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Real_Case Analysis No. 1. Second Installment: Friendly Fire

edited June 2012 in Project Management

This is the Second Installment in a series of three installments.

Go to First Installment

A colleague from the Museum (BG) and I had traveled to London to attend a professional conference and trade show; and that night we were at a reception offered to all participants by the Science Museum. It was around 10pm when we received a long distance call on my mobile phone: the team had just been awarded the competition for the Hannover Pavilion. As anybody else at the reception BG and I held one glass of champaign each, courtesy of our host. We toasted our glasses and clutched at each other in jubilation. Colleagues started to gather around and we shared the good news with everybody. Soon, a full wing of the reception turned into a celebratory happening. Many potential suppliers approached us and we exchanged notes. The next day, we discussed with key suppliers about materials and time frames for the implementation of several installations.

The following factors contributed to our win:

  • First, we assigned in our proposal the same relevance and weight to the following aspects, and made sure they were fully structured together:
    • the architechtural design,
    • the message we wanted to convey, and
    • the way we wanted to convey such message.
  • Second, we took little notice of the content requirements specified in the Terms of Reference, and built our proposal around a new thematic script. Its structure and central thesis made this script unprecedented in the history of Mexico's participation in world fairs.
  • Third, we engaged the best team possible, having as pillars four widely known and well respected professionals:
    • the same Architect (UIA Gold Medal) that designed the museum for which we worked,
    • the Executive Director of the Museum herself,
    • a Historian known by his independent views and original ideas, and
    • an Urbanist from The Netherlands who had been behind the most advanced interactive museum at the time and was consulting for us in relation to the renovation project.
  • Fourth, as a means of carrying out the message, we were not shy in proposing the use of frontier technology, some of which was even in an experimental stage at the time.

The first phase of the project had concluded and the two primary concerns that we needed to address before starting the next phase were as follows:

  • agreeing with the customer about the final set of deliverables; the winning proposal we submited contained only a preliminary description of the project with the exception of the architectural design which was presented in more detail;
  • aligning the organization towards the new goals, without deviating key resources and talent from the daily operation or from the two projects in course

Regarding the first area of concern, we identified the Trust as our primary contact and because of that the Trust was going to be, by common agreement, our main channel of communication with its Technical Committee and with the Inter-Ministerial Commission appointed by the President of Mexico.

In parallel, we opened a direct channel of communication with the Presidential Office which resulted in a presentation of the winning proposal in petit committee to the President of Mexico. With the attendance of the four pillars of our team, the presentation was quite successful and created a promising collaboration bond between our team and The Trust with the blessing of the highest office.

This bond of collaboration with the Trust, however promising, was going to be challenged repeatedly throughout the project for the following reasons:

  • We were dealing with the construction of a national pavilion, a high visibility endeavor in which a strong dose of civil pride was involved.
  • It was the last year in office for the President in turn; general elections were going to take place one month after the opening of the EXPO; and the Pavilion was seen by some as an opportunity to showcase the achievements of an administration in its last stretch.
  • In this context, most interested parties wanted to leave their mark, promote a personal or an institutional agenda, or benefit politically or otherwise from the project.

And The Trust was no exception.The Trust Office was structured by its General Director who appointed four high-ranked officers underneath him. These officers took the project as their own and were committed to its success as long as their points of view were, as they put it, "seriously taken into account". Since in the winning proposal those sections corresponding to the architectural design, to the thematic script, and to the main message were all practically frozen, the Trust Officers directed their batteries towards the message delivery, a component that was yet to be processed in detail.

A heated discussion, for example, ensued around the use of technology. One of the Trust Officers did not believe, and rightfully so, in the use of technology by the technology itself. Using this as a sophistic argument, however, he proposed that we discarded all technology and assembled a group of young, contemporary Mexican artists in substitution. These artists, he contended, would create the necessary art pieces to deliver the message using a purely aesthetic language without the interference of any "blemishing" technology. In one of the unending discussion sessions, he even produced a list of artists that we were to convocate for the task. We later learned that some art dealers had a concealed interest in promoting some of those artists internationally using the EXPO as the main forum; we decided not to investigate further into the matter.

We were entrapped in a relationsip with a "customer proxy" that wanted to change an entire section of the winning proposal. An unrelenting group of people that most certainly had the power and the influence to effect such a change. Our position had, nevertheless, been firmly stated since the beginning: we would imprint our signature on any product if it evolved from the winning proposal; but never, on unrelated product alternatives like the ones being suggested. It was a constant battle because the suggestions on how to deliver the message kept coming. The discussions were endless and in consequence we had not yet been able to initiate the second phase in this important branch of the project.

