Leadership of Collaborative Working: The Missing Ingredient?

It’s been known for ten years or more (1) that major infrastructure and engineering projects rely upon high levels of competence in a range of ‘soft’ skills. The importance of leadership and management skills is a reoccurring theme and one that best practice guidance in alliancing and collaboration in infrastructure (2) has recently highlighted. The 2015 Institute Civil Engineering (ICE) conference report on Skills for Engineering (3) also underlined the importance of leadership and management skills and the ability of engineers and technical professionals to lead and manage collaborative working across organisations.

Our experience of behavioural assessment of teams bidding some of the Worlds’ largest and most complex infrastructure and engineering projects, and our work in supporting teams in delivering those projects, shows that performance in leading and managing collaborative working relationships is patchy; don’t get me wrong – some teams demonstrate world class skills whilst others are a long way from having them. Overall the average behavioural assessment across dozens of projects from 2000-2015 shows the need for significant improvement. Why is this? The 2015 ICE report (3) on skills in infrastructure calls for more investment in skills development and the encouragement of skills development through procurement exercises to influence industry. Of course this has to be right. However our results from many behavioural assessments over the years and collaborative working reviews in major projects show that whilst there is often a good level of management competence, the quality of leadership is often lacking. So what is the difference between the two?

Leadership & Management

Management is usually characterised by its emphasis on ensuring the efficient delivery of agreed plans, the control of resources (people, money and materiel), the mastery of routine and efficiency and an overall focus upon delivering things that are meant to be delivered. When in ‘leadership mode’ the effective manager is emphasising the management of change, envisioning new future states, gaining commitment and alignment for change. The leadership role is more about making things happen that are not (yet) on any plan and using engagement and influence skills to take people with them. In any single organisation managers need to have a competence in both management and leadership and to flexibly move between the two sets of behaviours and thinking as the situation demands. Table 1 summarises some of the differences.

Management emphasises…Leadership emphasises…
Implementation of systems and structuresThe development and alignment of people and cultures
Gaining control and managing the status quoFostering trust and challenging the status quo
Plans, timetables and efficiencyVision, values, behaviours and effectiveness
Power through positionPower through motivational behaviours
Maintenance Development and innovation
Asks how and whenAsks what and why
Motivates compliant behaviourInspires people to change

Leadership & Management of Collaboration

In collaborative business relationships, (e.g. alliances, strategic delivery partner and client relationships etc), the importance of delivering both leadership and management competence is increased and the criticality of leadership is heightened substantially. Why is that?It is clear that collaboration between different organisations requires the mastery of coordinating activities between groups of people, the alignment of objectives and processes and achieving coherence across structures. But effective collaboration is underpinned by people having the right attitudes and behaviours. Without the right behaviours the trust between people can be damaged with consequences for delivery, speed and costs. For new collaborative relationships, the challenge facing managers is nothing less than achieving transformations in organisational cultures and driving collaborative behaviours and values. Management can take the team part of the way but it requires effective leadership at all levels in the organisations to really make it happen.
Paraphrasing Crosby (4) talking 20 years ago on the reasons why strategies to achieve quality failed, ‘most strategies fail either because there is a system without a passion to collaborate, or a passion without a system’.For me delivering major infrastructure and engineering projects requires excellence in collaboration across organisations, and for that to be achieved it is critical that all partners are able to provide both exceptional management and leadership capabilities.John Doyle is Director with B2Bppm Ltd a management consultancy specialising in collaboration within major projects.

  • Driving Successful Delivery of Major Defence Projects. UK National Audit Office, 2005.
  • Alliance Best Practice in Infrastructure Delivery. HM Treasury 2014
  • Civil Engineering Skills Report: Perspectives on Capacity and Capability. ICE 2015