Stages of Project/Relationship Initiation: Diagnosis

June 6, 2018

This is the fifth in a series of twelve blogs that provide insight and tips on managing client relationships.  In this blog, we’ll discuss issues and solutions associated with the first stage of project/relationship initiation – The Diagnosis Stage.

Stages of Initiation

Your interaction with the client begins as soon as the client begins to formulate an impression of your organization.  This can be from an initial conversation with a receptionist, reading an advertisement, hearing word of mouth comments, or experiencing the first direct contact with you.  You may or may not have any control over the client’s first impressions, but you need to be aware of them in order to productively manage the initiation of your project.

If you can safely assume some interaction preceded your involvement:

  • Find out as much as possible about the previous encounters (who, what, when, where and why).
  • Determine what went well, and what didn’t.
  • If you uncover any pre-existing problems, make every effort to fix them without blaming or embarrassing anyone (you will be a hero to all involved).

Regardless of whether you are attempting to initiate a new relationship or expand one that currently exists, three stages within initiation will always take place.  There is no prescribed length for each stage, but there is a set order.  It is:

  • Diagnosis
  • Definition
  • Approval

These stages apply to project work as well as all types of supplier – client interactions (including work with internal customers).  Each stage has relationship management implications that need to be addressed.


“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.”

                                                       – G.K. Chesterton

In you are entering the project very early on; you will most likely be involved with the Diagnosis stage (i.e., figuring out what the problem, opportunity or need actually is).

In the Diagnosis stage, your goal is to determine why the current situation exists, or metaphorically, why the fence was erected in the first place.  Invariably, this will require you to do some detective work, digging into the background and historical data that will develop into a clear picture of the events leading to the current situation.  The more intellectual and emotional awareness you acquire about the client’s relevant history, the better prepared you will be to craft a creative and effective solution.

A significant associated benefit is the client’s increasing confidence that:

  • You appreciate their evolution in arriving at this juncture.
  • You respect their past and present cultural trends and influences.
  • Your solution will reflect where they have been, and where they want to go.

In this stage, you are seeking to understand:

  • Why does something need to be done now (or soon)?

    For example:

      • Has there been an increase in new clients?
      • Has there been an increase in client complaints?
      • Does the business need to diversify?
  • What events have led up to the current state of affairs?

    For example:

      • Has there been a merger or acquisition?
      • Is new leadership setting new priorities?
      • Have market fluctuations required internal reorganization?
  • What relationships are affected (or were affected) by these events?

     For example:

      • Did relationships with existing customers change?
      • Have internal relationships between departments gotten better or worse?
      • Have reporting relationships changed for a number of employees?
  • What previous solutions/alternatives have been attempted, and what do the results of these attempts reveal?

              For example:

      • Can you draw from a repository of lessons learned or best practices?
      • Have there been training programs directed at the situation?
      • Have prior projects attempted to solve the problem?
  • Do different opinions exist as to the need, opportunity or problem?  (i.e., are there two or more ‘camps’ with competing ideas for solutions?)

            For example:

      • Are there two or more executives proposing differing solutions, or defining the situation in competing ways?
      • Are there different solutions for domestic and international interests?
      • Are there ‘old school’ and ‘new school’ forces in opposition?
  • Who are the stakeholders?  (Identify stakeholders who ‘own’ the situation and those who can influence whether or not a solution is pursued.)

             For example:

      • Who has the authority to interrupt or impede the project?
      • Who will derive the most benefit from project success?
      • What departments may not have an interest in the project but may be impacted by it?
  • What do key players believe to be the root cause of the problem?

              For example:

      • Will identifying the root cause have significant political fallout?
      • Is the root cause strictly financial?
      • Has the root cause been previously defined but ignored?
  • How well has the alleged root cause been verified?

             For example:

      • Is the data describing the alleged cause current and relevant?
      • Is the person or group who defined the cause unbiased and properly trained?
      • Have subject matter experts been called in to review the findings and verify their accuracy? 
  • What relationships need to be carefully managed during the Diagnosis stage?

              For example:

      • Are there any key stakeholders who may resist offering information important for accurate diagnosis?
      • Will it be difficult to enlist the support of some key influence stakeholders who don’t see the value of the project?
      • Do you have access to key decision-makers so you can determine how they will base their decisions?

Pursuing a solution or outcome without this vital information can lead to disappointing outcomes or abject failure.  Part of your role as a relationship manager is to develop the client’s commitment to honor best practices and lessons learned.  This will impress the client with the value of their own experience and history, and your value as a facilitator of positive change.  In particular, your interest in (and understanding of) key relationships will let the client know you are aware of the impact that these interactions may have on any new solution.


