Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Why Technology Project Teams Really Keep Falling Short of Expectations

Christian Stambouli

Despite an abundance of tools and resources, technology project teams still struggle to produce expected outcomes. According to a recent BCG study, 70% of Digital Transformation projects fall short of their objectives.

Although a multitude of solutions, such as hiring top talent and effective agile processes, do make a difference, there are fundamental human factors that are overlooked. They are fundamental because they relate to how people show up in their role, rather than what they do. 

It is not that organizations and their employees choose to ignore these factors. They simply take them for granted, and often don’t notice how important they are. This leaves employees, especially the younger ones, to their own devices in trying to figure out how to bring these crucial human factors to their work. Sometimes they do get it right, but most times they don’t.

So, why do technology project teams fail to meet expectations?

1 - They fail to collaborate effectively

I don’t have to tell you that collaboration is key to success in our current business environment. Turn to any paper or article about project success, and collaboration is top of the list. Although the “what” and “why” of collaboration are explained in detail, there is little about the “how” of collaboration, and most important: the “how” of effective collaboration.

In my experience, when teams come together, their members have a genuine intent to collaborate. The problem is that each member has their own interpretation of how to collaborate. Inevitably, this leads to weak collaboration despite each participant’s best efforts.

How do we ensure effective collaboration?

First, we must be clear on what collaboration is. Imagine three tiers to the collaboration model.

The first tier is the most important, and without it everything falls apart. It is solely based on human qualities and dynamics such as: mutual trust, congruent agendas, ability to clearly communicate, ability to make and fulfill commitments, and rallying around a common purpose.

The second tier is where we define roles and responsibilities, assign the right talent and skill for the job, and where we establish governance and processes. A strong first tier strengthens this second tier, making it stable and robust.

The third tier is where the right tools (technology and otherwise) are used to enable the collaborative process.

Most teams focus their effort on setting up the second and third tiers to facilitate collaboration. The first tier is taken for granted and it is left to each individual contributor to figure things out on their own. It is assumed that the team will somehow build cohesion naturally. It’s an approach that produces a wobbly collaborative environment at best. Hence, failure to collaborate effectively.

Here's a story I often cite to illustrate the importance of that first tier of collaboration.

A few years ago, I worked with a group that delivered automation systems to manufacturing facilities. We had a high performing, collaborative team, because of a well-established first tier. Consequently, most of our time was spent on productive work.

As we expanded, a star developer joined our team. Despite his talent, and skill, he was a solo worker who seemed to have his own agenda. He often turned his back on the team when providing support would have helped tremendously. It didn’t take long before our performance suffered, and conflict emerged. It took a single person to shake the team to its core.

Once we realized the root cause of our declining performance, we removed him from the team and replaced him with one willing to collaborate and fit into the team’s high-performance culture. It took some time before we were back on track, and we eventually did. The strong first tier of our collaboration was the glue that held the team together. But it took only one person to dismantle it. This is how fragile and important that first tier is.

I believe that the first tier of collaboration is overlooked because it is based in human behavior, values, moods, and emotions that are difficult to measure and manage. However, it is possible to design and constitute a framework, a structure, that allows a robust first tier to be established. By doing so, we create team cohesion and mechanisms to adjust and realign when challenges arise. Challenges we wouldn’t normally notice when working without a clear collaboration model.

2 – They are unable to translate their communication into effective action

“Death by meetings” is an expression often used to voice people’s dislike of meetings and most of all their uselessness. Now, communication doesn’t only happen in meetings. It is always happening with every conversation and interaction.

The key question to ask is this: Are these conversations resulting in effective actions?

If they’re not, then it’s a waste of time.

How do we translate communication into effective action?

Here are three key things you can do right now to produce effective action.

First: Have an outcome in mind. What do you want to accomplish with the conversation, meeting, interaction? What kind of actions do you want to put in motion? If you’re making a request, you must phrase it in such a way that the other person fulfills it and does not ignore you. Be precise in your language.

