A leadership exercise

“We start in pairs. One person will have his eyes covered. The other will be the leader.”

A typical leadership excercise, done in rounds. Both participants (the ‘leader’ and the ‘follower’) are instructed separately. The leader is told to guide the follower to an agreed location, usually several hundred meters away. The single oddity being that the latter cannot see a single thing and has to rely on the assurance, instructions, and a helpful hand from the leader (first round). In the second round, the task and route stay the same, but the leader’s assurance and instructions will have to do. In the third – the follower is entirely on his own.

Neither of the two roles are easy. Clarity is paramount. Clarity drives trust. However, the responsibility you bare, as a leader, is in proportion to the trust you were able to build. You give your team the right to make mistakes (a must), but responsibility stays on your side.

Cherishing one’s silver lining

One of the most important discoveries in my life was the importance of gratitude. Not as a response to a set of favorable circumstances, but a constant, proactive approach towards reality. A choice. If happiness is wanting what you have, then the key to that happiness is gratefulness.

Lately, I had yet another discussion on organizational change and mindsets. Obviously, you cannot force another person to change his or her mindset. You can, however, look for ways to help that person feel grateful for a particular job, for being part of one special team.

Focus likes less

We use contexts or tags in task-management because we tend to become overwhelmed with the number of things to do. If one has too many visible tasks to deal with, it is likely s/he will be less productive than trying to take in one or two.

A similar issue can be observed with project portfolios. Trying to juggle several dozens of projects will significantly slow down execution. Sometimes, when I see an organization struggling to eat an especially large “frog” (big & important project), I feel like suggesting:

“Leave just this one thing. And make it happen.”

Client = Employee

The employee was first

In the beginning there was an initiator-enthusiast — the creator and employee in one person. The starting point. He or she crafted an idea into reality. Eventually, clients came.

One of the illnesses which affect big organizations is a lack of an “initiatior’s spark” — the courage to make mistakes, the ease in experimenting and improving.
‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ — Thomas Edison.
We “play safe” by managing all types of risk humanity was able to invent. Sooner or later employees become a synonym for operational cost rather than potential.

Remember, the employee made it happen first.

The employee is the ambassador of your brand

Is your employee an ambassador of your product or service? Does he or she buy it, recommend it? Did you ask?

In social media days, every good word about our brand is priceless. It always has been, but 1) we started noticing it and 2) information is transferred and stored much more efficiently/effectively than ever before. A negative opinion can be blocked from spreading, if a conscious employee takes preventive measures. Since it’s physically impossible to take part in all of the online discussions that might concern us — if we have committed employees, let them speak on our behalf. Obviously, we need passionate employees to make that happen in the first place.

Some inspiring cases were described in a recent Social Media Today article by Augie Ray — Passion: The Defining Success Factor in the 21st Century?

“Frank Eliason is a passionate guy. Eighteen months ago he had some free time during a weekend, and rather than watching football he instead checked his email and monitored Twitter for what was being said about his employer, Comcast. Eliason famously intercepted tweets from tech blogger Michael Arrington, and rather than wait until Monday or pass along the problem to someone working, Eliason instead picked up the phone, called Arrington, and resolved both an individual’s technical problem and a potentially damaging PR problem for Comcast.”

Employees and clients communicate freely

The border between the inside of the organization and its environment is thin. Relations thrive in spite of artificial restrictions. In a world of change, a former client frequently becomes an employee. On the other hand, any employee may use social media tools to spread his or her dissatisfaction with the employer. Transparency is thus no longer an option. It’s a must. We are free to write policies, introduce additional security measures or… leverage what Web 2.0 has provided us with.

Ultimately it’s about respect

I believe a traditional employee-client dichotomy hasn’t got much practical sense in modern economy. Where information flows freely (a fact), signs of consistency and respect towards the organization’s employees have even more impact on its clients. Respect, like kindness, is contagious.

Further reading

A Forgotten Quality

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One of the topics in my project management trainings discusses PM personality traits & skills. During such trainings participants frequently voice qualities like:

  • communication
  • leadership (team building, delegating)
  • problem solving
  • enthusiasm
  • empathy
  • self-confidence
  • composure
  • etc.

