the objective of performance-based partnerships. In fact, relationship-based partnerships tend to create difficulty on most projects because they provide an excuse for partners who do not perform well. This will happen invariably if one partner is constantly allowed to be “bailed out” by other team members or stakeholders merely because the team members have a close, personal relationship.
The final end of this “bailing” almost always will be finger pointing among the so-called partners. This is why it is sometimes difficult for family members to go into business together!
Performance-based partnerships, on the other hand, are formed among and between high performing organizations that see the benefit of combining their strengths, synergizing and taking their total performance to a higher level – all while providing significant value to their clients.
Our firm has an affiliation with a company called Davis & Dean. Together we provide project management simulation training to our clients. Davis & Dean is one of the world leaders in the development of project management simulation software. We saw this as an opportunity to take our training and performance to a whole new level. They felt that we had the knowledge, skills and abilities to effectively market and deliver this training to a specific clientele in a manner that would take both companies to a new level of success. The fit has been a good one, and the synergy created by the high-performance partnership is paying dividends to both organizations. They create the training materials and we provide the skilled personnel to do the training in our marketplace. It is win, win. But it takes constant vigilance, and great partnering, to assure both companies a portion in the gains from the joint synergy. This partnership has worked so well, that we recently purchased Davis & Dean and merged the two companies.
Creating high-performance partnerships is the ideal in a world that is less than ideal. How does one find high performing partners with whom successful partnering relationships can be built?
Dr. Dean Kashiwagi from Arizona State University is an expert at helping buyers find high-performing sellers as partners. His answer is simple – high performing buyers gather and process performance information pertaining to sellers before they create a partnership or contract. Using this information they can then predict the outcome of the partnership and proceed knowing they have teamed up with a thoroughbred rather than a nag.
Dr. Kashiwagi has developed an ingenious system that can be used in any industry to gather performance information and process it in such a way that it makes it easy to select the highest performing partners possible. He calls his process the Performance Information Procurement System (PIPS). We used his system while acting as an owner representative in the selection between competing contractors who were to partner with us on a project. This process provided a stark example of the difference between relationship-based and performance-based partnering.
The first stage in Dr. Kashiwagi’s process involves gathering past performance information about potential bidders. The second stage involves the evaluation of a project risk assessment performed by each team. The third stage is a basic interview and proposal stage.
Each of the teams seemed to perform well during the first two stages, with the exception that one team clearly had the ability to identify and assess risk better than the other.
While the first two stages did not immediately provide a clear winner, the interview and proposal stages did. One of the teams came through the interview process and told us that they had just been assigned to the project the night before. They also said that they knew nothing about the project, but they knew how to build relationships. They further said that they would build great relationships with all their partners so that everyone would get along well and would enjoy the project. It was not surprising to us that this team was the one that had difficulty with the risk assessment.
The second team came in and said that they had studied the project for a few weeks and selected partners and team members that would provide the highest level of performance possible. They also proved in their interview, and in the proposal process, that they were ready to execute, minimize risk and satisfy the customer through their efforts. When the project manager was asked why he was selected for the job, he replied, “Because I am the best project manager this company has and they wanted to place their best on this project.”
As Dr. Kashiwagi’s system “crunched the numbers” and came out with a score for each team, the numbers agreed with our thoughts. One seller clearly showed the ability to look ahead and minimize risk to our client, while the others didn’t. The selection, by the way, was easy! It clearly showed which organization would be the “thoroughbred” – and it produced dividends for our client.
This system has worked well on projects large and small. It seems to work across a diverse set of industries. It is sophisticated, yet simple, and its versatility works with almost any situation where a partnership is needed. The end result is almost always a great performance-based partnership.
In the absence of a system like the one described above, project managers must realize that high-performance partnerships are possible to create at any time during a project. And they provide incredible advantages over traditional (adversarial) methods, even if the project has already begun in an adversarial manner.
We know of a project team that was required to take a huge hit to their initial bid on a contract. This initially forced them into a low-bid situation on certain aspects of the project, which attracted low-performing partners. They decided that the performance produced by these partners was costing them more time and money than they were saving by going with the low bid. The team resolved to try and develop a better, performance-based partnership with their associates. They presented their plan to the partners and invited all to join in making appropriate changes on the project. Those who chose to join experienced a much higher level of performance leading to success throughout the rest of the project. Those who chose not to join were invited to go elsewhere. Once they had “cleaned house,” they brought in more high-performing partners to replace those that chose to leave, and began anew with a performance-based focus. To date, they have saved time, money and heartburn on the project because of their efforts to build (even though it was late in the project) a performance-based partnership.
