Just One Thing—Hug a Project Manager

Just One ThingThe “Just One Thing” Series at Management Excellence is intended to provoke ideas and actions around topics relevant to our success and professional growth. Use them in good health and great performance!

My wife informed me that June 4 was officially, “Hug Your Cat Day.” (Who decides this?) While dog lovers everywhere were likely nauseous over this seeming waste of energy, it was a nice sentiment, albeit, one wasted on a creature that would clearly let you know if and when he/she required you to extend a hug. When it was darned well ready of course.

Perhaps a better use of this date and gesture might be to encourage those of us in our jobs and firms dependent upon big things getting done to seek out and either genuinely or metaphorically hug a project manager.

One of the core takeaways my MBA students express after investing 10 weeks immersed in the art and science of this discipline is new found appreciation for the role project managers play in our organizations. Few come into the course understanding the importance of the role; the complexity of the people and process challenges and the nature of the leadership and execution challenges faced by these individuals.

They leave understanding that innovation occurs in the form of projects…as does strategy execution, new product development…new infrastructure implementation…and the reality that almost everything we depend upon to do our jobs originated in the form of one or more projects. They develop an appreciation for the tools of project management…not as magical answers to our problems…but literally as tools to help us get work done.

They also leave the course understanding that project managers are the consummate integrator leaders…working across boundaries, often with little authority but much of the accountability. It’s a role that is perpetually on the hot seat…often with little support.

Firms that get project management use it as a tool to pursue competitive advantage…to spearhead innovation efforts they can commercialize and to ensure they are able to deploy the latest and best technologies to serve their customers and optimize their efficiencies.

In my travels across firms large and small, it’s common for me to encounter situations where the role is poorly defined…the practices loose with little leveraging of the tools and methodologies available to support project success.

And all too often, I find over-worked, under-compensated and under-developed but well-intended people fighting an uphill battle for resources while navigating too many initiatives. Sponsorship and career or skills development are often absent. This is wrong. A great project manager is a difference maker and project competency is critical to organizational success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

So instead of waiting for your cat to decide it needs a hug, find a way to support your project manager. Work on serving as a better team member. If you’re an executive, figure out what it means to be a sponsor for projects and invest your energy in getting it right. If you’re a manager or someone responsible for project managers, ensure that you are investing in and supporting the development of these critical resources. If you’re firm is operating in an ad hoc mode on initiatives, you are leaving money on the table. Fix this.

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Art of Managing—Humility, Teamwork and Focus

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Note from Art: this post inspired by the excellent new book, “The Navy Seal Art of War—Leadership Lessons from the World’s Most Elite Fighting Force,” by Rob Roy with Chris Lawson.

When asked how he wanted to be remembered, the late, great quality and management guru, W. Edwards Deming responded with, “I probably won’t be remembered.” After thinking about it, he added, “I would like to be remembered for trying to keep (American) businesses from committing suicide.”

While wrong on the former…although I’m finding less and less familiarity with Deming and his work with my ready-to-graduate MBA students, his emphasis on railing against and eliminating the sloppy management approaches that destroy potential and confound otherwise motivated employees (regardless of country affiliation) is still very relevant. Perhaps now more than ever, given the complexity of today’s world versus the world that rose from the ashes of World War II that Deming experienced.

In a sea of books and articles published regularly on navigating complexity in our world today, few capture the solution as succinctly as the three words: humility, teamwork and focus. (Roy uses the appropriate military appropriate term, “mission” in place of my choice of the word focus.)

One defines the attitude required for success from the top to the bottom; one defines the essential obligation of each and every individual engaged in any initiative and the other describes the need for context or common purpose. Misfire on one or more of these and the results range from poor to disastrous.

The New Ingredients for Organizational Success:

The firms and teams I’m finding that are succeeding in this world characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity and risk have re-thought 3 core issues tied to these terms:

1. The role of the leader. Today’s effective leader exists primarily to serve the team. The role is very little about command and control and much more about serving and supporting and importantly, working relentlessly to realize an environment that allows a true team to emerge and sustain. It’s less about authority and much more about recruiting and developing talent, establishing and reinforcing expectations and accountability and about serving and protecting the team members. And, it’s about ensuring that team members are able to step up and lead if the situation demands it. This leader…today’s effective team leader in my view is one who is good with people…not one who leads solely based on title and level in a hierarchy. I like this leader. It feels like we’re finally getting this role right for this world we live and work in.

