Leadership plus good management?

I’ve recently been working with two groups from the same organisation, and there was a huge contrast between them. One group was outspoken, enjoyed active learning and working in groups, the other group was almost silent, expected to sit and listen, and resented the “wasted time” of working on exercises in groups.

This was a surprise to me – I had expected to work with both groups in the same way, but it simply didn’t play out that way.

This led to a lot of soul searching – what was the critical difference between the groups, and why did the difference result in such different responses?

The conclusion I arrived at was that the first group was primarily composed of leaders, in a wide range from very junior to very senior; they were prepared to voice their concerns and make the most of the situation when it wasn’t what they expected. The second group, though in management roles, were more operational, mature and, apparently, less willing to make the most of things. Expecting a dull workshop, that is what they wanted; they were unwilling to engage in something more interesting and productive.

This highlighted a lesson I have learned throughout my career – leadership is a characteristic that is not strongly correlated to seniority.  There are many middle and even senior managers that lack leadership drivers and motivations. Conversely, there are many young, energetic people that are active leaders.

Management is a skill that usually improves with experience, but the same is not necessarily true of leadership, which demand energy and stamina. The best business leaders are also good managers, because they need to deliver results through others, but they have the energy and stamina to create the vision and inspire their team through the rough patches.

When an organisation engages in major change, it faces many challenges, both foreseen and unforeseen, and dealing with these requires skilled management, but it needs more. Leadership, with clear vision and the energy and discipline to address the issues that arise and “keep the wheels on the wagon”, is essential through the project/programme.

Leadership is more than pointing at the map and sending off the wagon train – it’s scouting, riding shot-gun and fighting off the bandits to make sure it gets there.

A lot of change initiatives fail because the executive “leadership” start it off then lose interest, moving onto the next idea, leaving managers to deal with the problems without the leadership that is essential for success. Fewer ideas, fewer initiatives and sustained leadership  transform the success rate of business projects.


Doing the right projects right

I’ve just written up a paper for an academic journal, based on two guest lectures I recently gave at the University of Salamanca as part of their 8th Centenary celebrations.

Merging two talks, one on managing healthcare projects (for the Faculty of Pharmacy) and the other on challenges facing UK industry (for the Business School) made me think hard, and I resolved the challenge through considering uncertainty – healthcare projects nearly always face high levels of uncertainty, and the whole UK economy is waiting for the other Brexit shoe to drop, holding its breath in the meantime.

It’s an old adage that successful change results from doing the right projects right, but how do you do that in an uncertain environment?

Professional change governance is a good start to identifying the right projects – portfolio management aligning change with strategy (tough with Brexit), programmes managing uncertainty and flexibility, leaving projects to deliver effectively and efficiently.

There is another facet to this, though – seeing the big picture, and considering a wide range of scenarios. This is where systems thinking comes in, helping to be clear on what the true requirements for project are. Many projects under-perform or fail because they are either not the right projects in the first place, or don’t correctly address their customer’s needs.

To survive and grow in the current economic environment means evolving, and that means changing faster and more effectively than ever – that means doing the right projects right!

Coping with disruptive technology

We live in an age of disruption, where new IT-driven models of commerce are ripping the heart out of the High Street, and transforming whole markets. What makes this possible is the rapid development of new IT solutions, linked to businesses that are adapting to the new technology; they are ready to deliver value.

Many of these disruptive organisations are new, though – starting from scratch, with the business built around a new, technology-driven business model.

Are existing businesses like dinosaurs, doomed to extinction as this comet of disruptive technology hits their world?

Some have already died out, and others will follow, but it’s a big world, and those organisations willing to evolve quickly can still prosper, I believe, if they address business change in an integrated way.

I was recently asked to help the University of Cumbria develop a new project management course for a major client, and in doing so I reread a lot of published wisdom on project management, illustrating it with case studies from my own experience.

The mismatch between the published wisdom (around which that client operates) and my experience of successful projects, is in business readiness to create value from the project. This is CORE to success, not a bolt-on at the end, I have found.

The published project management bodies of knowledge mention business engagement in the right places; it’s the emphasis that is wrong, as they are largely derived from major engineering activities. In the world of business change, the short timescales and return demanded on investment put business readiness at the heart of all successful change, and quite quickly, corporate survival.

Solicitors, accountants – take a look at estate agents!

