Collaborative Project Management: Building Trusting Client Relationships

Collaborative Project Management: Building Trusting Client Relationships

Insights | 13 December 2016

The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘collaboration’ as“the situation of two or more people working together to achieve the same thing”. It’s a word that rolls easily off the tongue and conjures up pleasing visions of common purpose, flexibility, team spirit, seamless working relationships, and jovial meetings with ne’er a dispute in sight. But what does collaboration look like in the context of programmes and projects, and if you are a project manager, how are you supposed to uphold this sentiment?

When parties truly collaborate, they commit to some key principles;

  1. Genuine pursuit of a shared vision and goals;
  2. Commitment to working together in unity as one team, harnessing the combined capability of all towards shared goals;
  3. Achievement of an equitable balance between individual priorities and those of the collaborative venture;
  4. Fair sharing of risk, driven by the ability of individual participants to manage their portion;
  5. Equitable sharing of work, playing to the strengths of each participant;
  6. Acceptance of accountabilities and responsibilities as members of the collaborative team;
  7. Adoption of shared operating rules that are clear, documented, understood, agreed, communicated and respected;
  8. Flexibility to change for the greater good, backed by mechanisms for equitable management of changes in circumstances and scope and to resolve the impacts on each participant in the agreement;
  9. Mutual respect and primacy of fair and ethical conduct such that one party is not disproportionately advantaged at the expense of another; and
  10. Commitment to facing and resolving challenges together, with an absence of blame.

Underlying all these points is trust; the notion that a participant in the agreement can proceed with confidence, in reliance on the professional and ethical conduct of others.

It is easy to think of relationships that are not collaborative. For example, the buyer contract that loads all risk upon the seller and includes penalties for non-performance, will invariably put the seller on the defensive from day one. The relationship is much more likely to be subtly adversarial than collaborative. Alternatively, the seller with a propensity to charge outrageous sums for scope changes to inflate margins is procuring an unfair proportion of the benefit in the relationship and will inevitably breed resentment and mistrust. Clearly, for collaboration to exist, a host of conditions must be aligned, from the engagement contract to the attitude and behaviour of all participating stakeholders.

The PMI’s PMBOK® Guide describes projects in the context of buyer-seller relationships. In short, every project manager has a customer; for example, business users internal to an organisation, delivering products and services to a company as a vendor, or providing consulting services to a firm’s senior executives. So how does a project manager, faced with a mission from the c-suite to “manage collaboratively”, approach the challenge and deal with the well-known buyer-seller tension?

Too often, as project managers we interpret collaboration as imperative to adopt the “customer is always right” mantra and to acquiesce to all of said customer’s wants and desires with inevitable erosion of the project’s financial outcomes, schedule performance and delivery quality. That merely reflects a master-servant relationship, not a collaborative engagement based on mutual respect and acknowledgement of individual as well as shared needs.

In collaboration, the essential challenge is thus the natural tension between individual priorities. These are often at odds; for example, a buyer’s need to minimise costs versus the seller’s imperative to achieve a good margin. The project manager’s role is to chart a course that pursues the common objectives but also satisfies the individual needs of the collaborating participants in an equitable and optimal way.

In doing so, there are some important principles to apply:

  1. Determine whether the agreement or contract covering the relationship allows the possibility of collaboration, first and foremost. It must embrace at least the essential points raised above. The contract will have been born out of buyer-seller negotiation and it is then that the seeds of collaboration should have been planted. If the buyer genuinely wants to operate collaboratively, then the agreement should reflect this. If it doesn’t then collaboration is unlikely to work and a different management style is most probably indicated.
  1. Honour the agreement right from the start and set expectations accordingly. This is all about setting up and respecting the ground rules. Those who believe the contract should be put in the bottom drawer because it gets in the way of the relationship are playing with fire! The contract describes the terms under which the parties intend to engage, including rights, obligations and contingencies when things go wrong. The contract is your friend; it took forever to negotiate. Understand it, use it and stick to it.
  1. Conduct yourself with absolute honesty and integrity. Earn a reputation as someone who can be trusted without reservation. This is, of course, valuable advice for anyone wishing to enjoy a prosperous career. In the collaborative relationship, yours will be the voice the client and your partners listen to and respect, even at that dark hour when everything seems to be more than challenging.
  1. Develop a sense of equity and the ability to see situations through the eyes of the other participants in your venture. In complex situations, it is essential to understand the motivations of each of the players. Resolution of project difficulties in a collaborative engagement is inevitably a compromise since it is impossible to satisfy every need. You must be skilled in conceiving and negotiating workable options. You may even need to give up some of your own ground for the greater good – collaboration can be challenging!
  1. Communicate openly and objectively without being commercially naive. Everyone in a collaborative team is sailing on the same ship and everyone has a right to know where it is going and whether it is seaworthy. Deliberate masking or hiding of critical project issues and adverse performance is the road to perdition. Status reports need to be accurate and objective. Risk and issues logs must be comprehensive and factual. Challenges affecting the achievement of project objectives must be aired and dealt with using the governance structures, resources and expertise of the combined team.
  1. Approach your leadership role with humility and embrace the power of the collaborative team. Be flexible with project roles and encourage innovation. Empower others to make decisions. Consciously work to bridge the buyer-seller boundary. Share information and knowledge. Listen to your client and partners and encourage alternative suggestions and ideas. In the end, when the project is delivered successfully, ensure that the project team views the success as theirs, not solely yours.

There are many other factors that support collaboration such as setting up effective delivery governance and well defined escalation paths for key decisions, however, the project manager’s leadership style and behaviour are paramount and will inevitably set the tone of the engagement.

Personal integrity, honesty and humility, together with a genuine willingness to respect and embrace the team and an ability to put oneself in the shoes of others are the essential ingredients of successful collaborative project management and leadership.

To speak to one of our advisory consultants today, about any of the above themes, phone us on +65 6818 5771.

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