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.



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.