Coping with disruption!

Took another look at this post as I’m working with innovative products. Disruption isn’t just in IT – new legislation and changing political environments are putting massive evolutionary pressure onto businesses. The thoughts below are still good, just more general that when originally written!

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!

Coaching Project Managers is great value

Business coaches are legion, executive coaches are everywhere, so why is almost no one coaching project managers, the people delivering the vision?

I’ve compiled some case studies of the work I’ve done with project managers in a wide range of industries and the huge benefits resulting.

I’ve done a comparative analysis of  traditional face-to-face training courses, e-learning and coaching:


Ah, I hear you think, coaching is much more expensive! Some of the executive coaches (and some of the business coaches) may be; I was shocked to hear the fees charges by one franchise.

It’s not the case for our offering, certainly – some project management courses are very expensive for the limited value they deliver.

It seems a no-brainer to me!

If I’ve got it wrong, please tell me.


What Really Makes Change Fail?

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.

Rethink on Leadership skills

I just read the following article on Skills that set the very best leaders apart.

It’s a fascinating take  on the culture changes that are occurring in business since the low point of Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good!” and how these need to be reflected in leadership style.

Of these skills discussed, the one I most strongly relate to is “Stop the blame game”.

Fear of punishment is paralysing, and back-covering saps much time and energy (the “blood on the carpet” culture I’ve experienced a number of times) . To my mind there is only one real “sin” – covering up a risk or issue, so that it can’t be dealt with until it’s too late.

On one very urgent complex project I ran, the only way it could possibly succeed was welding together a project team across many participating groups that didn’t waste any time arguing, fighting or bickering, but just got on with the job at top speed. It was an award-winning outcome.

Building a culture of trust and openness is quite a challenge in some organizations, and requires actively leading by example – the other  skills in the article are all about being a real person that people can trust.



Some lessons in leadership from Baseball coaching

Another good and very though-provoking article from the Internet on leadership style lessons.

It’s good to look at other fields of excellence to cross-fertilize out thinking in business, and the 5 rules here certainly do that:

1. “Cultivate the farm” –  i.e. Succession planning – actively develop leadership skills in the next generation of leaders to deepen overall strength

2. Emphasize leadership – Leadership is something you do, not just think about. Encourage people to lead and take charge.

3. Encourage accountability – Create a “No Blame” environment that encourages people to “own” their performance and mistakes. 

4. Provide ‘bursts’ of motivation – Fire up people with one or two quick motivational messages every so often – avoid burn-out through constant slave-driving

5. Be abnormal – winning is the exception, not the rule, so encourage and recognize continuous improvement

Do we know UK leaders understand what strategy is?

Quite obviously some of us do, but this question really refers to those who lead through popularity contests – politicians and executives of PLCs. These people are so conditioned to playing to the electorate that I wonder whether they have a  fundamental grip of strategy?

The Oxford English Dictionary gives “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim” – once the duration of the strategy exceeds  term of office, there ceases to be any personal reward for leaders from implementing strategy, and we’re into tactics, with plans flapping around in the wind of opinion.

What prompted this question was reading about some of the seemingly random changes in UK defence procurement during the Second World War. It reminded me of a director’s quote during my last days as an employee in a large corporate – “The thing is, our strategy keeps changing week by week”. I didn’t have the heart to explain that a strategy that keeps changing is not a strategy at all.

We’re well-used to £Millions or £Billions being wasted by cancelling innumerable defence projects when they are close to completion to send the right message to political supporters (TSR2 being the most notorious; fortunately the contract for the QE carriers prevented that happening there) Surely, in wartime, a period where efficiency and effectiveness were everything and political pressure is at its lowest, strategic thinking can leap to the fore at last? It would appear not. Perhaps the “strategy muscles” are so atrophied that these people just can’t do strategy?

In the way, the City seems to operate is on short-term returns too.; cost-cutting is the mantra that people adopt to avoid being fired, whether or not it’s right for that company.

In the current economy, it’s interesting that some UK businesses are booming – Jaguar-Landrover, sold off by Rover Group, BMW and Ford, is finally doing better than ever under Tata ownership – investment in new models and retaining traditional British values (and even British manufacturing) has Halewood working 3 shifts, 7 days a week, still unable to meet the demand. Other foreign-owned businesses are also benefiting from the fact that UK manufacturing, if managed well, is world-class and even world-beating (where in Europe do Japanese car companies continue to invest?).

Is this simply that these oriental companies still understand and implement strategy?

