Collaboration at Crossrail

Document type: Case Study
Author: Rob Jones, Ally Salisbury
Publication Date: 27/09/2016

  • Abstract

    The Crossrail programme consists of individuals from multiple organisations. At Crossrail’s peak, over 10,000 people worked on the project across more than 40 construction sites with a supply chain that stretched over UK and Europe. This in itself presented challenges, with all individual organisations needing to come together to operate as one team. Effective team alignment and collaboration has been critical to developing high-performing and effective teams to secure programme delivery.

    This paper is a study on collaboration, based on the insights of interviewees who were involved with the Crossrail programme – clients, contractors, consultants and organisational development (OD) practitioners. The paper identifies and discusses five core themes which are critical to the development of a successful collaboration culture — trust; leadership; aligned goals; organisational effectiveness; commercial and contracts.

    The paper also identifies other themes which impact collaboration including: complexity; pride; conflict; strategic enablers; resilience. The paper also provides an OD practitioner perspective on the characteristics of collaborative individuals.

    The paper concludes that the key collaboration challenge is about how effectively individuals and organisations adapt to change and how people are equipped to deal with the impact of change.

    This study would of interest to individuals who seek to establish a collaborative culture within an organisation such as senior leadership team; consultants; and organisational development practitioners.

  • Read the full document


    The Crossrail programme consists of individuals from multiple organisations. At Crossrail’s peak, over 10,000 people worked on the project across more than 40 construction sites with a supply chain that stretches throughout the UK and into Europe. This in itself presented challenges, with all individual organisations needing to come together to operate as one team. Effective team alignment and collaboration is critical to developing high-performing and effective teams to secure programme delivery.


    Recently, within the industry, much attention has been paid to the processes of collaboration and validating those processes to demonstrate that organisations are ‘collaborative’. As part of this learning legacy, Crossrail has explored more broadly the context of collaboration and what people involved with the Crossrail project understand that to be.

    This learning legacy is not intended to be a review of plans, standards, actions or outcomes, but rather a distillation of insights from those involved to inform future endeavours.


    At the start of the research, the authors sought to understand their own perspectives and form their own opinions before being influenced through the process. With this in mind, the authors gathered a small group of Organisational Development practitioners who have worked on Crossrail in facilitating team effectiveness, goal alignment, stakeholder management or broader collaboration workshops to understand our views of what was considered as the characteristics of collaborative individuals.

    The authors then interviewed people involved with the Crossrail programme and the infrastructure sector more generally from each of three groups: clients (Crossrail and Tideway x8), contractors (x3) and consultants (x3). Whilst the first two are clear, consultants were defined as those who worked as part of the programme but were employed by third party organisations i.e. delivery partners, designers, etc.

    The interview was semi-structured, with the questions shared in advance with participants (see Appendix 1). 14 interviews were conducted in person and recorded with the interviewee’s permission.


    What quickly became clear was that there is no unifying definition of collaboration within the infrastructure industry. Instead there were some common major themes in how people articulated collaboration and a further collection of themes about how people experienced collaboration.

    Interestingly, during most of the interviews, the discussions changed level frequently from organisation, to team, to individual and back – even within a specific example. This clearly adds complexity to understanding this multifaceted concept. Clearly, successful collaboration needs to exist at all levels and is not simply a business-to -business relationship.

    Common Themes

    When describing what makes effective collaboration, the interviewees’ comments can be grouped into the common themes of trust, leadership, aligned goals, organisational effectiveness and contracts.


    The discussion of trust took two forms.

    The first and lesser form was what could be referred to as integrity of work or operational trust – did the person deliver what they said they were going to deliver. It focused on the need for people to be accountable for owning their work and the quality of that work. With this comes the avoidance of blame and the recognition that when issues inevitably arise, the focus should be on understanding and dealing with them, rather than expending time, energy and damaging the climate by focusing on blame.

    The second form which was far more prevalent was what could be described as moral trust – could the individual be trusted on a deeper personal level to keep their word, to protect the relationship and in doing so, allow all parties to accept some level of personal risk? Important factors in creating this were the need for openness and transparency, respect both for the context and the individuals involved and most significantly, the assumption of positive intent. A few participants related with some passion the toxic impact of key individuals who always look to the negative and assume that others will act against them.

    Most described this second form of trust as a difficult state to reach, one that requires some form of safety and reassurance to take the first risk. As one participant put it “it’s a big leap of faith”, while another said “the client has to lead the trust” and in doing so take that first risk.


