Words from the VP:

Bottom Line Clarity - the Antidote for Project Priority Clutter

I love talking to VPs. Their heads live in the business world and on the bottom line. Perhaps they don't inhabit our project worlds as much as we'd like them to, and can thus seem out of touch with the frustrations of making everything work to get those products or systems or applications out the door. But I believe it's a good trade for project managers and team members to learn to speak the executive business language, and be willing to translate our project issues into items executives can "get" from within their business context. In return, we get one the benefits of a strong executive bottom line mindset -- that of absolute clarity around goals and priorities.

This appreciation of clarity was renewed recently as I worked with one particular VP. He's at the head of a changing organization -- one enjoying great success, with new products out for industrial automation, and new customers considering them as a supplier for the first time. But with that success has come the inevitable challenge of TOO MUCH TO DO. And as is typical, not enough people available yet to take on all those projects, and unfortunately, not enough managers and team members able to say "No," or "Wait."

Earlier this year his team faced the challenge of
  • finishing the extended beta test of the product at a reference customer;
  • launching a newly-released product into the market and supporting the early shipments to customers, including totally new ones the company has never dealt with;
  • executing a cost-reduction cycle on several of the sub-system designs;
  • starting design work on the enhanced version of the new system for an aggressive shipment date later in the year;
  • already fielding requests for "customer special" software and hardware versions.
As is typical, everything was getting some attention because "everything has to get done," and nothing was getting full attention.

So back to the story: A few weeks ago I witnessed a no-nonsense, beautiful, and ultimately powerful display of executive thinking and stand-taking from this VP. The setting was a project review meeting. The team was covering status of all the parallel efforts, and it seemed that everything was somewhat at risk, everything was at least a bit behind schedule. There was some feeling of concern by the team, but mostly a pervasive attitude that "well, we've just got to plug away and get it done somehow."

The VP, however, saw much more potential danger ahead. He saw that the good (working on everything) might be the enemy of the great (working on the most important things), and took the opportunity to educate the team on how to get to an understanding of true priorities. Here's what he said to the assembled group.

"I appreciate what everyone is doing and how hard you're working. But I'm concerned that we may be taking a huge risk with how we're currently approaching our project list - a risk that could keep us from being successful as a business. We really don't have an 'equal' set of projects here. I see a chain of priorities for accomplishing our business goals.

  1. "We must satisfy our beta customer. If we don't, we will not get the stellar reference from them that we have been counting on -- and then we will not be able to meet our 3rd quarter sales targets, because initial customers are waiting to hear how our system performed in a production environment before they sign their purchase orders and commit to having us on their factory floor. If those early customers don't come through, the next set will be in jeopardy as well, because the second set of customers wants to hear that a leading set of multiple customers is already in production.
  2. "If the early units we sell and ship are not the highest possible quality, we will get a bad reputation and cut off even our opportunities to sell this machine into existing and new customers. Reliability and up time are everything in this industry and we must achieve our targets in volume production as well as we have with our initial units. We cannot make mistakes in the release of this system into volume production.
  3. "On our cost-reduction goals, we can meet our initial sales targets without it, but we have to get at least 10% out of the cost by around the end of the year for this and the advanced machine to be affordable to our entire target market.
  4. "If we are not successful with 1) and 2), and 3), there will be absolutely NO need for the advanced machine you're working on so hard!"
"So - my direction to you is for everyone of you to be sure you are working on things in this order:
  1. "Finish Beta. Fix issues at the beta test and work hard to make sure the beta machine provides the customer with what they need on the factory floor.
  2. "Release with high quality. Ensure that everything you release from development to production of complete and correct so that we can move into volume production quickly and build and deliver high-quality machines every time.
  3. "Then look for cost reductions. Find the highest impact cost reduction items as quickly as you can but do not impact beta or release quality to do it!
  4. "And then and only then should you spend time on the advanced machine.

"If you can't get to the advanced machine based on what you need to spend on 1, 2, and 3, I need to hear about that as a resource issue, and I will deal with it from there.
"AND -- tell me immediately if any of you feel you are being given instructions from ANYONE that would divert your priorities from that focus, in that order."

Wow. And "duh" -- what sense it makes.

But in our world of constant competing demands, we can get lost in trying to get it all done.

This VP's stand still gets quoted -- for instance, by team members to salespeople or others who walk in and ask them to work on another new feature for the advanced machine. It helped with the sense of overwhelm. It helped make all the milestones real and meaningful.

This VP demonstrated bottom-line perspective and effective executive stand-taking in action and in the process gave his team a new tool for their own management or their work.

If you're managing projects or on a team, ask yourself if you have such an executive to help everyone see the true priorities with such clarity, and if don't, go find one. If you're an executive, are you providing this critical benefit to your teams?

Find ways to create this kind of interaction between your executives and teams - it will help you bridge the business and project worlds and find your way in the midst of project clutter.

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