The Myth of the Solitary Hero

Superman. A solitary hero who saves the day. Spider man. Clint Eastwood in most movies. I would say Batman, but he had Alfred. Which veers towards the truth. Most genuine heroes work with teams.
The ability to recruit, organize and motivate. This is leadership. Coaches of elite teams, leaders of industry or politics, generals of armies, directors of movies and plays, scientists exploring vaccines or the cosmos. Mother Teresa feeding the poor.
Here is the West, and especially in North America, the myth of that solitary hero handicaps us and sets up unrealistic hopes and dreams. And often teaching the leadership skills to organize teams is an afterthought until well after they achieve a university education.
I have had the pleasure of working for some outstanding leaders, and the misfortune to work for some others.
In my career, I started as a sole performer, a techie doing my job. And I slowly advanced to managing other techies. And I learned to manage people in an ad hoc fashion. I like people and found I was good at it. They gave me more people to manage, bigger projects to manage, and I joked I was on the career path of getting bigger and harder projects until I would fail and be fired. Such was the career path of a project manager.
But joking aside, I didn’t really get much training in how to manage teams. I learned tools, scheduling, logistics, contracting, finance. Some sales and marketing. But how does a leader get the most out of his or her team? This ‘Royal Jelly’ is not really applied to most managers. It is through trial and error that we learn how to get the most out of people.
And trial and error minimizes the costs of those errors. I pushed some former teams to the breaking point, and beyond. A peer once told me I was too hard, that I was burning people out, and I honestly said I didn’t care as long as my project came in on time and on budget. In the IT industry, we call it a death march and many development leaders still do it.
If I could talk to that younger me, I would set him straight. As I suppose my peer was trying to do.
But I have learned, through reading, independent study, and some continuing trial and error, that outstanding performance can be conjured out of teams with a better approach than bullying.
People want to do a good job. They want to be a part of building something, achieving some goal, creating something new and good. And if it is hard to achieve that goal, if it takes thought and effort and new ways of thinking or doing, that energizes most people. Good people like a challenge. They rise to that challenge.
I am not a deeply religious man, but I admire the picture of Christ at the Last Supper. He knew he couldn’t do it alone, so he built a team of twelve.
In our communities, our businesses, our churches, families, societies, we need to recognize that nobody achieves much of importance without collaboration and teamwork. There are no heroes coming to save the day. That myth of rugged individualism handicaps us. We, collectively, together as teams, can be those heroes.

You’re Project is Not Important

With nearly twenty years of Project Management experience, I have had the luck the last five or six years of managing big, important projects. Often the biggest project in our portfolio. The kinds of projects that come with a big stick.
So it was a shock recently to be given a small project. We didn’t have a lot of work in the funnel, and I have never been one to think any good work is beneath me. I was happy to take it on. It will be easy I thought.
I ramped it up like I would any project. Reviewed the Statement of Work and the Budget. Pulled together the team for a kick-off. Built a plan with dates, documented a charter, started down the road to building our deliverables.
And missed the very first design deliverable. The architect kept missing meetings.
We all know how to deal with this. Get them to commit to dates, times, and deliverables. Ask them to commit in writing to meeting the new dates. Micro manage if need be. Bully, nag, threaten. Every Project Manager has these tools in their tool box.
Now if I had to use these tools on every project, every day, I would have moved on to another career fifteen years ago. We all know it is best to inspire people, get them enthused about the project, have them take some pride in what they are delivering. A team that ‘owns’ the project is a team that will deliver superior results. And most people take pride in their work. Unless they are told it is not important.
And that was the message our organization was sending to this project team. There are important things to work on, but this isn’t it.
First the architect, then the detailed designer, then one subject matter expert after another was told to back burner this project work, and make the more important work their focus.
Nobody ever told me. I was told this project needs to be delivered on time, on budget come hell or high water. So I pushed, I prodded, I escalated. I went to a director and complained about resources. And he gave me the straight goods. Lighten up Francis, you’re pushing a rope.
Fair enough. I get it. Organizations need to set priorities, and this project is a low priority. So I put it on the back burner just as the larger organization had. I worked it enough to keep it moving forward. I did at least two project change requests to extend the end dates. Three months, then another three.
I’m an experience senior project manager, and I have had the luck to be managing those big projects that suck up all the good resources. Now the shoe was on the other foot. Fairs fair.
But, a new Program Manager came to town. He needed to show the world he was tough, he could get things done, he would get these yellow and red projects back on track. The new broom that will sweep clean. And he set his sights on me.
If I was a young inexperience project manager, he would have broken me. He tried to convince me I was lazy, incompetent, underperforming. He started hounding me, micromanaging me, nagging me, bullying me. All those tools we talked about above. And if that is all he has in his tool kit, his career is already half over.
A junior PM would have been in real trouble. But I am not a junior PM. And I can call a spade a spade. The organization has made a decision. Well above both of our pay grades.
In the very nicest language I know, I told him to pound sand. Now I didn’t use exactly those words. But he got the message. He went and complained to someone; who I am sure told him, ‘lighten up Francis, you’re pushing a rope’.