2. The critical importance of the team. Look at the reported statistics on failure rates with the two most relevant team challenges in our organizations: strategy execution and project management (McKinsey on strategy execution failure; Standish Group Chaos Report on project failure), and it is safe to conclude that many of us haven’t cracked the code on deriving value from the sum of the parts with our teams.

In my observations of many different organizations who are winning in today’s environment, at least part of their success stems from having fundamentally rethought everything about the nature, purpose, structure, leadership and support of the team. Gone from these environments are the loose confederations of resources, replaced instead by lean groups comprised of cognitively diverse individuals focused on a single mission. Focus is key…and in my experience, it is almost always missing with groups who are flailing or who have failed. And of course, where I’m finding teams that are working…succeeding with innovation, product development, IT infrastructure deployment and strategy execution, I don’t have to look far to find a leader that fits the description above. Often they are the quietest ones in the room. Humble but fierce.

3. The attitude about risk. Risk has long been something we strive to tame, but much like the weather, we’re better off doing everything we can to anticipate changes and adverse events and then learning to quickly respond or adapt. Teams that are winning have invited risk to their parties in the form of fast-to-fail or the positive form, fast-to-learn type approaches. Instead of giving lip-service to experimentation (which demands failure on the path to success), they are living it and learning from it at a hyper pace. The focus on team; the right leadership and the focus on the mission are essential ingredients to enabling successful experimentation.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’m growing fatigued with firms frozen in place as they watch their world change while they grow more obsolete by the minute. This is an outcome of leadership failure at the top and chronic organizational laziness. Similarly, while the work products (books, articles) that describe the complexities of today’s and tomorrow’s worlds are fascinating… they do a great job describing the ever-changing weather, they often fail to offer much help on how to survive, adapt and succeed. At least part of the answer is simple…but not simplistic. Rethink the role of the leader; rethink and accept risk as essential to learning in your environment and strive to realize true teams versus those imposter groups that bungle so many of our initiatives. Humility, teamwork and focus are three powerful starter ingredients.

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Leadership Caffeine™—Ask, “How Can I Help?”

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward.

One of the more powerful leadership learning moments in my career occurred when I was part of project team that was struggling to find traction around an important and complicated strategic initiative.

The team was flailing. The first leader, an autocratic, my-way or the highway type, had been replaced with a committee of three senior executives as co-leaders. After all, this was important and what could possibly go wrong with a group of senior executives leading the charge?

That failed. It turns out putting everyone in charge isn’t a great game-plan.

Following a contentious project review meeting the sponsor suggested a well-regarded mid-level manager as a solution to the project leadership challenge. While some voiced concern over her lack of title and senior level heft, the sponsor suggested the core team members meet with her one-on-one before making a decision. It would be their choice.

Her reputation was great. She was respected for her ability to work with others and she had helped groups navigate some sticky topics on numerous occasions. After the “interviews,” the core team members agreed unanimously that she was the right person for the role.

The time for her first official meeting with the extended team arrived and within the first 10 seconds, we all knew this was different and that it would work. She led the meeting off with two powerful sentences: “I’m here to work for you,” and, “What do you need from me to help you succeed?”

After a few seconds of silence from the extended team members who likely were expecting the “here’s how we’re going to do this…” speech, the suggestions started flowing.

She listened carefully, took notes, asked clarifying questions and after a few minutes of “what not to do,” the comments turned constructive. The next day she came back with what she described as her Leadership Charter. It was, she offered, “her new job description.”

  • Regularly remind us of the true purpose of our project.
  • Respect us by holding us accountable to our best work.
  • Demand that we operate as a true team.
  • Protect us from distractions.
  • Support our learning and development.
  • Hold us accountable to making decisions and correcting mistaken decisions.
  • Keep us from beating ourselves.

