The client was challenging! Thirty plus hours a week in meetings and we hardly had time to do our work. The client really wanted to understand what we were doing, but kept redesigning everything to work as it did in the legacy system. They were their own worst enemy. Every attempt to bring them back to ‘delivered’ found a problem in the business process that ‘couldn’t be changed’. And business process couldn’t be changed because of limitations in the legacy software.
All we wanted was to find a way to separate legacy process from future-state and devise a change management structure to address the differences. Several formal meetings were arranged, but because so many high level individuals were involved in each, no progress was made. There was a lot of power posturing and decision delays that came with each meeting. Another approach was needed.
So we began informal, small-group and one-on-one meetings to get around the posturing and discover each individuals opinions so that we knew what the true sentiments were. Some progress was made using this method to discover and then present to the group the pros and cons ‘as we saw things’. This allowed for face-saving and brought out some very significant concerns.
In the wake of this sudden progress, I accepted a dinner invitation with the client project manager and our technical lead. We’d been building the relationship and this was not our first dinner together. We did all the normal small talk and kept the conversation away from work as it should be. Somewhere between pasta and coffee, the PM mentioned how nice it was that progress was again being made and how insightful our advice had become. We thanked him and moved on.
But then the PM brought it up again, this time from a different track. “As a project manager, I often find myself in situations like ours, where progress stalls and nothing seems to put it back on track. What you’ve done is here is very good and I’d like to learn from it. Could you explain, totally off the record, how your bringing people back together?”
The very next day, I was in the CIO’s office trying to explain why we were wasting client time with small group and one-on-one meetings.
Always remember, there is no such thing as off the record, and everything you say will go directly to the person who most wants to use it against you. Positive or negative, this principle always works. Lunch and dinner are great for building relationships and working through project details, but don’t assume that you are not on display. When the client is there, when your recruiter is there, when your just with your colleagues, you are at work and should conduct yourself as though you are in the office. Listen attentively, be surprised by nothing, offer advice the whole world can use; be professional.
Far more good is done over a meal than my little story would indicate, but don’t forget it goes both ways. I’ve used meals to build relationships many, many times! The intimacy of a meal setting helps span the gap between formal work relationships and allows us to better understand the individuals in attendance. It also takes casual relationships and builds friendships. Meals open the window of our non-work personalities so that we can see each other more clearly. Meals allow us to talk about whats truly important in our lives and build bridges that can’t be made at work.
Carry on, but don’t get carried away.
You keep looking for someone
To tell your troubles to,
I’ll sit down and lend an ear
Yet I hear nothing new.