Golden Rules for “Code-Red” Project Leadership
My first job out of college was as part of an eleven-person, high performance, elite group of professionals, who had a mission to change the culture of a nationwide 16,000 member organization. This mission was no small task, as it involved being extremely disruptive and routinely challenging the status-quo-thinking of members in order to help them realize their full potential and view reality from a different perspective.
We named our group “The Untouchables” because our motto was, “It’s not who’s right, but what’s right,” and because we all liked the premise of the movie (pictured above). We all took our job very seriously and because of this, we not only changed ourselves, but helped this organization start a cultural shift that fundamentally shattered the “old” way of doing things, starting a movement of change across an industry.
I believe that there are times in our professional careers when we are presented with an opportunity to do what’s right and shatter the existing paradigm of status quo. This opportunity can lead to either tremendous success or spectacular failure, but I have personally found that it has yielded only success for my customers.
The Right Type of Leadership
I’m Vice President of PSC, an independent software analysis/risk analytics company. As such, I’ve witnessed numerous chances for my clients to change the status quo. Many of these moments come at the cost of spectacular failure (otherwise known as “Code-Red” events). These are critical moments for project teams, coupled with very high emotions and an intense need for leadership.
In these times of turmoil, the best leadership asks the right questions:
- Where are the risks?
- How severe are they?
- In what order of priority should they be addressed?
- How quickly can they be fixed?
- What process failed, allowing these risks to cause this event?
- What is the reality versus what we thought regarding our process?
- How do we prevent this from happening again?
This type of leadership is focused on “what’s right,” and all of these projects end up going from “red” to “green” in very little time because the tone and focus is driven by data, not opinions or emotions.
However, there are other leaders who tend to focus on “who’s right,” asking questions like:
- Who is responsible for these risks?
- What group owns this functionality?
- Whose responsibility was it to look at the data from the tools?
- Who wasn’t following our process?
Most of the projects under these types of leaders fix the most acute issues but continue in their death spiral of pointing the finger and playing the blame game, hemorrhaging their top talent and executives from the company. It’s a tragedy to watch, but an unfortunate reality if the leadership is focused on the wrong side of the equation.
Here’s an example. I once worked on a big program that was highly visible in a large organization. The program was late and over budget, and the end customer at the highest level was becoming angry and threatening to penalize the company due to lack of performance. More importantly, the program had passed the point of no return, and cancelling the project would have been financially devastating for the customer.
The customer called us in to help with suspicion that most of the problems were coming from software provided by its supply chain. It hired us to assess a narrow set of software that was particular to one supplier and, unbeknownst to us, the company did not inform the supplier of our activity. Don’t worry all of you lawyers out there, our customer had data rights to the software! Well, wouldn’t you know, the software was a target-rich piece of code, fraught with errors.
The most uncomfortable moment came when we were invited to a boardroom with the top brass of our customer and the supplier to present the results. We didn’t make it through the first 20 minutes of presenting the results of our findings when we were asked to leave (tempers were flaring between the company and the supplier). The meeting soon adjourned and the supplier’s executives stormed out of the boardroom and building.
Here’s the great news: shortly after the meeting I received a phone call from one of the supplier’s top executives, who was in attendance at our earlier explosive meeting. A couple of hours later we were in his office, hired to help the company get its house in order and focus on “what’s right.” Less than four months later, the software we initially analyzed as the cause of most of the issues was now deemed the most reliable in the entire program, surpassing software both from other suppliers and our original customer.
Did our customer demonstrate leadership focused on “who’s right” or “what’s right?” You know the answer. Our original customer ended up losing, as well as changing, a lot of its top talent and executives because it continued to spin after our work was completed. A changing of the guard became necessary to recover its reputation. The new batch of executives placed blame on the old and hit the reset button, only to follow the same path as their predecessors. The program survived and was eventually delivered – exceeding all schedules and busting budgets.
The Moral of the Story
So, it’s time for the moral of the story. Our original customer had an opportunity – that brief moment in time where it could have shifted its focus to “what’s right,” not only for its entire supply chain, but also for its own operations. But, it chose not to. I have found in volatile situations, be it personal or professional, that if I focus on what’s right, the results benefit everyone. Unfortunately, this road is less traveled because often the right choice is not the popular choice; but, in the end – and with time - others will see your actions and decisions as “untouchable” leadership.
What kind of leader are you?
PSC Vice President