Powerful words…yes, but it was what she did next that brought them to life.

She established a series of check-points where she requested the team provide input to keep her focused and help her improve. The every-other-week status meeting would include 10 minutes to discuss her leadership effectiveness. Input was to be frank and constructive. Additionally, she issued a monthly blind survey seeking anonymous input and she reviewed the input in the next status meeting. It took just one cycle through the status meetings and survey reviews for everyone to understand she was serious about serving the team and constantly searching for input on improving her own performance.

This leader served and the team prospered. She was demanding…after all, you cannot hold people accountable to being their best and not be demanding. She made mistakes as all leaders do and when told of them, she quickly apologized and redoubled her efforts to improve.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The team won. The initiative succeeded. This wonderful professional is now leading a successful start-up as CEO. She taught all of us what it means to lead by simply asking, “How can I help?” And then doing something about it.

Starting today, instead of telling, try asking.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Leading the Project? Define Your Charter to Support High Performance

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Effective leadership is a critical success factor for projects of all shapes and sizes.

And breathing is good for living.

It’s hard to argue with either of these statements, nonetheless, too many project managers deeply skilled in the mechanics of their vocation fall short on learning and practicing the soft-skills critical for high performance team development. When project fail…and too many do, there’s a safe bet that people-related issues are key contributors to the initiative’s demise.

Great project managers define their role beyond the project mechanics liberally. Working with team members at the front-end of the project to define the role and accountabilities of the project leader is a great practice that improves the odds of team success. The development of a Project Leader’s Charter is a simple, powerful technique that helps everyone involved gain a clear, consistent and comprehensive view of the leader’s role.

Great project leadership is both science and art. A large part of the role is about forming and framing the environment for your talented team members to do their best work in pursuit of meeting customer and stakeholder needs. Ensuring that you and the team define the values that drive acceptable behaviors to tackling the sticky issues of how decisions will be made to how the team will talk, work, decide, resolve and perform together are all captured in your Project Leader’s Charter.

Seven Simple Steps to Defining and Developing Your Own Project Leader’s Charter:

1. Start by Asking Questions: take the time to think deeply about what your role in creating success with this initiative should be. Meet individually and in groups to discuss the following:

  • What’s the nature of this project? Innovation? Implementation? New development?
  • How does the project connect to firm’s/customer’s strategic initiatives?
  • What are the critical success factors for this initiative to succeed?
  • What does this team need from project leadership to succeed?
  • The pre-post mortem, part 1: assume the project has concluded successfully, what might you imagine we would say about the project leader’s role and contributions to the success of this initiative?
  • The pre-post mortem, part 2: assume things went wrong and we failed to hit our objectives. Where did project leadership let us down?
  • You get a vote…ask and answer: what can I do to optimize our chances of success?

2. Write the Draft: armed with the input from your team members, write a draft of the charter. Start with, “My Charter as Project Leader is… .” Strive to minimize the cliché statements and use verb phrases that specifically describe what you will do and what you are accountable for with this initiative. Length isn’t incredibly relevant…from a few well developed sentences to a couple of paragraphs supported by bullets. Quality and clarity count more than length.

3. Review the Draft with Team Members and Solicit Feedback: the iterative nature of this activity ensures that team members buy-in to your role and clearly understand what to expect. An indirect benefit is that this will challenge them to think about their role as well. Revise and share the final draft.

(Best Practice Tip: one project manager I know has everyone on a team create and share their individual Charters with each other as a means of ensuring role clarity and visibility.)

4. Post the Charter: I love to see these shared in project documents as well as made visible and public for the duration of the project. Some Project Managers hang them in their offices or cubicles. Others grab wall space for project documents and ensure that this is visible in that public setting.

5. Live the Charter. Daily: the exercise of writing the Charter is healthy. Reading it daily and considering how to incorporate the key tenets in your day’s activities is priceless.

6. Remember the Charter When “It” Hits the Fan: something always go wrong at some point in time. The Charter is your guide to the right behaviors in the middle of whatever crisis is threatening your team. Return to it and develop your actions in concert with the behaviors and values outlined in the document.

