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I was an OK student.  My GPA generally floated around 3.3 on a 4.0 scale.  I showed up fairly often in the honor roll.  I even had an award for academic excellence for consistently acing tests that others could not.

However, I didn’t see myself as an “A” student.  The primary reason is I did not have the mindset.  Grades were a random output of my love of learning.  I had to pay attention on occasion because if the grades dropped too low, there were consequences.  I observed that I was often not given the benefit of the doubt in grading when I was not considered a high grade achiever.  I saw this happen to other folks who were otherwise what I considered very smart and capable. I noticed that I was given greater leeway in my pursuit of knowledge when I maintained higher grades.

In Project Management The Conforming A Student Can Be A Problem

So what?  Well, I’ve always been fascinated by how projects and organizations apparently populated by a lot of smart people, often just didn’t do well.  I spent 20 years in the Air Force followed by just over 10 years in the corporate world.  There was an unsettling management consistency between these two worlds.  I’ve come to call it the “A” Student Syndrome.   The “A” Student Syndrome is associated with very good people who populated the organization, but the organization as a whole just didn’t perform real well.

I did pretty well in organizations that were not doing well. I was a bit of a nonconformist making naive sounding claims about how we can get more things done and how we can avoid missing deadlines and how we can improve quality.  Worse yet, I had a tendency to run off without formal approval and go do the things I talked about.  Very often I never even brought them up, and folks just discovered I was doing them.  In many cases by the time I was found out and told that is was not worth the time or resources to pursue my idea — and it wouldn’t work in any case — it was already done and successful.

I quickly discovered that this was not the optimum path to promotion and recognition!  Many very successful people were telling me that this was unwise and I needed to change my approach to be more like their’s.  Their approach, however, was not causing the organization to be successful, even though they were individually successful.  Later, I would come across a quote from John Maynard Keynes that it is better for one’s reputation to fail conventionally then it was to succeed unconventionally.  I kept wondering, what is going on here?

How can an organization not perform well when it gets populated with “the best and the brightest” as we said in the Air Force? I suggest it is largely because we populate key positions with our “A” students.  The “A” student knows how to tune into the powers-that-be and give back what is requested.  They excel at this.  When a company has good leadership and a culture of excellence and success the “A” student will mimic and achieve similar excellence and also drive further project success.

What happens when things change?  What happens when that leadership, the teacher, leaves and maybe some of those “A” students take up the leadership without guidance from an insightful leader?  What happens when there is a bad spell in the company or the economy or the government?  What happens when for awhile everyone is just trying to survive?  What happens when an “A” student joins an organization where the culture is to not rock the boat?  Well, I suggest in all these cases, the “A” student adapts and does what is appropriate to continue to get the “A.”

If the way we survive, get the “A” from the manager, is to not rock the boat then we don’t rock the boat.  If to survive, get the “A”, is by back channel maneuvers and spreading innuendo to undermine another manager who is doing the same to us then we adapt and learn to do that well.  If every new CEO who comes in leaves in a few years and the company continues a long downhill slide, we learn how to survive and adapt by looking good to the CEO, who we know will not be around long. We did everything required and we got the “A.”

The bottom line is that this kind of “A” student takes their considerable talent and adopts behaviors that allow them to survive if not move up by getting the “A.”  How well the company does is no longer, if it ever was, the concern of the individual.  We, the “A” student are doing fine. Look, we just got promoted to Senior VP!

In Project Management The Disrupter Is Important TooIs there a solution?  The first insight is that for every half dozen or so “A” students, we need a few nonconforming disruptors.  The “A” students provide stability.  The disruptors help the organization break out into new areas.  They find the new and the different and they are not constrained by what is needed to get the “A.”

There is nothing new in this notion.  Most team building, Meyers-Briggs applications, participative management theories, all talk about needing diversity in groups.  This diversity provides the spark, as folks bump up against each other’s differences, that make the group greater than any individual, even the “A” student.   One sees reports in the media that in a down economy there are too many “yes men” trying to keep their bosses happy and this is bad for business.  We’ve all heard about “group think” where everyone strives to stay in agreement (or showing the same behaviors) as the “best” way to succeed.

The second insight is that these are still “A” students.  If we give them good direction, redefine what it takes to get the “A” they will then — as they have done in the past — perform well against the goal.  I often talk of taking an organization, eliminating key bad management habits, and watching the same people + process + tools (minus the bad habits) perform exceptionally well.  This is in large part, I’ve concluded, because our “A” students are now focused on doing the right things — and they will do it as well as they were doing the less effective things.

Make sure our “A” students get the proper direction and motivation and the project and organization should do well.  Allow the “A” students to lose their way and we may have considerable talent working against the best interest of the organization.  Ensure we have a good mixture of nonconformist distruptors and “A” students in leadership positions.  This helps to provide a balanced range of ideas and behavior to allow us to adapt to and to exploit a changing world.

Does the specific mix of people on your project team help or hinder the success of the team?
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13 thoughts on “In Project Management The “A” Student Can Be A Problem

  1. Pingback: Mix It Up
  2. Ankit says:

    The syndrome is true and exists. However generalising it to match it up with “A” performers in schools may not be completely true. I have numerous examples where poor school performers rose to the occasion as their survival instincts kicked in and many “A” performers in school struggle at work – though this was the case if their grades were a result of genuine desire to learn and not please the teacher.