The second area of concern was not going to be easy to deal with either. In preparing the winning proposal we had confronted opposition from at least two internal Directors who questioned the strategic value of the Museum's participation in the competition. And this opposition was going to remain in disguise throughout the entire project. Unfortunately, we were not aware of their hidden agenda until the end, when we realized the extent of the disservice that they had done to the project.

We announced the following decisions in order to diminish the organizational stress generated by the responsability of the new project:

  • subcontract all fabrication and focus the participation of the internal team exclusively on final design and executive project,
  • transfer the execution of the museum renovation project to another person, and
  • slow down the pace of the renovation project.

These measures served their purpose. The core team was excited at having to do only with the creative chores of the new project, and happy not to be dealing with the tasks of international procurement and parallel fabrication under time pressure. Also, easing the pace of the renovation project and appointing a substitute project manager for the execution phase relieved additional tension within the organization.

Some unrest, however, remained in the background. It had to do with the fact that the Hannover project, if successful, would catapult the consulting brand of the museum into the market with very positive estimates on future possibilites. And most people inside the organization shared the perception that all subsequent consulting was going to take place under the direction of one of the main actors in the Hannover project. And the two opposing Directors, who had lifted up their hopes too high about taking command of the consulting branch in due time, feared that the very success of the Hannover project could thwart their aspirations. These Directors were particularly concerned about the person writing this narrative who in some occasions had expressed his interest in leading the consulting branch until it reached financial stability and market recognition.

In summary, the project had finalized its first phase successfully; in the second phase, the architectural design was already on its way, and the thematic script was also being refined and finalized; but the experience design was falling behind. We urgently needed to negotiate and reach suitable agreements as follows:

  • agreement with the Trust Officers regarding the experience design and,
  • agreement with the opposing Directors regarding the future of the Consulting Branch of the Museum.

I requested a meeting with my boss, the Executive Director of the Museum, and we analyzed possible courses of action. This is what we agreed:

  • she would set up a meeting with the General Director of the Trust and discuss the intervention attempts of the Trust Officers amicably but firmly;
  • in parallel, she would call her contact at the Presidential Office to find out when the Inter-Ministerial Commission was going to be installed by the President of Mexico, and explore whether we could participate in the installation ceremony showing to the attendees and to the press a virtual walktrough of the Pavilion as depicted in the winning proposal;
  • on my part, I was going to visit with the four Trust Officers and propose that in two of the six galleries that made up the Pavilion, we were willing to include central pieces of contemporary art created ad-hoc by young artists;
  • we would also have a meeting with the two opposing Directors and invite them to participate in the project; one of them, in charge of an artistic treatment for the entrance wall of the Pavilion; and the other one, responsible for Cost Control for the entire project reporting jointly to both of us;
  • in the same meeting, the Executive Director of the Museum would inform the opposing Directors that, in agreement with a recommendation of the Board of Trustees, a follow up project was going to be put in place with the objective of guiding the consulting branch to stability after its launching; she would also reassure the opposing Directors that after the completion of such project, an internal person was going to be appointed for the position of Operational Director of the Consulting Branch.

I ask in retrospect: Would the above measures really let us continue our work without further friction? Which alternative courses of action would you, reader and colleague, have recommended at this point and why?

I will launch the discussion by addressing two early reactions from outside colleagues expressed prior to the posting of this installment. Their reactions and my replies would be included below as comments to this main post. The discussion is an integral part of the Real_Case Analysis. All comments and precisions would enrich the case. Thanks.



  • Comment 1 from an outside colleague:

    Opening up a direct channel of communication with the Presidential Office was, in my view, an excellent step forward. This relationship would certainly be key in managing successfully the expectations of all interested parties.

    Participating, however, in the installation ceremony of the Inter-Ministerial Commission with a virtual walkthrough of the Pavilion might prove to be a double-edged sword:

    • On the one hand, you might succeed in legitimating the proposed way of delivering the message, thereby shielding this component against the intervention of the Trust Officers.
    • But on the other hand, you would be opening up for the first time, and in an election year, all details of the project to
      • a body of seven Ministers belonging to the political party in power,
      • in the presence of an inquisitive flood of reporters.

    Were you aware that, given the political climate, this early exposure carried a risk for the project? Were there any certainties, perhaps not mentioned in your narrative, that supported your decision of describing the project in such detail during the installation ceremony? What measures did you take, if any, to mitigate possible risks?

  • Answer to Comment 1 from an outside colleague:

    Participating in the installation ceremony, you are correct, entailed the risk of early exposure. Unveiling the details of the project to seven Ministers who might suggest changes on the spot or otherwise be outspoken in their criticisms is not a minor risk. On the other hand, the presence of a press corps always aiming at "making the note", and more so in an election year, is a circumstance that we knew we must not dismiss. The situation could easily get out of hand if no specific control mechanisms were put in place. Fortunately, as you know, we had built a good relationship with the Presidential Office, in particular with the Communications Director and with the Press Secretary, Spokespersons for the Executive Branch. They were instrumental in the implementation of helpful control measures during the installation ceremony and beyond.

