Collaborative Project Management


Modern superyacht builds increasingly push beyond the boundaries of any individual company’s core team. The use of extended, often distributed project teams is critical in meeting the design, scheduling and technology requirements these complex projects dictate. In this environment strong leadership and good communication become make or break factors.

Collaborative Project Management

We all acknowledge the importance of good teamwork and encourage individuals within our teams to develop their communication and coordination skills in order to be more effective, but this is no longer enough to complete the story.

Large projects push beyond the boundaries of an individual company’s capabilities and into the territory of extended teams, where specialists combine efforts to work as one project team.  As has long been the case in other industries, superyacht project teams are embracing the principle of collaborative working but making this approach effective calls for a reset of established project management and coordination practices.

Complex engineering projects are much like a team sport. The mechanisms required to build the required trust, and associated bonds that allow its members to put what is best for the organisation ahead of their own views are also well understood. However, what happens when the team is not able to spend the time required in building these relationships? Or, if the team is too fragmented across multiple locations & differing time zones to regularly interact? The careful management of this seemingly unconnected team of individuals is key in empowering the progress from a working group into an effective team.

A stark example of this can be seen across the globe considering the enforced distancing and reduced mobility we are all dealing with. Not only must we progress along the path of extended intercompany teams, our own established working practices have suddenly been shock tested by the enforced need to take everything remote, whilst continuing to run at full power.

To stay productive, we have all made unprecedented efforts; However, we are now faced with the challenge of keeping going through a new landscape. In this disruption lies opportunity. Looking forward, there will continue to be value in the “we have to have everyone in the room” approach, but we now have project teams who are very familiar with remote communication and are rapidly building up their skills in this new environment.

As argued by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie [Gallup study, 2009], resilience to conflict is the first tell-tale sign of effective team collaboration. Internal debates or stresses will not cause a ‘team’ to fail, or fragment. On the contrary, co-workers will work harder to regain equilibrium and in doing so develop cohesion in tough times.

For extended working outside of a company’s own boundaries, the new team mentality needs to fully acknowledge that other teams are busy working in other locations and are making valuable progress towards the project goals.  Only once the potential value of this input is accepted, can we begin the complex management task of ensuring efficient progress is being made across the wider team and that information is being shared in a manner which promotes the maximum project team effectiveness; not just the efficiency of one working group or one company.

Efficient communication in this case means a mixture of true leadership and effective communication.  A perpetual state of meetings, video conferences and calls are not indications of good collaboration. Reliance on individuals to correctly communicate to a large team, all the information which is important to a complex set of workflows will untimely fail, no matter the ability and commitment of the project manager. Modern communication and data sharing technologies now allow us to access common design information and review on-screen with colleagues, whether they are located in a different building on site or in a different company and country; the challenges lie in making these tools useful and effective, used but not time wasting.

Looking at what is being achieved in leading engineering sectors and the effort being invested both in collaborative design development and component manufacture, does inspire confidence in the enormous potential for collaboration and concurrent engineering design.  No doubt every example has had its own pitfalls and issues to overcome, but with so many tools and aids having already been developed and proven, the task lies with us to choose how to apply this know how to our more compact and still relatively low budget projects.

There is a temptation to over complicate; robust data sharing and simple on-line meeting capabilities offer big gains for limited outlay; but investing further in software and IT infrastructure does not guarantee an immediate return or even a positive effect.  A collaborative team must be well versed in the chosen communication strategies for remote working; with care taken to generate a consistent format, emphasis upon visual tools to describe technical problems and highlight areas of concern in order to prompt or provoke feedback.  Even avoiding abbreviations and internal buzz words and phrases can be critical in ensuring that project discussion across cultural and language boundaries is productive and to the point. This is where good strategy and leadership can have a greater positive impact than software alone.

All of these steps can be refined and developed within established project teams, but in order to be truly effective the project management team must re-think the fundamentals of their project planning, timing and tracking, factoring in the division of scope and working boundaries.  Looking at each subject as a linear series of tasks within a process still has its value and a place in the overall scheme, but for true concurrent working a broader view is needed in order to allow parallel processes to make progress, with shared understanding and ‘buy in’ from all key participants.   

As the map or matrix of key project team partners extends it is valuable to think of the accepted design and development spiral in terms of a phased or staged process, by splitting into agreed stages, the complex needs of the project can be broken down into bite sized chunks, allowing the team to move forward in step, sharing information at an appropriate level of detail and development, obtaining and sharing input before moving on into the next step.

Bringing together the individual aspects needed for effective collaboration requires a lot of effort and does not happen without joint commitment. Overcoming the inertia of individual working cultures and getting an intercompany team into a task centred mind-set has enormous pay-off potential.  Focusing the Project Management overview upon this aspect is a valuable option in the quest for efficiency savings, timeline reduction and improved quality of product.

Gary Rossall

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