Leading Conflict in the Workplace

“It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry”. Thomas Paine.

The Status Quo can be comfortable. Leadership is about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Leaders institute change; They champion it; They cultivate it. Both a tool to implement and an outcome of change is conflict. As a leader you need to learn how to cultivate conflict in the workplace.

It gets messy. Religious debates are usually avoided for good reason. But you need to dive in. Tool X versus Tool Y. The good minds on your team will engage. They will have an opinion. An educated, informed, experienced opinion. And that is the ‘Gold’ you are mining for.

Let them argue. Encourage it. Don’t be afraid of it.
You are a professional. Set the ground rules. Keep emotion out. Keep personal attacks out. Stick to the facts. Don’t shred a person with an idea. You need to keep the proponents of an idea that doesn’t make it through the gauntlet engaged for future bouts.
Don’t let it get mean. We recently learned how Amazon (see notes) take this sort of pecking party to a dysfunctional level. You don’t want to go there. (You want to make money too, something Amazon haven’t found a way to do.)
But the debate is what you want. Process A versus Process B. Crack the whip management versus Coaching & Mentoring. Central control versus pushing authority down to the Business Unit or Line staff. Structured approach versus managed Agile chaos. In-House versus Contracted Services. On-shore versus Off-shore. Buy versus Partner. There are a hundred debates and a Leader knows how to begin the debate, manage it, and then structure a process to get to a decision and take action.

Shakespeare had Coriolanus say ‘Action is Eloquence’.

You will encounter opposition. Organizations have inertia and moving them in a new direction takes work. (See Newton’s Second Law link below) Your greatest enemy will not be someone who wants the organization to fail. It will be the mediocre performer who doesn’t care. It will be the Middle manager bureaucrat that wants to hide his head in the sand. The person who thinks we should all just get along.

This is not for the faint hearted. It is a challenge. It is hard. It can be exhausting. And there will be tears. But it can also be fulfilling, rewarding and exhilarating to see change instituted and growth and action prevail.

Just a steel is tempered, made stronger and less brittle by passing through the crucible, so too will your team and your ideas be made stronger by the conflict of vigorous debate and peer review. Embrace it.

PS. Initial reviewers have pointed out an assumption I didn’t call out. You need to have spoken to whoever you report to before going down this road. To an outsider it can look like pandemonium. Your Director, VP, President (who ever) can give you the support and Air Cover you will need. You will also find out whether you report to a Bureaucrat or a Leader. You really need to know.

Notes & further reading

Play in the Work Place

A growly voice on a conference call said “Danny, get control of this meeting.”

