Ask Amy: How a Strong Partner Relationship Can Save a Sideways Project

Amy Walters, Vice President

5-Minute Read

It is said that the only constant in the universe is change. But what hasn’t changed over my nearly three-decade career is the fact that 1 or 2 projects per year seem born to run off the rails.  You know what I’m talking about – the kind of engagement that requires only weeks to complete, while simultaneously taking years off your life.

Even the most experienced researchers aren’t immune from the occasional sideways project. The best planning, most robust vetting of partners, and thoughtful execution can’t entirely prevent these outlier engagements. The root issues can be unpredictable, originating from unreasonable clients, tactical execution issues, or any other random situations. Most frustratingly, these projects don’t give a hoot about your best laid plans or years of experience.

We recently completed a difficult project that ended up being a tremendous success. But I only say this with 20/20 hindsight, because it also happened to be one of THOSE projects. We encountered countless technical and non-technical glitches while working with a very capable and experienced partner. Some issues were minor snafus. Some were freak accidents. Some were full-on dropped balls (DOH!). Fortunately, none of these issues jeopardized project methodology or data quality. But they all contributed to weeks of headaches and required an unreasonable level of our involvement to manage.

Emerging successfully from wayward projects like these depends in part on the strength of your relationship with your partner. How you approach these relationships in the first place makes all the difference.  But here’s the thing – despite the pain and suffering inflicted by this project, we came away feeling it was a smashing success. Why?  First of all, the research participants were extremely high quality, and their feedback provided clear guidance for our client’s objectives. In addition, our willingness to work through the issues with our partner to achieve our common goal made it a success for everyone involved.

When the Wheels Fall off the Wagon

We treat our suppliers the same way we strive to be viewed by our clients: as a true PARTNER.  We share common goals and understanding, dedication to success, and the expertise to execute on engagements with excellence and integrity.  Before working with a new partner, we take the time to fully vet the company and staff, develop relationships with them, and determine which types of projects are the best matches for us to work together.  When a “good fit” project comes along, we clearly define expectations, roles, and responsibilities with our partner. Then we get to work.

Because we had fostered a strong professional relationship rooted in mutual respect and understanding, we were able to work side by side with our partner to slay issues together as they arose.

Were there moments of extreme frustration? Heck yes.

Did we need buckets of Tylenol to ease the pain of countless facepalm moments? Sure did.

Did we lose our marbles with our partner and demand they just “handle it”?  No way.  As true partners we worked together to complete the project, parking the post-mortem for later.  Why squander that precious time and energy on mid-project finger-pointing meltdowns, when you could allocate it to collaborating on immediate resolutions?

After the dust settled from this engagement, we regrouped for a frank and actionable post-mortem. Instead of walking away from the relationship with negativity, we again rolled up our sleeves and worked together toward a new common goal: Develop plans for more successful future engagements. It is precisely what we would want our clients to do with us.

But sometimes there’s no need or desire to make the relationship work. For example, when the partner is in a commoditized business (read: one of many who provide the same service), doesn’t have some unique and beneficial business strength to support your needs, or simply does not put forth adequate effort to acknowledge and resolve issues as they arise.  But if they have other valuable or redeeming qualities, then try to resist the inclination to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Click here for some pro tips on how to get the best from your research supplier relationships.

And click here for our perspective on the importance of communication, honesty, and trust when managing projects.