Imagine the following scenario. You’ve spent many months pulling together a clear, fully vetted contract with detailed expectations and all terms have been cross-referenced by internal and external subject matter experts. After completing a rigorous and competitive bidding process, the contract is finally awarded to the best proponent. The public announcement is made, project kick-off and delivery begins, and the partnership commences. Yet despite the solid handshakes, signed contract, the team charter, and everyone agreeing to work together in “full partnership”, something happens… the partnership fails. Two camps are established and an “us vs. them” mentality settles in. The contract, once an expression or symbol of “partnership” and alignment, becomes a weapon used by all parties.

If this scenario sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. After working with and speaking to several major project sponsors, owners, project delivery teams, and consortiums it has become apparent to me that partnership does not exist on most major projects. So let’s start by considering why that is.

Why partnerships fail

Most partnerships or alliances fail due to human issues and breakdowns. The problem is that partnerships are often designed from an “us vs. them” position, and an effective sustainable partnership is never fully established. To deal with the inevitable human issues, most partnerships are established around iron-clad contracts that are designed to protect one party from past breakdowns, problems, and failures – ensuring that the other party is fully to blame when failures occur.

It’s inevitable that projects will encounter breakdowns, disagreements, and upsets. In my experience, projects predominantly rely on contract terms, expectations, and conditions to deal with partnership breakdowns. That makes sense when dealing with technical details and considerations. However, consider that a high performing partnership materializes outside of the contract.

You can’t build a powerful marriage or partnership by managing the relationship exclusively through a prenuptial contract. In the same way, a high-performing project partnership cannot solely be guided by contract terms and conditions. Signing on the dotted line does not mean that you have established partnership; the signature does not replace the day-to-day practice of working together.

So what is required for a successful partnership?

Partnership requires alignment and workability in your day-to-day engagement within and between every level of the project. In my experience, two fundamental components are essential for effective partnerships:

  • Creating a win-win game
  • Creating the condition of partnership

Creating a win-win game

A key question to address upfront is – what is the win-win game? What would it take for all parties to win? Often, project contracts are set-up for a ‘winner and loser’ or a ‘defensive and offensive’ position. Someone always experiences getting the short end of the stick or being short-changed. For a partnership to be successful ALL parties need to align on the win-win.

Once you’ve established what it looks like for each party to win, you must keep this front and center. Distinguish what the win-win looks like during the day-to-day project work and execution, versus having it exist like a vague notion or cheap tagline. It’s easy to lose sight of the bigger win-win game and fall back into an “us vs them” mentality – where people are stuck reacting and responding from personal positions and agendas. So how do you keep the “win-win” game present? Here are a few tips to sustain a win-win project environment:

  • Define the win-win game and engage all levels of the project, from owner and project team to construction and key sub-contractors.
  • Develop a set of individual and collective day-to-day practices or activities to keep it alive. Start by identifying things you will stop and start doing differently on a daily/weekly basis.
  • Keep it visible across the project. Embed the win-win practices into daily meetings at every level of the project.
  • Practice identifying when you individually and collectively miss or fail to exercise your win-win practices. Distinguish when you fall off-track so you can to return to your common win-win commitment, versus taking counterproductive “us vs. them” positions.
  • Do not allow issues to fester, especially if a party experiences being short-changed or cheated. Establish consistent ongoing communication across the partnership to address concerns early.

Creating the condition of partnership

The second component of high performing projects is creating the condition of partnership before disputes happen and project breakdowns occur. Establishing alignment is key.

Too often, authentic alignment is not established. Often, project alignment is assumed, rushed, and treated like a check-the-box exercise or a one-off exercise you have to do at the beginning of every project. The goodwill, excitement, and cordial way of relating to each other during the project “honeymoon” phase quickly fades and the reality of dealing with project breakdowns begin. The ability to maintain a high performing partnership despite the inevitable breakdowns is directly correlated to the integrity of your alignment. You need to sustain and maintain your alignment throughout the entire life of a project. A few tips to maintain alignment:

  • Identify “red flags”; ways to know when you are at risk or out of alignment.
  • Establish a regular routine or occasion to review the integrity of your alignment.
  • Develop common principles and practices to guide how people will raise and resolve issues or concerns in a timely fashion.

Developing people’s effectiveness at addressing and resolving breakdowns and disputes is critical for maintaining a successful partnership and project. When project teams, individually and collectively, are equipped with powerful practices, tools, and interventions it is possible to materialize different outcomes. Focusing on building your people’s capability in this area will enable you to deliver beyond what is usual and predictable for your project partnership.