Consortium for Project Leadership: Research
Based on the groundbreaking approach of author Dr. Alexander Laufer.
On Becoming a Project Leader
The Consortium has recently embarked on a new study attempting to shed light on the development of successful project managers. In this study, Alex Laufer, Terry Little, and Jeffrey Russell are interviewing 8 successful project managers representing a variety of industrial sectors. The interviews focus on the key learning and unlearning experiences that have shaped the project managers’ minds and behavior throughout their careers, as well as on their current managerial philosophy.
Following are 4 examples of stories demonstrating learning and unlearning experiences and the current managerial philosophy of Terry Little.
Early in my career, I had a casual conversation with someone who was working for me on a program. This conversation totally changed my presumptions about peoples’ motivations and explains why I place so much importance on establishing goals for the project and seeing that the team embraces them.
Late one night, this colleague, Jimmy, and I were driving together in Los Angeles. As we were entering the freeway, another car abruptly changed lanes and collided with our car.
Neither of us was hurt, but the car was wrecked and we had to call for help. While we were waiting on the side of the road for the police to come, I was joking with Jimmy about all the things that he was insisting I do in his area. This person was in charge of security on the program, but, as I found out later, he could have been any functional type person working on the program—an engineer, financial manager, logistician, tester or contracts person. I said to him, “You are going to bankrupt the program. We are going to have all the security we could possibly need, but there won’t be a program anymore because we will have spent all our money on maintaining security.”
“That would suit me fine,” Jimmy told me. To my chagrin, he was serious. “The rest of the program is not my job; it’s not what I get measured against. Security is my job.”
Looking back on this, I remember it being such a shock to me that he would say, in effect, “I really don’t care about the program. That’s your job. I only care about my own sandbox.”
His comment led me to start questioning all of the people who worked for me on the program. I had thought that everyone working on the program shared my perspective—that they acted based on what was good for the program as a whole, that they wanted the whole program to be successful, and that their own functional area was secondary.
What I found out was that Jimmy was not unique—virtually none of the people who worked with me had the same goal that I did. Their expectation was that I, as the project leader, would integrate all of these different narrow vertical goals. It was my job alone to care about what was good for the program as a whole.
That was an enlightening experience for me, and it’s why I believe that making absolutely sure that everyone has a clear understanding of what we are trying to do is critical—and I expect clear buy-in on that.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my career, but the one that I think of as providing the greatest learning opportunities occurred while I was program manager of a large Department of Defense (DoD) project designated by Congress as an acquisition reform program. I was told I would have my department’s support to try almost anything—so long as it wasn’t illegal—to improve acquisition in DoD.
One of the things that came to me was to emulate a practice used by many commercial companies: profit sharing. I wanted to establish a way for the people working for me to share in the savings of the program.
As I saw it, it was a win-win situation. I was sure the savings were going to be enormous, and I believed it would stimulate my people to be more creative, innovative, and give them a greater sense of ownership over the outcome of the program. I said to myself, “Self, you could look really heroic if you got this approved and your people got a big fat bonus all because of your brilliant idea.”
Thus I set off on my Don Quixote quest to get approval.
Despite My Best Efforts
When I went back to tell the people in my department, I found their reaction to be a little too cool for my tastes. Suddenly they were backing off when I started talking about pay-for-performance incentives. But that didn’t matter to me. I already had fallen in love with my idea and was determined to get approval at the Pentagon no matter what.
I commenced to making trips from Florida to Washington, DC every week, talking to various people in the Pentagon, explaining what I had in mind and why it was such a wonderful idea. All I needed was to get approval, I believed, and there would be this big cash payment for the people who worked for me.
Over the next two years I spent almost half my time in Washington. I got so carried away that my boss came up to me and told me to stop this. “This is not your job,” he said. “You’ve got to get back to your program.”
I told him, albeit in a polite way, “No!”
So carried away did I get with my brilliant idea that I decided to try and see the Secretary of Defense himself. The Secretary of Defense, no matter who he is, is a serious man. Fortunately, he was also patient with me. I managed to get an appointment on his calendar for a 15-minute meeting. I explained my proposal. He listened, and then he said, “Well, I need to talk with my staff about this.”