    Our objective was to add credit in the eyes of major stakeholders not only to the message delivery component but to the full project. The petit committee meeting that we held with the President was a first step in this direction. With our participation in the Inter-Ministerial installation event we wanted to affirm the Presidential endorsement to the project as presented. Many people considered this an unnecessary measure since, after all, our proposal had been awarded the contract by a prestigious Panel of Adjudicators in a legal tendering process. If we had the vote of such Panel, why then seeking further credit?

    We had, in effect, in our hands at least two official documents legitimating the winning proposal:

    • The adjudication document which included a comparative table of qualification values pertaining to the three finalists. This document was signed by the Director of the Trust, by the Adjudication Panel in full, and by an assortment of witnesses present in the adjudication meetings.
    • A letter of intention accepted by our Consortium and offered by the Trust delineating the Contract to be signed. The main body of the final contract was still in legal discussion between our respective attorney firms. The Trust and our Team were still working on important addenda to the contract.

    Beyond legal aspects, however, we knew that in this project, as in many complex projects in their beginning stages, a new network of power-dependence relations would emerge. We knew that we needed to unveil such power network early and manage it appropriately. I am referring to relationships amongst actors that were mostly tacit and informal, that is, not depicted explicitly in the formal reporting structure or line of command; relationships originated by the launching of the project itself that might introduce mediating factors in the achievement of the project objectives. Identifying those project mediators and maintaining the stability of our position in the power network was prioritary. In our experience, the final contract must take into account the existence of these relationships and the balancing operations concerted. We have seen enough project failures caused by the sole reliance in perfectly legal contracts that were, nevertheless, just too formal and did not account for the informal power network in place.

    With the invaluable help of the Spokepersons for the Executive Branch, we established the following measures to mitigate the risks associated with early exposure and fulfill at the same time our main objective for the event:

    • Insure a conducive agenda and a suitable format for the installation ceremony and for the walktrough presentation.
    • Identify the inside power network emerging by the creation of the Inter-Ministerial Commission.
    • Produce a press release strongly focused on the message of the Pavilion rather than in the media of message delivery.
    • Avoid in the press release or in the walkthrough presentation the mentioning of any terms that may remind, even remotely, of current political campaign issues.
    • State clearly on the press release the amounts to be raised and its sources as well as the destiny of those funds.
    • Plan a meeting with the press led by the Spokepersons at the end of the presentation and in a separate room.
    • Schedule and announce in the press conference the first meeting with the Inter-Ministerial Commission.
  • Comment 2 from an outside colleague:

    I would have advised you not to worry, beyond certain limits, about friendly fire coming from the customer side. The Consortium and the Trust have after all a common objective: delivering and operating a successful Pavilion. Most likely, there would be a negotiated truce at some point.

    On the same token, however, I would have advised the contrary regarding the friendly fire coming from inside your organization. The internal situation is complicated since, as you describe, the organization is experiencing stressful circumstances. The relief measures that you proposed would be effective palliatives, but the two opposing Directors are not going to let go easily. Their motives are self-centered and, in my opinion, inviting them to participate in the project would entail further risks.

    I am particularly concerned about the Director that you would put in charge of cost control. Would the finances of the project really be in good hands?

  • edited June 2012

    Answer to Comment 2 from an outside colleague:

    We were, in effect, looking for a negotiated solution with the Trust; and, as you point out, a solution is more likely if both parties pursue a common objective and only disagree in certain aspects of how to carry it out. We wanted, however, a solution with a limited impact on the finances of the project and, at the same time, a solution consistent with the design guidelines of the winning proposal. But I agree with you, an understanding with the Trust was not far.

    The Trust, on the other hand, was not the only actor in the emerging power network created around the project. The seven Ministers would soon step into the stage. And they certainly would have something to say about their requirements. Negotiations with external parties were not over yet.

    With regard to the friendly fire coming from inside the organization, I totally share your concern about the self-centered motives of the opposing Directors. I was never sure that the strategy of inviting these two Directors to participate in the project, and promising them fair game in their future career advancement was going to prosper as expected.

    At the time, however, I had no arguments against implementing this strategy; only the intuition that something was not in place. On the other hand, I had little say on the matter: the Executive Director of the Museum knew better and I needed to trust and support her decision.

    The only alternative that I had left was to follow as close as possible the activities of the opposing Director who would be in charge of Cost Control.

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