Perspectives: Field Notes

Work to build coalitions with difficult teams

Managing feuds is the first step toward a successful project, according to Senior Editor Dirk Willard in his monthly installment of Chemical Processing's Field Notes column.

By Dirk Willard, senior editor

“If you have some respect for people as they are, you can be more effective in helping them to become better than they are.” – John W. Gardner. This was certainly true for this bunch, I told myself. I finally had the buy-in for a project scope from maintenance, instrumentation, quality assurance, validation, production, environmental and safety. As a contractor at a pharmaceutical company, I had no authority over my “team” and no control over the feuds between them. How did I get them to put aside their differences to cooperate on a team? By employing several tricks I learned from a lifetime of such experiences.

First, never try winning approval in committee; discuss the matter, alone in the quiet of their office where they feel at ease. The committee meeting should be all smiles, with the occasional bared teeth — a formality. In their offices, their “comfort zone,” listen to their concerns and write them down; you will want to compare notes later. Change the plan if it will avoid conflict. When you’re there, keep an open mind and try to remember all the valuable lessons in Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends & Influence People.” If you haven’t taken this text to heart, you are missing a great opportunity to understand human beings. Three important lessons are crucial: “learning to walk in the other person’s shoes,” letting people uncork their ideas — to vent, and finding out what the customer really wants. Sometimes, the original scope gets so muddled that this process can go on for months.

Second, fully communicate every change — be transparent. You want to be the conduit for information, not become embroiled in turf battles between individuals. Nor do you want them to gang up on you! Some of the best tools for rapidly dispersing ideas are the company e-mail and Powerpoint. Draw up simple plan (flat) and elevation (profile) drawings of the new and old layout. Distribute them, with the scope memorandum, before individually meeting each person. Be careful to run any drawings by the designers. Usually, they will have their own spin on how the information is presented. Also, if other engineers’ projects may be affected by yours, check with them.

Follow through: it may take several meetings with individuals before you have their acceptance. Also, check with your boss; he may not like the changes and want you to re-negotiate, especially if costs or delivery are affected. When an alteration runs into budget or schedule constraints, re-negotiate a buy-in between the parties. Despite the advantages of the Internet, this can’t be accomplished effectively except — face-to-face. When I was re-designing a cubical in research, I brought a scale-drawing with the equipment scaled to match: pumps, columns, the 1,500-gallon vessel, etc. I let each individual play with several different arrangements until we had a consensus.

Be prepared: you may never get your “team” primed for accepting the scope again. Make sure that final drawings are prepared, the scope has been proofread and that the budget is prepared and approved. Identify where changes were made, and who made them, if it will be helpful; if this will only stir up trouble, carefully step over this sleeping dog. Chances are your team will know who suggested the change. Organize for the meeting in the same way in which a lawyer prepares for cross-examination: know the team and plan answers to their concerns.

Sometimes a fight is unavoidable, so be prepared! One prickly production manager seemed to live for disagreement. He seemed to enjoy watching project engineers squirm by making last-minute changes. I found it best to agree with him on some general changes (another Dale Carnegie approach) — we thrashed out the details right there. Nothing kills a discussion like “No.” Of course, this can mean more delays, but not if handled carefully. It is usually a good idea to leave a little fat in your budget for just such an occurrence. One method to avoid trouble at the meeting is to invite the troublemaker’s boss to the meeting: nobody looks good beating up people in front of the guy who signs their paycheck.

Avoid trying the obvious solution — getting rid of the troublemaker. Even if you succeed, you will hurt your reputation or make an enemy. Face the problem, who knows you may find a new friend. The best method to win a fight is by reminding everyone of the value of the project — this is usually the best way to gain support. Encouraging people to respond to the better angels of their natures is the best way to assure that your project is completed on time. By applying these tricks, I had a 90% approval rate during my stint at the pharmaceutical company.

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