The Ten Most Important Things – No. 2: It Takes Vision

Feb 10, 2019

I once worked for a boss who loved to come by my office and throw out ideas. It wasn’t helpful, but I listened attentively, and nodded with a feigned interest until he had finished and departed to go search out his next victim. I never followed through on those ideas, and he never came back and asked me about them. Instead, I wrote a damn good report and when he read it, he gained the benefit of knowledge. You see, I had journeyed into the trenches, I had talked with the people involved, I had reviewed the data, and I knew what the problem was. He didn’t. Until he read my report.

Wiser people wouldn’t have responded the way I did. Even so, I’ll stick my neck out even further. Given what I’ve seen in the world of big projects, I’d say most junior project managers are too often derailed by the uninformed views of those who couldn’t possibly have a grip on the situation because they haven’t done the research, built the relationships, or poured over the data for hours mining the nuggets of significance from what is otherwise a pile of irrelevancy. But they’re a boss or some kind of alleged guru and, as a junior PM, you feel obligated to listen to and do what they say. I agree. You should listen to them. But not so much that you’re derailed from your pursuit of the truth and the greater good. The only exception is this: if the guru knows what they’re talking about, and you know that they know what they’re talking about, listen to them very carefully. That’s different. Opportunities like those are golden nuggets from above.

The second of The Ten Most Important Things You Need to Believe is this:

It Takes Vision.

Yes, it takes vision, and I’m not just talking about motivational pictures someone tacks on the cubicle walls. I’m talking vision of and into the project. Whether your involvement with a project begins at the start of the effort, or, like I have often been asked to do, you’re getting involved in order to help set a failing project back on track, you must have a clear vision of where you’re going and what it’s going to take to get there. This is absolutely essential.

Here’s another story. I was once asked to join an executive management team that had been running a huge technology project; a project that was way behind schedule. Here is what happened during the first four days.

On the first day, I attended a meeting of people who hadn’t been expecting me. They were clearly annoyed. I asked for a schedule. The room became quiet, and heads went down to avoid making eye contact with me. Now they were really annoyed. I wondered if I’d mispronounced the word schedule, so I asked again. This time I got a head shake and a scowl. And no schedule.

The next day I went to a meeting with the client’s project manager and his very large team of first lieutenants. Even though they’d hired an outside vendor to design, build, and deliver a multi-hundred-million-dollar system, not one member of the vendor’s team was in attendance. A bad sign. I waited, hoping to hear more about the schedule. To my dismay, the one topic taking up most of the meeting was about a new document capture technology, a peripheral concern and completely irrelevant considering the scope of the project and the ambiguity around what was actually happening. The group never discussed the project schedule. I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.

On the third day I attended a meeting with the client’s project director, her direct reports, and the vendor’s project manager, an affable guy, for sure. I had asked for the meeting because I wanted to understand what was going on. This affable guy began reciting a litany of problems. I waited to learn what he and his firm were doing about all these problems, but he just kept going, moving quickly from one problem to the next, and the next … and the next, and so on. So, I asked the question, “What action steps are you taking to address these issues and risks?” He looked at me like I was from another planet. There was no answer.

On the fourth day I reconnected with the client’s project director, the person who’d hired me. She explained that the project had suffered a major setback; one that had significantly impacted the schedule. She felt that the political environment wouldn’t tolerate a new target date that was any more than 12 months away.

Wow. It took four days to get any kind of answer to the first question I asked on the first day during that dastardly meeting as the uninvited guest.