I was not sure if that person out ranked me and it wasn’t the time or place to debate management styles, so I cracked the whip, brought order to the meeting and worked through the agenda. But it got me to thinking.

Life it too short not to have some fun in the 8 to 12 hours we spend working every day. But my gut told me there is more to it than that. We are not Egyptian slaves building pyramids. Our teams, resources, peers, contractors and subject matter experts all need something more from their work than the pay cheque they get every couple of weeks. And all of them have enough skill and experience to go work somewhere else if we don’t give them what they need.

What are they looking for, and what can managers give their teams by allowing a bit of play?

Starting with what people want; I think they want to make a difference. They want to work on meaningful projects, with modern tools, equipment and processes. They want the training to not just stay current but to rise in their professions;  to be the ‘Experts’ in Subject Matter Experts. They want to be treated with respect, to be included in the planning and design of a project, and to have their input and suggestions given full regard. They want to be part of a team, a winning team.

So my natural inclination for years has been to give the teams as much as I can. Let them make the decisions where appropriate. Let them choose when and where to work. Let them choose their training, and let them choose which projects they want to work on. And create a work environment that is safe for people to make suggestions in that might be unorthodox. A safe environment. A fun environment.

It has worked for me and I have moved forward in my career by building teams of people who want to work with me, again and again. But it has been a gut instinct. Years ago I had a team of technical people working with me at Children’s and Women’s Health Center in Vancouver. We started every morning with a bit of a huddle and the team lead distributed work to the team. We joked. We laughed. We traded stories of what had happened lately both on the job and in our personal lives. And then the team went to work. They were so productive that we started ending up completing all the work just after noon every Friday. So I started letting people have Friday afternoons off, which caused another whole problem I will talk to some other time. But my gut instinct to let the team have fun paid off in much higher productivity than the plan called for.

One morning at C&W a woman who worked on the floor stuck her head into our War Room. “What are you people doing here?” she laughed. “You are having far too much fun to call this work!” I took that as one of the highest compliments I have ever had on the job. They days flew by. The work we delivered was first rate, we came in under budget, and we used that job and our references to grow the business by a quantum jump in the following year.

So when I was recently called out for allowing some fun and play in a weekly meeting, I knew I was right to allow it, to encourage it even. But before I could debate it, I needed some support. My anecdotal experiences would not carry enough weight. I needed some tangible evidence and some hard numbers. So a few searches on Google and a couple of TED talks later, I found tons.

The Science of Play is only now getting the funding and research it deserves. And as with early research in most fields the learning and understanding is coming in leaps and bounds. We now have measureable data proving that play and fun have positive impacts. Huge positive impacts.

Some of those Outcomes:

Increased productivity, innovation and creativity.

Strengthen relationships, group & social bonds.

Reduce tension and stress. Refreshes your mind and body.

Increase trust.

Improved social skills.

Healthier, happier engaged team members.

So the next time someone suggests cracking down on fun in the work place, point out the reasons for allowing some play. You have the science to support you.


Play: How it Shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul. Dr. Stuart Brown .

National Institute for Play :

A Whole New Mind . Daniel H. Pink .

Playworks . Jenn Hoos Rothberg






Written Words for Projects

Written Words for Projects

I have always believed in the power of the pen. The incredible power of written and spoken language. I enjoy words, language and the expression of thoughts and feelings that words can provide. The recent Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris remind us that some would take away that freedom of speech and expression if they could.

But this is not a political article. It is about how studies on projects and project failures consistently find that something like 80 percent of project failures can be linked to a failure in communications. Project managers, stakeholders, and people working on those projects are not using their written words to get the results they should and could. How does that happen? Let me share a case study.

A couple of years ago I was asked to look at a struggling project. I spent about a week and couldn’t find all of the material that defined what the project was trying to achieve. So I decided to do a new project kickoff.
We use a Smart Methodology developed by Dr. Francis Hartman from the University of Calgary. A good 3 hour planning session pulls out most of what a Project Manager and the team needs to get a project rolling. It is a process that uses color coded Post-its to solicit information from the assembled stakeholders. I tell the team again and again, ‘If you think it is important, Write it down.’