Control, Influence and Adherence

April 2, 2018

This is the fourth in a series of twelve blogs that provide insight and tips on managing client relationships.  In this blog, we’ll discuss issues and solutions associated with  Control, Influence and Adherence.

Control, Influence and Adherence

When managing relationships, you will often make an individual impact, and other times need to go with the flow.

You have the greatest degree of control over your own behavior, both in how you conduct yourself and how you respond to client preferences.

You can exude influence over the efficiency within your team. Your level of cooperation, responsiveness, and unselfish contribution will greatly influence project outcomes and customer satisfaction.

Unless you are high up on the leadership chain, you will need to adhere to the majority of cultural doctrine.  Over time, your contribution on the individual and team level can have a positive influence here as well.

Regardless of your level of control, influence, or adherence, you will always enhance client interactions through awareness, a positive attitude, and proactive behavior.


  • The only person’s behavior you can change is your own.  If your client routinely shows up late, wasting everyone’s time, ask what you can do to schedule meetings at times the client has fewer pressing demands.
  • Avoid blaming the institution for disappointments in project outcomes.  If your company’s antiquated computer system accounts for delays and partial deliveries, suggest ‘work arounds’ such as out-sourcing some printing or scheduling heavy data entry early or late in the day.
  • Always look before you leap – understand implications of your behavior.  If your enthusiasm to gather project data motivates you to directly contact all stakeholders on the client’s side, hold off.  Consult with your primary client representative in advance to be sure you won’t be over stepping your bounds, violating client protocol, and complicating the relationship.
  • If your choice of action will not improve client interactions, reconsider.  If your response to a client’s over-use of acronyms and buzzwords is to resort to the same approach, take a deep breath before you RSVP.  Perhaps compiling a directory of technical terms and acronyms for the entire team will have a better impact on the relationship.
  • Don’t complain, offer constructive criticism.  If a team member is challenged by the workload and always late with the deliverables you need, respond with suggestions for time management rather than negative comments.

Four Dimensions of Relationship Management – Part 2

March 8, 2018

This is the third in a series of twelve blogs that provide insight and tips on managing client relationships.  In this blog, we’ll discuss issues and solutions associated with the Four Dimensions of Relationship Management.

Dimension One: Intrapersonal Awareness

This dimension is the degree that you appreciate your personal style and preferences.  This is the first step in understanding how your personality affects how you work, relate to others on the team, and enjoy your work.

Intrapersonal awareness is not about assessing individual beliefs or core values.  It is about understanding how your beliefs and values affect your behavior, and how your behavior impacts others.

A popular way to develop a picture of your personality preferences is the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).  Such tools don’t suggest that some personality types are more successful than others; just that awareness of differences can improve results.

For example, if you rank high as an extrovert, you enjoy social events with a lot of people.  Don’t take your introverted client to a loud club full of strangers.

Or, if you are a visual learner, don’t assume that your client will get the most information from your PowerPoint demo.  A simple verbal description may be far more effective.

Behavioral Styles: Influence and Conflict Management

A key element of the relationship management process is your ability to manage differences.  During any project, it is inevitable that differences and conflict will surface between you and the client, as well as between team members.  In both cases, understanding the various styles used for managing differences and conflict will help you to exert positive influence without alienating the client and/or team members.

Individuals bring their strengths, weaknesses, assumptions, attitudes and beliefs to bear in the management of influence and conflict.  These elements of personal behavior are reflected in the way we act and react to others in conflict situations.

A useful way to observe and describe conflict management styles is to consider the two dimensions that contribute most to our observable behavior.

  1. Task/activity orientation – This represents our concern for the activity at hand and how we strive to accomplish our goals in the most effective, productive and efficient manner.  In its various forms, it represents the bottom line, results, profit, total service rendered, etc.
  2. People/relationship orientation – Regardless of the task involved, the people asked to accomplish it can be expected to have unique individual needs and desires.  Their motivation to accomplish the task in an excellent manner will hinge in part, on the level of concern that others, particularly those that lead them, show for their individual needs.

We can represent the most typical conflict management styles as follows:


Description of Influence and Conflict Management Styles:

Dominating individuals view differences or conflict as a threat to their authority and control, thus it is important to cut it off as quickly as possible.  This frequently involves the use of intimidation, threats and personal attacks.  Dominating individuals will usually take a fixed position and refuse to deviate.  Their win-lose perception of situations makes it difficult for them to back down after a conflict has emerged.

Accommodating individuals view differences or conflict as a potentially devastating blow to the warmth and friendly atmosphere that they strive to maintain and thus, it is actively avoided.  Accommodating individuals will quickly yield in most confrontations and if conflict is unavoidable, they will attempt to smooth over the issues so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings.

