Key relationships required for your journey

Orrido di Santa Anna, Traffiume, Italy

Like many others in today’s business world, I have been involved in many transformation journeys in one form or another. That could be as the responsible transformation programme manager or managing –for instance- the implementation journey associated with it. ‘Inside the fence’, so to say, as an integral part of the client’s team.

But, I also act as an outside consultant. To help the client shape and manage the journey themselves with or without a direct delivery accountability. More ‘looking from the outside in’, if you like.

There is an interesting difference in the organisational dynamic in those two different environments.

In the former, ‘inside the fence’, environment, one is directly part of the organisational power dynamics and directly affected by the outcomes of the transformation journey. In metaphorical terms, one is (one of) the expedition leader(s) of the entire organisation travelling to the mountain top. Whilst at the same time actually being part of the expedition. Travelling to that top and planting the flag.

In the latter, ‘looking from the outside in’ environment, one can act more as an independent specialist partner. Often (but not necessarily always!) with some delivery accountability (being a ‘Sherpa’?) for part of the journey but without directly being affected by the outcomes. Often, this involves helping to map the journey, and then handing it over to a client programme manager to manage that journey. And then perhaps supporting them as a coach or something similar. The latter can often include helping overcome certain hurdles that the client has not seen before. Almost like helping build a bridge over an unexpectedly deep gorge.

Allow me to go back to the story I shared in the broken bottles posting. This was about a cava (sparkling wine) producer near Barcelona in Spain. They store around 150 million pressurised cava bottles in ‘batches’ of 25,000 bottles. A key driver for that business, of course, is to minimise bottle breakage, since the cost (and mess!) of those broken bottles is significant.

In that previous posting we already talked about the relationship with the bottle manufacturers. But, there is another, perhaps more unexpected, challenge. A few hundred meters from the storage facility passes the AVE (high speed train) from Barcelona to Madrid. That is tricky. The train thunders past, and the vibrations could easily set off a whole set of bottle explosions with –again- very messy and very expensive consequences. When this railway line was being planned, that issue was clearly recognised by the cava producer. But it may not have been on the radar of the railway company at all. In the process of designing and building the AVE line, this was identified as a key issue but without (yet) any workable solution ready.

To address this particular problem, the railway company worked together with the cava producer to design a special ‘sprung’ bridge, that would dampen the vibrations to levels way below the threshold for the bottles to explode. A totally unique development, with the associated high cost. This was only possible by combining the specialist knowledge from the cava producers (together with their bottle manufacturers) and the railway company’s bridge and railway building partners. After all, cava producers don’t tend to know how to build railways, whilst railway companies won’t have any knowledge on how to avoid this type of bottle breakage.

Note that type of key relationships with the bottle manufacturer from the previous posting and the key relationship with railway company are fundamentally different in nature for the cava producer.

One (the bottle manufactures) is a key relationship to achieve a joint continuous improvement journey with partners that have a deep vested commercial interest in the end product. This is not unlike the ‘inside the fence’ environment described above.

The latter (railway bridge design and build) is a high cost, long term investment solution for a partner that has no direct, vested interest in the end product. Much more like the ‘looking from the outside in’ environment as a specialist partner.

But, it seems clear that for both types of key relationship to be mutually beneficial, joint investment is required to be able to keep finding the ‘bottle designs’ or the ‘sprung bridges’ that are required for a successful journey.

My strong recommendation would be for all that are embarking on complex transformation journeys to look at those key relationships early on. To ensure that the rules of the game surrounding those relationship, both individually and commercially, are clear and established upfront. That the investments required from both sides are clear, including what is in and out of scope for these investments. Before the difficult challenges arise. Because they will.

It seriously damages the success of the journey when those relationships are either non-existent (or unclear) or emerge at a critical time without them having been considered.

I suggest it is key to map this journey, and the required key relationships at key stages, at the onset of the journey. To be all together in the assembly area when we start to climb the mountain.

Do you agree that managing key relationships is an essential element of any transformation programme? Are you consciously managing the key relationships for your journey? However small? Do you treat them as strategic? And, how skilled are you in this type of relationship management?