In this episode Dan Phipps, the Operation Director of Ghyston Software shares some insights on bridging the client-supplier divide.

Ghyston develops stylish mobile apps, highly functional websites, and complex ERP Systems. Dan’s specialities include IT Leadership and Management, Mobile and Wireless Computing and Project Management. He is also a PRINCE2 Professional Practitioner and Certified ScrumMaster.


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Transcript: Episode 74: “Bridging the Client-Supplier Divide” with Dan Phipps

Could you share a little bit about your company Ghyston and yourself?

I am the operations director in Ghyston. We are based in Bristol and we do bespoke software for companies. When they have a problem they want to solve, they want to make some innovations, they want to make more money, that kind of thing, and they need the technology to help them do that. We come in and help them. But I started out as a software developer and I did a degree and a masters in software development.

I don’t think that I should be trusted with code anymore but I enjoyed the challenges at the time. I moved up through project management and into, what is now the director of all of the delivery team. I’ve always enjoyed working in the small to medium-sized companies. I like the feel of those, but I like working with companies such as Ghyston that go into other companies, the larger companies and you got lots of different challenges by working with lots of different companies, different people, different sectors and I’ve always enjoyed I’m having that difference rather than working on one or two specific projects. I still remember my first bit of code at college which was to make a button change color when you clicked it. It was just amazing.

Would you tell us a bit about the client-supplier divide?
We work with a lot of customers that are quite new to that way working and software development entirely. It is quite easy for that divide to grow and we can go in and see that from the outset. In fact, it usually comes from missed opportunities and it starts right before the suppliers are picked and propagates through the stage. What I mean by starting even before the suppliers are picked – if you think of common procurement activity, users tell another part of the business, what they want and they describe what they’ve got and they say they would like something like this but digital form.

And then the procurement people then try and take that to suppliers and find the suppliers. So instantly, the suppliers are talking to a middle person rather than directly to the customers or the users. And that just propagates through the whole process if you don’t correct it early on and you end up missing opportunities all the way through. Right at the start, the users are defining what they know, what they’ve got right now and you quite often end up with these digital transformations that just produce a digital copy or digital version of the paper-based system that they had before.

Because they don’t know the technologies, they don’t know what they can do and that’s where companies like Ghyston come in and they can help with that blue sky thinking. At the start, they don’t have that knowledge. And then, there are no challenges with those requirements so they list of all those requirements and you might have some low-benefit but high-cost features in there and there’s no opportunity to meet that. And it just keeps on going throughout the process and you have difficult change processes because you’re talking at loggerheads to each other. It’s just a quite common thing to see in the projects unless you correct it early on.

Is it a huge problem that they don’t know what’s possible, from a technology point of view?
Yes. Even telling them that everything is possible, if you try and think of being a heart surgeon or something you’re not familiar with it at all and you’re told that anything is possible, try to think outside of your knowledge base of things that you do know, it’s really difficult to make that leap. So, you’ll always find that you come back to what you do know, what feels comfortable and that’s why you start describing. It’s really difficult to break that cycle and get them to think of the extra things and that’s why that divide exists.

Do you think in most cases there is a divide because of the middle person?
Definitely. It doesn’t always have to be a person, it can be a process. Procurement is an entity that gets in the way but sometimes you’ve got the contracts and things that are putting up these walls between you. So, unless you align your thinking with the customer, you got suppliers that want to not do any more work than they have to if there are on the fixed price contract and you’ve got clients that want to get as much as they can for as cheap as they can.

You end up pulling out these contracts and talk about “Well, this is what we said and that’s what you said, this is what we thought you meant, this is what you are delivering, this is what you’ve written down.” It becomes “we and you” or ”us and them” sort of things. It can be that the contracts in the process you need to tear down. If you want to see where this is coming from, something to look out for is the outputs and outcomes.

There is a real focus on the output deliverables rather than the business outcomes or the value that the business is going to get. That would recess that the client and supplier are dividing and their goals aligned. Because they’re just trying to deliver a set of requirements, they are going through a list of things they’re not looking for value throughout the process.

What provides the tangible evidence that this divide exists, how can we see it and how soon can we see it?
I think it would be difficult to spot this divide when you’re in the middle of it because you fall into a pattern of thinking and the natural state of mind for anyone is to protect themselves, to look after their own interests. What we often do is to bring an outsider. The first thing is to know that this divide exists. It is much easier for a fresh outsider to come in and see the differences between the two and help you from getting your mind out of the way you are thinking.

