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The role of trust in project management success

Project failure is a complex, and scarily common, occurrence. Politics, budget constraints, planning hurdles and unexpected risk are often cited as the cause. However, one of the real deal breakers that is often lying underneath the reasons is an erosion of trust.

Trust is a complex beast. It is hard to build and easy to lose. To achieve it we must first understand what the component parts of trust are; how we achieve it – or create strategies to achieve it; why it matters and how it underpins successful engagement for major projects.

The theories…in brief!

Author David Horsager and Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei both write about trust. There are many synergies between the elements at the core of their theories and successful or failed projects, i.e. from an engagement perspective, a project’s success or failure can be attributed to any one (or more) of the elements Horsager and Frei focus on.

Consistency, clarity, compassion, character, contribution, connection, commitment and competency (8 Cs) are Horsager’s pillars of trust. And Francis Frei’s components of trust sit neatly on the three points of a triangle: Empathy, rigour in our logic and authenticity. When working with organisations to fix trust issues, Frei says “if any one of these three elements ‘wobble’ then they need to be fixed.”

Adding to these ideas, Brené Brown’s ‘Power of Vulnerability’ – although not specifically about trust – also plays around with ideas of compassion, connection and vulnerability, and the impact these have on communication breakdowns. Without vulnerability and connection, we numb, we make everything certain, we perfect, we pretend that what we do is not impacting others. Often projects that fail also display these characteristics – emotion is removed from communication, very little is said because nothing is certain or perfect, and rarely is there enough acknowledgement that the project impacts others.

When we merge these three ideas, we have a new triangle which is both a theory for building trust, and also contains all the elements that either make a project fail or succeed:

  • Consistency and clarity is about how we communicate the logic
  • Compassion and connection is about empathy
  • Character, contribution, competency and commitment is about being our authentic self. And so too, is embracing vulnerability.

To achieve successful engagement, and successful projects, if one of these points wobbles, it needs to be fixed.

Easier said than done?

Theory is one thing. Practice is often an entirely different ball game. Although these theories tell us what the essential components of trust are, it can be challenging to apply this insight in the real world on major infrastructure projects. In reality, sometimes there is too much focus on one point of the triangle, and not enough focus elsewhere. Without one of the elements, building trust is at risk.

We may dial one element up, or down, but we can’t remove any of them all together. A balance must be achieved across all three. Authenticity, empathy and logic must be aligned throughout the whole process – not just in the engagement strategy but also in how the ‘experts’ implementing the strategy operate. On successful projects, engagement specialists (such as Aurecon) build a client’s trust, have a partnering approach, understand the project, act authentically with genuine intent, openness and honesty. They also understand the project has an impact beyond the project team and often apply user-centred design principles when working with people to minimise any negative impacts and maximise the best outcomes for all.

With authenticity, empathy and logic embedded across the entire process, including how those implementing the process conduct themselves, it is possible to achieve great outcomes.

As one of the governance arms for a large new perimeter road being built in sensitive natural bushland – among a community of surfers, winery owners, organic farmers, schools and so on – I oversaw a process where from very early planning stages there was continuity and consistency of discussions with all types of community. The long-term interactions and listening to needs led to an engaged community that helped co-design the areas of biggest concern. It had a balance of logic, authenticity, empathy.

The logic was well understood: this road removed large trucks and improved safety. Authenticity was set from planning, people were engaged and involved well before funding was a reality. Often these discussions start after funding is announced and this project reaffirmed that having an authentic process prior to funding is extremely important. Empathy was evident not only by understanding the project’s impact, but also asking what could be done to reduce it and working with community to minimise land take and keep the environment as natural as possible through tree planting with local schools and other strategies. 

Another success story was a large road which cut off access to a primary school. The community was outraged because students couldn’t cross a highway to get to school (logic) and the proposed underpass was perceived as unsafe and a magnet for anti-social behaviour (empathy). Through an authentic engagement process, listening to the needs of the users, the brief was co-written and the ultimate design transformed into an open, airy, safer underpass with clear visibility for the comfort of students. The school was happy with the outcome and the approach to engagement created a huge sense of trust within the community.

What else is needed?

Engagement can be messy, with multiple stakeholders, multiple segments of audiences to be engaged with, politics and so on. But if projects are not trusted they will cost more, take more time or even run the risk of being cancelled. It’s essential that engagement specialists understand what trust is and design engagement strategies that build it by balancing each of the component parts. They must also have a voice at the top table when decisions are being made to ensure trust is fostered right through the lifecycle of the project.

Trust plays a highly critical role in ensuring a project’s delivery; hence, everyone – from the members of the team to the top-level decision makers – should understand and embrace its importance. Surveys, property condition reports, and town halls can only get you so far – but a strategy built on trust guarantees a robust foundation for success. 


About the author

Nicole Walton is Aurecon’s Lead for Communications and Stakeholder Engagement in Western Australia. 


This article is an adaptation on LinkedIn Pulse by Nicole Walton titled, What does Vulnerability and Purpose have in common? 

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