Thursday, December 21, 2006

Another Practical Leadership Opportunity

For many, tomorrow is the last working day before the holiday break. Don't forget to wish your team a good holiday. Let them go home early if you can. Thank them for the successes of the last year. Don't waste these opportunities.

Happy holidays to you all, my extended leadership team.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Motivation to Lie

I have recently been intrigued by the phenomenon of leaders committing to dates that are obviously too aggressive. Everyone can tell that the committed date is highly unlikely, but the world seems to conspire to force the commitment from the leader and accept that commitment as realistic.

I've been trying to understand what is going on here. The leader must also understand how aggressive and unlikely the date commitment is. While some of these commitments are met, a 10% likely date can only be met one in ten times. Some managers and customers push for this aggressiveness in a belief that the project team is somehow padding their schedules. They believe that the schedule is not really too aggressive if the team would put their shoulders to the task. Their belief is that a good project leader can meet an aggressive schedule.

Another reason managers and customers push for aggressive dates is a belief that they have no choice. Someone else, such as their own managers and customers, are pushing for an aggressive date from them. They said "yes" to their own aggressive delivery, and now are desperate for ways to meet their own overly aggressive commitments.

These factors help to explain why someone might push for an aggressive schedule. Unfortunately, they don't help us understand why a good project leader would agree to an overly aggressive schedule. I have tended to believe that good leaders would value meeting their commitments enough to withstand these pressures.

One thought comes to me: Perhaps it is easier to agree to a date and miss it than it is to set a realistic date and meet it. Leaders understand that there are costs to the team missing their date commitments. Those costs include the re-planning costs, the difficulty of telling the stakeholders about the schedule slip, some loss of credibility and possibly some negative accountability.

On the other hand, leaders understand that there are also costs to not agreeing to an unrealistic date request. In the worst case, the team looses the project to a lower bidder. More commonly, those costs are disappointing the customer, sometimes angry pressure to concede, and spending more time explaining why the date is later than hoped for.

I'm wondering if leaders perceive that avoiding the up-front pain is worth the potential future pain. That is, the prospect of missing the date is less daunting than the prospect of admitting you can not meet it to begin with. This may be a basic inability to evaluate risk and consequences, but I don't think so. It may also be an over-valuing of "hope" as a success strategy, but I think this is more of a result than a cause. I think the cause is that some managers and customers actually make the consequences of not agreeing to a date greater than the consequences of missing a date.

Remember that if the leader doesn't agree to the date, there is a chance the team will lose the project. That is a pretty big consequence. That chance is often much greater than the chance of losing the customer after a date slip. We see this in the number of public works projects that grossly miss their dates, but were the result of a lowest-bid contract.

But I don't think we have to use this drastic example. This problem persists even when there is no chance of losing the job by giving a realistic date commitment. This occurs primarily when the accountability model for missing a date is not really clear. A leader who sees that he or she is accountable for the consequences of a missed date will value making better commitments.

I am not suggesting that we need to set up better punishments. Accountability is simply the other side of the coin of responsibility. The effective leader needs to feel that he or she has to live with the result of missing a date, whether that consequence includes future loss of business, reduced market penetration, or simply lost opportunity cost.

The question we need to ask ourselves is "Do we give our leaders sufficient accountability to motivate them to set dates the team can meet, or do we make it easier to agree to unreasonably aggressive dates?" Would you rather say "no" or be late?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Whiny Middle Manager Quiz

I have to share Wayne Turmel's tongue-in-cheek management quiz. It's funniest answers sting a bit too hard with truth. Here's the leadership training question:

4) Leadership training is a required part of all managers' development because:

  • We believe in growing people from within
  • Just on the off chance we see actual leadership, we'd like to recognize it
  • We want to spot the troublemakers early on, the darned showoffs
  • Everyone else is doing it

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

My Leadership Philosophy

George Ambler has an article advocating The Importance of a Clear Leadership Philosophy. In this outstanding post, he recommends that leaders write down the philosophy behind their leadership approach including:
  • What you believe about people ...
  • What you believe about life ...
  • What you believe makes groups and organizations effective ...

Let's give it a try:

  • All people are good in their own sight. They behave according to what they think is right, just and fair. In disputes, most people see themselves as good and the other guy as bad. This is ego driven by a lack of self-confidence. People who excel in one area tend to excel in many areas. I believe this is also driven by self-confidence. People want to be successful and part of a successful community. They want the safety of a leader they can trust. People who feel self-confident, valued and safe can be mentored to do almost anything.
  • Life is a journey in pursuit of happiness. Life's journey is infinite, continuous, chaotic and shared. Because it is infinite, we should strive for lasting happiness. We should value long-term success over short-term. Because life is continuous, we should seek the happiness in our current situation. While we should make sacrifices for greater success, we should not put off happiness for later. Because it is chaotic, we recognize that life includes sadness. Life is not scriptable or predictable. Bad things happen, and we deal with them when they do. Because life is shared, we pursue happiness for our communities as well as ourselves. Those communities include our families, friends, coworkers, larger communities and humankind as a whole.
  • I believe organizations are successful when they have shared values, a clear vision of success, motivation to succeed together, and respect for the various roles required to succeed. Shared values help avoid irreconcilable differences. While the vision must be clear, the leadership needs to be flexible. The world changes, and successful organizations need leaders who can guide them through those changes. Every member of the team must be motivated to participate in the team's success, although different people may have different motivations. One of a leader's roles is to understand those motivations and address the needs of the people on the team. One critical shared value is recognition of the importance of every person's role on the team. When people don't feel valued, they loose motivation to support the success of the team.