When avoiding individuals sense the emergence of differences or conflict, they will quickly withdraw in an attempt to avoid the situation altogether.  When confronted, vague generalizations are   used in an effort to avoid taking a position that might stimulate further conflict.

Depending on the situation, compromising individuals will deal with differences or conflict in a variety of ways.  If unsure of the party line, conflict will generally be avoided or smoothed over.  If majority thinking and opinion is clear, confrontation will be more readily accepted and at times, even sought out.  Conflict resolution comes primarily from negotiation and majority rule.

Collaborating individuals view differences or conflict as a tool that, when properly managed, can encourage new and better ideas to emerge.  They also realize that conflict can be dysfunctional.  They use communication as a useful tool to manage conflict by getting issues out in the open.  They seek to resolve underlying causes by confronting the situation in its early stages.

Each of these approaches represents a functioning style that can be observed to varying degrees in every organization.  Each is associated with an approach to behavior and interaction that has predictable results.

Receiving Feedback

Whenever communication takes place, various factors are present.  Besides logic and rational thought, people have emotions that enter into communication transactions.  We try to take this feeling factor into account when preparing and giving feedback.  It is also important in a team environment to anticipate our responses when we are the recipients of feedback.  Consider the general responses to feedback in relation to the conflict manage­ment styles:

Dominating: Since this style needs to have a strong sense of control, it is often difficult for a dominating style to receive feedback without responding defen­sively.

Accommodating: This style may produce a silent or acquiescent response to receiving feedback.  An accom­modating style may take on more responsibility for project problems or issues than is warranted instead of engaging in dialogue during a feedback session.

Avoiding: A person with an avoiding style may also avoid receiving feedback.  When confronted this per­son will often acknowledge the feedback and then quickly try to move the conversation along to other topics.  This can make it more difficult to partner on finding workable solutions.

Compromising: A compromising style will usually hear feedback, accept some level of responsibility, and look for a middle ground to move the project along.  The danger here is that you may not seek the most creative or effective solution.

Collaborating: This style generally seeks to listen carefully to feedback, attempts to determine the valid­ity and the appropriate responsibility level and pushes forward to effective resolution.  As with giving feed­back, a collaborative style and attitude lend them­selves to making the best use of feedback when it is offered.

Receiving Feedback Guidelines and Suggestions

Generally speaking, careful listening is the key to making the best use of feedback when offered.  The most effective response to feedback is always the one that helps clarify the issue in such a way that it is able to be resolved quickly and successfully.

Some receiving responses to feedback that can help clarify and resolve include:

Silence – Listening quietly, observing and trying to un­derstand the full message in the feedback.

Acknowledgement – Giving verbal indications of under­standing and validation for the feedback.

Inviting non-verbals (as opposed to the “are you crazy?” facial expression) – Using expressions that invite addi­tional information and feedback.

Paraphrasing – Restating the message as you understand it to check accuracy of the communication.

Active listening – Expressing understanding of the importance of the message, as well as your feelings about it.

Perhaps the most important guideline for receiving feed­back is to keep in mind the overall objective of the team and the project.  If all parties keep mutual success in the forefront of communication, both the giving and receiving of feedback serves a vital purpose.

Dimension Two: Interpersonal Relationship Management

All of your internal and external clients need to be assured that you:

  • Take a genuine interest in them
  • Know and respect their preferences
  • Will address their needs in a way that is familiar and comfortable to them.

Whereas the Golden Rule suggests you should treat others the way YOU would like to be treated, a more accurate piece of advice is to treat others the way THEY want to be treated.  It is a natural tendency to assume that what is good enough for us will be good enough for our clients.

How can you determine your client’s preferences and comfort zones?

Observation of Behavior

  • Be mindful of how your client chooses to communicate with you, and reciprocate whenever possible.
    • Do they send more e-mails or make more phone calls?
    • Do they like face-to-face meetings or do they defer to more efficient exchanges?

Check Out the Client’s Workplace

  • If the client’s office is full of family pictures, it’s a pretty safe bet they enjoy a question or two about home life.  If the office is all files and flowcharts, better stick to business.
  • Draw clues from the surroundings the person has chosen to live with for 40 hours each week, and use those clues to pick a communication style.

Ask Questions

  • It is perfectly appropriate to ask the client a set of focused questions to plan and implement a strategy for servicing them.  This is the basis for the “Service Plan” which follows.

Request Feedback

  • Periodically, ask the client to discuss the things you have done that they really enjoyed, and the things they wish you had done differently.  Make adjustments accordingly.
  • Ask questions like:
    • “Was the delivery of the report after lunch okay, or would you prefer the next one in the morning?”
    • “I assumed you would like invitations to all review meetings?  Is that correct?  How will I learn of your plan to attend?”

