"I just want to be a project manager. I don't want all that responsibility." The room was silent, save a few exasperated sighs. Everyone looked around the room trying to figure out how we would handle the comment. No one addressed it. In fact though, there are many levels of project management maturity and only the highest levels require leadership and there is nothing wrong with this person's desire to wanting to stay out of the fray. In fact, the prominent US certification process—PMI's PMP®—has historically little to do with leadership. PMI is only recently catching up with the rest of us who have been preaching leadership and business for the last couple decades. So where do we learn about leadership and how can we improve our leadership skills?
Tips and Techniques
Leadership cannot be taught nor can you test for it. It is a set of traits we develop that are reflected in our core values and how we relate to others. Studying, learning, and mimicking various techniques are a start, but until they become part of our values and persona and are as natural as breathing, they are only superficial and we fall woefully short of being a leader.
Being a leader is a great aspiration, but requires more effort than that required to attain a simple certification. To understand what necessitates being a leader we can turn to the corporate world. In a Fast Company article by Heath Row, FedEx® specifically calls out nine traits to identify a person's leadership potential—charisma, individual consideration, intellectual stimulation, courage, dependability, flexibility, integrity, judgment, and respect for others. Here, they are paraphrased and grouped into three main categories.
A leader is a role model for others in everything he or she does. They have charisma to instill faith, respect, and trust. They respect others opinions. Instead of berating, they carefully listen and excel as a coach and advisor. Using these skills, they have developed the ability to get others to think in new ways, identifying and questioning unsupported opinion and, in its place, use evidence and reasoning. This brings a fresh new approach to problem solving in the organization.
Leaders do not give in to popular views or demands and have the courage to withstand resistance against looking at ideas that are out of the mainstream—regardless of the personal cost. They are adaptive and effective in rapidly changing environments, with an ability to discern issues, simultaneously handling a variety of problems, and making course corrections as required.
Based on a strong sense of mission, leaders are dependable, keeping their commitments and taking responsibility for their actions and their mistakes. A foundation of internal integrity guides them through what is morally and ethically correct. Superior judgment allows a leader to evaluate multiple action plans objectively using logic, analysis, and comparison. They are pragmatic decision makers.
Leadership and Project Management
With all that is entailed in being a leader, it is easy to understand why someone would make the distinction that all they wanted to be was a project manager. Minding the scope, schedule, and budget sounds quiet and peaceful, even mundane. Taking a subordinate, individual contributor role managing team members to someone else's direction, is tranquil in comparison to a leader's responsibilities. One must remember, though, there are two paths in project management—successfully managing the most difficult of projects as a leader, or following a cookbook project management style as a coordinator. The demand will increase for the former, while the latter will be commoditized and relegated to any resource, remote or local. To advance the project management discipline, leadership qualities are essential.
Leadership is more than leading the people who report to you. As a project manager, you need to lead a team which you rarely have any authority over. The absence of hierarchical advantage adds a challenge, but is ideal training on how to deal with managers, customers, and difficult people. The key is making them feel that they chose the direction. One of the best methods of doing this is storytelling.
To start, you need to listen non-judgmentally. Too often, we jump to conclusions, share observations, blurt out solutions, and fail to give others time to assimilate information from our point of view.
A few years ago, I was talking with a potential client that had a very successful data analysis company. The problem they were having was with a custom piece of proprietary hardware they had designed and built to collect the data. The business development manager, who loved hardware design, was managing the product development and was relaying the current situation. I asked for the history on how they got to their current disheveled state. He sighed and told me his tale of woe.
The first release was a success, but after short time a key supplier of one of the core components, a small company, went out of business. This made him look for a new supplier. Adding to the frustration was that all the other suppliers charged significantly amount. We talked about the functionality and a few other particulars on that version. He continued by saying that about a year later they created a new revision and changed that same component's functionality to use firmware so reprogramming would be easier. They contracted with an individual, who was desperate for work, to design the part. As a result, they got a great deal. Unfortunately, the protocol used was nonstandard and no other suppliers used it. When the contractor found full-time employment, they were again without support. Version 3, the version currently use, had another component losing support and they needed to find a new vendor.
