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Introduction to Mastering the Leadership Role in Project Management: Practices that Deliver Remarkable Results

Alexander Laufer explains that the use of stories becomes more important for unlearning purposes because they are usually far more effective than analytical explanations or dry principles. People’s minds are changed more through observation than through argument, and real-life stories told by credible and successful managers may serve as an effective substitute for observation.
This chapter is from the book

Learning from Stories

“In late December 1995, I got a call to come in and talk to one of my bosses at the Eglin Air Force Base. At the time, I was program manager for the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) missile. As soon as I got there, I was informed that I was being switched off JDAM to run the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) program, and I wasn’t happy about it at all...“I knew that at JASSM, I would have to start over and would probably have to cope with a more difficult environment. The original program manager of JASSM... was given two major mandates. The first was not to repeat any of the mistakes of the past, meaning the TSSAM program. The Tri-Service Standoff Attack Missile (TSSAM) had been cancelled after six years and several billion dollars in cost overruns... The second mandate was to get started quickly...“...Most of my peers in program management think that the most important aspects of our job are making decisions, conducting reviews, and controlling performance. In contrast, my priorities are to develop collaborative relations, foster alliances, and give the people who work for me a sense of confidence in themselves.“I stumbled into an understanding of this when I got involved in program management many years ago. At first, I gravitated toward an analytical approach because of my background in operations research. I was brought up in the Robert McNamara school of management, where everything is quantifiable—if we can’t build a model of something, then it doesn’t exist.“It didn’t take me long to figure out that this idea was bankrupt. Programs move ahead because of the activities of people, but none of the models I was using measured that critical ingredient for success. I could do the fanciest calculations in the world, but did they have anything to do with determining whether the project was going to be successful? Not at all...“Experience was my greatest teacher. I had managed to deliver several major projects successfully by implementing practices that were designed to fit the world as I saw it and that often differed from the accepted practices...“...I called a meeting the first day back after New Year’s with the 20 people who were working on JASSM. They were in a state of disbelief after learning that their boss had been fired over the Christmas holiday. He had worked with them on this program from the beginning and was well liked. Out of the blue, I showed up and told them, ‘We are going to get this program on contract within six months. If we don’t do it in six months, there is no program.’“...The truth is that I pulled the number six out of my hat. I would have been happy to be on contract at the end of seven months, or even eight months, but I would never have told the team that.“What I wanted to do was set a goal that would challenge these folks to look at things in an entirely new way. I didn’t want a schedule that they felt they could achieve just by working on weekends or figuring out a handful of inventive ways to do things. I wanted something so outrageous that it would cause them, first, to essentially give up, but then—once they figured out that giving up wasn’t an option—to step back and examine all their assumptions, all their beliefs, all the things that were in their heads as a result of their experiences and what they had been told in the past, and to ask themselves with a clean slate, ‘What do I really need to do to achieve this goal?’”

This is an excerpt from the story of Air Force program manager Terry Little, who was drafted to turn around a program that appeared to be on its way to swift cancellation. Yet, at project completion, Terry’s team received the highest acquisition honor of the Department of Defense. The full story is one of the eight remarkable cases presented in this book.

We all know that most people love to read stories and that a good story can serve as a very powerful learning tool. Stories can stimulate curiosity, convey easily digestible complex messages, convert tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge, induce reflection, and be remembered easily.1

By reading the eight stories and reflecting on them, you can acquire rich knowledge about two related subjects:

  • Project leadership: Its different facets, how it relates to project management, and how it is fulfilled in different circumstances
  • Project practices: The specific practices that successful project managers apply in exercising their leadership and management roles, and how these practices are implemented in different circumstances

However, prior to learning, it is sometimes necessary to first go through a process of unlearning. As Terry Little tells us, “At first, I gravitated toward an analytical approach, where everything is quantifiable—if we can’t build a model of something, then it doesn’t exist. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this idea was bankrupt.”

You will see when you read his full story, as well as all the other stories in the book, that the beliefs and practices of project managers and their team members are often influenced by outdated concepts that must first be abandoned. The use of stories becomes more important for unlearning purposes because they are usually far more effective than analytical explanations or dry principles. People’s minds are changed more through observation than through argument, and real-life stories told by credible and successful managers may serve as an effective substitute for observation.

Yet, the learning process, and even the unlearning process, will evolve primarily from the experiences accumulated by applying the practices. The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook explains it vividly: “Buckminster Fuller used to say that if you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead them to new ways of thinking.”2 Using the new tool naturally triggers reflection, and the unlearning process usually requires more than a few cycles of using the tool and reflecting on the new experience. The practices described in the cases throughout this book will quickly become your new tools, and by applying them and reflecting on them, you will gradually master a leadership role in your projects. As Ray Morgan, the project manager in the Pathfinder case (see Chapter 3, “Flying Solar-Powered Airplanes: Soaring High on Spirit and Systems”), tells us: “This new approach didn’t immediately solve my problems, but it started me down the right road... [I] felt like I was not only a different man, but a better manager. What’s more, I had finally begun to be a leader...”

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