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.

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