Maintaining Objectivity on Long-term Engagements
You probably remember the concept of the ‘embedded reporter’ from our wars in the Middle East. Journalists would be attached to a specific military unit, essentially living with them and reporting from a virtual front-row seat on the unit’s operations. While it made for detailed, close-up reporting, many critics contended that embedded journalism was not good journalism, as close quarters over a sustained period almost certainly affected reporters’ objectivity.
In our work as project management consultants we often face similar challenges when it comes to maintaining objectivity.
We’re typically brought into consult for one of two reasons: To manage a new project with a scope that is simply beyond the abilities of a given organization; or to put the pieces back together when an existing project has gone south. In either case, we might be on site for six months or more, and therein lies the potential problem.
In order to be successful a project management consultant must integrate with the organization, its workforce and its operations. We will generally have a dedicated office space, be on site full time or close to it, and by necessity develop close relationships with the team members. The end of a contract, quite frankly, often involves an emotional parting.
Working alongside a given team for that length of time can make it a real challenge to remain objective, which of course is a prerequisite for effective consulting. The dilemma is this: How does a consultant integrate into an organization well enough to be effective, but still maintain the necessary detachment? For that matter, how do you keep from being mistaken for an employee, or constantly looped in on company gossip or infighting? In other words, how do you keep the wall between consultant and employee in place?
We prefer to think of that wall as a half-wall. There needs to be just enough separation to allow the consultant to develop the necessary relationships while remaining an independent and objective voice. Here are a few specific things we advise:
Consulting on a project usually involves unfettered access to an organization’s information systems, and that often means you’ll be issued a company email address to set up the necessary logins. Don’t use that email address for anything else. All communications should come from your own professional address to make it clear that you’re an independent entity. The same applies to company calendars.
There are two things you can count on in any engagement: First, there will be corporate infighting and gossip. Second, certain team members will do their best to draw you into the fray. It’s vital that you don’t allow that. When someone launches into a tirade about a co-worker or starts sharing information that is, shall we say, off point, you can either redirect the conversation or simply remove yourself. Either one is preferable to allowing yourself to become engaged in someone else’s ax-grinding.
After a time, both team members and visitors become used to your presence, and might understandably assume that you’re an employee. We make it a point, especially in meetings with outsiders, to not only introduce ourselves by name but also mention that we’re from Think, and our purpose for being there.
Similarly, as much as we may enjoy the company of other team members, we also draw that fine line between work and socializing. We politely (and often regretfully) decline invitations to join the others for happy hour or other non-work events.
However you choose to view the problem – remaining above the fray, not over-embedding, maintaining your independence – it’s vital that you do so, because going backwards once you’ve crossed the line is difficult if not impossible. The answers are often in a gray area, but that good judgement of yours is one of the reasons you’ve been hired in the first place.
The good news is that managing these situations properly makes a successful project outcome all the more likely, and that often leads to an extended or return engagement. Then you can avoid those difficult goodbyes.