Making Project Management a Valiant Voyage


December 2005

Making Project Management a Valiant Voyage

CIDMIconNewsletter Michael Eleder, Lucent Technologies

The expanding global marketplace and proliferation of worldwide virtual work teams are challenging both resource managers and project managers to find new strategies for success. The desire for “better, faster, cheaper” solutions increases the challenge as our cross-functional project teams become more geographically diverse.

The tools, processes, people, environment, materials, and measures we struggle with today are often very different than those used a decade ago. Although the tools and skill sets have become more complex, the essential nature of the project manager as the hub of a project, connecting and anchoring each supporting spoke of the cross-functional team of diverse talents, skills, and experiences, has not changed as much over the years. In fact, some of the best examples of project leadership techniques have been locked in ice for nearly a century.

In 1914, Ernest Shackleton led a diverse crew of 27 on the Endurance to sail to Antarctica as part of the Imperial Trans-Artic Expedition to conquer one of the final frontiers of the day-traverse Antarctica. Shackleton never completed that journey. His ship became frozen in ice that formed earlier in the season than expected. Watching their ship sink under crushing ice, his crew was marooned without communication, and for two years Shackleton led his men on a valiant voyage of self-rescue without losing a single crewman.

Shackleton’s leadership has been documented in Dennis Perkins book, Leading at the Edge, in which he distills ten leadership principles that still apply today to both resource and project managers. Most project managers today realize that project management is more than spreadsheets, milestones, statements of work, risk and mitigation, escalation, and status meetings. It’s about leading a diverse cross-functional team to define and agree to a plan for success, while dealing with the obstacles that erode morale, delay milestones, and attempt to cause catastrophic failures.

The ten leadership principles that helped Shackleton avoid a catastrophic failure may help some of us achieve more successful project outcomes as we lead diverse, cross-functional teams through the impossible challenges tossed up by the turbulent seas of 21st Century globalization.

Here’s a brief overview of those strategies delineated by Perkins that may help your next project management challenge:

1.    Keep the long-term goal in mind, while focusing immediate energy on achievable short-term objectives. This is the vision thing! Know where the team is going. Communicate it on a regular basis. But focus on the small, achievable, top-priority steps that must be accomplished to get there. Focus on the results, not the actions. As things change, make adjustments. Many small course corrections are less disruptive than a few large course changes. Make decisions based on facts but make them quickly. Overcome uncertainty with structure. Clear roles and responsibilities give people purpose and divert attention away from negative thoughts and into productive energy. Vision and accomplishment work in concert to keep the energy flowing in the right direction.

2.    Lead by example, using visible, memorable symbols and observable behaviors. Walk the talk! When under conditions of stress, the team needs to SEE the leader as a leader. Personal presence is a unique source of energy and power. The leader needs to sense when the energy of the team is ebbing and must mobilize them with an authentic, sincere message that will take the team forward. When things are the darkest, the team needs calm reassurance, straight talk, and unmistakable resolve. When mistakes are made, fix them and move on. Contrary to corporate culture, it is more important to fix the problem than to affix blame. Use visible symbols to reinforce principles. People need to see leaders leading. The team needs to see someone on the bridge who knows the right course.

3.    Constantly show optimism and self-confidence, but remain grounded in the reality of the current situation. Unflagging optimism is the hallmark of great leadership. If you don’t believe it can be done, how will anyone else believe it can be done? The spirit of future possibility generates positive energy that is contagious and self-perpetuating. When presented with challenges, the optimist sees possibilities and focuses his or her energy on solutions grounded in reality.

4.    Maintain your own physical and mental well being. Success is often driven by high energy. To sustain a high-energy success engine, the leader and the team must have the stamina to cover the distances necessary to be successful. Leaders know they must push to excel, but they must also know when to stop and give people a rest. Leaders can show concern for others by monitoring their well being. Sometimes this requires guidance from others around them to help choose what is best for the team.

5.    Constantly reinforce the team message that “We are one-we live or die together.” Establishing a shared identify reinforces team unity. The strength of the wolf is the pack. Helping each other resolve impediments strengthens unity. Frequent, honest communication also strengthens the bonds of unity. A unified team is one where each individual understands his or her role and the tasks required by that role. They feel a deep sense of personal responsibility for doing their part but understand how all the pieces fit together to achieve the group goals. Few teams succeed when vital information is hoarded or restricted to a few key decision makers. When making assignments, match individuals’ skills to the task, but avoid any appearance of favoritism. The toughest assignment for the leader is dealing with poor performance. While individual feelings and team unity must be taken into account, poor performance must be addressed quickly and fairly. An unwillingness to deal with poor performance detracts from team unity. Performance actions must, however, avoid isolating an individual and provide a chance to recover and contribute.

