Mace Group recently released an Insights report looking at some of the issues surrounding large scale infrastructure projects. In it Jason Millett, Chief Operating Officer for Consultancy, highlighted some of the key challenges facing those involved with these projects. The one that jumped out for me was that an anonymous UK infrastructure owner estimated that “80% of organisations talk about collaboration, 20% actually do it.”

A recent study found that 80% of all large projects globally experience cost or programme overruns. The recent Bangkok metro project, for example, came in at 70% over its original budget.

Mace – A Blueprint For Modern Infrastructure Delivery

The report looked at some good high level organisational strategies for improving collaboration and I recommend reading the report to look at these as they apply more widely than just infrastructure projects. While the report looks at some strategies for improving collaboration, there is also a layer of tactics  and more tangible, day-to-day measures, that those involved in these projects can use to improve collaboration.


Reciprocal debt is the mechanism which makes us feel indebted to someone who has done something for us, particularly if we didn’t ask them to do it. It’s believed by many social psychologists to be one of the things that enabled humans as a species to evolve. The expectation that if we do something for someone we will at some point get something back, can be a key driver of collaboration, particularly amongst individuals and groups who don’t know each other well at the start. Consciously doing things for other people which they haven’t asked for, will lead to them doing things to pay off the ‘debt’. This can quickly build a cycle of activities that over time becomes the normal behaviours within those individuals and groups. 

Some examples of things that individuals and teams can consciously do to build reciprocity within a project setting:

  • Go out of your way to share information that you know will be useful to the other person, regardless of whether it is directly related to the task at hand. 
  • Asking the other person when the best time for meetings are and scheduling around that. 
  • Making minor concessions on things, particularly where something hasn’t become ‘an issue’. This act is likely to be repaid with concessions on things you want in the future.
  • In the time-poor society in which we live, doing anything for someone which will save them time can be an effective way of building reciprocal debt.

These are all simple examples of positive reciprocity. It’s worth pointing out that negative reciprocity also exists and can be a major inhibitor of collaboration. If someone finds out that you have been hoarding information, they are less likely to share in the future. If we always prioritise our own interests then it is likely that others will prioritise theirs.

Understand People’s Fear

Fear can often prevent collaboration from happening. If we can understand at an individual level, what people are scared of, we can often address the source of this fear. The individual may not even be fully conscious of the fears or how they are affecting the situation. Some of the common fears that we see in business settings are:

  • Insignificance. Some people will avoid collaborating as they will see it as a threat to their status. They may be viewed as ‘the expert’ or ‘the go to person’ for something and be concerned that this won’t be the case if other people work with them on something.  
  • Impotence. Where insignificance is a fear of losing status, impotence is the fear of losing power or control. This can be a particular problem in multi-team projects when those in charge of teams put barriers in the way of the rest of their team collobarating with other teams.  
  • Subordination. Collaboration can present a threat to independence for some people, leading to a fear of subordination. Working together can feel restrictive to some people. 
  • Criticism. Collaboration leads to the changing and strengthening of individual relationships. Within teams and organisations this won’t always be viewed positively. “You’re only helping X with Y because of Z” is the type of criticism which may prevent some individuals from collaborating even when they want to.

These aren’t the only fears, but they are the most common ones which we see preventing collaboration. 

Fears only arise when we perceive a threat. A threat may be due to a change in the situation; be self-induced or have been stimulated by someone else.  If we can identify the threat we can often work out ways to reduce or remove it and increase the chances of triggering more effective collaboration.


A lack of understanding between two parties can often be the thing that is preventing effective collaboration. If we can understand what effective collaboration would look like and what it would mean to the other person, we can work out how that fits with what it looks like to us and what we need to do to bridge the gap.

Using “tell“, “explain” and “describe”  or adding them to more open questions such as who, what, where or why will lead to a more detailed narrative response. This will often bring out some of the real issues that may not have been apparent initially.

  • Tell me how collaboration can help you.
  • Describe what good collaboration looks like to you.
  • Explain what the challenges for collaboration are within your team.


There are a multitude of cultural and leadership behaviours which can affect collaboration and several of these were looked at within the infrastructure context in the Mace report. Here I’ve looked at three lower level tactical elements which individuals can do to change behaviour at an individual or small team level.

The collaboration challenge was only one of the insights made in the Mace report and while the report itself was focused at delivering modern infrastructure, many of the other recommendations apply in a wide variety of fields. The full report is available for download at the link below.

Share on: