Thursday, January 19, 2012

OMG, What Have I Done?! Anticipating Risks When Working with Others (contributed by Vicki James)

Vicki James ( is an independent consultant in Olympia, WA. She holds Project Management Professional (PMP) and Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP) certifications. Active in developing IT projects both as a business analyst and project manager since 1999,Vicki is passionate about learning and sharing best practices in project management, business analysis, communications, leadership, and organizational improvement.

I quit my public service project management job about a year and half ago to enter the world of independent consulting. I thrive on change and the idea of bringing new and better ideas, processes, and tools to as many people and organizations as possible. Only I made a mistake along the way. This mistake could occur with a variety of working relationships, including corporate employment, project collaborations, consulting for clients, and business partnerships.

The story begins about six weeks after I had left my civil service position, where I had been a business analyst and project manager for eleven years. I had started talking with one of the owners of a local technology company about subcontracting opportunities in both business analysis and project management. Instead, they offered me a job as a salaried employee. Great! I could earn a salary doing what I wanted, consulting with different clients while helping the company expand their business opportunities. The difference is that my work would be through an established company rather than my own startup. What did I have to lose? I was prepared to postpone establishing my own consulting business for one year as a worst-case scenario. This company hired me without even an interview, which seemed at the time like a vote of confidence and sure sign of success. In hindsight, I went to work for them with too little information, and I paid the price.

Interviews are a funny thing. Most of us fear them. What questions will they ask? Will they like me? Will I sound knowledgeable? Do I have spinach in my teeth? I often counsel others who are considering a change that the interview is a chance for them to find out about the prospective employer and judge how well it might align with the candidate’s professional goals and expectations. Too bad I did not listen to my own advice. I did not take the opportunity to explore how the company would help—or hinder—my own professional aspirations. Instead, I envisioned a world in which they would leverage my expertise to expand their own business, both in terms of client projects I took on, but also relying on my experience and tendency to act to bring better process to my own work environment.

The management structure of the company includes four officers: three investors and a hired operations manager. By one officer’s own admission, there is not a single decision manager. Instead, the company philosophy is management by consensus. This approach did not allow for serious consideration of my ideas for process improvement within the company. I felt as if my expertise and experience were not valued because of this. Initially, I chalked it up to being the new girl on the block. Eventually, though, the reality became clear that adding another perspective to their dynamic would confuse things more than they already were in their leaderless decision-making processes.

Things began to unravel almost a year into the position, when they assigned me to manage a troubled project. I had been working directly with various clients on contract away from the central office and bosses until this time. It was when working with the bosses on managing a high-profile client that I began to recognize the extent of the differences in our business philosophies and professional ethics. Here are a few examples of the struggles I encountered:
  1. Management often questioned and criticized my actions, decisions, and communications because we did not share the same client- and team-management principles. I am generally forthright and candid; I communicate everything to all. They prefer to hold information close to the vest. Rarely did a week go by that I was not “counseled” by one of the bosses. Often, this was after I previously had discussed some strategy with another boss. They did not have a shared philosophy amongst themselves, and I often paid the price for their lack of continuity.
  2. I am an analytical and process-oriented individual. In this fast-moving technology company, I always feel that projects are in chaos. The managers believe that process slows down development and therefore billing; I don’t agree.
  3. The management team as a whole does not buy into the value of project management. One or more bosses will often ignore or overturn my recommendations and actions in relation to project process, clients, and team development. On at least two occasions, the Chief Technology Officer has made derogatory comments to me about “you project management types.”
This is clearly a clash of working styles and values. I now realize that an interview and more exploration up front might have kept me from taking a job at a company where I would not be happy. I might have avoided the position altogether or been able to propose conditions of employment. Because I leapt at this appealing opportunity without performing due diligence, I missed an important opportunity to identify and manage some of the risks of working with other people. Instead, I spent fourteen months in a position that was not satisfying.

Different professional relationships come with different risks. I now see how important risk analysis is when I consider this from the perspective of an independent consultant and the opportunities that might come along. Let me give you some examples.


Some clients will come with a cost greater than the benefit you hope to receive. It may be that there is too little or no money if the client does not pay as agreed and you end up in the hole. There may be other financial impacts to the company, such as the cost of employee turnover or the company’s reputation if things go badly. Get to know your clients and document all agreements (financial and working) before beginning work. You always have the option to turn the work down. This should be a serious consideration when the risk is high.

Business Partners

Taking on a business partner is much like a marriage in the sense of financial and legal obligations. The unfortunate ending in either case is called “dissolution” and can be very damaging. You should understand your future business partner to be able to identify the risks and benefits of working together.


You will need to rely on your collaborators to uphold their end of the bargain and treat you fairly when joining forces to complete a project. Get to know them. If you need to, check references either formally or informally. Discuss and document all agreements up front to avoid misunderstandings. I recently began collaborating with a colleague on a writing project. This time I much more carefully considered what could go wrong and how likely it would be to happen.

Whether you’re exploring a client–vendor relationship, an employee–employer relationship, or partnering with someone in a business or a project, consider the following questions to begin recognizing the potential risks:
  • Do you share a common vision for the business or project?
  • Do you know and accept each other’s work ethics, dedication, and commitment?
  • Do your skills complement each other? For instance, do you have a skill your client lacks, or does one partner have a strategic, big-picture outlook for the company, while the other can focus on the details?
  • Is there mutual respect for each other’s expertise? That is, can you be confident that your ideas will be fairly considered, or does your client or partner believe that she already has all the answers?
Once you’ve acquired more information, you can ponder further. What are the likely benefits of the collaboration? What can you imagine possibly going wrong? What impact could those outcomes have on you mentally, financially, or professionally? What is the likelihood of each of those risks materializing into an actual problem? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?

This is where I failed in my own situation. While I had considered the worst-case outcome of employment as deferring my move into independent consulting for a year, I did not take the time to adequately explore the range and likelihood of other potential unpleasant outcomes from taking this position. I hope you will gain some valuable insight from this experience so we can all learn from my mistake.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)


  1. Great article - thanks for being so candid. This is a very timely article, for me!

  2. Thank you. I'm glad you found the article useful and timely.