Over the years I have been on both ends of constructive (and not so constructive) criticism. Quite frankly, I still struggle with doing this flawlessly every time, but I've put together some guiding principles that I try to work under and thought might be helpful to you:
When I wrote my first book in 2004 my publicist told me, "you've got to write articles to get your message out and sell books!" Being a good soldier I saluted and contemplated how I was going to get it done. My publicist turned me on to a ghost writer who wrote an article under my guidance. After paying way too much for the article and seeing the finished product, I vowed never again to have someone else write for me. I decided that if I had crappy articles it was going to be because I was the one who wrote them, not because I paid someone to write crappy articles for me.
When I wrote my first article, I decided on the topic and just started writing. It was a disaster. The content was disjointed, lacked focus, and made no sense. It also took me hours and hours to produce a piece of garbage. There had to be a better way. Fortunately I found it after a lot of trial and error.
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Excerpted from Six-Word Lessons to Avoid Project Disaster
As a young hot-shot information technology (IT) project manager I was convinced that I had it all together. I was bound and determined to show all those more senior to me how to deliver successful projects. It wasn’t until I messed up not one, not two, but three projects simultaneously that I grew up and recognized I wasn’t all that I thought I was. While that period in my professional career was particularly painful, it was also some of the best learnings I could have gone through. Since then I’ve had successes and failures, but the failures became less frequent because I learned to get comfortable with others providing a critical eye on my work and helping with the necessary precision questioning to keep me out of hot water. This is the genesis behind Six-Word Lessons to Avoid Project Disaster.
Following are 15 lessons focused on the project sponsor and the questions to ask to ensure active, focused, and engaged project sponsorship.
Some time back I was the executive sponsor responsible for developing a facility strategy for a new line of business. I empowered one of my project managers to develop the strategy which we would jointly present to our management. We both had visions of what we expected in the strategy but I didn’t ensure our points of view meshed.. My project manager was very competent in her job; however mind-reading was not one of her skills. The day before we were due to present the strategy, I did a walk-through with her. It wasn’t anything like I envisioned, and I knew the strategy in its current state wouldn’t be well received by our management. We went through a fire drill to get the strategy to a state where I thought it would be better received. We survived the review with our management, but it didn’t go nearly as well as it could have gone, and we went through a lot of pain (including a sleepless night) to rework the strategy.
I don’t fault the project manager one bit for the misstep. It was totally on me that the strategy wasn’t what I was thinking because I didn’t ensure our expectations were aligned at the outset. I also didn’t put checkpoints in place along the way to ensure we stayed aligned. It cost us not only in additional work but in relationship trust. I blew it.
My story unfortunately is just one of many I’ve seen and experienced through the years where expectations were misaligned. Due to my experiences I’ve become manic about setting and aligning expectations, so much so that when I get misaligned it’s like being punched in the gut. It’s at the leader’s feet to ensure clear expectation alignment when empowering someone to get something done. Those leaders who just expect someone to ask the right questions on the what, who and when of getting something done are just asking for frustration and rework. This is a “measure-twice-cut-once” application; a little extra work up front to ensure alignment can save a lot of downstream pain.
Need help to better define and stay aligned on expectations? Consider the following five tips:
As leaders, it is your job to take the lead on clearly aligning expectations for delivery. In this “measure-twice-cut-once” approach, well defined expectation alignment means less execution friction. Your team needs it.
As a young manager I was on a particularly difficult assignment that had attention all the way up to the CEO of the company. The executive leading the project was a very seasoned and intentional leader who executed as well as anyone I’ve ever seen drive a crisis initiative. His ability to stay on top of the work was like nothing like I’d ever seen from other leaders in the organization. During my annual review with him, I asked what he saw as a crucial attribute of a successful leader. Without missing a beat, he gave me two words which continue to shape me as a leader: follow up.
Through the years I’ve seen how follow-up (or lack thereof) contributed to a team’s ability to successfully deliver results. Organizations that have follow-up in their DNA simply execute more friction-free than those who don’t. The leader stays better aligned with the work happening in the organization, and the followers better understand and execute to the leader’s expectations. I’ve seen it in my own experience as a leader. As my leadership skills matured and my follow-up ability became more autonomic, I saw first-hand how we were able to get things done more effectively. I also saw another benefit--my timely follow-up behavior reduced the number and magnitude of crises I had to deal with. I was more on top of what was happening, was better in sync with the team, and more engaged when the team needed my help to get something done.
Fostering a follow-up culture isn’t difficult to do, it just takes discipline. Get the ball rolling by instituting these seven follow-up tips:
There’s simply no reason not to establish and foster a follow-up culture. Just take the time to make it top-of-mind and instill the importance of it to your team.
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In 1985, The Coca-Cola Company introduced a new formula for its Coca-Cola product, calling it “New Coke.” Consumer reaction to the new formula was negative, and within three months the original formula was revived and rebranded as “Coca-Cola Classic.” The company was faced with a decision-- keep the new formula and try to change consumer perception or abandon the product. The New Coke product was ultimately discontinued in July 2002. As the company navigated their choices, the alternatives were about how to recover from a bad situation, with its management faced with minimizing a profit hit and negative consumer sentiment. Their decision path ultimately worked out well (with some speculating that New Coke was a marketing ploy to stimulate sales), but the decisions along the way were painful choices meant to minimize loss.
A huge part of a leader’s job is making decisions based on informed alternatives which articulate both the positive and negative consequences of the decision. The typical mode of operation is to look at pros and cons and do a pros to cons weight assessment of which alternative’s pros best outweigh the cons. But what about when there aren’t any pros, yet a decision needs to be made? I’ve seen leader decision-making hobbled because there is no good alternative in the decision set, looking for pros in a sea of cons. There’s no good alternative, so it’s about choosing the least-worst alternative.
The mechanics of least-worst alternative management are really no different than looking for a best alternative. It’s all about the mindset decision makers adopt when embarking on the decision. Being overt about recognizing the chosen decision isn’t about bringing benefit, but about minimizing hemorrhaging. It gives decision makers the freedom to make the best decision without the burden of justifying the lack of pros supporting the alternative.
Next time you are faced with choosing between worse and more-worse alternatives, keep the following six factors in mind:
Navigating through bad alternatives isn’t fun, but having the ability to skillfully and objectively get to a least-worst alternative is a crucial skill the best leaders possess. Keep top of mind whether you’re making a maximize-benefit or least-worst decision and ensure your decision makers understand the type of decision they’re making.
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