Seek Input from Others

  • Chances are you know other people who have a deeper experience with the client than you do, or perhaps with the client’s department or company.  Collect as much information as you can on what has or hasn’t worked.  There is no substitute for lessons learned.

One vital aspect of your response to any of the issues above is that the behavior you exhibit to the client is natural and authentic.  If the client feels you are mimicking them, or making artificial and patronizing gestures, they will resent your efforts.

Do things With, Not To or For, Your Client

Another aspect of your behavior that contributes to successful relationship management is remembering that you are doing things WITH the client, not TO or FOR them.  Sometimes we can view the task of making a delivery, returning a call, or editing a report as an imposed requirement or obligation.  In fact, you are entering an interaction (responding to a client need) and you must demonstrate your willingness to actively participate in the solution.

Consider an example.  Your client asks you for eight more copies of a lengthy proposal so she can distribute them to her department.

One option is to begrudgingly make the copies and deliver them to her office.  Your feelings of being treated like a copy clerk will likely come through and taint the exchange.

Another option is to call the client and offer assistance in the distribution.  Perhaps you can send the proposal by e-mail to her staff or provide an electronic copy on a common server for convenient, shared access.

If you still end up making the copies, you will have demonstrated a spirit of cooperation and desire to serve.

Dimension Three: Team Dynamics

As soon as one more person joins your team, you have entered the more complicated world of team dynamics.  Where there was only one relationship to manage (between you and the client), now there are three (you and the client, you and your team member, and the other team member and the client).

All the Rules of Relationship Management Still Apply

Even though you are now a member of a team, most of your interactions will be with one other person at any given time.  Therefore, keep all the suggestions above in mind for every other person in the team, all the time.  When you are interacting with any one of them as your client, they are the most important person in the project at that moment.

Define and Acknowledge Interdependencies

Teams have a common goal, and interdependent relationships must develop in order to efficiently attain that goal.  Everyone will perform better if these aspects of team dynamics are addressed:

  • Individual roles are clearly defined and communicated
  • Hand-offs are defined, scheduled, and documented
  • Communications are thorough and consistent among team members
  • Review meetings involve the right people and are efficiently conducted
  • Supplier/Client relationships are acknowledged
  • Conflicts are surfaced and resolved

Dimension Four: Cultural/Operational Considerations

In order to develop and maintain positive interactions with your clients, you need to be aware of the influence the culture can have on those interactions.

Cultures can impact client interactions in several ways:

  • Explicit and implicit codes of conduct (e.g., How does the culture view gifts to clients?  What level of confidentiality must be maintained?)
  • Communication protocols – formal and informal (e.g., Are all communications documented?  Do certain types of communication require approval?  When are clients copied on team communication?)
  • Image management (e.g., Is there a dress code when meeting with clients?  Is there a standard format and package for delivery of reports or other client communications?)

When the project is directed at an external client, you will be dealing with all the issues above times two.  It is equally important to be familiar with the cultural issues of your organization and that of your client.

The culture of a business is evident in how it operates in addition to issues related to conduct, image, and communication.  Standards or cultural norms established by an organization’s operations can have a direct impact on relationships and client interactions.

Administration:  Does the client culture call for centralized or decentralized administration?  Do administrative functions influence or simply respond to the activities of the business’s core functions?  Your awareness of the role administration plays in your client’s culture can help you relate to administrative stakeholders as well as better manage the role administration plays in the project.

Policies:  How traditional is the client culture?  Do they allow flex-time?  How do they handle maternity leave (for mothers and fathers)?  Is the organization chart more vertical or horizontal?  Awareness of policy platforms like these will give you valuable clues on how to relate to your clients work habits and expectations.  It is not your place to take a position regarding client policies, but to build your knowledge of them into your service plan for the client.

Infrastructure:  Infrastructure can include everything from an on-site cafeteria to voice mail technology to the number of office locations involved in your project.  Your awareness of each infrastructure issue can be an opportunity for you to cater to your client.  If voicemail is awkward or unreliable, make a concerted effort to use more e-mail or fax deliveries.  If team members are located in multiple offices, establish a system for conference calls or electronic conferencing.  Make the infrastructure a known and defined asset or constraint, and adjust your relationship strategies accordingly.

Capacity:  Capacity issues for project execution usually refer to the number of person-hours that can be applied to the project.  Capacity limits can be a shortage of people or a build-up of projects.  In either case, your role is to be sensitive to the outlay of time your clients (and stakeholders) can realistically afford, and then set a schedule that reflects attainable goals.  As a relationship manager, you want people meeting their objectives more often than not.  Working towards a well-balanced allocation of resources will make the project experience more enjoyable for everyone and more likely to result in a satisfied client.

