Relations with suppliers

Some little time ago I came across a job ad looking for a project manager (and I quote) “to bludgeon the supplier into submission”. I’m not quite sure whether the agency thought that this was a good way to attract high class candidates, or what. The sad thing is I suspect it wasn’t a joke.

Subsequent reflection on this got me thinking about really productive working relationships I have had with different suppliers. One common characteristic of these successful relationships has been the old fashioned virtue of trust. However, I’ve never trusted the supplier. I have trusted the people who work for the supplier. I’ve trusted them to bring their specific expertise to the project and I’ve trusted them when they’ve told me that things are impossible, and I’ve trusted their judgement when we’ve discussed problems. I flatter myself that, again in the most productive relationships, the trust has been mutual. The supplier project manager has trusted me to manage things at my end, believed me when I said some elements are essential however difficult they might be, and so on. These have been relationships of equals, not assailant and victim. There has been a remarkably small amount of bludgeoning.

So how did I get to this position of trust? I had been conscious for quite a while, having worked with suppliers on many different projects, that the situations which I felt to be most useful were face to face meetings with people. No big suprise there. But actually I realised it was a bit more specific than that – in many cases the most productive discussions were actually the informal ones. The circumstances varied from sitting next to a developer and chatting about an issue, talking with a supplier project manager over lunch during a more formal meeting, even chatting to potential suppliers during a coffee break during a tender presentation. My experience of projects is that it’s usually a few people who are in tune with each other who are critical to the success of a project. And it’s the informal contact that builds this set of people who are in sync, and who trust each other, just as much as the formal contact. None of this is to say you don’t need formal meetings – of course you do. But don’t neglect the opportunity to build the relationship through the informal contact.

I am not normally one for reading learned articles on project methodologies – but there’s one I came across called “Characterizing people as non-linear, first-order components in software development” written by US methodology guru Alistair Cockburn in 1999. Normally the title of this alone would have been enough to put me off, but in fact the more I read, the more I found myself in tune with its substance. Cockburn notes that a commonly quoted factor in successful projects is that “a few good people stepped in at key moments and did whatever was needed to get the job done”. Additionally, he concludes that the most effective way to communicate is to have two people standing at a whiteboard, and that the further you get away from this situation the less effective the communication. He doesn’t make this specific distinction, but this implies to me an informal meeting rather than a formal presentation.

The relationship with your supplier becomes more important when problems occur – and things always go wrong during projects. Coming back to the start of this article, bludgeoning the supplier into submission isn’t very likely to help. I’ve never seen a project fixed by people shouting – and I’ve seen a fair amount of shouting. I’ve seen projects fixed by sitting down and talking about them. I’ve seen projects not fixed by either approach. I’ve certainly seen shouting make suppliers less co-operative. In my experience, sitting down and talking calmly about the problem is usually the best approach, and certainly the one adopted by all the most impressive project managers I’ve worked with. The better your relationship with the supplier, the easier this sort of meeting is likely to be, another benefit of getting to know the people you’re dealing with better.

Looking at this from the point of view of less successful relationships I have had, they support the same conclusion. In a few cases I have not had what I’d call positive relations with suppliers. These have pretty much coincided with situations where I haven’t been able to establish good relations at a person to person level – either because of geographical separation, or in some cases, cultural differences.

In conclusion, remembering that the people you are dealing with are just that, people, and taking every opportunity to build relationships with those people, is a significant success factor in projects. The fringe benefit, of course, is that it might actually make the project more enjoyable as well as more productive. And that’s got be a good thing.

Tags: ,

Useful? Interesting? Leave me a comment

I've yet to find a way of allowing code snippets to be pasted into Wordpress comments - so if you're trying to do this you'd be better off using the contact form.