I went to “Joint School” on Friday, our local pre-surgery induction for hip replacement patients. I came away really fired up with all the things I need to get done before I go in for surgery in 2 weeks.
So what is it that this deadline has triggered?
- Priority – I now have a list of things that must be done, a list of things that should be done, and a list of things I’d like to do.
- Focus – I’ve immediately cancelled all the “nice to haves” that require significant time and distract me from hitting the deadline
- Timeliness – I’ve already done lots of things that I’ve known needed doing for months but kept postponing due to “high priorities”
- Energy – I will be the one to suffer if I don’t hit the deadline, and I’ve discovered that lots of “huge” tasks have been finished pretty quickly and easily because they have to be done now, rather than shuffled off into the future
- Personal effectiveness – because a change is BETTER than a rest. Swapping to another task when I run out of steam re-energises me while doing something useful
Setting deadlines is a key skill in project management, and if done well can stimulate the team very powerfully.
Are deadlines always so effective?
Well, no. Deadlines can be hugely demotivating when:
- They are not real – they have been created by an executive or manager to “motivate” the team
- They are too tight:
- perhaps they are labelled “stretch” but failure to achieve them is unacceptable
- perhaps they’re simply impossible
- They are too far in the future:
- breeding complacency and indolence
- relying on staff to create their own interim deadlines and motivate themselves
- They are too abstract – the team can’t relate emotionally to hitting or missing the deadline, so their energies are not tapped into.
Ensuring these do not happen is the responsibility of business leadership, portfolio and programme management, and a critical requirement for such leaders is to have their fingers on the pulse of reality, and occasionally lift their noses from Excel spreadsheets and abstract numbers.
Over the last few years I have seen 2 glaring examples of deadlines being set without a sound justification for considering them viable, then the leaders going ballistic on being told, when the feasibility studies were completed, that the targets were not achievable.
The other end of the spectrum is as bad – many years earlier, I saw a project team that had been set up 6 years before the regulatory deadline, and had spent 5 years making very limited progress. This demanded a huge effort to rescue the project at the last moment
Business leaders need to think very hard about using deadlines to motivate teams – they can work very powerfully both towards success and right into failure!
For many years, the most satisfying experiences I’ve had professionally have come not from the investigation of some wonderful information technology (and I’ve done some amazing technology!), but from the successful application by business users of that technology to make a real difference to their effectiveness and efficiency.
IT projects have far and away the worst track record for project failure, and there are some good reasons that success is challenging:
- The rate of change of technology is phenomenal
- The complexity of IT solutions is often orders of magnitude higher than other projects
However, there are some less-good reasons that seem to come up time and again:
- The demographic profile of both IT and business leaders is drifting towards the younger end of the spectrum, reducing experience of managing the art of the possible
- Abdication of responsibility for project success to the IT project manager
- Limited engagement between end-users and IT staff
- Failure to ensure that the IT team understand what the business is all about, so design something truly good and fir for purpose
- Delivering a “solution” to business users that haven’t been trained how to use it, don’t know what it can and can’t do, and worst of all, don’t understand it imposes changes to the BAU way of working
To a certain extent, Agile approaches address the first 4 points, but it’s the last point that makes me weep, because it happens so often and is completely unnecessary – it really isn’t rocket science, just planning.
Where does the problem arise? Business readiness falls in the gap between the senior business management and the IT team.
- The business managers are focused on their targets and BAU of their team, expecting the IT PM to sort out business readiness
- The IT team don’t understand the needs of the business is getting ready for change, thinking their management is dealing with it
- There’s no point just automating the existing process – computers can make the whole thing slicker, and this requires change in BAU processes
Business readiness requires special skills:
- the ability to speak “business” to the business managers
- the ability to speak “IT” to the techies, and explain what the business is all about
- the ability to create a plan that fuses user needs with IT needs for implementation
With one client, I was able to completely transform the performance of 2 critical IT staff simply by helping them understand the business paradigm their “customers” were working under. These were “lightbulb” moments for them – no gradual transition but sudden understanding.
So long as business and IT functions are treated separately, business readiness may well be the final frontier!
Lysanne Currie’s editorial in the April 2016 issue of “The Director”, entitled “Keeping it Simple”, cites a TED talk by Harvard’s Professor George Whitesides, highlighting that the vast majority of people crave simplicity, and it’s mainly academics who relish complexity and emergence.
The article goes on to promote strategic simplification as a strategy to achieve great results, pointing to Sacha Romanovitch of Grant Thornton as a leading example of its success. My personal experience of this was at Centrica, where they executed a complete U-turn from acquiring multiple brands and business to divesting the AA, Goldfish and One.Tel UK to focus on British Gas.
This doesn’t mean being simplistic in your thinking, though. Churchill famously apologised for writing a long letter as he had no time to write a shorter one, and Lysanne quotes Steve Jobs; “Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple”.
Problems are often complex, and the reality only emerges with time and progressive analysis. The whole of Chaos Theory is about understanding how simplicity generates apparent complexity. When people are involved, we need to add emotion, contrariness and sheer malice into the equation too.
Solutions are where the benefits of simplification really come in – solutions must be “sold” to, and applied by, many and so must be easy to communicate. Given most people’s need for simplicity, it becomes essential to present the solution as simple, even if it is complex.
There is a process here:
- probe complexity and emergence during the investigation of the problem, to ensure you get your understanding right
- invest time end effort to simplify the solution, making it robust
- If the simple solution doesn’t match “the way we do things”, seriously consider changing the way things are done too
Trying to keep it simple throughout by simplifying the investigation and analysis of a problem creates a grave risk of getting it wrong. There is a sad trail of government initiatives that have had diametrically the opposite effect to that desired, not least government borrowing going UP under the last government.