Keep in mind that most of the ways cultures impact relationships are through the implementation of unwritten rules.  It is important that you request clarification of a cultural issue if you are not certain what is expected of you.  Most clients will be quite comfortable explaining the ropes to you in advance, to avoid getting all tangled up in them.

For example, it may be considered disrespectful to show up unannounced in some offices, whereas in others, it is a sign of open and proactive team participation.  A simple question before the first visit will let you know whether to call ahead to your client.  And, just asking the question is further confirmation that you are genuinely interested in understanding and serving their needs, a key element in solidifying your developing relationship.

Four Dimensions of Relationship Management – Part 1

February 15, 2018

This is the second in a series of twelve blogs that provide insight and tips on managing client relationships.  In this blog, we’ll discuss issues and solutions associated with the Four Dimensions of Relationship Management.

The Four Dimensions of Relationship Management

To truly excel at satisfying client needs, you must be aware of and involved in the four dimensions of relationship management.  These dimensions are:

  • Intrapersonal
  • Interpersonal
  • Team Dynamics
  • Cultural/Operational

Four Dimensions (640x480)

We will explain each of the four dimensions of Relationship Management separately in the next blog.  We can artificially delineate and define them for discussion purposes, but we cannot isolate them in the real world of relationships.  Each dimension is constantly impacting and influencing the other dimensions – they are all interdependent on each other.

Consider the dynamics of a baseball team, with you as the left fielder.

You’re the One

Intrapersonally speaking, you are responsible for development of your athletic skills and your attitude relative to the game.  And although these traits are specific to you and you alone, they can impact other aspects of the game.  For example, if you are faster than the right fielder, the pitcher may throw pitches to intentionally draw fly balls to your field, feeling you are more likely to make the outs.  In addition, if you demonstrate an energetic and contagious attitude for winning, the coach may play you despite the fact you have a lower batting average than the other left fielders, due to the positive impact you have on team morale.

It Takes Two

Have you ever seen two fielders collide as they chase a long fly ball?  Their lack of interpersonal familiarity or communication results in a base hit for the opponent, and has a negative impact for the entire team.  Even though the rest of the team is powerless to influence the outcome of this two-player event, they are nonetheless all affected by it.

What a Play!

Have you ever seen a triple play?  It is that rare but exciting collaboration when several players act as if they were technically choreographed to execute the play.  It calls for acute awareness and anticipation of where your teammates will be, as well as your role in pulling off a perfectly coordinated team play.  Though non-verbal, this is a true demonstration of putting relationships to work at solving a problem.

The Powerful Intangibles

And finally, why is home field advantage such a powerful aspect of team competition?  It is a cultural issue.  The home team is familiar with the idiosyncrasies of their field, used to the climate, comfortable in their own clubhouse, and certainly pumped up by the crowd.  They ‘know the ropes’, the vendors, the reporters, and the die-hard fans.  And given the feeling of belonging, they can focus on their performance.

So, from individual ability to the emotion of hometown cheers, team success is a constant integration of intrapersonal, interpersonal, team and cultural factors.  Your relationships with yourself, a peer, your group, and your environment can work for or against your project success.

Reporting vs. Processing Relationships

December 6, 2017


You see Reporting Relationships on the organization chart.  They represent the conduit through which authority and accountability flow within the organization.

Processing Relationships dictate how work actually gets accomplished.  Each Customer-supplier transaction represents a processing relationship within the project system.

The figure below illustrates the difference between reporting and processing relationships.  The vertical line, connecting you, your boss, and any subordinates you might have, represents reporting relationships.  The horizontal line, connecting you with your Customers and suppliers, represents processing relationships.

Your role in a line organization may be linked closely to a set of reporting relationships.  In contrast, the most effective project teams focus primarily on processing relationships.  In fact, process management as a means to address non-project related organizations is gaining momentum in many industries.  More and more organizations are replacing departments with cross-functional processes as the conduit through which decisions and actions take place.

To illustrate Customer/supplier relationships, consider the following:

A project leader has to make last minute travel arrangements to present a proposal to a potential Customer.

The Scope Summary might be:

“Make a successful presentation to Amtec, Inc. Directors tomorrow”.

Given this outcome, the following roles exist:

Project Customer: Amtec, Inc. Directors

Supplier: The manager

Product: A persuasive and informative presentation

The project leader prepared the proposal based on calculations and estimates from Design Engineering.

Thus, these roles also exist:

Internal Customer: the project leader

Supplier: Design Engineering

Product: Accurate calculations and estimates

As this simple project illustrates, both external and internal Customer/supplier transactions are vital to the success of a project.

