by Doug DeCarlo, Principal
The Doug DeCarlo Group
Author of eXtreme Project Management:
Using Leadership, Principles and Tools to Deliver Value in the Face of Volatility

Hiring an eXtreme Project Manager: Testing for Courage

Those of you who have been following the beat of this column may recall that "Courage" is one of the 10 Shared Values in my model for eXtreme project management. In witnessing eXtreme projects over the last seven years, I have come to the conclusion that the lack of courage is the greatest single point of failure for the project manager/leader.

Courage Defined
I define courage to mean acting on your conviction in the face of your own fear. I used to think that people who acted with courage must have first gotten over their fear. But then I realized that if you had no fear, why would you need courage? Waiting for the fear to subside is merely a wimpy excuse for not taking action.

Lack of Courage in Action
More often than not, I find that project managers really do know the right thing to do. I know this by asking a simple question: "If you had it your way completely, what would you do in this situation?" I then follow that up with, "So, what stops you from doing that?" The answer is usually, "Because it's against the established policy," or "I don't have the authority."

"Well, how about pressing for a change in policy or asking for the authority?"

"Because that would take too long," is a typical answer.

"Then why not break the rules if your solution is the right thing to do for the project?"

"Well if I break the rules, I may put my job in jeopardy."

I reply, "If you play by the current rules, you are already in jeopardy. So if you break them, at least you have a chance of succeeding."

The conversation usually ends there. People don't always like to be backed into a corner and have to face the truth.

More Testing for Courage
Here are several specific scenarios common to most any project, eXtreme or otherwise. If you're selecting someone for the job of extreme project manager, ask the candidate how s/he handled any of these situations and with what result, or make up your own situations.

Ineffective sponsorship
Your project sponsor either did not exist or was ineffective in championing the project and breaking down barriers. This caused you serious delays and compromised the project.

Or, perhaps you were faced with multiple sponsors who could not agree with each other leaving you in the middle, unable to get needed decisions and direction, effectively stalemating the project.

Stifiling Methodology
The Project Support Group required that you follow ordained practices and complete specified templates. However, these requirements were impeding your project because people were spending too much time filling out forms. Not only was this taking them away from getting work done on their deliverables, it was also lowering morale.

Ad Hoc Methodology
No one on the project wanted to follow any methodology. As a result the project was going out of control.

Impossible Constraints
Some combination of scope, schedule, team member availability, requirements for quality and budget restraints were making it unrealistic to deliver what the customer expected. After taking your best shot at negotiating more reasonable constraints, you still see no way to succeed.

Outmoded Plan
You worked hard to get the project plan approved by the sponsor. Having begun work on the project, you had a rude awakening and realized that your plan was not a good one and the best thing would be to scrap it, create a new one and go back again for approval.

Dubious Project
You were heading a politically sensitive project with a strong sponsor. It turns out to have next to zero business value, is unlikely to succeed and is also sucking up a good chunk of resources that could be used for more worthy ventures.

Walked Away
Faced with a no-win situation to manage, you went to the sponsor and resigned the project. Or perhaps, you told the sponsor you were stopping work on the project until you got what you needed to succeed.

It is possible that the project manager candidate concedes s/he has not faced any of these situations. Although this is not an exhaustive list, a big red flag should go up if the interviewee has no down-in-the trenches experience in any of these scenarios. It makes you wonder how seasoned they really are.

eXtreme project managers have to put their job on the line just about everyday. The good ones have the courage of their convictions. And where there is no time to ask permission, they don't. They'd rather ask for forgiveness.

eXtremely yours,

Doug DeCarlo

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