Second: Put yourself in your listener’s shoes. If you’re trying to explain to your VP why your code doesn’t work, she won’t care one bit about the technical details. You want to make sure you design your conversation in a way that gets the point across, so your VP can provide the necessary executive support that is needed. Don’t assume the other understands what you’re talking about. Phrase it in a way they can understand.

Third: Consider the environment and design your conversation in that context. For example, an urgent, high-stress situation requires straight to the point conversations to get into the next action. Nobody has time for a speech.

Throughout my career, I noticed, for example, that the way people make requests (verbal or written) is often cause for confusion. Sometimes requests are mis-interpreted, at other times they are given low priority and ignored. A young analyst reporting to me was frustrated that her colleagues weren’t responding to her requests. She felt ignored and marginalized. Once I showed her a simple approach to making requests and explained that it is her job to compel others to respond and engage, she started showing positive results.

Communication in business must be intentional and focused on producing actions that in turn generate the outcomes we desire. Intentional Communication is a means to turn words into results.

3 - They think that hard work is a measure of performance

If there’s one vestige of the past that has persistently stayed with us, it’s the labor mindset. First, let me explain what is meant by labor. “Labor” is the activity of exerting effort to accomplish a specific task. Laboring was the way we worked to be productive. People had a series of tasks to accomplish, and they exerted effort, sometimes physical and repetitive, to complete their tasks. The labor mindset simply means that we think that hard work translates into good performance. This doesn’t mean that labor or hard work are a bad thing. 

There are still many jobs out there that do require a labor mindset. However, in a technology environment, such a mindset is counterproductive.

So, why is this labor mindset counterproductive and what do we need to do differently?

When people are focused on tasks, they develop tunnel vision that limits their capacity for collaboration, their creativity, and opportunity for critical thinking. In the case of a factory worker with pre-determined standard operating procedures, task orientation is their primary function. On the other hand, a software developer does not have a procedure to follow, and the key expectation is that they produce good quality code that works in the context of the system or product being built.

A developer that focuses on producing code as quickly as possible with no consideration for other elements in play will tend to rely on what they already know and therefore produce code that is most likely inconsistent with expectations. This doesn’t mean they don’t have tasks to complete. Their focus is on producing great quality that fits into a whole. Completing tasks is a secondary concern.

How do you cause such a shift?

Here are three key things you can do now.

First: Awareness that a person is in task orientation is crucial. Most of us do what we think is the best way of doing things until somebody points out that we’re not on the right track. If you’re a project leader, notice your team’s behavior and bring their awareness to how they’re doing things.

Second: Every team member needs to develop leadership skills. Whether done formally or informally, it is essential. Part of being a leader is communicating and collaborating and knowing when to ask for help.

Third: Encourage critical thinking and creativity among team members. Apply these skills to the problems at hand, within the context of the project.

Developing aware leaders who are creative and critical thinkers is crucial for team performance, that in turn impacts the quality of outcomes. Outcome orientation requires these abilities and skills. In the technology world, task orientation and the labor mindset are counterproductive and contributors to failure.

Collaboration, Communication, and Outcome Orientation are crucial for the success of teams in technology projects. The key factor is the human element. That same human element described in tier 1 of collaboration.

In the past couple of decades, we have been so focused on the technical aspect of digital transformation that we overlooked the question of the Human Transformation that must go along with it. That became evident to me as I noticed the consistent trend of successes or failures as a direct result of the ability, readiness, and willingness of people to adopt the performance practices discussed in this article.

If you want to improve the chances of success of your digital initiative, we can help.

Ukemi Way has developed unique and effective framework models for Collaboration, Communication, and Outcome Orientation designed specifically for technology teams.

Our 6-week Collaboration Excellence Intensive helps you build that tier 1 backbone of collaboration. Or you can try our Do-It-Yourself Learning Modules for the self-directed individual performer.

How will you improve on collaboration and performance of your team?

What kind of challenges are you having and how has this blog helped you find solutions? 

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Getting Things Done in 3 Leadership Moves

Christian Stambouli
Getting Things Done in 3 Leadership moves

Relationships are central to everything we do. As social beings, we rely on our relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and community to take care of all our basic needs, whether for entertainment, building and growing a business, or having safety and security. We connect with people we trust and value to help us take care of issues we could not possibly take care of on our own.