To identify the supplier, product and Customer, use the following questions for each task in the plan:

  1. Who does it (i.e., completes the step)? =  The Supplier
  2. Who gets it (i.e., received the output of the step)? =  The Customer
  3. What is it (i.e., the outcome of the step)? =  The Product/Service

Some examples of Customer/supplier relationships:

Customer:      Design Engineer

Supplier:        Programmer

Product:         Error-free code


Customer:      Accounting

Supplier:        Information Systems

Product:         Software


Customer:   Payroll Administration

Supplier:     Project Team members

Product:      Time Sheets

With these three questions, any project team can clearly define critical transactions within the project.

Just as important, any team member can use the mirror image of these questions to identify their own suppliers:

  1. What do I (we) need to complete this activity or operation?
  2. Who will provide it to me (us)?

By clarifying these Customer/supplier relationships up front, project team members can resolve potential confusion and conflict before it happens.  This helps the project team remain focused on the intended project outcome.

Customer/Supplier Relationships

November 1, 2017

Many projects require a well orchestrated effort by a large number
of people. Due to the high level of interdependence among so
many different functions, there will be many hand-offs along the
way. Understanding and managing the requirements for these
hand-offs is a key element of project effectiveness.

Satisfying the project Customer is the ultimate standard for
measuring project effectiveness. If the Customer believes their
requirements have been met, then you can consider the project
a success.

This same standard applies to the internal Customers involved
in the project. If you meet each internal Customer’s requirement,
then you have achieved the project outcome (and the project
Customer will be satisfied).

Everyone working on a project produces something (e.g., reports,
parts, data, etc.). These represent tangible products, usually
falling into one of two categories: objects or information. In some
cases, what is produced is a tangible service (e.g., machine repair,
proofreading, etc.).

For every product or service there must be a Customer. Otherwise,
there would be no reason to produce the product or service.
The resources required to produce a product could include labor,
money, information, material resources or some combination of
these. Resources usually come from both inside and outside the

Every person working on a project is both a supplier and a
Customer. The outcome of their work (product or service) is
provided to a Customer somewhere inside (or outside) the

To produce this product or service, they use resources supplied
by others inside or outside the organization. Thus, everyone is a
Customer and a supplier on the chain of events that leads to a
successful project outcome.

Knowing who the key Customers and suppliers are on a given
project helps to ensure that you open and use critical lines of

Plan versus Reality

October 12, 2017


The project plan in many ways is a best guess. It represents a set of actions that you believe (or hope) will result in a successful outcome. The times associated with each task are estimates of what you think will be needed, given a specific set of conditions. One key condition involves timely completion of predecessor tasks.

Given the fact that all task durations are estimates, it would be reasonable to expect that at least some of the tasks will take longer than expected. Unfortunately, you will probably not know which ones ahead of time. It is also reasonable to expect that other intervening variables (e.g., new requirements, quality problems, miscommunications, etc.) could further complicate things. Finally, it is unlikely, particularly with new project initiatives, that every necessary step will be accounted for (and in the proper sequence).

Once the plan is put together, it is up to members of the team to make it happen in spite of these formidable challenges. Specifically, it is up to each team member to manage his/her own tasks so that they contribute value to the project outcome. It is also up to each team member to test their tasks against the conditions that determine whether a task actually adds value to the plan.

Two conditions must be met for a task to be a value-added part of a plan:

  1. There must be an operational reason for the task to be there (i.e., the output of that task must be used somewhere in order for it to be considered a value-added task).
  2. The task must add value to some previous task(s) or resources (i.e., it must have one or more predecessors).

These two conditions tell us that the value of any task is connected to and dependent on the tasks that precede and follow it. As such, it is critical that tasks are connected to each other in a way that ensures value is added in a timely fashion. This is how systems thinking can be effectively applied to the execution of a project.

Succeeding In Spite of Reality

Hand-off management is the heart of any successful project. It is what turns the plan into a successful outcome, much like mortar is used to turn loose bricks into a wall. It involves connecting the people responsible for the tasks into a cohesive force that dramatically increases the likelihood that requirements and deadlines will be met. Specifically, it helps project team members to:

  • Achieve results that are clearly value added
  • Maintain a clear Customer focus
  • Develop and maintain positive relationships with peers
  • Clearly understand how their individual contributions are connected to the project

A project is a true test of our ability in each of these areas. The more people on your team that exhibit these competencies, the greater your chances for success. Building a plan is one thing; making it happen is quite another. The foundation for making it happen is having everyone on the team manage their own transactions with suppliers and Customers.

While projects are managed by project managers, hand-offs are managed by project team members. The difference between simply performing tasks and managing transactions (with internal Customers and suppliers) is what separates the successful project teams from the rest. Effective project managers are able to make this difference clear and explicit.

Managing International Projects – Part 9

September 5, 2017

This is the ninth in a series of nine blogs that provide insight and tips on managing international projects.  In this blog, we’ll discuss issues and solutions associated with team effectiveness.

