“Be patient,” the salesman said. “I’m only on my third point – I’ve got nine more to go.”
Can you think of a better way to kill off a sale?
A radically different example comes out of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
It was in 1983, when the two bitter adversaries had enormous nuclear armaments trained on each other. A software glitch mistakenly sent an alert to the Soviet duty officer, falsely warning that the U.S. had launched five missiles. There had been no such launch.
The Soviet officer decided any real attack would be a lot more serious, so he withheld any counterattack. Had he acted, there could have been nuclear war.
We project managers can relate to the student sales example; not so the missile one. But one factor in both illustrates a major point for us: the judgment of the decision-maker.
The sales presentation actually was the final exam in a college course on personal selling skills, and the “salesman” was a star student.
It was the culmination of a four-month student project, a personal one: starting from scratch to overcome shyness and reluctance in presenting a sales message.
The student had carefully prepared the presentation, following the prescribed design. Then he practiced the skills of pitching it effectively. His final exam was this 15-minute meeting with the class instructor in which he was to demonstrate his new expertise.
And he blew it.
His disciplined, carefully memorized process came up short in the most important sales skill of all: Thoughtful listening. The prospect’s questions were a clear signal that a potentially favorable opportunity had unexpectedly opened up.
The student, unlike the military officer, missed the important moment. He thought he was listening, but he really wasn’t. He was on autopilot.
With listening, it isn’t just the ears.
Sure, the ears do the mechanical job of capturing and channeling sounds. That’s important, but it’s not the whole story.
Real listening is in the brain: It involves remaining alert, thoughtfully questioning what the sounds are telling you. The student missed the thoughtful questioning part, the awareness that should have accompanied his concentration on the plan.
That failure not only caused him to miss an important opportunity; it also rebuffed a positive initiative that could have opened a fruitful new path for the conversation. It may have embarrassed and annoyed to the prospect – something most definitely not favorable to the purpose.
The Soviet duty officer, despite the enormous responsibility he bore – and the lack of any reason to doubt the erroneous message – made a courageous decision.
Whatever communication channel carried the erroneous information to him, the mental process he employed was the one the sales student failed to follow.
It also is the one that confronts project managers, and is among the many reasons why projects are so difficult to manage. A true project is a mixture of processes and innovations.
Processes require careful attention to repetitious detail, so the sequences hold together and the predetermined result is reliably achieved.
The innovation elements in projects are entirely different, even though they often are closely intermixed with the processes. When you sail along too confidently in the familiar parts, you’re going to miss the warning signals.
When you do that, you’ll see error, misunderstandings, sour relationships and project shortfalls.
How can you protect your projects against autopilot?
One important way is to build countermeasures into your risk management plan. Every work package should include specific requirements for evidence showing that planned actions were taken and measurable outcomes recorded.
It should be standard practice for managers and supervisors to include such specifics in assignments, instructions and evaluations. They should be carefully revisited as each phase of the project is completed
This should never be routine in the sense that it is checked off on the way to a quick conclusion.
It’s also good to periodically brainstorm and speculate:
“What could go wrong with this part of the project? What haven’t we thought of?”
Conversations like that should include various groups of people involved in the project, especially those who don’t get directly involved in planning and directing.
In project management, the famous unknown unknowns should never become the unexpected unexpecteds.
A Question for You: When have you seen serious consequences from autopilot behavior?
SEE ALSO: Project Attitude