When I awoke on the fifth day, here is what I saw:

  • There was no credible schedule.
    • The client had no visibility into what was going on, leaving them with no means of steering the ship back on course.
  • The client’s project manager was focused on irrelevant aspects.
    • He and his team were in the dark about what was really going on. And he either didn’t know how to find out what was going on, or he didn’t believe it was his responsibility. He also didn’t have any support from his boss. So, he held meetings, filling the time with irrelevant and inconsequential topics.
  • The vendor’s project manager was in problem-admiration mode and didn’t have a corrective action plan.
    • He was certainly a nice guy, but he wasn’t skilled as a project manager. He was a sales guy. The client liked him and had asked that he serve as the vendor’s PM. Bad idea. Staffing decisions like this are a sure sign that key positions are being filled with people based upon relational/political reasons rather than real and practical needs.
  • New schedule targets were being set based on political drivers.
    • A HUGE step was skipped. You know, the one where you sit down and map out the project scope, approach, phases, and phase organization structures. It’s the blue print of the project. Without it, you’re going to flounder in ambiguity and dysfunction … and miss the mark.
    • Note: Political drivers are an important consideration, but shouldn’t be the main driver when seeking to develop a realistic project schedule.
    • I wondered if the client’s project director understood the significance of her role. She was the only one who had the authority to drive the planning to clarity and then hold the collective teams accountable to specific dates and products. To her credit, she recognized what was missing, which was one of the reasons she asked me to come help, but she never seemed to understand her own role in setting the project right and then driving it to completion. I suspect that, like her predecessor, she was preoccupied with politicking. After all, it was what the job had always been. The whole “contract with a big ole firm to do the heavy lifting” thing was a new experience for the organization, which explained a lot. Anyway, shortly after I joined the team (and long before the target completion date had arrived) she announced her retirement and eventually went to work for the vendor. That happens A LOT.

How did things go after that? Well, it was no cake-walk, mister. I did what I always do. I ignored those trying to derail me, worked my butt off to get to the bottom of things, aggregated everything into a clear visual representation of the project, and set up a weekly reporting process that allowed the client and collective teams to understand and stay abreast of what was happening.

There was a lot of resistance, especially from the other vendor firms who’d been hired to provide project management support (many people to my one), and long-time consultants who’d nested themselves into the organization for literally decades without any accountability for results. Seriously. I’m not kidding. I almost got fired because of the complaints. But then I called the meeting with the steering committee chair, my client, and some key division managers, and I laid out the vision. They got it. And they wanted it. It got much better after that.

So, this is why it takes vision … all kinds of vision.

  • Vision to see into the situation and understand the problem.
  • Vision of what it will take to gain the needed clarity.
  • Vision of what will bring the project back to health.
  • Vision of the most immediately required project execution machine:
    • I call them project execution machines, but these are organizational teams, roles and responsibilities, processes, tools, and protocols designed to keep the project moving through the inevitable “start up stumbles” into a productive groove, moving through each project phase with increasingly greater ease and efficiency.
  • Vision that anticipates how the current project execution machine needs to be modified and transitioned to handle the work of the next phase … before it’s needed.
    • Think about a project as something requiring deconstruction into bite size chunks. Most projects move through a number of lengthy and complex phases, usually at least three and no more than about five. Each phase involves at least one essential activity that’s mission critical. When facing an upcoming transition to the next phase, it’s the PM’s job to anticipate and plan for the needed changes to the organization (project execution machine) before the team is sitting there on a Monday morning with no idea about how to tackle the challenges staring them in the face. That’s a recipe for schedule slippage – big time.
  • Vision into the project. Every week … without fail.
    • This means a structured review of project status in terms of schedule, phase specific activities and progress (granular details that are relevant) issues, risks, staffing, budget, and corrective action plans. At minimum.
    • NOTE: A fifth grader should be able to understand everything that’s discussed in the meeting. The simpler it is, the more you will empower the executive team and steering committee with information that they can relate to and act upon. “Simpler” does not mean condescending. Simpler means you’ve worked your ass off and managed to zero in on the most relevant and impactful pieces of information they need to know in order to make good decisions about the project, their support of the project, and what they must do to contribute to its success.

It takes vision. It’s the second most important thing you need to believe. Next time, I’ll pontificate about the most important thing you need to believe when it comes to solving problems.

Until then, be blessed.


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