Managing tribal relationships in joint ventures

Building trust in project teams working on complex projects takes time but taking the time to develop genuine collaboration is crucial to success, says Tony Llewellyn.

There is a global trend for organisations to seek partners to bid for and then deliver major projects.  This is largely a response to the size of the projects, which are felt to be beyond the capacity or expertise required to deliver the project alone. The statistics show that whilst most joint ventures begin in a spirit of mutual hope and excitement, many end in frustration and acrimony.  

So, what could be done to improve the chances of a happy ending?  

The starting point is to understand why humans follow particular patterns of behavior when working in groups. Five thousand years ago, the hunter-gatherers fundamentally depended on each person in their tribe to collaborate and share with others. Safety and security came as being part of a tribe and so we have learned to instinctively look to the groups we are part of to shape our sense of belonging.  

In the modern world, our attachment to a group remains, usually at a subconscious level.  At work, tribal identity comes from recognising those who we feel are similar to ourselves.  It also applies to the organisations we work with.  When we feel comfortable, we are able to connect and communicate with others outside of our group, but when times become difficult, we have a hard-wired instinct to find safety within our home team or tribe.

Project teams engaged in a complex project have enough trouble establishing collaborative and trusting relationships within teams of people they know. To build the same level of cohesion with a different group is inevitably going to be a harder proposition. 

Building trust takes time, and yet the nature of the modern world is to put intense pressure on project managers to launch into action as soon as the decision to proceed has been made. A common feature of successful joint ventures is a recognition that time needs to be set aside at the very start to build relationships first and then allow agreement of process and systems to follow. 

   Tony Llewellyn.

"Project teams engaged in a complex project have enough trouble establishing collaborative and trusting relationships within teams of people they know. To build the same level of cohesion with a different group is inevitably going to be a harder proposition."

Here are some of the most common actions that have been found to help build collaborative teams from two or more tribes;

1. Articulate a clear and compulsive reason why the joint venture exists. This vision needs to be drawn from the leadership team as a co-creation exercise. Having a clear understanding of the prize will provide the team with its guiding star setting a key point of reference for future decision making.

2. Create a ‘one team’ ethos from the very start whereby the project leadership group becomes committed to the successful delivery of the project. The secret is to get this team into a mindset where the project overrides the political and systemic obstacles created by the parent organisations.

3. Establish a separate collaboration work-stream, primarily concerned with setting the required behavioural norms. This is a useful approach on any large project but is critical for joint venture teams. The work-stream should be managed by senior members of the project teams and is concerned with team development, communication and conflict management.

4. Pay attention to a ‘fair’ contribution of resources. The equitable contribution of resources may be prescribed in the joint venture agreement, but the reality of project delivery means that the provision of people, equipment and other resources can easily become lop sided, creating dissatisfaction and friction.  

5. Celebrate your differences. Teams from different cultures and backgrounds can offer an amazingly creative source of ideas and solutions, provided they can overcome their tribal biases.  Start the project by acknowledging and celebrating these differences rather than hoping that somehow or other, the ‘other side’ will think and behave in the same way as you.

There is no magic button to press that will suddenly sort all the potential challenges created by tribal instincts. Team building takes time and requires thought and energy, particularly in the early stages of the project life cycle. If you can establish a strong ‘one team’ mindset in your senior managers, you have a chance of creating a new tribe that is focused on the same goal and is prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve a successful outcome.

Tony Llewellyn is collaboration director for ResoLex, a consultancy specialising in the optimisation of project team performance.