Viewing Posts by David Wakeman
by Dave Wakeman
I’ve continued to watch as the world works its way through the coronavirus pandemic, keeping an eye on leadership styles around the world. The successes in places like Australia, New Zealand and Germany can teach us a great deal about what a great project manager can do and achieve with a good scope, strong leadership, trust in their team and consistent communication.
But over the last week or so, I’ve also been toying with something else that I think is playing into the success or failure of countries’ responses to the pandemic: systems thinking. I keep coming back to the idea that maybe one of the big challenges that folks are dealing with is that their systems aren’t set up to help them be successful during this pandemic. Then, I got to thinking about what we can learn if that is the case.
Here are three things that have stuck with me the last few weeks:
1. To have a successful theory, you need a unified theory of your system.
In the United States, we’ve seen each state approach the coronavirus in its own way, with different measures of success and failure and different ways of communication.
That’s one extreme.
On the other side of the world, in New Zealand, we saw the prime minister lock down the entire country with a shelter-in-place order mandating people to stay exactly where they were.
The idea behind New Zealand’s thinking seems to be that if everyone in the country were on lockdown at the same time and didn’t move, they would be able to stop community spread in its tracks.
In the U.S., having 50 different governors offer up 50 different plans for their states has allowed people to interact with each other much more freely, increasing the likelihood of community spread.
To put it another way, thinking about New Zealand as one big system enabled them to act with the entire country in mind and take actions as a unit, whether or not every area needed the exact same prescription at the moment. The system took precedent over any individual component.
2. Looking at the world as a system can help point toward a quicker recovery.
Adaptation is at the heart of strong systems. And, as we have seen the pandemic move around the world, countries have had their impact from the virus start at different points and end at different points.
Take, as an example, the German Bundesliga—the first professional football (soccer) league to return to action, providing a roadmap for how football clubs around the world could manage playing games without fans and ensure players remained healthy after returning to training.
The same idea is taking place as we look to reopen many of our economies. In Japan, it was reported that the country’s response to the pandemic was not completely successful, but that having their population conditioned to use masks helped them avoid a tremendous disruption due to the virus.
Both of these examples can point us toward solutions that will enable us to reopen more quickly and, hopefully, reduce the possibility of a deadly second wave of coronavirus infections.
You can already see this taking shape in the way that La Liga, the Premier League and the NBA are working to restart their leagues. And it is prominent in much of the messaging about the importance of wearing a mask to prevent community spread of COVID-19.
3. Successful systems still need good communication.
Even in a huge system, we are seeing that communication is essential to adaptation and dealing with a challenge.
This is true in any situation.
The countries with greater success navigating the pandemic have had their leaders communicate in a way that is consistent, clear, built on facts and science, and gives folks points of reference. People are able to see the success or failures of the actions that they are taking, which provides motivation and compliance.
I’ve said this many times before, but in general, around 90 percent of your time as a project manager is going to be spent communicating. In looking at the pandemic and the responses to it as a system and through the lens of a project manager, I can see that this number still holds pretty true, no matter the nature of your project.
It’s another way of saying that leadership matters, communication matters and having a grasp on the changing facts of the challenge you are working to overcome and the willingness to constantly communicate them in an effective manner makes this pandemic look less unusual—and more like a really complicated project.
But, maybe I am biased.
What do you think?
By Dave Wakeman
As you may have noticed, my attention during the pandemic has been largely focused on the lessons we can all learn about leadership.
Why mess with a good thing? So, I’ll continue to focus on leadership this month, since the lessons are still popping up fast and furious.
Let’s look at what we’ve learned so far about project leadership through the COVID-19 crisis and then turn those into a few actionable ideas we can all put into practice.
First, we’ve found that folks who led with science are the ones who have done a better job of fighting the disease. I’m looking at you Taiwan, New Zealand and Germany, to name three.
Second, we’ve seen that communication is crucial and that honest, consistent communication is the most important thing we can have. And, leaders who provide a vision, a plan and consistent updates are able to gather more support, achieve better outcomes and build more trust.
