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Sunday, 27 December 2015 17:26

Kill The White Knight

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There is a reason we hesitate to teach classes on fixing failing projects. Many a cynic feels that we simply do not want to teach our trade, however, our reason is far nobler—we should be teaching prevention rather trying to create white knights to save the day. It is the same philosophy as building a fence at the cliff's edge rather than an emergency room at its base. Our language is replete with idioms telling us to look past the symptoms and address problems at their root cause. 'An ounce of prevention versus a pound of cure' or 'a stitch in time saves nine.' Please, feel free to supply your own in the comments. Unfortunately, most of our businesses loathe this philosophy, waiting to address an issue until it is irrefutably broken.

Heroes Are Our Heroes

The problem is that our culture reveres the square-jawed, buff, clean-cut knight, who in enters in the eleventh-hour to save the day—or the project. Routinely worshiping, praising, and honoring these stereotypically male models while overlooking the truly heroic men and women whose projects stay out of trouble is reinforcing the wrong behavior. This is engrained in our culture so strongly that some executives go to the extreme of having tiger teams, and "staff champions" in reserve to handle problem projects. A hush befalls any room these sacred issue slayers enter.

Crisis-Drive Corporate Cultures

I am sure that you would never run your lives in crisis-mode, but I am confident that many of the companies you work for daily jump from disaster to calamity to emergency. It is in their culture.

It is not that projects fall apart overnight, requiring immediate attention. They typically follow a more protracted scenario:

  1. The project starts to falter.
  2. The project manager, in an effort to avoid looking weak to their bosses, fails to mention the trouble. (The boss may or may not react in this manner, but if the culture makes it feel real, then it is as good as real.)
  3. Stakeholders, thinking everything is going okay, do not take cautionary actions of double-checking with the project team. (After all, they have other crises to attend to.)
  4. The project finally violates the scope, schedule, or budget parameters to a degree the problem cannot remain hidden.
  5. A boss calls in the hero to fix the project.
  6. Everyone worships the hero.

In our crisis-driven lives, no one takes the time to apply the prophylactic action to keep the project on track.

Defeating Crisis-Driven Leadership

It is so easy to say that we need to stop managing by crises and employ the right people to lead us to well-thought strategic goals. Execution though is much more difficult. The culture must change—starting at the top. In a phrase, we need no-fault leadership.

Leadership Is At The Core

Anyone who regularly reads these writings knows the constant theme—project managers need to transform into project leaders. What gets lost in this message is the dearth of leaders throughout the organization. We assume that people in leadership positions are actual leaders. Promotions based on technical and managerial capabilities rarely produce leaders. To make matters worse, rather than a standard of providing leadership training, these 'promotees' are left to hone their leadership skills through trial and error. Nothing could be more expensive and failure prone.

Training is required; people coming out of the trenches have to change their style. It amazes me at the number of times people get promoted and tell me how difficult it is and how their bosses relay their concern about that same person's leadership skills. Yet, rarely do I hear the word 'training.'

Leaders have to rise above the petty antics of the office and be objective. Their key to becoming successful leaders is to develop the attributes of humility superseding hierarchy, accountability opposing accusation, and trust trumping blame.

The No Fault Culture

The base attribute is putting trust in place of blame. Listening to the nightly news, it might seem criminal to think that we should stop looking for blame. The minute anything goes wrong, there is a resounding chorus of "Who is going to be fired?" In my job of fixing failures, only once have I recommended forcible terminating someone involved in a failure. However, I had purchase orders this person had altered to achieve a personal agenda and benefit.

Do not get me wrong, if a project does not need someone's skills, I have re-assigned them to different jobs, often off my project. There was no intent, however, of 'blaming' them for the problem. In fact, in most of these situations, the blame lay at the feet of the person assigning them to the project initially knowing they did not have the skills—setting them up for personal failure. Blame achieves little. It only distracts the focus from fixing the actual problem.

By removing blame, we take the biggest step in making projects and companies run better. Remove the fear of firing, stop the shame and people will ask for help, admit when they are over their head, take accountability of their actions, and become naturally transparent.

Kill The White Knight

The white-knight culture exemplifies lack of leadership—both in the executive and middle management and in the white knight. Management fails in leadership for not taking proactive action, while white knights do not need to be leaders. White knights address symptoms in fixing a project. They attack a narrow-scope problem with the authority and autonomy to tackle it. How could they fail? The answer is changing our culture to no blame, no shame, and slay the white knight.

Tell us about your experiences with white knights?

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