Excerpted from The Project Management Advisor - 18 Major Project Screw-Ups And How To Cut Them Off At The Pass (Prentice Hall, 2004)
In any event, there is a desire to do something tomorrow that can’t be done acceptably today. Admittedly, some of the most fun projects that I have worked on have been the “omigosh, we need to get this done or else” projects. I have seen the greatest clarity of purpose on projects where there was a very real and tangible consequence to not completing the project successfully. One outstanding example of this that affected virtually every business on earth was the Y2K computer scare. One of my jobs was in ensuring that our mission-critical vendors were adequately prepared for Y2K and that there would not be any business interruption to our company as a result of a vendor’s failure to perform.
Recently I've noticed a trend which frankly really ticks me off. My observation is that more and more project managers are becoming hyper risk-averse and demonstrating an unwillingness to accept accountability for the projects they manage. One tell-tale sign which I've noticed is the usage of "matrixed" organization charts. In matrixed organization charts, the project team is depicted using different types of team leads shown vertically and horizontally on the organization chart. With a matrixed organization, team members may have a "solid line" reporting relationship to one manager and a "dotted line" reporting relationship to one or more managers. Now, I fundamentally don't have a problem with the collaboration aspect that a matrixed organization enables; where I do have a problem is when the matrixed organization makes it difficult to pinpoint who has accountability for the project.
Pat hated giving board updates. As the head of integration of a recent acquisition, Pat was required to provide monthly updates on the integration to the board. There was one board member, Cary, who focused on how the integration project was being done, questioning Pat on initiative processes, minor deliverables, and detailed assignments. Cary was experienced in acquisition integration and spoke from a position of authority, but Pat was also an experienced professional with six successful integration projects completed. Because of Cary’s experience and strong personality, the board chair permitted Cary to deep-dive on minutiae. Pat’s frustration with being micro-managed boiled over to the rest of the executive team, creating a tone of distrust between the board and executive team. Pat’s updates became less and less transparent, with Pat reasoning that more information was only fodder for Cary’s drilling. The integration project ultimately was completed, but the trust relationship between the board and executive team was significantly eroded.
Boards are filled with experience and wisdom. Its members know, through success and failure, how to get things done, the pitfalls to avoid, and not to touch a hot stove. Their insight is crucial to the success of an organization. That insight, though, doesn’t mean a board and its members have license to over-function with its CEO and executive team. Unchecked, a CEO and executive team can feel micro-managed due to being told not only what should be done, but how it should be done. Being overly prescriptive on the how is a material pain point in the board/executive team trust relationship.
Being clear about defining and understanding the what/how roles and accountabilities is crucial to a healthy, functioning board/executive team relationship. When done well, the executive team is able to execute without disruptive oversight, and the board members are transparently and satisfactorily informed about key initiatives. When done poorly, nervous board members, with the best of intention, can actually disrupt work through increased updates, shadow management, and unsolicited advice on how to get things done. I call this behavior “love-bombing.” When an executive’s confidence is shaken on a key initiative for which he or she is accountable, the exec will tend to increase his or her involvement in the initiative, requesting more frequent updates and deeper dives on issues, looking for ways he or she can help. In an effort to be helpful, the exec actually creates more work for the initiative leader and team to calm the exec’s nervousness. It’s no different with a board. The board will want to help and offer its collective experience, but in the process can delve too much into the how, putting a strain on the board/executive team trust relationship.
Managing and controlling the what and how relationship between the board and executive team falls squarely on the CEO and board chair to clearly articulate the what/how relationship and set the tone with its board members to align on the what and advise on the how. To help establish a fruitful what/how relationship the chair and CEO should employ these actions:
Trust is crucial to a healthy board/executive team relationship. A key driver of trust is clear articulation of the what/how accord and where the board and its members need to function. Be proactive in defining it and holding both the board and executive team accountable in the relationship.
Jane was a group manager over a team of six buyers for a large department store chain. Her team specialized in buying house-wares, including linens, sheets, towels and small appliances. Her team met every week to discuss advertised specials for upcoming weeks and any supplier issues that the team needed to be aware of. There was one linens supplier, Patty’s Linens, that has had some difficulty with product quality and the department store was experiencing higher-than-normal returns on the product. Two weeks earlier, the supplier submitted a plan for how they were going to improve the quality of their product. The department store decided to keep the supplier on for three more months to evaluate their plan and give the supplier an opportunity to resolve the quality issues. With this as backdrop, we eavesdrop on Jane’s current team meeting:
Several years back I conceived and funded a small business. My partner and I were very excited about the concept and had sky-high aspirations about the prospects of the business. While the idea was great, I ultimately decided to shut the business down as I felt the cost of keeping the business afloat would continue to outstrip the revenue. I'm not going to bore you with the details of the business; what I do want to do is talk with you about the decision process I went through and how the "morning after" decision making process tipped the scales for me.
During winter my hands tend to dry out and get chapped. One night when my hands felt like sandpaper I asked my wife if she had any hand lotion. "Sure, what kind do you want?" she asked. "The hand lotion kind," I said like the knuckle-dragger I am. She then handed me an ice bucket which contained the following:
Brad was an incredibly bright young executive with a very promising future. Ever since graduating college, he seemed to take on increased responsibilities in his company like a duck to water. He married his college sweetheart, Nancy, right after graduation and has two small children. Brad's talent didn't go unnoticed in the industry, with several competitors approaching Brad about his willingness to join another firm. He steadfastly resisted, that is until the offer of all offers came his way.
Cantata Group, a larger and more prominent competitor to his current company, wined and dined Brad and ultimately offered him a VP position with a higher salary and better benefits. The offer was too good to pass up so Brad talked with Nancy about the job and they both became enamored with how this was going to advance Brad's career and what they would be able to do with the extra money. Brad joyfully accepted Cantata's offer, gave his current company two weeks' notice, and started in his new VP role.
Within a year of joining Cantata, he noticed some unexpected side effects of his new position. He was required to be in weekly global executive virtual meetings which could happen at any time of the day or night. He was routinely working 60+ hours a week, missing dinner with Nancy and the kids. He traveled at least once a week, many times to put out fires at clients. His eating habits were horrendous and he wasn't exercising due to his schedule. He began putting on weight. Nancy was frustrated with him not being around and his kids missed their daddy. The stress was unbearable and led to Brad one day grabbing his chest and collapsing during a customer meeting.
On one of my consulting assignments I worked with one of the client's young rising stars who I'll call Buddy. Buddy was an incredibly hard worker, could take on a number of projects at one time, and managed to deliver results on a very timely basis. Buddy was also brilliant and had a very practical and keen business sense. Great raw materials for a great future leader.
Recently I ran across a situation that reminded me of leaders needing to delegate responsibility while remaining engaged with what the team is doing. At one of my former employers we had a particularly thorny issue which required multiple groups to work together to address. It was important that I delegate resolution of the issue to the team, but it was also important that the team had a glimpse into some of my thinking on the issue. When I delegated the issue to one of my managers for resolution, I also articulated some guiding principles that the team needed to keep in mind while resolving the issue. What this allowed me to do was not only provide some considerations for the team to noodle over while coming up with a resolution to the issue but also empower the team to make the decision as to what to do about the issue.
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