Working with subcontractors

Working with subcontractors adds a layer of complexity to a project, especially when compared to managing an entirely in-house team of Trussels. Sometimes, we embrace that complexity because it helps us achieve our goals. Employing subcontractors is a tactic that can allow us to best deliver what we agree to deliver on some contracts. For example, MAC-FC, SITH, and the proposal for MAC PRO all feature meaningful roles for contractors.

How subcontractors can enhance Truss teams

Subcontractors can help fulfill several types of needs on a Truss project:

  1. Staff augmentation inside of Truss’ practices and services: Sometimes we bring in additional staff to augment a Truss practice or service. The combined team would work together on the same problems, within the same delivery team. Other times, we might decide to bring in a full team that does the same type of work as us. For example, on MAC-FC, the subcontractor Corbalt is providing infra staff in a time where the infra Trussels are committed to other projects.
  2. Specialty skills outside of Truss’ practices and services: Sometimes a project calls for specialization in a particular skillset or technology that isn’t in our wheelhouse, and the project team fills that role(s) by teaming with a contractor or contractors. For example, a project might need a data scientist, or an organizational consultant, or a QA team, none of which are current Truss specialties. For example, the SITH team engaged a subconsultant to focus on building out ServiceNow workflows.

Each of these situations are managed differently, but there is a commonality in that the contractor is affiliated with a separate company. As a result, we need touchpoints with their leadership, a point of escalation if things go sideways, and—most importantly—strong relationships and alignment so that we can avoid having to escalate.

Deciding whether a contractor is a good fit

After a team has established a need that is best filled by an outside contractor, there is important work to be done to find a partner who is a good fit. Sometimes, we are lucky to have a partner in mind with whom we have a longstanding relationship; other times, we need to seek out and evaluate new potential partners.

Much of this work occurs during the pre-sale process and teaming conversations that precede a contract agreement. Occasionally, it may occur after a project is underway, too.

Teaming is a lot like hiring. Like hiring, we need to quickly get a good sense of the people and the skills a contractor has, including asking Truss practitioners to evaluate work samples or conduct interviews to assess skillset and fit. Ideally, we should have a conversation with the team doing the work on our side, and key people on their side. This up-front work of mutual courtship is important to help set the team up for success in a new partnership.

Working shoulder to shoulder

We need to be prepared for the inevitability that subcontractor management is harder than most people think. Because subcontractors are people working in a different organization, everyone at Truss will probably need to over-communicate, especially at the beginning of the engagement to ensure alignment. Clarity is key.

It’s also important to remember that if we were a subcontractor to someone else, we would want to hold our values and best practices. A subcontractor may have different values and best practices than us, and we should respect that (and if these values seem fundamentally opposed to ours, we should vet that before bringing someone on). Showing some grace around this and being curious listeners will help both parties get to a shared understanding.

To this end, investing time in team activities to build trust and camaraderie is very important. Plan for a project reset happening prior to the subcontractor joining and extending throughout the first few weeks of their engagement. These activities could consist of things like:

  • norming convos around roles and responsibilities for the new Truss plus subconsultant team
  • aligning on clear milestones for their first 30/60/90 days on the project
  • ensuring we have a clear definition of done, definition of ready, and AC standards and that the subconsultant understands those
  • ensure there are clear norms around things like communication; e.g.:
    • Sharing Truss’ expectations around our communication tools; e.g. Slack is our tool of choice;we do not use MS Teams; and we do not rely on email
    • Sharing Truss’ practices like using hand stack (or raising hands) during Zoom calls, and preferences such as having cameras during a majority of team calls and sharing pronouns when individuals are comfortable.
    • Then, norming around communication behaviors:
    • should sub make sure to respond to slacks within 24 hours?
    • what meetings do they need to go to?
    • what role do we expect them to play in XYZ meetings?

Basically, consider doing all the things a Truss team would do for a standard project kick off, but doing it again with the sub. Later, call out early and often how we succeed together, acting as one team pulling in the same direction for a unified cause.

If a tension arises, [link to conflict resolution? More to come]

Help people follow us

One thing that’s critical to remember is that Truss needs to take a leadership posture in all of these conversations.

Although the subcontractors can be considered owners of the work they’re assigned, ultimately, we are responsible for the work: their failure is our failure. This is why it’s so important to have very clear expectations laid out from the get-go, work shoulder to shoulder to build trust, and to quickly course-correct in case of conflict or if they’re not delivering what we need.

Defining clear, concrete metrics of success along with our expectations helps build trust and accountability. Working on the metrics together with the contractor is an excellent way to start cementing that relationship. Moreover, making it clear what they can expect from us in addition to defining what we expect from them, with metrics applied to the Truss portion of the team, will go a long way in helping smooth out difficulties that crop up later.

Internally, the Trussels on a team need to get very crisp on which member of the team is responsible for managing what aspects of the subconsultant, and make sure the internal team is on the same page in terms of what you are trying to get out of the subconsultant’s efforts.

Within the team, that might look like this:

  • the CEM or Program Manager hold accountability for subcontractor management, with important input from Product.
  • the Delivery Manager, if present, can also serve to hold the team accountable for maintaining good communication, inclusive practices, day-to-day working relationships with the sub, and ultimately keeping everyone accountable to healthy processes.
  • all team members are accountable for working shoulder to shoulder with contractors and embracing diversity in people, voices, and ideas.

In closing

Not all contractors or subcontractors are the same, and the amount of overhead management will really depend on the contractor. Some subs will integrate really easily and seamlessly. Others will be more challenging. In the cases where it’s challenging, it’s on Truss to manage that and articulate our needs to the subcontractor. In every situation, it’s important to figure out how to build alliances and work together as one team to achieve our goals.