shifts in thinking for 2017

As the year starts to wind down, I like to immerse myself in the thinking that I believe should shape the coming year. My take on #BigIdea2017 is that more organisations will look to actively make their people the engine that drives not only the operational elements of the business, but also its growth, development and adaptation. In 2017, I believe we will see a fundamental move away from getting our people to engage in what the business values to valuing what our people have to offer the business. Read more

I’m a bit over discussions on Leadership. As we often use it, I don’t like the term Leader. It conjures up images of someone who needs to be followed. We tend to think of strong leaders as the central point of control, someone directing the troops, with their hands firmly on the wheel, providing decisive decision-making. This makes leadership a position not a quality.

I prefer the term greatness facilitator. Someone that inspires and helps to create greatness in everyone around them. I think defining greatness as a quality and talking about increasing its frequency in your enterprise is the difference between mediocrity and excellence. It’s the difference between performance that serves your customers and the perception of performance that serves no one.

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I have a confession to make – as a “project guy” I don’t actually love projects. I’m passionate about projects, but not for the reasons you might think. My passion for projects comes from what they enable…the greatness that they can create.
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I recently had a brief exchange with an existing client organisation that speaks volumes about how a great number of businesses are managed today – the need for improvement is driven by crisis. Instead of being intentional about pursuing excellence, improvement has become a synonym for recovery. More and more the manager’s job has become the never-ending search for the next hole in the cost report that needs to be filled or the next deviation from “the plan” that needs to be corrected.

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Over the last three decades, the safety of the construction environment has improved dramatically. Yet, construction sites are still one of the most dangerous workplaces the world over. As a result, today’s safety management efforts are focused on ensuring that no amount of harm is considered acceptable on a construction site. This commitment to the “zero harm” standard is now regularly included on company logos, plastered across work site and is a mantra that has become a part of standard industry speak.

However, all of this focus on zero harm, and the approach that it entails, begs a few questions that very few people are asking:

  • Are we actually making construction a safer place to work?
  • Are safety statistics and field reporting becoming a more or less reliable source of information to improve the wellbeing of our people?
  • Does it drive the behaviours and actions from our people that we intended?
  • Are we bringing safety and our work methods closer together or are we driving them further apart?
  • Are we making conversations about safer ways of doing work easier and more open, or are we creating a language of political correctness?

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Having been involved in strategic planning over my corporate career, I thought it pretty standard that the purpose of strategy development was to come up with a “strategic plan”. A document that dutifully incorporated a vision and mission, that laid out the numerical aspirations for revenue growth or gross margin, that identified the sources of new revenue or margins improvements and then, once beautifully edited and designed, made its way onto the managing director’s shelf…never to be seen again.

It certainly wasn’t lost on those of us on the management team that creating a plan for attaining an uncertain future in an uncertain environment was “challenging” and required a leap of faith in our ability to foresee the future. Nonetheless, it was the thing that management teams did to provide good governance and strong leadership, so we conformed to this traditional thinking. We lifted the bar by presenting this carefully crafted plan to our senior leadership in a clear and polished manner to show them that their management team had its hands firmly on the reins – we could see the future and it was clearly in our strategic sights. What we didn’t do was make a difference…

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Projects are enablers. They are investments that your organisation makes to enable the business outcomes that help deliver your vision. Whether those outcomes are improved operational efficiency, a new revenue stream or improving your customer’s experience, projects are the stepping stones to a thriving business.

Unfortunately, far too often projects fail to deliver the promised return on that investment. For the majority of organisations, they fail to provide that enabling step more than half the time. Many projects will languish in an incomplete state while the project team tries to find the time to finish them. Some of the most aspirational don’t get off the ground because it never seems to be the right time for working on aspiration. The most critical projects will often get done under the pressure of deadline but fail to produce particularly innovative or cost-effective results.

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I am periodically asked why, as a project manager of 25 years, I say so little about project management in my speaking and writing. The reason is that a tremendous amount has already been said and written about current “good practice” in managing projects. There are countless groups and forums that discuss and expand on this traditional practice knowledge. There is much of this practice that I agree with and little addition useful contribution I can make.

Where I believe that far too little has been said and that a fundamental shift in our project thinking is required is outside what we currently believe about traditional project management.

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I’ve been struck by how consistently I see, read and hear that price (or expenditure) and service are a zero-sum game – to increase (or maintain) service, the price must go up; to reduce price, the service levels must go down. Our politicians tell us that to maintain levels of social service (without ballooning deficits) they need to increase sources of tax revenue, or, vice versa, depending on the political message du jour. Businesses that operate in price-competitive markets often look to find their customers’ point of pain…what services can be reduced, eliminated, or made “cost adders” before the customer cries foul and takes their business elsewhere.

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Today’s business world tends to value activity over accomplishment – we look to ensure our people are “being productive”, highly utilised, busy. However, in the business of busyness, doing lots of things doesn’t necessarily mean that we are completing those things. There comes a point where additional activity starts to mean that instead of creating more business value, you actually create less. It is by matching the organisation’s capacity to the most important activities that you accomplish more and get better business outcomes.

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