“Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness…. It was the fear of himself…” — from Things Fall Apart
I’m surprised that I haven’t seen more comment on this WSJ review of “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay” by Frank Partnoy.
With all the emphasis on being “first”, it is good to hear someone praise “the gift of hesitation.” Goodness knows that I could have used this advice more than once! Of course, Partnoy’s book could be dangerous in my hands. Now I’ll have art and science in hand to rationalize away my next procrastinations.
By the way, the review itself is sharp. Christopher Chabris alludes to his own experience and insight in a way that qualifies him, but doesn’t make the review all about the reviewer.
In my last post I asserted that failed projects often have at their roots “neglect or damage in [the leaders'] personal and professional lives”, not ignorance of project management principles. Rather than let that question begging stand, we should look at that claim. If the claim is true, then shouldn’t we find evidence in problem projects of “good thought, bad action?” Bad projects don’t just happen, we make them happen.
Indeed we do. At Crossderry Blog I’ve blogged about project failure and success many times, including the work we did at SAP on project escalations. The most glaring examples are around stakeholder and communications management.
While these stakeholder and communications management techniques appear simple, we’ve found that many project managers can’t muster the motivation or confidence to execute against them consistently. These “symptoms” are great non-obvious indicators for project health:
- Projects that consistently linked stakeholder analysis, communications planning, and plan execution stayed out of trouble.
- Project managers who did not fit into, or could not adapt to, customer cultures, mission-critical projects, etc. were reluctant to escalate projects quickly enough.
- The most frequent communications mistake was failure to execute planned executive-level messaging, which eroded the project manager’s position in the eyes of sponsors and other leaders.
These stakeholder management findings correspond with recent external studies noting that communication breakdowns – especially “keeping quiet” about known risks or issues – are a primary driver of project failures. To my main point, isn’t “keeping quiet” about project-threatening issues and risks a sign that there’s something amiss with one’s mind, body, spirit, or professional life? More soon…
Well, I’ll confess. Not only has failure happened to a friend, but I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it, and I’ve lived it. Personal, professional, and project problems grow and cascade into a torrent of trouble. In other words, project problems don’t remain confined to the project; they inundate every part of one’s life.
This challenge is what I’m going to address in this series. Many excellent writers and thinkers have laid the foundation of project management and project recovery. And indeed I’ll outline many of those standards and practices, along with my take on them.
However, my experience is that projects rarely fail because the initiative’s leaders were ignorant of tools and techniques. They usually “knew the good,” but did not “do the good.” This inability to translate knowledge into effective action is often driven by neglect or damage in one’s personal and professional lives.
What do I mean by personal and professional?
For now I’ll keep it simple. The personal life refers to one’s mind, body, and spirit and the balance among the three. I’ll borrow from Eastern and Western traditions to illustrate what and how the personal life gets out of balance. The professional dimension is more like a complex Interstate or Autobahn interchange. It’s where one’s career goals, relations with one’s team and bosses, and professional network come together. We’ll look at both in more depth later.
Another sleepless night. It’s 4:25 AM and you’re wide-awake. Check that. You’re awake, sort of, after another sleepless night. Yes, another sleepless night, because you had two last week, and another two weeks before that.
As you shuffle into the day — guzzling a cup of this, wolfing a bite of that — you barely put one foot in front of the other. You’re so busy that the only time you have to yourself is in the shower. As you slump under the spray, you ask “How did it come to this?”. That moment’s reflection leads to an answer.
You can’t sleep because your life is a mess, you can’t sleep because your job is a mess, and you can’t sleep because your project is a mess. “I’ve gotta take a step back and… Arrrgh!”
A bit of soap in the eye does the trick and now you’re well and truly awake…and late! And rushing unawares into another day.
Does this sound familiar to you? Are you living this right now ? Has it happened to a friend of yours?
I’ve enjoyed the bits and pieces of Stoos I’ve picked up, mostly via Jurgen Appelo‘s summaries (the discussions at the LinkedIn group have been valuable as well). For those who aren’t familiar with the Stoos Gathering, the goal was modest, but the topic was bold:
At the Stoos Gathering we will discuss how to accelerate change in management and organizational transformation.
That’s all? More seriously, I love the ambition and it it has been great grist for my mental mill, especially these three themes in the documents and discussions:
- Leaders should change themselves first: A fellow named “Hank” noted this in the pre-gathering documents. For example, leaders who have not learned to self-forget may find they struggle to build trust. And putting spiritual traditions aside, those who have not tended to their spiritual armor will find they cannot resist the forces of reaction.
- “The Problem” will prove a crafty and adaptive foe: Steve Demming notes that “the participants left for a future time evaluations of the best ways of getting from “the problem” to “the desired outcome.” Wise move, because IMO these “best ways” will have to contend with Anna Karenina Syndrome: “Happy firms are all alike; every unhappy firm is unhappy in its own way.” The solutions must be viral, in every sense of that word.
- Beware introducing “corporate managers”: I’ve seen a desire to involve corporate managers into Stoos what Jurgen calls Management 3.0. That’s great, but some of us are “The Problem” and aren’t self-aware enough to know it (see point one). I’m especially concerned about two types: those who’ll want to boil it all down to “one particular approach” and those who’ll pick any work product apart as “impractical”, “not actionable”, “unrealistic”, etc.