Make things happen

You learn a lot by watching teams trying to get things done. What makes a team deliver while others fail? The answer is obviously complex enough to justify a whole industry of consultants, professional educators, books and the likes, so I'm not pretending to have found any Holy Grail here. But it is true that I've seen many people trying over the years and at least one particular pattern stands out.

The one thing that predicts the success of a team is the willingness of its leader to get into as much detail as necessary to resolve an issue (and as soon as possible.)

I am pretty sure not all successful projects meet this condition, therefore there are other factors that affect (obviously), but when I've seen this behavior, the projects hardly ever fail.

All endeavors face trouble, sooner or later, no matter how much planning you've made. As German marshal Helmuth von Moltke once said: "no plan survives contact with the enemy." Or even better, in one of the best lines ever: "Everyone has a plan until they're punched in the face (Mike Tyson.)" You will be punched in the face, of that you can be sure. And when it happens, what will you do?

The vast majority of us will: a) demand our teams to identify the root cause of the problem, and b) demand our teams to come up with a remediation plan. Then follow up closely that the plan is being executed. Classic. It may very well work... or not.

In truly effective teams, not only will the leader demand a root cause, but she will question it until she has understood it in its entirety, which is a completely different thing. Once there, she will join the effort to design a remediation plan, not only ask for one.

To illustrate this fact, years ago I saw a head of procurement of a Fortune 500 company deal with an issue in a project. Picture the guy: he is responsible for handling hundreds of millions in purchases, managing hundreds of people. Well, a guy like this spent 3 hours understanding why his team demanded 3 references per invoice in order to reconcile payments (something our system was not able to handle.) Then worked together with them to find a workaround. Project was a total success.

We may not like this gravitas towards the leader in a world where everyone must be empowered, but there are some subtle elements here beyond: one truly smart guy can solve everything.

When something wrong happens (and remember, you will be punched in the face) the dynamics of empowered teams change. People get nervous, fingers are pointed, and anxiety creeps in. Without proper leadership, the team may rush to get out of there by coming up with a root cause and remediation plan very quickly. If the exercise is too shallow, they may be worsening the situation. Leadership must turn that dynamic into true teamwork in difficult times. That's why they join the team and go down the details until every option has been considered. They become part of the team and flag a clear signal: we're here to solve the issue, not to manage it.

There's another factor: project leaders tend to have a broader perspective on the problem at hand, and can arbitrate effective solutions by compromising things that the team may not dare to. That perspective becomes a critical asset in difficult times, but it can only be exercised by true willingness to solve and compromise. It is perfectly useless when a project sponsor, coming from a business background, takes a stance like: "this is an IT problem, go figure it out." If that same guy goes into the details, 100% of the times the solution found is way better.

When you get punched in the face, there are no subject matter experts, there are no prohibited domains, there is just a problem to solve, and the willingness to make the effort, drill down, and help. This is, in my experience, the behavior that most accurately predicts success.

That was it. I'm going on annual leave this evening, so I'm really willing to unwind, rest, and spend time with my family. Don't worry though, I'll be back next Friday. Let's see what these days bring up. I will share with you then. Cheers.

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