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.
 


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

First Who...Then What




Jim Collins’s book, Good to Great, has sold over 2.5 million hardcover copies, and has been translated into 32 languages. According to Collins, one of the principles practiced by the most successful companies is: “First who… then what.”  Collins explains: “The executives who ignited the transformation from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get the people to get them there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it.… The old adage ‘People are your most important asset’ turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asset. The right people are.”1

In this month’s story, Terry Little, a former US Air Force project manager, highlights the importance and the difficulties in adhering to Collins’ rule: “People are not your most important asset, the right people are.”2

“Uh-oh, this can’t be good,” I remember thinking as my boss’s boss opened the door and walked quickly to my desk, his face unsmiling. “Come with me,” he said.  I got up, my head down, as I followed him out the door. His name was Colonel L.

It has been almost 40 years since that day and I remember it like it was yesterday.  As I walked behind him down the hall, my mind was racing.  What have I done now?  I was pretty accustomed to being in some sort of trouble since I was a cofounder and president of the local professional employees’ union.  It would be fair to say that a lot of the senior civilian and military supervisors were wary of me and considered me a trouble-maker.  I was a very vigorous and assertive employee representative and I figured some higher-up had complained to Colonel L. about my disrespectful behavior; it had happened several times before.

I was surprised to see him head downstairs instead of to his office on the same floor.  When we got downstairs, he headed to our high-security vault.  We entered and went to a room inside where he invited me to sit down.  I had no idea what was coming.  Colonel L. started off by telling me that he and the general (his boss) had decided that they wanted me to head up a highly classified new program to develop and field a new capability as quickly as we could possibly do it. The estimate to complete the program was well over $1 billion.  He went on to say that I could select whomever I wanted to work with me and that I would have the freedom to ignore all rules and regulations; the only stipulations were that I had to obey the law and keep the team very small. 

“Can I ask questions?” I said.  Colonel L. replied: “No, not until you tell me that you will do it.”  After pondering a minute or so, and warning him I had absolutely no project management experience or training, I agreed to do it.  Little did I know the learning, heartbreak and exhilaration the next five years would bring.  I cannot write about the thrills and heartbreak because of security, but I can write about what I learned and unlearned.  This blog and those to follow will highlight those learnings that I think are pretty universal and can help other project leaders.

(I should say as an aside that the project was wildly successful, exceeding everyone’s expectations.  Otherwise, why would I be writing this blog?)

My first task was to pick the people who would be on the team. I had people work for me before in the military, but I never had the luxury of picking them. I immediately began interviewing candidates whom I thought might be suitable for the project office.  About half were civilian and half military. I was able to eliminate some interviewees immediately. They were the ones most interested in whether or not they would get promoted and those who were eager to tell me how bad their current boss was. I also eliminated anyone whose primary concern was how hard they would have to work.

After passing my initial screen, my major criteria were to pick people who: were very experienced in project offices, understood the complicated acquisition processes in the Department of Defense, and were skillful in their respective function.  That turned out to be a critical mistake.  Many of those I picked using these criteria were very poor performers. Most left voluntarily (this was easy because I had a policy that anyone on the team could leave anytime for any reason; too, I made sure poor performers knew they were not doing well and why).  Why they were poor performers is informative.

One of the most salient reasons was that some cared more about following the processes and avoiding risks than they did about achieving the project’s objectives.  I am not sure why this was.  My hypothesis is that some people need clear rules and are hypersensitive to the potential of making mistakes.  It was as if the limit of their accountability was process accountability and not project outcome accountability.  I concluded that some people are simply unable to adapt to an ambiguous, rapidly changing project environment.

Another key, related reason was that some poor performers were simply not team players.  A couple spent enormous energy criticizing the contractor and bloviating, but did very little work.  They became anchors.  A few, very experienced team members seemed to have been unable to apply that experience to a different situation. They appeared to be handicapped by their experience rather than helped by it.

In retrospect, the most successful team members shared some common traits.  They were mostly younger.  They remained positive and enthusiastic even during project travails. They were very agile, willing to change direction whenever the situation dictated.  They were able to subordinate their personal and functional goals to the project’s goal.  They treated others on the project with respect and were not into blaming others when something went wrong.  They were constantly learning and adapting their behavior as a result. They were willing to do anything to make the project successful, including working outside their functional area and working long days when necessary.

I do not know how to identify people who will not work out with an interview; perhaps others are better at that than I am.  What I do know is that poor performers disrupt team function and are intolerable over anything longer than a very short term.  One of the project manager’s most critical jobs is quelling those disruptive influences. In the next blog I will describe how I did that.


