Vision, honesty, and transparency: three key ingredients for project success. I reminded of this when thumbing through the archives this week and ran across an interview I gave on Blog Talk Radio's Tom on Leadership program. His audience, primarily from the C-Suite, is keen to understand the connection between troubled and failing projects and their organization's overall health. Projects are, after all, the proverbial canaries in our organization's coalmine. Projects stop performing because there is trouble in the organization.
Honesty is at the core of any healthy organization's culture. Without honesty, all is lost. This is never more apparent when projects seemingly fail over night. We call these watermelon projects (green on the outside and red on the inside) projects are indicative of a leadership culture that punishes bad news.
Honesty must permeate the company from the board to the individual contributor. Project teams in healthy, honest organizations, report status accurately. Unpleasant news brings offers of assistance as opposed to criticism.
Honesty requires trust. Trust, however, cannot be blind. Every organization has a representative slice of humanity; unfortunately, this includes people who may not hold honesty as a virtue. Furthermore, there are times when our teams simply do have the insight to know they are getting into trouble. For these reasons, every trustful manager has to verify intentions quietly and discreetly. This is not mistrust; it is a prudent measure to ensure the organization as a whole is functioning properly.
Without identifying a vision or goal, the team is directionless. Failure to develop and communicate a vision is a primary responsibility of the executive sponsor. He or she must maintain a clear vision and clarify any adjustments to meet changes in the business environment. Most executives in companies with an inadequate vision are in denial that the condition exists. Their organizations are steeped in mistrust and dishonesty. It starts at the top, where management denies there is an unclear direction and manifests in an apathetic team unwilling to take the political risk of highlighting management's error.
In these organizations, projects languish in the indecision. Without knowing the proper direction, no one can make critical decisions (as that implies accountability), and projects stall.
Transparency comes part and parcel with an honest organization. One of the key features of an honest organization is that they are transparent. An honest organization has nothing to hide. Honesty, however, does not guarantee transparency. Within any organization, denial and ego can create pockets of problems that management must diligently discover.
In trusting, honest organizations, it is often difficult to find these enclaves of opacity. They produce just enough data to maintain a façade of openness. Even in non-covert situations, transparency takes confidence and constant communication. The best of intentions to complete a set of difficult tasks can create an environment where groups, focused on their goals forget to ask for help. It creeps over them slowly like an evening fog, enveloping the workday, eliminating the ability to stand back and assess the state of affairs.
Transparency needs management's help. Management must be involved with their people—mingling, asking questions, looking for stress, and proactively proposing solutions.
The Canary's Song
Just like a canary, projects in a poisoned organization go silent. There is little realism in their reports and management must ferret out the problems. If the organization is unhealthy, it takes an outside party to untangle the mess. Someone must call attention to honesty's absence, abused trust, and unclear visions. They need to look inside the opaque box and point to the political problems hindering a transparent operation.
Any parent knows this warning sign. Children play in a normal cacophony of clangs, thunks, and bumps. To a degree, parents are numb to these sounds. However, the instant those noises stop, mental alarm bells ring. Parents know there is trouble in the offing. The same is true in project management. The minute the project goes quiet or the troubles seem to disappear, it is time to start asking questions. The team is probably in trouble and unwilling or unable to recognize the issues.