Thursday, August 24, 2017

Set-up to Fail

For the last 10 years, my career has largely focused on fixing projects that are on fire and where chaos reigns. I often call myself a "Parachute Project Manager" who jumps into chaos and controls the fire because of this. I even provide a program based on the lessons learned from those experiences for PMI chapters and other organizations.

In point of fact, there are typically three things that cause the failure of a project: Poor Scope Definition, Poor Change Management, and non-existant Stakeholder Management.  Why are these problems so prevalent? Typically because the previous "Project Managers" were set-up to fail from the beginning!

First, I'm not saying that the projects were poorly specced (although most projects are). Second, the "Project Managers" that are given these roles often tend to be highly intelligent and technically capable people. The reason I say that these "Project Managers" were set-up to fail is that they typically don't have any training in leadership, team building, or even Project Management before being given the project!

A typical scenario is that a company will promote or hire the most technically capable person they can find into the role of "Project Manager." The logic is that if the person is capable of doing the project by himself/herself, then they must be capable of leading a team to do it. This logic is flawed, because the skill-sets are dramatically different between designing a software solution, an oil rig, a skyscraper or whatever, and leading a team of 5-100 people who are trying to accomplish the same goal. That is why I put the term "Project Manager" in quotations up to this point. In many cases, the person who was promoted, without the skill-set, falls back into what they are comfortable with: the technicals. Instead of becoming a Project Manager, the person becomes a Lead Engineer, Drafter, Designer, etc.

Several years ago I joined a project already in progress. Several of the team had worked with me on previous projects and I was excited to work with people that I felt were strong and capable. The current "PM" had run smaller projects in the past, and yet was struggling with this much larger, highly visible project.

Thankfully, I was able to interview people prior to taking on the project, and I learned that the "PM" was technically brilliant and could, in fact, practically do the entire project by himself if he had 5 years to do all the work. He knew everything that was going on technically within the project, and that skill-set helped him to succeed on the smaller projects because the details were small enough in scope to be managed by one person. What he couldn't do was manage the team dynamics, the stakeholder relationships, or the budget and schedule. He was too deep in the vast technical weeds to run this project. The company was debating pulling him off the project completely (and possibly letting him go), especially after my arrival.

Instead, I realized that his expertise was needed, and asked for him to stay on as an Assistant PM. After we got through some of the basic road blocks and healed some of the bruises to the ego, we became a very effective team. He worked mostly as a Lead Engineer, while helping with Project Management tasks as needed. In the meantime, I started coaching him in some of the areas of Project Management that he could improve on to be more prepared for the next large project.

Towards the end of the project, he actually pulled me aside and thanked me: "Matt, no one has ever taken the time to work with me and provide advice for my improvement. Thank you." He's still with the same company and now a Project Manager by his own rights. I consider him a friend and look forward to the conversations we have.

I've seen this over and over again: a technically brilliant person set-up to fail because the company promotes without training and/or mentoring the person. Skill-sets change as roles do, but companies "don't have the budget" to train people and managers won't take the time to mentor. It's sad, because the sunk cost of a failed project, or a bad promotion, can far exceed the savings in time and money related to training/mentorship.

John Maxwell often says that the job of a leader is to grow more leaders. So, are you being set-up to fail? Are you setting up others to fail? Some questions to keep in mind:

  • Are you taking the time to grow your people for their next role? 
  • What are you doing to mentor your people? 
  • What are you doing to help them learn? 
From the other side, I would like you to think about:
  • Have you had a mentor that helped you grow?
  • Are you receiving the necessary training/education for the role you're in?
  • What can you do to grow yourself?
Hopefully, the company you work for will provide the opportunity/answers to all of these questions. If the company doesn't have it in the budget this may mean finding a mentor to guide you, or ponying up the dough for additional training. Education is a forever thing, and organizations offer classes that are affordable to grow professionally (Just this past weekend I completed a fantastic Certified ScrumMaster course with the Scrum Alliance and Grow-Lean LLC).  It can also mean reading books, listening to podcasts, or finding online courses from LinkedIn, or on YouTube.  Find resources to grow and share them when you do, so that others can grow with you. Good luck!

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