As good project managers we all factor risk into our planning through our project management tools. Wouldn’t it be great to have a risk free project? No, I don’t think so. This might be worse than a project failure for you and your team.
I was an efficiency nut. I hated any extra effort that was not necessary. I liked it when everything went efficiently and the best they could go. Many times I worked myself into a position where I rarely needed to actively manage anything. The things I did need to do, to keep things going, required little or no thought or effort. This I felt was the pinnacle of good management.
What I found instead was that my “management agility” would atrophy. I always planned that if anything ever started to go wrong, I could reinsert myself into the project, quickly come up to speed and then help get it back on track. It was often not as easy as I thought.
In one case, reinserting myself into the process, I watched as one of my best managers looked on in visible disbelief as I made some recommendation to another senior manager on how we would go forward. It was clear that he didn’t feel that I had enough grasp of the situation. While I’m quite use to looks of disbelief — due to the types of techniques I use — I realized that this situation didn’t warrant one. Clearly I may have been too far out of contact to be providing definitive directions!
The first insight was learning that keeping good at what I do required being immersed, being constantly challenged, taking risks and being uncomfortable. It was very much like my daily running. If I stop running, then in only a few weeks I lose some of my ability to run, especially any distance. It seems that we may have mental muscles that need the same regular exercise. Even when we get as fit as we desire, we still have to work at it to maintain the edge.
My touchstone use to be how much stress I felt on the job. My goal was to get things running so well that there was little or no stress. I eventually learned instead to try and lay things out so that I was always uncomfortable.
See where being slightly out of control of a project can be a good thing.
Keep Your Team Challenged and Uncomfortable
The same I found was true for managing a project or an organization. Even as my team got good at what they did I found I had to continue to challenge them to take on more or to make improvements. When I allowed teams to get good — and comfortable being good — they were often reluctant to make significant improvements and changes. I found that people, teams, and organizations were at their best when regularly challenged.
Now I had heard of this concept before. I had also seen people claiming to do it. But what I finally concluded is that often managers would claim to “challenge” their teams when in fact a lot of it was just bad management (e.g., poor commitments, bad estimations, hubris decisions) or just trying to stay in control (“oh no, they might not need me any more!”). However, I came to realize that challenging my teams was a very important concept and central to an improving organization. This again contrasted sharply with my goal of making things run so well that the team or organization operated almost effortlessly.
Compare with Self Managing Project Teams
Most projects have enough risks. It is not as if as managers we need to add more. More it was that the goal of truly minimizing risks now appeared to be an unwise endeavor. It finally occurred to me that this notion, of only working down risks just enough, fit in well with our notion of planning. In planning we had discovered that trying to manage by tracking every detail — and knowing what every detail would be in advance — was not an effective planning approach
For more see get the project management tool schedule right
Good risk management had the characteristic of making the project challenging to do. It was always possible to miss the mark, but when we were done, even in not succeeding we felt good and were energized to take on the next effort.
For example, I was going through Air Force advanced officer training. Our team had competed against another team in a training exercise and we had come up short. We had lost. We were however all excited and energized. Everyone was talking excitedly about how we would take on the next effort. We had lost but felt good about what we could do. Our well meaning but out of touch training officer waded into our group discussion and started chastising everyone for not doing well. All the energy went out of the group. Everyone got more interesting in placating the training officer than they did in continuing to work together. We had great people with great potential — team potential — but we fragmented into a bunch of individuals and finished out the training program that way. It was a real shame.
Risk management includes continually challenging our team or project, if for no other reason, to help them perform at their best. An almost risk-free effort may be in fact a bad experience for our team. This still often strikes me at being at odds with delivering a product confidently on time and with quality. However, while the product is paramount, the team is essential for our future projects and so their needs must play a part even if it adds risk to the product being delivered.
How do you challenge your team and keep them at their best?