Vision, honesty, and transparency: three key traits of an organization that can guarantee project success. This was summed up in last week's interview with Tom Cox, the host of Blog Talk Radio's Tom on Leadership program. His audience, primarily from the C-Suite, is keen to understand how troubled projects are a reflection of their organization's overall health. Projects are, after all, the proverbial canaries in our organization's coalmine. Projects stop performing because there is trouble in the organization.
"I just want to be a project manager. I don't want all that responsibility." The room was silent, save a few exasperated sighs. We all looked around trying to figure out how we would handle the comment. However, there are many levels of project management maturity and only the highest levels require leadership. In fact, the prominent certification process—PMI's PMP®—has little to do with leadership. So where do we learn about leadership and how can we improve our leadership skills?
Management comes up with great plans for sweeping change, it implements the plans, and three years later the organization has reverted to the way it was before the initiative. Changing to new breakthrough systems is hard; maintaining those processes and procedure is far more difficult. The reason progressive ideas can have a successful implementation only to have the organization regress to its prior state a few years later has its roots in societal practices and human nature.
A couple weeks ago, I was in eating my pre-keynote dinner with a group of people that I had never met. Without being prompted by some general drift in the conversation, a person across that table said, to no one in particular, "Did you hear about the new app to do confessional?" Being unfamiliar with the group, how was I to know if I was sitting with a group of high-tech Catholics that would think this was great. Besides trying to determine how to react, I was trying to envision how confessing with an iPod would have the same effect as sitting down with a priest. Of course, who am I, a fringe protestant, to make any editorial comment about Catholicism's inner workings? However, I finally blurted out, "What happened to accountability?"
Recently, I surveyed a dozen or so students at three Portland area universities. Three-quarters of them replied. An adequate response, since the questions were open-ended, requiring a written answer. The students were all business majors and a majority of them in Management Information Systems (MIS). Although anonymous, I knew the group of northwest students well enough that the optimistic, upbeat tone of the responses were no wonder. The surprise was what was missing.
Friday brought news of another company outsourcing part of their IT. The details are sketchy, but it appears that all the COBOL programmers (many counting days until retirement) are going to have their jobs moved half way around the world. Soon after, it sounds like the IT infrastructure and operations will follow. Friends lamented about more jobs going overseas. I had to ask what other options management had. I did not hear any alternatives.
To the dismay of my cohorts and their potential pink slips, I am less concerned about outsourcing the administration of servers, networks, and base applications. For most companies, those are not the systems unique to their mission. These days, those functions are utilities. However, outsourcing customized systems that are at the heart of how a company does its business and distinguishes itself to its customer, is very risky. It may be the only option now; however, it could have been avoided.
It was a classical interview in all respects, except they kept asking, "Can you handle stress?" After while, I replied that on my last project gas mask training was a first-day requisite, meetings were routinely held in bomb shelters, there were written emergency evacuation plans, and uniformed men and women with M-16s were common sights on the city streets. That was stress. I should have known better. Stress comes from the unknown, the events in life for which we have no plans.
The other day, while playing with my nine-month old Granddaughter, I counted the number of times she tried to do something and failed. If I had that much trouble, I would give up. Then I reflected on how many successes she has ever hour. Day by day, she changes—in a marked way. Making new sounds, crawling, climbing, signing, putting toys together, they are all big steps. She repeatedly tries until she gets it right, resulting in more successes in a day than I have in a week... maybe a month, even though she fails at more things in an hour than I do in a year. Maybe, if I were to increase my number of failures, successes would skyrocket.
"Why is it that when you get hired you are no longer the expert?" A chuckle rippled through the audience; however, the woman asking the question was serious. I turned the question back to the audience of director level managers, "Why is this the case?" There was silence. Finally, I proffered that it was management's lack of understanding the skills of the people working for them. "Who in your organization can you implicitly trust?" More silence. It is sad that organizations know so little about the people that they hired—the people on which they stake their company's future.
With the coming of 2011, it is time to reflect on our past and contemplate the future. We think about our families, our friends, our successes and failures; we think about our jobs, our professions, and the world of possibilities. We must reaffirm our ship's direction, stay the course, make corrections, or find a new destination. As project managers, we must look at the recent changes in the discipline and translate those into a plan for our professional development—a plan that meets our needs and the needs of the discipline.