A Bow Tie Earns Respect at

the Watercooler

Identifying the Issue

News traveled fast at this western United States architectural firm. As the vendor, we learned how dissatisfaction at the project level radiates outward faster than upward. The result was a stoppage of project work before the strategic contributors of either party could identify the quality gap and implement corrective measures.

Flipping a common Supplier Relationship Management (SRM) model resolved the stoppage of work. The cause? Negative talk among client Project Managers (PMs). Horizontally aligning higher-skilled vendor PMs with the client PM in a peer-to-peer model enabled direct communication and better workflow management, so the client PM regained trust and confidence in the relationship.

The Challenge

In a long-term retained team model, the client-vendor relationship must show early-on effectiveness at the project level. Client PM dissatisfaction can shake trust, leading to an early stoppage of work. Initially, several factors influence success or failure. Yet strong vendor communication and technical competence are the first two steps toward earning respect at the client’s watercooler.

The leaders who can evaluate and arrange tactical solutions frequently don’t learn of these formative challenges until it’s reported in their language; a bill with hefty idle time, missed deadlines or the vendor inquiring as to “why is there no longer any project work coming in?” At this point, the damage has been done.

What’s needed is a solution that could re-establish trust and confidence with the lead PM. enabling them to socialize the success internally, winning back the other PMs who are crucial in growing the relationship. Any steps taken have to improve the relationship between the vendor PM and the client PM, which is the epicenter for failure and success. If we could succeed here, by matching technical capabilities and experience levels, the new model could enable shared goals and better communication while fostering continuity. There would then be trust among technical peers rather than concern of incompetence.

The successful transitioning of technical design and drafting work from the client to the vendor adds to the challenge because it requires a learning curve. The key challenge facing the vendor is mastering client workflow and technical details in time to deliver satisfactory work before the vendor PMs’ confidence collapses under the burden of early-on mistakes. Decision-makers expect success, yet have a higher tolerance window to resolve transitional challenges. They have a much wider focus because their position is to realize long-term savings and efficiencies or to mitigate risk. Strategic leaders envision the future through a large lens, whereas project doers are more sharply focused on their project’s timelines and economics. Both aim toward success in making the vendor relationship work, yet PMs work within more restrictive boundaries and therefore must be directly integrated.

How can these expectations be reconciled so technical delivery improves yet the big picture stays in focus? What can the vendor do to win back the PMs before further bad news causes irreparable damage?

The Solution

A communications framework helps parties establish a formal mechanism for managing the relationship. Far too many business relationships wait until there is a crisis to actually talk to one another. Here, at the point of crisis, trust has eroded to the point of total collapse of all billable work. Although it seems too late to start rebuilding bridges, our team presents a solution based on a reversal of a traditional management model.

For the client to feel the engagement can succeed, they must be convinced their counterpart has sufficient experience, domain knowledge and communication skills. Client PMs don’t want to train a team lead, but rather collaborate with a trusted peer who can deliver consistent results that shine. The fact that the vendor team is overseas may amplify trepidation. The outdated Single Point of Contact model (SPOC) had to be redesigned to horizontally align roles on each side of the relationship. This new structure, which is a reverse of the traditional project management model, directly connects PMs who are then able to closely collaborate toward shared goals.

"Building effective lines of communication are the lifeblood of any successful project. With global collaboration, project teams need to be much more integrated and communicate much more frequently than in traditional outsourcing. We found several practices that enhanced communications with global collaboration partners. Direct contact between project team members in different locations works better than having a single point of contact on each side. The latter approach is timeā€consuming and results in miscommunication during information handoffs."

~Harvard Business School (Forbath/Brooks/Kalaher/McCormack)

On the left (below) is a traditional Bow Tie model, which leverages a "Single Point of Contact" resource on each side (a PM or an Account Manager). This works for transactional workflows that don’t require daily human interaction or the high level of scrutiny that lives within architectural interpretation. On the right is the Reverse Bow Tie model that horizontally aligns peers.

This peer-to-peer structure intentionally confines architectural workflow to architects. Billing, governance, client services and I.T. resources are likewise connected directly.

In the Reverse Bow Tie, success is no longer rooted in singularity, but in collaboration. The horizontal alignment of peers within this Reverse Bow Tie model enables them to collaboratively govern aspects of their workflow which are unique to their skill sets and responsibilities.

Implementing a Reverse Bow Tie with this architectural firm aligned and organized competence within the PM level so the vendor could not only understand at a higher level, but also deliver to the satisfaction of the PM. This saved the relationship

Transactional Workflow

Here are the steps we implemented:

1] We presented our client PM with a Peer, equal in technical and managerial capacity, which resolved the imbalance of skill.

2] U.S. Operations and Technical Support visited onsite to:

  • Acknowledge the issues,
  • Present a solution that met PM expectations, and
  • Begin a discovery of the vendor’s technical shortcomings which were the root of PM frustration.

3] Onsite Training was conducted with vendor PM at client site, then Co-Principal’s visit to vendor HQ to meet the team and enhance the relationship from both a technical and a cultural perspective.

Why did this solution work? A properly implemented peer-to-peer approach facilitates highly collaborative interaction., improving the flow of information. It enables communications exchanges that are designed to be direct in nature, allowing peers to work in a more collaborative and streamlined manner. Executive, operational and technical levels are paired to facilitate more effective and focused communication. The Reverse Bow Tie model enables this horizontal alignment of peers where the traditional Single Point of Contact (SPOC) model becomes a bottleneck.

The Reverse Bow Tie model addresses both challenges here, restated in their simplest form: 1] recruiting a vendor PM that is competent and communicates effectively and 2] measuring, validating, and sharing results.

Topics for regularly scheduled review meetings may vary; the 5P Analysis (table at right) formed the foundation for redesigned governance reviews with this U.S. architectural client which now included feedback from both the vendor and client PMs. Two new architects are already on board and moving to this new model of direct communication with vendor PMs and ultimately, weekly status calls with client services.

The Reverse Bow Tie Model


Big strides have been made to coordinate communication between the client principal who is now aligned with vendor operations. The weekly status updates and quarterly governance reviews now include PM feedback, which illuminates areas of concern and potential hot spots for growth.

Implementing a peer-to-peer model improved technical outcomes, communication, and PM relationships while transforming a zero-billing relationship into a 100% billable team that is now fulfilling its original vision.

The Reverse Bow Tie fosters communication at shared levels and assures that process and action are aligned between client and vendor in a more direct model. Thinking inside the box is back! When viewed against the backdrop of this success story, it’s good news at the watercooler again… And word travels fast.

A Bow Tie Earns Respect at the Watercooler