By David Creelman
Why do projects get bogged down? One place to go for answers is the under-developed world where international aid agencies sometimes seem to specialize in bogged down projects. There are always surface reasons for projects going off the rails: bureaucracy, poor leadership, or inadequate skills are easy to blame. But according to Nadim Matta, President of the Rapid Results Institute, what’s missing may simply be motivation and confidence. Instil these two things and stuff happens.
- Set a 100 day deadline to create urgency
- Talk about what other teams, villages or neighbourhoods have accomplished in 100 days
- Get people to vote on what they need to do
The importance of deadlines, even arbitrary ones, is a lesson that most adults have learned, but it is worth noting the 100 day time frame. It’s long enough to do something substantial, but short enough to create a sense of urgency. The pump manufacturer S.A. Armstrong came to a similar conclusion about strategic planning. They found it was best to set out implementation plans in 90-day cycles rather than relying so heavily on a one year plan. Besides maintaining a sense of urgency, shorter cycles create frequent opportunities to re-visit priorities and react to changing circumstances. This might seem to promote short term thinking, but there can be—and should be—a long term vision; it’s just that the specifics of what you need to accomplish are defined in these shorter cycles.
Building confidence by sharing success stories will be familiar to anyone who has studied the techniques of Weight Watchers or Alcoholics Anonymous. If people believe they will fail in their attempt to lose weight or stop drinking then there is little hope for success. Credible success stories from people in similar circumstances are powerful tools for building confidence. The value of this technique is pretty self-evident, but it’s not something we often do in projects. If we are asking our team to take on something challenging, we owe it to them to provide evidence that if they put in the effort then they will succeed.
The third technique is having a vote on what is to be done. It’s not hard to see how a team that votes on which project to undertake is more likely to succeed than one where the project is imposed. You can often achieve results simply with brute authority, but success is more likely if there is general agreement that the project is absolutely the right thing to do. In business it would be unusual to vote, but investing time in considering the options and building general agreement on the best option will increase commitment.
Remembering the Fat Smoker
The notion that motivation and confidence (rather than more tangible matters) are central to project success brings to mind two topics I’ve written about before: the primacy of the invisible and David Maister’s book Strategy and the Fat Smoker.
If you are explaining why a project failed saying “It was a lack of motivation and confidence” is harder to sell than an explanation like “inadequate funding”. However, the wise leader recognizes the primacy of the invisible and that sometimes it is precisely intangible factors like confidence that often lie between success and failure.
In Strategy and the Fat Smoker, Maister argues that organizations don’t need brilliant strategy, they just need the emotional strength to do what they need to do. He likens this to what a fat smoker needs. The fat smoker does not need brilliant advice; the right thing to do is obvious: eat less, exercise more, and stop smoking. What is needed is the emotional support to do those difficult things.
What it means for HR
An HR professional should be the one person in the organization who makes it their central purpose to understand human and organizational dynamics. The HR person adds value when they go beyond just delivering training or recruiting or benefits. They should be providing keen insight into people and groups and help managers overcome perils such as projects that bog down.
David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Europe and China. Mr. Creelman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.