Thursday, July 14, 2016

Timing Is Crucial




In last month’s blog, Colonel Jeanne C. Sutton of the U.S. Air Force shared a story that reaffirmed the value of trusting your judgment. This month, we’re relying on her experiences once again, in clarifying the value of timing and quick action.

In this instance, Sutton found herself in a nervous state. She was just given a new assignment on short notice. To make matters worse, she found herself swamped, trying to complete projects from her previous job while doing her best to learn her new job.

After only two weeks in the new job, she was summoned downtown to her boss’ office. Upon arrival, Sutton was surprised to see that he had also invited three senior executives from the company that had been involved in her predecessor’s firing. They were cordial in their greetings and expressed support for her as the new program manager.

Then they began to brief her boss on everything that they thought was wrong with her office’s solicitation for a bid, and described Sutton’s staff’s actions in inflammatory terms. Her boss defended Sutton’s lack of background knowledge, but gave her multiple action items. She assured everyone she would get to the bottom of their concerns and get back to them. As Sutton recalls:

“Now, I had a quick decision to make. I could either sit back and smile benignly, playing puppet-on-a-string to both my boss and the contractor executives, or I could stake my claim as THE program manager and demand to work one-on-one with the contractor’s leadership to resolve issues at my level.

So, with a slam of my hand on the table, I informed the executives that I would not tolerate them running to my boss first and taking his valuable time for things I was hired to take care of. I shocked everyone, including my boss, with my directness. They never dared challenge my authority again.”

Sutton made certain they always got their answers, which kept her boss from being put on the spot again. The power relationship she established has paid off, and the program has benefited because issues are worked and resolved at her level before they become problems at a higher level.

Through her story Sutton shares a few key lessons:

·       Firmly and directly establish your power as leader. Anyone can raise any concern or complaint and expect proper response. However, you are responsible for the management of your project and that should be obvious.

·       When there is neither time nor data, leaders use their judgment to bypass in-depth analysis and move rapidly to a solution.

·       Timing is crucial. Competent leaders can sense when to pounce and when to pull back. At times, the most crucial thing is spontaneity of action.

The rationale that led Sutton to her quick reaction may be nicely explained by using the boiling frog analogy. According to the boiling frog tale, a frog can be boiled alive if the water is heated slowly enough. If a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will never jump out.

The lesson of this tale is that people should make themselves aware of minor deviations, lest they suffer a major, often catastrophic, loss. Thus, to make sure that “they never dared challenge my authority again,” Sutton had to take the risk and react immediately and decisively


Laufer, A. and Hoffman, E.J., 2000. Project management success stories: Lessons of project leaders. Wiley, 111-112.




Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Trust Your Judgment




Colonel Jeanne C. Sutton of the U.S. Air Force, a former chief of International Programs in the Acquisition/Theater Defense Deputate of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, had been appointed as a project manager three weeks earlier and only three weeks remained for her team to release a bid for a very complex project.

As she recalls, management mandated the simplifying and streamlining of solicitations but her staff was totally unable to put those requirements into practice. They could not free themselves from their usual way of doing things. They prepared a huge document written in mumbo-jumbo, telling bidders how to dot their i’s and cross their t’s. Sutton knew that it would be impossible for her to go through the entire document in the little amount of time that was available.

A good friend from outside her organization agreed to help. He quickly created a small team of “independent experts” to review the solicitation and to offer constructive suggestions. Despite the turgid text, they developed a list of critical areas that would significantly make the text more understandable and enable contractors to respond more intelligently and submit more attractive bids.

Sutton describes how she helped her team move forward given a formidable schedule:

“Of all the issues, I decided to take a stand on the program schedule. My staff established 17 firm deadlines over a 6-year period. I insisted that there be only two firm dates: project start and project completion. After all, any contractor worth his salt would know how best to go from start to finish.

