Is it ‘us vs. them’ or ‘all together now’?

Posted by on May 24, 2011 in Culture | 0 comments

(This article originally appeared in Computerworld and at

Over the years, I’ve noticed the power that a few simple words have to determine how project teams relate to their sponsors: “client,” “customer,” “we,” “us,” “them” and “partner.” It’s odd how little attention is paid to these words, given the critical role that the relationships they describe play in the success or failure of projects.

As a consultant helping to launch new projects or turn around troubled ones, I listen carefully for these words, because they tell me all I need to know about the relationship between project team and sponsor. When I hear “client,” “customer,” “us” or “them,” I know that the team is working in a transaction mode. “Partner” and “we” indicate that they are in a relationship.

A Tale of Two Modes

The mode of the interaction tells participants how to conceptualize their roles. This informs the goals they pursue, their relative social status, the information that they share with each other, the tone of the conversations they have and the ethical standards they are expected to uphold.

Transaction mode has two distinct roles: buyer and seller. Buyers, usually the project sponsors, are concerned with acquiring the best technology for their constituents at the best possible price. They expect to be treated with deference, since “the customer is always right.” Maintaining a long-term relationship with sellers isn’t likely to be a high priority for buyers, because they sometimes have to change suppliers to get the best deal. Since the long-term relationship isn’t that important, they might be willing to be (or even delight in being) unreasonable and coercive to get what they want.

Sellers, often the project managers, are concerned with satisfying the customer while making the best profit possible. They treat buyers with deference in public, but possibly with derision in private. They will do what they must to get and keep the business, including possibly withholding information or being deceptive.

Relationship mode has only team members, not opponents. The team members represent different functional areas, but they are ultimately part of a collective. They jointly define common goals and expected standards of behavior. Together, the team members work to balance the common goals they commit to and the goals of each functional area that the members represent. The balancing act is more collaborative. Information is handled more transparently, and problem-solving is a joint effort. Together, the team places a higher priority on maintaining the long-term relationship, since they expect to continue working together after the completion of the project.

While each mode has advantages and disadvantages, relationship mode tends to yield better results and lead to a better work environment for everyone involved. Teams in relationship mode find motivation in their commitment to one another. When the dynamic is transactional, the participants find motivation outside the team. Teams committed to their buddies are more steadfast than ones devoted to a concept or a distant client.

So before you automatically start calling your sponsor your “client,” give the relationship some serious thought. One little word at the beginning of the project can make a huge difference.


Copyright 2011 by Computerworld Inc., One Speen Street, Framingham, MA, 01701.  Reprinted by permission of Computerworld.  All Rights Reserved.

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