Advice to Founders, Avoiding Blame and Seeking Success

Image credit: Shutterstock/SpaceQ.

In the last column I talked about the concept of complexity as it applies to the management of large projects. In that column I also discussed the fact that the – often unrecognized – effects of complexity can drive organizational culture in ways that are, let’s just say, undesirable. In this column I discuss avoiding blame and seeking success.

To summarize, projects (or contracts, or programs) that are complex defy the standard playbook for project management. So, applying that playbook almost invariably leads to projects being seen as “failing” because they first depart from their original plan and then don’t respond to the mitigation measures that are applied

Under pressure from senior management, the project management will typically focus first on explaining the failures, then on ascribing blame for them, and will eventually descend to defending why the original objectives can no longer be met – usually for reasons beyond the control of project management

In short, the whole process becomes one of explaining, and explaining away, responsibility for failure rather than being one that is focussed on finding a way forward to success. When this happens – repeatedly, habitually – everyone in the organization becomes used to the process.

It becomes part of the organizational culture.

In fact, this blame avoidance culture gets baked in to the point where no one even seems to expect success any more. Increasingly all of the metrics and performance indicators get skewed to be about how much (or little) failure there was and how the failures that did occur were not the fault of the actors involved.

If you work in such an organization your career progression is increasingly tied to demonstrating lack of culpability rather then in demonstrating a record of participating in successful projects. Of course, this just reinforces the cycle since those that rise through the management ranks are those that are most at home in this environment.

To an outsider, this looks very much like an organization that is not actually interested in success.  t looks like an organization that is more interested in avoiding risk than in achieving results. And from a contractor or supplier perspective it looks like an organization that is more interested in imposing terms and conditions that allow responsibility for failures to be shifted to the supplier rather than in writing contracts that provide incentive for successful outcomes.

I suspect there are many in the audience for whom this description brings particular customers to mind.

So, what can be done in this environment?

Sadly, from the contractor perspective the answer is pretty much – not much. I mean that in the sense that you cannot, as an outsider, expect to change the organizational culture of your customer. You have to live with it. Or you have to decide to live without the customer. But, there is hope, because it is possible to make the best of the situation.

As Walt Whitman once said (at least according to Ted Lasso) – “Be Curious, Not Judgemental.”  Whether you like it or not your customers organizational culture sets the incentives, the constraints, and the imperatives that drive your contract manager’s decision making. You may not agree with those motivations, but if you find a way to align with them you and your company will profit, literally, from the exercise.

Remember, you will always do better if you sell the customer what they want, rather than what you want to sell them. And, it’s not just what you sell, but how you sell it and how you fit into the bigger picture that counts.

In other words, instead of gritting you teeth and mentally rolling your eyes, dig into the motivation behind the behaviour of customer management and staff.  Be curious, ask about how things work, sympathize with the conditions that they feel have been imposed on them.  And then, find ways to help.  As Simon Sinek says – your customers are people, and they’ll warm up to those who help them succeed – on their terms.

On the other hand, they won’t enjoy working with anyone that they feel is “difficult” or “confrontational.” Which is how you will seem if you spend your time pointing out that there are better ways to do things than the ones they have chosen. Worse yet, this effect will be magnified if they get the feeling that you might have a point.

In short, being right isn’t the goal; being helpful is. And surprisingly, you might just find that being helpful gets you more in the long run than being “right.”

I will freely admit that this is easy advice to give and hard advice to put into practice. It’s partly why I like sitting on this side of the keyboard. You will have to believe me when I say that the advice is not given with any lack of experience the other side.

Now, that covers what can be done to live with a culture that favours avoiding blame over success, In the next column we’ll continue the discussion by looking at what can be done if you are the one managing such a project in such an environment.

About Iain Christie

Founder and CEO at SideKickSixtyFive Consulting and host of the Terranauts podcast. Iain is a seasoned business executive with deep understanding of the space business and government procurement policy. Iain worked for 22 years at Neptec including as CEO. He was a VP at the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, is a mentor at the Creative Destruction Lab and a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management.

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