The present problem was on a contract with a new company, started by a recent college graduate, to supply a subset of components. He was running into multiple problems, various vendors were arguing that he had designed the interfaces incorrectly, and now he had taken another job out of state. The business development manager was left with money invested in an unusable product. He insisted the problems were unavoidable and the company's strategy was prudent and fiscally conservative.
Building The Story
I returned to my office to determine how to approach telling them that they needed to focus on gathering and analyzing data, not building hardware, and the business development manager's pet project should be given to a company that specializes in developing custom hardware. I sent them an email asking about their growth plans for each business unit and clarifying a few other points from our conversation. From this information, I outlined the following agenda:
As I replayed what I had been told, they started filling in the answers, arriving at the conclusion that they should focus on their core business of collecting and analyzing data, rather than building hardware. I never had to mention bullet 4, they came to that conclusion on their own. Investing time in building a trusting relationship with a reputable product development group, whose responsibilities would include architectural design, building, and supplier management, would free up time of the business development manager to... well... develop new business. It would also insulate the company from problem in the hardware supply chain.
I could have told them in the first meeting that product development was not their forte, and that the business development manager's pet project of managing all the vendors was costing them dearly, but I would have not been invited back. As obvious as some answers seem, when situations have evolved over time the people in the middle are unable to see some of the most obvious answers. Playing back words in a different context is the key to shedding light on the proper direction and draws them to the conclusion using their own words. Your job is to simply facilitate the process.
Few would question that executives are responsible for ensuring projects are aligned with the corporate vision, goals, and strategy. Yet, everyone seems to forget that the business environment changes almost daily and initiatives must also to remain in line with these goals. To achieve this, executives (primarily the executive sponsor) have to be engaged with the project throughout its life cycle. This requires more than ensuring the project maintains its scope, schedule, and budget; projects must deliver value. Too many projects start with the inspirational support of upper management, but as the project (or company) drifts, the executives have long since disengaged from the project and are unable to straighten out the misalignment. This wastes company resources and hinders the company's ability to deliver.
The Shiny Ball Syndrome
Too often, project teams (both customers and suppliers), become enamored of numerous non-critical features, the shiny ball of new technology, or excessive process and drift from the strategic tenets of the project. The project executives (everyone from the portfolio managers, PMO directors, up to the CEO) need to monitor and guide projects to maintain their alignment, while the project manager shepherds the project within the approved scope, schedule, and budget.
Executives have the responsibility of maintaining focus on supplying value. Understanding the customer's business is critical to accomplish this. Rather than pedantically ensuring project charters, work breakdown structures, risk registers, and the like, are complete to some blanket standard, senior managers need to make certain the intent and content of these artifacts indicate the project's product is delivering the appropriate value. This goes far beyond the question "Is this document complete?" The question needs to be, "Does the document and its content add value?" If the document fails to do this, the project is heading the wrong direction. Project executives need to continually monitor value using all means available and realign projects that are not providing sufficient value or cancel them.
The Key is Value
There is no mathematical model for value. Like beauty, the eye of the beholder plays a significant role. It is not a ratio of what should have expended on the project compared to the expectations. A project can nicely meet those parameters and never meet the needs of the customer. Rather, value is the aggregate of the tangible and intangible, measurable and immeasurable benefits from its product. It includes how people feel about the project, the deliverable, ease of use, and the project is adopted.
One method to achieve this is enabling the project team to be involved with the customer earlier. Whether internal or external, early engagement with the customer points out subtle distinctions in their requests that can make the difference in providing value. In many cases, the limiting factor is the project team's managers. They are either too worried about the expense of such an endeavor or they are concerned about individuals stepping out of their roles and interacting with a customer.
In reality, executives do not need to be involved in every project—they need to be involved in any project where the impact of its failure is above the company's risk threshold. This is different for every company. For small companies that may mean involvement in every project and for multi-billion dollar corporations that may only be a select few. Top management is the group that has to agree to and sign-off on the risk. As risk attributes change, risks morph into issues, and new risks arise, they are the ones that need to re-assess the impact on the business. Without their continual, objective focus on the project's risk, mitigations will be missing, contingencies inadequate, and projects will fall into disrepair.