Third, we’ve seen that expertise matters and that it is impossible for one person to know everything about everything.
So, how do we continue to put these practices to use in our own project careers? Here are a few more ideas for all the leaders out there:
Trust the experts: The first and third points highlight an overarching theme of modern project management and modern leadership: No one knows everything—and I’d go one step further. One of the best things that an expert does is curate the overwhelming amount of knowledge out there in the world.
Again, in viewing the coronavirus press briefings around the world, you see countries toying with herd immunity and countries actually following that theory; then, you have countries with leaders who are offering up wildly unproven medical solutions; and you have other countries that have had stricter shutdown protocols.
What does this show us?
It shows us that there are going to be hundreds of solutions to every situation. Some of them have value and some of them are total quackery. This is why experts matter.
An expert can look at all of the tested options, all of the potential options and all of the long shots, and think through whether or not they are feasible, likely or improbable.
This matters, because as a project manager, you are likely always going to deal with a certain amount of risk—and just because something isn’t likely doesn’t mean it isn’t worth testing.
What it does mean is that you need to make sure that when you test an idea or a solution, you understand it might not work and are able to recognize success or failure through a lens of knowledge and trust in your team’s expertise.
Or, if you have a crazy idea that you might want to test due to the nature of the situation you are dealing with, you can try that as well—with the knowledge that the idea may have a low probability of success.
Leadership matters most during the tough times: It was recently May 4, the day when Star Wars is celebrated around the world. In Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, there is a scene in which Darth Vader confronts Orson Krennic about how he is handling the rebel alliance. Krennic makes a bunch of excuses and claims about the efficiency of his leadership and tries to win over Vader’s support for him to command the Death Star just as it was becoming a powerful weapon to terrorize the galaxy.
With his back to Krennic, Vader uses the force to put a choke hold on Krennic and tells him, “Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director.”
I like to think that this is a great analogy for the kind of leaders who love to be leaders in the good times, but try to pass the buck when things go wrong.
The reality of leadership is that you have to take the good with the bad, and I think history has proven that the leaders who lead courageously through times of trouble are the ones who are remembered the most.
As an example, Abraham Lincoln is remembered for holding the United States together as the Civil War worked to tear it apart. Winston Churchill is remembered more for his leadership in World War II than he is remembered for any of his other accomplishments. And everyone remembers Mel Gibson’s speech in Braveheart before sending his army off to fight. Am I right?
The point I’m making is that leading is often about how you deal with challenging situations, change or turmoil—and not how you navigate the easy moments.
Why? Because it isn’t easy to make decisions in troubling times. There likely isn’t one answer, but many—all of which likely carry a certain amount of risk. How you deal with these situations defines you and determines whether you are a success or a failure as a leader.
How have challenging situations made you a better project leader?
By Dave Wakeman
I’m still on lockdown here in Washington, D.C., until at least May 15. That gives me a lot of time to poorly teach 4th grade and to think about life, business and what comes next. It also gives me plenty of time to watch the news—and I have been fighting that desire, because it is frustrating to see far too many displays of poor leadership when strong leadership is so needed.
But to bring it back to the positive, we can also see with great clarity how important good, not even great, leadership is. Here are a few principles that have been reinforced to me during this time of uncertainty:
1. Leadership is about vision: Next to my desk I keep a shadowbox with a profile of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in it. I keep it there because of FDR’s famous quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” To me, it’s a constant reminder that we must have courage.
Courage requires vision—vision of a better future and a better outcome for our project teams. As we come out of this crisis, we need to be ready to provide a vision for our teams of how we are going to grow out of this experience, what we are going to do to overcome obstacles and what future growth and opportunity we can expect.
In too many places right now, we don’t see that. And the lack of a clear vision for the future and how we’ll come out of this pandemic is causing us more damage than necessary. That’s because business, society and life are all built on a foundation of confidence. When you don’t have the confidence that things will be okay or have direction, it becomes easy to grow demoralized.