Coping with uncertainty during a major project – climbing the mountain versus Brexit

IMAG0844I had a hip replacement last November, 27 years after I broke it in an accident. The surgeon who set it then explained that though they’d done a good job, it wasn’t a perfect job and eventually the hip would wear out.

Last week I was walking with friends in the Pyrenees, just 3 months after being discharged from the hip replacement. This was a tremendous occasion for me – would I still be a partial cripple, or would I find myself as good as new?

We set off to climb the pic de Saint-Barthélemy, at 2348m the second highest in the Corbieres region, ascending steadily through mist and low cloud from 1300m. We debated options – ascend by the “scenic” but rather harder route, or just go straight for the summit. Given the dull grey cloud we were in spoiling any view, and my natural concern about not overdoing things, we decided to split up; 2 of us went direct for the summit, the other 2 went the harder route (taking the guide book).

So two of us set out for the summit with 50m visibility and no guidebook or map. We just put our heads down and slogged upwards, eventually bursting through the top of the clouds into brilliant sunshine. As we continued up, we then saw the summit, and realised how far we still had to climb, but trudged on steadilyi

The view from the empty summit, when we finally got there , was breath-taking – the tallest summit was before us (just 20m higher) and other mountain tops peeking from the sea of cloud. 15 minutes later our friends arrived, seriously tired after an even harder grind, especially the final ascent.

What has this to do with project management?

Many projects hit a period in their life where leadership changes or vanishes, visibility of the overall objective is obscured or challenged and the team starts to fragment, pulling in different directions.  Brexit is a fine example of this happening from the very start!

When this period is entered, it is easy to panic and start a blame storm that quickly leads to the project stalling and potentially failing – David Cameron resigning and Theresa May stepping up to take the poison chalice was an example of this, the huge swing against the Conservative party at the subsequent election another.

What is needed is, as on my climb, to keep slogging on while things become clearer before making critical decisions, because hard work and progress almost always provide more clarity on the way forward. The objectives may flex, but a project that is making good progress in difficult circumstances is far more likely to succeed than one that stalls and flaps about.

Again, Brexit shows what happen when steady hard work is replaced by dogma, rhetoric and outright lies – the government “demanded” a deal that is worse than was already on the table from the EU when negotiating on citizens’ rights.

Where the Brexit project will end up, no one knows, but we must all keep slogging along to make the best of this farcical project.



People learn, organisations don’t?

I was at an excellent presentation by Tim Chittenden (ex RN, ex BAe Systems, now with Sellafield Ltd) about developing the Astute class of nuclear submarines and the lessons learned. Tim compared and contrasted various different nuclear submarine programmes and how different approaches had been taken and the effects they’d had on “success”.

The Astute programme started off aiming for cheapness, as the Batch 2 Trafalgar programme i.e. a simple repeat of the highly-successful Trafalgar class of nuclear hunter-killer submarines, with cost reductions through the reuse of technology from later programmes. Years late, and hugely over budget, the Astutes are a completely new design.  Failure? Yes and no – late and over budget – classic programme management criteria say “Failure”. Delighted customer, more effective and 2/3rds the cost of equivalent US submarines (the US Treasury green with envy) – Success!

Tim contrasted the Astute programme with the Vanguard programme, where cost wasn’t the driver but a quick, high-performance solution – Vanguard was a success on all counts – largely on cost and time, and once more the customer delighted.

All the lessons Tim drew out were well-known to me, especially that early focus on cost cutting leads to delays and cost overruns  – “cheap man, he pay twice”. yet the same problems seem to happen again and again, even in the same organisation.

So why don’t organisations learn from these experiences? Why are “Lessons learned” not?

What is organisational memory that it CAN learn? The key elements that I’m aware of include:

  1. The wisdom and experience (from personal learning) of individual leaders (at all levels) within the organisation
  2. The culture of the organisation – we’ve learned that this way is best
  3. External and internal Standards, standard operating procedures

How well do these instruments of corporate memory fare under the pressure for ever-higher business performance and constant change?

  1. Individual leaders with extensive experience can easily be seen as negative, and given early retirement, made redundant or forced out to make way for dynamic leaders (without the same experience)
  2. Established cultures MUST change to create a more responsive organisation – “We know this way works so we stick to it” cannot survive in the rapidly-changing world businesses operate in. Unfortunately this can lead to throwing out the baby with the bathwater
  3. Processes and standards are a nightmare to update and keep current in a rapidly changing world, and can soon be left behind when everyone is struggling just to get the work done and keep the business afloat.