Executives cannot abdicate accountability. They are the ones who ultimately set direction, ensure that it is being followed, and commit resources to achieve it. They can delegate the actions and in doing so accept the consequences if their vision is not followed. This trust must, on occasion, be verified and validated against the changing winds of the business climate. Failure to do so will produce projects devoid of value.
And Your Experience?
How have executives supported you or, maybe even, let you down. Please, let's hear your thoughts.
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.
Back in the eighties, I was working for a large aerospace company cutting my teeth as a systems analyst. My bosses were a little older than I am now, and they loved talking about the days before cubicles, pontificating on how personal computers were inferior to mainframes, and reminiscing about the days of the BOMARC missile. It was their way of telling us thirty-something kids that they were in control and we needed to respect their position. Then, as now, information was king and these lumbering ligabuesaurus were not letting it go. To earn your stripes, one had to partake in the tribal rituals, smoke cigars during three-martini lunches, and attend your boss's parties. They saw no value in email let alone the boondoggle shop floor automation project I was part of. In two words, communication sucked.
The Peanut Enters Stage Left
The office was split between the people that ate their lunch at their desks and those that drank their lunch offsite. It was a very different time with ashtrays still a fixture in all conference rooms. I was content eating the lunch my wife had packed in a nondescript brown bag and being pleasantly surprised at her occasional little additions. One day, she threw in a small bag of peanuts. For some reason, I offered them to my three cubicle mates by quietly placing them on the communal table in the center of our shared space. It was not long until Bill, our boss, missiled past our cubicle's entrance on the way to one of his ever-critical planning meetings. With hardly a glance into our workspace, he made an instant course correction to the coordinates of our peanut-laden table. He sat his papers next to the peanut bowl, freeing both hands for the delicate job of shelling peanuts. He focus was suddenly on shelling, eating, and, most importantly, talking. We heard about his upcoming meeting (which would fall into dismal disrepair without him, so he must hurry) as he carefully extracted the meat, dutifully depositing the shells in the dustbin, and slapping their contents into his mouth as one might knock back a shot of cheap whiskey. We sat in amazement of his openness. Within a few minutes, he depleted the peanuts and vanished. My cubicle mates and I stared at one another in shock—communication.
Refining The Process
Over the next few weeks, the small bags from my lunch grew to five-pound bags of Hoody's unshelled salted peanuts stored under my desk. The baggie and trash can were replace with two nice bowels—one for peanuts and another for the empty shells—both of which my wife had found at a garage sale. We discovered that shelled peanuts were ineffective—people would just grab a handful and run. Unshelled peanuts required two hands, a place to conveniently dispose of the waste, and, most importantly, time. Shelling produced only two peanuts, not enough to quench your appetite or impede conversation. It was the perfect combination of lack of satiation, effort, and tending to addictive traits to create the proper dwell time for conversation. We were exploiting people's weaknesses and manipulating our bosses' behavior.
Don't Talk With Your Mouth Full
Information flowed, people understood the goals, and anxiety waned. All for peanuts. In later years, I have found that cherries, grapes, and crackers and hummus all have the same effect. Variety of fair brought the curious. The key was to partake required two hands, or maybe pit, and cannot fill the mouth. Eating one must only whet the appetite.
The task is: do not act too curious. Let them divulge a little. Ask some small question. Then just shut up and listen. They will not be able to tolerate the silence. Splat, here comes a bunch of stuff you never would have heard in a meeting. The challenge is that we never listen enough. Those old bosses never did, they still don't, and, I have news for you, neither do we. Let people ramble and you will be surprised at what you learn.
The Peanuts in Reverse
There is more to learn from this than how to get information from superiors. Hidden in it is the value of unstructured spontaneous communication. This is at the heart of the age-old form of "management by walking around." Walk into a subordinate's office and simply asking how they are doing. The first few occasions bring skepticism, but as it becomes the norm, people open up and tell you what actually is going on. The two key ingredients are:
Let's Hear From You
What tricks do you have to boost communications?