John Copps, Mutual Ventures – Relational Project Management – a cooperative approach to managing complex projects

To be faithful to cooperative values, CCIN members need the right tools and approaches throughout their organisation. Relational Project Management is a unique approach to managing projects in local government that puts human relationships at the centre. It is about establishing and embedding the conditions to get the best out of people and recognises successful outcomes rely on respectful, healthy relationships.

John Copps

Managing Consultant
Mutual Ventures

John Copps, from affiliate CCIN member Mutual Ventures, outlines what cooperative councils can learn from a Relational Project Management approach and how it can help them be true to cooperative principles in their day-to-day work.

Cooperative principles are about doing things differently.

If we are to really boil this down to the essentials, cooperative values and principles are about people.

To reflect this commitment to people, cooperative councils need the right tools and approaches for getting the job done. This is true from top-to-bottom of your organisation, including in governance and decision-making, as well as running projects to address emerging needs and priorities.

Whilst a ‘people’ focus is always a defining feature of councils’ visions, strategies and services, it can often go missing in the day-to-day business of project management.

Faced with pressure to deliver on time and to budget, ‘process’ often takes over at the expense of ‘people’. At this point, the risk is that cooperative principles – shared responsibility, active engagement and coproduction, for example – go out of the window. Take for example the projects that start with good intentions, but turn into box ticking routines, ‘tasks for tasks sake’, and finger-pointing when milestones are missed. I’m sure many readers will know what I mean.

What is relational project management?

Simply put, relational project management puts human relationships at the centre of projects.

Over the last decade, Mutual Ventures has undertaken dozens of projects across local government, working with colleagues from children’s and adult services, place and economy, and corporate services. This has included with a number of CCIN members such as Lewisham, Sunderland, and Torbay. Relational Project Management was sparked by the realisation that relationships with and between colleagues, stakeholders and partners are what makes or breaks the success of all these projects.Relational project management is about establishing and embedding the conditions to get the best out of people. It recognises successful outcomes rely on respectful, healthy relationships within the team, and a belief in resolving difficulties. The key is to have the whole project team and stakeholders onside, working for the same outcome, focused on their tasks, and enjoying themselves.

This underpinning ethos is similar to that of ‘relational practice’, an approach that is becoming widely used in social care and promotes relationships with families, colleagues and partners as the key to successful services.

What does it mean to manage a project ‘relationally’?

Relational project management involves a way of thinking and a series of principles that will suit cooperative councils. Key to practising it are the simple questions: is the nature and quality of my relationships helpful to achieving the goals of the project? If not, what am I going to do about it?

Tried-and-tested tools, including ‘check-ins’ at the start of meetings, stakeholder mapping, techniques for building relationships, and guidelines for how to have difficult conversations, all help build healthy and productive project relationships.

Crucially, relational project management doesn’t replace established approaches such as PRINCE2 – rather, it is designed to work with them to provide a new lens through which to view projects based on the centrality of human relationships. Good relational project management still relies on many of the same best practice principles that will be familiar to any experienced project manager.

Ultimately, project management in local government relies on respectful relationships and a belief in resolving difficulties. Where teams work together and relationships are good is where you get the best result. Relational Project Management can be a tool that can help cooperative councils ‘walk the walk’ and meet their commitments to cooperative principles.