It is your briefcase, stuffed with work you have brought home to do over the weekend. You knew in your heart when you packed it that you would not get it done. But still you brought it all home even though you have a busy weekend of family commitments. Why, oh Why?
Many years ago I had a boss, Mike Fitzsimons, who taught me a valuable lesson, one I practiced until recently. He pointed out that although we have good intentions when we take a bag of work home at the weekend we rarely get it done. If we do it is often at the cost of domestic harmony. The description of a case of work throbbing gently in the corner is his. His alternative approach was to get into the office early on a Saturday and clear the work he would otherwise have taken home. Generally he had it done by coffee time and was back at home well in time for lunch with the rest of the weekend clear in front of him.
At the time we usually worked away during the week on client sites so we did much of our work in hotel rooms; there was not much else to do. It was in the days before e-mail so there was always administrative stuff to do when we did make it back to the office for a few hours. By going in and clearing the administrative backlog he could relax knowing it was not building up.
I started doing the same and spending just an hour or two in the office early on Saturday rather than taking a bag of work home. It had the advantage that my boss and I were also able to catch up, share information and plan our response to any new opportunities or challenges. By 11am I was done and the rest of the weekend was my own to enjoy with the family without guilt.
It is important to find a way of separating work and home life. If one does not, one may wake up one day and find there is only work. And work is uncertain in these times of austerity.
Methodologies, such as PRINCE 2, are widely touted as key to successful project management. If that is true why do so many projects supposedly managed using such tools still come in late, over budget and deliver limited benefits? This is brought to the fore by the recent scaling back of the multi-billion pound National Programme for Information Technology that was supposed to be the future administrative underpinning of the United Kingdom’s national Health Service.
Most experienced project managers can tell tales of projects run strictly to PRINCE framework that never got delivered or were late and over budget. A classic example from my own experience was for a new telecommunications company. The programme was running late and the programme manager was replaced by an experienced PRINCE practitioner. He started by imposing PRINCE disciplines with formal recording and reporting. Unfortunately the projects still continued to slip.
He was advised that he was not catching up with the programme. It was moving away from him faster than he could catch it using formal methods; he just could not get the necessary decisions taken quickly enough. Bear in mind this was a start-up company with all the energy and lack of formal management that goes with it. The attitude throughout the company was “just do it” so formal change control and other decision making processes just did not work.
After six weeks he accepted the reality that it was not the environment for him and resigned. I picked the work up. I liberated the project teams from all but the most essential paperwork and gave them the responsibility to take decision as long as they kept everyone informed. Realising that formal governance was not working I adopted an approach of telling senior management what we would do unless they told me not to. No response was approval and I would go ahead as planned. It was an extreme form of management by exception but it fitted with the culture of the organisation. We achieved sign-off on schedule. It is a high-risk approach because failure will fall squarely on the programme director or manager; sometimes one has to stand up and be counted.
Effective leadership is not about the title, the corner office and being locked away in meetings with the great and the good. Effective leaders are not self-important, indeed the best are often self-effacing, but they have something about them.
Some will call it charisma but it is more about caring about people, especially people on their team. The best leaders give their time to their teams; they share the ups and the downs. In being there for their staff they will probably have to fit their own work in outside normal working hours. It is hard work being a leader but you need to expect, and deliver, more of yourself than you expect of your people. Do that quietly, without fuss and people will respond.
Having high, but achievable, expectations of individuals is important; I have been described as using “management by expectation”. I make no apology for that as it works; many people do not fully appreciate their own capability. The effective leader will work with each individual to set personal expectations to help them achieve their potential. Such leaders will be firm but fair; they will raise issues quietly and discreetly and in return expect the individual to take the lessons on board and deliver their own self-improvement. I get huge pleasure from seeing people blossom and grow professionally and personally as a result.