2. Leaders don’t micromanage: I’m only as successful as I am because I let folks do their jobs.
I’d also tell you with complete sincerity that I only seem anywhere near as smart as you might think I am because of all the people who are willing to share their ideas, experiences and perspectives with me.
That’s a long-winded way of me telling you: You can’t be an expert in everything. As a leader, you have to recognize your role in the project and let the experts do their jobs. That’s what they are there for.
No one is an expert in everything, and anyone who is claiming they are is trying to fool you. This crisis should lay open the idea that not one of us, as an individual, can successfully execute all areas of a project. In fact, this crisis should highlight the power of experts, period.
To achieve success, it is essential that we not micromanage, that we give our teams a clear goal and direction—and that we get out of their way so that they can do their jobs.
3. Leaders accept responsibility: I think of a scene from Batman v Superman when Wonder Woman dashes in front of Batman to deflect the lasers from the metahuman that was attacking Metropolis and Gotham City.
Bad analogy, but to me Wonder Woman sets a great example for leaders. She jumped in front of Batman to protect him so that he could get back into the Batplane and come up with a new strategy for defeating the beast with his intelligence and his arsenal of gadgets.
As leaders, we need to think of ourselves as Wonder Woman in that regard. A leader must protect their team to be able to do the work that is required for project success. It’s relatively easy to deflect attention, pass blame or throw someone under the bus. But real leadership entails dealing with the heat from outside sources and people looking to attack or slow down your project.
In our current crisis, we have seen many examples of leaders trying to push blame onto others, pass responsibility and remove themselves from the role as the head of the project when things aren’t going well.
That’s not really leadership, though. That’s sun-shining: the act of leading from the front when things are going great and running for cover when the storm clouds come in.
I hope everyone is safe, and I hope that we can begin to gain control over this pandemic so we can return to our projects, recreation and life. Until then, I’ll continue to consider lessons learned about leadership while watching this crisis unfold.
What have you learned about leadership in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?
By Dave Wakeman
My editors always say I bring an interesting perspective to project management and leadership. I like to think it’s because I come to project management from fields that are not often associated with project management, such as marketing, politics and sports.
Even though project management touches every field.
As I’m writing this, I’ve been at home acting as chief teaching officer to my 9-year-old son, chief sounding board for my partner, chief shoulder to a lot of mentees and chief play toy to my bulldog, due to the spread of the coronavirus and the actions of governments around the world to protect their citizens and mitigate the damage of this new virus.
While many of us are physically distanced from each other, I’ve had a lot of time to watch the responses and observe them as an exercise in project management.
And, to be quite honest, if many of the leaders around the world were working as project managers for the organizations I work with, a lot of them would be fired.
But … I think all of us can also learn a lot from this moment, and I hope we do. Here are three things I’m learning about project management from the coronavirus crisis:
1. Leadership matters: I was in Australia in November, and I remember standing in the airport in Melbourne with my colleague the first time I was made aware of the coronavirus.
Since then, we’ve seen many leaders around the world downplay COVID-19, lie about their knowledge of the disease or try to pass the buck for their poor response as the people impacted by the coronavirus continued to grow.
Across the globe, this lack of vision, urgency and direction has marked the response to the coronavirus.
That’s a lack of leadership.
In normal situations, we know that leadership matters and that having vision, providing guidance and supporting your team is important. In a crisis, the importance of leadership multiplies exponentially.
This is why we have to recognize that our role as managers is to lead—to bear the brunt of knowledge, direction and action. That’s been missing in so many places throughout the pandemic.
2. Communication is king: In general, 90 percent of a project manager’s job is communication, up and down the stakeholder map. That doesn’t change no matter what kind of project you are leading.
As we work through the impacts of the viral pandemic, we must consider what makes communication effective, and that includes things like timeliness, consistency and truthfulness.
We’ve seen the timeliness of communication from leaders be pretty good, at least over the last few weeks. Though, if I were the leader of these projects, I’d default to communicating and explaining things earlier.