Stretch targets – managing expectations

Setting stretch targets is a classic way of energizing a team, challenging them to think differently, to innovate and pull together.

The key thing to realize as a leader is that stretch targets are sometimes missed because they are impossible under the circumstances.

When that stretch target is externally imposed and genuinely immovable, people almost invariably respond to the best of their ability, and perform to their limit (and sometimes beyond).

When the stretch target is set internally, there are 2 scenarios:

  1. Firstly, that hitting the target is realistically achievable – in this situation, people tend to react as well as the externally set target, working hard together to deliver the result.
  2. The second scenario is that the target is NOT realistically achievable! This is frequently not obvious at first, so everyone sets off full of good intentions, aiming for the target. After a while, as the situation becomes progressively clearer, the uncertainties around the plan start to resolve, and timelines start to stretch out as the true scope of the work required is revealed.

When it becomes a probability that the stretch target will not be hit, what follows is usually very close to the “five stages of grief” described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book “On Death and Dying”, from working with terminally ill patients.

When a person is faced with the reality of their impending death, he/she will experience a series of emotional “stages”: denial; anger; bargaining; depression and acceptance (in no specific sequence).

We see these in leaders when their stretch targets will not be met.

The denial, anger and depression responses are destructive to the organization – for a leader to display these for more than a few moments is unprofessional.

  • Denial – this undermines the confidence of the team as their professional views are rejected and disparaged. It creates a break between the leader and the team members and is strongly demotivating
  • Anger – If the leader was genuinely involved, there would be no surprise and no anger, so it is proof of a hands-off management style
  • Depression – powerfully demotivating for the team, causing delays before contingency planning can start

Bargaining, if it drives the consideration of wider options and flexing the target, is laudable, but bargaining is not just the dogmatic repetition that the target must be hit.

Acceptance is vital – this allows full-hearted focussing on contingency planning and making the best of the situation as early as possible, rather than steaming full-tilt into the iceberg.

I always approach stretch targets through putting risk management as the primary management tool, with the project plan very much in second place. The project plan (in Gantt format) makes it look as though timescales and the scope of work is known, when often it isn’t – until enough work has been done to create a baseline plan, presenting a Gantt chart gives a false sense of security about the stretch target being hit.

Managing by risk foremost makes these uncertainties explicit. Some people don’t like this, but when they buy into it, it delivers much better results.

Management Styles – Hands-off

This is the fourth quadrant, where the leader feels low need to control the situation and low interest in the team members.

This is a very dangerous region for leadership behaviours, as there isn’t any coming from the supposed leader, and there is no active encouragement or development of it from subordinates.

There is a high risk of anarchy in such a situation unless individuals are tightly constrained in what they can do.  Process and rules replace leadership, turning staff from human beings into robots. Contact centres, especially in Financial Services, display only too awfully the result.

At best, a Delegative leader:

  • defines the targets, processes, rules and the responsibilities,
  • initially plans and sets up the team’s activities,
  • delegates responsibilities and sets targets,
  • sets up performance monitoring, such as KPIs and BI reporting, and tracks performance,

then steps in only when required.

This can foster mutual respect through expertise, though this is not guaranteed as it’s a cultural thing. Lack of the personal touch can be seen as being elitist, and being unapproachable.

Team respect can only come from the professional competency of this type of leader. This profile is in many cases less able to inspire his teams, to share a vision, so this style is unsuitable for a team with low morale.

It is also unsuitable for dynamic situations, with changing requirements, risks and objectives, as this leadership style requires substantial lead-time to plan and set up a working situation.

A delegative leader with high expectations can work well with experienced and motivated employees, but will fail with less experienced staff who start doubting their own  abilities to perform the job.

More likely is the worst case, the Abdicative leader, who:

  • isolates himself from his teams, with poor communication of background information vital to team spirit (the “Mushroom treatment”), communicating principally by email dictats,
  • focuses on the KPIs, and has no idea how they are being achieved or what to do if they are not,
  • is rigid in his definition of roles and functions, doesn’t have his finger on how his “team” is working, who is delivering what, and who is providing essential leadership in the other quadrants,
  • confuses activity and result, favouring those who seem busy (“hard workers”) over those who are quietly efficient (“clock watchers”),
  • manages activities rather than employees,
  • does not question the existing organization, from which their status is derived.

When turning abdicative, the manager will apply the old adage “First class people promote first class people, second class people promote third class people” to secure his position and avoid competition. He will promote staff with low-ambition and shed employees with high energy and drive, damaging the future of the organization.