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.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Leadership: The Key for Project Learning and Unlearning



(pond at Apalachicola National Forest in Florida)

When we began this blog in early 2014 we explained the name of the blog, “Living Order,” this way:

It was the French Nobel Prize winner Henri Bergson who a century ago proposed a concept of order that today may help us better understand project reality. In the 1907 book Creative Evolution, Bergson claimed that there is no such thing as disorder, but rather two sorts of order: geometric order and living order. While in “geometric order” Bergson was relating to the traditional concept of order, in “living order” he referred to phenomena such as the creativity of an individual, a work of art, or the mess in our offices.

All projects aim to reach a perfectly functioning product with geometric order. At the start, they may face great uncertainty—living order—that does not completely disappear over the entire course of the project. 


Gradually, some parts of the project approach geometric order, though in an era of “permanent white water,” the project as a whole does not assume geometric order until very late in its life.

In working with NASA 15 years ago, Alex found that these two types of order were helpful in developing project management knowledge. He used a story as the basis of his first article as editor-in-chief of NASA’s Ask Magazine.* To summarize that story:

Alex was presented with nine elements of project success by Jim Carroll, a respected and highly regarded person in the construction industry. At the time, Jim was leading a Construction Industry Institute task force in creating a handbook for practitioners that explained each of the nine elements. Jim steadfastly stood by these nine elements, and asked Alex to write a handbook chapter on project strategy.

Alex just could not do it. He could not accept the nine elements for project success for two reasons: 1) they were too limiting, and 2) they were stated as the “one best way” to proceed which ignored the rich context in which projects and people interact.

After several hours of heated debate and discussion between Alex and Jim, Alex realized he would not be able to convince Jim of the weakness of the nine elements and was about ready to give up. Lastly, Alex asked Jim to consider whether applying the nine elements could explain the success or failure of seven projects with which Jim was involved during his career. Jim agreed to put the elements to the test.

As it turned out, there was little correlation between project success and the nine elements. This proved a revelation for Jim, and he was willing to reflect on the experience and to learn from it. And, more accurately in our case, he was willing to unlearn from it and admit that the nine elements could not provide the complete answer.

Feeling Comfortable Only in a World of Certainty

There were other problems with the task force. A year later, Alex submitted the research report to the task force: the results, based on an elaborate study in 11 highly successful companies, were quite shocking to task force members. The findings showed that in most capital projects, uncertainty is not resolved early in the life of the project; for example, by the end of the design phase. Even more troubling was the finding that in most capital projects, not only are the “means uncertainty” (how to do it) resolved late in the project life, but so are the “end uncertainty” (what to do).

Most task force members could not accept that capital projects suffer from uncertainty, and definitely not from “end uncertainty,” so they adjusted the presentation of Alex’s findings. Instead of portraying project planning as a gradual process of lessening uncertainty, they portrayed it as a gradual process of increasing certainty.

Task force members felt comfortable in only a certain world of geometric order, and so they denied uncertainty, even in the face of empirical data from within their own organizations. Most members were not interested in learning, even when leading a research activity. They did not formulate research questions, only research answers. It could be that the mix of contractors and clients put everyone into marketing mode. Marketing starts with an answer; research with a question. They hired “researchers” not to find out or understand reality, but to confirm their own beliefs.

Alex’s story demonstrates our ability to learn by reflecting on our own experiences, and our inability to learn by favoring “answering” over “questioning”. Learning starts with a question, a problem to be solved, a dilemma to be resolved and a challenge to be met. Managers who treat questions as annoyances and regard them as signs of ignorance are not learning. Questions force deep thinking and reflection; they are an invitation to open a conversation whereas ready answers are a prelude to shutting it down. Breakthroughs come from fresh questions, not ready answers.

Providing a ready answer ignores the power and potential of “living order.”  As we have tried to demonstrate in our monthly blogs during the last two years, ignoring the central role of “living order” can be damaging for today’s fast-paced, interconnected projects. During the last two years we have attempted to demonstrate that leadership is key for project success. Today, we highlighted that leadership is also the key for project learning and unlearning.

The study that Alex conducted, and especially the way the task force accepted it, demonstrated that many professionals still embrace only the geometric order. After two years of publishing monthly stories we — Jeff and Alex — still have a long way to go with the monthly Living Order blogs.


* “Arrogance: Number One Enemy of Learning”
http://appel.nasa.gov/2000/10/01/arrogance-number-one-enemy-of-learning