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Walking the Tightrope, Episode 3: Jeff Nash on Successful Project Teams

by Ken Murphy, Senior Features Editor

October 24, 2013

Ken Murphy: Hi, this is Ken Murphy with SAPinsider Online, and welcome to “Walking the Tightrope,” an exclusive series of SAPinsider Online podcasts with veteran project managers and speakers at the SAPinsider Managing Your SAP Projects conference which begins Nov. 20 in Orlando. Today, I’m pleased to be joined by Jeff Nash, Software Development Manager at Lockheed Martin. Jeff will be presenting a session at the conference focusing on project leadership and overall team structure, and he’s agreed to give us a sneak preview of some of the issues he will be addressing in greater detail in Orlando.

Jeff, you talk about perceptions a lot and how perceptions affect a project team. Is this from an individual standpoint, how I perceive myself and what I bring to a team, and self-confidence, or is it more from a group standpoint that team members should share a common perception about goals?

Jeff Nash: Well, actually, I think it’s really both. Obviously how we perceive ourselves, our abilities, what we can offer a team, has a definite impact on our contribution. Understanding our strengths and our weaknesses is also important. I’ve been on some teams where the most insecure individual on the team has made the biggest contribution. And I always wondered what they would be able to achieve if they were able to truly believe in their abilities. And I think those of us who are leaders have a responsibility to try to build up that confidence, and sometimes even the reverse is true: Some of the most confident people often should be the people asking for help. So there are times when we as individuals need to ask for assistance and we need to be able to feel comfortable with that. And we also need to be able to understand our role and our position on the team because I think that really affects our perception of the project that we are supporting. Not everybody can or should have the big picture, and not everybody can be down in the weeds where all the detail items on the project are being worked. But wherever we land on the organizational chart, that gives us a unique perspective that has value. And I think it’s critical for the project’s success that every team player be willing to share what their perception is. That’s why we’re in the particular roles that we get assigned on to projects, not only because of our expertise, but also because as we’re performing, we hear things, we learn things, we see things, we experience things that can result in either risk to the project or the realization of our project goals.

And I think that’s kind of where the group comes into this, is that obviously each person is responsible for sharing their perception or bringing to the team their perception of how they’re perceiving things. But as a group, as a team, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, “Does the team need to share a common perception about goals?” I think that they do; there needs to be a common understanding of goals and objectives. And that’s particularly hard in a virtual workplace. We at Lockheed Martin are extremely virtual now, much more so than we were 10 years ago and certainly much more than we were 20 years ago. And so we’re finding ourselves working with people who are not only located at various places across the country, but also across the world. And those common perceptions, that common understanding about those goals and objectives that we as a team have are even more critical I think in those circumstances.

A lot of leaders are really good at knowing the mechanics of running a project, but it’s those soft skills that are required to managing people that are not as easy to learn.

- Jeff Nash

Ken: I’m curious then, Jeff, if perceptions make or break a project, whether there are common roadblocks or hurdles that can arise if team members are not on the same page as to how they collectively view the team?

Jeff:  I think one of the things that probably all of us can attest to, is the fact that the rumor mill is always at work. There are always people talking, even in a virtual workplace, particularly with instant messaging news travels fast and sometimes what’s being talked about is wrong. Other times it’s dead on, but many times folks in leadership don’t know what’s being said or how it’s being said, the attitude it’s being said with. Of course certainly when you’re reading email and you’re reading IM you don’t necessarily get the inflection of a voice or you don’t understand if someone’s really joking or not, and so sometimes people take those things that somebody’s saying as truths and then spread it. Members of a project team think that they’re on the ship that’s going down, they want to get off as soon as they can, they want to isolate themselves because they feel that they won’t get any brunt of any repercussions that might come up. And those types of attitudes are really detrimental to a project, they’re going to impact the amount of work that’s done, they’re going to impact the productivity of team members, and those attitudes are going to result in low morale which I think is one of those roadblocks that can come up based upon people’s perceptions of what’s going on.

