It happens to every program manager at least once. Your latest, greatest project was clicking along nicely, but now it’s going to be completed months later than planned. Your team members are lining up outside your office to complain about each other, and low morale is at an all-time high. You are called on the carpet daily to explain the missed deadlines, and you wake up in the middle of the night, wondering what went wrong. You feel like you’ve just hit a patch of black ice on the roadway and are skidding out of control.
This is not a problem unique to the 21st century. But there are some critical differences in today’s business climate that are making it tougher to survive these periods of turbulence. The pace of innovation is now driving us, not the other way around, and we are constantly being presented with problems that didn’t even exist six to twelve months ago. And since, as Program Managers, we are tasked with keeping everything on track, we are uniquely vulnerable to our organizations’ sudden loss of control.
Face it. We don’t own the railroad. But we do need to keep the tracks clear so the trains can run on time, and dig deep to build a framework for sustainable success. Here are some essentials that will serve us well in times of relentless change.
In a volatile environment, we can’t afford to be on autopilot. We need to gather information, explore options and stay informed. It’s a temptation to move quickly through this initial discovery process when we feel we have to make a decision RIGHT NOW, but when we skimp on the comprehension phase, we are likely to trip ourselves up further down the road. It takes a lot less time to test the way in front of us to see if it is free of ice than to recover from a series of spectacular accidents.
Sometimes we will accomplish more by slowing down. The world moves at video-game pace, accompanied by all the distractions of speed and multiplicity. If we frantically try all the options in rapid succession, we will not only waste energy in unproductive activity, we may find that the game times out before we reach our goal. We need to slow down, prioritize, and create a robust strategy for moving forward. Wyatt Earp, famed US Marshall, was once asked to what he attributed his longevity as a gunfighter. He said, “Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.” In other words, it is deliberation and not speed that brings us our greatest success.
We have unfortunately confused taking responsibility with accepting blame. The words, “Who did this!” have echoed in our ears from childhood, and the desire to have it be someone else’s crime is universal. Shifting blame seems to be a safe strategy, protecting us from negative consequences. But regardless of the reason, human beings are natural finger-pointers, and we wiggle and squirm to keep those fingers from pointing at us. “OK, so I gave you the wrong dates, but I got them from the Engineering team!” “She said she would take care of it.” “But I sent you an email!”
Effective team leadership mandates responsibility. When we are “responsible” we are able to respond effectively to what our circumstances require of us. If we are willing to accept the consequences of our decisions, we can more quickly move into action. It’s a paradox: the apparent risk of being identified with a decision and standing behind our choices actually makes us safer, because we are in a position to redress any imbalances or resolve unintended missteps. Conflicts between parties who are willing to accept their part in a misunderstanding can be more easily resolved, and the team as a whole becomes stronger and more productive.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have everything we wish for? Wishing and dreaming have taken us to great creative heights any time people have gathered together to define a more desirable outcome. But sometimes we fool ourselves into ignoring reality and start making decisions based on wishful thinking. Major roadblocks are reframed as minor problems; delays are minimized; the dashboard traffic lights are solid green. Unfortunately, when we hit black ice, we won’t stop sliding any sooner by denying that we are in a skid; we are wiser to put our arms out and brace ourselves for the fall. Then we can get up quickly, brush ourselves off, and move ahead with little damage. In an unpredictable world, that is one of the most powerful tools we have to ensure success.
We need take off our rosy glasses, be clear-sighted about what is facing us and deal with what is…or suffer the consequences. I managed new product introduction for a company that had promised early delivery of the latest hardware to an important customer. But as the delivery date approached, in spite of the team’s best efforts, we were running at least three months behind schedule. If we shipped to the customer as promised, we would be sending a product that was barely a prototype. Instead of telling the customer the truth, and working out a reasonable solution, the worried executives convinced themselves they could magically overcome the obstacles. The result? An angry customer, a 6-month drain on engineering resources as they were called to fix the ongoing problems, and the loss of future business.
LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKES
Mistakes are our greatest burden and our greatest gift. The burden part is obvious…who likes to be wrong? And besides, mistakes can be expensive. Investing in the wrong product, or the wrong process, or picking the wrong customers can cost a company millions of dollars.
