Consultant-filter: when "collaborate with X" means "forced to manage X"
March 6, 2020 5:04 PM   Subscribe

I'm on a short contract with a large organisation, technically working for an external agency team collaborating with an in-house team. Let's say the role I was taken on as, and am on an appropriate day rate for, is "Teapot Designer", with the understanding that I would be working closely with the in-house "Teapot Designer". Turns out this person's skill set is more in the region of "Teapot Filler" - added bonus, grumpy and lazy. How do I handle this?

Preview to this question sounds all doom and gloom, but actually I'm having a ball on this project. In fact, you might say it's a dream "Teapot" project and this week I've had some good feedback from senior people in the agency and the in-house stakeholders.

The only thorn in my side is the other so-called "Teapot Designer" ...let's call them Mel. From the first meeting, I noted how much Mel moaned about the project: criticising the approach, the agency, the in-house team.

I'd been told in advance that Mel was very good at what they do, by the in-house Head of Jug Design, no less, and I've been given a very high profile task to work on with Mel. This is supposed to be our main focus for the next couple of weeks.

Last week I arranged a meeting with Mel to brainstorm our next moves. They postpone the meeting twice citing other work.

When I do manage to track them down, the first twenty minutes of the meeting was Mel rehashing all the moans of our previous X number of conversations, with me trying to get us onto the subject in hand. Every opening idea I had was met with "nothing ever changes here", "I don't like the project's approach", "the Head of Cutlery is incompetent", etc. In the end, I create the plan by myself, with Mel chipping in one or two extra things right at the end.

We present the plan and I make sure to flag up Mel's input, hoping that this will galvanise them - or at least stop them moaning. We're given this week to put the first part of the plan in place, so that other teams' work can follow on from this.

In the meantime I check in quietly with Mel's direct manager and the project leads from in-house, just to mention that it seems like Mel has a lot of other work on their plate and we had a delay in getting started. Both say that Mel should be managing their time and knows that the first priority is our project. Project lead #1 says I should just tell Mel what needs doing. Project lead #2 says that Mel and I definitely need to work together on this.

The first meeting with Mel has made me wary of giving them too much to do on the technical side of "TD", so I take that side of the job and ask them if they'd be able to do the more creative side of the job. I will then take their work and feed it into what I've been doing. This was Monday. Deadline was today (Friday) and I estimate that their part of the task will probably take a day or less.

I tried to schedule a catch-up meeting with Mel on Wednesday: "too busy". Yesterday: "working on it, too soon to share". I grab them first thing this morning and they ask to meet at noon. At midday, Mel shows me a document where they've noted all the information relevant to the task created by other people, but they haven't actually started the task. I manage to conceal my annoyance, but ask them to send over each section as they finish it. I'm still hopeful that they will live up to their reputation for producing good work and perhaps they just need the pressure of a strict deadline.

At ten past four today, when I go and physically stand over their desk, they send me a document. It's a mess. Half the length it should be, lots of omissions, obviously cobbled together from other people's work, no continuity, no strategic thinking behind it. Embarrassingly bad.

I didn't have time to do more than cut and paste this crap into what I've done. The senior team and stakeholders are expecting to be wowed by this "collaborative work" on Monday morning. So here are the questions...

1) How can I handle Monday's presentation? How should I handle Monday's presentation? I don't want to be associated with part of the work, but I also don't want to be seen as throwing Mel under the bus publicly when we were supposed to be "collaborating". A lot of budget and stakeholder goodwill is riding on this. (I'm also worried that no one will notice how crap it is, since they aren't Teapot experts and my part is solid work, so they'll start sharing with external stakeholders who will definitely notice its shitness.)

2) How can I work with Mel? Technically I have no authority over them. I'm not paid to manage them, nor critique their work, nor do the work of two people. While they've acknowledged that I have more experience in "Teapot Design", they're also very opinionated (Dunning-Kruger in action), very keen to "be involved" and seem to think that they've done what's necessary here, otherwise I might simply redo the work.

I can probably speak in confidence to the agency project manager, who may be able to advise, however I've got the sense that this agency are quite passive in terms of how they engage with this client. I have only known these people for a few weeks, they're still sussing me out, and doubt they would ask to have Mel taken off the project since they're the only in-house "TD". I would like to work with this agency again in the future, so I don't want to be seen as someone who kicks up fuss with clients or isn't a team player.

Any ideas? Thanks for reading this ridiculous spiel and for any advice you can offer. "Suck it up" may be the only option!
posted by doornoise to Work & Money (4 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Does Mel’s manager know that Mel isn’t meeting with you? Do you have any of these excuses not to meet from Mel in writing? Maybe you need to work that out with their manager more explicitly and directly. Obviously you need to deliver a good deliverable on Monday, and make yourself look good here. But this stressful counterproductive collaboration isn’t something you can fix by yourself - you don’t have the leverage.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:24 PM on March 6, 2020

Dang, that sucks. Talkabout ruining your weekend.

Call in sick.
posted by at at 9:27 PM on March 6, 2020

I would take Mel at their word here: they really don't think the project/approach is a good idea so they are putting in the least possible effort in the hope that the project will fail and they can go back to doing what they think is actually important. They might be very good at their job when motivated, but they obviously aren't here. They also may have just had bad week for whatever reason, you barely know the person so you don't want to make assumptions about what their normal quality of work is. You definitely want to avoid criticizing them as worker to other employees, that can only backfire.

This isn't a situation where you can collaborate as peers, if you want the project to succeed you need to take charge of the grunt work, while keeping Mel involved in providing feedback so you aren't seen as going behind their back. I think the message you want to get across is "Here is our presentation, but Mel had some concerns about the overall approach" to make it clear that there is some conflict about the overall plan, and that will explain some of the quality issues. If Mel will be helping give the presentation you definitely want to encourage them to present on the aspects you are concerned about

This kind of situation is pretty common when contracting with a large organization to be honest. As you don't have power in this situation, you should treat Mel like a distracted and meddling boss that you work around, not as a peer or someone you are trying to manage from above. If that isn't an option, then you just need to accept that the quality will be below your normal standards and move on, it is very unlikely to reflect back on you poorly as long as you maintain a professional demeanor
posted by JZig at 10:31 PM on March 6, 2020

Hit send too soon...

Call in sick. That'll buy you a day or two. Tell Mel they must lead the presentation. If they refuse, tell them you must both go to Mel's boss to resolve the impass.

Another possibility might be to meet with Mel over the weekend (and say the same things), but I don't know if you're willing to do that, or even whether you know how to contact Mel off-hours.
posted by at at 12:07 AM on March 7, 2020

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