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.