I am particularly reminded of my relationship with a senior IT specialist; he was good, had great vision and was personable. Everyone liked him but his colleagues were enormously frustrated because they could never get him to properly document the technical requirements. It got in the way of their ability to deliver; I got many reluctant complaints about him. I took him on one side on several occasions, pushing him to improve, but he was one of those people who seems to have an inability to produce the paperwork. It was getting to the point that it was going to stop him progressing further in his career or indeed on the project. He made slow progress but I had to give him a really hard time in one to one meetings and really get on his case. Fortunately, he was good or I would have replaced him. I had to tell him some very hard truths more than once; he frequently left my room visibly shaken. Yet later, after I had moved on I discovered he was describing me as “the best boss he had ever had”.
In the current difficult financial times, many organisations in both the public and private sector need to reduce costs. Even saving money requires business change that needs specialist skills; in better times consultants, interim managers or contract staff would often have provided those skills.
When budgets are constrained, the challenge is to run business change projects and undertake other specialist work without the use of outside resources. Indeed, in good times the organisation would often have outsourced the delivery of such projects to third parties that has left the organisation without the in-house skills to do such work.
Now, organisations have to run business change, and other, projects with only in-house resource. This puts pressure on staff at all levels to deliver specialist programmes of work without the necessary experience or skills. Everybody feels exposed and fearful. However difficult as it is, it is also an opportunity for the organisation to redevelop the missing skills. It will be difficult as it takes time to gain experience and it may be difficult to fund traditional training; as many organisations have downsized it may also be difficult to release staff for training.
Managers can often take on some of the burden of training their staff. Staff will have to take more responsibility for their own development, which in itself will provide valuable skills. The biggest problem is that after years of outsourcing there is often no organisational memory or capability that understands projects and the associated technical skills. As a result, managers also need to gain skills to allow them to direct specialist projects.
Friends and colleagues continue to cause dilemmas for David Cameron, the British Prime Minster. Without wanting to pass judgement on those matters, they do raise questions which any leader or manager will face repeatedly.
Loyalty to one’s friends is a commendable trait. However, as a leader with wider responsibilities one has to balance that loyalty with other judgements. As a director or senior manager, I have always made two entirely separate judgements about friends and colleagues.
There is the personal judgement, about friendship if you will, that says; I like this person, I enjoy their company and I trust them. I am, happy to seek them out socially, call them a friend and generally be supportive in wider society.
I need to take a professional view when the relationship overlaps with the workplace or into my broader responsibilities. Then I make a separate judgement about their competence in the role in which I wish to use them, their ethics and whether I, and other colleagues, can work with them. There are a whole host of other issues covered by the competence assessment; do they have a proper relationship with other stakeholders, are they trusted by others and is their behaviour appropriate to their role? In this respect I probably have higher expectation of friends than of other colleagues.
I regard many people as friends with whom I would not want to work; some I have even removed from projects. However, I would be more than happy to meet them for dinner or a drink. They are entertaining social companions but are not people I would choose as part of my team. It is usually because they are need too much management; rarely is it because they are not technically competent.
The role of project directors and other senior executive is to create an environment in which their teams can deliver. Management in knowledge based organisations should be more about liberating the capability of highly qualified staff than controlling the way in which they work.
Executives should look at lessons from history and other fields. In World War 1 after the trench warfare of the Somme, Passchendaele and the resulting slaughter a new approach was needed. For the Second Battle of Arras in April 1917 the allies spent considerable time training the troops so they understood both the objectives and their role. Rather than simply treating the troops as cannon fodder, all ranks were trained to respond to changing circumstances. They were not dependent on centralised management and communications that broke down in battle. As a result gains were made after years of stalemate and it was the beginning of the end of the war.
It is not humanly possible to micromanage complex systems; the control inputs will always be too late. Markets and organisations are complex systems. It is rather like athletes. They cannot think their way through a golf swing, tennis serve or basketball jump shot. It has to be instinctive; sportsmen rely on hours of practice and “muscle memory” to produce the right result. The athlete prepares their mind by visualising what they want to achieve and then relaxes into the “zone” to let their body and subconscious mind produce the best result. So the executive should set the scene, then step aside and let the “organisational memory” get on with producing the desired outcome.
Something for the weekend is intended as a light diversion into non-work matters. It is the equivalent of business newspapers' weekend supplement.
Thoughts on politics and government without a party political slant. Short pieces intended to ask questions and challenge established thinking.