That was a good exercise. I'm sure I'll revisit it in the future. Thanks for the challenge, George.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Leave Room for a Miracle

This Christmas season, we are reminded of miracles. But that expectant feeling is available to us all year long. All we have to do is set our project schedules for the earliest possible delivery date. Then we can wait for the miracle to happen so everything goes perfectly. If you want that Christmas feeling all year long, leave just enough room for a miracle in your project schedules.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Where Practical Leadership Takes You

Out of curiosity, I did a Google search of where "practical leadership" takes you. Some interesting sites come up:

By the way, this blog also shows up.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Criticize in Private

Giving criticism is a delicate dance between being clear and being heard. Most people have a natural reaction to criticism of throwing up defensive and protective walls against potential attacks. This is true even when we present the feedback using all the positive, constructive and nurturing techniques of good communication and leadership. We would like to believe that if we speak truth with a kind and loving heart and a spirit of edification in just the right way, then our message will be received as we intended. This is just not the case.

People do get defensive, no matter what we do to mitigate it. And yet, as leaders, there are situations where we need to give feedback and criticism to the people on our teams. It is critical that we recognize that our role is not to "give" criticism, but rather to "communicate" the criticism. That is, we need to take the leadership of not only presenting the feedback, but making sure it was heard.

One of the ways we make sure feedback in heard, is to remove as many of the obstacles to being heard that we can. One of the biggest obstacles preventing people from hearing feedback is pride. When a person is in a group of other people, they are much less able to hear criticism because of the potential hurt to their pride. They do not want to look bad in front of other people. It is bad enough that they feel bad in front of you, the leader.

I often find myself in situations where I recognize behavior that is hurting the team's ability to succeed. Part of my job as a leader is to bring that behavior to the fore, so we can improve the likelihood of the team's success. For example, when one team member gives a customer presentation, I sometimes see another team member interrupt to correct an error in the presentation. Sometimes this works, but usually it sets a tone of discord in front of the customer that is counter to the team's success. This behavior needs to be addressed.

The worst thing I could possibly do is mention this problem right in front of the customer. That would be doing more of the same. I might consider raising the issues during the group's debrief of the meeting. (You need to have these kinds of debriefs if you don't already.) If it is a pervasive problem across the group, that might be the right solution. But, if the problem is really with one or two individuals, they will not be responsive to the criticism in the group setting.

In the group setting they will throw up their walls of defensiveness. They will argue about the importance of fixing the mistaken information we gave the customer. They may go silent, disagreeing in their heads, and not being open to changing behavior. If you can meet with people individually, you remove pride in front of their peers as an obstacle to hearing and addressing the problem. Your job as a leader is to "communicate" the issue. That means making sure that the issue is heard.

Back to the customer situation: you can always agree in the meeting debrief what the right information the customer needed to hear. If the customer needs an update, you can use it as an opportunity. Use the update to call the customer. Tell them the mistake. Build in them a sense of trust that when your team makes a mistake, they are proactive about fixing it. That is a whole lot better than building in the customer a sense that you have a team in discord.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Testing Your Vision

I won't enter the debate on the distinctions of calling it a vision, strategy or mission. This vision thing is not a magic incantation. It is a tool for leading your team to the successes they want to achieve. Here are some simple tests to see if your vision is a good tool for your team:
  • Will this vision motivate me to lead my team?
  • Can I clearly and concisely communicate the key points of this vision?
  • Can I sell this vision to my team and the other stakeholders?
  • Is this vision about the team’s goal and not my personal goals?
  • Will this vision motivate my team toward the goal?
  • Will this vision allow my team to make progress without direct assignments?
  • Will this vision help us prioritize our work?
  • Does this vision tell us what not to do?

It comes down to a few simple points: Test that your vision is clear, shared and actionable.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Increase Your Date Granularity

I recently sat through a status presentation. The team lead explained that the project was late and they would complete it in December. That was not the best news, but it wasn't too bad: just about a month slip. Or was it?

What was the project leader trying to communicate by saying December? When we give dates with a month granularity, such as December instead of December 18th, we play a little game with our audience. We are trying to give ourselves until the end of the month, while allowing the audience the hope that an earlier date is possible.

In this case, with the date only a month away, there is no excuse for the project leader not to have a better handle on the schedule and provide finer granularity on the date. Note that with a December date, November is early and January is late. But with a December 18th date, December 12th is early and December 22nd is late.

My challenge to leaders is not to fall back on the trick of giving dates with month granularity. If you want to give yourself leeway to use the whole month, show some integrity and say December 30th. This gives full notice to your audience to object if the 30th is a problem.

You can also extend this to quarter granularity estimates. Rather than saying Q4CY07, say December '07. Note that in this case the date is far enough out that you may really want to communicate that slips are on the order of months not days. By saying December '07, you are communicating that a schedule slip moves you out to January or February. Saying Q4CY07 is not a commitment to get the project done by the end of the quarter at all costs. It sets a granularity of a quarter on the accuracy of the estimate. That is, a slip could be out to Q1 or Q2CY08. A project leader shooting for the end of the quarter at all costs should be giving estimates of either October '07 or November 30th, 2007.