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Collaboration – Overused or underused on large infrastructure projects?

Bhumibol Bridge


Collaboration is a hot topic on every project these days. We were once asked by a supplier during the tender phase whether we wanted to enter into a ‘collaborative relationship’ or a ‘truly collaborative relationship’. The ‘truly collaborative relationship’ when we enquired was a higher price!

Misconceptions about collaboration

I have held workshops for project teams where I have mentioned that we need to increase the levels of collaboration in our relationship to be high-performing. I normally will hear a few statements which raise alarm bells. Some will say, ‘We need to work in a way that the contract is put in the drawer and never looked at’. I, for one, don’t believe a project manager should run a project without understanding what is in the contract.

Halfway through the workshop, the contractor may say, ‘If I put my contract hat on’. Yes — we never asked you to take it off. That would be unfair because we want you to deliver the scope.

What collaboration is not!

Collaboration is not saying ‘yes’ to everything asked for by either the client or the supplier. Collaboration is also neither not tackling underperformance nor being aggressive by both parties.

Saying yes to everything, putting the contract documents in the drawer, being aggressive and not tackling underperformance is a recipe for a project going into crisis.

What is Collaboration?

Business dictionary define ‘collaboration’ as ‘a cooperative arrangement in which two or more parties (which may or may not have any previous relationship) work jointly towards a common goal’.

If one takes into consideration this definition, then all infrastructure construction clients are in some form of a collaborative relationship with their suppliers. So probably what we should be discussing is the level of collaboration in the client-supplier relationship not whether you need to collaborate or not.

Effective collaboration

Collaboration is about choosing a partner whose culture, processes, procedures and strengths complements yours so that together you become high-performing. You don’t want to choose a clone of yourself which is what you are naturally inclined to do. We are all comfortable with people just like us.

Why do we need to collaborate?

A few of the reasons why high levels of collaboration are required in complex or large infrastructure projects are as follows:

• Greater flexibility to accommodate changes in the project
• Greater energy to seek out threats and address them
• Greater energy to identify opportunities for the project

Why is collaboration difficult?

Two of the things, with one influencing the other, which makes collaboration difficult are:
• Large sums of money which influences behaviour
• Dealing with humans is ‘difficult’

Challenges posed by a collaborative relationship

High levels of collaboration apart from it being difficult also brings its own challenges. Some of these are:
• Trying to overcome the different organisational cultures.
• Loss of clarity on roles and responsibilities.

Is it a one size fits all?

This brings me back to my title. Is collaboration overused or underused? Yes and No! The collaboration levels required for a project, just like every other project management principle, should be tailored for the project.

True collaboration as our supplier indicated can be expensive. High levels of collaboration brings its own challenges and therefore the benefits should outweigh the disbenefits.

There are several factors that you need to consider before deciding on the level of collaboration to use for the project. However, the more complex a project is, the higher the levels of collaboration required to ensure its success.


Further Information

An excerpt of ‘Delivering Successful Megaprojects – key factors and toolkit for the project manager’
A few of the tools discussed in the book include the following:
• How to choose the right partner/supplier
• The pillars for a successful client- supplier relationship
• The factors to consider in choosing the right levels of collaboration for your project
• How to develop a robust but flexible contract for effective client-supplier relationship
• The dos and don’ts for a successful collaboration
• How to make your collaboration successful
• The qualities you need as a project leader on a project requiring high levels of collaboration (note that this is different from the skills required to lead your own organisation)

And many more!

Knowing the theory is good, however theory applied and knowing how to navigate around the issues they bring is GREAT! The book is about the practicality of applying all those project management, motivational and leadership theories to ensure that your complex or large infrastructure project is a success.

Author :Clement Kwegyir-Afful BSc MSc MAPM CEng FICE

Director of KAPM Services Limited. A specialist project management firm for complex and large infrastructure projects.

Contact: info@kapms.co.uk

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