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Sunday, September 26, 2010

They're Not Listening to You

The project manager has been at this a long time, and he’s been frustrated for much of that time.

“I get to the end of my rope about once a week,” he said, “I go in there and tell my manager how screwed up things are and what needs to be done to make it all work. And you know what happens? Absolutely nothing!”

Meanwhile, at the other end of this relationship, things are fine. It all depends upon your perspective.

“Joe is a really good project manager,” his manager tells me. “But he’s kind of a worrier. He comes in here every once in a while with a list of problems. I let him unload for a while – then he goes back and finds ways to get the job done.”

So one sees a system that doesn’t work, while the other sees a cyclical ritual that is just a factor in a passable way of life.

This kind of relationship is not sustainable. When there are systemic problems, continued indifference at the management level results in progressive unhappiness at the working leadership level. It wears people down. If there is not a sudden explosion at some point, there is an erosion of productivity and/or eventual burnout.

The syndrome has countless scenarios in the workplace. It is pervasive. You wonder if any organization actually has clear understandings between the people who do the job and the people who manage the process and own the resources.

This is, of course, the famous “communication problem.” It comes up in conversation and complaint really, really often. There is reason for the impression that not only is it everywhere most of the time, but there’s really nothing to be done about it.

Well, the main reason nothing gets done is that no one does anything. We don't resolve basic communication disconnects because the real issue gets too little thought on all sides. More specific to project management: They’re not listening to you because you’re not talking to them. You’re talking to yourself. They just happen to be on the scene, providing an occasion but not a partner for the verbalization.

If something effective is ever to be done about this failing, let’s start with the project manager.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Leadership: Do You Want to Work That Hard?

We talk of leadership in glowing scenes of roaring crowds. Huge ones. Rippling banners and uplifting trumpets. Adulation. No rejection. No resistance. No nasty sniping.

That’s why we see so little of it.

If you’re actually going to do leadership, be ready. Leadership, real leadership, is mostly grubby, grinding, endlessly demanding of time, patience and effort. Then, in the midst of long stretches of unnoticed, unrewarded labor, unexpectedly there arises the moment at which great success is achieved . . . or great disgrace is earned.

Basically, your extraordinary personal investment is taken for granted.

You can’t be sufficiently disciplined, adequately tolerant, to invest all that time in supporting, guiding, educating, persuading . . . it takes to build a strong constituency of appreciative followers. You can’t – at the same time -- be sufficiently gifted and smart enough, properly alert and sensitive enough, politically attuned at the necessary level, to know when your moment has come.

Unless you’re a leader.

If you love authority, you’re out. They'll hate you. If you enjoy the limelight, you’re a performer, a lightweight. They may love to watch you, but they won’t follow you. If you declare yourself a leader, you’re a joke. It’s not up to you. If you expect appreciation, you’re really missing the point. When and if appreciation comes you didn’t anticipate it, because it never was part of your motivation.

You lead because you outwork expectations, beginning in the most mundane ways. Wherever your project, your organization, your people are, that’s where you are. You attend an awful lot of meetings. You tell people, early on and all along, what they need to know. You have, and you demonstrate, respect. You ask real questions, and you really listen when people talk. You reward significant input, and you ignore distraction and misdirection.

Man, does all this take time. Most of that time is low-octane investment of your presence and attention. It is draining. You don’t need to have all the answers, but you need to be a steadying, reinforcing backbone of the process. Alert, believing and always on message.

You need to do your homework, answer the questions and dissolve the objections. You must offer ideas and solutions – while empowering people to think and act in ways that get them to consciously engage their own initiative.

Oh, and this job requires what Peter Drucker called “the ‘C’ word – courage.” No really meaningful decision, he said, is easy. When it truly matters, there is going to be pain and a price is to be paid, no matter which way you go. People are going to be hurt. They're going to be angry. At you.

Probably no one will blame you if you dodge the firestorm.

But, if you do, they will never ever think of you as a leader.

OK, so you buy all that, and you’re ready to be a leader. How do you do it?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Derelict Projects

The mythology of the sea is ripe with mysterious and scary stuff. Why was the Mary Celeste discovered cruising along, relatively undamaged but totally without captain and crew? Is the Flying Dutchman really still fulfilling his vow to battle Antarctic gales in a ghost ship until doomsday?

The Mary Celeste case was examined by a court of inquiry at Gibraltar, but the provable facts were too skimpy to settle it, and the rich flow of supposition and speculation has kept the story rolling vigorously since the 1870s. No, there was not a half-eaten meal on the table, nor was there a cat asleep on a berth when the ship was boarded.

The Flying Dutchman tale is even more fun, since no one is quite sure what, if any, actual event in the 1600s seeded the endless versions of the cursed shipmaster’s challenge to God (or maybe the Devil) that condemned him to suffer the worst of every subsequent storm off the tip of Africa. To this day, or at least to the last reported sighting of the ghost ship in 1959.

For sure, there really were, and are, derelicts – abandoned ships and boats – in the modern world, plenty of them. Mysterious disappearances from vessels, too. In April 2007, a good-sized vessel was discovered off Australia with its engines running, an open laptop computer on board and – yes – food on the table. There was no sign of the three men who were supposed to be there.

For the big-tragedy-oriented, the Bermuda Triangle provides updated mythology that includes the unexplained vanishing of jet planes as well as ships. Scary.

There is a bottomless human appetite for mystery, and we have no problem finding it in the most unromantic places. Project Management, for instance.

Derelict projects loom in the workplace, drifting aimlessly, sometimes for years, their hopeless crew members staring out at the passing world from haunted eyes. Actual disappearance of projects occurs, too, but ghostly reappearances are thankfully rare.

The word “abandonment” shows up often in definitions of “derelict,” and there’s a lot of that in the world of projects.

The reasons generally are neither romantic nor mysterious.