Put another way, if you deliver the goods consistently but too quietly, you may find yourself and your organization taken for granted. This isn’t the voice of resentment; it’s the voice of experience. And when you’re taken for granted, the conditions needed for your success start to change.
Here’s a bit of advice. Communicate near misses. Make sure all of the top executives know what could have happened if that major IT project had gone sideways.
Don’t expect pats on the back — that’s not the point. The point is that the better you and your organization get, the more you may fade into the background. Ensure that there’s a clear understanding company-wide of your strategic relevance. It’s your job to make sure you and your people are appreciated.
Don’t Get Taken For Granted, SecretCIO, InformationWeek, May 14, 2012.
For too many people, the challenge of how to manage success is something they find humorous to discuss.
First off, we believe that things will never change that much. It will be essentially the same around here. Secondly, success — if it happens — will sell and manage itself! There is no need to manage success.
When the situation changes, and we are “suddenly” successful (after a lot of hard work and risk taking) it almost always surprises us. We don’t know how to handle it.
No way, I say.
I can handle success!
It is kind of like folks saying that if they won the lottery and now had tens of millions of dollars, it would not change them or they would have no difficulty dealing with it. History has shown that such sudden success is very difficult and few people handle it well.
If We Are Successful It Must Have Been Easy!
The same is true for project success. Once we get to the point where we can deliver on time with good quality … what happens? We can get taken for granted. It is often amazing how quickly an organization can transition from loud and noisy projects that are always marginally successful, to successful projects that are then taken for granted. We were successful, again, so it must have been easy! We do it all the time, so it is no big deal.
I talk about this in the article “successful projects are boring.” I suggest, somewhat tongue in cheek, that we focus on making lots of noise during our projects to ensure we are appreciated. We talk it up about how hard things are and how close we all came to complete disaster, but we pulled it out and were successful. Keep the noise level up.
Unfortunately, as InformationWeek’s Secret CIO mentions, this approach is too often something we actually have to seriously consider. Keep in mind that when we get the projects working right, it doesn’t mean the rest of the organization has suddenly matured and is any less dysfunctional. In many ways we will have to fight to keep our project organization performing well, because the same forces that encouraged our previous dysfunctionality are still operating.
Too many folks, who have not experienced the transition to consistent success, expect that success will be self evident and self perpetuating. One of the hardest sells I have is convincing teams not to lose their success by assuming that success perpetuates itself. Too often, way too often, it does not.
Success Is Not Always Self Evident Nor Self Selling
We usually have to hang on hard and continue to work at it, even as we continue to be successful. Even as we look hard for new ways to further improve.
When I was young and still a very naive project manager, I had so much enthusiasm for our projects and everything that happened in them, that I would happily report all the things that went wrong and how we fixed them! This, I learned quickly, was not a very good approach. At least it was not very good if we didn’t want to supply naysayers with information they could use to speak against the project and its management.
I had just finished a very successful status review on our organization’s premier project. I was feeling happy about what we could report and was walking down the hall out of the meeting. I saw two folks talking in the hall, with one of them having their back to me. He was explaining to the other individual how poorly I was managing the project and was using all my information on things we fixed as evidence for this poor management. “No one else has ever reported that many problems in a project!” he said. “We need new management and a different approach or this project will be just another failure” he exclaimed.
Some Environments Work Against Success
That hallway discussion I overheard has stayed with me my entire career. It captured succinctly the dilemma we face when managing a project openly with brutal honesty, and an ultimately successful project as this one was.
I often talk about being brutally honest, but modify it a bit to say we don’t really need to emphasize things that will only make people concerned without any justifiable cause. This is a good case of this balancing act. I walked away from this hallway encounter deciding not to talk as much about everything that we solved. Yet, years later, I would revisit this notion and realize that instead I did need to “open my Kimono” and make sure people knew what we had done.
The SecretCIO above suggested that we remind folks of what could have gone wrong if things didn’t work well. I would modify that to include letting them know immediately when the challenge is happening. If we only try to explain what could have gone wrong, after we are done, it doesn’t have the same impact. Of course, the danger is that by highlighting a current challenge we’ll get help we don’t really need. I know too many senior managers who feel that if a problem or issue is brought up to them it means they have to take an action to help ensure things go well (see knowing when and when not to to act on a project problem).
Instead, what I’ve often done is just given my bosses or other senior managers an FYI (e-mail, hallway talk, etc.) on what is going on. “We have a showstopper right now in networking, but based upon past experience we’ll work it out. I just wanted to give you a heads up in the small chance it actually threatens to impact the costs or schedule.” This and variations on it have worked well for me in balancing the need to manage any crisis with the need to keep people materially informed as to the hard work we are doing (see is it really a crisis or is it just normal).
Success Brings It’s Own Risks That Can Be Managed
Being successful is in fact hard, even after we have consistently achieved success. Our successful projects can become “boring” and taken for granted. This introduces its own potential risks to our current and future projects. Keeping everyone informed of the daily challenges we overcame to keep the project on track may seem like a two edged sword, but it is often a necessary and an effective project management tool that works.
How much of your project challenges and problems are you sharing outside of your project?