Team Coaching for two key business partners

Case Study

We were asked to facilitate an alignment process between a client delivery organisation and a joint venture (JV) contractor on a major civil engineering infrastructure programme. The conflict was rooted in damaging distrust, so we dug deep. Working with the leaders individually first we then brought together teams before finally integrating the two parties. Establishing trust required patience, perseverance, and an impartial facilitator.

The ‘misalignment’ was focused on three major areas:


Significant commercial tensions had arisen between the two parties due to disagreement around changes to scope. The client was concerned that the cost of change did not represent value for money and had become a barrier to ‘getting on with the job’.  A previous attempt to address the issues in a commercial workshop with a JV company facilitator failed to achieve wider buy-in.  The legacy of this experience was a level of cynicism amongst some key stakeholders about the likelihood of a successful facilitated outcome.

Safety performance 

Following a high profile near miss and a recent serious incident on one of the sites, the client was concerned that the JV was not sufficiently focused on safety leadership. The client felt there was an urgent need for improvement in safety performance.

Organisational issues

The joint venture company had formed specifically to bid for work on the programme and was still in the early stages of organisational maturity.  The JV partners had limited experience of working together, which meant that the client often received contradictory messages.  Furthermore, as the JV held two major contracts on the programme, there needed to be a four-way alignment process between the various client/contractor teams. 

The objective of the alignment process was for the parties to understand the issues together and agree on a set of outcomes in a way that built openness and trust, enabling them to work towards a collaborative solution.

Sheppard Moscow designed a simple four-stage process:

1. Building trust with leaders:

The alignment process began with a series of confidential 1:1 interviews to establish trust and rapport with the leaders of each team. The client Head of Organisation Effectiveness also took part as an ‘internal champion’.  This stage took several months and required considerable tenacity.  Getting the various stakeholders on board with a collaborative alignment process is often an important part of the work, as key leaders are not always positive about an alignment intervention. Meetings were frequently rescheduled due to project pressures, (as is typical on intense projects).  A key breakthrough in this process was when a JV senior manager admitted that a past experience on another project, where a conflict over commercials had ended up in court, was affecting his ability to trust. Although this was separate to this project it had a very real and corrosive dynamic; it was an ‘elephant’ that needed to be named.

2. Separate workshops with teams:

The facilitators designed separate ‘mirror up’ workshops for the client and JV teams. These took place simultaneously in the same venue, in the morning before the main integrated workshop. The participants explored three simple questions:

  • What are we doing as a team that impedes our effectiveness?

  • What are we doing as a team that impedes their effectiveness?

  • What are they doing as a team that impedes our effectiveness?

3. Integrated workshop:

In the afternoon integrated workshop, both teams reviewed the outputs from the morning session from ‘different ends of the same telescope’. This resulted in a series of breakthroughs as the participants understood the impact of their behaviours on each other. In a further exercise designed to access submerged feelings, the participants selected photos from magazines to help express how they felt now and how they wanted to feel in the future.  By the end of the workshop, the participants agreed to a shortlist of nine programme critical tasks to help them work together more effectively.  Because the tasks were jointly created by the client and JV teams, there was a far greater sense of shared ownership.  At the workshop, the group also decided to establish an integrated leadership steering committee to make sure things happened and to remove roadblocks.

4. Maintaining momentum:

In the early days of the steering committee, Sheppard Moscow helped the team agree on some ground rules and continued to support the teams in working collaboratively.  This involved working alongside the two leaders, the client Area Director and JV Managing Director, to maintain momentum and keep a focus on collaborative activities when the inevitable pressures of day to day work distracted people from their jointly made commitments.

Sheppard Moscow then facilitated a strategic planning exercise with the joint leadership team. This involved looking back on the successes overall and within each team, which built increased confidence in the potential for further alignment.

Since the alignment process began, there has been a major improvement in the effectiveness of the relationship between the client and JV, based on new ways of working and continued open and constructive dialogue. There has also been a significant improvement in the JV’s performance in terms of safety, cost and schedule and it has successfully delivered some major project milestones. 

There have also been a number of lessons learned:

  • There are no easy solutions to resolving tensions within a project.  It needs time and a patient approach to establish trust. Even after months of careful work, there is a constant sense that it can all go wrong at any stage. But the reasons why it is difficult are the same reasons that it is worth doing.
  • A major risk of this kind of work is that unless you are serious about following through on the actions, it can raise people’s hopes only to dash them.  Everyone has to be prepared to commit to a new way of working.
  • Having an internal champion on board who is not connected with the projects, such as an Organisational Development professional, is critical to help clear blockages.
  • Having an impartial facilitator is key to building trust in all parties. In the project management world based founded on facts and cognition, it is rare for players to admit to feelings that can obscure objectivity.  Getting people to open up in this way does not happen by chance, it occurs only when the participants feel that they are in safe hands with a credible and trustworthy professional.