Tips for International Projects

  • Test the performance management system for multi-cultural issues
  • Test the multi-cultural implications of your good job/bad job definitions
  • In lieu of regular personal contact, provide a photo and short biography of each team member to all others in the team

The information and recommendations in this blog reflect the Four Key International Variables as documented by O’Hara and Johansen in their book Global Work.

A rule of thumb for team performance management in international projects might be: “A reward in one case can be punishment in another.”  In many high-context cultures, personal praise from an important authority figure may have more value than money.  In other cultures money talks and praise, after a certain point, may be seen as a hollow substitute for cash.  Success that brings more responsibility can be seen as a plus in one culture and as a liability in another.  Some cultures value and expect team rewards; others value and expect individual rewards.

The Four Variables should be used as a guide in developing and maintaining a team performance management system.  A visible performance management system also increases the team’s ability to coordinate effectively with other parts of the organization, including other project teams.

Are project team members clear on what is expected of them, do they have the resources they need to perform as expected and are they capable of meeting these expectations?

Supplemental International Testing Questions:

  • Have the team expectations and resources been tested against the Four Variables of International Projects?
  • How are appropriate multi-cultural consequences established?
  • How have the concepts of “good job” and “bad job” been tested for multi-cultural appropriateness?
  • Do these rewards make up for many of the difficulties inherent in managing international projects?
  • Are there special rewards for successfully overcoming problems unique to international projects?

Do project team members understand how their work affects other people, groups and projects?

Supplemental International Testing Questions:

  • Have potential international impact issues been identified?
  • How will these international impact issues be managed?
  • What measures will ensure that culturally appropriate linkages are made between individual performance, team performance and the needs of other parts of the organization?
  • What actions are in place to ensure that these linkages are made?
  • How will these actions be tracked in remote international locations?

Is the consequence system designed to promote effective individual and team performance?

Supplemental International Testing Questions:

  • Have the Four Variables been used as a guide to identify appropriate team and individual consequences within a multi-cultural setting?
  • What is the plan to meet these multi-cultural team and individual consequence needs?
  • How will the consequence system be monitored?

Example:  You are the leader of a team that is executing an international project.  A variety of cultural perspectives are represented on the team.  You think all is well until one day, when a team member from Mexico complains to you in private that the team isn’t “pulling together” well enough in his view.  You check informally with other team members.  A representative from Norway says things seem fine to her.  A member from Korea thinks there could be more teamwork.  Three team members from the home office in the United States say they haven’t given the issue much thought.  You are concerned enough to make the issue the subject of a special team meeting.  You start the meeting by briefing members on the Four Variables of International Projects.  Then you divide the team into three subgroups with multiple cultures represented on each group.  You learn that there is a wide range of opinion about team versus individual rewards and consequences.  You assign a multi-cultural sub team to further study the situation and present recommendations for creation of a performance management system that meets everyone’s needs as much as possible.


Managing International Projects – Part 8

August 1, 2017

This is the eighth in a series of nine blogs that provide insight and tips on managing international projects.  In this blog, we’ll discuss issues and solutions associated with risk management.

Tips for International Projects

  • Conduct risk assessment periodically
  • Look for risks specific to each culture represented
  • Insist on periodic issue summaries
  • Build cultural awareness into your risk management scenarios

The information and recommendations in this blog reflect the Four Key International Variables as documented by O’Hara and Johansen in their book Global Work.

Risk Management is one of the most important elements in managing international projects.  The Four Variables of International Projects can help project teams identify many of the risks they are likely to encounter in the international arena.  A Risk Management Plan is useful in high-context cultures, where communicating is best done on a personal more informal basis and in low-context cultures, where concrete data is valued.

The Four Variables can be used for establishing preventive actions and Risk Management Scenarios to assure that issues don’t happen, and for planning contingent actions to manage issues that do occur.  Potential risks aren’t always readily evident in international projects.  The Four Variables can help surface some of these hidden challenges.

What issues could impede progress toward the project outcome and how serious and probable are they?

Supplemental International Testing Questions:

  • What multi-cultural issues might be surfaced within this project by applying the Four Variables of International Projects?
  • Is there enough cultural diversity on the team to provide in-depth risk identification?
  • How can the Four Variables help identify the seriousness of possible risks and probability of them occurring?
  • How well is the team probing behind the obvious in identifying possible international project risks?

What can be done to prevent each key issue from occurring and what can be done if each key issue arises?

Supplemental International Testing Questions:

  • What is the team’s plan for preventing risks surfaced by the Four Variables of International Projects?
  • What is the team’s plan for managing those risks if they occur?
  • How do distance, communication challenges and other global factors impact the team’s risk management planning?
  • How will these challenges be managed?