My stomach dropped when he said that. Finally, there was this horrible realization for me. All along I thought I just had to get to the right person. Here I thought I had him. When he said this to me, unenthusiastic as everyone else I talked with, I knew that I was finished. I knew this because the people he was going to talk with were the same people I had talked with before I got to see him.
What I Learned as a Result
To push the system is the right thing to do, but whenever you make a decision you always have to weigh the cost. I had in my mind that I was doing this for all the right reasons, that I was doing it because I was standing up for the people who were working for me, the people who worked 10 to 12 hours a day, the people who came in on weekends. Because they respected me and I was leading them, I felt motivated to keep pressing forward. But once it became about me, about my success, I lost sight of the fact that I was responsible for them back home in Florida, where the real work of the project was being done. The cost of pushing on the system, in this case, far outweighed the benefits. What I learned derives from three big mistakes I made.
Mistake one: I lost focus. I forgot what my job was and why I was there. The whole time that I was devoted to my campaign to bring profit sharing to everyone on my team, the real work of the program unfortunately suffered, so much so that when we moved into the next phase it was almost terminated because of things that weren’t done in the previous phase. The major reason for this neglect was because I was spending so much of my time at the Pentagon.
Mistake two: I didn’t realize it at the time, but I persisted at this for so long not because I was impassioned about trying to help my people. Instead, it became about keeping my ego from being bruised. I persisted because I couldn’t admit that I had failed. I couldn’t admit that this hill was too tough to climb. I closed my eyes to everything except my own focus and my own desire to be recognized for achieving this thing that nobody else had ever done. That was clearly wrong.
Mistake three: After this was all over and I looked back and saw that it was my fault that the program experienced so many difficulties, I felt disgusted with myself. I thought constantly about what I had done, how I could be so stupid, and it took nearly a year for me to come to some kind of peace with myself. For a year it made me draw in and not want to push anymore, it made me timid and risk-averse, and that is a crippling state of mind to be in for a project manager.
I learned three major things from this experience. One was how important it is to maintain your focus no matter how attractive it might seem to go after something that’s not quite within the focal plane. Two, how important it is to separate your ego—that is, your self-worth—from your job. Three, how critical it is when you do make a mistake –and when you are trying to do anything at all you are going to make mistakes– to forgive yourself immediately and move forward. Yes, you need to forgive yourself immediately, not six months later, not a year: immediately. By not forgiving myself I was only compounding the other two mistakes.
The irony of it all is that I did get approval to start a profit sharing program, but only for civilian employees. Uniform military were prohibited. Because not everyone could participate, we decided not to implement it.
The traditional view of career development in the government goes something like this: Start your career as a functional apprentice. Become a functional expert over time by exhibiting “technical leadership” (whatever that means). Over time, seek out positions of increasingly greater responsibility with corresponding job titles. Make a gradual transition from a specialty focus to a managerial focus.
Along the way submit to some vaccinations such as getting a Masters or PhD degree, attending some prestige courses, accepting a Headquarters assignment, and working at two or more field locations. Show some significant persistence and heaps of personal sacrifice. Avoid the big mistake. Burn no bridges.
We have the perfect model for career development, right? Senior Executive Service is virtually in the bag. Not quite. In fact, what we have is the perfect formula for a federal bureaucrat: great resume, no beef.
I propose an alternate approach that I call “sink or swim.” Let me illustrate with a story. Lorene worked for me as a program manager. She was about 50 and had begun her career as a secretary, gradually working her way up to a GS-13; she had been a GS-13 about ten years even though she had filled all the squares for promotion. I liked her work. She was a better-than-average manager, but admitted to being intimidated by engineers because she didn’t have “a technical degree.”
Confronted with any technical issue, she would invariably defer to the judgment of a government engineer, even when she understood the technical issue well enough to develop her own conviction. The unfortunate byproduct was that her program usually had cost and schedule difficulty because she was always pushing to reduce risk and develop the optimum solution.
One day she came to me and said that she was going to have to find another job. She told me that her husband had prostate cancer and that she wanted to spend more time with him. She said she couldn’t continue to travel extensively. After thinking about the situation I suggested to her that she become my financial manager. I knew she was well-organized, disciplined, and caring—traits my financial manager at the time lacked. She would also not have to travel in that job. She demurred, declaring, “I don’t have a financial background. I will get you into trouble.”