High-performance partnerships can be formal or informal. They can be long-term or short-term. They can be formulated at any level within the project organization. The key is that stakeholders change their mindset, see the benefits, associate themselves with high performing people and organizations and implement the concept!
Informal partnerships are especially effective in short-term relationships. Wise project managers use every meeting and project related event to develop informal partnerships. These partnerships may consist of very simple agreements by all stakeholders to treat each other with respect in meetings. They may involve rules of conduct or agreements as to how the project team will work to achieve project goals. They may also include creating a forum to help stakeholders implement innovative ideas or resolve conflicts. Most importantly, they should involve methods of tracking project success, improving performance and celebrating group or individual achievements.
We once worked with one project manager who was particularly skilled at informal partnering. His philosophy was that every meeting was an opportunity to build people and teams. He understood the concept of teamwork and personally set an example by showing respect to all stakeholders. He made sure that every team member understood project performance requirements. He also ensured that team performance toward meeting these requirements was measured and tracked. When issues arose, he made sure everyone understood and implemented appropriate issue resolution processes. Even though most of his efforts were made on an informal basis, he always succeeded in building effective partnerships and improving team performance. It goes without saying that he saw much success as a project manager.
Informal partnerships can create excellent, immediate dividends. Projects experience more harmony and less difficulty when team members perform, communicate respectfully and work together to solve problems. Meetings are more productive when people try to understand each other. Quality improves when team members resolve risk and issues efficiently and help each other implement innovative ideas.
There are times when projects or programs necessitate the creation of formal partnering agreements or even contracts. These agreements are often created using a system to gather performance and partnering information through formal interviews, meetings, facilitated partnering sessions or performance-based contracting processes. The product of these processes is usually a written agreement, to which all parties agree, outlining such things as team mission, values, goals, objectives, key deliverables, performance metrics, operating procedures, methods of communication and conflict resolution processes. Formal partnering methods are most successful when all parties buy into a team-oriented, performance-based view of the project and its objectives.
One particular organization with which we work has embraced formal partnering agreements. We have seen varied results as we have monitored their success or failure. Most of these agreements are not contractual. However, we have noticed that a successful outcome in these sessions is usually associated with a group of people who truly want to make a difference, lay aside an adversarial mindset, and come together as partners. In essence, they are already high-performing individuals or organizations who automatically understand the value of high-performance partnerships. Partnering attempts only seem to fail when one or more of the stakeholders can’t get past the “us verses them” attitude and they are using the partnering agreement as a stick to beat other stakeholders into submission. Overall, we believe this organization’s partnering methodology has improved business relationships between them and their partners.
We had the opportunity to participate in a partnering effort between the U.S. federal government and a company that was new to government contracting. The learning curve was somewhat steep for this company as they entered this new arena. However, they began at the outset with a partnering mentality, and their results proved the value of partnering.
Their work with the government was a perfect opportunity to implement a formal partnering agreement. They got together with the government reps at an offsite location, worked together to develop the agreement, and set their minds to live by the agreement through the duration of the project. They then rolled up their sleeves and began executing, with all eyes focused on the common good, and on project performance. As is the case on most projects, risk events, issues and problems arose during the course of construction. One issue had the potential of bankrupting a sub-contractor. However, true to their agreement, each party worked together to develop innovative solutions to negotiate their way through these obstacles without compromising project performance.
Because of their efforts, this project was very successful and received great accolades. The project met all of the success parameters the team outlined in the partnering agreement. Their success with the partnership was a result of high-performance by each team member as they completed the project on time, within budget and at a high level of quality or customer satisfaction. As a result of their performance, harmony and cohesion prevailed throughout the project. All of the partners experienced a high level of synergy and personal satisfaction. As a further measure of the success of this partnership, the company received many more opportunities for involvement in government projects. Because of their partnering abilities and performance, today they have emerged as a very successful partner with the U.S. federal government.
Effective partnerships can be easily created at all levels of a project organization. Formal partnerships usually start from the top and flow down through an organization. Informal partnerships usually start at the grassroots level and build up from there. It really doesn’t matter where they start – just that they start! Some of the most effective partnerships we have seen were initiated by a couple of laborers getting together and agreeing to solve problems at their level. Once people see the synergistic effects of working together, the partnering bug begins catching on!
If project managers can catch this vision and take the step toward creating performance-based partnerships, they will then have the appropriate medium in their hands for creating synergy, improving performance, providing harmony, building cohesion among team members and promoting project success. Working with this medium is truly an art and one of the beauties of project management.
The previous blog post is an excerpt from the book entitled, “Project Management Paradigms” by Dr. Denis Petersen and Daniel Anderson,
© 2006 Milestone Publishing