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?
Does your boss only seem to stand in your way? Is he or she fearful of accountability, grossly indecisive, and never providing enough information to understand their objections? It is more common than most of us would imagine. In fact, this behavior is central to every sales interaction. Even though you may be repulsed at thinking of yourself as "selling" to your boss, that is exactly what the action you are doing—selling your concept. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to employ the same techniques used to sell large systems. If you think this is rubbish, as one of my esteemed readers once eloquently said, I will posit that you are already using sales techniques, just the wrong ones—the ones car dealers use. Changing your approach will subdue your unruly boss
The Answer Is Questions
Normally, when asking we ask our bosses to make a decision, we present them with a list of benefits and then ask for a decision. This is identical to the methods of the car lot's stereotypical slimy salesperson. They list numerous features (whether they are important to you or not) and go for the close—"Would you like me to draw up the paperwork so you can drive it home today?" That technique might work if you were buying a multifunction calculator or some new inexpensive widget for your computer, but it falls woefully short in higher stakes decisions where money, reputation, or both are on the line. Instead, decision makers want to understand the value based on the key benefits to them. In the case of the car, what might be a cool feature to the sales person (a remote control rear window sunshade), may be useless to the buyer. On the other hand, additional backseat legroom may be critical for comfortably transporting clients to lunch. A salesperson will have a much easier time selling the latter.
The simple solution is to ask your boss what is important to him or her. For these questions to be successful, they must be the right type of questions. Author Neil Rackham's research shows that when selling any "big" items, four types of questions must be asked—situation, problem, implication, and needs-payoff. These conveniently condense to the salesy term SPIN questions.
The first level of questioning is situational. These questions determine the authority of the person to make the decision, who is involved with the making it, and so forth. These are the most basic of questions, and seem too inconsequential to focus on. Although they appear to be trivial and may be annoying to answer, they have an insightful impact on the outcome of the decision. Questions in this category are similar to ones that determine whether there is a preference on make/buy, in-house, or outsourcing. Assuming what these answers might be, though, can have a profound negative effect on the decision maker's reception to your proposal. Many of us have been in the embarrassing situation where suddenly the option of buying a COTS (common off the self) solution was the unspoken preference.
Problems are in the eye of the beholder. Even though you and your boss work for the same company, each of you may identify problems very different. Problem questions elicit your boss' view of what is important. Your view of the problems is irrelevant when justifying his or her decision. To find out the decision maker's view, ask questions about specific problems and their weight on the organization. Always add the question "Are there any other big problems?" Knowing there is a problem is not enough, executives must have an explicit need for a solution. The following two sets of questions determine the explicit need based on these implicit problems.
When describing problems we are intimate with, we tend to think that everyone understands the gravity of them. It is obvious to us since we have worked with the issues so long. We need to layout out questions that will guide others down a path of discovery so they may internalize the problems' scope. As the name implies, implication questions drill into the ramifications of the problems. They help the decision-maker comprehend the problem's consequences. For instance, if you are trying to resolve a problem with untimely production throughput reports, then implication questions could address whether late or inaccurate reports cause:
It is not the problems, rather the implications that arise from those issues that creates the sense of urgency. These questions help the listener understand the breadth of the problem and sets you up for the final set of questions—the needs-payoff questions.
The structure of needs-payoff questions shows the listener the need for your solution and its payoff. These questions, as opposed to the earlier questions (which are negative by the fact they are exploiting problems), are termed in a positive tone. Instead of saying that an implied problem is costing a certain amount, the questions take on a positive form focusing on how much would be saved if an explicit problem is resolved. For instance, "Eliminating the accidental scheduling of overtime would save you how much money?" and "How much would you save in rework costs if you could catch issues a few hours earlier?" These questions provide the final piece of data that you and your decision maker need—the cost justification. If the cost savings outweigh the cost of implementing the solution, the decision becomes much easier.
The sequence of questions has two significant benefits of:
Will some still object? Of course. In fact, some will realize that you are trying to corner them and will stop answering questions. You may need to resort to asking the questions over weeks in casual conversation and keeping meticulous notes. In the end, you will have an extremely convincing case for supporting a fact-based decision.