They were stunned. I gave them a full two hours to rehash their argument that the only way to do the job was the way it had always been done. That was the tried and proven method. At the end of the two hours, I made my decision — there would be only two dates.”

During the following three days Sutton’s staff made more changes that reflected the ideas of the independent experts. She then gave them an additional day to incorporate the changes and to meet with her again for finalization and release.

On that day, they all assembled around the conference table with copies of the revised solicitation. Sutton asked if they felt that the new document  met her guidelines. One man, Tom, proudly gave her a copy for review and said, “Yes ma’am, the changes were made and we are ready.”

This was the test. She could have allowed them to release it and thereby show that she trusted them fully, but something still didn’t feel right. Sutton asked everyone to leave the room, except for Tom.

The first page she turned to in the revised solicitation was the schedule page. The multiple deadlines stood out like a sore thumb. Not saying a word, Sutton took her pen and crossed out every date between project start and finish, while looking sternly at Tom. She then asked if she had to go through the entire document to make sure all the changes had been made. Tom apologized profusely and assured her that no other changes had to be made. Sutton rose and walked out of the room and never mentioned the incident to anyone.

Sutton’s professional interactions with Tom didn’t stop here. As she says:

“Several months later, we were faced with another issue that demanded an immediate response. It was extremely critical and needed the most careful planning. Some of my best people, who would have done a great job, volunteered to lead the project — but not Tom. Since that embarrassing incident, he had studiously avoided me.

I deliberately picked Tom for the project. He was happy she did, because this gave him a chance to prove himself. And he sure did. Tom did an extraordinary job. Today he is one of the best people on my staff and my most ardent admirer.”

Through her story Sutton shares a few key lessons about that interwoven fabric of trust and judgment.

·       Trust does not recognize organizational boundaries. You may trust your contractor, you may distrust your employees, and you may be right in both cases.

·       There are situations, however, where the most important element to trust, is your own judgment.

·       After a key team member has failed you, give him or her a quick opportunity to rebound. This gives the person the chance to reestablish his or her capability and relationship with you. 

Laufer, A. and Hoffman, E.J., 2000. Project management success stories: Lessons of project leaders. Wiley, 109-110.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The project manager must be the team maintainer


In the previous blog, Terry Little, former director of the Air Force Acquisition Center of Excellence — considered by many to be the best project manager at the US Defense Department in recent history — highlighted the importance of adhering to the rule: “People are not your most important asset, the right people are.” In this blog, Terry provides a painful example of what could happen when the project manager fails to maintain teamwork throughout the life of a project.

As I look back at my long career managing major projects, I see a trail littered with mistakes — lots of them — but, thankfully, fewer as my career progressed. I saw many mistakes almost immediately and quickly corrected course. Others took longer — weeks or months — for me to recognize. These I fixed the best that I could. There were a few that I did not fix either because I was too late to recognize the problem or I chose not to fix it. This blog is about my second worst mistake. It troubles me still. That mistake was how I dealt with Joe.

Joe was a government contracting officer whom I picked as a member of my first project office. I did not know him beforehand, but someone had recommended him as a person who was innovative and who would do whatever was necessary to get the job done. I was impressed during our interview with his enthusiasm and attitude. The only slight negative was that his answers to my questions during the interview were rambling and long-winded. He was probably talking 80-90% of the interview time.

Joe quickly adapted to the project office and, true to the recommendation, he was a creative and willing worker. However, over time I began to notice that others in the project office were avoiding Joe. When he came into their cubicles, they quickly got up and went to get coffee, have a smoke break or went to the restroom. At first I found this rather amusing. After all, Joe was not a problem for me. When he would come into my office, I would listen to him for a few minutes and then put my hand up to indicate that I wanted to get back to work; Joe would then leave. Most of what Joe had to say was rambling, repetitive and, often irrelevant.

