Jon Aikman's Blog

Thoughts on Mediation and Project Management

  • Eating together is a basic part of being human that spans all cultures and environments. It is well established in religious beliefs – the “breaking of bread” of Christianity, the Breaking the Fast at the end of Ramadan for Muslims - and “feasting” has been an activity enjoyed by all cultures over the centuries. In Western business society we seem to have forgotten this most basic of ways of people being able to bond as a group. “Lunch is for wimps” was the theme for the corporate go-getters like Gordon Gekko from the film Wall Street. For most people lunch on a working day is functional, an intake of calories to see them through the rest of the day, a chance to escape the work environment and their colleagues for a while. Are we missing something?

    Food and eating can in a business environment can be so much more. You only need to see the way people come together and connect when cakes are brought into an office on birthdays. I realise that I have unconsciously used food to bond with people at work for years. I can’t claim any great psychological understanding for this, just my own love of food! To read more see my guest blog at The Project Whisperer

    In Eastern business cultures personal bond and trust are far more important than they seem to be in the West. When I worked in Indonesia for 6 years I was slow to realise that the meals out I enjoyed with my client, architects, contractors and anyone else that offered to show me real Asian food weren’t to help me “settle in”. Weekend invitations to bring my family to vast breakfast buffets weren’t to help me “see the city”. They were getting to know me, forming bonds that then become hard to break. It’s much harder to fall out with someone you have shared meals with, got to know as another human being and part of a family known to you.

    I would be interested to hear from anyone with experiences of using food to build rapport and trust.

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  • A recent case in the Technology and Construction Court, Walter Lilly v McKay has been creating a flurry of comments about the legal principles. I have read about what the case means for concurrent delay and legal professional privilege but as a project manager and a mediator What really interests me is, how did it all happen?

    As a project manager one of my concerns in protecting a client’s interests is to avoid disputes. Although I don’t know the particulars of this project, there doesn’t seem to be anything technically challenging or innovative about the construction, there were no hidden surprises or unusual circumstances. It seems to be the old story of differing expectations and lack of communication.

    So, while the case seems to offer new perspectives for the legal profession for me it only reinforces basic principles of dispute avoidance. Basic principles of making sure the appropriate contract is used, costs and progress are
    monitored and controlled and above all else proper
    communication takes place at all levels at all times so that everyone involved knows what to expect.

    I offer a project management service to clients that are not familiar with the construction process and how the construction industry operates. Cases like this highlight why such a service is necessary. Whatever clarification of legal principles this case might bring about it doesn’t change the fact that disputes should be avoided. I keep my clients away from disputes because all that happens is that they fund the clarification of legal principals instead of funding a cost effective building.

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  • Two recent events, at the opposite ends of the dispute scales, have reminded me that everything is about people.

    The first event was a lecture by a barrister on a particular point of law that doesn’t seem to have any clear opinion attached to it. Examples of case law and opinions were discussed in relation to the meanings of wording in standard contracts and whether a particular case would clarify a hither-to unresolved point of law. The law is made by people to help regulate the way people interact with each other and the law is applied and interpreted by people. Parties in dispute have their own needs concerning how a dispute is settled, but the professionals employed to advise on the disputes also bring their set of needs with them – professional, personal, financial and reputation. All these various peoples’ needs then must be met by navigating a way through a legal system set up by people.

    The other event was a mediation between neighbours about noise, rubbish, pets and children. All the everyday problems arising from too many people living in too small an area. The people involved had their needs to live their lives in peace and free of disturbance from their neighbour. It wasn’t until they recognised each other as just regular people trying to get by exactly the same as they were that they were able to agree to work together to reduce the impact of everyday activities on each other.

    In both cases it was all about people their needs and expectations. In the commercial world this gets hidden by job titles, professional qualification and company/organisation positions. Underneath all that it is still just people trying to work it all out.

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  • Napoleon Bonaparte, self-crowned Emperor of Europe, military strategist, would-be invader of England and…. Project Manager?

    On starting a new campaign his thoughts were: ”The first principal of a Commander-in-Chief is to calculate what he must do, to see if he has the means to surmount the obstacles with which the enemy can oppose him and when he has made his decision, to do everything to overcome them” If  ‘Commander in Chief’ means ‘Project Manager’, ‘enemy’ means ‘unexpected’ and ‘he’ means ‘he/she’, this is a good description of what a project manager has to do.

    As well as identifying objectives, making realistic estimates of resources required, time durations and anticipating what could go wrong, Napoleon’s skill was to react and adapt to situations as they arose. He considered a plan to be important but more important was the “Man in the Plan”. Estimates of time and resources can be inaccurate, things happen that can’t be foreseen, other people don’t do what you expect or hope they will do. Very soon a plan doesn’t fit with what is really happening.

    At what point do you need to make adjustments to the plan, re-write the plan, re-assess the objective or just carry on trying to make the plan work? That is where the “Man in the Plan” becomes important. The Project Manager that can make the right decision at the right time, consider views from the project team, re-plan, communicate the plan and inspire and motivate the Project Team to overcome difficulties would meet with the General’s approval.

    Of course being Emperor of Europe also needed certain personal qualities that most of us can only hope to have so many of - attention to detail as well as the larger picture, ability to concentrate for long periods, lack of need to sleep, passion for a task, ability to quickly judge strengths and weaknesses in others and the quality of inspiring total loyality and devotion to him and his endeavors. I’d be happy to have half of his qualities as a Project Manager!

