Tennis or Golf?

Are you a tennis player or a golfer? These two sports seem to offer perfect analogies of how organisations work with key partners – their technology suppliers. In one, a problem or challenge is transferred to the other as quickly as possible and with the minimum warning. The only objective is to get it over the net. In the other, both players, whilst still highly competitive, tackle the same obstacles to reach a common end point.

As a project manager I have been lucky enough to work on both supplier and customer sides to a similar degree. Yet I am constantly surprised how, when faced with difficult technology projects where it is essential to communicate complex ideas and produce innovative solutions, many teams are working with completely the wrong model.

A simple example was a major telecommunications customer who insisted they would release final specifications on 31 December. Dutifully, I and my team were in the office waiting, but by 6pm nothing had arrived. Through the miracle of technology, most staff checked again on 1 January, and again on 2 January, but still no specification. By that point any commitment to project milestones and deadlines had taken a severe knock.

Yet a more cohesive approach need cost nothing. Eliminate unnecessary beauty parades, proposal documents you can’t lift and price negotiations where neither side properly understands the requirement, and you have time to work more effectively. Even the public sector has come to realise it needs a better way of working, with the Ministry of Defence running several initiatives to work more closely with suppliers.

The key to this approach just seeing the task from both sides; if both parties are focused on solving the problem, you double the power and halve the work. Approaches that have worked for me are to:

Map the territory of background information and resources – you can only ask for information once you know it exists

Build relationships at each level of the organisation, everyone should know their counterpart in the partner organisation

Find a way of sharing ideas and proposals without embarrassment or commitment through straw men, workshops or other informal outputs

Get a common approach - standards are one way, but just finding an example you both like and re-using it is the simplest

Be efficient - don’t ask for things you don’t need and don’t do things twice (once your way and once their way) - shared plans are the easiest way to achieve this

Reward getting the right result, not getting the wrong result by the right method, which can be a particular problem in the public sector

Recognise that email is not a joint working tool,  it is the electronic equivalent of the tennis racquet

Use joined up thinking from other sectors such as manufacturing for their integrated logistics and supply chain

Don’t treat complex projects like commodities - you can’t offer/receive the best price till you fully understand what is involved.

Your procurement or contracts department isn’t going to love all these ideas, but involve them, they will appreciate the benefits. A collaborative document management tool for example, not only provides a better way of working, it also provides a self-recording and auditable trail of delivery.

A few years ago I worked on a project for a large bank, which lent its most senior project manager to a struggling but critical software supplier for 6 months. From the bank’s point of view you could regard it as generosity or simply protecting its own interests. From the supplier’s point of view it needed both honesty, to recognise the level of difficulty they were in, and trust to give an outsider that level of control. But the result turned a project which had looked like a feeding ground for lawyers into a genuine team effort, which ultimately met its deadline.

So if you are responsible for managing key supplier or customer negotiations and suddenly it all seems hard going, just pause for a moment and ask yourself – tennis or golf?