08/06/2018

By Susanne Turnbo | Principal

Meet Susanne: Sooner. Lake Person. Humble Leader.

It was one tense meeting. The kind where anything happening outside of the room seemed irrelevant. I was in an Executive Steering Committee meeting for a large IT program, and the truth about the project’s progress was just uncovered. As the conversation heated up, the view out the window of that Downtown Dallas conference room told me it was getting late.

About a year earlier, the company had kicked off this complex program. The program involved the migration and transformation of the company’s critical business applications. This may seem straightforward at first, but as you get into the details, these kinds of projects can turn into a minefield. I was brought in to act as a Portfolio Manager, overseeing the myriad of IT Infrastructure and Security projects, and worked alongside multiple service providers—creating a large cross-company team.

Up until this point, the combined team was putting on a brave face. Most reading this will know that throughout a program a standard three-color system is used to indicate the progress: green (on track), yellow (some aspect is at risk or needs attention), or red (a major setback, roadblock, or budget issue exists). Throughout status meetings this program had almost always been reported as green—regardless of circumstance. Things were already hard enough, and there was fear that reporting it as red would increase the pressure even more and make things even more tense.

This is the red in the watermelon. You are reporting something as green outwardly, but it is really red. Living in the precarious space between hope and truth may be easier in the moment, but it has its own nasty consequences.

Living in the precarious space between hope and truth may be easier in the moment, but it has its own nasty consequences.

There are a lot of reasons why people might shy away from signaling the truth that things aren’t going well. If you have ever been embroiled in a large program, you know there are politics and many, many opinions. Sometimes a high-level stakeholder refuses to allow it to be anything but green. Sometimes there is just plain denial. Sometimes there is fear. A lot of times there is all three. But, learning to make honest updates work for you, instead of against you, can garner the help and support that is needed to overcome major obstacles.

As we sat in that conference room, eventually there was a point of revelation in the discussion. We finally uncovered the true status of the program…and it was time to get really honest with each other. No more hiding issues or opinions to keep that positive front, ease tensions, or appease high-level stakeholders. Acknowledging the ugly truth created a rallying effect and the core team banded together to begin re-planning. Instead of pointing fingers, all of the key service providers supporting that large IT organization were given a seat at the table – instilling a sense of ownership in the path forward. A ropes course or a trust fall may have been a faster way to arrive here, but either way we made it.

If you have ever been embroiled in a large program, you know there are politics and many, many opinions. Sometimes a high-level stakeholder refuses to allow a status report to be anything but green.

Out of this time came two things: 1) a one-team mantra and 2) shared accountability.

These both led to a more productive environment and more honest assessments of the program. The one-team mantra was about dropping your company or team name at the door and prioritizing the shared goals of the program. No more finger pointing between companies and teams. Everyone moved to the same floor and people came forward to help each other work through complex problems – even if it wasn’t their direct responsibility.

Our shared accountability became cornerstone. Everyone involved in the program needed to drive towards success and support the team, versus allowing dissent to grow and derail momentum. After all, sometimes it is easier to sit on the sidelines and poke holes, but this can be very damaging for the team. Turn your biggest naysayers into advocates by giving them clear ownership. When you tell someone that their success depends on the completion of the program goals, usually the conversation shifts. You move away from the doubts and criticisms that create roadblocks and on to the problem solving and collaboration that enables success.

The ripple effect of these changes led to other leaders across the organization giving teams permission to report the status as red. While this may seem simple, it was a huge culture shift. In the end, when you create an environment that allows for the truth to be heard, then you can better avoid the watermelon effect.

Now, who’s hungry?

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