I recently keynoted at a Project Management Symposium. During the symposium several executives provided perspective on the importance of Project Management to the organization. One of the executives centered his discussion around people having vision. I can imagine the reaction of some of the people in the room. "Yeah, right. I've got projects with impossible deadlines, my customer is breathing down my neck because she is not getting what she wants, my project team isn't dedicating enough time on my project, and budget cuts mean I have to figure out how to get more done with less. You want me to have vision? I can barely get things done as it is!"
I feel your pain, colleagues. But I also agree with the exec.
A couple of years back I was engaged on a project to help recover an agile project run amok. The project was one of the first in the organization to use an agile development methodology and consisted of eight four-week sprints with six capability development teams. The project manager was a very theoretical scrum master who was more concerned with having an agile "design win" than he was with ensuring the business sponsor was satisfied with the project result. After about the third sprint there were significant issues with capabilities not working together, interfaces with external systems breaking, and problems with meeting sprint dates for committed capabilities. To save the project, we had to take a number of steps that violated the purist agile model but were necessary if we were going to keep moving forward on the project. Our implementation looked like a mishmash of agile and waterfall. It wasn't pretty, but we eventually got the project done.
One of the most over-used, warmed-over leadership terms uttered daily. Leaders high and low espouse their expertise in empowering teams to deliver. Some are very good at it, fostering high-performance teams who deliver great results. Others, though, only think they are good at it but frustrate teams with micromanagement, apathy, vagueness, and randomization. Most anyone who has been around the block has seen both good and bad empowerment examples. As for me, I’ve not only seen it, I’ve committed both the good and bad. It took me years to understand that empowerment isn’t just about delegating tasks to be performed. True empowerment is about entrusting individuals with problems to be solved and supporting them in the process. A high-performance empowered team owns problems or missions and is supported by a leader who provides clarity, gives guidance, and resolves only those issues the team can’t resolve on their own. To put some meat on this, I like to think of empowerment as systematic, with four critical steps needed to ensure its success. I call this intentional empowerment.
Step 1 – Define the problem to be solved and ownership
The first step in intentional empowerment is the clear articulation of a problem statement. The size of the problem doesn’t matter, it can be something that will take hours, days, or months to solve. What matters is a clear understanding of the problem statement, as well as ownership of the problem statement and the resulting solution.
Here is a good example:
Step 2 – Articulate the guiding principles
Articulating guiding principles is about policy, legal, regulatory, or other guidelines which the solution needs to adhere to. Note this is not about telling the problem owner how to do something, it’s about ensuring the problem owner knows the boundaries that he or she needs to abide by in solving the problem.
Some good examples of guiding principles:
And a couple of bad examples:
Guiding principles aren’t about controlling how something gets done, they are about the problem owner knowing what latitude he or she has in solution definition.
Step 3 – Ensure agreement on key dates
Knowing when something needs to be done and any key interim milestone dates enables the problem owner to figure out tasks and resourcing needs to hit the dates. It’s crucial here to get crisp on a specific date, not an “ASAP,” “immediately,” or “yesterday” date. It’s important for the leader to have his or her key dates thought out to ensure alignment with the problem owner. A good example:
And bad ones:
It may be that a problem needs to be resolved urgently; if that’s the case then stress the urgency to the problem owner but put a date on it. Don’t leave the when up to interpretation.
Step 4 – Establish the follow-up cadence
Key to intentional empowerment is an agreed-upon and timely follow-up cadence that both the leader and problem owner understand and agree is appropriate. When done well, the leader and problem owner stay aligned on execution and can fulfill project “asks” on a timely basis. It also minimizes surprises and frantic rework when expectations aren’t met. Just as importantly, though, is the leader staying in his or her lane by serving as a resource for the problem owner. An impatient or meddling leader can start micro-managing or dictating how something should be done. The problem owner turns into errand runner, with the leader hijacking problem ownership. Empowerment gone bad.
