By Angela Payne
In the first months of the new year, many of us find ourselves facing a combination of ambitious agendas, competing priorities, and budget realities. In the U.S. water sector, there is a never-ending gamut of accountabilities involved in ensuring water quality, including addressing and preventing water shortages, innovating to fight contamination and treat wastewater, and upgrading vast infrastructure.
While each and every project comes with its own unique challenges, the one common denominator is that smart and strong leadership can make all the difference. The tougher the ultimate objective, the more of a difference it can make. Here are four critical steps for leaders to take when pursuing project success.
Clear the decks.
It’s incredibly important to understand that your organization’s past performance has a heavy influence on its current and future performance. This is true about past failures as well as past successes. Where an organization has struggled with underperformance, there can be unvoiced assumptions about who or what is to blame for disappointing results, and/or misperceptions about limits to what the organization can achieve. Conversely, with successes, people tend to cling to how they handled a past project rather than take a fresh and realistic view of the current challenge at hand.
You have to “refresh the screen” with your teams at all levels. That means (1) revealing what’s unspoken in the background, discussing it, and setting it aside, then (2) communicating persistently so that everyone understands what is distinctly unique about the challenge being taken on. This is a step that’s frequently skipped over in a leader’s genuine enthusiasm to dig in with the work. All too often, I have seen top-notch companies and agencies run into trouble when the past interferes with the present. And ultimately, to get on the right path, these organizations have had to backtrack in order to unearth obstacles and move past them — costing precious time and money.
Enroll everyone around targets.
This may sound obvious, but it’s not unusual for my colleagues and I to encounter projects where underperformance can be linked back to a lack of clarity about — and especially cohesion around — what the organization is committed to achieving. So even after you’ve cleared the decks, it’s your job as a leader to ensure that everyone is clear about what has to be achieved, and is coalesced behind the effort. I use the word “everyone” very deliberately, because key holdouts at all levels of organizations have often been found, sadly in retrospect, to be key influencers in failed projects. Whether it’s a colleague on your senior team, a popular high-performer on the front lines, or a strategic partner dragging their heels, if you don’t have everyone on board, your project is in jeopardy.
A colleague of mine worked with a rural water utility in Asia Pacific taking on a massive infrastructure upgrade in the wake of a devastating drought and a budget shortfall. The newly-appointed managing director faced all kinds of obstacles and an almost-impossible schedule, but he knew he had to take the time to communicate the specific productivity and cost-saving targets that would be necessary in order to turn around performance and deliver for the public. He went out of his way to enlist people across the organization through a series of meetings and Q&A conversations, a move which positioned the agency for eventual success. It was a tough process — and there were junctures when people who couldn’t get on board left the organization, voluntarily or otherwise — but establishing solid alignment behind the targets was essential to the agency’s success.
One fundamental thing to understand about innovation — a perspective I’ve seen help leaders immensely — is that for innovation to make a sustainable difference, it has to be in the form of an organizational capacity. It’s not a one-time event — not if you want to equip your people to prevail over issues and roadblocks in an ongoing way. In Water Online, I read regularly about amazing innovations that are changing the industry. I hope that these great advances are being made in the context of organizational cultures and processes that regularly engender — even insist upon — new approaches to seemingly intractable problems.
When leaders encourage a collective and aspirational mindset, then pair that mindset with a powerful, shared sense of purpose, organizations become poised to achieve new levels of performance. I have seen regional public agencies with relatively small budgets achieve an unprecedented step change — time and again — once innovation is embedded as a capacity. And I have seen multinational corporations come to risky interruptions in progress when a capacity for innovation is absent. So: In 2018, where does your organization stand with regard to innovation? It’s something you need in your wheelhouse, day in and day out.
Once you’ve cleared the decks, enrolled everyone around targets, and established a capacity for innovation, you have to be relentless about execution. Your collective aspiration hangs in the balance —and if you don’t persist with discipline, your people may not, either. Be sure that your teams are regularly reporting out on progress, and talking candidly about whether or not they’re achieving scheduled milestones. If a deadline or target is missed, the answer isn’t to adjust the schedule. The answer is to immediately identify the reason for the failure to deliver, and to fix it. If your people see you removing any and all obstacles to performance, they will respond by delivering the results needed.
Even when a project may seem to be in jeopardy — especially when — it’s no time to waver. It’s time to show people that you’re behind them all the way until they meet their ultimate objectives. With an eye on the prize, they will innovate with solutions for even the toughest problems. You will see them generate a kind of momentum and level of performance that no one thought was possible. It doesn’t always happen like this, but it can happen like this. There is no way to prevent unexpected problems and resistance with big projects, but there is a way to prevail with smart and strong leadership. It starts with you — and the steps you take could lead to your organization’s best year of project execution.
Angela Payne is a leadership expert and author with a background in a range of industries, including natural resources management. As a member of JMW Consultants’ North American Team, she coaches top executives and facilitates training sessions for leaders and teams seeking to step up their professional games. She is based in Boulder, CO.
Image credit: "Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant Utility Building," PEO ACWA, 2012, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/