Virtual Collaboration - a cautionary tale

or you don’t benefit from the know-how you don’t use

I do a bit of flying and Ray's excellent cautionary tale, which follows here, reminds me of the 3 most useless things in aviation:

  1. Runway behind you

  2. Sky above you (nobody ever crashed into the sky!)

  3. Fuel back at the airport

Bioteams Guest Article by Ray Symmes

Translating this to 3 most useless things in virtual collaboration - I think you are in trouble if get into in-flight difficulties after virtual collaboration take-off if you have:

  1. Agreements never written down

  2. Partners never tested (potentially acting only in own interests)

  3. Processes never used (e.g. issue resolution, conflict management...)

The bottom line is that Ray knows a lot about how to do effective virtual collaboration but that is not much help if, for whatever reason, he was not able to put this knowledge into practice.

So I commend you to Ray's story and his style in telling it as it is with honesty and refreshing directness....

Virtual integration: Do as I say and not as I do

by Ray Symmes

It is only fair that I describe situations in my world that make me wonder how to make virtual integration work.

The premise is simple - pull together independent portions of the supply chain to meet the needs of one customer, project, or process. The end result is that the needs are met and the customer sees one-face. There is reduced complexity at the customer level and the resulting long-term relationships bring happiness for all.

The process is actually simple in design, as well. When we look at every order-line opportunity as an integrated “project”, we specify the outcomes and manage the processes, and the project owner/manager ensures that the needs are met.

So what can go wrong?

A ton. Allow me to enlighten you on a real project.

My team was given a hot lead regarding a large condo project that might benefit from our products and services. During the relating meeting, we learned that the client liked our audio/video brand and the Marketing VP would like to feature it in the development. From the Construction VP, we discovered that he was an engineer and he liked engineers.

That motivated us to put together an offering that featured a new network relationship, a team of young engineers who were talented, technical, and starting out. We learned about them because they wanted to offer our products on a job, and would have had to buy from us for that to happen. But that's not the story.

Here is what we began to learn:

1. The customer venture was encumbered by the potential of the government condeming the property to build a federal building. It was in the news, though all direct communication suggested that it was not a huge problem.

2. While the developer had a good name, he was young and it is apparent there was significant unnamed financial sponsorship.

3. We never met the developer.

4. The Marketing VP was a young trained lawyer who, as friend of the developer, has apparently never held that role.

5. We wrote a draft agreement that was never addressed by the client and we accepted payment without a formal agreement.

6. Key important decisions were being made by outside consultants, then overuled after the fact, and without our involvement. To boot, they worked within shouting distance of each other, yet most of their communication appeared to be by email.

7. Obviously, we were being treated as a pair-of-hands subcontractor.

And that's from the customer perspective!

From the supplier perspective, it was just as bad

1. I was clear (maybe I should say I clearly stated) regarding our expectations from a partner as one-face and one order-line. No side deals without our approval, though we actually helped them gain entre on a different portion of the project. Our name would be used for all shared agreements. We didn't get an agreement in writing because things started to move very fast, and I trusted them.

2. As time went on (a couple of enlightening meetings later), we learned that this partner “company” was actually a loose conglomeration of colleagues, with no internal processes. Needless to say, that would play out to our disadvantage.

3. One network partner quickly proved to be a loose cannon, totally focussed on himself. A second was barely connected to our project, but weighed in on important matters. We won't get into it, but the loose cannon's ego, arrogance, and insecurity make it difficult for us to relate with this gentleman (particularly given my own ego, arrogance, and insecurity). The original point of contact was a steady and honorable chap, but he was not a strong leader.

4. So we lost focus on certain issues because our own “partners” could not be counted on to do as they promised, and we didn't stay on them. No return phone calls, no agreed upon emails, late for every meeting. And though I challenged their point person, nothing changed.

5. Another thing we did wrong is I went on vacation during this period, didn't have email, and my colleagues cut a deal that, had we all discussed it, might have allowed us to change our tack. That, plus our 2nd and 3rd invoices (that was our only documentation of the agreement), were not completed correctly and didn't adequately describe parts of the agreement.

As time went on, we struggled through this operation

When it came time to do the install, we did not get the agreed-upon promotion, didn't get any showroom recognition, and our partners didn't complete the install on OUR portion of the project.

This left my team with the only non-functioning product in the display.

Where we stand today is the customer got brilliant elite products at an obscenely low price, and we have no agreement as they go into the selling phase of the project.

Why do I tell you this, when I so believe that our strategy was correct?

It was a simple project (maybe too simple), and we had ALL the skill and knowledge and experience and wisdom to avoid every single one of these cock-ups.

Why didn't we?

I think we were so afraid of failing, that we forgot what got us in the position to succeed in the first place: our consulting approach, our ability to network with suppliers, and our elite products and service.

So there are some real lessons from which we must learn....because this will happen again if we let it.

1. No matter how well we do whatever we say we are going to do, someone in the system has to remain disspassionate and maintain her/his sanity and objectivity.

2. Without process and documented agreements, there is no deal, no matter how much we want to trust people.

3. Without consequences for the relationship, positive or negative, there is high likelihood of self-centered behavior. That's why I talk about “Planet Me”, a place where my needs naturally over-ride your needs and our needs.

4. You can't be a literalist; You have to trust some level of your own intuition that the bad cues you are reading just might not be the result of paranoia. Bad news, unlike wine, doesn't improve with age. When the information is negative, you must assume that it is not going to improve without some kind of intervention.

5. You must hold your customer to the same credibility standard that they expect of you.

6. Network agreements must be in writing, and if you don't use “one voice”, you may as well realize early the partnership is in trouble.

7. It is too late to walk away once you take the money.

8. If your own people representing the venture fail, you have to get them out of there, quickly.

So the moral of this story is deep, but not very complicated.

No matter how well your strategy is formulated, how you execute it will be the measure of success.

Maybe you can learn from some of our errors.

About the author

Ray Symmes is Principal, Image5, LLC and can be reached at

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