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Talent Management Column

Project Mismanagement

Over the past few decades, organizations have moved toward much greater individual accountability and away from less functional, committee-based approaches when it comes to managing projects. While these new models certainly have their advantages, they also can easily be undermined.

Monday, July 14, 2014
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Tell me if you are seeing this in your own organizations: Someone is tasked with managing a project, and before it even gets going, it has stalled. The person running the project isn't making the initial decisions about the scope of the project or its design.

What seems to be holding up the project is the search for buy-in from others. That might be perfectly understandable when a team is managing the project, but that isn't what's happening in the situations I'm describing. Here, the sought-after buy-in is from people who are not part of the project. They are just people who might complain about it later on. They don't have to sign off on it because they don't have any responsibility for the project, so there is no rush for them to put the issue on their calendars. More importantly, they often don't see why they should endorse something they aren't really a party to, so the person running the project can chase them for a very long time and not pin them down to any position. This same process repeats itself if the project gets close to making recommendations. In the meantime, nothing gets done.

I was talking about this with Jeanne DiFrancesco, principal of ProOrbis (and one of my former students) who has coined a great term for this phenomenon:  syndicating risk. The idea is that the person managing the project wants to protect himself or herself from criticism of the project once it is launched. At the very least, he or she is hoping to get possible critics to commit to not criticizing the project and to be able to say, if there is criticism, that all these people were behind the decisions.

This problem is surely not unique to human resources, although in Jeanne's view it is much worse where there is no objective criterion -- such as return on investment -- to guide the decision, and that often is the case for decisions related to employees. No doubt some behavior like this has always gone on. One factor driving it is that, as psychologists tell us, we think criticism sounds smarter than support, and it's safe politically to criticize a peer or even a subordinate. Saying "Great idea, J.D.," doesn't make us look particularly smart, and, unless J.D. is the boss, it doesn't buy us much, either.

I think there is something else driving this as well, and that has to do with the behavior of senior executives. Tell me if you've seen this one before:  An individual or even a team has been working on some problem on which they have expertise -- maybe its compensation design, maybe it's a marketing plan. They prepare a set of recommendations based on their investigation. They present it to an operating executive or maybe the CFO. That leader doesn't like it -- or some part of it -- and tells the project team to change it, which it does. The leaders may have no expertise in the topic and are probably going with their gut, but they overrule the experts. We are not talking here about the reasonable process of asking questions and requiring revisions. This is the on-the-spot redrafting of conclusions. The project leader who made the now-overturned proposal feels that their career there is over -- and it very well may be.

It was not always like this, although the preceding systems had their own problems. In the post-WWII period of great U.S. corporations, decisions got made within functional silos or, occasionally, in task forces. It would have been rare to see recommendations being turned down, in part because the top leader in the function usually knew what was going on and could intervene earlier if he or she didn't like something. And it would have been even more unusual for the recommendations to be redrawn on the spot by an operating executive. These old arrangements could also be very slow and time-consuming, especially when the work was done by committees. They could also be very ignorant of important information available in other parts of the organization.

We have moved in organizations very much in a different direction, toward much greater individual accountability and less functional, committee-based systems. There are lots of pluses to these new models. But they can easily be undermined – and, in the cases I'm describing, they are, by leaders at the top.

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Maybe because they feel so individually accountable, the executives I'm seeing just won't delegate decisions. The model of leadership they have in mind is that they are judges: subordinates propose, but they, the leaders, decide.

The downsides of this model are obvious. Tell me if you ever see this: Even after checking in with all his or her peers, the project leader won't move forward until he or she can get on the calendar of the big boss to see how that person reacts to the initial options. The project leader wants everyone else's buy-in even for their initial thoughts, in case the boss disagrees with anything being suggested. And he or she won't finalize recommendations until checking back in with the boss. The boss can't believe how crowded his or her own calendar is. In the meantime, nothing gets done. Our new organizational models, designed to give us speed and accountability, just bog down.

I wonder how much of the problem of syndicating risk and the failure to delegate are driven by the decline of training people to be managers and the now more popular approach of promoting the best individual contributors to leadership positions. Leaders have to trust their subordinates, and especially their experts, to let them make decisions on their own.

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School. His latest book is Why Good People Can't Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It.

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