This event is seared into my memory for life! It was after lunch at an all-day leadership meeting. We were chatting away at our table, oblivious to the dishes and leftovers. The CEO walked over, asked if I was done, then cleared my plate and cutlery away. I was fairly new to the organization, so I searched the faces of my colleagues at the table, wondering, “Is this normal? Has this happened before?” The look of shock on the face of a director who reported directly to the CEO said it all. Her jaw dropped, she held up her hands in disbelief and shook her head slowly. Obliviously, this had never happened before. And it was a powerful, unforgettable demonstration of servant leadership in action. Now, if the CEO could do this, then every other leader of the organization could emulate it.
Weeks ago, a reader asked what attributes a project manager needs other than specific technical PM skills? Servant leadership topped my list. How does a project manager demonstrate it? There are many simple ways. On one project, there was an item on the critical path, and it all depended on one busy, yet unnoticed, low-key person performing a labourious task on a specific day. I was going to be away at a conference. So I arranged for someone else to get her favourite drink for her on that particular day. That gave her the added boost she needed to get the task done.
As a project manager, your success depends on the contribution of many indirect reports. These project team members have other daily duties competing for their time. Their perception and experience of you will impact how engaged they are and whether they will go the extra mile for you and the project. Recently I heard one person reminisce that project managers used to be kind but many of them have since retired; in the next breath, they complained that new project managers are selfish. Now that is one person’s experience in one company and I would like to believe that it is not generally true. I hope you will do your part to help create the reality of project managers as servant leaders. You will be surprised at how tiny acts of service can help lift the morale of your project team and influence the culture of your organization.
It was my first few days on the job. I was checking for letter mail in the mailroom. (Yes, this was decades ago.) I froze and tried not to be noticed when the president walked in. In my previous company, you never approached or talked to the CEO. Well, I was about to find out how different my new organization was. “Hi Wan, how are you today?” greeted the president whom I have never met in person, let alone speak with. As a fresh hire in IT, not a manager or supervisor, I was so surprised that he knew me and my name. I must have mumbled a reply. We had a short friendly conversation. I don’t recall anything specific but I definitely remember the impact that encounter had on me decades later.
That simple greeting was, for me, an example of servant leadership in action. This busy president cared to learn the names of new hires so that he could greet them by name at the very first encounter. As a project manager, you can do the same. In this era of remote work-from-home teams, you can learn the names of everyone on your project team and sub-teams, and schedule a brief get-to-know you online meeting.
Take it a step further and learn the names of every new hire who could potentially be on your project. Reach out to them on their first few days at work. Tell them that they can approach you with questions as they settle into the company. As a project manager, you have a broad horizontal view across the organization. New employees tend to work within their departmental silos. They are generally keen to learn about other departments and key projects. By reaching out and helping new hires early in their jobs, you build relational capital. You have a better chance of getting their support when your project rolls out changes.
Years later, when the president left his post, he again reached out over the phone to say thank you. Again, that’s something that I remember to this day. Not what he said, but that he bothered to call. As a project manager or a PMO, you too can exercise servant leadership by saying a personal thank you to everyone who contributed to making a project successful. Include this in your project plan from day one. Whether it’s a hand-written card with personal notes from project leaders or a video recorded thank you, appreciation goes a long way towards getting the commitment of the same people, already busy with operational work, when you call on them again to put in that little extra effort to achieve your next project goal.
Last week, two friends were invited to a consultation but it turned out that the decision had already been made by the top person. The consultation was only for show. After having volunteered with this organization for over a decade, they will start to withdraw and eventually end their association. Similar “consultative” meetings occur in work settings and while employees may not leave, their hearts have walked out the door. Without fully engaged employees, the company’s performance and bottom line suffers. Human resources is then tasked with solving the problem and cultivate a more engaged workforce.
Where does project management fit in all this? In fact, project managers have a pivotal role to play. At the start of projects, they create the RACI framework. They should identify all stakeholders throughout the life of the project and insist that they be kept informed. If the project results in a lot of change, then stakeholders should be invited to self-select whether they want to be consulted. The understanding is that consultation doesn’t mean that they will necessarily be happy with the final decision—only that in the process of decision making, their voices are heard. The commitment of those to be consulted is that they participate in meetings.
Project sponsors and key decision makers may want fewer voices in meetings. They may think that stakeholders impacted later in the project may only need to be consulted closer to rollout. Here’s where project managers need to fall back on best practice and insist that all stakeholders be represented at the start. So long as they are part of the project kickoff, stakeholders can understand the why of the project and when it comes time to roll out changes in the future they are prepared to absorb the impacts.
A case in point of failure in consultative process leading to project failure is the 2011 British Columbia Harmonized Sales Tax. Financially, the HST would have boosted BC’s economy. But British Columbians were unhappy by a lack of consultation in the process of implementing it. In a referendum, 55% voted to overturn the HST.
