The role of the client has changed and today’s complex environment demands a rethink in how we approach key relationships within a project, says Emma-Jane Houghton

I was recently asked to give a speech exploring the recommendations from the Building the Future Commission’s final report, and also those contained in the CLC productivity report. I wanted to take the opportunity to start a conversation about the role of the client in a project and their relationship with the other parties involved. I call this “clienting” and I would like us, in particular, to embrace the idea of the “incomplete client”.


Source: Tom Campbell

In my view, our current understanding and approach to clienting is two-dimensional in what is a multi-dimensional world. Clienting has become outdated and is not well matched to today’s complex environment and all its rich possibilities – especially the pace of change, challenges and ambiguity.

We spend too much of our time and energy in this industry focused on the problems of today, highlighting poor performance and lamenting the lack of supply chain investment, when we should really be upping our clienting game.

If the client is in the wrong shape, focused on the wrong things or has its head in the metaphorical project sand, then nothing will work

My speech was delivered in a personal capacity, as a commercial specialist with over 20 years of major project experience. This experience, combined with what I have observed through my wider industry roles and interests – including truly enlightening conversations with my excellent cohort at the Major Projects Leadership Academy (big shout out to cohort 37!) – has led me to believe that, on clienting, we can and must do much better.

It has reaffirmed my belief that we can have the best policy intent and design the best commercial solutions but, if the client is in the wrong shape, focused on the wrong things or has its head in the metaphorical project sand, then nothing will work.

Everything in a project is defined by the client – how the project is conceived and framed, and its personality. The client chooses the mission, the priorities, the set-up, the people involved and, critically, its own leadership team.

These choices set the tone for how the client subsequently behaves and operates – its appetite for risk and how it is perceived by other parties on whom it depends, including suppliers, regulators and the general public. They also set the level of trust that the client is likely to secure.

The client determines the cultural building blocks that will mean the difference between a disenfranchised or motivated team and a toxic or psychologically unsafe environment. In short, the client is the dominant personality when it comes to a project’s success. But is this really the cause of the problem of some very under-par clienting?

In a world where, typically, 75% of the knowledge and effort comes from elsewhere in the supply chain, how realistic is it that the client can be the superior actor 

The focus on this client structural hierarchy over recent years has created too rudimentary a system to accommodate the myriad complexities that we all recognise to be the reality of a major project. Project 13, among other literature from Egan to Latham, recognises the problem well. But I also think the widely recognised but poorly understood concept of an “intelligent client” – with its implicit intellectual superiority – has been quite unhelpful.

Should the client really be expected to have all the answers? In a world where, typically, 75% of the knowledge and effort comes from elsewhere in the supply chain, how realistic is it that the client can be the superior actor when it comes to navigating technical complexity?

And, in an environment which requires oodles of people-centric soft power to motivate expansive teams and engage disparate stakeholders, is it intelligence, IQ and knowledge or EQ (emotional quotient) that actually wins the day?

Research shows that the hierarchical, IQ-centric model leads the client to do three things:

1. Recruit forceful type-A leaders who are full of self-confidence, high on directive, but poor at listening.

2. Focus too much on knowledge, skills, expertise and prior experience in the way it gears the organisation up for success – ignoring more intangible aspects or personal qualities.

3. Defaulting to telling the supply chain what it wants them to do rather than setting the outcomes that it needs them to achieve.

Combined, these three things set a course for the project that is predisposed and based on client overconfidence and inflated self-belief.

Asking questions can be perceived as a weakness rather than a means of tapping into valuable sources of insight, and the client becomes more concerned with directing its people to follow a narrow plan, rather than listening to a range of ideas. This places too much store in the limited personal experiences and preferences of a few individuals in arriving at answers to very complex questions.

>> From the archive: Interview with Emma-Jane Houghton, commercial director, New Hospitals Programme

The real problems occur when the project threats emerge – as they always do. Only the simplest projects will encounter only known knowns. In a highly volatile, complex and uncertain world, bad things emerge unexpectedly, like a storm battering a ship.

The client organisation as it stands is just not equipped to deal with these shocks and big decisions are made based on a gut feeling with an absence of good governance and records. It is the absence of diverse voices and the unwillingness to challenge the thinking which creates the space for threats to a project to thrive.

All of this has led me to believe that, instead of focusing on the IQ of a client, we should instead embrace the idea of the “incomplete client”.

An incomplete client shows humility and introspection. It is vulnerable and does not have all the answers and creates opportunities for curiosity through servant leadership. It is transparent and shares its tribulations and frustrations. And it is trusting and understands that it is part of an ecosystem – not alone at the top of a hierarchy.

The incomplete client understands its fiduciary duty and focuses on the benefits to the end user and the communities it serves rather than ego-driven decision-making that can overshadow altruistic progress.

I believe it is the incomplete client that can make a real difference to major projects. The incomplete client has the intelligence to recognise that it cannot have all the answers – and the emotional capacity to orchestrate the solutions.

Emma-Jane Houghton is a commercial director with the Atomic Weapons Establishment. An infrastructure and built environment specialist, she is passionate about creating a more modern, productive and sustainable construction industry. Her background and professional accomplishments span major project and programme delivery with clients in both the private and public sector. She has held senior positions in the Cabinet Office as well as “big four” consultancy and a range of advisory leadership roles. She is also a chartered surveyor, fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers and a major in the Engineering and Logistics Staff Corps.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s employer, company, institution or other associated parties