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.

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