Guiding Quote

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Einstein

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Project Managers: How to Oppose

One of the key political skills is knowing when and how to voice opposition to a managerial decision. A misstep here can cause you to lose your side of the argument for good, and with it any possible wriggle room on interpreting the decision, and also be a major career mistake.

This week I was in a meeting where two groups were discussing how to combine their activities. One group is having to adjust to the inclusion of the other team's project managers into their long standing processes and projects. Senior management had decided that the first groups projects lacked sufficient management rigor. They were more right than they knew, rigor was missing not only from the projects but also from the executives that launched and prioritized them. But more on that subject in a future posting

The change had been in place for some weeks but the integration was spotty with the usual foot dragging and half-hearted cooperation, but no overt opposition. The classic guerrilla warfare strategy aimed at wearing down the invaders with minor delays and obstacles. That was until this meeting when one of the managers in the first group decided to voice her opinion that the change was unnecessary and she didn't see the need to implement it. So far so good, from her viewpoint, she'd stated her opposition and since it was a view that others shared no serious damage had been done. Honest opinions are always welcome.

But knowing when enough is enough was not in this individual's skill set. She kept on arguing her point of view in a vigorous and forthright manner. She wouldn't allow others, including her boss, to finish their comments. She just steamrollered right over them. When my boss tried to intervene she received the same treatment.

The net result was that the vague guidelines that had been in place prior to the meeting will now become more explicit; should will be replaced by shall and all wriggle room and obstacles will be swept away.

The overt opposition resulted in the opposite outcome to that intended. The invaders were not repulsed, far from it as they were now securely ensconced in the heart of the process and opposition to them will be frowned upon.

As far as the individual is concerned she not only embarrassed her boss in a public meeting, she also lost the support of her peers. Even those who in general agreed with her arguments were appalled at her strident behavior. Her ability to influence future events has been negated and she's going to have a career counseling session with her boss never a good outcome.

How should she have proceeded?

Well keeping quiet once her boss failed to support her would have been a good start. Never raising the issue in such an open forum would also have been a smarter move. Unless you know you have the votes or the backing of the decision makers then raising controversial issues in public is never a clever move. She should have worked on her boss in private and got his concurrence with the delays and interpretations. Covert opposition was the way to go.

Opposing senior management decisions requires a very careful analysis of the political environment and an appreciation of what is possible and practical. Sometimes ambiguous instructions that allow you to interpret them in your favor are preferable to outright opposition that leads to the codifying of the rules you don't agree with. If you believe that you can't live with ambiguity then make sure that you can live with the clarifications you seek.  Always be careful what you wish for.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Types of Bosses: The Cheerleader

There is a particular type of manager who only sees the positive side of company policy.  Like Dr. Pangloss they assume that what is happening is the best that can be done in the best of company's. They appear to be able to believe ten impossible things before breakfast.

Now for an old hand like myself they are either unbelievably naive or apparatchiks of the most mindless sort. Experience indicates that the latter is true. Nobody can be that naive!

If you have a problem recognizing this managerial species then you will fail as a politician.  The female version sounds like a kindergarten teacher always warning against running with scissors, while the male version has more enthusiasm for an obscure change in purchasing rules than any rational person should have.

Now although they may be the butt of jokes from the more worldly members of their teams they should not be underestimated. Their sugarcoated personas can hide a very ruthless streak. When challenged they react badly. Anyone who challenges their delusions is deemed as not being a team player. The upmost crime in their world. And once you are condemned of that deviancy you are in trouble.

So how do you handle this type? Well you just pay lip service to their enthusiasm. Politicians are accused of having too many faces and they practice this because they need to work with many people to build alliances. You can't disagree with everyone all the time and still get things done. So if the manager has this personality then just humor her.

However if you work for a company were the management culture is more akin to a cult, with daily cheerleading sessions, typically they are American, Europeans being too cynical and buttoned down for silly games, then you have a decision to make. You can either sign up or you can move on. A lot of companies with this ethos have terrible working conditions and see regular and extensive overtime as being a sign of loyalty. Commitment to the team is everything!

Also don't mistake enthusiasm for commitment to doing things. One of my first experiences of this behavior was on a trip to the US where I attended a weekly production meeting and at the end they had a "lets do it" ritual. Which was strange to me coming from the UK where meetings typically end on a low note, chairs pushed back, participants shuffling out as if burdened by the extra workload.  The problem was that they didn't, do it that is. The next week the only person who's finished his assigned tasks was me. The cynical Brit. The others had excuses, but still did the "lets do it" ritual at the end of that and every subsequent meeting. I reached the conclusion that "let's do it" was the same as "mañana" but without its overwhelming sense of urgency. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Types of Bosses: The Jilted Lover

One of the recurring themes in management literature is the need to generate loyalty in your company. However this concept is in some cases a one-way street. You are expected to be loyal but your manager isn't. This usually takes the form of you being expected to sacrifice your personal life for the good of the project, the company, but come a slight downturn in business then you are as dispensable as a face tissue.

But that is the way of business, nothing special there. The jilted lover comes into play when you decided to leave your current position for another one within the same company, or within the same group of companies. They become upset because you are leaving him, abandoning her, you are an ungrateful person.

Like a jilted lover they take revenge: They refuse to sanction your transfer, give a poor review to spike your chances, bad mouth you to the other organization. If they can't have you then nobody else will!

How do you recognize the trait? Well they either have a record of doing this sort of thing or in the case of the organization they have an unwritten rule which most of the experienced people know about. The trick is finding out.

How do you do that? You use the Observe step of the OODA loop. You listen to the office gossip; there is always some recent case that has occurred. Also you can ask some of the more experienced people who you trust about what happens if you want to move departments. Do not take on trust that because the company proclaims an open movement policy or advertises internal vacancies that all its managers and units adhere to the principle.

A young relative, a civil engineer, found that out recently when he applied for a transfer from the east to the west coast that he had inadvertently broken an unwritten rule that frowned on the transfer between group companies. The company had been bought but still viewed itself as being separate and special. The result was the transfer was blocked; he was suddenly an employee with an "attitude" issue, not a team player, and no annual bonus.

So assuming that you find out that this is the situation what now?

Well you can circumvent this behavior by not directly asking for a transfer. You get the other department head to ask for your specific skill set. Make it look like your current boss is doing everyone a favor. Youre not rejecting him; you are helping him look good in the eyes of his peers. Similarly get the other company in the group to request help in filling a position with your skills.