Thursday, September 28, 2017

Singing Karaoke

(Photo of microphone)
(Photo approved for reuse under CC0)

Tackling a threat head-on before it becomes a true problem may at times be the only way to prevent a major disruption in the life of a project. Initiating actions proactively rather than responding to events as they unfold often requires from the project manager foresight, willingness to take risks and challenge the status quo, and resilience in face of adversity. In short, it takes the courage of a leader.

In the following case, Jenny Baer-Riedhart, the leader of NASA’s Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) project decided to cope proactively with potential threats to the ERAST project by embracing new stakeholders and convincing them to own the project and act on its behalf.  

The goal of this project was to test Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to use for research purposes. In the middle of the project, Jenny's NASA team had to unexpectedly relocate from the Dryden Flight Research Center in California to the U.S. Navy facility on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Human test pilots dominating the Dryden Flight Center were reluctant to provide precious airtime to the unpiloted planes her project focused on, thereby hindering her progress and making the move necessary. 

Based on past experience, however, Jenny foresaw a threat.  She knew that to be successful she would need to secure the support of not only the authorities and crews at the Navy base, but also the residents of Kauai island, who had a natural apprehension of outsiders. Thus, Jenny proactively directed her attention to winning over new stakeholders.

Jenny's first creative step was to search for a 'marketing agent' who would help her win the hearts of the Navy base personnel and the surrounding community. This led to Dave, a former executive officer at the base. While Dave was very willing to help, he had a quirky requirement! He requested that before he began, Jenny and her entire team sing karaoke at his house. Jenny was willing to go along with the odd request if it meant project success, so she made sure they all attended and that each team member—even the shy ones—managed to sing something. This won Dave over, and he proceeded to smooth the way for Jenny’s team.

He cut through red tape in dealing with the Navy base authorities, and he won over Hawaii’s political machine. In addition, he introduced Jenny’s team to Kauai’s unique culture, and they consequently came to understand that Kauaians place emphasis on their children's education. So Jenny’s team developed programs in the schools and assembled displays at the local museum. They hired students from the local community college to help arrange an open house that was attended by approximately 1000 local schoolchildren.

All told, the team probably spent about 20 percent of their project time on the educational program, but the dividends exceeded the investment! They had full support of the local community, and in fact, Hawaii’s entire congressional delegation sent NASA a letter of commendation, praising Jenny’s team for its success. Previously-unavailable money was approved for the project. And not even six months into their move to Kauai, the team earned a world record for solar-powered aircraft, flying higher and longer than any previous craft.

Clearly, Jenny’s leadership and proactive activities were keys to the great success of this challenging project. And all it took was a willingness to belt out Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.”

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Moving About and Trust

(US Air Force photo, by Michael Dukes, 2012 - photo labeled for reuse)

Terry Little, a project manager with the U.S. Air Force, describes in the following story how he implemented 'moving about' to prevent problems before they happened, or more aptly put, "to detect the smoke and thus eliminate the need to fight the fire.” 

I visited one of the contractors’ suppliers and asked him, “What is the prime contractor making you do, or causing you to do, that you think is worthless or not value-added enough to offset the cost?” A representative from the prime contractor was present, and so there was a little bit of nervousness on the part of the supplier. I told the representative to go get a cup of coffee. I ended up with about three pages full of stuff that the supplier said was causing him headaches. As I was writing all this down, he asked, “What are you going to do with that?” And I said, “Not to worry.”

How did I gain his trust? Well, for one thing, I was there. A government program manager does not normally go to visit the suppliers of a prime contractor. The fact that I was there and willing to spend a whole day looking at his facility, meeting his people, and talking to them about the program and how important their contributions were—that was a big deal to him….

Typically, the government says, “Our contract is with the prime, and we don’t have a contract with these suppliers.” Maybe that’s true, theoretically, but…a large part of the success of the program depends on what the suppliers to my contractor are doing. Am I just going to close my eyes to that?… I believe it’s important to communicate with everybody that’s involved in the outcome of a program.