7. Ask the Team to Evaluate Your Performance Using the Charter as a Guide. We learn by doing and feedback is part of the process of growing and improving. Ask your team members to evaluate your performance versus the key tenets and behaviors/activities identified in your Charter. Use this input as rocket fuel for improving with your next project adventure.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Striving for high performance should be the goal for every project manager on every project. It’s lofty, difficult and in some cases, the pursuit of high performance gets lost in the haste and pace to navigate the pitfalls and move the army forward. Let a carefully thought-through Charter serve as a guide to your True North during every project. Get your role right as project leader and the odds of success for the entire team, your firm and your customer improve dramatically.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Art of Managing—Helping Your Firm Navigate a Level-Up Situation

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

“85-percent of organizational problems are system related and only 15-percent are related to people.” –W. Edwards Deming

As managers, it’s our sacred responsibility to create and continuously improve an environment and system that allows our people to do their best work.

This system that Deming speaks of is an amalgam of the values, behaviors, processes and approaches in pursuit of the firm’s core mission that define the personality of an organization. The approaches and processes around decision-making, planning, developing talent and executing on projects and core operations are all part of the system. Innovation, creativity, employee and customer engagement and financial performance are critical outcomes of an effective system.

Few managers would disagree with their responsibility and accountability for creating this effective environment. Like breathing, it’s a good idea to invest time and energy in practices that promote a healthy, efficient and effective system. In reality, many firms do a good job of this in stable markets…the operative word being “stable.”

I’ve worked in and around many organizations where the firm’s leaders point proudly to a long string of successful years and effectively suggest that they’ve cracked the code of sustaining performance. Their organizations are well-tuned for the current state, the numbers are just good enough to keep stakeholders happy and employees have that swagger of consistent champions.

And Then “It” Happens:

“It” is most often some form of disruption…an unanticipated competitor move, a new market entrant, a disruptive technology innovation or some unexpected shock to society. Regardless of the source, change becomes the order of the day and the long-successful senior leaders react to the situation in a logical fashion and begin to talk about the firm moving down a new path with new strategies or approaches.

New initiatives and projects are born and the latest books consumed in search of answers or approaches that lead to answers. And when results aren’t immediately visible, energy and enthusiasm for experimentation and innovation wane and the pursuit of new consistently loses out to the gravitational pull of the old. From investment dollars and attention, the pursuit of new is often suffocated…for what seems like perfectly rational reasons chasing today’s problems. After a period of time, the wheels on the vehicle that is the effort to pursue new begin to wobble and parts start to fly off as the firm races towards an uncertain destination via an unknown path through uncharted terrain.

With apologies for mixed metaphors, the ride begins to resemble Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing and horrifying post-presidential journey deep into uncharted portions of the Amazon, as he and his colleagues navigated all manner of disasters and dangers as they followed the aptly named River of Doubt.

Once the dangers become visible and the wobble of the wheels sensed by everyone, the fun begins. That is if you find journeying through organizational and career hell some form of perverse fun.

The Level-Up Opportunity:

This moment in time when a firm faces the critical need to change is what I describe as a Level-Up opportunity.  Level-Up opportunities typically involve individuals, teams or entire firms learning to navigate situations of extreme ambiguity and potential peril. We face them as individuals in our careers as we take on new challenges and climb the ladder of responsibility. Organizations face Level-Up opportunities as they strive to do something new…develop and implement a new strategy, move to a new market, capture a new group of customers or pursue an innovation they perceive will leverage their strengths and enhance their fortunes.

It’s somewhere during the flailing phase at the front-end of of a Level-Up situation that people recognize that the old system doesn’t work for new needs. Sure, business the old way continues just fine, after all the system is optimized for the old. However, when it comes to new, the gears grind, the engine smokes, rpms rise and speed slows to a crawl.

It’s time to change the system.

The old ways don’t work for new markets, customers, technologies or business models. It’s also at this time where too many senior leaders choose the wrong paths and tactics. Like Roosevelt’s team attempting to descend a seemingly never-ending number of treacherous rapids and falls during their journey down the River of Doubt, what worked for us at the last rapid or fall results in us smashing our canoes to bits on the rocks in this new environment, endangering lives and squandering precious time and resources.

