Leadership: Going from good to great

June 8, 2007

What separates the good from the great in team projects? Managing the task effectively is a necessity. Three inter-related issues repeatedly crop up in MBA business assignments. They concern managing boundaries, managing expectations, and managing for insights

It is one week from final presentation day. A team turns up in my office for final words of advice. Every project is different. Every team is different. But their concerns this time have a very familiar ring to them. Are they on the right track? How will their sponsor (‘business client’) react to their findings? What to do about what they’ve learned in confidence?

To muck about with a saying from that great Management theorist Tolstoi, all teams fail for the same reasons. Each team that succeeds does so for its own unique reasons.

So its easier to alert teams for what often goes wrong, than to say what they have to do to get everything right. Their project could stand for hundreds of projects. The tricky thing is to sort out what are the commonalities. What advice from past experience might be extracted, and offered for this particular team?

Lord of the Flies?

Some team behaviors are right out of Lord of the Flies. Or The Apprentice TV series. The team is to all extents and purposes a bunch of individuals each struggling for individual success. It’s dog eat dog. The design of The Apprentice TV series forces participants to re-enact that familiar drama. One of its messages is personal survival. Survival at all costs. Any collaboration is minimal. There may be a veneer of collective sense of purpose implied in public at presentation time. But it is rather difficult for the dominant and dominating leader to come across as part of a unit which has been able to bring all its talents to the tasks they faced.

Lord of the Flies (LOTF) teams can get by. Thre are quite a number among MBA project teams. They tend to ‘stick it out’ and blag themselves to a decent rating in a final presentation, promising thmselves never to work together on another assignment. Decent result for the short-term maybe, but not dream-team behaviors.

This team did not fall into the LOTF category. The was no ‘chief honcho’ . No ‘followers’, ‘nodding donkeys’ , or ‘loafers’. Just a bunch of people who seemed to be sharing in a pre-agreed plan. Also, they seemed open to suggestions which required them to re-examine and perhaps depart from elements of that pre-conceived plan. In other words, they showed they were capable of being flexible in response to new ideas. If they behaved that way in my office, there was every chance they had behaved in a similar way at their sponsor’s workplace.

Who owns the project? Managing across boundaries

When teams present their findings, who are they really trying to impress? This is where The Lord of the Flies analogy breaks down. In Business School jargon, the team is learning to manage across various different boundaries. It is in the later stages of a project that some teams begin to grapple with this. They may well ‘delight the customer’. But the team now realizes there is more than one customer, and ‘delighting’ one may not ‘delight’ another.

The team can come to terms with these ambiguities in a final presentation and in their final report. In general, the process is managed by a bit of simplification into ‘who owns the project’, with just a hint of acknowledgement of other interests around.

In these projects, the team may have started as if their first contact was their one and only client. Then they found that a more senior figure in the organization has quite different views. In this specific case they had found that there were two sub-cultures in the business, each with differing views about what the company needed to do.

There is another boundary to manage. The entire project will be assessed and graded as part of the participants’ business degree. Faculty members will also be attending the final prentation to the client.

Incidentally, some students think that makes the whole thing unrealistic. I argue it is only another version of business life, when new team members are open to so-called 360 degree evaluations of their performance.

Managing expectations

As you consider how to manage those boundaries, you will inevitably begin to consider how to manage expectations of those interest groups. One obvious possibility is preparing in advance, checking out as far as possible the expectations of key players. Here again, it will be a judgement call. My own experiences suggest that successful teams have not just prepared themselves, but prepared the sponsor. But they will also have one or two pleasant surprises up their sleeves. It’s the bad news that is best pre-signalled.

Managing for insights

A great result will mean that the team will have managed expectations of key constituents including the project sponsor or client. It will have attended to differing expectations, which may be particularly intense at meetings where wider networks of interests are represented. The project task will have been tackled in terms of its objectives. The objectives of an initial brief may have been tested and negotiated.

All this may produce a good result. But not a great one. For that, there needs to be something special. A final presentation offers one situtation rich in opportunities to demonstrate excellence.

Agagin, drawing on experience, I would say that effective creativity enhances a message and is not substitute for one. A recent example was the ‘pitch’ made to the BBC by the Salford consortium which revealed an exciting vision of the city of the future. The London Olympic bid had an equally powerful video, which switched attention from the event to the children who would benefit from the event.

But creativity ‘works’ only if its intended ‘consumer’ buys it. If your sponsor heads up a finance organization, then she is likely to respond differently than would a sponsor from a dynamic and fast-growing IT outfit. Creativity in business will always involve risk and judgement.

How to get an A

How might a team get an A for its work? They may increase their chances by concentrating on the primary examiners and trying to find out their particular preferences. But in practice this is never straight-forward. One academic examiner may be highly influenced by the project sponsor. Another may not. It is not unknown for teams to win the active support of their sponsor to lobby the examiners on their behalf, only to find that may have the contrary effect to the one desired.

This team had got to the point of realizing that ‘getting an A’ should not be the only or even dominant objective as they reached the end of the project. They would take it as an opportunity for testing their own skills in business projects, and for discovering how they might work as a team for future challenges. Even for having an enjoyable experience in the process. Now that’s something they can self-assess as an A.

Leadership lessons

I’m aware that the content of this post hardly toches on leadershp. A few ‘don’ts’, perhaps. Don’t be a bully. Don’t encourage Lord of the Flies behaviors.

By implication I have been making a case for a creative leadership style touched on in an earlier post. In these MBA projects, leadership is more obviously a task distributed across team members. Nevertheless, there may still be a valued place for an individual who may have earned the right to be the most prominent team member in decisions and in those boundary-spanning situations in which expectations are tested.