On the flip side, businesses need to be agile and respond quickly to changing market conditions. A consultative approach doesn’t work well in emergency situations such as COVID-19. Overall, for many organizations facing a variety of situations, a culture that supports a balanced approach to consultative decision-making and employee engagement is ideal. When achieved, it’s like cruising at maximum fuel efficiency.
A friend who’s an architect once joked, “My clients want a design that is good, fast, and affordable. I tell them to pick any two. If the design is good and fast, the price will be high. Something good and affordable will take more time. And if you want it fast and cheap, then it won’t be good.”
The same can be said of agile projects. The same three variables are at play: quality, delivery time and cost. Delivery time is fixed by the duration of the sprint. Cost or budget is also relatively fixed based on a stable team and technology. So the only wiggle room is scope. To get high quality deliverables within a fixed sprint, the scope must be right-sized to fit the sprint. Too large of a scope and quality suffers. This requires a shift in mindset but that’s not all.
There is the question of organizational culture and the speed of agile transformation. Agile is a strange animal. It thrives in different cultures dependent on its size and maturity. When it is young and little, think of agile being introduced to one team in IT, it thrives in a bottoms-up culture where the Agile Manifesto rules, teams are empowered by facilitative scrum masters, and decisions are made by the teams.
After some small, low-hanging fruit successes, agile grows from being a child to a teenager. All of IT may want to switch to agile. Other departments want to get a taste of agile success too. This is a difficult time. Agile teams may feel they have demonstrated how to create value for the organization and want to take the lead. Departmental managers, especially those new to agile, may not understand the new methodology but nevertheless, want its quick wins. Here’s where top-down decision-making needs to release some control to agile teams. If this doesn’t happen, agile will most likely fail to take root and may be abandoned by the organization.
Should agile survive the teenage years, then the next level of maturity is to scale it up to the entire organization where all departments embrace it. Another cultural shift is needed here. Scaled agile requires extreme discipline by all players. In other words, a top-down command-and-control culture that also understands agile methodology is what is needed. Bottoms-up decision-making is not going to cut it when scaling agile. Here’s where agile teams may need to give up some level of autonomy. This may be difficult to do if they were the champions who introduced agile to the organization in the first place.
The best case scenario would be for some of these early agile champions to have been promoted into senior leadership in tandem with the growth of agile in the organization. Like the growth of a child to a mature adult, there are key transition points for agile to scale into an organization. Knowing when and where these thresholds are and being appropriately agile when it comes to cultural changes is a key factor in successful agile transformations.
Another approach to agile transformation is to start with an agile mindset first. In a (post?)-pandemic VUCA world, the C-suite is adept at pivoting to survive and leverage new opportunities to thrive. They could start by switching from year long projects (annual sprint) to quarterly projects (3-month sprint). In so doing, they are automatically scoping down project deliverables into smaller chunks. Then they could ask for monthly deliverables. Monthly milestones translate to 1-month sprints. All this is achievable using traditional project management techniques. It also allows all departments to gradually adjust to shorter delivery cycles. It’s not just IT that needs to adjust, marketing, communications, operations, and support all need to be in lockstep.
Once an organization commits and all departments deliver on a regular monthly sprint, value is being delivered faster. There will then be less resistance to switching to a three-week sprint at this point. Here, traditional project management techniques must give way to agile methods. With the organization experiencing the benefits of shorter cycles, there will be less resistance to adopt agile enterprise-wide and eventually transition to a two-week sprint.
In conclusion, there are two approaches for agile transformation. The bottoms up approach, though more common, is also fraught with complexities of cultural transition. The top-down approach, starting with an agile mindset and traditional project management, experiencing the benefits of agile, then switching to agile methodology is, in my humble opinion, a surer path to success. A final ingredient to ensure success: a PMO that is comfortable and flexible with traditional and agile approaches can help navigate and support the organization through the various stages of a successful agile transformation.
Projects drive change. What drives projects? Teams do. The success or failure of your project is dependent on the strength of your project team. Traditional teams don’t cut it anymore in the emerging project economy, where operational work is automated and value-added human work happens within the context of projects.
In its thought-leadership publication, The Pulse of the Profession, PMI highlights the DNA of teaming 2.0: agile, change-ready, collaborative, innovative, and led with empathy. What is the most important leadership skill for teaming 2.0? Collaborative leadership. That begs the question: how collaborative is your organizational and project culture?
Here’s how to strengthen collaborative leadership:
1. Recognize and reward leaders who demonstrate this skill.
2. Bring in facilitation training for team leaders.
3. Strike a balance between collaboration and agility. If decisions take too long, teams risk not being agile by over-collaborating.