To me, projects are vehicles of possibility. What you’re trying to achieve is not yet a reality. Projects are envisaged to achieve something outside the regular day-to-day of the business they exist for.

Building a culture of cooperative ways of working early in the project inception is the greatest transformational opportunity in our momentum-building model.

Consistency Builds Momentum

In his oft-cited book ‘Good to Great’, Jim Collins describes the building of momentum by using the analogy of a flywheel. A flywheel[1] is used to smooth the fast angular velocity fluctuations of the crankshaft in a reciprocating engine. It’s heavy, and getting the heavy flywheel moving takes an immense amount of hard effort. It is not achieved by one single action; consistent effort is needed. However, once momentum kicks in, it looks unstoppable.

This analogy has a lot to offer to the project team building cooperative working practices. The essence of cooperation building is consistency. It’s unlikely that one intervention or action will make a big impression on the ‘flywheel’ of the project, but consistent practice and improvements on the foundations will build momentum.

The Japanese practice of Kaizen is “based on the belief that continuous, incremental improvement adds up to substantial change over time.” There are books and studies galore; from the entrenched business traditions of Covey and his ‘small daily changes[2]‘ to the experiments of Gretchen Ruben[3], there are multiple examples of the Kaizen practice interpreted. So too, it is with building cooperation in a project team. Small changes over the long term build meaningful differences.

What Does a Cooperative Culture Feel Like?

When I was a teenager, my mum had an operation on both her feet; the recovery meant she would have her feet in plaster and not be mobile for some weeks. My dad would be running his own business and managing the home.

There are four of us, ages ranging from mid-teens to primary school. In his usual methodical approach to life, Dad developed what was dubbed “operation cooperation”.

It was a plan for us to step in and take on some of the things that mum did for ourselves and one another and cover the gap. It had clear roles and responsibilities, a timeframe, and a lead-up of mentally preparing four kids to take on a heap of additional chores ranging from the uninteresting to the unwanted. There was a poster, a ‘star chart’ of sorts, where we were supposed to ‘tick off’ completed activities. A visual reminder and representation of the action plan.*[4]

What has stuck many years later from ‘operation cooperation’ is the sense of creating a shared purpose to get through a period of transition. Reflecting on that now, as a leader of projects, one of the most striking things is how that spirit of cooperation, more than the hard facts of the roles, posters and intention, got us through. As much as the tools, methods, skills and tangible artifacts of project life are important, so is this sense of shared cooperative effort, a common goal to get to an objective or transition.

Projects Are Grounded in PURPOSE

Everything is built on the foundation of a clearly articulated purpose of the project. Supported with the right skills, incentives and resources and guided by a plan of action, the group that is cooperating has created a shared understanding of what they’re here for. And whilst possibility and purpose are the core of what motivates a team, we must also be present to and address the limitations of whatever current reality we find ourselves in.

The Stockdale paradox, first coined by Collins[5], articulates the tension that we hold between optimism and reality. The balance to strike when leading in difficult situations.

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” James Stockdale

Have faith but confront reality. At its heart, this balance of possibility and grounded ‘taking stock’ of the reality of current existence is the best mindset to bring to project work. “This purpose does not need to be grandiose but must, above all, be clear and able to be broken down into concrete tasks. Arguably, a leader’s most important job in a crisis is to consistently articulate this purpose and connect each day’s tasks to it.[6] I would argue that it doesn’t need a crisis for this to be a fundamental need of project and business teams and a fundamental part that leaders have to play.


Keep pushing at the metaphorical flywheel, and you will gain momentum. As teams build familiarity and social bonds, they develop the capacity for greater psychological safety. Pair this psychological safety with a commitment to excellence, and an environment conducive to learning culture[7] will start to emerge.

Refinement, or continuous improvement, it could be said, takes its lead from the Japanese practice of Kaizen. The Japanese word kaizen translates to “good change.” In practice, it’s less about the hustle and working more and more about thoughtful adjustments, accepting failure, and applying learnings. In intent is to, instead of one big upheaval, consistently apply thought and reflection to improving. It’s the ultimate nirvana of a learning culture.

Once our project group is moving towards a cooperative culture, we have established some basics:

  • Clear project purpose, and your people can see what they need to do to contribute.
  • Roles have been defined, and we know whom to approach with different types of problems and how to bring a group together for decisions and escalations.
  • The scope of the project and the timeline for completion is agreed upon, and all parties have an appropriate skill level and available team members to deliver
  • Ways of working have been agreed upon, and the team are able to navigate shared documents and the working process.
  • Approval, change and risk processes are defined for all and are not too onerous or bureaucratic.
  • Reporting progress against agreed targets and milestones is understood by the client and the vendor partners.

With a grounded awareness of what can hold us back and the purpose of the project understood, successful cooperation can be built with the client and partners working on the project.

Cooperative cultures can move projects forward at a more significant rate than those who are being directed. Instead of waiting for or needing direction, the cooperative project group develops autonomy and knows whom to connect with and what to ask for to keep building momentum.

Steps to progress 

  1. REFINE the purpose of the project and consistently check in with sponsors and key stakeholders. Work to create some meaningful measures of success.
  2. REFINE roles, responsibilities and relationships, the purpose of meetings and the methods that are used in the project
  3. REFINE scope, keep it as tight as feasible that still achieves the project purpose
  4. REFINE high-level estimates into more tangible targets of what needs to be done by when, develop a reliable timeline
  5. REFINE the expected (and accepted) behaviours and ways of working for the project
  6. REFINE the management of exceptions; risk, change and decision-making all need to be managed throughout the project
  7. REFINE what ‘done’ to the quality needed looks like

Working on large projects often requires completing many small tasks on a daily basis. Building momentum and developing a cooperative relationship with your project team members can help ensure success. 6R Retail can help you create a plan and take advantage of your team’s unique talents and perspectives, building trust and understanding among everyone involved. Get in touch with us here to learn more.




[2] Covey, S. uses an analogy of a small rudder on a boat that steers the boat. Whilst it looks small it has the power to set your course for life

[3] Ruben, G. ‘The Happiness Project’ changing habits experiments over a year

[4] * My recollection is that the star chart ended up being tortured and possibly destroyed.  Our aspirational selves were not able to deliver on all the promised virtues imagined at the beginning and the chart became a visual reminder of that failure.

[5] Collins, J. Good to Great


[7] Amy Edmondson – framework of excellence + safety