1 Collins, James Charles. Good to great: Why some companies make the leap... and others don't. Random House, 2001.

2 Terry Little is one of the co-authors of an upcoming book, Becoming A Project Leader: Blending planning, agility, resilience and collaboration to control and deliver projects in the real world, to be published in early 2017 by Palgrave Macmillan. The other co-authors are Alex Laufer, Jeff Russell and Bruce Maas. Little was the Department of Defense’s most seasoned manager of major programs, with more than 25 years’ experience leading major weapons acquisitions. Little served as executive director of the Missile Defense Agency—the senior civilian in an organization of approximately 8,000 employees—while also directing the $14 billion Kinetic Energy Interceptor Program. Previous to that, he was the first director of the Air Force Acquisition Center of Excellence. An honorary professor at the Defense Systems Management College, Little has presented case studies to every program manager class at the college for the past 15 years.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Clearing the Air (Part 2): Overcoming a Crisis through Trust, Agility, and Learning by Doing


(continued from Clearing the Air, part 1)

For the pilots of the Israeli Defense Force’s 109 Squadron, the early days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War did not go as planned. The invasion by Egypt and Syria was hardly a surprise attack, but the orders that were coming down from Israel's Air Force (IAF) headquarters—having the pilots fly into zones heavily defended by anti-aircraft missiles just to take out a pontoon bridge, for example—didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. No one was going to disobey those orders, but it was clear that the squadron’s leaders would have to come up with their own solutions to many of their problems.

A major problem was the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk’s tailpipe, which the enemy’s heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles were zeroing in on, thereby damaging the nearby elevator (pitch-control) cylinder, which often caused the aircraft to crash. Captain Giora Ben Dov, looking around for solutions, thought of his friend Ben Z. Bezalel, who was deputy CEO at RAFAL Advance Defense Systems, a leading defense technology company. “They have smart people over there,” Giora thought to himself at the time. “Together, we should [be able to] come up with something.”

Ben got right on it, organizing a task force that analyzed the problem as described by Giora. And one of the solutions the task force came up with was a radar countermeasure element called chaff, which, when ejected from an aircraft, forms the electromagnetic equivalent of a smoke screen, temporarily rendering an aircraft invisible to radar. Attached to the aircraft’s exterior, it was deployed from inside the cockpit using a knob on the takeoff handle that was originally designed for takeoffs from aircraft carriers. Given that the Israeli Defense Force didn’t have any aircraft carriers, the knob was available for use.

There being nothing like a war to speed up the delivery process, RAFAL had 60 units fully operational within 10 days, and these had a significant impact on the conflict’s outcome. In fact, it became standard operating procedure to deploy chaff right before ascending to assault position, when an aircraft, no longer flying low to avoid radar, was suddenly more vulnerable to enemy fire.

Problem solved? Like any leader worth his salt, Giora kept looking for more solutions. “On the downtime between missions, I went to the repair shed to check on an aircraft that had gotten hit by a Strela (anti-aircraft missile),” he says. “I remember thinking that we suffered from missiles on our tailpipes because they were hot, so why not extend the exhaust pipe and clear out the elevator cylinder so the aircraft could withstand a hit without crashing?”

Why not indeed? Giora pitched the idea to his squadron leader, Lt.-Col. Yitzhak David, who approved it right way, trusting that his team knew what it was doing. And so the first-ever modification was done in the wing itself, with local technicians and metalworkers. They used the aircraft that had been hit by a Strela, and when the modification was completed, Giora volunteered to be the test pilot to see if the aircraft could still fly. It couldn’t. During the first test—taxiing down the runway at full throttle—the external piece failed to remain attached. “I looked back,” Giora says, “and it seemed as if the aircraft had gotten hit by another Strela.” 

The test was nevertheless an incremental step in a process that continued to improve the Skyhawk’s missile resiliency even after the Yom Kippur War. And the modification to the tailpipe remains the standard for all Skyhawk aircraft to this day. It so happens that chaff is also still operational—modified from what RAFAL first came up with and not necessarily made by RAFAL these days. But the solutions that Giora and the rest of the 109 Squadron came up with changed the whole way the IAF looks at these kinds of assault maneuvers. Today’s pilots still employ the sequence developed during the early days of the Yom Kippur War.

Perhaps none of this would have happened had there not been such a strong collaborative ethos within the 109 Squadron, an ethos built on trust, not to mention friendship. Remarkably, the squadron leader, Yitzhak, so trusted Giora that Giora was allowed to pursue his project with RAFAL without any involvement from David. “I had Giora,” RAFAL’s Ben, who never met David, would later say, “and my objective was to do anything in my power to help him as a friend. If I was the deputy CEO of Osem (an Israeli food-processing company), I would have supplied the squadron with cookies.”

