The Sink Side of Sink or Swim

Everyone understands that moving from being a “doer” of things to being a “leader” of things can be a difficult transition to make. What gets less attention are the transitions that occur as people move from leadership roles in smaller projects to similar roles in larger projects.

A number of troubled projects I’ve recently reviewed have suffered from problems as a result of people moving into roles for which they were poorly prepared. For the purpose of illustrating the types of issues involved, we can think of work we do as falling into one of four buckets.

  1. Doing – using our hard technical skills to perform tasks
  2. Directing – delegating work, overseeing the work of others
  3. Planning and organizing – Arranging work & teams, establishing processes and interactions
  4. Strategizing – Setting direction, setting organizational priorities, etc

To a certain extent, every role involves all four activities, but as the scale of the project increases, the focus of the project’s key leadership roles moves up the scale. Unfortunately many larger projects find themselves in a situation in which key leadership roles are assigned to people who have never performed their role on that scale before.

In one recent example an organization was involved in a very large scale project (in the $100M range). The organization was experiencing ongoing problems in establishing an effective quality control group. The problems escalated to the point where the organization terminated the Test Manager and hired a new person. Unfortunately the problems persisted. I met both test managers personally and they certainly were intelligent people, but unfortunately in both cases their prior experiences had been as Test Manager for significantly smaller projects and they were struggling to understand that their role was now dominated by organizing and strategizing rather than doing and directing.

In large part these types of failure are not the fault of the individual, rather they are the failure of the hiring process. Having observed many mangers over the years conduct interviews, there is often a critical gap in the questioning that’s used; questions regarding the scope and magnitude of the projects in which a person’s prior experience was gained. You many have been a Test Manager many times before, but if your prior experience was in projects involving 3 or 4 team members, the type of work would be very different from when you suddenly have a team of 100.

Organizations need to be cognizant of the dimensions of the role for which they are hiring and ensure that the candidate they select will be able to perform at that scale. The question needing to be asked are simple, but the information gained is amongst the most important information to come out of the interview. Typical questions should include

  1. How large was the largest project you’ve held a leadership role on ($ cost, duration and number of people days effort)?
  2. How many direct reports did you have?
  3. How long did you perform that role?
  4. What was the outcome?
  5. What did you learn in terms of being a leader?

Some may say that that information is generally available through the resume, but actually that’s often not the case. Many resume’s hide such details and I’ve had many situations where asking the questions point blank has revealed a very different picture from what was implied in the resume itself. They are simple enough question to ask and can be answered in just a few words, but they may be the critical questions that help keep your project on the path to success.