I gave the three pages to the prime without any explanation other than, “This is what he told me.” A week later, this guy from the prime came back to me and explained how they’d addressed everything on the list except for one thing, and he gave me a detailed and satisfactory explanation as to why the one thing was still important to do.1 

Terry took pains to gain the trust of his suppliers because merely “moving about” does not guarantee that the information collected will be reliable. Indeed, when subordinates or suppliers perceive managers as “corporate policemen,” they develop tactics to conceal or distort information. To ensure that moving about results in essential learning rather than destructive micro-management, it must be accompanied by mutual trust. And that trust is gained by truly listening to people and helping them meet their needs.

Moving about helps foster the project manager’s image as one who is not detached from the actual work and workers, but who is instead invested in the project and well informed, both with respect to the big picture and to the small details. This image, coupled with the respect and credibility gained, may help the project manager influence not only the work (by quickly solving specific problems) but the workers themselves.


1.     Laufer, A., Post, T., and Hoffman, E.J. Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects. 2005, Washington DC: The NASA History Series: p. 112-3.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Managing By Moving About

CC0 public domain/
free reuse, no attribution required

In their book A Passion for Excellence, Tom Peters and Nancy Austin suggest that “the number one productivity problem in America is, quite simply, managers who are out of touch with their people.” Moreover, Peters and Austin claim that the best way for management to be in touch with people is to actually see them face to face. Accordingly, it is crucial for managers to leave the confines of their office and visit with team members at their work place.1

Moving about enables the project manager not only to accomplish the guidelines highlighted in the previous two blogs—that is, to disseminate information and to respond and act with agility—but also to effectively control the progress of their projects. Indeed, when managers believe they can control performance by repeated measurements and detailed progress reports without actual contact achieved by moving about, they fail again and again to meet the projects' objectives. 

As Jerry Madden, a project manager at NASA, explains in the following story, real control comes from mobility:

“A highly regarded vendor had large manufacturing contracts with NASA. Its manufacturing reports listed the items that had been delivered to us. After going through one lengthy report, I went down to the integration floor expecting to see an assembled spacecraft. I found that many assemblies that had been listed were missing.”

Jerry immediately called the vendor to report the errors and was told that they had two sets of paperwork: manufacturing reports for delivered items and integration returns for those items that were sent back for repairs or corrections. Once the item had been shipped back from repairs, the vendor closed out the manufacturing report.

As Jerry realized, “It just goes to show that you can’t rely on the official sources. If a project manager wants effective control, he/she has to always be on the move and ask questions. Indeed, ‘things are seldom what they seem.’”2

From a management-control point of view, the fundamental question is how can such a practice go unnoticed for such a long time that it becomes routine and the entire team accepts it naturally. Yet, one can’t ignore the vast body of empirical research on the frequency and magnitude of information-filtering and distortion within organizations.3

Managers who maintain a stationary position may be forced to make complex judgments with incomplete or misleading information. The “old school” approach to planning and control, which emphasizes remote control as a way of facilitating adherence to the plan, is much like using a thermostat to maintain a predetermined temperature. But in today’s dynamic environment, a more suitable metaphor for project control would be coaching. A coach needs to see the game in order to guide the team, and would hardly be effective if forced to coach from the locker room while receiving statistics via a monitor. In fact, remote control rarely offers real control.


1.      Peters, T.J. and Austin, N. A Passion for Excellence. The Leadership Difference. 1985, New York: Random House: p. 8-9.

2.      Laufer, A. and Hoffman, E.J. Project Management Success Stories: Lessons of Project Leaders. 2000, New York: John Wiley & Sons: p. 86-8.

3.      Bardnt, S.E. Upward communication filtering in the project management environment. Project Management Quarterly 1981; 12(1): p. 39-43.