As far as consistency, we’ve seen a number of leaders around the world change their messages and directions to citizens almost daily, which isn’t a very effective way to generate the best results.
Finally, truthfulness. I know from experience that you can’t tell your teams and stakeholders everything all the time, due to legal exposure, security or other issues. But the malleability of the truth in the face of a once-in-a-lifetime event has been quite alarming.
All three of these inputs are extremely important to the success of your communications with your team and stakeholders.
3. Teamwork is essential: As project managers, we lead teams of people with diverse skills, agendas and needs. Our ability to get these folks moving in the same direction, if only long enough to complete their part in our project, defines our success or failure.
In the global reaction to the coronavirus, we have seen a disjointed response with each country and continent going their own way.
Lack of teamwork is harmful in this case, obviously. We haven’t taken coordinated efforts to reduce travel, slow infections and increase production of necessary medical equipment.
But the larger point is that if you are leading a team and no one is working together, your ability to achieve your goals and positive results seems to deteriorate rapidly.
That’s on display today.
Overall, I’ve been disappointed with the way leaders around the world have responded to the coronavirus outbreak. We mustn’t discount the lessons learned as we witness governing bodies across the globe either rise to the occasion or falter in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
By Dave Wakeman
I’m heading to London in a few weeks and while I’m there, I’m going to catch a bunch of Premier League matches. My team, Tottenham Hotspur, has had an up-and-down season—changing coaches in November, and then getting a new manager, José Mourinho.
As I was thinking about my travel plans, I also started thinking about how managing a soccer team is a lot like managing a project. And, to take it even further, I started asking myself what we can learn from some of soccer’s best managers.
As I mentioned, Tottenham had to change managers this season. In switching from Mauricio Pochettino to José Mourinho, the team found itself working under an entirely new system. Pochettino was known for speed, pressing and intensity. Mourinho was known for being more tactical, controlling and playing a style of soccer that many don’t feel is pretty.
The challenge for Mourinho is that he came into the team in the middle of the season, so he needed to adapt to the team he had—not build the one he wanted. That meant his Tottenham team has been a lot less defensive oriented, and a bit higher scoring than a typical Mourinho-coached team.
This reminds me of projects where we don’t always have the time, resources or skills that we would hope to have. In these cases, we need to be flexible. Is there a way to shift the timing of certain parts of the project to fit your schedule? Can you manage all the different stakeholders with their different styles of communication and their different goals?
In soccer, you deal with complex situations that don’t lend themselves to simple or rigid solutions. When managing a project, we see the same situation occur. This means that we have to understand where we are going and be able to adjust on the fly when the situation changes, so we can get to our destination.
I think communication is one of the key skills that coaches and project managers share. I’ve always said 90 percent of a project manager’s job is communication and 10 percent is everything else.
In watching soccer managers, I have a sneaking suspicion that the same ratio applies. Like project managers, they have to have a great deal of technical skill, but they also have to be willing and able to delegate and let other folks deliver their vision.
In other words, it is difficult to do everything yourself. And being the public face of the project or team requires the leader to deal with key stakeholders like the media, the sponsor and the team.
In both scenarios, communication is more than just answering questions or giving orders. Both managers spend lots of time listening to other people so that they can make decisions or adjustments, and so they have a finger on the pulse of the teams they are leading.
Success Isn’t Guaranteed
This should seem obvious, but every project comes with a bit of risk. The same goes with managing a soccer team. Just saying that success isn’t guaranteed isn’t nearly enough. But knowing that failure is a possibility impacts the way that we all approach our jobs.
Project leaders spend a lot of time thinking through risk management, risk mitigation and change management. Similarly, soccer managers are thinking about how their formations will impact the game, gaps in talent and a multitude of other factors that could be the difference between success and failure.
To me, this concept gets interesting when you think about success. It requires us to do all of the same things, like understanding risk, being flexible and willing to change and communicate effectively.
These are only my top three ways that a soccer manager is like a project manager. What would you add? Let me know below!