However, every misstep presents an unparalleled opportunity to learn. Not only do we understand what works and what doesn’t work, but we often discover new ways to solve old problems when we find ourselves stuck in a mess of our own making. Thomas Edison, when asked at what point he would give up his attempts to create an incandescent light bulb, said he did not view his attempts as mistakes, or as failures. He said that his search had become a lot easier, since he now knew 10,000 ways that didn’t work. When we understand what doesn’t work, we can focus our energies on finding new ways to be effective.
Ironically, we rarely grow as a result of our successes; we almost always move forward in response to our mistakes. We might be adults, but our learning process is still pretty much what it was when we were learning to walk, or finding out that hot things can burn our fingers. Human beings tend to learn when it is necessary, and to grow in response to discomfort. As a result, we depend on our mistakes to show us when we are off track, and to encourage us to change our strategies.
WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE
You’ve been up all night preparing for your program review. Projections indicate that you are running behind schedule, but the team has pulled together a creative plan with an 80% probability of making up most of the difference. You will be asking for the support and renewed commitment of your management team and you want them to be energized and enthusiastic about the possibilities of success. What you may not realize is that the words you use will determine the success or the failure of this meeting. Let’s activate our split screen, and explore two different approaches.
“I’m sorry to report that we’re facing a major disaster. We are 3 months behind schedule, and the only hope we have requires us to completely change our existing plans and take a different direction. The re-plan gives us only an 80% chance of shortening the time to market, and even at that, we will still be 2 weeks late. I know it looks pretty bleak, but we’re hoping you’ll support the new plan, even though the changes of success are minimal.”
Does it sound like the team knows how resolve this tough predicament? The use of negative language often leaves us feeling that things are hopeless. At this point, several of the senior managers may even be wondering if you are the right person for the job! Now, let’s look at the other side of the screen.
“We’ve had more than our share of successes in this business, and, in spite of some major obstacles, we’ve kept to a consistent release cadence. Now we’re facing our toughest challenge. We are currently running 3 months behind schedule, but the team has pulled together a creative re-plan that gives us an 80% chance of cutting our schedule miss to only two weeks. They are confident it will work, and are enthusiastic about getting started. We’re asking for your support to attack this problem from a different direction.”
Can you feel the different energy in these words? They describe the same situation, but they are more likely to convince your management team that the task is achievable. Communicating circumstances in positive, realistic language gives us the best chance for a successful outcome.
When change is the only constant, we need to be resilient enough to adapt to the new requirements. The British Army at Lexington and Concord famously took too long to catch on to the fact that bright red uniforms and a structured way of fighting were a losing combination against combatants dressed in neutral colors who fought from behind trees and hedges. In the same way, we need to be constantly reviewing our strategies and our implementation plans against a shifting backdrop and retooling our responses accordingly.
Too many of us still expect order, structure, and predictability. Once we’ve had success doing things a certain way, we assume repetition will continue to bring us the same success. And far too often, when it doesn’t, we double down on the old strategy instead of opening up to new possibilities. In changing times, our effectiveness requires an ability to remain flexible, to learn new skills, and to give the appropriate instead of the habitual response if we are to chart a course around that patch of ice ahead of us and continue on our way without hitting a skid.
CREATE A NEW PARADIGM
So far we’ve looked at a number of ways to become aware of and respond effectively to sudden changes in circumstance. But our most satisfactory outcome lies not only in crafting an effective response, but also in shifting the context in which we operate. We ultimately want to reframe our circumstances to allow ourselves more freedom.
One of the advantages of constant change is the speed with which it creates opportunities. There are people walking around with millions of dollars in their pockets from solving a problem that didn’t exist 2 years ago. While most of us are saying, “Wow, I never thought of that!” these prescient entrepreneurs have created a new world by developing solutions for market needs we didn’t even know we had. Steve Jobs was never content with simply satisfying a market requirement. He wanted to change the face of computing. And his willingness to “Think Different” has changed our lives in ways we are still learning to count.
When we create a new paradigm, we take change by the hand and make it work for us. We may not be the entrepreneurs that envision the product, or the engineering team that developed it, or the marketing team that formulated the message, but we can continue to develop new and creative ways of bringing all the elements of a program together and making it a reality. We may still slip on black ice and stumble over gaps on the pavement, but if we hone our survival skills, we’ll be ready to keep our balance.