Ways to Navigate Client Culture Clash
The key tips and lessons I've learned along the way
Have you worked with clients who don't understand why you do things the way you do? Who may not see the value in the way you organize and run the project? Who may come from an organization with a different working culture?
This is something I have encountered, too. While it’s tempting to want to bring client teams over to your way of working, I’ve found there is more success in identifying a middle ground and meeting them there.
Based upon my experience, here are some tips for navigating work culture clashes between your organization and your clients.
Align on Shared Goals
Your clients hired you for a reason: there’s a challenge they are facing and you have the expertise to help them solve it. While it may seem that there is intuitive alignment on what the goal is, there can be a disconnect if it isn’t explicitly identified and agreed upon. Aligning on this goal as early as possible will provide a solid foundation moving forward.
In order to get this alignment, I have to do my part to understand where my client is coming from. As we talk throughout the beginning of a project, I’m paying attention to their perspectives and motivations. I ask myself a few clarifying questions, and use the answers to guide the conversation. A couple example questions include:
- What are their concerns and hopes for the project?
- What do they see as the keys to success?
- How have they done something similar before, and how did it turn out?
By understanding my client’s perspective, I am able to speak their language, which informs and structures my recommendations in receptive and concrete ways.
Create a North Star to keep goals front and center
I call the beginning of a project the discovery phase. During discovery, I’m learning as much as possible about the needs of my client and their audience. Often I’m conducting interviews with users and stakeholders alike. There are a lot of opportunities to learn about my client and their work culture.
When it comes time for discovery to turn to implementation, I present a “project charter”: a summary of early project priorities, initial design direction, user research results, and the project’s North Star, a statement that acts as a guiding principle and captures what the client is looking to achieve with this project and why.
It’s important to remind the client of this North Star, which is the initial reason for why we are collaborating and achieving this work in the first place. The North Star serves as a measuring tool to assess new priorities as they emerge: is this in line with our North Star? Does it support it?
The more you work together to create this principle, the more weight it will carry throughout the project.
Articulate the Value of Your Meetings
The agile approach to projects is not always something my clients are familiar with. I use this unfamiliarity as an opportunity to examine the agile method from a beginner’s mindset: what does this acronym mean? Why are there so many meetings?
An important part of navigating client culture clash is to recognize that it exists. My preferred way of working may not be something the client has ever heard of. Therefore, it’s my role to explain the why behind the method, including why it’s important to attend demos, sprint planning, and other vital ceremonies. Other important aspects of the agile method include communicating why I want to empower my client partner to make decisions, and what kind of decisions I expect them to make in the first place.
The more I can articulate the value behind my way of working, the faster my client’s shoulders come down from their ears. From there, I build on the relationship and adjust based on what will be possible for them to do.
Find Your Buddy
On big project teams, meetings have the chance of running long and growing unwieldy. Clients from large hierarchical organizations often invite (too) many people into the meeting. To keep the focus on making decisions effectively and collaboratively, I have found pairing people on my team with people on the client team with a similar role has worked well, fostered communication, and delivered results.
Kick-off calls are the perfect opportunity to break into groups and get to know one another. By tailoring the number of people on the call to those who are integral to the project, there’s a significantly higher chance of creating a strong working relationship between the two teams, because there is a team member on the client side who is expecting and excited to work with you.
Keep in mind to keep building on these connections throughout the entirety of the project. Ensure buddy pairs set up calls to work on aspects of the project within their specialty so that large meetings can focus on presenting already thought-through ideas and not on trying to come up with them.
The value of having a buddy also comes in handy when there’s tension on the project which, as we know, can happen at any stage. If this happens, individuals on the client side feel comfortable reaching out to their buddy on my team, and they let us know when something unexpected might come up that impacts our plans. Or, they give us extra insight into how to best present our recommendations.
Don't Be Afraid to Pull Detractors to the Side
Despite your best efforts to align on a North Star, teach your client on your way of working, and pair up with a buddy, you may still have stakeholders whose working culture clashes with the project.
If the majority of the project team is on board and working well together, you should set up separate time with the detractors away from the group. This person may have valuable insight but if their attitude is detrimental to the rest of the team’s relationship, it behooves you to protect the peace.
Hear them out away from others and see what needs to be adjusted on the project; they could be trying to alert you to a sharp change in direction or key personnel. If you take the time to build a strong relationship with them, they could become your biggest ally on the client team.
The Culture Clash Conclusion
Working with clients with different approaches to work doesnt have to be something to dread. By taking a collaborative approach and building strong interpersonal relationships from the start, you’ll be better equipped to handle differences as they come up.
Photo by Vardan Papyikan from Unsplash