Is it tougher to be collaborative?

Part I — In the face of systems & negotiation partners that are frequently adversarial

The underlying fundamentals of time-based work in terms of schedule/hours, cost, risk and value makes the discussion of Accountability, Risk and Reward a difficult conversation. Although most leaders see achieving a fully collaborative outcome with little or no compromise as highly beneficial, it can be tough to take a collaborative stance to each conversation/negotiation. The challenges of this conversation is heightened when acquiring services or engaging teams for time-based work.

The protocol and tools in general use today for determining accountability within procurement and for teaming agreements, are based on the adversarial legal system. The hallmarks for these processes are rights protection and control.

Through a series of posts, we will follow the journey of a typical team engagement that will feel very familiar. We take a critical look at today’s methods and explore how tough collaborative leaders can engage with less control and more collaboration to address age-old issues of wastage, unaligned interests and the adversarial relationships; one’s that frequently result in a blame game (when aspects of the project don’t go well).

Processes determining accountability, risk and rewards for teams are costly

The reality in the marketplace is that the adversarial approach is not working so well. In a $900BN global IT services industry (Gartner), 30% projects failed losing their budgets (Project Management Institute — PMI: “Pulse of the Profession 2018”).

The adversarial approach does not function effectively in today’s complex matrix style organizations with many unknowns and mixed loyalties. Poor alignment is experienced as resistance to the delivery of value and is characterized as “structural risk” introduced by these adversarial approaches to accountability. Higher cost processes, as well as misalignment that all-too-frequently results in escalating conflict are two of core disadvantages of the adversarial approach.

It’s true that most leaders have a strong “intent” to build trust relationships and work collaboratively, work with teams to deliver high value at a reasonable cost and within acceptable margins for the service provider.

the control needed for provider selection is not beneficial for creating two-sided delivery agreements “that have accountability, agility and durability”

Frequently our first step to engage a team is through a competitive procurement process. The advantages of the competitive procurement process are, it aligns parties on a mutually acceptable price as part of setting the triple constraint (scope/quality, cost and schedule). It provides leverage to reduce the price. It offer predictability to help with planning. It creates liability binding delivery partners. And, anchors the price against which any change or renegotiation occurs.

So why mess with a great thing!

“It is finally time, we are excited. The contract is signed, the team is on site. We have an excellent team. We’re in control, aligned and ready to deliver.” — Sara, Leader-Sponsor.

As leaders in program/projects, we know that feeling of excitement, of being in control, confident in ourselves and the plan. We believe in our teams, our delivery capability and the strong foundation we’ve built. The project is setup for success! Or is it?

The competitive process has some undesirable consequences. The introduction of potential misalignment and unknowns that has now been locked into a contracted framework. How costly is this engagement practice? We believe that a large portion of the waste can be addressed by learning to have this difficult conversation more effectively. The engagement component of the discussion is critical to setting up relationships for success. Why should we change? In short to overcome challenges associated with the use of the control frame and then gain the benefits associate with the collaborative/ empowerment frame.

The challenges of the control frame

What frequently undermines our success to meet our intent and plan?

Today we absorb too much “structural risk” when engaging teams to perform work. Much of that risk is introduced directly as a result of the control frame that we use with the intent of limiting our risk. The result is a large pool of “work-in-progress” of committed work with absorbed risk, and unaligned interests. This gives teams and leadership many ways to argue about risk-issue distribution against poorly defined agreements.

The Risk Dance

Our Premise: Risk reduction across all parties drives customer success. Decisions toward empowerment in the risk dance reduce overall risk.

Here we introduce the concept of a “risk dance” between control and empowerment/collaboration as part of engagement and management of teams. The decision to be collaborative and empower the other partner is an action within each interaction. The general goal of control is the decision to ensure the process meets your interests (as you define them) independent of the risk profile of the other party. The natural tendency is to design and control the process for your advantage to get the “best” deal. History and experience proves that in delivery having the controlling hand is not necessarily the card that delivers success.

In contrast, empowerment’s specific goal is to minimize risk across all partners and stakeholders ensuring client and project as well as vendor success. Engagement becomes a process of increasing collaboration, the building of cross-connections of intersecting interests that align to minimize risk. Meeting partner and stakeholder core interests works to reduce the overall risk profile. This is a win for the requester of time-based work as it is for the provider.

determining accountability, risk and rewards for teams is highly inefficient today. Getting accountability right is a strong determinant of delivery success.

The adversarial approach does not function effectively in today’s complex matrix style organizations with many unknowns and mixed loyalties. The result is higher cost processes, as well as misalignment that all-too-frequently results in escalating dysfunctional conflict. Poor alignment is experienced as resistance to the delivery of value and is characterized as “structural risk” introduced by these adversarial approaches to accountability.

Leadership should not be this tough! and stressful

We explore the risk dance further in Part II. The response to risk by requesters and providers of the time-based work is analyzed in terms of 1) use of power, 2) defense against loss & failure, and 3) style of communication. Part II covers the impacts of following the control frame. Part III will cover the empowerment frame and the business value of “confronting” the control frame.

In later posts, we explore a practical approach offered to tough collaborative leaders that builds empowered teams as an alternate to the control cycle (which undermines it). This introduces a collaborative system for commitment and accountability, and a problem-resolution culture by integrating interest-based negotiation and conflict resolution support. This is done in context to the improvements being introduced with the lean-agile methods.

Neutral Advocate

Martin West, the author of this article is founder and neutral advocate for Neutral Advocate Ltd. Our team and online platform is dedicated to helping tough collaborative leaders avoid much of structural risk identified in this series of posts and target increased value, agility, adaptability & learning.

To meet this goal, we offer JANA — an online platform for teaming agreements. It supports teams open, close and resolve their agreements. During this initial phase, Neutral Advocate also offers consulting support to help teams transition their working practices to JANA and the new empowering accountability model within Agile-Lean practices. To explore more, please sign up at Neutral Advocate.

We actively seek and welcome your involvement in this journey to higher achievement and more satisfying connections for teams. Please reach out to me, Martin West Linkedin or via email or on twitter.

To receive further posts in this series, please follow me at Decentralized Teams, a publication on Medium.

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Thank you. Martin West, Founder and Neutral Advocate.

Martin West