Working in tandem: double trouble or total trust?

Most contracts, whether in the construction industry or not, are based on a ‘bilateral’ relationship i.e. two legal people working towards a common goal. This is the bare bones of contracting.

As the proud stoker of a tandem for the last 18 years, the analogy between tandem cycling and contracting has only just hit me.

Total trust

The first time I rode on a tandem, with my husband at the front, I thought it was like sitting on a rollercoaster – you are simply swept along by events. It was tremendously exciting, similar to the first few months of being in business. That initial rush of adrenaline is soon replaced by the more humdrum nature of the machine.

However it does have these things in common with contracting:

  • It requires you to work to the same goal. While it is obvious that the tandem can only go in one direction, you will quickly realise that both riders need to be working in synchronicity: pedaling hard or freewheeling at the same time; stopping and starting together. You have different roles, but the same goal.
  • It requires great communication. The pilot has all the information and the stoker is often left in the dark. It is critical that the pilot provides enough information for the stoker to be effective; as well as keeping morale high. That also means information about what is coming shortly, not just what is here now.
  • It requires you both to accept the same level of risk. You can’t have a daredevil pilot and a cautious stoker. You need to feel comfortable that you won’t be literally or figuratively ‘taken for a ride‘!

During a trip to the Arrochar Alps in Scotland, I realised I was actually putting my life in his hands. He decided when to brake and had control over the steering. On an unfamiliar road, we started to rapidly descend, until we were racing along above 50mph. At the time our tandem was only fitted with normal rim bike brakes, that can cause the tyres to burst if wrongly applied. I had no choice but to trust my husband.

Yes, we survived intact. Yes, we immediately fitted a rear hub brake. Yes, we are still married.

As Stephen MR Covey says in the Speed of Trust:

Trust is a function of two things: character and competence. Character includes your integrity, your motive, your intent with people. Competence includes your capabilities, your skills, your results, your track record. And both are vital.

I knew Brian had more skill and experience with bikes, so I trusted his competence. I knew his character and trusted that his actions were motivated by his desire to save both our lives.

Double trouble

However, the tandem analogy is not without its flaws. For a start, while you may believe that each contract you enter into is a simple two-way trade deal, there are nuances which you forget at your peril:

  • Three’s a crowd: many contracts are directly and indirectly influenced by another company in the project. In construction, this includes the funder, tenants, purchaser, developer and others in the supply network.
  • Your journey is mapped out: your contract may just be a small part of a wider project. You are less in control of the goals, speed and direction of travel than two carefree cyclists on a summer’s day.
  • Not your dream machine or it is incorrectly fettled: the tool by which you will achieve your goal (whether a tandem or contract) may not be right for the job. It may have been the last one available, the only one on offer or imposed by someone else on the project. It may have clunky clauses, bad mechanisms, uncomfortable provisions, or make you bump along. But if it’s not the right tool, there is less chance of success.

So although you’d like to feel you are perfectly in control of your contracts, that doesn’t actually happen in practice.

This idea that your journey, your trip and your goals are not yours to decide is reflected by Covey:

the number one reason for unethical corporate behavior is unrealistic expectations. People are handed expectations, given deadlines, and told things have to be done by a certain time and for a certain cost…

What should you do?

What does this mean for business and contracts? It means you ought to set off on a project having confidence in your contract partner:

Simply put, trust means confidence…When you trust people, you have confidence in them—in their integrity and in their abilities. When you distrust people, you are suspicious of them—of their integrity, their agenda, their capabilities, or their track record. [Covey]

How could you create more confidence?

  • Be accountable: You should take responsibility for results and neither avoid nor shirk responsibility eg in your contract terms. You need to keep your promises and be prepared to admit when you will miss them – and work out how you can resolve any issues for your client.
  • Clarify expectations: Although it’s hard to clarify expectations as many clients do not know what they want, it is much better to do it from the start than to create misunderstandings or to disappoint them.
  • Keep communicating: Clear, effective and regular communication of information that really matters helps your client to have confidence in you.

What is your experience of contracts? Total trust or double trouble?

To help you better manage and clarify expectations, read Chapters 4 and 11 of my new book.

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