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Creating shared visions for collaboration in major projects

Collaboration in a world of 'disruption'

Our proposal for a method to create a shared project vision through collaboration brought together from the insights of project leaders.

The challenge

More and more industries are facing fundamental disruption. The increasing speed of change and the need for projects to help organisations and societies adapt has led to a proliferation of project methodologies that have ‘agile’ or ‘complex’ in their names. These methodologies depend less on extended planning horizons or detailed specifications that are out-of-date before a project can be delivered. Also, the ambition levels of projects appear to continue to increase to match the increase of disruption levels, the speed with which change occurs, or the level of what is at stake.

Projects, already largely devoid of routine across its stages, need to find ways in which to establish and guide different stakeholder groups that need to collaborate on increasingly complex, fast moving and ambitious projects. So how do you create genuine collaboration under such conditions?

One helpful practice is to develop shared visions for collaboration with key stakeholder groups that are part of the project. These are particularly helpful if there many different types of stakeholders, there are many issues at stake, and it is hard to see the whole picture for any one stakeholder group.

What are shared visions for collaboration?

Shared visions for collaboration are one (at the most two) page statements that capture how you want to work with one or more stakeholder groups on a project to get the best outcome. This might include for example between project management and employees; project owner and contractors; lead contractor and subcontractors; project team and community groups etc.

The contents of the shared vision may include a description of the parties, what outcome they want to achieve, what they are willing to do to achieve that, and the guiding principles that describe how they intend to collaborate.

Shared visions may cover any area where ambiguity might arise that could get in the way of project outcomes.

There are a number of quite obvious steps to go through and include:

  1. identify a key forum that brings together relevant stakeholders. Specify the stakeholders who are relevant to this forum
  2. identify the interests of the stakeholders relevant to the forum
  3. develop a draft charter for the forum, including mission, vision, roles and responsibilities, operations, and other relevant elements
  4. develop a forum chartering plan for the adoption and ongoing use of the charter.

Equally important to this process are a number of micro-skills like the ability to listen for hidden assumptions; a focus on interests – not positions; being able to combine ‘restrained forcing’ and ‘robust fostering’ during negotiations; and constructing different value propositions for different stakeholder groups.

The benefits

There are a number of reasons why such shared visions for collaboration can contribute significantly to the success of projects.

First, it increases the chances of success for the project as the commitment to the project may shift from ‘not hindering’ to ‘making it happen’. It is the difference between having to resolve most issues that come up yourself and other stakeholder groups making sure that many issues never even come up.

Second, a well-run collaborative process of creating a shared vision helps develop trust between different stakeholder groups. Such a process requires deep listening, dialogue, working through disagreement and focusing on the underlying interests of different groups. As such, collaborative behaviour is exhibited during the process and provides a touch stone for how to collaborate on the project itself.

Third, it helps flush out mutual expectations that stakeholders may have of each other but that may not be well understood. For example, one guiding principle may be that the stakeholder best positioned to manage a risk should take responsibility for that risk, as opposed to try and contractually force risk unto the party least able to resist the pressure. The latter may actually increase the risk for a project, although that risk might now be hidden.

Fourth, it can help identify beneficial operating assumptions as to what all stakeholders to the project should focus on in order to make the project a success.

The last two are variations that relate to Tuckman’s old ‘forming-storming-norming-performing’ of framework of team stages. It is critical to find ways to get through the initial stages as quickly as possible and get into the ‘performing’ stage. One way of doing that is the explicitly define some of those norms and reduce tension and conflicts between people who have not worked together before.

At its core, the development of a shared vision for success is about genuine alignment of stakeholders. This is a very different mindset from stakeholder management. The latter may suggest that the best one can strive for is to keep ‘them’ (whoever ‘them’ might be) under control, so that the project is not unduly hindered by that stakeholder group. It is a much higher bar to align the interests of key stakeholders where possible, even if this means making some changes to the originally envisioned project.

Shared visions

Senior project leaders participating in the Executive Leadership in Major Projects (ELMP) program have developed a number of shared visions for projects facilitated by Professor Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (Brandeis University) and updated by successive ELMP cohorts. These include shared visions for employment relations, diversity and inclusion, social license, innovation, and mental health and well-being on projects.  

About this research

The methodology for developing shared visions for major projects was generated through iterative development and testing by Professor Cutcher-Gershenfeld (Brandeis University; University of Sydney) through his research in the areas of high performance work systems, transformation in labor-management relations, negotiations and conflict resolution.

We adapted this methodology to the context of major projects through a process of critical reflection and inquiry with 25 senior project leaders across industries spanning information technology, financial services, resources, construction, health and infrastructure (who joined the Executive Leadership in Major Projects program).

Maurizio Floris

This article was written by Dr Maurizio Floris, Program Director, ELMP Program, John Grill Centre for Project Leadership, The University of Sydney. It was written in conjuntion with Professor Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University and visiting Professor in Work and Organisations, The University of Sydney.

Our shared visions