The process is designed to draw out the vision that the project should deliver: Key Results, Stakeholders, Risks, Priorities and the deliverables. We start with ‘Who, Won and Done’. In reverse order, tell us what this project should deliver. Write it down on a Green Sticky and put it up on the board. The process is great in that 15 or 20 people can all put up information at the same time. And they do. You end up with dozens of these ‘Key Results’ that the project team or the customer expect. We put it on paper.

The same process with the Won. What does a successful project look like? Write it down.

And then the Stakeholders. We shift to Purple stickies to capture who are all the people involved and affected by this project. And which of them get to make the call on whether this project was successful or not. Write it down.

We continue with Risks and Deliverable using Pink and Yellow stickies. By the end of the 3 or 4 hour session, the walls are covered in color.

By the time we wrap up the first session we have a clear definition of what the project is supposed to deliver, what it needs to do to be successful, and who is making that call. It is also a bit of fun and can be a team building exercise. On the failing project is was a chance for me to meet the entire team face to face.
Most people, over 90 percent, think the sessions are good and productive. I think the proof is in the outcomes. I have not had a project fail since we started using the method. I am believer.

But on the failing project, as everyone was leaving one lead held back. I could see she wanted to talk. As the room cleared out she said ‘I don’t want to come across as negative. But for all the people that were here for 3 hours, all you have achieved is to put in writing what we have been talking about for almost a year.’

I have kept my job by, among other things, learning when NOT to laugh out loud into the face of a stakeholder.
Imagine how much success they could have had so much sooner if they had simply ‘Written it Down.’ So in 3 hours we had accomplished something they had not in nearly a year.

Now you have it written down in words. Ink on paper. What a powerful tool this now becomes. You can share this common vision with dozens, even hundreds of people. You can articulate what you are doing, when, why and how. You open the vision up to sharing and debate. You can let people poke at it, improve it, point out flaws, have it peer reviewed, put it through the crucible. Just as steel is hardened and tempered to become stronger and less brittle, so the ideas and vision are tested and improved.

But the process has another great feature. Buy in. Too often projects are hoisted onto stakeholders. The project is done ‘To’ them , rather than ‘With’ them. This Smart process allows all of the stakeholders to feel they have been given a chance to provide their input. They each have a chance to put in writing what they want or need from the project. And they have been given a chance to provide their concerns by collecting risks they see for the project, themselves and the organization. And it is all written down in words in ink on paper.
In three hours you can achieve what a year of talking does not. A written down vision. Now you can put it into action. You can plot your course and progress. You can mobilize a team to begin to realize that vision.

The bigger the program and the bigger the team, the bigger the need for good communications becomes. I recently program managed the transformation of an I.T. infrastructure for a major electrical utility. While developing the Communications plan for that program we realized that we had over 200 people we needed to keep on the same page. Those 200 people had to have the same vision, the same goals, the same understanding of processes, methods, issue management, change management, budgeting, reporting and escalations. An old Accenture advertisement once likened this kind of management to herding cats. Nearly impossible. But it can be done. You can keep 200 plus people on the same page and singing from the same song book.

But first you have to write the words down on the page.

Danny Aldham PMP

Got a Plan? Write it down!

Like many I enjoy reading personal growth books. Stephen Covey is a favourite. So a few weeks ago I was reading a book Goals by Bryan Tracey. If there are exercises I usually do them, so I was putting together a 10 Goal plan as Tracey suggests. I have some Career goals, some Fitness and Health goals (Who doesn’t) , Family, Finance, Travel, Learning etc. As I wrote out my plan and started to develop time lines something in the back of my mind said “I’ve done this before”. I flipped through the book, trying to be sure I hadn’t read it before. No, certainly not. But something just seemed too familiar. I continued the exercise, but I have learned not to ignore that little voice. So I started flipping through old journals. (Another habit from the Self Help books) And I found it. Over two years earlier I had read a similar book Vision by Gordon D’Angelo. And the exercises from his book were in my journal; which lead to the surprise.