In the domain of managing projects, when we step away from the tools, processes, and techniques and look at the big picture, we find that relationships and the people we regularly interact with are the determining factor in getting things done. They are a fundamental factor in the success or failure of any initiative.

Managers of projects often get caught up in the demands of the process, which dictates documenting, informing stakeholders, and constantly keeping track of progress, resource allocation, and budgets among other things. They closely monitor the triple constraints of time, cost, and scope as the key determinants of success or failure.

Their management activities turn into automatic behaviors and actions they perform as yet another task to be completed and scratched off the list. In their quest for efficiency and speed, they unknowingly develop blindness to underlying problems that more often than not are rooted in dysfunctional relationships and people.

If you are leading a large project, you are dealing with not only so many moving parts, but also so many relationships that you are guaranteed unexpected breakdowns that can be avoided or at least forecasted. So, how do you go about overcoming this blindness to underlying dysfunctional relationships for the sake of getting things done promptly and productively?

I offer you the three leadership moves that I have learned, utilized, and refined throughout my career. I applied them in many contexts and cultures. They work because they focus on the determining factor in getting things done. They focus not the technicalities of the job, but the relationships and the people we regularly interact with.

1. Do not assume the people you are dealing with will automatically understand what you want.

What you are trying to convey in your communication must be clarified, reiterated, and confirmed for others to naturally align with the purposes of successfully fulfilling the project. If you assume, for instance, that just submitting a report or broadcasting status information to a large group of stakeholders is sufficient to qualify as having communicated, then you are guaranteeing unexpected breakdowns that could be avoided. The key here is to replace this broadcast-and-forget sense of completion with the responsibility of seeing your communication through to your recipient confirming they understand your communication or request.

2. Truly lead your followers by demonstrating your commitment to project objectives and taking full responsibility for the often-difficult path you are asking them to follow.

John C. Maxwell, the leadership guru, says: “Leadership is not about titles, positions, or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another.” To influence others, you need to see them, really see them as they are and be curious about their challenges, needs, and concerns. You must be in communication to earn their trust and dedication to overcome challenges along the way. You must speak to them to influence them in a way that they willingly and wholeheartedly dedicate their efforts to performing their part at the best of their abilities. 

3. Develop dedicated individuals who no longer act like indifferent automatons performing their duties, from nine to five, with little sense of meaning or purpose for their work.

When we shift from a traditional command-and-control leadership approach to one of building true relationships of trust and common purpose, teams become more cohesive and collaborative, where ideally everyone participates fully in reaching the common goals that define the success of the project.

As a project manager, you can adopt this move to clearly determine the who’s who on your projects and build relationships in a way that enhances their capacity to influence stakeholders, minimize team dysfunction, and be prepared for potential conflicts that are inevitable and a natural result of constant change.

All three leadership moves to get things done capture the character of intentional communication, a superpower of leadership that is necessary for managers who want to make themselves worthy of leadership. Without it, you are committing to being an ordinary, run-of-the mill project manager hoping to develop influence one day.

I developed a self-study, video course on the subject, The Intentional Communication Course. It is designed for you to pick up and work through at your own pace. But more importantly, the course delivery is designed to help you actively and immediately apply what you’re learning. I must warn you though, it is not a good format for spectators, but an excellent one for action-oriented individuals. You can get a free sneak peek of the course to vet it for yourself here.

If you want to improve the chances of success of your digital initiative, we can help.

Ukemi Way has developed unique and effective framework models for Collaboration, Communication, and Outcome Orientation designed specifically for technology teams.

Our 6-week Collaboration Excellence Intensive helps you build that tier 1 backbone of collaboration. Or you can try our Do-It-Yourself Learning Modules for the self-directed individual performer.

How will you improve on collaboration and performance of your team?

What kind of challenges are you having and how has this blog helped you find solutions? 

Copyright © 2022, Ukemi Way Designed By Templateism