What are your limits?
A week ago or so, I attended a program review meeting at a large company. In attendance were a dozen project managers. These project managers (PM’s) were juggling about two dozen projects which had complex interdependencies, tight contractual deadlines to deliver on specific dates, and a history of missed milestone dates and financial targets. It was not a pleasant situation for any of them including the executive sponsor who was responsible (read: outcome) for the whole program.
Aside from the obvious project management challenges (resource constraints, critical paths, etc), a few of the project manager complained about the amount of time it was taking them to do reporting. Many of them were working through the weekend to get these reports ready which were due each Monday. The project was managed with Microsoft Project which automatically presents various dashboards on progress and financial metrics. But there were some reports that had to be done in EXCEL.
Much of what was needed in EXCEL could be done in a few clicks using EXCEL pivot tables. But some PM”s did not use this – they did it “manually” – although they knew what pivot tables were.
This is not a posting on project management, Microsoft project, or pivot tables. It’s about making an assessment of people and their capabilities. Sometimes, it’s the very small things about people that can tell a big story.
The self-imposed limits people set for themselves
It’s always an interesting observation to look for the limits that individuals set for themselves. What is the self-imposed boundary of what people will learn and what they will not learn? How much “peripheral vision” do people have in what goes on around them as opposed to a laser-like focus on just what they are responsible for directly as defined formally. If people get in trouble with a difficult task what do they do – ask for help, stew in their own juices, get frustrated, give up, what? How do people deal with frustration and uncertainty? What is their level of commitment.. what do they “say”… and how do they demonstrate it? Is that they say, and what they do, in conflict?
For some of the project managers above it was an interesting tradeoff on this very simple issue of reporting. Do you spent a few hours learning about pivot tables knowing that it can reduce the workload on yourself? Or, do you just “cut and paste”, count and filter, format and align, and work in a way you have always done before and with which you are comfortable? You can differentiate people based on their choices in simple matters like this. For some, learning is hard. For others, learning is easy and interesting. For some of these project manages, no doubt, they will choose to spend the weekend time doing the work as the option that is “least painful” to them. Everyone will make a choice now that everyone knows there does exist a simple way to do the reports – at the expense of the cost to each of learning something new. Is learning hard or easy for each of these individuals? What does their choice say about their long-term potential as project managers or perhaps, beyond this, leading to a role in a Project Management Office (PMO). Who do you pick for the PMO to lead project managers in delivering the set of programs and projects that deliver the corporate strategic initiatives?
A further observation is worthy of mention. Those PM’s that already had a pivot table working to do the reports never shared it with the others. Nor did the PM’s that were struggling ask for help from the other PM’s. The dozen project managers were all working on the same program. The program as a whole would succeed or fail (on deliverables and financially) based on the collective and collaborative work of all of them. Some PM’s were so focused on his/her own work that most failed to see the larger picture of the value of their collective work. None of the PM’s have any financial incentives; they all are on salary and they will get the same salary no matter how well the program succeeds or fails. Not only that, there is no collective incentive that would encourage them to work together to make the program a success. In short, the PM’s have no skin in the game.
… and for executives as well…
Another assessment that can be made is what decisions the executive sponsor will make knowing the capability of the team – as demonstrated. The buck stops with the executive sponsor. What choice will this executive make about the team membership knowing that the team’s performance in aggregate if a reflection of his capability as an executive to choose the right people?
One can take the perspective that all organizations, divisions, and companies are in various states of mediocrity. It is well-known that Apple CEO Steve Jobs hated mediocrity (read). For others like former Motorola CEO Chris Galvin there is a lower standard (read). The real victims of mediocrity are the investors and stakeholders (read).
It’s all about getting the right people in the right roles, the wrong people out, and executive courage to made decisive changes. When someone like Steve Jobs moves people out of certain roles he demonstrates a set of priorities… Apple, brand, products, customers, and investors first. Employees that don’t measure up – last
It’s painful when you have some people who are not the best people in the world and you have to get rid of them; but I found my job has sometimes exactly been that—to get rid of some people who didn’t measure up and I’ve always tried to do it in a humane way. But nonetheless it has to be done and it is never fun.
— Steve Jobs
Of course it’s never easy to fire people. To avoid this painful exercise, why not try harder to get the right people in the first place?
Some good questions to ask before you hire
I caught this on Seth Godin’s blog. It’s a good set of questions – especially for a project manager role.
- How long are you willing to keep pushing on a good project until you give up?
- How hard is it to get you to change your mind when you’re wrong?
- How much do you learn from failing?
- How long does it take you to learn something new?
- How hard is it for you to let someone else take the lead?
- How much do you care
But we all know that what people will tell you in an interview may be different from their actual performance. So, for the above situation, asking these PM’s, question number 4 “How long does it take you to learn something new?” would you expect any of them to say, “I would rather do work over the weekend doing something that is easy and that I am comfortable with rather than learning something new”. But that is the reality of the situation – as observed. The limits of some people are easy to spot.
You can encourage people to be better. But some people are so fragile they will break.
You can try to motivate people by engaging them in a vision of the future which which they can identify and have some passion. But some projects and programs are not the “change the world” type of projects where that usually works.
You can try to motivate people through extrinsic means such as financial incentives. But then you have “coin operated people”. Do you want to bet the company on “coin operated people” where money is their primary incentive for performing well? Probably not.
Some people think average is good enough – you will never change their mind.
Some people think that average is never good enough – you will never change their mind
To be average or pursue excellence is a pre-rational concept. There are no rational arguments to convince either camp to change their mind.
Welcome to the hard reality of the real world. Folks should appreciate what it takes to build an innovative company like Apple or Google.
It’s not just recruiting. After recruiting, it’s building an environment that makes people feel they are surrounded by equally talented people and their work is bigger than they are. The feeling that the work will have tremendous influence and is part of a strong, clear vision—all those things. Recruiting usually requires more than you alone can do, so I’ve found that collaborative recruiting and having a culture that recruits the “A” players is the best way. Any interviewee will speak with at least a dozen people in several areas of this company, not just those in the area that he would work in. That way a lot of your “A” employees get broad exposure to the company, and—by having a company culture that supports them if they feel strongly enough—the current employees can veto a candidate.
— Steve Jobs, In the Company of Giants, 1997
The World Turtle
There is a creation story which says that the World is supported on the back of a turtle (read).
One might ask, if the World is supported on the back of a turtle then what is the turtle standing on?
One answer is, “There are turtles all the way down”.
When you see a company where the business is supported by mediocrity in the middle you may well imagine there are turtles all the way down and up.