The people with the [private] pharma experience, [Riva Meade] says, in turn failed to show the patience necessary to work in any government agency. “Frequently, what [government contracting officers] were requesting was ridiculous,” she says, “but you know what, you just do it.” One trick to federal contracting, she explains, is to know when not to fight. Ebola Rising, Bloomberg Businessweek, Sep 29, 2014.
I had just completed a tour of duty in NATO where I was an Air Force officer. I had a career NATO civilian manager tell me that he was amazed I could accomplish so much — especially as someone who was new to working with NATO. Even the NATO insiders, he said, didn’t accomplish as much as we had in the few years I was there and they knew all the tricks.
Our trick? We paid attention and we were patient. We tuned into what people were doing, what their needs were and what pace they could sustain.
In one case, the challenge was trying to get some contracts through the highly bureaucratic contracting department. If was of no use to be given a project budget if we could not then turn around and contract out for the goods and services required by the project.
Our solution was simple. Give the contract officer exactly what he needed — which was often more than what he asked for. Our contracts got executed and our project kept humming along where others ended up having money yanked away (for not using it) or having their projects cancelled (for not making progress).
For more background on this example see Get The Change Right
I had a boss who saw himself as our military organization’s chief technology officer. He was the one who seemed to know the most about anything technological or involving technical development. The only problem was, he was not very good at moving a project forward. Now it was my job, working for him, to manage all our software intensive projects.
We butted heads, a lot. In such battles I knew that I was going to lose. I knew because I had lost such battles, with my bosses, on numerous occasions.
Again, in retrospect, the solution was simple. He needed visible respect for his knowledge and his ideas, even if they were rarely effective. The breakthrough was one day when he pointed out a problem he felt we had. Normally his ideas on what the problems were and what we should be doing were, to put it nicely, not anchored in any identifiable reality. At least not if we wanted to deliver our project on time with good quality.
This time however, he said we needed to change our software to do something differently. In a flash of insight — or maybe just maturity on my part — I said “you’re right, we should do that, thanks for pointing it out.” It was not a big change. It was a change we needed to get customer approval on. But we went out of our way, got the approval and did it.
Was the change of huge importance? No. Was it even of minor importance? No, I don’t think so. Did it get my boss to buy in to what we were doing? It did. Amazingly so. After that whenever he suggested something, especially something small that didn’t impact the project, I just said yes and we did it. It drove some of my key people crazy (“Hey, what happened? Did you just lose your spine like everyone else before you?”) but it made all the difference.
The secret of not fighting and just giving them what they want was in having enough experience and insight to know what mattered and what didn’t. We knew that from past projects just about everyone either gave in to everything (common, and sometime successful for promotions) or fought back against everything dumb (uncommon, and job limiting). However, with either approach the projects still delivered late and buggy.
In our case we already knew how to deliver projects on time and with good quality. From this context we had a better chance of picking what to accept and what to push back on. Doling out “favors” in a project is a bit of a slippery slope and many project managers do it. In our case when we paid attention and were patient we were able to overcome the worst of these bureaucratic organizations and deliver projects on time with good quality.
What organizational bureaucratic insights help you to achieve successful projects?