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Strategy for Successful Projects: Create an Atmosphere of Parnership


Last updated 8/5/2010

Have you ever worked on a team when it  seemed as if everyone was working against one another, rather than with each other? Where relationships quickly deteriorated from bad to worse despite your best efforts to get things back on track? Certainly it came as no surprise when such an initiative failed.

A case in point involved a project to widen a highway. The team had to calculate how much asphalt it would take to fill the holes left after they dug out the failed areas of the road. The owner and his contractor's superintendent went out and measured the area (a square area at that) to be filled. But time after time they just couldn't agree on the correct measurement. Other areas of contention were how long the project would take, how far the work should proceed in a day, what work had already been completed, if the work had been completed correctly or even on what time of the day to meet. Basically, they couldn't agree on anything. Finally, in frustration, the superintendent lost his temper and was kicked off the job.

While not every problematic project generates such extreme dysfunction, the strategies listed below will help create a foundation of partnership and teamwork that will avert many common management problems:

The Foundations of Partnering:

1. Take Ownership of Problems

What happens when a problem occurs? Is your first reaction, "I thought Bob was supposed to do this" or, "I paid a lot of money to get this right" or, "These numbers are just wrong"? If so, the next logical step is to figure out who is to blame. But while you’re searching for a scapegoat, what is happening to the problem that you've uncovered? Who is trying to resolve it? No one! When blame seeking starts, all communication between team members stops. And if it takes the team two days, two weeks or two months to begin to talk about the "real" problem, that time can never be recaptured. And that poses a great risk to the success of your project.

It doesn't matter who created the problem. What does matter is that you understand and resolve the problem quickly so the project (or team) is not damaged. So ownership of problems means that everyone owns the problems. You seek solution not blame.

2. Commit to Full Disclosure

Simply, this means telling everyone everything that you know—the good, the bad and the ugly. The team cannot plan properly or identify any inherent problems are if the key players don’t have the best information. Many times team members hold their cards close to their vests, hoarding vital information. They think that this somehow gives then an advantage. But in fact, when you are working on a project (or on a team) you are interdependent—you need each other in order to succeed. By withholding information, you are really hurting yourself by sabotaging the potential success of your project or initiative.

Honestly discussing all problems up front can help you assure success. We know from research that problems occurring after you are underway have a greater impact than problems identified and worked out during the planning phase. So at the very start of your project or initiative take time for the team members to share what each sees as potential problems. Then you will have time to mitigate the impacts.

3. Empower Others

Many teams are doomed before they start. Team members often get frustrated when they aren't allowed to make the decisions that they feel are critical to a project’s success. Even worse is when a decision they've made is overturned by someone higher up in the organization. Pushing the power and decision making down to the project/team level is critical. When issues leave the project level they tend to grow exponentially in both cost and time. You will generally get better quality decisions from those closest to the issues. Empowering your team members is your best bet for success.

In many organizations power resides away from the project, and the team members don't feel that they can make decisions. Before you start a project/initiative, it is important to figure out ways to empower the team to do whatever they feel is required to succeed.

4. Partnering Requires Commitment

Partnership doesn't just happen; it requires commitment to build and grow. There will be many factors along the way that can threaten to split up the team. As in all relationships, there will be times when it would be easier to just walk away instead of sitting down face-to-face to and working things out. Don’t give in to these temptations. Hang tough! Sometimes the best commitment you can make to the team is to tell each other the truth and then deal with it constructively.

If there are legal agreements between you as partners, don't let them solely define your working relationship. The judicial process is adversarial by design. This can undermine the ability to build the partnering relationships required to succeed. Remember, you can't be both "partners" and "adversaries”;  they are mutually exclusive. Instead, vow to remain committed to doing whatever is necessary to keep the partnership alive and strong.

5. Build Trust

Trust is the keystone of partnership. Your partnership depends on your ability to create and grow trust between your team members. It requires open, honest communication. You have more power to create trust than you might think. Your first interaction sets the tone for the relationship. If you go into the project with a trusting attitude, seeking to cooperate and work with the others, you are likely to get find that others will share that attitude. If you go into the relationship focused on protecting your interests, that is probably what you will get in return. The study of game theory shows that cooperative relationships produce larger wins than those where participants are protective and self-serving.

I've learned that for teams, fairness is the underpinning of trust creation. Trust begins to erode when a team member feels that he or she has been treated unfairly. So whenever a problem arises, always put fairness on the table and discuss it first. Ask, “What is a fair way to resolve the issue?” Most teams can figure it out. Measure the level of trust on your project and you will have a good idea of how successful your project will be.

Conclusion

Implementing these five strategies will help you build the attitude and atmosphere that allow a true team partnership to grow. For most projects/initiatives, working together, not against each other, is the only path to success.