Friday, 29 March 2013

Soft skills -- Vision – having one … to a detailed level

Having and being able to share a clear vision; being strategic in your purpose. I believe this is what people are talking about when they refer to needing someone who is “details oriented”. It’s also widely recognized that having one is important. I did a Google search just a minute ago and it responded with about 57,300,000 results in 0.17 seconds. And yet having a vision is rarely listed when people are asked what the most important characteristics are for being effective. For example, it was listed only once in a recent LinkedIn PM Community group post.

Now, before I go any further, I’d like to repeat and clarify that the following is focused on those in the project management profession. I and many others have been inspired by leaders over the years. JFK’s vision of landing a man on the moon and safely returning him the Earth by the end of the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. Those and many other leaders had a very clear vision of what they wanted to see happen. They did not, however, have the skills to technically know how to achieve it. Still, both these and other visions were achieved and the world is a better place for them being achieved. Would they have made great project managers? Probably. JFK was the captain of a PT boat during WWII. Do all great project managers possess the skills to become leaders of industry, government, and causes that will change the course of history? Probably not.

Now, with that out of the way, the clarity of a PM’s / PgM’s vision and level of detail that can be discussed are very much inter-related in my opinion. It is the ability of this person to:
  • get into the weeds with the team if and when needed and
  • commensurate to their role and
  • for the teams they are managing and
  • for whom they are reporting into.

Where this seems to go off balance in many cases is where people (both individual contributors and those already in leadership roles) sometimes have a perception that you must be able to do to lead. This, depending on how extreme this position is taken, can be a promotion of individualism over teamwork. It is also the downfall of many people new to management roles. That lesson being to learn to delegate rather than do. Toyota and many other companies almost always promote from within. And this makes a lot of sense in most cases. A project or program manager really should understand what a group of computer science professionals need to do and why to develop and deploy a complex software application. Do they need to hold a B.Sc from a prestigious university to be effective as a PM/PgM? I doubt it. I don’t have that degree and I’ve really done quite well over my career. By the same token though, I equally believe my hands on understanding and experience of software development and the IT infrastructures that software needs to be deployed on has contributed to that success.

It’s also those “and”s that really make a difference. As systems theories seek to promote, it’s not so much the individual components as the interrelationships among them that really make the difference. They are very important because the vision needs to be shared at the level of your audience, and as a PM/PgM I believe we all know that your audience consists of management teams, vendors, customers, and other stakeholders in addition to your core team. Making anyone feel stupid at any time at any place is just plain wrong. It may be immediately satisfying to put a bully in their place in a public way; and I admit that in the past I have been guilty of doing that myself. However, the loss experienced doing that also meant losing the skills that other person had to offer. Yes, sometimes it’s worth it but that should never be the first option. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous foreign policy statement to ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ can equally be applied today. And as he also said during his presidency, the objective should always be to never have to use that big stick. On a lighter note, even in the Bugs Bunny – Yosemite Sam cartoons of my youth Bugs never sought out to humiliate Sam. I think that was a good life lesson.

Finally, if people perceive you as making it up as you go you’ll very likely be perceived as flaky, insincere, not credible, whatever; and that’s regardless of how clearly, concisely, … you communicate. And they won’t follow you. As the old adage goes, you can’t be a leader if no one wants to follow. Someone once said to me a few years ago in a moment of frustration, “It’s not about you! And what makes you think you’ve got all the answers anyway?!” My response was simply, One, I don’t think I have all the answers. That’s why I’ve built a strong team around me. And two, I was put in that position because of the vision I had and communicated to the executives;  on what we needed to do to both resolve existing limitations/gaps, achieve stated strategic objectives, and how and what we should do to go about doing that. If you think I’m completely wrong and the wrong person for the job, take that up with our executives.

I never did find out if I was the source or just the target of that person’s frustration. I do know thought that person was able to convince our executives that the gloss and polish they offered actually made them the right person for the job (not me). I wouldn’t take too much stock in their decision making skills though. I got a call from a recruiter about 18 months later telling me who had been ‘let go’ and asking me if I would consider coming back because the project still needed to be completed. This was a project that should have and could have been completed in less than a year. Yes, karma does exist. A favorite analogy of mine for this event is a beloved children’s game, King of the Castle. The specific analogy being that others may and will knock you off that heap (out of your position) but without possessing the depth of your vision they won’t stay there too long themselves either.

In closing, I’ll offer to you the request and hope I have for you, and why I am writing this post. If you’re going to have a vision, share it. If you want to take over someone else’s vision, I hope you actually have the depth of understanding to actually carry out that vision through to fruition.

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