… but one particular feature isn’t mentioned at all, though I feel that in the long run, it’s probably the most important of all — …

persistence.

In our world of a myriad choices, we do not instill a sense of discipline in our children any more. And how can they reach integrity without discipline? How can we do? How can they aim for mastery, learn (with the long term in mind), if they haven’t got the discipline to support their efforts? How can they commit to great causes which do not feel sweet all the time? How can they focus and grow?

I believe that a great manager should withstand all the weaknesses one can find in a team (and build on strengths). A great PM (any manager, for that matter) is a platform to incubate ideas on — and be sure he or she will not choose the exit door whenever things get tough. Persistence is key. As a matter of fact, the belief in a leader’s persistence is necessary to build trust, to talk about leadership at all.

Further reading

The Better is the Enemy of the Good

We love comfort zones. Change looks great on paper and sounds exciting on pep talks, but if things are going reasonably well for us, we’d rather stick with the as-is. Even more! If we got used to bad conditions, a toxic relationship or… a bad process, we are very likely to defend what we know, what we got used do. Besides, what’s bad? The “traditional” or the new? The known draws a sense of security.

About 10 years ago I started working for a small company in the insurance market. The president of that company was a man of integrity, a true leader and a person I respected a lot. I still do. He wasn’t young, mind you, but still considerably open-minded. Yet, even now I remember a quote he used to repeat quite often:

“The better is the enemy of the good.”

(It’s a rough translation from Voltaire –– “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.”)

Even with this standpoint, he didn’t oppose change. He did however understand its price and took responsibility for its impact on the employees — contrary to many other leaders I met on my way later on.

And so… we suck at implementing things. Do you know why?

Make Things Happen

Those of us who work in projects are oft-times called “project managers.” Some find it even more appropriate to be called “project leaders.” Grace Hopper once reminded us that we manage things, yet we lead people. For the purpose of this post, let’s assume both of these relate to people. We manage people, we lead people. The question is — do we?

A sure thing about working in projects is that positions we deal with are in fact functions, resources we obtain are in practice temporary and… volatile, and our rights and authority as project managers — informal. Thus, when thrown into a project environment, we put on our heavy armor of project experience, shield ourselves with models and fire an occasional escalation or two to make things happen. After all, that’s what projects are all about, right? To make things happen.

When dealing with internal projects, in mixed operational-project environments, I’ve noticed that to “make things happen” PMs often have two choices:

  1. To fight for a given resource or deliverable (winning a fight does not contribute towards the result).
  2. To pitch up and complete the job on their own (completing the job contributes towards the result).

While no. 2 is not a safe bet, and many a time not an option altogether, the most successful project managers I’d come across in such environments were those who were willing to let go and do the job, provided they had the know-how. In a way — “to lead by example” instead of making a fuss. Escalations, worse — conflicts, take time. As project managers we are judged by the end result. Someone’s unwillingness to participate is rarely an explanation.

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In a similar manner, we ought to go through obstacles responsibly, avoiding dispersed responsibility, taking this responsibility on our own backs when in doubt (avoid doubts).

Dips in structured environments

Structured vs. unstructured environments

I have been recently wondering about the differences between working in structured environments (i.e. working “for someone else”, within an organization) and working on one’s own. I call the first type a “structured environment”, because at a typical workplace the employee is asked to conform to a set of rules –– openly or not. Examples?

  • Set working hours or ranges
  • Set working days or ranges
  • Fixed relations with limited exit barriers
    (you have to resolve conflicts or change your job)
  • Assumed superior-inferior relationships
  • Set of duties

One could say that the above-mentioned examples are a set of boundaries or an imposed structure. Working on one’s own does not free a person from relations nor does it not [entirely] free from working hours (for example). The difference is, however, that one has more freedom to choose without having to exit the situation altogether.

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To give you another example — I remember a person from my family (owner of a small business) saying something like: “I have the right to say ‘no’ to a client.” It struck me when I realized that “no” was very often not an option in intra-organization environments. “No” related to one’s duties, that is, “no” as an internal supplier. And as long as a person didn’t want to leave a company once and for all. Relations in structured environments are given and practically speaking — they cannot be broken. In a structured environment there’s very little freedom to say “no, I won’t do it,” “no, I will not work with that person.” This has moved to such extremities, that we base one’s value as a corporate employee on his/hers “peacefulness” or better — “ability to work/coexist with everyone.”