Embrace complexity, but make it sound simple :o)
This post by Steve Barlow intrigued me: I think he has some great insights, and the idea that we are not “change fit” is a new idea for me.
I agree completely that people are usually delighted with change they see as an improvement e.g. mobile phones, the Internet, on-line shopping, Sunday shopping etc (though you will find people who hate all of these things). Forcing change on people, when they don’t see the benefit, fear they will be worse off and don’t see why it should happen, quite naturally falls far short of a no-brainer!
I like the idea, though, that even desirable change fails because of mental flabbiness!
Looking at the metaphor Steve offers; I know why my New Year’s resolutions fail – the pain of changing my lifestyle in the short term outweighs the long-term benefit (no pain, no gain). It never ceases to amaze me the obsessional self-sacrifice it takes to become an Olympic athlete – how do they do it?
I think there are 2 key factors:
- They invariably have a coach who eggs them on and sets just-achievable goals
- They are able to visualize success in a very realistic way – what it will feel like to mount the podium and collect their gold medal – and how they will win – every move, muscle twitch, metre of track etc
Coming back to business change, what can we draw from the parallel?
- I believe that project leaders need to act like coaches, encouraging the team and setting challenging but achievable goals
- I believe that project leaders must support all stakeholders in understanding and feeling the benefits of the objective, explaining how they will get there and soothing fears of the unknown
These are 2 very different skills sets – planning and communication, but both are clearly essential for success in my experience.
Many years ago, I learned that building a shared vision and working towards it was vital in married life. I’ve also found the same to be true of business change.
Reading this article on documenting a clear vision reminded me of two discussions with prospective clients; both had decided what they wanted to do without having a clear vision of where they wanted to get to. When I started to investigate their vision, I ended up with the reaction “you’re too strategic”.
I speak from bitter personal experience that it is very easy to get busy doing tactical things that take you in the wrong direction if you don’t have a clear vision of where you’re trying to get to. Losing stakeholder support is even easier if you can’t share a clear definition of what you’re trying to achieve.
I’ve found you can’t be too strategic when it comes to being clear about where you want to get to, and it really helps to take stakeholders with you if they can see what it will be like when you get there.
I was just watching an old TV programme, in which the central character is highly-driven, very effective but is not promoted because his superiors don’t consider him reliable. They don’t trust him to ALWAYS do the right thing.
The concept of “a safe pair of hands” is familiar to most, and seems to be a vital element of career progression.
The analogy to quality in products and services suddenly became blindingly clear – a “quality” person is someone who meets requirements and is fit for purpose, not necessarily a high performer.
I was first introduced to the eternal trade-off between absolute performance and reliability by a senior manager from a manufacturer of razor blades, over 40 years ago – he explained that their blades were quite intentionally not as sharp as their competitors, but were more consistent. He claimed that a good blade from their competitor would give a better shave, but a poor blade would create havoc with the skin. Sooner or later, every customer of their competitor’s would get a bad blade, and swap brand! This company’s strategy was to catch the others’ customers “on the rebound” and never lose them again through a bad experience.
Likewise, individuals are walking a tightrope in their career; they continue to progress so long as they are reliable, but once they lose that reputation for reliability, their only hopes for progression are if they have an indispensable speciality they out-perform everyone else in.
My motto in stakeholder management is “no nasty surprises” – ensuring that all stakeholders are fully aware of risks, mitigating actions and contingency plans from the earliest opportunity. This isn’t just a project management approach – it’s a personal integrity approach, and builds trust!
I’ve recently come across a couple of folks who have caused significant levels of challenge due to a common problem:
- They are so busy transmitting (talking, writing etc) that they don’t receive (listen, read etc)
I know, we all do it to a certain extent, but in business it’s a huge problem and, I suspect, costs the UK £Billions each year in lost effectiveness.
When I was at PA, the taught wisdom was that we have 2 eyes, 2 ears and only one mouth, and therefore we should be receiving 4 times as much as we transmit – completely appropriate for a consultant. We also had lots of training in active listening; stimulating and guiding the client’s own transmission while receiving accurately.
The nuclear technology management programme that I’m currently managing the development of is, I’m told, the first of its type in the world, and so it needs to be a success. Whilst there is plenty of technology in the curriculum, the aim is to develop the skills and ability to manage that technology, and that means managing people.
With 30 years experience, I’m now completely convinced that soft skills are the critical element of management success. Making friends? – perhaps not, as command is a lonely position, the more so when there are hard choices to be made, but influencing people? – indispensable!
Quite probably the most essential element of anything in business is accurate communication, and though there are vital communication media that are non-written e.g. technical drawings, imagery etc, the vast majority of communication falls on language.
I’m not one of these reactionaries that don’t like to see new words, terms and phrases appear in our language – it’s a living thing and we must let it evolve.
However, simple errors are a different matter, as they can create confusion and mistakes in understanding. This article on common errors in English chimes with me – as professionals we should be masters of our most important tool, the language we use.
Unfortunately, the fact that English is a second language to many, plus the absence of teaching English grammar for many decades, means that poor grammar is not only tolerated, it’s even copied.
<Rant mode on > My pet hate, showing the illiteracy of some journalists, is “The H.M.S. XXXXXX”. Complete nonsense – either “Her Majesty’s Ship XXXXX i.e. H.M.S. XXXXX” or “The XXXXX”. Of course, the U.S.S. YYYYY is fine as it makes sense.<\ Rant mode off>
It’s important that we focus on the accuracy of what we communicate, otherwise we’ll get misunderstandings and errors, and errors cost lives, time and money.