Chaos and Complexity #3: Managing expectations

by Gary Monti on September 28, 2010

What daily challenges face a project manager or leader in chaotic situations? One of the biggest is unrealistic or distorted expectations. Below are some of the statements I’ve come across in my travels:

  • There’s no organization here. The project is just one big workaround.
  • It’s your fault (PM) things are not going as planned. The project is out of control.
  • You’re the PM. You have all that training. Make it simple.
  • If you’d have planned properly this wouldn’t be happening.
  • The audit clearly shows where your mistakes occurred. Were you asleep at the wheel?
  • If you can’t manage this I’ll put someone else in charge.
  • If you are going to keep on coming to me for help then there’s no need for your position.

These statements all have one thing in common: The belief order can be established and maintained. This is linear thinking. You may recall that chaotic situations are characterized by non-linear behavior. That being the case, what can the project manager do? Focus on two words: power and stability.

Confront Early

Gathering power and establishing stability can be anything but straightforward. There are some steps one needs to go through:

  • Confront the situation early since it is one of the most important activities. The framing of the confrontation is critical. I’ve learned to avoid saying, “No.” What works better is approaching key people and empathizing with their goals, desires, etc., and also talking about the challenges present.
  • Separate “shoulds” (expectations) from “actuals” (limits of what the team can do) by stating as early and as simply as possible the gaps in the situation. Here is where burning the midnight oil may come into play. Why? Expectations can have a high degree of emotionality associated with them. Emotionality clouds a situation and can cause endless discussions in an attempt to avoid consequences. It is like trying to write checks when there isn’t enough money to cover all the bills. What is needed is a clear statement of the reality that is being avoided. Making decisions isn’t the hard part. It’s acceptance of those consequences. So, establish a piercing honesty as in a good SWOT analysis.
  • Stick to the analysis of the situation. Be willing to work and build plans but avoid promises. Stay with risk management. Risks comprise events, probabilities, and impacts. Talk in those terms. The only exception is when there is a real windfall (something positive that can be used right now) or a problem (something currently damaging the situation).
  • Stay close to stakeholders, especially the difficult ones and keep the conversation going. Listen and ask what commitments they are willing to make to improve things.
  • Be a straight talker, always be respectful, and interact in a business-based manner. Get the reputation for being a person of your word.
  • Keep the focus on the goal and ask how the way people are behaving works towards that goal.
  • Look for movement from stakeholders. Distinguish what they need from what they want. Also determine what they are willing to pay for it.
  • State what you believe and work to what can be known in order to drive the situation to a linear, predictable situation. Successful projects have to become orderly at some point in order to achieve the quality needed for the deliverable. It can be exciting and energizing working as an entrepreneur but at some point a stable deliverable is needed.

Gather Power

Performing the above-mentioned activities consistently helps gain power- the ability to influence. It is the consolidation of this ability to influence that is the hallmark of a successful leader. Keep in mind power is fluid and perishable. Converting that power into a plan, which can be implemented in a timely manner, is a major transition point. It is the point at which the chaos and complexity decrease and the linearity (predictability) of the outcome takes shape and grows.

Drive Towards Stability

A good project- or program manager takes the power and disperses it. Any attempt to hold onto it will introduce a stiffness, which cuts down on flexibility, and the power will simply disappear.

What does this mean in everyday terms? The leader becomes a conduit for the power and lets it flow to the team leads and technical people who make up the project. Coordinating the development of the architecture and the subsequent flow into specific design components requires the capabilities of an orchestra conductor. When done right it leads to stability reflected in the flow of work (rather than a positioning that leads to stagnation).

Spread the Credit

Get a reputation for appreciating what people do. Doing this will attract good people and encourage those going through rough patches. The reward is gathering more power that can be carried into the future. This power provides a safety net preserving position and providing more opportunity to do even more in the future.

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