The VP of Engineering had this quote written in the upper right corner of his whiteboard when I took over as general manager. I took it as a challenge directed at me – why couldn’t I have all three? Wasn’t simultaneous improvement along all three dimensions a reasonable measure of our team’s abilities?
What I didn’t realize at the time was the message was really about risks and risk management. Push too far along multiple dimensions, and something was likely to break – and this rule of thumb, I later learned, was not limited to new product development projects.
Of swine and nuts
We all love stories about heroic leaders who advanced their organizations by leaps and bounds. They do the seemingly impossible, accomplishing amazing feats through inspiration, insight, and courage. Often their success requires a leap of faith or the accepting of major, game-changing risks. Their efforts successfully transform their organizations.
Impressive? Absolutely, but just remember that history is written by the winners.
There are scores of failures littering the backwaters of organizations for every one of these daring success stories. We never hear about the managers that crashed and burned in similar attempts.
In his book Fooled by Randomness, author Nassim Taleb explores how investment advisors can appear to be oracles when in truth they are simply lucky. There is clearly a similar phenomenon existing in leadership-worship circles. As the old saying goes, “even a blind pig sometimes finds an acorn.”
The art of management
Sure, you might get lucky. Most of us do at one time or another. But if you roll the dice on long odds too often, it will catch up with you.
Most of us can compensate for the high risks in “stretch” projects when we’re in an individual contributor role – by putting in over-the-top, extraordinary effort. Theoretically, my next book could be out in a month with better writing, fewer errors (there are always a few), and a “knock your socks off” cover. I know I could make that happen through the investment of massive amounts of. When you’re entire future is on the line, sleep can be highly overrated.
What works for individuals, however, is much more difficult to pull off with a group.
When you step into management you are become dependent on other people, and the bigger the job the more dependent you are on their efforts. While occasionally inspiring extraordinary effort is a part of the management task, you have to recognize careers are marathons, not sprints. If you treat every day like a 100 meter dash, your team will tire and eventually either leave or slow down. And your career “challenge” may not constitute an “emergency” to your subordinates, no matter how much you try to make it do so.
Which means you need to carefully select the projects and programs you accept with an eye toward stretching – but not breaking – the members of your team.
Take on too much risk in the form of tight schedule, challenging performance goals, and/or unrealistic cost targets, and the chances of failure quickly begin to soar.
A project dilemma
This example, though fictional, reflects my real-world experiences. In the novel I’m currently penning (with a working title of Right Sized), Chris, the protagonist in the story, takes on a project to produce a new product that is a leap forward in accuracy, costs roughly the same as current competitive offerings, and is completed along an uncomfortably tight timetable. He recruits a project team with all the “right skills” and puts in a project manager with a seemingly stellar track record.
The project manager initially tells him (and the higher-ups) exactly what they want to hear – that the team is making amazing progress and the project is coming in on time and under budget while still meeting the challenging performance requirements. Based on this, Chris is promoted and his career seems to be on a trajectory that will inevitably take him to the most senior of positions.
But there’s trouble lurking below the surface. The project manager’s skills have been overestimated (just like Taleb’s investment managers), and the project itself is far too risky. After a period of time spend covering up bad news, things can no longer be contained. The project craters bring with it the kind of career consequences you’d likely expect.
New product, new market, new technology
My own, personal donnybrook of this type involved the development of a chemical sprayer. The business I was managing at the time produced and sold an irrigation system that sometimes delivered chemicals to agricultural fields, although it was a market we really knew nothing about.
The objective of the project was to add a concentrated chemical sprayer to our existing base product. Success required the development of a new chemical delivery method and a new technology to make it all work.
Leaving out the blow-by-blow details, suffice it to say there were problems along every conceivable dimension. The product itself experienced repeated field failures during testing, and several key performance criteria were not well understood when the design was developed. The market economics of the product were completely different than our research estimates, making the product far too expensive. And our ignorance of the delivery technology made it unlikely we would be able to clear regulatory hurdles – particularly when the mainstream competitors realized what we were up to and flexed their muscles.
The project was abandoned after several years of effort and several million dollars of spending. I escaped only because I’d inherited this high risk flop.
Looking back, I realized there were far too many risks involved in the project and a prudent manager would have never taken it forward.
Unfortunately that lesson didn’t sink in because I continued to take on risky projects until one of my own devising finally crashed and burned, taking my job with it.
Leadership might be (partially) about heroic victories, but a prudent manager knows to assess risks before sending their team off to achieve “mission impossible.” Make sure to carefully lay out the major risks in any project or program – too many “news” or too extreme “stretch goals” and you would be well advised to take a pass. 34.2
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If you are intrigued by the ideas presented in my blog posts, check out some of my other writing.
Non-Fiction: NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS
To the right is the cover of LEVERAGE. This novel explores the theft of sensitive DOD designs from a Minneapolis Tech Company, and the dangers associated with digging too deeply into the surrounding mystery. The tale features first level manager, Mark Carson, and the struggle he experiences as he finds the resources of the corporation aligned against him. Its sequel, PURSUING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES, was released in May of 2014. A third book in the series, OUTSOURCED, is in the works.
My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.