    Creating that safe risk was one dimension of leadership. When leadership arose, it was discussed in two broad forms – leadership behaviour from people in general and leadership from those in senior management roles. The most explicit references to leadership were about creating the vision and climate to encourage and nurture an evolving collaborative relationship and secondly being unequivocal in defending any collaborative relationship once formed – however difficult that may be. There was mention of challenging those who undermine collaboration, challenging poor process and recognising the need for different talent at different times – a theme we’ll explore later.

    Leadership was also about the need to allow people to shine and to give credit for great performance, while at the same time not blaming people if mistakes were made and responding appropriately when this happens. Several interviewees considered this to be key in creating a culture that would be both collaborative and sustainable, given the challenges and the environment.

    Aligned Goals

    Alignment of goals or objectives was mentioned by all participants, ranging from the strategic and complex to the operational requirements of delivery. One described an aligned purpose, rather than goals, as he felt the tactical nature of the latter meant that what started as a positively intended genuine exercise could later become a point of contention. Several participants clearly felt successful collaboration could only be achieved by a joint ownership of outcome, summarised as “we win together or we lose together”.

    The discussion became more nuanced when considering what winning actually means. There was recognition of multiple layers of self interest, with both the individual and team needing to be viewed as successful and have appropriate incentives. At an organisational level there was a potential disconnect between a private sector organisation needing to return value to shareholders aligning with a public sector organisation delivering different types of value to a broader range of stakeholders. One participant cited this difference as one of the key drivers in managing cost at the expense of managing for value – with different definitions of values between the parties. Alignment here is key but needs to be done with a long term view and early in the relationship.

    Participants also recognised the broader needs of both parties in the relationship above and beyond the tangible delivery and financial outputs – the broader industry, business, political and societal needs – which at times skewed to the client without acknowledging those of the contractor/consultant. One participant described a connected network of self interest at a local and global level, empowered at the heart by collaboration as potentially the greatest driver of performance.

    Organisational Effectiveness

    Consistent reference was made to what could be considered the core elements of an effective organisation. The need for appropriate levels of resources and not creating a competition for those resources was discussed as one of many elements that could be considered organisational politics. Others were clear governance, clarity of intent and both timely and effective decision making, with emphasis on the ‘cost of decision’ in terms of work required to inform the discussion. The need for effective and efficient processes emerged repeatedly, particularly with reference to change process and where the discussion becomes caught up in deciding who should pay internally within the client for something recognised to be essential.


    Given that the collaboration normally takes place within a contractual relationship with two parties coming together, the topics of contracts and commercial activities were part of every discussion.

    Irrespective of form, the contract can clearly either enable or become a barrier to successful collaboration. Without repeating earlier points about incentive or trust, the point was repeatedly made that collaboration was possible in most contract forms as long as those enacting the contract wanted it – they could choose to apply the contract rigidly or they could manage to the intent of the agreement to mutual benefit.

    Emerging forms of contract were alluded to but clearly the contract has to enable collaboration and be robust enough to deal with inevitable changes to scope and programme, whilst preserving mutual incentive.

    There was occasional reference to size of contract and complexity of work and how this affects the ability to collaborate. This generally related to change and how those involved chose to apply the agreement. However, one participant made specific reference to the need to reduce contract size, as the capability to manage the increasing size of packages was seen as a barrier to effective collaboration. This appears to contradict current industry trends.

    Further Themes

    Having shared the major themes arising from most of the interviews, further themes had enough weight or resonance to be included and will be explored comprising:

    • Complexity
    • Pride
    • Conflict
    • Strategic
    • People
    • Resilience of the Collaboration
    • Antecedents

    Most of our discussions referenced or alluded to complexity in several forms as a potential negative force on collaboration that needed to be understood, managed and where possible simplified to enable effective delivery.

    The obvious form of complexity is of course the technical one – the volume of engineering challenge that comes with delivering a mega project. This was perceived as one that current systems and processes deal with effectively, although the commercial complexity surrounding this naturally provides further challenge.
    The range and power of stakeholders both globally and locally were referenced several times as needing a lot of focus and effort from both the client and the contractor to mitigate their impact on delivery and thus on the collaboration. It was important to ensure that any impact is considered ‘in the round’ and not solely by individual parties.

    Two of the interviewees made particular mention of Joint Ventures (JVs) and their impact on collaboration, one going as far as questioning the ability of JVs to deliver as effectively as a sole contractor. Broader points were made about firstly the need for JVs to create and maintain an effective collaboration within their JV organisation in addition to any work with other parties and secondly the apparent correlation between package size and number of parties in JVs and the additional complexity this added. In these specific discussion the differences between new JVs (those working together for the first time) and those that had worked together repeatedly was explored, although any impact on collaboration was at best anecdotal.