The cadence frequency should be appropriate to the problem and its due date, whether it be monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, or some other increment. As a leader it’s important to work on the frequency right-sizing with the problem owner; too infrequent can communicate disinterest, too frequent can communicate distrust. Here is an example for a project with a due date of one month:
For the same project here are a couple of bad examples:
There’s no one-size-fits-all follow-up cadence, what’s important is that the cadence exists, and both the leader and problem owner agree it’s appropriate. Again, too-infrequent follow-up communicates disinterest, while too-frequent follow-up communicates distrust.
I want to leave you with one last thought. Empowerment is a privilege, not a right. Those who are empowered have to earn and keep the trust of their manager, peers, and employees. Ensure when you are empowering someone to solve a problem that you are doing so because you trust him/her, and that if the trust is breached the willingness to empower diminishes. With that being said, take the time to understand intentional empowerment and use it to create high-performance teams that deliver value to your organization.
What we learned was more than what we had anticipated; not necessarily about their purchases, but about how they worked and the importance of urgency versus importance in their jobs.
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.
On a recent project my company was working with a frozen seafood manufacturer to help them bring a specialty frozen seafood product to market.
A huge component of getting this project done was the packaging; it had to be eye-popping and appealing while protecting the frozen seafood pieces inside. After a number of design sessions with the packaging manufacturer, we received the finished packaging. What was initially exuberance during the design session turned into disappointment when we saw the finished product. Some of the graphics were a bit blurry, a re-sealable zipper wasn't included, and a clear window to view the contents inside was missing. Our emotions went from disappointment to anger as the manufacturer told us it would be a number of weeks before a new delivery of the packaging could be done. If we took this route, a key delivery to a very important customer of ours wouldn't be met. What a pickle.
This is part two of How an Autistic Child has Changed a Career…For the Better
In 2006 I wrote of Patty’s and my decision to homeschool our son Trevor to help provide a learning environment more conducive with his autism. It’s now twelve years later and time to write about how things worked out.
Trevor started seventh grade with a customized schooling plan. Patty focused on arts and language and I focused on math and science. He also attended a homeschool-assisted school which provided English and math classes and attended a science class at the middle school he would have normally attended. The curriculum plan was designed by Patty and me along with Trevor’s school counselor. It was a hybrid of homeschooling and traditional schooling which we felt gave Trevor the best likelihood of success. Trevor’s counselor was completely awesome in working with us and putting Trevor’s well-being first. The blended teaching worked very well in seventh grade, but we also noticed that Trevor wasn’t getting enough peer socialization. In eighth grade we decided to start the process of mainstreaming him back into the public-school system. Patty continued focus on arts and language and math and science topics were now being provided by Trevor’s middle school. I like to joke that I was fired as a homeschool teacher and that my wife and son did the firing. In reality the mainstreaming was the right answer because it allowed him to get needed socialization through spending more time at school while also giving him some additional 1:1 focus through homeschooling. In ninth grade we felt Trevor was ready to be fully mainstreamed into the public-school system. While we packed up our homeschool materials, our involvement with Trevor’s schooling and socialization growth was still strong.
Trevor graduated from high school in 2011 with plans to go to college. Feeling that the jump from high school to a large university would be too drastic for him, he attended a local junior college for two years while living at home. He had developed a love for movies and photography, so he decided to major in film studies with an emphasis in photography. These two years were foundational for Trevor’s growth in that he continued to progress academically while also allowing him to work on socialization and adaptation skills. In his sophomore year he decided he wanted to transfer to a four-year university majoring in film and media studies. His decision on where to go was an outstanding example of decision making through empirical data analysis and pros/cons articulation. He developed a visibility board with a number of decision criteria including offering of major, closeness of family, and church offerings. He narrowed his choice down to two colleges, Central Washington University and Arizona State University, both of which meant he would be living away from home. He ultimately decided on Arizona State, comfortable through his analysis that this was the best option. It was also during this time that Trevor wrote about his experiences growing up with autism in Six-Word Lessons on Growing Up Autistic.