The Energy Cycle

1) Freedom = truth.
If 1) is true then…
2) Imposed rules = lack of freedom = manipulating / lying.

I know, I am seriously simplifying things here. But where am I heading? It’s been said that maintaining a false image, pretending someone else, manipulating or lying require significant energy levels. To put it plainly — they tire us. When forced to act in a structured environment the best we can often do is compromise. Very often, however, the bigger the organization, and the longer we work (more relations), the more “flexible” we have to become. And there is a price we pay.

I’ve observed a cycle which occurs in many (most? all?) corporate lives — a person starts his or her work in a new setting. Full of energy, open and friendly, he or she starts taking on new projects, responsibilities, building relationships. In a way, he or she starts to build open loops.

Open Loop

 Any open commitment, plan, or unfinished business that exists in your life. It is typical today for a busy person to have many hundreds or even thousands of open loops bouncing around throughout their conscious and unconscious thought processes, all vying for attention. Most of the stress people experience (conscious or otherwise) tends to come from inappropriately managed open loops (commitments) they make or accept.”

Source: http://gtdportal.pbworks.com/GTDGlossary

After some time — depending on the person — the smile is no longer there, the attitude is no longer so open. It takes another year or so… A change is desperately needed. This change can happen internally (switching departments, positions) or externally (quitting). That’s when the cycle starts all over again…

What can be done?

Consciousness is the starting point for any improvement… 🙂

“Common sense starts with seeing things as they are.”

Source: @tim_hurson

I believe that what can significantly improve an employee’s live is… change. If one cannot risk the switch from a structured to an unstructured environment, if one hasn’t got that luxury, it would be better to break the standard cycle, to promise a change (e.g. soon after the end of a project’s phase, project’s end).

I call it “cleaning a page” or “emptying the cup.” To make someone full with experience and prevent from overflowing, one has to prepare the ground for it.

In a structured environment — that’s when a leader comes in…

Will Projects Cease to Exist?

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I’ve got used to differentiating between operational work (“standing organization”, “business as usual”) and projects. But projects in mainstream business seem to be a fairly new concept (I’m not talking about construction work here). Yet, you find them everywhere – IT projects, process improvement projects, organizational projects. Projects seem to be another method to make better use of a company’s human resources. Or so it seems… If a person has “operational responsibilities” you can still put him or her on a project. If it’s a project function, unless you are doing time-tracking and Business Resource Management, the difference between a resource’s 50% or 300% on projects is just a matter of… numbers.

For many of us, projects became a synonym of change. These days, one starts to believe that before this concept was rediscovered in the western economy, progress was virtually non-existent.

I have the impression that projects aren’t so popular in Japan. The traditional approach, Kaizen, is more about small, continual improvements rather than bursts resulting from additional, project effort. Why is that? Why does Toyota strive to create the best basis for small, numerous improvements, to make it as easy as possible for everyone, instead of spending zillions on projects? Do we miss something here?

Integrity comprises perceived consistency of actions, values, methods, measures and principles. (…) A value system may evolve over time…”
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrity

I believe that integrity is about balance. About small improvements in a generally strong, consistent system.

I cannot provide a certain answer to the question posed in the title. But I am very much aware where projects came from and where they are indisposable (construction industry). I’m not sure their grounds are equally solid where I see them now.

What’s Your Recommendation?

One of the many good things I have learned while interacting with sponsors and generally –- managing projects, is…

Always provide a recommendation.

In projects, when there’s an issue most likely to go beyond the set tolerances, you ask for steering. You do this by providing options, adding necessary support data and… your recommendation. Mind you, it’s always a good lesson on communication. If we don’t provide a recommendation, this is most likely due to laziness, no understanding for the VP’s / CEO’s / etc. lack of time or simply an unjustified belief in the SteCo’s omniscience.

These days, when provided with options by my spouse or colleague, I often catch myself saying: “What’s your recommendation?”