The lifestyle of the traveling consultant makes it difficult to maintain professional distance. He makes friends with the client team members. He has dinner with his client peers and spends hours in meetings with them. In fact, the consultant may devote more time to his clients than he does to his own family. This investment of time creates a close personal bond between consultant and client, a bond that doesn’t always work to either’s benefit.

An incident in my own career drove this point home to me. It started one night when I had my head buried in the guts of a server. I heard a sound over the background noise. After a few seconds, I realized the sound did not, in fact, come from the rather tired power supply behind my head. Pulling out, I looked around.

My client project manager (let’s call him Larry) stood in the doorway. He handed me a glossy brochure about a new external storage device. He wanted to substitute it for our current model. On first glance, the two devices seemed exchangeable. Larry told me that he could get a great deal on the new device. However, he didn’t want to cause us any technical trouble by changing hardware platforms midstream.

I appreciated his candor and his concern. I also knew that we were under tight budget constraints. If we could lower the equipment costs up front, we might be able to squeeze in the customer training we had to drop earlier. I thought about it, did some quick juggling in my head, and told him we could test the new hardware in two days.

Larry gave me an odd look. He went back to his office. I set back working on my server with the bad power supply.

Late that evening, my project manager dropped by the data center.He showed me an e-mail from Larry, asking for clarification about how long the testing would really take. Larry, in good faith, spoke to several people on the project team to get an answer. He received estimates ranging from two days to two weeks. Larry needed a real answer, both for his own budgetary estimations and for the project sponsor.

Where we went wrong
My project manager had some strong words for me about failing to follow procedure. His anger stemmed partially from the entire team ignoring him. He also had a justifiable complaint about me personally undermining a procedure I helped write at the beginning of the project.

Stepping back from the immediate procedural concern revealed a deeper professional issue. Over the last four months, our team spent every waking hour with our client. The dividing line between our team and theirs broke down. Although this created an incredible customer rapport and great communication between the teams, it also blinded us to the distinctions mandated both by our executive sponsors and within the legal context of our work.

This specific breakdown simply highlighted the existing problem. Going back over our client communications, the project manager and I discovered an increasing trend towards informal discussions and language. Furthermore, we saw that this informal attitude permeated the project documentation, showing up as loose language and even slang.

Formality exists within the business world for a reason. It creates a social separation that reflects the legal and political realities in which project teams work. No matter how friendly with the client a consultant becomes, the two still work for different companies. These companies have different goals, needs, and legal responsibilities regarding the work performed. The structure of meetings, communication flow, and even project titles help to reinforce this reality, preventing a blurring of roles that can lead a party to overstep its bounds or to create legal liability.

Resetting the expectations
After laying out the problems, we tried to come up with solutions. We needed to address both the symptomatic issue and the underlying problem. The symptom was a formal problem with a formal solution. The underlying problem dealt with social interactions and people’s personal lives. Anything we tried would have to be both subtle and reasonably nonobtrusive.

The project manager first drafted an e-mail to Larry, telling him that we would submit a formal recommendation by the end of the week. He also scheduled a team meeting to discuss the change. I accepted responsibility for composing a formal recommendation based on our team’s feedback.

We spun around until dawn trying to come up with a solution to the deeper problem. In the end, we came up with three distinct options. We could:

  • Push for a much stronger professional separation in the teams. The project manager had full control over everyone’s travel schedule. He could use that to split out our team and theirs during the implementation phase. This would create physical distance between the two teams, hopefully severing the bonds a bit.
  • Try to lead the teams to a greater degree of separation through social leadership. By talking with a few key social leaders on both sides of the team, we might be able to generate some distance through reorganizing leisure time. For our part, we could adopt a slightly more formal tone in the office.
  • Force the teams to use formal methods of communication when dealing with one another. This would radically disrupt the current project work, but would reestablish professional distance in short order. It also had a high chance of backfiring. If it generated resentment, we could quickly lose control. We might also generate more political problems than we could handle.

In the end, we decided that we needed input from the client before making a decision. My project manager took Larry out to lunch for an off-the-record conversation. When they came back, they addressed each other as Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones. Both of them started to take their respective teams out to lunch for “discussions” that were best served if our counterparts were not present.

I followed up with a closed-door meeting with my client counterpart. We agreed to contribute to a joint status report, one part from his team and one from mine. This broke up the monolithic status report we used previously. It also created a visible separation in our team’s responsibilities.

By the end of the design phase, we restored a regular routine. Communications once again flowed through the formal channels, which avoided confusion and embarrassment for all involved. The information communications and social rapport still existed between our teams, but no longer interfered with our professional obligations.