Gil Wang conducted the study leading to the current blog post and the previous one. Gil, a Naval Architect, is a former yacht designer and project manager at Dykstra Naval Architects, an Amsterdam-based superyachts design office. From 2006 to 2014, Gil led numerous cutting-edge projects from concept to completion. Today, he is pursuing his PhD, examining the feasibility of expanding costal cities to their adjacent maritime environment.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Clearing the Air (Part 1): How the 109 Squadron Used Rich Communication to Overcome their Initial Disadvantage




Today’s project managers have to know how to lead their teams within a dynamic environment, and there’s no more dynamic environment than war. On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria simultaneously invaded Israel in an attempt to regain territories lost in the Six-Day War of 1967. It’s not as if Israel was taken by surprise; its leaders had been considering a preemptive strike the very morning that the war began. But the decision had been made not to preemptively strike, and the whole country was taking a moment to observe Yom Kippur—the holiest day of the Jewish year—when Egyptian and Syrian military forces crossed Israel’s borders.

“When the Yom Kippur War broke out,” Uri Bar Joseph wrote in The Watchman Fell Asleep, his account of the conflict, “I was at home reading a book. About 20 hours later, I arrived, together with a few soldiers of my reserve unit, at Hatzav, the Israeli base camp of the 9th tank Regiment of the 14th Armor Brigade, some 25 kilometers east of the Suez Canal. The camp was deserted. The doors of the regimental store-keeping were wide open and a radio was still playing….A few days later, I learned that the 9th Regiment was almost totally destroyed in the fighting that took place during the first hours of the war.”

Giora Ben Dov, a reserve pilot at the time, remembers a similar scene of shock and dismay after rushing back to his air base from a vacation in London with his wife. “They sat down silently, with a zombie-like expression,” he says about his fellow pilots who’d already flown missions. “And after my first missions, I’d joined the club. I, too, sat silent, adopting a similar expression.” In a reversal of the Six-Days War, where this same squadron suffered almost no casualties, Giora and his fellow pilots encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire and significant losses.

Like so many before it, the war was not going as planned.

“We were not surprised by the siren,” says former Lieutenant Colonel Yitshak David, leader of the Israeli Air Force’s 109 Squadron, also known as The Valley Squadron. “We were waiting for it, we were prepared.” But they weren’t prepared for the orders that came down from above. “We were deployed to defend the wing….which infers air-to-air combat, not an assault mission, as we had anticipated. At that moment, we thought that something had gone wrong at the Air Force headquarters. It was like having a snowstorm in the desert.”

Other squadron aircraft were given assault missions, but in an area of Syria that was heavily defended by anti-aircraft missiles. “There was nothing I could do or say to change the fate of that mission,” David recalls. “Once an aircraft is airborne, it is controlled by headquarters only. I [did go] to the deputy wing commander right away and told him to call it off, but while we were conversing we heard over the radio that we had lost the leader of the team.”

The war was not going as planned because the plans—and there were “several mission plans that covered all the range of tactical scenarios,” David says—were not going as planned. As far as the pilots were concerned, headquarters was acting irrationally, assigning missions that seemed random and unexpected. “We were flying into zones defended by anti-aircraft missiles in order to take down a pontoon bridge, which was easy to replace,” reserve pilot Giora says, “instead of hitting quality targets behind the bridge, where the Egyptians were maneuvering.”

In war, low-uncertainty planning often gives way to high-uncertainty planning, but what about when headquarters itself is contributing to the uncertainty? You have to follow orders, obviously. But is there nevertheless a way to improve the situation? The Israeli Air Force's 109 Squadron found several ways, including some impressive work-arounds that made the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk aircraft much less vulnerable to heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles (to be discussed in the next blog post). Another way was less exciting but no less valuable: Yitshak David decided to spend some face-time with his pilots, and not just once a day but three times a day.

The squadron was a mixed bag of reserve and mandatory-service pilots, their ages ranging over two decades. But every pilot, regardless of rank, age or experience, was given the opportunity to speak his mind. And the result was a rich supply of intelligence gleaned during the missions. The pilots also found a loophole that allowed them to contact their wing during a flight mission—a way around HQ’s strict control. They were allowed to call in for navigational support before deploying their bombs, and they used this opportunity to receive the latest warnings and updates.

Early on in war, the pilots of 109 Squadron were having some grave doubts about the orders that were coming down from above. The missions themselves were not questioned, but it was up to the squadron to execute those missions in the manner to which they saw fit, and that’s where their own experience, communication skills and collaborative ethos came into play, mitigating the damage and sustaining the force.


Gil Wang conducted the study leading to the current blog post and the next one. Gil, a Naval Architect, is a former yacht designer and project manager at Dykstra Naval Architects, an Amsterdam-based superyachts design office. From 2006 to 2014, Gil led numerous cutting-edge projects from concept to completion. Today, he is pursuing his PhD, examining the feasibility of expanding costal cities to their adjacent maritime environment.