I have been involved in many projects for many different topics. I have worked on everything from global new product development to ERP or PLM implementations to detailed global change process implementations.
There is a lot to the makeup of a successful project. However, for this blog, I am going to focus on the personality of the overall project team members.
What I have found interesting is that I can pretty much tell how well the project will go within the first 30 minutes of the first meeting. It has nothing to do with the abilities of the group, but more about the psychological makeup of the project team.
Many times the team is forced together from a corporate directive. Maybe one or two people are truly behind the project, but the rest are there because they have to be. The team selection is not thought out. The people selected are the ones with spare time or more commonly are the expert of the area being affected. When this happens I can almost guarantee the project will take longer than planned and be difficult to execute.
Here are the typical people I see in almost every project:
Old school is better: These are people who feel that there is no need for change. The way they do it now is fine and, in fact, better than the new way. The main reason these people are usually on a project team is because they tend to know the most about the current way things are done. They have detailed knowledge of the old process so management tends to feel they must be involved in the new project. I question that decision. You don’t always need the resident expert directly involved in a project. In fact often they are too close to the current process to see past it. Even if their attitude is good, the “expert” is not always best to have on the project team. They should be a key resource, but not necessarily on the core project team.
The know it all: This person can also bring a project down fast. They tend to dismiss or belittle other team member’s opinions. They will often quickly cause team friction. Once your team stops being understanding and open to one another’s opinions, you might as well scrap the project. Having team members that are willing to consider everyone’s comments is a good trait to have on a project team.
Leader: This is not always, and does not have to be, a manager. Many times it’s not even the project manager, but it is ideal when it is. This person drives the project. They take control and in some cases push the project along when it starts to stall from team inactiveness. They tend to be very hands on. This person is great to have on the team and helps to have a successful project.
True team player: They just get it. These are the people I love to see on the team. They truly understand what is trying to be accomplished in the project. They are forward thinking and understand that the reality of any new project is never cut and dry. These people can come from any discipline, but their good attitude and willingness to work through issues help to make the project successful.
There are other roles I see, but the above are the most common. Plus, I did not want to make this blog so long no one reads it.
Many times in smaller companies you don’t have a choice of who is on a project team. There are limited resources to pull from. You have to use who you have. However, no matter the size of the company, I would highly recommend considering the personality of each of your team members prior to establishing your project team. The people on a project team do not always need to be the expert of each department affected. They do need to have good knowledge of their department, but not necessarily be the expert. They will need access to the local expert, but a good understanding of how a successful project functions is more important than topic expertise in many cases.
Once you have a good project team established, a good realistic scope and milestones of the project needs to be defined. Too many times I see a scope of a project being set that is too aggressive and unrealistic. This is all relative of course, but keeping the project scope and milestones achievable is important. You can’t expect a complete 360 of an existing complex process in 30 days. Realistic (yet aggressive) achievable goals will help keep the project team optimistic, upbeat and energized to follow through with the entire project.
I don’t claim to know what makes up the perfect project team. You will always have some element of each role personality on a team. As long as they are not too extreme it can still be a manageable team and a successful project. I should know…I have had many successful projects with a team I had no say in selecting. The projects still succeed; but it can be a much more difficult than necessary with the wrong team psyche.
What personalities have you seen hurt or help a project? I would love to see some good stories on overall project team personalities posted here (no names please).
A couple of themes that we regularly visit when consulting with companies are those of power-over versus power-to, and of the underutilized potential of common goals. In the lead up to Independence Day, these two themes again came to mind.
As is characteristic of most institutionally important characters, the stories of our founding fathers have been rendered as mythology. The generalized morals and values that we wish to perpetuate as inherent in our national character are played up, and the untidy, vulgar humanity of the founders is sanitized. Too bad, because the historical facts that surround the relationship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are both informative as well as confounding.
Adams and Jefferson were men of different backgrounds, different temperaments and held polar opposite views on the balance of power between the Federal government and the State governments. One was an arrogant, elitist New England farmer. The other was an erudite Virginia plantation master, architect, engineer and man of letters. And they were friends.
United by the common goal of breaking free of the perceived tyranny of King George, these two were assigned to the five person Independence Committee of the Continental Congress, and as a pair were assigned the action of drafting a statement declaring the secession and independence of the united American colonies. Their work in articulating a broadly accepted and admired Declaration of Independence, and their positions in the conduct of the subsequent war and in the formation of the unique democratic experiment in government that resulted, established between them a deep respect for the purity of each other’s motives and a deep personal friendship.
Adams and Jefferson were ballot rivals when George Washington chose not to run for a third term. Adams ran as a Federalist, Jefferson as a Democratic-Republican and Adams won by three electoral votes. By quirk of how elections were conducted at that time, Jefferson from the competing party served as Adams’ vice president. The friendship that united them brought civility to their political disagreements. Specifically, they debated whether the federal government should control and build a dominant centralized power or whether it should distribute power to the states.