What is really good is focusing on the value that you trying to get rather than a list of things you’re going to produce, why you are producing. In the absence of information about the value, of course, the system is going to optimize other things. You are going to have the goals and if the goals aren’t aligned, the supplier and the client are going to be optimizing two different values. And you can see those different values showing in and confrontations, deliveries being missed and scope of increasing. All of these are a sign that there is a lack of alignment between the two.

Things like value are quite subjective, so could you give us some further insight into managing it?
It is subjective. And project management is more about softer skills. This is probably one of those that fits more into that area rather than having some key performance indicators of things going wrong or that the divide exists. But you can probably look at that blame culture, the back passing, so that could be something that potentially could be measured, how many times has there been a disagreement, where you’ve had to go back to the contracts or that kind of thing.

But I think the real rather than measuring it in hard numbers, something we use is the feedback loop and it is very common in agile projects. That’s actually a chance to take a step back, get together, it’s important that feedbacks are done as collaboration between both sides, client and supplier. And done in a professional way but in an open way so that feel they can talk about it. And that’s how you get the more subjective qualities out as you talk about what’s holding up things and you look for how to improve that together.

Do you align from a project management point of view on risk management looking after it or is it something more in separate?
It is definitely a part of risk management and reducing that divide is the risk you have to do.  In fact, if it has come in right at the start, it’s almost an issue that you’ve got as soon as the project starts if you’re not careful. But it plays a part in it but it’s not the only thing that’s going into the control of that divide.

Do you have any examples, like a case study where you managed or seen the client-supplier divide managed in a way that works for everybody?
Yes. We recently did some work with Abbey National Care Home Provider. They have got care homes, elderly residential properties across the UK. They used to have these big folders of paper that described everything about a person’s care. They described everything from what sort of drink they like to monitoring their fluid intakes, who’s their emergency contacts, everything you can possibly imagine if they had a full emergency procedure they need to go through and the medication they were taking.

So, they’ve got this on every resident and they needed us to keep this up-to-date, they needed to be able to be audited, to make sure that was accurate and they were finding this a huge burden. They came to us and we ran a Discovery Phaser, the beginning to work on these the goals, the values of it and making sure they were aligned, so that was a really good way to start it off.

But it did help that they’d already tried another off-the-shelf system that was essentially a replacement of the paper way system. They found that just turning a paper form into an electronic form didn’t really work for them, didn’t give him any benefits, it just meant there were more monitors around them, more battery, but not actually any saving. They didn’t get any of the goals they wanted which were things like making it easier for the carers to see what they need to do in a given day, rather than having to list through all of these folders.

Giving carers more time to provide that care and also allowing management to see and act on issues live rather than having to go to each home and looking through these folders, they can actually see centrally. We went through this whole process and we built up the team, we worked on the values and one really good aspect of this project is that we made it and to get away from that “us and them” mentality, we made it a single-cross company team.

So that each level there was kind of counterparts and they work together so the product owner was a carer that was brought out of a home and we also had an expert on user experience and they were really working closely together, they went into the homes, they talked to the residents and the carers. It made it one team and we can have those quite frank open conversations that you need to have throughout the project. That one has gone live in several of the homes. It’s going to be a slow rollout because you have to match people’s lives, to make sure they get the right assistance, to make sure they get the right care.

The feedback is a phenomenal success as you often get in the big digital transformations. If you allow this divide to grow you quite often deliver what they thought they wanted at the beginning and what they described in these initial discussions, but not what they need and it’s really important to get in with the user and so we found this one that when it’s actually going to home, we’re getting comments like “I can finally have my lunch break again. I have enough time to do that.” And it’s been really welcomed in there and we’re now talking about the next stages.

In terms of project management, do you have a golden rule you live by when it comes to your projects?
You can pick a number of things you need for your project like communication, collaboration throughout the project and all of those. But what is often overlooked is the value. You need to follow that value. First, you need to know what you’re aiming for and what you want to achieve and why. But also don’t just do things for the sake of doing them. One of the conferences that I’ve gone to recently had an interesting conversation about this guy who went into a company and saw a team of 26.

That’s a very large team to start with and they were having a stand-up and you’d expect that to take quite a long time to go round, but it only took 5 minutes and that’s because everyone just stood up and said “Skip!” and sat back down. The whole meeting was fast but utterly pointless. As PMs, we should be constantly evaluating what is being done and asking if it is adding any value and if there is anything better than we can be doing. We should also be encouraging and empowering the teams to do that as well.