Let me illustrate this from personal experiences:

  1.  An insurance company was seeking to cut costs, and made a very attractive early retirement offer to all staff over 50. Every eligible staff member outside the Executive took the offer, leaving the company run by much less experienced staff. This led to a more dynamic, but much less knowledgeable set of senior managers. It then had to bring in a team of management consultants to run the rest of their cost-cutting programme!
  2. A life assurer had already lost all senior staff from its pensions division. When their DOS-based tools were to be replaced by a new bespoke system, they resisted strongly ANY change to their practices, eventually admitting they didn’t know what they could safely change. They knew what they did was compliant, but not how they could change it while remaining compliant – knowledge had become rote. It took the recruitment of a new Head of Pensions (ex-Army) to unshackle the Pensions teams.
  3. A major engineering company, with a global reputation for quality, had become totally dependent on standards and procedures to deliver quality products. When a new CEO joined, to save the company from its slow decline, he demanded large-scale  and ongoing changes i.e. the company had to become agile, rather than steady-state. The burden of constantly updating procedures and standards was unsupportable, and the reputation for quality has since been badly tarnished

All three key elements that have supported organisational learning in the past are now heavily compromised in larger organisations, especially PLCs.  It is inevitable that corporate amnesia will grow unless an alternative solution is used.

Staff-turnover and rapidly-changing processes are with us for the foreseeable future, though technology can help – intranets, knowledge management etc.

The main hope for learning organisations lies in corporate culture – people are still the greatest resource (and liability) organisations have. One programme I managed was so successful in its approach that years later the client is still using the tools and techniques he learned from me then. Empowering individuals to do the job better, with cross-checks to ensure they are not doing it worse, are essential for learning.

Systems Thinking – what are the challenges?

At yesterday’s inaugural meeting of the APM’s Systems Thinking SIG, born out of the Joint Working Group with INCOSE UK, one of the critical questions asked was “What stands in the way of systems thinking that we have to overcome?”

Today I have at least some of that answer.  In a report on failed projects from a major organization that should be obsessed with getting things right, I saw that the underlying problem seemed to be habitual behaviours i.e. an absence of thinking, even when these behaviours led to unacceptable outcomes repeatedly.

Systems thinking has an under-pinning tenet that people are allowed to think and want to think, yet in many organisations (particularly those with Theory X management styles), thinking and initiative are actively suppressed by forcing people to conform mindlessly to standards, processes and procedures. Many years ago, people used to say “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”, hence its popularity long after it began to drag behind the state of the art.

|t is vitally important that lessons are learned and disseminated, and standards, processes and procedures can be powerful tools for ensuring conformity, but the active suppression of innovation, initiative and simply thinking are akin to mental slavery, where human beings become slaves to these standards set up and often not maintained dynamically, robbing the organisation of much of its human capital.

If people aren’t encouraged to think about what they are doing, how they can do it better and why it should be done differently, the bloom for business agility is burnt to the ground and the scorched earth is not fertile ground for reaping the benefits of systems thinking.

Unintended consequences – financial controls gone mad!

Just been reading about the impact the announcement of the tightening up of IR35 tax regulations is having on government projects – before a single penny in extra tax has been collected, government initiatives are starting to haemorrhage contract staff. This will cost the government way more in failed projects and delays than than HMRC will collect in extra tax, I expect.

It reminds me of the Thatcher Government’s cunning plan to increase the number of Free House pubs by limiting the number of tied house a brewery could own.  All that happened was that breweries exchanged brewing facilities for tied houses, either focusing on brewing or on running tied houses, massively reducing choice instead of increasing it as intended.

This inability to foresee the consequences of policies is by no means limited to government – since yesterday I have twice discussed large corporates that have shed too many permanent staff, resulting in them having to recruit contract staff to fill the gaps at a higher cost. Then, of course, they want to cut those costs – ah, back to the Government!

Earlier today, I was discussing this with an old friend and we got onto sea defences, as we were beside the sea – once more, actions taken with good intentions had led to unforeseen (but not unforeseeable) consequences.

Douglas Adams, in his Dirk Gently novels, refers to “the interconnectedness of all things” – we need financial leaders who understand that, and really consider the possible outcomes of their plans BEFORE they implement them.