The Great Project Manager (Part3) – Confronting The Brutal Facts

Posted on June 8, 2009

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Confronth the brutal factsSeveral years ago, I have the chance to read Jim Collins’ book – “Good to Great” (G2G), that has changed the way I was approaching performance in Project Management. I suggest to share with you my learnings in applying the different concepts raised in this book into the management of Strategic Projects.

The 5 key idea sets of G2G are: Level 5 LeadershipFirst Who, then WhatConfront the brutal factsHedgehog ConceptThe Flywheel and the Doom Loop.


All good-to-great companies began the process of finding a path to greatness by confronting the brutal facts of their current reality. Creating a climate where the truth is heard involves four basic practices:

1 – Lead with questions, not answers.

2 – Engage in dialogue and debate, not coercion.

3 – Conduct autopsies, without blame.

4 – Build red flag mechanisms that turn information into information that can not be ignored.

We have all practiced project steering committee, where present executives like to see this nice dashboard green colored, and ear “The project is on target”. Great project managers are distressful of their success, they worry when things are going well. Confronting the brutal facts of the reality, even in front of an executive board is what makes the difference. No need to be alarmist, but being optimistic is the road to failure. J. Collins talked about the stockdale paradox, “Never confuse unwaivering absolute faith, and the discipline to begin with confronting the brutal facts”. Great project managers are convinced of success but are continuously looking for unplanned events that could challenge it.

“Red Flags” are catalatic mechanisms that vest information with power. This is certainly the best tool to drive progress consistent with the values and purpose of a project. J. Collins gives an example he used with his students. Any student during the year, can raise his hand and share a critical comment on the content of the course, the quality of the teaching, a recommendation…. When happening the course will stop and the student will speak freely. He or she can do it once in the year. This simple mechanism helped Jim to face reality by earing real time feedback from his students.

Let see how it could work in Project Management. Every projects start with what we call a “Project Management Plan” which includes project plan, risk mgt plan, quality assurance plan, communication plan etc…. The number of processes and procedures described in these documents can rapidely make the project highly administrative. The appropriate usage of red flags could avoid this, and promote a climate of truth.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Any project member can ask for an unplanned meeting with all people required (only once in the project life time by member)
  • The customer can not paid one day of consulting if they are not satisfied with one workshop (limit must be set upfront and agreed with the service vendor)
  • We can imagine the same mechanism but this time the consultant asks to be paid an additional day (for instance, people not available or unprepared)

The important aspect of red flag is that the project team stays focus on what they value, and anything in the course of the project that challenge these principles and values, need to be identified and emmerge as a critical problem to solve.

All in all, a project is a place where denial can appear at any point of time. It is important that project manager promotes a culture of freedom of speech and standard mechanisms to avoid this drawback.

The Great Project Manager Serie: Level 5 LeadershipFirst Who, then WhatConfront the brutal factsHedgehog ConceptThe Flywheel and the Doom Loop.

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