Partnerships its all about me too

Colleen Pound’s “guest column” in this space three issues ago (“Partnerships: it’s all about me,” Sept. 21, page 15), about her perspective on the ideal client-vendor partnership, from the client’s point of view, was bound to elicit a response.

The best solutions usually lie somewhere in the grey area between the two or more positions. That’s true here too; Colleen made some good points then, as does Alexandra Lee now. Colleen runs a project management group for a western Canadian large corporation, and Alex is in a senior position with one of the “big four” consulting firms.

So once more, I’ll step into a neutral corner and listen – I think you’ll see that they’re not really that far apart, and that the smartest among us will learn from them both. Alex, take it away…

Hey, Colleen, I want a partnership too, and I have no problem with a relationship that makes it all about us , and our mutual success, but not just about you. One-sided affairs (business, love or otherwise) are less than fulfilling for both participants. To my way of thinking, an effective partnership is all about both parties contributing, sharing and exchanging information in order to create a stronger, more successful outcome than one party would be able to alone.

To that end, let me share some of my suggestions for creating that ideal (but achievable) business partnership scenario.

First: treat me like I, too, am a valued partner, a partner who has some of the knowledge and expertise that you don’t have in your own organization, knowledge and expertise that you need to increase your chances of executing a successful project.

Look for a partnership with me and my organization for the right reasons (there are many), but don’t attempt to form a partnership with me for the wrong reasons.

Wrong reason #1: Attempting to cover your backside by backing me into a contract that includes, from your perspective, as many deliverables as possible in a vaguely worded statement of work, at a fixed price.

It’s never constructive to say: “It doesn’t specifically say it’s not included, therefore I assume it must be.”

About vagueness in the agreements between your organization and mine, I’ll admit that I’m as much to blame as you are. The value of clarity cannot be overrated. On a fixed price bid, my statement of work (SOW) should clearly articulate a performance and deliverables baseline as tight as a fish’s butt in a typhoon.

Fie on me if all the assumptions on which my statement of work and bid are based aren’t listed clearly and reviewed with you in advance, and fie on you if you don’t have an explicit understanding that any change in said assumptions will change the SOW, and the amount of, and schedule for, my work accordingly. (Forgive the verbosity; I’m a lawyer by training). Let me keep it simple: you’ve got to understand that even in our ideal partnership, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”.

Wrong reason #2: Wanting to save your organization money at the expense of my expectation of a reasonable profit.

If I bring the right knowledge and expertise to the table, be ready to pay for it. I assume that you’re in business to make a reasonable profit, and so am I.

Wrong reason #3: Wanting to use my firm as the scapegoat when a project fails due to any number of problems in your organization, ranging from lack of stakeholder alignment to slow death by steering committee.

Colleen rightly points out that it’s up to us as consultants and project management professionals to engage all of the effected project stakeholders, (not just your golfing executive), and attempt to manage their expectations – note that I didn’t say that we would necessarily “deliver on” these expectations (see the SOW for details), I did say we would “manage” them.

I’m chagrined to admit that we are sometimes (OK, quite often even), lousy at this and there is much room for improvement.

However, my firm as vendor and/or consultant cannot possibly do it alone. Expectation management is an active partnership, you and I, client and consultant. You have the intimate knowledge of your company’s internal structure, and you have a responsibility to help me identify the stakeholders and manage them accordingly.

And managing expectations can means some tough medicine at times. Broadcast bulletin for the day: not everyone in your organization gets a vote as to what this project will deliver (unless you’ve got endless amounts of time and money), you’re going to have to accept that we (you and I as a team) are going to disappoint some stakeholders and that you, as the client sponsor, must actively select and manage those stakeholders who aren’t going to get what they want from this project. To passively expect me and us as consultants to achieve this in isolation is to doom the project to failure from the outset.

Wrong reason #4: Wanting to obtain long term service commitments (Colleen’s point about “skin in the game” over the longer term) without expecting to structure the contract so that it reflects this reality for both of us, and offering incentives accordingly.

Like they say: you can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you expect our partnership to be trust based, and want to see evidence that your success is also tied to our success, then put your money where your mouth is – let’s look at a gain-sharing contract.

Let’s set a target price then agree that if we finish up below the target, 50 per cent of the savings go my firm, and the other 50 per cent is straight savings to you – i.e. a reduction from the amount you expected to pay at the target price.

On the other hand, should the project exceed the budget, you and I each eat 50 per cent of the cost overage, sharing the pain equally: a shared incentive to come in under budget, and a shared disincentive to go over.

Bottom line: we, as consultants and vendors, do want to be your long-term partner. We want to trust you, but we want see evidence that our (both yours as client and mine as consultant/vendor) mutual success, on this project and beyond, is in our joint best interests.

Because, you see, when it comes to successful partnerships, it really is all about us: the consultant/vendor team and the client team, our collective team, all working together in a true partnership to achieve the best possible results.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at isguerrilla@hotmail.com.