Two years earlier I had put together a plan with 12 Goals. I had spent a couple of days thinking about it, writing it down, developing time lines and some interim milestones. And then I had put it aside and had totally forgotten about it. I thought. But when I reviewed that plan from more than 2 years ago, I had fully achieved 8 of the Goals and had really good progress on two more.  So just the act of thinking about the plan and writing it down had put part of my mind to work on it.

There is some great research happening on the Neuropsychology of why we remember what we write down. Whether sub-consciously or by some other power, the act of writing down the plan had moved it forward. And writing down the plan is certainly something both writers say is important.

I am not sure what the mechanism is, how putting pen to paper seems to bring forces to bear that just thinking about the plan does not. But it works. It worked for me. And I could only think, if writing it down one time was so successful, what might be achieved by keeping the plan constantly on your mind, by revisiting it regularly, making updates and marking milestones, and adjusting the plan when progress in an area is not moving forward as planned. I am going to try that approach this time.

But the first lesson is: If you have a plan, write it down!

Newton’s Second Law of Project Management and Life

Many of us have science or technology backgrounds so we are aware of the giant that is Sir Isaac Newton. For the rest, Newton was the scientist involved in apples falling from trees, understanding gravity, the motions of bodies, developing Calculus to name a few.

Newton’s first law was that bodies at rest stay at rest, bodies in motion stay in motion. Kind of ho hum.

But Newton’s second law has some magic. A body subjected to a force will move and accelerate in proportion to the force and in the direction of the force. Now Newton was thinking of physical bodies: apples falling from trees, projectiles fired from cannons, planets circling the sun.  But the law is bigger than that.

For a project manager we need to see that our project teams are aligned with our project goals. We need to communicate the direction we are going and we need to get everyone pushing in that same direction. Force and Direction.

That Direction is decided through our goals, planning and through the strategies we implement on project. As leaders we work with our teams to identify where we are going and how we will get there. As a team we define tasks and deliverables that will advance the project. We define who will complete each task, what we will pass off to other team members, how they will continue to move things forward. Each person needs to understand their role and how they move things forward. That is, how they are to apply the force and what direction they are to apply the force.

Team members complete tasks and deliverables. They apply themselves to move and accelerate the project.

As the project builds it develops a momentum and an excitement. The endeavor takes on a life of its own. It becomes something to be reckoned with. Something for the team to put their best efforts into. Something to be proud of.

The results of applying the proper force in the right direction bring us to success. It makes us unstoppable; Invincible even.

The Law can be used on projects. But it is true of all endeavors: Learning a skill, planning a career, growing a business, waging war and battling epidemics, putting a man on the moon, moving a nation or a society forward. It is more than a physical law. It is metaphysical, even philosophical. Use if, focus it and give it direction. There is nothing we cannot do. Newton’s Second Law of Project management says it is so.

Project Managers as Organizational Fuses and Other Uses

Project Managers deliver all kinds of benefits to most organizations. We are the people who ‘Get it done’. We build things; on time, on budget and to the highest quality. We take the grand Strategic plans of the Executives and apply the tactics and tools to make them real. We take pride in our abilities to organized teams, to find the right people for the jobs we need to get done, to communicate to our stakeholders and sponsors for support with people, tools, money and the time we need to deliver.

Behind every great achievement there are Project Managers; Or Project Managers going by different names. In film they call them Directors. In construction they are Engineers. In Politics they are Campaign Managers, in the Military almost any officer rank.
But there are all kinds of other roles that Project Managers can be called on to fill.