This debate continues to be played out today in the private sector as geographically dispersed corporations struggle with the balance point between the necessary controls maintained by headquarters and the degree of autonomy allowed to the distributed sites. Our personal bias is on the side of distributed management authority and autonomy in recognition that local effectiveness is in large measure contingent upon local control.
The mudslinging that characterizes modern politics and that makes the run up to elections so off putting is not modern at all. The election of 1800 in which Jefferson defeated Adams in his attempt to secure a second term was so harsh with negative rumor and innuendo that it ruptured the bond between the two and bitterness filled the space between them. These civil rivals became bitter rivals.
For eighteen years there was very little communication between Adams and Jefferson, but when Abigail, Adam’s wife of 54 years, died, a sympathetic exchange of letters opened up a ‘normalization of relationships’ between Jefferson and Adams. As the two again engaged in regular communication, the rivalry of their politics and their world views continued, but their exchanges were once again characterized by measured civility and respect.
As Adams and Jefferson became the sole survivors among the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Adams volunteered that he was determined to live to see the 50th anniversary of the signing in 1826. The human will is an amazingly powerful tool. When applied to control others the common result is a war of wills, and we often find that the ends are suboptimal, skewed by the confrontational means. But when our will power is turned on ourselves in acts of commitment and determination, it is astounding what can be achieved.
Willing himself to live to 90 years of age, at a time when such longevity was rare, Adams did survive to see the 50th anniversary of the signing. Astonishingly, he lived to reach the 50th anniversary, but he died on that day. His last words were a competitive lament that ‘Thomas Jefferson survives’. Unknown to the dying Adams was the fact that Jefferson had passed away earlier that same day. That these two polar rivals among the founding fathers, the two assigned drafters of the Declaration of Independence and the last survivors among its signers both passed away on its 50th anniversary astounds.
In our modern world and our focused segment of product development, the balance point between control and distributed authority remains an important consideration in the pursuit of business success. And the use of will to motivate ourselves to high achievement supersedes its misapplication in attempts to control the behavior of others. The lessons from the relationship of Adams and Jefferson are instructive. Perhaps most valuable amongst them are that civility can exist in the discourse of diametrically opposed views, and that the great strength of the bonds built on the successful pursuit of common goals, once shattered, can be gracefully repaired by the recovery of humanity and the application of good will.
Recently, while delivering a seminar, I had an adverse reaction when I was referred to as an expert. My reaction was to feeling that I was being put in a box (even if a box that was intended as flattering). It was also a reaction to the negative baggage associated with the word in the world of management theory. And it was recognition that in the arena of product development it is the technical, not the theoretical, expert that makes the profound contributions.
The baggage tied to the word ‘expert’ is a carry forward from the management theory of Fredrick Taylor. Taylor’s theory has become the basis for how we practice management in all venues within a business. Taylorism based management has established intractable habits that are both deeply ingrained in us and detrimental.
Briefly, Taylor’s theory, focused on optimizing work efficiency, divides the various elements of work among different individuals. The decision on what to work on (responsibility) is left to a manager. The design of the method by which the work will be done (knowledge) is left to an expert. The actual work (action) is done by a third individual. This system believes there is one best way of doing work. But the system has no way of incorporating the fourth element of work – feedback, the element of learning from doing, the element that informs improvement.
While Taylor’s approach to work had both supporters and disparagers when it was applied to blue collar work in the first three-quarters of the 20th century, it was universally rejected — at least theoretically — as an inappropriate management style for knowledge workers. Knowledge workers emerged and rapidly expanded as a significant part of the workforce in the late 20th century. And this is the part of the workforce that includes the vast majority of us working in product development.
Do you want to be told what to do? Like most, you would probably prefer not to be told what to do, but for the sake of organizing and coordinating efforts to accomplish goals, most of us recognize the logical necessity of focusing work efforts through the assignment of task. Do you want to be told how to do what you are told to do? I have never heard anyone volunteer that being micromanaged was a positive in their work life!
So my historical sense of experts who arrogantly believe they can devise the best way of doing work without actually doing the work themselves is part of why I shied away from the label.
The word does hold positive resonance. It denotes a qualitative threshold on the learning curve, the passing of which, like receiving an advanced academic degree, is recognized and imbued with a measure of admiration and trust. But, just as learning curves bend towards an asymptote, the expert can be seen as someone who has arrived at the flat grade of the learning curve. Here one can be characterized as knowing lots but now learning little.
The arrival at a destination of great knowing is vulnerable to the onset of hubris and the loss of the ambition to learn more. Like the Newtonian physicists confronted by the emergence of quantum physics at the end of the 19th century, the arrogance of thinking you know it all is the harbinger of comeuppance.
For knowledge workers, the fairly recent concession that the individuals who do the work are the real experts of that particular work is both a reprieve from the worst constraints of lingering Taylor style management, and also a positive internal motivator to energize the work and to lighten its burden.
The last part of my discomfort came from admiration for the technical experts who are the real driving force of product development achievement and competitive strength. One of the pillars of Lean Product Development is the development of a work force comprising ‘responsible experts’. The responsible part refers to individual contributors who have both the responsibility for some defined accomplishment and the authority to participate in the definition of the achievement plan.