I think another roadblock is a lack of communication. It could be that team members just shut down. Leadership doesn’t communicate all of the details that everybody should be aware of. But maybe even worse than a lack of communication is a lack of respectful communication. A little heat in the kitchen is a good thing and conflict can bring about some really creative solutions, but if everybody’s out to protect themselves than you’ve lost the concept of the team. And so I think that watching how people communicate with one another is a roadblock to look out for. And maybe even another roadblock that’s somewhat related to those is what we sometimes refer to as “FUD” here at Lockheed Martin; Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt. Depending on what sort of perceptions that team members have, any of those could arise and so we call it the “FUD Factor.” So any of these roadblocks can lead to a lack of productivity, missed deadlines, schedule delays, budget overruns, missed customer requirements or expectations. Any of the standard issues that any project may have to face.

Ken: Also, Jeff, what’s the best advice you can give to project leaders for helping to keep a project on track? A common leadership mistake perhaps that’s easily correctable or said another way, an entrenched mindset that people have that can be changed?

Jeff: I think there are a couple of things. To me, probably one of the most important pieces of advice that I can give to anybody is to connect with your team. You don’t have to be best buddies with everyone, and all of us don’t have the type of personality that’s maybe conducive to that. But I believe that working on relationships, the relationships that we build within our team, are really a key to success. The trust and rapport that we can build in our teams is really important, and a lot of our leaders are really good at knowing the mechanics of running a project, but it’s those soft skills that are required to managing people that are not as easy to learn. So if we can put that trust in place then our team members are going to be willing to open up, to share their perception on how things are going. And then that’s going to go a long way in giving a leader the information they need to know about where the project really is, and how best to use the resources that they have. And I think part of connecting with the team needs to include making sure that the leader is communicating that clear set of goals and objectives. And getting team commitment for them. It’s one thing to be able to express what they are, but is the team committed to that? Is everybody on board with the direction that the team is going? Have we made sure that everybody is aligned with those goals and objectives? That’s easy to do when a project starts up, but it can’t be done in the middle of a project and I know one of the things that we do within our development lifecycle is not only do we have all of our milestone reviews at the end of each of the phases within the ASAP methodology, but we also do a start-up for each of the next phases. And so within those, that’s a great opportunity where people can communicate their goals and objectives. Above and beyond that, what are the roles and responsibilities of the various people on our team that are going to help us meet those objectives in this phase of the project? So making sure everybody’s aligned.

The last thing that comes to mind is just making sure that the team is aware of what the process is, the tools, the techniques, what the methodologies are that they need to follow and making sure that there is a structure in place that governs each person’s day-to-day activities and they understand what that structure is and how they fit into that structure.

Ken: Finally, Jeff, I’ll ask you about feedback. What do you hear from people who follow these methods in their projects, and are people pleasantly surprised at all by the difference it can make?

Jeff:  Every project is going to run into obstacles. You’re going to realize risks, but from the leaders that I’ve talked to, if the type of connections and the communication that I’ve talked about are established and the team enjoys working together, these leaders have been able to see them overcome all sorts of challenges. That’s not to say you’re not going to go over-budget, or you’re going to miss some deadlines. Those things happen and sometimes they can’t be avoided. But from experience, it seems that people are much more willing to work together to solve the issues that arise if they feel that not only their skills are valued, but that their opinions and their input are as well. I mean, if they really truly feel value they’re willing to put their skin in the game for the project. There are some things as leaders we don’t have the power to change, but what we do have is the power to influence how those things are perceived, and that sometimes a risk can really be an opportunity. Sometimes an obstacle can be a challenge. There are ways, and I hate to use the word, but there are ways we as leaders can spin things to help team members get a better perception of what’s really happening with the project. And that can sometimes be the difference on not only how successful a project is, but also not only is it perceived by the team itself but how is it perceived by senior management?  And then how is it perceived by those who are part of it years from now? I talk to lots of people who were on projects where this kind of communication, these types of connections were made, and when you ask them about what they feel like were the most successful projects they’ve been on, they point back to those where they’ve truly felt valued and really felt that their input has been valued.

Ken: Again, this is Ken Murphy with SAPinsider Online, and you’ve been listening to “Walking the Tightrope,” a series of exclusive SAPinsider Online podcasts about managing SAP projects. Today, we’ve had the pleasure of speaking with Jeff Nash, Software Development Manager at Lockheed Martin. Jeff will be presenting a session at the Managing Your SAP Projects conference on project leadership. The conference begins Nov. 20 in Orlando.

 

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