    In workplace – teacher is replaced by boss and an “A” performer who has truly believed that his work will speak for itself ceases to be the case, his assumption that everyone will chose the right path is wrong and that any good suggestions will be immediately accepted in benefit of the organisational benefit are undermined by short-sighted personal gains of immediate superiors. On the other hand the survivor who has met success for the first time would want to keep it as is no matter what and do whatever it takes to get the “A” they have waited for all their school life.

    Anyway that’s all psychological stuff and best left to more knowledgeable people to debate. For me as a Project Manager the key is to get the balance right and it’s striking this balance that is the trickiest part without a shadow of doubt.

    Regards,
    Ankit.

  3. David Cooper says:

    After reading this article I would have to say I agree with allot of what has been said and would like to add my comments. A well diversified team is needed for any project, but we have to be careful not to stifle the creative/ innovative minds of those not meant to be the conformer. Tolerance is the key to making this work and balancing this without compromising company values can sometimes be challenging yet achievable. If done properly you may find that you have assembled the most productive Team you have. These Teams typically challenge each individual member to do better and be more creative than the conformer Team. My feelings are that the “yes” man just doesn’t cut it in our business and the Managers that look for those individuals as their Team member typically don’t do as well as others. Surrounding yourself with creative, bright individuals who question the status quo whether the A Student or the B student will reap huge rewards. What I find rather troublesome in our industry today is a great number of A Students feel the need to under commit on a task to give the impression of over performing. Where did this saying of under commit and over perform come from and how did it make it into the construction industry? Who is teaching this nonsense? Growing up in this business I was always taught to commit to what could be done and find a way to truly over perform. To do this you must have a diverse Team made up of A, B and C students/players who all challenge each other to do better and think outside of the box.

    1. Bruce Benson says:

      David,

      “balancing this without compromising company values can sometimes be challenging yet achievable” — I think you just identified one of the essential qualities of a truly successful manager: the ability to find this balance.

      Great comment, thanks.

      Bruce

  4. David says:

    Interesting point of view. However, how do you suggest companies be able to identify(when recruiting) capable young employes, if not by their performance in their previous experience.
    When recruiting from college or university, this is the only measure available in order to compare performance.
    I believe the problem is not within the companies, but in the education system. I was an “A” student, but at the same time I’ve performed exceptionally in my professional experience. The key is not to look ONLY at school performance, but also to look at previous jobs performance, good managerial guidance and tactics to identify and separate the good workers from the good students (not necessarily mutually exclusive)

    1. Bruce Benson says:

      David,

      I always liked to ask the individual about projects and special efforts they did. Also, anything they did outside of a formal class. I also look for this in the resume and talk to a few of these folks with interesting activities/achievements rather than just the “A” students. Don’t get me wrong, I like “A” students, I just like a range of focus and grades alone give limited information.

      When I see someone who has done well (e.g., promotions, salaries, etc.) but I can’t quite put a finger on what is it they did, I often shy away from these “high performers.” I’ll ask them to describe what they did and how they did it, and it just feels hollow — their depth of insight into what made a difference. I was having a discussion with a new Director of Software Testing and after a short time, I realized that his prior experience had really been on the outside looking in and he had spun it so well that the hiring authority billed him as an experience test manager. He wasn’t and it became apparent – but even as his organization continued to not do well – he kept a pretty good reputation because he was very good at talking-the-talk (customers liked him too, he was later offered a VP position). So I agree that past performance is critical to know, but often our measures (grade point average, titles, salary, etc.) turn out not to be the greatest indicators.

      Good observations. Thanks.

      Bruce

  5. Hami says:

    I absolutely agree with the author and tanks to hte article . grouping all “A” is a trrible matter in a project life cycle

    1. Bruce Benson says:

      Hami,

      Agreed. I think we always want to strive for a good mixture of folks on any team.

      Thanks

      Bruce

  6. Don Santos says:

    Bruce,

    So true … never having been an “A” student, I have never been accused of being to eager to please – nor could I have won a popularity contest with any of my past employers. Your wrap above covers a lot of ground pretty quickly. If you were to fuse that with the insecurities that are ramped in management today, you will have made Pareto smile.:)

    -Don Santos
    cpmschedules.com

    1. Bruce Benson says:

      Don,

      Motivation in an organization is always something to consider when trying to understand and fix what is going on. Too often some key ideas never make the Pareto chart, so never get considered as a potential root cause. I’ve often observed that when something goes wrong in a project or organization, inevitably it involves some of our best people. This because we’ve put our best in charge (or should have). The notion that at the root of just about every significant problem is one of our best people, is another “huh!?” I often get from an organization’s leaders.

      Most real changes that are needed and useful don’t generate universal popularity, I’ve found. Change is hard and sometimes we need people working on changes that in turn don’t need to be popular. Of course, it is always better to have happy folks during a change and that is often more possible than some folks believe.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Bruce

  7. Robert Fuentes Jr. says:

    I totally agree with the author. I am presently witnessing this “A” student phenomenon where I work and I do consider myself a “disruptor” in this organization. I appreciate the article and it provides a framework to understand my situation.

    Best Regards,
    -Bob…

    1. Bruce Benson says:

      Bob,

      Thanks and keep it up. The trick is always finding the right balance between disrupting and conforming. Too many people do the latter and not enough take a chance with the former.

      Continued good luck.

      Bruce

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