Project Leadership Tips: Remember the Fat Lady

January 5, 2007

Project leadership creeps up on many executives. There are plenty of courses, but what if you become a project leader before you have a chance to get all trained up? There’s plenty of advice around, but you don’t have time from the day-to-day running of the project to spend studying. What you need are some tips for ‘winning ugly’. Some tips have become clichés, but they may make the difference between success and failure. Here we look at why it’s not over until the fat lady sings.

Most leadership tips are based on experience, and work some of the time. This tip works in more situations than most. You are an inexperienced project leader. You and the team have been caught out by some unexpected trap. You think you’ve blown it. You aren’t going to meet that deadline. You aren’t going to make ‘the numbers’. Your dream client has decided to go somewhere else. You are toast, right?

Wrong. Because every prison has a door, somewhere. There’s always a way out. It’s not over until it’s over.

You’d better believe it

You’d better believe it. Because if you think everything’s gone pear-shaped, you won’t be the first on the team to reach that view. And if you don’t believe youll make it, you won’t be able to change anyone else’s negative feelings either. So here’s why you should believe there’s always a way out of the tightest of corners.

Projects are based on a deal between the project team and some sponsor, who may be internal to your organization, or outside it. The deal is a contract, which is mostly recorded and signed off in the early stages.

But here’s the rescue clause. No project brief is ever complete. There’s always scope for ‘wriggle-room’. When things have gone seriously wrong, your job as leader is to find where that wriggle room might come from. That includes, of course, encouraging your team to look for assumptions of what can and can’t be done.

For some,this is what creative leadership is all about. It’s going beyond the obvious. Mostly it’s about breaking down assumptions about what’s possible. A related slogan is ‘There must be other ways … there might be better ways’.

To go more deeply

A good starting point for creative leadership is the work on Lateral Thinking. Edward de Bono’s web-site is an excellent starting point for Lateral Thinking advice.

A article by Hiran Shah is aimed at Lateral Thinking for business applications. This is mostly useful to illustrate a few Lateral Thinking breakthroughs, rather than explain how the techniques may be applied.

Thinking outside the box

A popular phrase for escaping from mental blocks is thinking outside the box. This has become so clichéd you may have been put off by the term. Surfing the web reveals mostly trivial articles. Some reassurance may be gained from learning how creative thinking has arrived in Business School courses.

If you want some fun with the concept there are some nice cartoons on thinking outside the box on the web.

Another nice website with recommended books on thinking outside the box coms from Mikko Ahonen

Finally, The Centrim Innovation Group (University of Brighton) also has a nice summary of out of the box thinking.


If you are a project leader you will sometimes need to think the impossible, to get out of self-imposed assumptions. Maybe these approaches will help you, and your team realize that ‘It’s never over until the fat lady sings’

What do you think?

Do you think the Fat Lady principle tip is valuable in project work? Have you ever been blocked and unable to see what to do, as a project leader or team member? What happened? Comments welcomed.

Will Toyotaoism replace Fordism?

January 5, 2007

250px-lao_tzu_-_project_gutenberg_etext_15250.jpgSometime in 2007, Toyota seems likely to become the World’s biggest auto manufacturer. According to Professor Fangqi Xu, the 21st Century will be an era in which the Fordist principles of production will be replaced by a more creative leadership style. I suggest Toyotaoism would be an appropriate term for characterizing the emerging Post-Fordist era.

Sometime in 2007, Toyota seems likely to become the World’s biggest auto manufacturer. In contrast, Ford workers face substantial job cuts. Toyota represents one of the outstanding illustrations of developments which have been gradually refining and replacing the production line processes and mentality of the 20th Century.

The company has pioneered a fusion of Fordist methods with a more Eastern philosophy of respect towards the environment, customers, and employees. The fostering of empowered teamwork in Toyota is a central element of the philosophy, production system, and leadership style of the corporation.

Beyond Lean Production

In broad terms, the Toyota system has been equated with the arrival of lean production and subsequent higher efficiency gains. This has simplified out the production gains from the deeper philosophical implications. These bring the system closer in spirit to the European experiments in socio-technical systems design at Volvo, itself briefly hailed as a revolutionary innovation for manufacturing. However, insiders argued that Volvo’s experiment failed in face of ‘Toyotism’.

The best-known Western account of the Toyota system is arguably from the MIT researchers led by James Womack. Their study raised popular awareness of Toyota’s Just in Time system, and the broader concept of Lean Production.

From Toyotism to Toyotaoism

I would like to propose the acceptance of a slightly different term for the significance of the changes implied by the Toyota approach. Rather than the narrower perspective of Toyotism, I suggest Toyotaoism. The term hints at a philosophy that goes beyond a shift in production system. The philosophy is particularly appropriate in its Eastern origins. Western authors have already simplified some of the principles in The Tao of Leadership.

One leading scholar has been developing this idea is Professor Fangqi Xu of Jiangsu Polytechnic University, China. Professor Xu is the Director of International Connectionas of Japan Creativity Society, and also a student of Ikujiro Nonaka, the renowned Knowledge theorist. Professor Xu has made a detailed study of creativity courses around the world. His studies have convinced him that the 21st Century will be an era in which the Fordist principles of production will be replaced by a more creative management style.