What’s Beyond Management, Execution and Control? The Soft Side Benefits of Project Plans by Beth Hand
Within the aerospace industry, spectacular technological and design feats are par for the course. But the hardest work of all is almost never on the “hard-side” skills and abilities: It is nearly always on the soft side--leading, managing and working with the people who turn these dreams into reality. When individual or team interpersonal conflicts arise, progress bogs down. When the conflict is between internal divisions or with external stakeholders, progress can grind to a halt. This is where we can find a surprising additional benefit to everyday tools like project plans.
I was consulting for an organization faced with transforming its businesses processes and global IT infrastructure to support those processes. The IT division tasked with design and delivery was at odds with the internal business customer. The business customer knew what it wanted but not what it needed. IT thought it knew best (and may have) but didn’t have the diplomacy or patience to help elicit the business requirements. Conversations between IT and the business customer were repeatedly breaking down about why IT wasn’t being responsive to changing requirements, why the schedule was slipping and cost overruns were now likely, etc.
One day we discovered a secret that more mature organizations, the aerospace industry and others do as second nature with sophisticated technologies. We brought a project management plan (printed on multiple pages each 3 feet tall by approximately 6 feet wide) to the next meeting with the CIO, her staff and the head of the business and his staff. It was a magical moment as these two groups who usually sat on opposite sides of the conference table literally and figuratively turned as one group to the plan for achieving the objective. For the first time, conversations began to re-orient to the objective and on how to accomplish together. Did this solve everything? Of course not. But it was the first major shift from a derailed, oppositional working relationship to a more collaborative one.
So, what happened, and how might you similarly encourage greater collaboration across internal functions or with external clients? A project plan (or any project tool that has a discrete beginning and end, and shows interdependencies) offers benefits beyond mere scheduling, resourcing, etc. A project plan can:
1. Restore and Keep the Focus on the Business Objective. The plan or artifact--whether project schedule, Gantt chart, or milestone chart--helps us disengage from a polarized stance. We literally and figuratively turn toward our common objective represented in the chart or schedule before us.
2. Encourage Systems Thinking by Seeing Interdependencies and Complexity. When we can actually see the linkages, the level of complexity and understand how decisions made (or not made) impact the whole, we are able to engage in systems thinking and a new perspective. "Them" and "Us" no longer exist in isolation. The project becomes shared and concurrently, in a positive way, task owners' accountability for performance increases.
3. Completion of Tasks Provides a Sense of Accomplishment. Schedules or charts that represent a beginning-to-end process can be particularly helpful where the end product is an intangible or where those working on the project do not engage with the physical product. Seeing tasks completed provides a sense of satisfaction and progress. The completion of a major task signals an opportunity by the lead to affirm all contributors' performance.
4. Keep the Energy and Engagement High by Having Near-Term End Points. Individuals, teams and organizations need to have a sense of accomplishment and completion. For highly complex initiatives or projects take stakeholders into consideration. For example, Merryl Burpoe who is now Director of Stakeholder Management at AES Corporation led an initiative to build private public partnerships in Turkey. She knew that setting shorter time-frames would help get buy-in and in that particular context, focusing on a two year horizon would keep the ministries excited and engaged. For complicated ones, break major projects into phases. Yes, there will still be dips in both energy and engagement but these tactics will support sustained energy and engagement.
While the business customer and the IT division in the example cited earlier were never in perfect accord, something changed for the better as the project management plan became a regular, dynamic resource present at senior leadership meetings and was referred to by both. It was one that helped better align both toward the end goal. Ever since then, I have considered project management schedules and other similar tools a way to enhance the soft-side of hard work: increasing collaboration and keeping the focus on a shared outcome with the ultimate benefit of achieving a business objective.
Beth Hand helps mission-driven leaders and their organizations achieve exceptional results. She is president of Leadership Hand LLC and can be reached in the USA on +1 703.820.8018 or via her website www.LeadershipHand.com.