6.    Minimize status differences, and insist on constant respect and courtesy. Every member of the team, including the leader, must demonstrate core team values. Highlighting status differences and promoting special privileges undermines team unity. Avoiding unnecessary hierarchy promotes collaboration and teamwork for all tasks. An egalitarian spirit increases the resource pool for whatever needs to get accomplished and minimizes the anger and resentment that inevitably surfaces under conditions of stress when some are perceived as “more equal” than others. Always insist on common courtesy, no matter how stressful the environment.

7.    Actively manage conflict by dealing with anger in small doses. Engage dissidents and diffuse power struggles. Many people fear conflict and approach its appearance with heightened anxiety. To prevent tension from rising to unmanageable levels, seek opportunities to deal with anger and conflict in small doses. Proactively seek out the opinions of others to recognize tension within the team. Many corporate cultures seek to drive conflict underground and replace constructive resolution with conflict avoidance under the guise of respect for people. Conflict is an early warning sign that problems are not being addressed. Bringing the conflict to the surface may be the only way to uncover the underlying problems. Worse, unresolved conflict will likely fuel tension that will surface in other, unproductive ways. Ignoring conflict increases the likelihood that the magnitude of the inevitable confrontation will be greater than if dealt with in small doses early on.

8.    Constantly look for wins and celebrate. Look for humor and help people laugh. Within stressful, time-constrained work environments, there seems to be little time for celebration. Yet, these are the times when celebrations can have the greatest impact on the well being of the team. Shackleton kept his team motivated by constantly looking for something new to celebrate. Small or large, celebration brings successful closure to a step or task and renews the team for starting on the next challenge. Celebration gives people a chance to feel good and enjoy a sense of accomplishment, and it builds confidence in expecting more successful outcomes in the future. During and between celebrations, look for humor and help people laugh. When things are the most serious is when laughter can be the most powerful elixir for rejuvenating one’s spirit.

9.    Have the courage to take the Big Risk. Successful leaders seldom take unnecessary chances, but when a risk is justified, they do not hesitate. Not making the key decision may do more to ensure failure than deciding to take a calculated risk that may be the only opportunity for success. Many corporate cultures promote risk-averse behavior. However, taking calculated risks of time, money, and resources for strategic opportunities can often yield wildly successful outcomes that would otherwise be missed.

10.    Never give up-there is always another move. Leaders are relentlessly creative-they never give up. The vision of success they see in their mind’s eye guides them toward the outcomes they believe are inevitable. Obstacles merely channel energy down another path to success. The game is never over. There is always another move, another path, and another opportunity-if only we can identify what it is. Tenacious creativity for finding alternative solutions is the hallmark of great leadership.

Lessons Learned from Shackleton’s Valiant Voyage.

This brief summary of Leading at the Edge cannot give justice to the power of Perkins book or the significance of Shackleton’s achievement. A successful manager uses all the tools, skills, knowledge, and experience at his or her disposal to achieve successful outcomes. Reading this reference in full may give you additional weapons in your project management arsenal for your valiant voyages. Resource managers and project managers are leaders by definition. Becoming highly successful leaders of diverse cross-functional teams can make the difference between project success or failure.

Resource and project managers face difficult challenges as we struggle to find our way through the challenges of managing projects whose contributors may be located in myriad time zones around the globe, whose projects are in ever-increasing states of churn, and whose employers face increasing financial pressures from customers, Wall Street, and the competition.

While Darwin may predict that only the strongest will survive, I believe, like Shackleton, that our inner strength and leadership skills can overcome the worst that nature, a customer, a boss, or a company can throw at us. There is always another move, and with the right leadership, we can survive and thrive in the global marketplace of the 21st Century. CIDMIconNewsletter

About the Author


Mike Eleder has been an information developer and manager since 1978. With a Master’s Degree in Occupational Education, Mike has worked as an independent consultant as well as a manager of large information development teams for Rockwell, Motorola, and most recently Lucent Technologies. Mike has led development teams in Vancouver, Chicago, Fort Worth, Phoenix, and in India, the UK, and Ireland.