In August 2013 we took Trevor to the ASU Tempe campus, helped him set up his dorm room, and left him to start his junior year of college. While it was a bit unnerving being a thousand miles away from him, we had peace in knowing there were a number of family members in the area including Trevor’s big sister Briana who was now a nurse in nearby Scottsdale. His last two years of school were those of tremendous growth. He had to figure out a lot of things on his own, make new friends, and be responsible for his own studies. Fortunately, he plugged into a church group that was walking distance from ASU. He fit in like a glove and the church group was a high point of his time at ASU. He got to experience living and dealing with roommates, most of which he felt were too immature for him. We got several problem calls when he lost his wallet, had computer problems, or was having difficulty coping with some situations. He graduated from ASU in December 2015 Cum Laude with a degree in Film & Media Studies.
His post-college life was filled with a lot of anxiety. Now he was out of school and it was time to support himself. He didn’t have a job upon graduation, so Patty and I decided to hire him into our company as our Media Director. He was employed by us for 17 months where we got to help him build good work habits. We instituted a monthly review process called “dones” where at the beginning of the month he would lay out what he would have done by the end of the month, which we would then review at the beginning of the next month. It was an outstanding process in that all three of us were aligned as to what he needed to do, and he was held accountable for getting things done. In July 2017 Trevor was hired by Northwest Center where he splits his time between facilities management and marketing. His marketing assignments have been fruitful, including being interviewed by two local TV news stations.
Today Trevor is 26. He lives on his own in a condo we purchased for him along with two other tenants on the autism spectrum. He pays rent, he manages his own money, he is as self sufficient as any 26-year-old. He’s still got some challenges that he’ll continue to have for the rest of his life. He’ll always need someone else to help coach him through situations. It was a lot of hard work on all our parts, but Patty and I are excited about his future and are grateful that we were in a position to help Trevor.
Recently our son Trevor published a blog post entitled Every Oscar Winner for Best Picture, Ranked Worst to Best. In this post, he ranks, from 90 to one, each and every Oscar winner since Wings won the very first Oscar in 1928. Each winner is listed by the movie name, year it won, a picture from the movie, and a review summary. It took him three years to watch, review and rank the movies, which he did in addition to living a full work and social life. The ranking list, whether you agree with where they fall or not, is not only a fun read but is a major achievement for Trevor.
A bit more on Trevor. He was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at age five (the clinical diagnosis was Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified or PDD-NOS). He has always been high-functioning with some social and communication challenges that typically accompany someone like him. Today he is 26, has a bachelor’s degree in Film & Media Studies from Arizona State University, lives on his own, has a job, and supports himself. He will have some challenges for the rest of his life, but as he gets older, he has become much more self-aware of his strengths and challenges. My wife Patty and I are incredibly proud of him.
As I was reading through his movie rankings, something much deeper than movie reviews emerged for me. What struck me was the number of Trevor’s strengths that give him the ability to review, rank, and communicate the 90 movies, as follows:
Look at the above strengths. Most any leader would love to see a list of strengths like that in an employee. Couple these with subject matter training and you’ve got a vibrant, contributing member of the workforce.
Another great example of unearthing strengths is the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). The IDF uses soldiers on the autism spectrum to scan visual materials from satellites and air sensors to identify minute troop changes. They found that soldiers on the spectrum can better focus and get less fatigued than their neurotypical counterparts. It’s a strength that fills an important security need.
Take the initiative to understand how people with disabilities can contribute to your organization by doing the following:
According to Accenture’s research report Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage, there are 15 million Americans of working age living with a disability and only 29% of those participate in the workforce. It’s your responsibility as leaders to look at the strengths that exist in this vastly untapped pool and align them to the needs in your organization. Oh, and back to Trevor’s Oscar rankings, want to know what’s number 90 and number one? You’ll have to look for yourself 😊.
This part three of a three-part series on Mastering Credibility. Part one is It's What You Know and part two is It's The Relationships You Build.
Bert was an associate at a premier management consulting firm.
Over the years he specialized in providing advice to senior management in information technology organizations. Generally he had some pretty insightful ideas that many of the rank and file in the client organization viewed as a bit theoretical. His advice was typically accompanied by general implementation timelines which client organizations rarely took verbatim. Bert's advice usually culminated in some type of a Powerpoint presentation to the senior client management; then it was off to the next assignment.
For years Bert had been trying to get a foot into the door of Laner Robotics.
Contact Lonnie about article reprints. Please specify article you wish to reprint.
See Lonnie's Amazon Author Page