The expert part derives from two commitments. An individual’s commitment to continual self-directed and externally directed learning is the necessary personality part of the equation. The other commitment is the organization’s commitment to the continual development of technical individual contributors, through systematic cultivation of a learning organization. This latter is the environment part of the equation. Appropriate personality and environment lead to desired behavior. And the appropriate behavior in this context leads to the generation of knowledge and the cultivation of experts.
A final thought is that most effective product development organizations are characterized by a variety of healthy, dynamic tensions that provoke change and continuous improvement. The technical individual contributor has their own analogous internal tension. The evolving expert balances a self-centered entrepreneurial ambition towards accomplishment and actualization against a necessary commitment to the larger community and its shared goals and knowledge. This internal tension of the hungry ambitious learner motivated by a larger purpose fuels the development of profound expertise. The best the rest of us can do is to ply our own knowledge to tend the development environment in support of the maturing of these business critical subject matter experts.
In some organizations that call on us for help, there is abundant frustration over the divisiveness that strangles the organization. These organizations are divided into fiefdoms and issues and problems that arise are considered from the perspective of what is best for one’s individual group. The point of view on an issue is just that, the view from a single point.
The Japanese have an interesting expression, Tama Mushi. A tama mushi is an iridescent beetle and this simple expression means that things look differently depending upon the angle from which you view them. In divisive organizations, rather than working to get a 360 degree understanding of a problem, individuals defend the position of their group, failing to consider, and even to hear the legitimacy of the position of other stakeholders. Issues dissolve into internal win-lose competitions and energy goes into winning for one’s group rather than into understanding the actual problem.
An organization’s ability to manage in the face of this kind of political environment is critically hampered. Many companies go backwards, and in the interest of maintaining some level of peace they devolve into faux-consensus organizations. Faux-consensus organizations are characterized by an over commitment to get everyone on board with a plan before moving forward. They often arrive at a situation known as the veto of one, where any member — a representative of a functional group with a ‘point of view’ — can stop a project in its tracks. Critical issues go unresolved as the stakeholders invest time wooing the veto holder onboard.
Even as organizations mature, the prospect of internal politics gumming up fluid and flexible execution hovers nearby. This can be seen even in companies mature enough to use the 8D process to manage crisis situations. At its simplest, 8D is divided into parts, the containment and the follow up corrective action. Those two parts reflect what Covey divides into the urgent — the crisis management of the containment phase, and the important — the corrective action which has root cause discovery followed by the execution of a resolving plan. In the containment action, a team deals with a critical customer-effecting flaw and rallies all hands to keep the problem in house and from negatively effecting customers further. The clear goal and the crisis mentality focus the team on accomplishing this first step.
The second part of the process, the corrective action is vulnerable to political divisiveness. This phase starts with root cause discovery, and most commonly deploys the team that was formed to perform containment. Though the worst of the crisis has passed, the situation is usually still charged with stress. Having lost the focusing power of the crisis and with perhaps a growing sense of defensiveness to the stress generating messages coming into the team from outside, a splintering of the team into factions is a not unlikely outcome. Team based root-cause discovery gets subverted into fault finding and an unhealthy situation leads to a significantly sub-optimal solution.
Demonstrated by the proverbial horse designed by a committee, investigation and planning are activities best served as individual responsibilities. So in the case of the 8D process, we recommend an hourglass shape to the process. Deviating from common practice where the 8D team is formed early and kept intact until the conclusion of the process, we see it as more effective and less vulnerable to a flare up of politics if the containment team turns over root cause discovery and planning to a single responsible individual. And when the root cause is determined and a corrective plan is to be executed, an execution team is formed.
In general, teams operate best when project needs can be subdivided into individual responsibilities, or when a crisis situation helps to glue the team together. But to fully mature, an organization needs to develop the situation in which teams work well together, even outside of crisis mode. In fact they need teams to collaborate early to avoid as much as possible the creation of crises.
While siloes divide the horizontal landscape of a company, hierarchy separates the organization into layers. This vertical segmentation of the company creates communication barriers between the strategic, managerial and individual contributor ranks of the company.
As organizations solve the communication problem between layers, they often discover the added benefit of the weakening of the silo culture. For this to happen, it is critically important that the communication apparatus have something vital to transmit. And that vital transmission would be a clear articulation of what the company is trying to accomplish, the goals of the organization.
The number of organizations that operate without defining goals is astonishing. And many organizations that have done the strategically difficult work of forming shared goals, fail to communicate them to and throughout the organization. A shared understanding of goals can inform all the decisions being made and all the work being undertaken in the company, at all levels. It enables teams to cooperate, without the necessity of a crisis gluing them together. When everyone in the company is trying to put a man on the same moon, silos crumble and internal politics are reduced from disabling to merely annoying.
If your own organization is crippled by politically charged infighting and narrow view points, look to the creation of shared goals as a lever to lift the company out of the muck. Getting to credible, agreed upon, vitally important goals is the first order of business for companies who seek to uproot the unhealthy politics that rob them of energy and profit.