When we had group meetings Joe monopolized the meeting and when he started talking he would not stop. Sometimes I had to end the meeting just to free everyone from Joe’s jabbering.  A couple of times after meetings I called Joe into my office to counsel him. One time I told him that he talked too much and that he needed to curb his talking. Another time I suggested that he should do less talking and more listening. Nothing changed. I was reluctant to be harsher with him because he was so good at what he did. Too, I reasoned that he was unlikely to change because he was pretty old or that he would just get angry and leave. So, I tolerated his behavior, albeit reluctantly.

After about six months we had a design review at the contractor’s plant; it was to last two and one half days. When we arrived, Joe asked me to not attend the design review because he had a critical issue to negotiate with the contractor. I assented. At the end of the first half day, I sought Joe out and asked him how the negotiation was going. “Fine,” he said. “We are making progress.” Good, I thought.

The second day of the design review was stressful for me. I had to make a host of decisions, some of which I knew would disappoint our customer. When I saw Joe, he was talking with a group of about five people whereas before it had been only two. Again, I asked Joe for a report and he assured me that things were progressing. Very tired, I did not ask him to elaborate.

The final day of the review was even more stressful than the second. I was trying to hide my discouragement when the contractor project manager tapped me on the shoulder and said “We need to talk.” I followed him out the door and he proceeded to tell me that his company could no longer deal with Joe.  He went on to tell me that the “negotiation” with Joe had gradually escalated until Joe was negotiating with the CEO of the company. After about an hour the CEO left the negotiation and directed his people to stop trying to reason with Joe.

As I began looking for Joe, my mind was racing, trying to figure out what to say. I decided to ask him what outcome he wanted from the negotiation and then to act as an intermediary between him and the contractor to resolve the issue.

I found Joe alone sitting in the room where he had been negotiating. He was clearly dejected.  “Joe,” I said, “what do you want from these people?”  Shaking his head he looked up at me and, after a moment, replied “I don’t know.” I snapped. “Joe, go back to the hotel, pack your things and go home.  When you get there clean out your desk and I will talk with you when I return tomorrow afternoon. You are fired.”

Joe was waiting for me when I returned to the project office. He began by telling me that he did not think he had done anything wrong; he had just been negotiating, he said. I told him that his incessant talking had disrupted the team to the point that he had to go. Then he shocked me by getting down on his knees and begging me to give him a chance to change. He was sobbing uncontrollably. I considered giving him a chance, but rejected it. Then, through his tears he said to me, “This isn’t fair. You never told me.” I started to defend myself, but decided that he was right; it wasn’t fair. However, I did not tell him that. Instead, I walked away and never saw Joe again.

So, for those of you who have read to this point and are thinking this has nothing to do with me because I have never had anyone working for me who talked too much, I offer the following: This parable, though true, is not simply about a person who talks too much. It is about anyone on the project team whose habitual or continuing behavior disrupts the team. This behavior could be disrespecting other team members, missing deadlines, shirking work, excessive absences, finger-pointing, constant complaining, revisiting past decisions, being always argumentative, showing a hot temper and a host of other behaviors. I could easily name a hundred and, given time, maybe a thousand. Anyone I have known who managed a project has had to deal with one or more of these behaviors.

The project manager must be the team maintainer. No one else can do it. It is his or her responsibility to recognize when an individual’s behavior is negatively affecting the team and, then to deal with that person’s behavior. Ignoring the behavior will have consequences. For, no team can function effectively when team member behaviors are at odds with team norms and objectives.

In this situation I failed miserably to both recognize the impact of the behavior and to swiftly deal with it. The best I can say is that I learned from this experience. In a future blog I will describe a situation where I put my learning to use and had a more positive outcome.

We selected this story because of its direct and important message: it is the responsibility of the project manager to maintain teamwork. This story is also relevant because of its two crucial but indirect massages:

1)  Even successful project managers make awful mistakes, and,

2)  Successful project managers are willing to share their mistakes, hoping that everyone will learn from them, and will be able to avoid them.