Have the risk management elements been built into the project plan?

Supplemental International Testing Questions:

  • How well have the international risk management elements been built into the project plan?
  • Are the Four Variables being kept in mind in communicating the risk management action elements?
  • How well have the cultural implications of the risk management action elements been assessed and communicated?

Example:  A South American Customer has asked your firm to help in designing a new product for consumers in their country.  Team members selected for their awareness of the Customer’s cultural perspective have met with Customer representatives.  In addition, a Customer representative is a member of the project team.  Much data has been assembled on the Customer’s needs, constraints and success criteria.  Assumptions have been examined—for the Customer and for team members.  Even so, you as the team leader, are still concerned about possible risks within this international project.  For this reason, you bring the team together to brainstorm possible risks beyond those already identified.  You take a few minutes to brief team members on the Four Variables of International Projects, with special emphasis on context and power/status issues.  You are glad you held the session.  It turns out that information paths inside the Customer organization are extremely complex.  In addition, the information needs and information paths inside a number of  your supplier organizations are also quite complicated.  Moreover, two new individuals are identified as strong influencers in the Customer organization.  You create a multi-cultural  sub-team to develop prevention and contingency plans to manage these risks.

Managing International Projects – Part 7

July 5, 2017

This is the seventh in a series of nine blogs that provide insight and tips on managing international projects.  In this blog, we’ll discuss issues and solutions associated with communication.

Tips for International Projects

  • Establish and maintain an information distribution network
  • Use teleconferencing and video conferencing to augment personal contact
  • Respect time zone differences when scheduling meetings and responses to requests
  • Assign multi-cultural accountability for tracking performance indicators
  • Plan for the absence of key people at important meetings
  • Use the informal communication network when implementing project changes

The information and recommendations in this blog reflect the Four Key International Variables as documented by O’Hara and Johansen in their book Global Work.

Effective communication is simultaneously one of the greatest challenges in managing international projects and one of the most effective tools in ensuring success in such projects.  All four of the Key Variables of International Projects impact communication, with information paths being especially significant.  Informal communication can be an important factor in project management within high-context cultures, where great emphasis is placed on the sharing of information face-to-face through networks of long-term relationships.  Formal communication can figure prominently in sharing of project information within low-context cultures, where emphasis may be on the substance of messages rather than on how or from whom they are delivered.  Distribution Networks should be reviewed regularly for cultural appropriateness.  Information recipients should be polled to ensure they are receiving the information they need and want, in ways they consider appropriate.  Time, distance and media availability issues must be managed.

In the same way, proposed changes within the project should be monitored carefully for multi-cultural issues.  Actions should be developed that help support change initiatives.  Strong influencers, especially within high-context cultures, should be managed carefully.

How will we ensure that project team members get the information they need on time?

Supplemental International Testing Questions:

  • What are the unique communication needs for this international project?
  • How can the Four Variables of International Projects help us identify and manage these needs?
  • Who is accountable for identifying these needs and establishing plans to meet them?
  • Who are the strong influencers for the project and what are their multi-cultural communication requirements?
  • How do delivery issues, such as distance, global time differences, media availability (i.e., e-mail, video teleconference, etc.) impact development of a strong project communication network?

How will we promote appropriate formal and informal communication?

Supplemental International Testing Questions:

  • What do the Four Variables of International Projects tell us about the formal and informal communication needs of key project players?
  • What are the informal communication needs of stakeholders from high-context cultures?
  • What are the formal communication needs of stakeholders from low-context cultures?
  • What unique information paths must be identified and managed for formal and informal communication?

How will we know that changes to the project plan are being recognized and managed?

Supplemental International Testing Questions:

  • How are change needs entered into the multi-national communication system?
  • How is effectiveness of change communication being monitored?
  • Who is accountable for identifying and managing gaps in the communication system?
  • What are the unique multi-cultural communication needs of strong influencers?

Example:  The Korean supplier of several key design prototypes for your project is consistently late with deliveries.  The project team regularly e-mails updated information to this supplier, including schedule changes.  The missed deadlines are causing problems with your Project Customer, a deadline-conscious Canadian firm.  You appoint a study team with multi-cultural representation to meet with the Korean supplier and seek remedies to the delivery problems.  During an orientation meeting, you brief study-team members on the Four Variables of International Projects, reminding them that Korea is a high-context culture.  As a result, members of the supplier organization may have strong needs for personal, relationship-driven communication.  You also suggest that the team carefully map information paths through the organization.  The study team reports that the e-mail messages to the Korean supplier organization aren’t consistently getting past senior middle managers to the necessary project planners and designers.  New communication systems are designed.  Several key people within the Korean organization are designated to be responsible for personally communicating scheduling information to appropriate individuals down to the operating level.