    The size and complexity of the overall undertaking was perceived by many as a positive force on collaboration – the pride in the scale of the job and the impact that it would have on a community, a city or an economy: the “I built that” effect. This seems to engender positive impacts through engaging personal fulfilment, a sense of public spirit and also the idea that ‘to fail is not an option’.

    The idea of failure also generated some interesting insights. Although a fear of failure could be a positive force on the collaboration, the flip side could be a fear of personal failure leading to ‘playing it safe’ and weakness in avoiding difficult issues, situations and decisions.

    The notion of reputation also arose. Individuals and organisations could gain a reputation for being collaborative or non-collaborative, which could lead to misunderstanding and positions being taken, instead of driving the need for communication and airing of issues.


    Some participants specifically referred to the need to engage in constructive conflict. The failure of a previous attempt at collaboration ‘partnering’ was attributed to the creation of a false environment where conflict was seen as inappropriate and discouraged. Rather than avoiding conflict, it should be possible to discuss points of difference without being disrespectful or inappropriate. This is discussed further in the ‘resilience of collaboration’ theme below.


    From our discussions there appear to be some strategic opportunities or challenges (depending on how they are viewed) to use some key levers in the industry to facilitate more effective collaboration. Some of them are already being addressed, but given their relationship to other points raised we will share them here.

    The emerging juxtaposition from several of our interviews was the need to involve the supply chain as early as possible to ensure effective, accurate pricing and accountability for delivering to that price, with the opportunities to procure as late as possible in the design process when the risks are better understood and the quantum of potential design change reduced. This leads to inevitable tensions given Official Journal of the European Union procurement processes and the political pressures to get mega projects underway. But this was felt to be a key enabler to improve the environment for collaboration,

    The point was made on several occasions about the need for a secure pipeline of programmes (as appears to be being addressed now with the formation of the National Infrastructure Commission and the National Infrastructure Pipeline and Delivery Plan). This would give the supply chain the confidence to invest and develop their businesses with an intended virtuous circle leading to improved value for money. With the contractor elements of the supply chain currently and historically working at very low margins by comparison to other industries, it was felt by some that a mechanism to improve the profitability of these organisations would be in the long term interest of the industry and not just in relation to collaboration.

    Seen as key to this confidence and as part of early involvement would be the commitment to procure based on technical solution and not on price. It was felt given the variations of price from contract award to contract close out; the risk of this would be minimal.

    One participant commented that mega public programmes provide huge potential for innovation and improvement within the wider industry and that failure to use this catalysing effect would be a big lost opportunity.


    When it came to specific discussions about people, the words competence and capability were used interchangeably with respect to both technical skills and the individual’s ability to interact with, manage and lead people.

    The concepts of both emotional intelligence and self awareness were seen as important to successful behaviour in a collaborative environment – the ability to manage and regulate impact on others, to be aware of the needs and drivers of others and to be able to draw out the potential of those around them.

    A few participants talked about intellect at a more basic level – the core concept of intelligence. Whilst this was seen as important to general effectiveness, there was specific discussion of the abilities to solve problems and innovate, to be able to ‘think their way out of things’ and not regress to taking non-collaborative positions when difficulties inevitably arose.

    The final point relating specifically to people was about talent and the phase of the programme. Several participants discussed how certain people and approaches were seen as more appropriate to particular phases. Examples were around a perceived need to be expansive in the early stages of project initiation to create the culture and environment and a detailed and task driven focus being a more appropriate leadership for final stages and closing out. It was also noted that the team that delivered bid/procurement stage was not necessarily the best team to deliver the work, although it was noted some consistency was important to ensure knowledge management and context awareness.

    Resilience of the Collaboration

    What became very clear through most of our discussion was that collaboration was not a discrete activity managed through mobilisation to last the duration of the contract. As one participant put it “it’s a living breathing thing” and this notion of something that needs regular if not constant attention definitely came through.

    The same participant talked about creating “a burning platform that was hotter than the distractions” that forces all parties into a collaborative frame, but also caveated that it had to be “tolerable in the long run”, returning to our discussions of aligned objectives.

    Another participant talked about a former major programme where they asked not just if they were on time or on budget but actually asked if they were still aligned and recognised the need to take time to have the right discussions, to allow people to ask for help and external support if resolving challenges and regularly refreshing all of the supporting framework to the collaboration.

    As one person put it “there is no silver bullet to this” and there is a need to actively protect something that will be challenged personally, organisationally and through the context of stakeholder complexity.


    Discrete Crossrail projects have employed BS11000 to some success but given its evolution, it was not a key part of the Crossrail procurement process and therefore did not appear as a key feature in our interviews

    Given the current trends around validators such as BS11000 [1] and the investment being made in validating collaborative behaviour as part of procurement processes, it was surprising how little attention these were given in the discussions.

