Thursday, 29 August 2013

7 Deadly Sins of Process Improvement/Change - #3 Ineptitude

People make mistakes. Apparently it’s what makes us human, although it most certainly isn’t a purely human trait, as mistakes take place in the animal world every time a predator catches its prey. What I mean by ineptitude in this context is either actively making clumsy, silly, avoidable mistakes, or forcing others to do so through your actions. There’s quite a close tie-in to our opening sin of arrogance, because often these kind of inept mistakes are brought about through arrogance. The key examples of ineptitude that we shall focus on are concerned with “wrongness”, where taking a bit of time and effort, doing some research and taking advice from others could eliminate these kinds of clumsy errors and the costs associated with them.


Wrong People 

Many of us will have faced the situation where an individual is put in charge of a project, an initiative or even a department without any of the pre-requisite skills or understanding needed to ensure a successful outcome. Sometimes we get lucky, and the individual will learn from or at least listen to more experienced or adept members of the team, adapt their behaviour and everyone will benefit. All too often however, the individual will simply try to hide their failings and stamp their authority on the project with scant regard for the rest of the team.

The appointment of the wrong people is both a management and a team member problem. Often managers appoint high flyers who have succeeded in different positions, or more likely, simply appoint an available senior manager. A common failing in process improvement initiatives is to appoint a technical project manager who does not appreciate the more people oriented aspects of business and organisational change.

Similarly, recognised subject matter experts may be appointed to lead initiatives associated with their expertise. Sometimes these experts do not have the management or leadership skills required. Unfortunately, some experts do not the communications skills required to successfully get their messages across. Change leaders need to have a number of key qualities. They must have good management, leadership and organisational skills, excellent communication skills and possibly most importantly, they need to have the respect of their peers, sub-ordinates and executives.

As a manager you need to take the time to appoint the right person. If an individual doesn't believe they have the necessary skills and qualities required to perform a certain role then don't punish them for pushing back. Groom them and help them gain the skills they need for future endeavours. And managers should never agree to take on more than they can handle - everyone will suffer.

Perception vs Reality

One of the most common manifestations of ineptitude is where an organisation focuses on its perception of what is wrong, rather than making an effort to elicit the real problems. Expensive and time consuming initiatives are set up to correct a problem that may not really be there.

An example that I've seen on many occasions is where executives faced with a sequence of failed projects declare that there is an overarching problem with project management. Typical corrective actions include redesigning project management job families, retraining project managers, insisting on PM certifications or even embarking on a CMMI initiative.

In almost every situation the real root cause of the project failure has been anything but poor project management. Usually, if it wasn't for the heroic efforts of project managers (who should never be put in the position of having to be heroes or heroines) the situation would be far worse.

Poor executive oversight and governance, bad contracts and poor stakeholder management were almost always at the heart of the problems, and many failed projects should never have been sanctioned in the first place.

Addressing perceived problems rather than real problems is like chasing rainbows. When the perception is external rather than internal the appropriate course of action is to address the external perception rather than to blindly assume that external people really know what the cause is and fix something that isn't broken.

Process vs People

For some reason many process improvement initiatives seem to focus on the creation of vast amounts of documentation. Massive amounts of time and energy are spent updating project documentation, creating new process descriptions, writing new policies and procedures and building unmaintainable web based repositories. Even when, often, many of these already exist and in many cases are utterly fit for purpose (or at least were until they ceased to be useful because they weren't maintained).

Far more care and attention is devoted to the process than the people who have to do the work. Blind compliance takes precedent over common sense and archaic review mechanisms reward those who follow the leader rather than those who seek to change a faulty system.

The best processes and documentation sets in the world will not help if the people who are expected to use them are not motivated or treated with respect. (I realise this is only scratching the surface of this crucial issue, and a subject that merits its own post in the future)

Laws to Overcome Ineptitude

1st Law - Think about the types and skills of people you need to manage and lead the change and make the appropriate appointments

2nd Law - Listen to front line staff who understand the real issues the best before embarking on wasteful improvement initiatives

3rd Law - People matter more than processes and documentation

4th Law - Don't be afraid to say 'no', and don't punish people when they do

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