Often a group needs someone to crack the whip. The manager of the group expects to stay in that role as long as possible, so asking him to become a bull-dog, or an out-right bully is not a good career plan. So the group brings in a Project Manager who can take on that role.
Other times the Manager is a hard ass already, and it not right for the role of ‘Hand Holding and Nose Wiping’ that often goes with organizational change. So the PM can fill that role of a shoulder to cry on.

Some organizations will know they have internal divisions that nobody in a full time management job wants to take on. So they bring in a PM to deal with the differences. Or a project that has support from one Vice President, but ambivalence or out-right opposition from another VP. It is much easier for a VP to foot drag to the requests from a PM as compared to the requests from a fellow VP.

Now an in-experienced PM will eventually find their project stalled in such a situation. An experienced PM will know to put fences around the foot dragger, to create dashboard reports that show her deliverables as green, then yellow and finally red , and then “Lucy, you have some ‘splainin to do”. Of course, that same PM will now bare the wrath of said foot dragging VP, but as Mr. Vonnegut would say ‘So it goes’.

In most large organizations there are dozens, even hundreds of projects competing for the time, money and resources to see them through. So a good PM can become a proxy for the Sponsor of that project. Give the PM clear boundaries, even blinders, and send them into battle to get the Project done. A failing of the PM profession generally is that we are only too happy to concentrate on just our project. (When someone suggests to a PM they are burning out resources on a project you shouldn’t be surprised if the PM gives an impression they don’t care. They often don’t. Delivering the project is all they care about.) Project Managers don’t look around at the organizational ecosystem we are working in. Should we see a synergy of working with another project that might save the overall organization money or time, but delay our specific project by even a nano-second, we are loath to put forward that sort of suggestion. And should someone suggest something similar to us, we run to our Sponsors or Steering Committee to tell them what a dumb idea some other PM has suggested and how they are a road block to our success. (We don’t stick together like most other Professions either.) Thinking strategically is something that seems to be frowned on by PMs, which is why I think Project Managers have trouble making it into the ranks of the Executive. But that is material for another article.

We have an economic system that rewards risk taking. Make a sound investment, make money. But risk taking within an organization can be too much. We might tell people we are taking risks by trying innovation, but there is little appetite for failure and very little grace given. So how can an organization make the changes needed to adapt in our rapidly evolving environment? How can we innovate and try things without risking the people who hold our collective business experience? We have a culture where someone has to take the blame, even where we often shoot the messenger. How do we create an environment where we are not culling our best and brightest Leaders on a regular basis? Enter the Project Manager.
Your leadership team has decided it make financial sense to consolidate two or three teams into a single office. The savings on rents give a positive return real quick. But nobody bothered to allocate budget for the costs to reconfigure existing space and move staff to that location. Give it to a Project Manager.
Suppose you have sold a service to a customer for say one million dollars. But on review you realize it will cost us five million to deliver it. Well we could fire up the torches, pull out the pitch forks and go on a good witch hunt for the guilty. But those are all career managers (our peers and maybe ourselves in that group) and it doesn’t really matter if it was Sales, Finance, PMO, Solutioning or Operations that made the miss. We need to move forward. Assign a good Project Manager.

You want to build a thousand mile pipeline with Ranchers, Farmers, Fishermen, Environmentalist, Native Groups and all of the city Mayors lined up against you? A good Project Manager should be able to move that forward.
And if any of the above projects should run into issues, heaven forbid a Director or Vice President might take responsibility. That is a one way ticket to disappointment. So enter the saving grace of having a PM. They can take the fall. Whoosh. Flame out. As we say in the Telecom industry, ‘Try another set’.

Project Managers should know their career path is either to get bigger, harder projects, or to get fired. Maybe both eventually. In this case they take one for the team. They act as a fuse for the organization, protecting it from damage. They have a role to play. We would like to thank you for having taken on that role, but it says right here in the job description it is a thankless role. Sorry.

So it goes.