I listened. When she finished, I told her that she was going into that job whether she liked it or not. Her getting me into trouble would be my problem, not hers. Making a long story short, she did an absolutely superb job turning the entire financial management operation around in less than six months. I was able to get her promoted to GS-14 and later supported her for a program manager position in another organization as a GS-15. She again excelled. I have since lost track of her, but have heard that she was recently promoted to the Senior Executive Service.
How did all this happen? Basically she jumped (or more properly, allowed herself to be pushed) into water that was way over her head. She could have drowned, but she didn’t. It was an enormous personal and career risk for her, but she came up a swimmer—a powerful, purposeful swimmer. The normal career development path is one that never leads to getting into water over our heads. But, wading comfortably around doesn’t produce swimmers.
Contrary to what my wife would say, I don’t watch much television. I do, however, regularly watch one show on the Learning Channel—the reality series called Trauma: Life in the E.R.
While watching the last episode, I recognized parallels between what was going on in the emergency room, with its host of accident and gunshot wound victims, and what goes on in successful project management.
Inside a Metaphor
First, there was a sense of urgency, but not haste.
As an ambulance or helicopter brought in patients, the physicians, nurses, and technicians did some quick planning, anticipating the likely condition and needs of the patient. They moved to get the necessary tools and equipment in place before the patient arrived.
Once the victim appeared, there was no wasted motion. With time as the chief resource, no one did anything that didn’t directly address the ultimate objective—saving the victim. The medical team shared a clear set of priorities: deal with life threatening issues first, possible long-term consequences second, and ignore everything else.
Each person in the room had an active role. No one was in the emergency room as an observer or overseer. Someone was clearly in charge, but typically no one waited to be told what to do. Interestingly enough, no one ever seemed paralyzed by fear of doing the wrong thing. Through training and experience, the entire team operated in harmony. When there wasn’t enough information to make a decision about a course of treatment, the staff moved quickly to get more information using x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging, and similar diagnostics. People spent little time debating or pondering what to do next. They decided on what to do and got on with it.
Sometimes the unexpected happened and a situation that seemed to be in control suddenly went out-of-control. In those cases, there was no hand wringing or fault finding—just a measured, adapted response to the new situation. Sometimes there were mistakes; mostly they were acts of omission rather than commission. There was concern and open discussion about the mistakes, but learning was the chief consequence.
I also noted that there was a general acceptance that not everything affecting the patient was totally within the control of those in the emergency room. The staff spent their time dealing with what was in their control and not complaining about what wasn’t.
I know some of you are thinking that I have carried this metaphor too far. Perhaps so—perhaps not.
Consider planning and preparing for the project. It’s important to do it, but a team shouldn’t spend too much time trying to achieve perfection. The plan will never perfectly reflect reality. And what about priorities? Certainly a project’s priorities are likely to be less clear-cut than those in an emergency room, but having them and working to them is no less important.
Think about economy of resources. It’s important to have the right number of people working the project, but each must have an active role. Like the emergency room, a project has no place for bystanders.
Expending effort on the niceties when the fundamental objective is in question doesn’t work. From what I know of project management, the expression “Nero is fiddling while Rome burns” is alive and well. Recall from your own experience what happens when a project begins to go awry. Lots of meetings, lots of analyses and lots of discussion—all aimed at deciding on the “right” thing to do. We accept that as a matter of course, but should we?
What’s wrong with making a rapid decision based upon the data at hand, intuition, and experience; and then, having made the decision, focusing our energy on execution? Let’s face it, a perfect answer for any project emergency doesn’t exist. Yes, there are some fundamentals to consider, but never a back-of-the-book answer that prescribes the solution.
And finally, how do we deal with mistakes in project management? They are inevitable, you know. Any project manager who claims to have never made a mistake is either a neophyte or a liar. Sometimes our mistakes result from things we do or don’t do when we should have known better. Other times our mistakes are only retrospective mistakes—mistakes because of factors we could not have known or anticipated.
In either event, we should deal with our mistakes—and those the folks working for us make—in the same way as the emergency room does. Admit the mistake. Distill all the learning from it we can. Move on. Like the emergency room staff, the alternative of avoiding mistakes by doing nothing simply isn’t in our playbook.