Minesweepers and Anti-Aircraft Gunners and why they are important to projects

As a project manager, what type of people do you have around you?

Do you have a vanguard of dedicated people fanning out in front of the project to sweep for mines, defuse them and let the project move forward as smoothly as possible? Or are you surrounded by well-entrenched anti-aircraft gunners throwing up a barrage of flak to make sure the status quo is protected?

Project managers would like to be surrounded by the minesweeping team; nothing sounds as good to a PM as reports coming in of items dealt with and ready to move on. Often this is not the case. The team’s default position is to escalate unresolved items to the PM which slows down the project as it deals with an ever-growing list of open issues.

The most obvious answer is to have more minesweepers as anti-aircraft gunners are blockers to a project’s progress. Strange as it may sound, both sets of people are doing their jobs.  The minesweepers see the ultimate target and have taken the responsibility of clearing away issues that might cause problems.  The anti-aircraft gunners have a clear idea of what “good” in their world looks like and believe one of their responsibilities is to protect it.

A project usually entails the building of a new capability for an organisation using its existing structures, services, and people. All organisations have conflicting priorities.  To make it more challenging each individual department within the organisation also has its own priority, culture and a unique way of doing things. Unless your project has such a high profile that focuses the attention of all senior executives, dealing with anti-aircraft gunners is inevitable. The question is how to deal with this dilemma.

The answer is simple – increase the profile of your project! I have found a number of easily implemented techniques that could help.

  1. Make sure the right people, the decision makers from all internal and external service providers, attend regular project review meetings. Even if they send a nominee you are half way there.
  2. In all your meetings, including steering, just remember that people around the table are contributors to the success as well as the failure of your project. They are not passive observers. Just politely give them a nudge if they are not committed and involved.
  3. Be an authentic fearless leader. Describe the status of the project as you see it and not what people like to hear. Don’t try to protect; take responsibility for your team’s shortcomings and expect others to do the same.
  4. Put the responsibility where it belongs – there are often deep trenches built by some of the anti-aircraft gunners which are holding the project back. People that can resolve such issues are either members of the steering or the project review meetings. Make formal requests and respectfully describe the consequences to your project if the issues are not dealt with. If they don’t resolve the issues you have no choice except to renegotiate the project’s targets.
  5. Renegotiate when you need to, even if the culture of your organisation does not approve. There is nothing more demoralising than working very hard towards failure.

I believe Project Managers need to take responsibility and accountability for delivering results. But regardless of how much we enforce that accountability on them, they cannot achieve it if their organisation is not in a condition to do so.

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