In late 2014, it became clear that a high-stakes joint venture was in trouble. As the multi-billion-dollar project to build a new facility was subject to close oversight by federal regulators and a very ambitious timeline, there was no time to waste.
At a glance
Industry: Oil & Gas
Challenge: Turn around performance on a high-stakes multi-billion dollar project to build a new facility
Objective: Work with joint venture partners to develop a high-performance environment, a culture of commitment, and a sense of shared purpose—as well as achieving all-important short-term “wins” and milestones
JMW Approach: Joint venture support, delivering results and creating a culture of commitment
Results: Project achieved IFC approval
Adding to mounting pressures was the fact that the joint venture companies had agreed to a performance-based contract; failure to deliver on time and on budget could expose both organizations to huge financial liabilities.
The two lead organizations in the venture had consistently missed critical deadlines and were at serious odds about how to get things done. There were work culture clashes underlying the difficulties, with one firm taking a very process-oriented approach, and the other demonstrating a very action-oriented perspective. There was also an offsite sub-contractor responsible for a key part of the work, and a significant need to align its approach and efforts with those of the two lead companies.
Other consultants had previously come and gone, conducting interviews that confirmed the lack of alignment and the resulting lack of performance, but had been unable to offer a solution. Beyond diagnosis of the problem, an immediate shift was needed to lift the project out of jeopardy.
The client engaged JMW to help right the situation. This would require developing a high-performance environment, a culture of commitment, and a sense of shared purpose—as well as achieving all-important short-term “wins” and milestones that would make it possible for the project to move forward and succeed despite the current state of failure.
JMW’s consultants were onsite for much of the first month of the engagement, putting into motion an intervention designed to help staff from all parties put the past to rest, understand and implement the basic tools for performance, and shift their perspective from that of “two companies” to “one entity.” If the organizations could do that, they could deliver the results required for regulatory approvals needed urgently before construction could begin.
There was a half-day kick-off session with 10 senior leaders, followed by a half-day session with key leads, and a series of training sessions with various teams over the course of the month. The sessions served as opportunities to identify stumbling blocks, introduce ways to enhance performance, leadership, and communication, and address emerging issues and opportunities.
While the senior leaders of the joint venture companies were very clear that the project was a “make or break” proposition for their organizations, this perspective was not demonstrated by staff at other levels of the companies. This disconnect was addressed head-on in the JMW sessions, which were designed to facilitate constructive dialogue about the most difficult of issues that were getting in the way of progress.
One such obstacle addressed was the two companies’ relationship to the project schedule. People “didn’t believe” the schedule, with teams on one side of the joint venture making assumptions that the other side had built in “cushion” that made for unnecessarily tight deadlines. In leadership and development sessions, JMW worked with people to shift their orientation to the schedule, committing to deadlines as “their word,” versus commitments being imposed on them. They did so with a fuller appreciation for the highly complex approval and regulatory review process that had to be completed before even one shovel could break ground on construction.
Moreover, it became clear in the initial sessions that while people were aware there could be steep financial penalties if the work was not completed on time—and were working to avoid harsh consequences—no one was “playing for the win.” JMW worked with leaders to cast the all-important short-term win to be completed before the end of the year. This win entailed (1) establishing a fixed and committed schedule for all deliverables; (2) assuring and reinforcing safety and quality standards across the board, and (3) very significantly, completing all of the technical design documents needed for the project to Issue for Construction (“IFC”) and have the IFC approved.
With the win established, JMW continued with interventions and development sessions that extended to staff at various levels, including key leads from the sub-contractor and administrative staff of the joint venture partners. The sessions served as opportunities to work through real-time issues as well as opportunities, and introduced additional perspectives and tools to continue enhancing performance and leadership.
The joint venture companies aligned on their shared mission-critical objective: rescue the project. People agreed to a taxing schedule that ran through December, and at all costs, kept to it. Safety standards were assessed, communicated, and enforced. And each and every document and diagram needed for IFC approval was submitted, clearing the path for construction to commence before the close of the year.
IFC approval by the end of the year had been viewed by many involved as impossible. A key factor in the turnaround was moving the focus from past failures, acrimony, and recriminations to a focus on the win and the huge levels of collaboration and cooperation it would require.
There were definite pockets of resistance along the way, and no one would claim a wholesale culture shift over the course of a few months. But real and measurable progress was made in how teams changed their approach to the work. People began to adopt and demonstrate awareness of the “operating state” needed to reach certain breakthrough milestones. In order to pull the project out of danger and bring it to a state of stability, they embraced operating in a state of high rigor that wasn’t sustainable for the long term, but was absolutely necessary in the near term for the project to survive.
While prior attempts to save the project had focused on processes, the JMW engagement was designed around delivering results. The leaders and key front-line players from both joint venture companies were able to rally behind the win, and as they did so, began to accept that new ways of working would be required if they were going to prevail.
In addition to the year-end metrics that demonstrated unprecedented results for the joint venture, there were anecdotal results as well. For example, members of the lead team for the joint venture owner have noted that on conference calls with the teams, they “could tell if JMW was in the room or not.” They observed a higher level of rigor in discussions where JMW was present, and a more thorough acknowledgment of the roles and shared accountabilities of all involved.
Another result to date is the acknowledgment of the joint venture partners that more adjustments must be made for the project to succeed in the intense construction phase now underway. JMW has since been engaged to work with leaders and teams as they take on critical deliverables with people working around the clock.
In a project that is high-risk with tight margins, investing in on-the-spot development and training is far from the norm. But the commitment to do so represents a true appreciation for the importance of building and sustaining a culture of performance, delivery, safety, and quality. It also demonstrates a firm belief that game-changing shifts in how people think, work, and behave are not only possible but sustainable, even for projects in the greatest of jeopardy.