Home » Leadership » Why Senior Management Attention Is Often Based Upon Fear

Why Senior Management Attention Is Often Based Upon FearWhen Vikings was in production, he says, [A+E Networks CEO Nancy] Dubuc did what too few TV executives are willing to do — she left him alone.  “Normally on a show, the networks send a lot of executives to try and control, spy on, and influence what’s being made,” [Vikings creator Michael] Hirst says.  … “The industry is driven by fear. People don’t want to fail. They have huge ambitions, but they’re afraid that the show won’t work. That’s why they start interfering.  It’s their fear that starts screwing everything up. By not being afraid, by trusting people, you get the best work back.”  The Duck Whisperer, Bloomberg Businessweek, Jun 24, 2013.

It happened every time.  When the project was at the beginning of the effort, we could hardly get an executive’s attention to get resources or to help clear the way with other executives.  But when the project got down to its last few months, everybody and his brother showed up to help “manage” the project to success.

Of course, the last few months is way too late to help out and the only real thing possible at that late a juncture is to mess things up. Unfortunately, senior management wanted to show that they were running the show, in charge and on top of what was going on.

We were cleaning up the final glitches and working with the customer to get their go ahead to take the product. The senior executives and their minions (you know them, the favored troops that cluster around senior managers) had shown up in force and had effectively taken over the daily project reviews.

They were in unfamiliar territory however, because we were on time and winding down the last of the key defects we still needed to fix. Now these executives were specially known for their “we will not slip the schedule” stance.  If anyone even hinted that we needed to slip something out, the minions would immediately bark, in front of everyone in  the meeting, “we will not slip!”  This made them, of course, the keepers of the schedule and protectors of truth, quality and the company way!

We had just fixed the last of our key defects and were ready to deliver to our largest overseas customer. Inexplicably, and to this day it still amazes me, the senior executives and their minions, noting that we had not yet slipped during the almost 18 month schedule, decided that instead of shipping this week, and being on schedule, to instead let quality testing go on another week “just to be sure.”

I heard this, but didn’t say or do anything or otherwise respond to the statement (it was nominally my meeting). Everyone, worldwide, who was on the conference call and in the meeting room heard this comment.  The “we will never slip” folks had just casually said we’ll slip a week.

What happened?  The account team, who was out with the customer, delivered the product on time, right to the day. The customer, who had said they had fully tested it and would take it, were delighted and complimented us on finally being able to deliver a major product on time.

My final conclusion on what had happened was very simple. The senior managers and their immediate staff were so use to having late projects that it just didn’t feel right to deliver a product that had not slipped.  So they seemed to have reflexively inserted the slip almost as if no project was truly complete until we had done that step.  They were probably fearful (consciously or unconsciously) that something wasn’t right and to release it without a slip just didn’t feel like the safe thing to do.

The senior product manager was a bit stunned that we had delivered to the customer.  She asked me what happened (gee, I’m in charge again!?).  I responded with an example from my military background:  If you disobey an order and fail, it is insubordination.  However, if you disobey an order and succeed, it is initiative. We never discussed the subject again.

The bottom line was that we would have done just fine, delivered the project on time and with good quality, without any last minute unrequested executive help.  The help we did get, and we always got at the end of our projects, not only didn’t add value but directly threatened to cause us to miss our delivery date.  To echo Michael Herst: “It’s their fear that starts screwing everything up.  By not being afraid, by trusting people, we get the best work back.” If it wasn’t for a bit of creative incompetence (my silence and the account team’s initiative) we would not have delivered a project that for years afterwards senior managers would say “we need another project just like that one.”

Is your senior leadership’s attention adding value to your project?

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