Beware the Siren Song of Two Powerful Actions:

There are two reflexive actions by senior managers that often exacerbate the wobble. The first is a creeping belief that the people that brought them this far aren’t the right people for the journey ahead. They begin to doubt the abilities of their people to learn, adapt and succeed.

The second mistake is to assume that the organization’s structure is at fault. It’s not. It’s the strategy and system.

While there are nuggets of truth in both of these reflexive thoughts, the actions must be filtered against a clear strategy and tempered appropriately or you risk making a difficult situation impossible.

Change is difficult. Ambiguity and complexity are powerful adversaries in the fight for successful change, and while no simple list of ideas offer the absolute right answers, these seven are intended to help you strive for clarity and simplicity while learning to deal step by step with ambiguity.

Seven Ideas to Help Your Firm Navigate a Level-Up Opportunity:

1. Senior Executives Must Link Arms on the New Strategy Direction. Easy words…damned difficult to achieve in practice. Most senior leaders struggle to show up in the same zip code on strategy much less end up on the same page in the same book in the same house. CEO leadership is essential here…with clarity as an absolute and once the direction is set, senior manager compliance essential. Fight it out with vigor and honor, but link arms and go forward aligned and resolute.

2. It’s Not a Strategy If No One in the Firm Understands It. The hard work of strategy begins after the boardroom brawling ends on this topic. Your job is to simplify the strategy and ensure that everyone not only gets it, but sees how they play a role in supporting it.

3. Remember, It’s Not Important to People Just Because You Said it Is. Don’t assume awareness equals either understanding or support. Your approach to strategy development and then execution task definition and implementation must get everyone involved in offering input and backing words with actions..

4. Bet on Your People First and then Acquire to Fill Key Gaps. There’s no doubt that anything new requires education, training and yes, some fresh perspectives from people immune to the firm’s dominant logic. Strive to objectively assess the skills needed for the new strategy and then focus on whether those skills can be learned, trained or whether they must be acquired. We’re too quick to assume acquisition is the answer…when the reality is that your good people are typically hungry for something big and new to do and willing to pour their hearts and souls into it. (For people who resist new learning and new directions, drop them off politely and professionally at the next rest stop. You’ve got no time to waste.)

5. Tune the Organization to Align Superpowers with Key Opportunities. Instead of assuming that a new structure is the solution….something that often emerges from these challenging and frequently political battles over change, use as your emphasis aligning the absolute best resources with the biggest opportunities. Strategy should highlight the best opportunities…now, plug in the people with the right superpowers to succeed for each key opportunity. More often than not, wholesale restructuring squanders precious time and creates confusion. The Superpower-to-Opportunity approach reduces resistance and accelerates the time to implementation so critical in this situation.

6. Use Formal Project Management Practices to Execute the Key Strategy Initiatives. Most strategies breakdown in the execution phase…not the idea phase. For your key initiatives, establish formal project teams complete with an executive sponsor, a clear charter and scope and a well define project team with priorities and targets. Then use this project-focus to provide visibility into progress and to capture lessons learned along the way.

7. Use Process Mapping Relentlessly to Support Building the New System. The work of mapping out key processes around selling, marketing, supporting, deciding, measuring etc. is priceless. Remember that the gravitational pull of “we’ve done it this way” is extremely powerful. Process Mapping helps identify opportunities for new approaches and of course, it highlights flaws, blind spots, inefficiencies and in general it supports cross-functional collaboration and learning.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Deming was once asked what he hoped his legacy would be. In the interview (I paraphrase), he responded quickly with, “I’ll doubt I’ll be remembered at all.” Then after thinking about it, he offered, “I would like to be remembered for trying to help (American) companies from committing suicide.”

The seven suggestions above are not foreign to most senior leaders. They reflect some good commonsense. However, their use in synchronization is way too rare. When striving to navigate a Level-Up opportunity and adapt your system to changing circumstances, using these ideas is like breathing…a really good idea. Anything else has a bad outcome. Now, breathe…

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.