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  • All too often the machinery of dispute resolution starts up when, if closer investigation took place, it would be found there was not really any serious dispute in the first place. Differences of opinion, misunderstandings of motives and differing expectations are all part of everyday working. With clear communication and a good deal of trying to understand others’ view points these everyday situations can be prevented from becoming disputes.
    A common theme I have found in disputes is each party assuming that the other party intentionally meant to do harm to the other. Undoubtedly there are those who are less than conscientious, but generally most businesses and individuals just want to do a decent job and receive fair payment. Businesses grow by reputation and repeat clients and reliable suppliers of goods and services are highly desirable.
    Full trust in good intentions may be a bit too hopeful, and fool-hardy, but it is always useful to make the effort to examine whether there is a good reason for why performance hasn’t met expectations before a dispute resolution process is put in place. If that good reason exists and can be eliminated then a costly and damaging dispute is avoided. Once the machinery of dispute resolution is put in place then the management of the dispute resolution process becomes the main focus rather than examining the reason for the dispute
    A mediator as an independent 3rd party is well placed to help parties review whether there is an easy-to-solve reason behind a dispute through Early Intervention Mediation. Once the process of dispute resolution starts the dispute takes on an identity of its own and the initial causes become harder to resolve.

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  • Recent research from Zurich Zoo on chimpanzees resolving disputes within their group highlights the long association we have with mediation. The research notes how an elder chimpanzee will come between two others to encourage a dispute to be settled peacefully. A very good demonstration of mediation. The researchers studying the group of chimps surmised that in evolutionary terms there is an advantage to the chimps that can co-operate and work as a group over those that can not work with others. Just like us humans, whether we are co-operating as a group of hunters or working together in complex business environments, there is a need to protect group interests in order for the individual to prosper.

    Somewhere back in our and the chimps’ common ancestry we gained the ability to work in groups and resolve disputes that threatened to damage the group interest. Humans became the masters of this ability and we continue to practice and refine this skill as our environment and group dynamics become more and more complex.

    Throughout our history there are references to mediation. Laws differ between societies and throughout time. The application and recourse to law varies from strong to virtually non-existent at different times and locations. However the human desire to trade, build, survive and prosper is constant and the instinct to resolve disputes rather than mutual destruction prevails.

    Mediation is referred to in relation to Phoenician trading around 3,000 years ago. In Ancient Greece Plato and Aristotle write about mediation. The Romans saw mediation as a fundamental part of the legal process and traditional tribal societies use a “wise elder” to help feuding individuals to settle disputes peacefully.

    This is all very interesting from an anthropological or historical point of view, but can we learn anything from this research? What I learn is that the desire to work together in harmony and co-operation, to settle the inevitable disputes at a personal level and to balance the interests of individuals with the interests of the group is fundamentally human. Whether we have a society with a strong rule of law or not, whether there is a detailed and enforcable contract or not, the basic human instinct is to work and do business together. Clear and fair laws and well drafted contract documents help us to work together, reduce missunderstandings and allow more complex business arrangements, but they can’t replace the necessity to work together at apersonal and human level. Mediation is relevant in all societies, in all legal sytems, whether there is a legal system or not and whever humans (or chimps) work together.


  • I am often asked why I have “changed career” and become a Mediator after spending so much time as a Construction Project Manager. Many people see the two roles as so completely different that they are confused about why I should make such a seemingly radical change of direction. I on the other hand am confused about why they are confused! To me the one role compliments the other. Being a Project Manager has prepared me to be a Mediator and Mediation helps me to be a better Project Manager.

    Construction requires co-operation, co-ordination and an attitude of “getting on with things” to be successful. Programmes and expectations need to be continuously adapted to react to the actions of others and the environment. If eveyone on construction projects continued on their own private plan of action without regard to what others are doing the whole process would grind to a halt. Generally this process of give-and-take, adaption and team work goes on unnoticed. When the process of communication is not working the Project Manager needs to encourage the team work and co-ordination to continue. This is mediation in action, without anyone recognising that it is mediation. It is my experience of being involved in this process of constant mediation that I bring to my role as an Accredited Mediator.

    As a mediator I can now recognise this process of constant mediation in action and the importance of it to the success of projects and business in general. Now as a Project Manager I can use my Accredited Mediator skills in the work place as a powerful dispute avoidance tool.

    In answer to the question “Mediator or Project Manager?” – both and feel I have more to offer because of that.


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  • Since I became accredited as a mediator I have realised that becoming a professional mediator didn’t require me to learn any new skills. I only needed to learn how to use existing skills in a more structured and deliberate way. Mediation happens all the time in business without always being obviously mediation. As a Project Manager I have always applied mediation skills to remove friction between members of the project team so that the project runs smoothly, to resolve situations that threaten to disturb a project outcome or to prevent potential disputes from happening. Before I became a Mediator I didn’t recognise what I had been doing as “mediation”. Mediation (and mediators) needn’t be seen as something to be kept in a box until all else fails. Mediation is part of a continuum of business skills that can be applied at all levels of conflict management, dispute avoidance and dispute resolution. If you think your project or organisation could benefit from some reduction in friction or dispute avoidance I would be very happy to discuss how early intervention mediation may be suitable.

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