    In fact, only two respondents mentioned BS11000 and only one made reference to behavioural workshops and interviewing.

    In all the references, these were positioned as either necessary hurdles to be jumped without seeking validation or as one respondent put it “just the latest thing we need to be coached on in order to get through the hoop”. This could of course be due to the composition of our sample or the fact that these tools were not employed in the Crossrail procurement process.

    Lessons Learned

    What makes a collaborative individual – our perspective

    All of those interviewed as part of this research are actively working in the design and delivery of major programmes.

    The wide ranging discussion has been summarised into four themes:


    The most commonly arising quality was resilience and this was articulated in several different ways. First was the ability to maintain their behaviour and effectiveness when the context became most challenging i.e. “to keep their heads”. This was seen as key. They were able to take negative situations and create a route for their teams and others to see a positive outcome and a route forward. Most importantly, they realise the situations when they have to get a particular outcome and differentiate those from others where it’s best to allow the situation to simply play out i.e. “they lose battles to win wars”.


    They are secure in themselves as individuals which allows them to admit when they don’t have particular knowledge, when they don’t know the solution to a given problem and when they need to ask for help. They are able to admit mistakes without seeing this as a loss of respect; they are aware of their impact, their behaviour and can control their emotions.

    They do not blame either other people or other organisations, but recognise their accountability in needing to create a solution or decide next steps. They are brave in their behaviour, in confronting issues and people and they provide support for those who also need to step out of their comfort zones i.e. they provide air cover. Most critically they recognise all of those who contribute to a successful outcome, not just the individual carrying the flag, and ensure that recognition is received by the whole team.


    They are good at managing multiple activities, work streams and priorities without paying too much attention to any given focus. They balance their effort and time well. They also recognise a breadth of interest and engage with individuals and organisations across that interest to ensure they are comfortable and ‘bought in’ to any given action. They do this proactively and not just when there are issues.

    Finally, and most importantly, they give people opportunity to take ownership and accountability and do not intervene at the first sign of challenge providing consistent support to allow the individual to resolve the issue. That said, they will intervene at a point where it becomes clear a solution is required or that the individual is not able to resolve the problem – but not at the expense of the individual’s reputation.


    Having seen first hand the challenges of collaboration, the authors embarked on this exercise realising that they would not find a neat answer and that the challenges of collaboration are constant and evolving.

    Having completed the research and spent much time reviewing the interviews, it became clear that the heart of the collaboration challenge is change: most obviously the changes in scope and the discoveries that impact project performance but more fundamentally the individual’s ability to adapt to change and impact and lead those around them to cope with that impact.

    Wide ranging and complex changes to people, teams, organisations, context, markets, environment, stakeholders and governments are just some of the impacts that will affect a mega project such as Crossrail. It is the challenge and duty of the leaders within the ecosystem of organisations charged with delivering such mega projects to react and adapt to these shifts.

    It appears that the drive for collaboration has passed the ‘fad’ stage and is now seen as a core part of successful programme delivery. The authors conclude that only through the sustained effort of well intended participants will true collaboration flourish and succeed to prevent it being seen as the ‘next big thing’ or ‘another hoop to jump through’.


    [1] BSI Group, BS 11000 – Collaborative Business Relationships

  • Authors

    Photo of Rob Jones

    Rob Jones

    Rob Jones was the Head of Organisational Effectiveness at Crossrail until September 2016. Rob led the alignment and collaboration; talent development; and employee engagement work streams across the organisation. Rob joined Crossrail in 2012, and in that time the team has won awards for employee engagement, effectiveness and has achieved Investor in People accreditation. Prior to Crossrail, Rob lead the global Learning & Development team for a retailer working across the UK, Europe, South East Asia and the US having completed various talent roles in retail, fast moving consumer goods and publishing.

    Photo of Ally Salisbury

    Ally Salisbury - Sheppard Moscow

    Ally Salisbury is a Partner at Sheppard Moscow, working with leading organisations within the UK and globally. Ally’s clients include: ABN AMRO, Crossrail, ExxonMobil, KPMG and the World Bank Group. Ally’s expertise covers business facilitation, organisational development and change consulting, executive and senior team facilitation, leadership development, designing change leadership events and developing collaborative relationships that add value through more effective stakeholder management.

  • Acknowledgements

    The authors would like to acknowledge the time of all of those who participated in this research from Crossrail, Thames Tideway, Bechtel, CH2M, Laing O’Rourke, Alstom, Arup, Atkins and Costain.

    Crossrail would also like to acknowledge the investment made by Sheppard Moscow in committing resources to this research.

  • Peer Reviewers

    Mark Davis MICW, Docklands Light Railway Ltd

    Caroline Shearer, EON SE