7 threads of activity - for all leaders of teams, projects and continuous improvement initiatives
First published in itSM Review and the springboard for discussion at 7th July 2015 itSMF Leadership & Team Building Masterclass - for all leaders of teams, projects and continuous improvement initiatives
What is Project Leadership? How is it different from Leadership?
We all have the choice of whether to lead or follow, whatever our title, whatever the situation. In IT Service Management, we often see providing support as following. However, evidence suggests that we considerably enhance our reputation and delivery if we take the lead. What does that look like exactly? Is it our remit? How will we bring others with us?
Look more closely at Service Management teams working on projects or making improvements to operations. Authentic and effective leadership is happening at all levels; The person who inspires others to act quickly in an emergency, who admits a mistake promptly, understanding how this minimises wider organisational impact or who speaks out when something has been bothering the team or great service isn’t being delivered; the person who mends fences between teams. All of this adds value to the business, reduces costs and risks and improves outcomes.
In our work with many 100s of IT departments, we have identified 7 threads of leadership activity that anyone can do, in any SM role, at any point when delivering services, designing products or making improvements.
The 7 Threads
Why ‘threads’? Because we want to get away from the idea of steps or stages where one finishes and another starts. Leadership activity and use of emotional intelligence (Goleman 2000) need to flow continuously through all our development and operational activities. If these are used well - right time, right situation – they can prevent projects, products, processes and relationships from becoming a bit of a tangle.
Thread 1 – Spotting and validating needs
This first thread of activity involves observing and evaluating what is happening now with an open mind. All projects, products and change initiatives begin with someone being curious, noticing needs or opportunities inside the organisation, with customers or competitors. That same careful observation, creativity and ideas generation needs to be sustained throughout, often combining gut feel with hard facts. Have we slipped into ‘habit blindness’ or group think? Is it still working? What are the costs, benefits and risks of changing or starting something? What else could we do?
Passionate about an idea? Get a ‘reality check’ with others. If you are unsure, get more information, from close colleagues, then from people with different perspectives and listen, don’t just defend your ideas.
Suggestion: Think about your processes and projects. Are they still delivering value? For whom in the business? Based on what criteria? Could you save your organisation and your team’s precious resources, effort and time by stopping, refocusing or re-prioritising any part of your work?
Thread 2 – Making the pitch
This thread involves presenting ideas and making them sound clear, practical and compelling, to get the support of a wide variety of audiences. An idea is pitched to senior management to get funding and approval. A project or process is pitched to new team members, partners, customers and suppliers, all with different opinions, needs, motivations and levels of understanding. Changes are pitched to the people not actively involved but personally affected, through changes to roles, relationships, processes or even job security.
And your pitches have to be in your audience’s language to have the right emotional resonance and credibility. So you will need to know your audience well – real engagement is needed.
Also, you may need to repeat information many times. People are busy, miss meetings and emails, or just don’t have your level of technical knowledge and experience. You will need to explain changes, progress and decisions made, in your audiences’ language, to manage expectations and perceptions.
Suggestion: Next time you prepare an important message, stand in your audience’s shoes, think how your message will land and what you want them to think, feel and do. What jargon and technical elements do/don’t they need to understand? A few extra minutes planning a message can significantly increase engagement, collaboration, reduce delays and improve decision making.
Thread 3 – Getting going
This is the continual reflecting and planning thread. No matter how experienced the teams we work with are, they often jump in without doing enough planning. “Never plan alone” is the true service management leader’s motto, at all stages. We can make planning activities fun and engaging – making the road ahead clear to all. Involve others with diverse specialist knowledge to open up ‘black boxes’, which helps with estimating, sequencing, highlighting interdependencies and workload management.
Find out who needs what information on progress, when, in what format so you can manage expectations and agree who will be consulted or informed over changes.
Ensure everyone knows the checkpoints that will show progress and if there is something that can’t not be done, then just do it (being sure to tell/involve the necessary people!).
Suggestion: Put a simple graphical image of your plan (1 A4 page in a font size you can read) on a real or virtual whiteboard so all can see, and a dashboard to highlight main achievements, risks and opportunities, goals and deliverables.
Thread 4 – Building the team
Build a team of people not just with skills but enthusiasm, a willingness to engage and to support each other. Then we need to create and sustain a bond between people who may not have worked together before, who come from different backgrounds and functions. They may also be working remotely. Building relationships of trust and respect is an actual job and needs constant work. It doesn’t happen by itself. Make effective team and cross-team working everyone’s responsibility. Be as willing to stand up to poor team behaviour and commitment as you are to poor performance.
Suggestion: Don’t avoid the ‘storming’ stage. Trigger it by reviewing regularly, openly and without blame so the stakes of raising issues aren’t too high. Be realistic about the team’s skills and knowledge - allow for the learning curve and different learning styles – yours and theirs. Some like being thrown in at the deep end. Others want support.
Add an item to your team meeting agenda: ‘What’s working well and what needs work?’ Demonstrate constructive discussion. If there are some sensitive issues, discuss these 1:1.
Thread 5 – Getting engaged
This is where we track the wider impact of our project or change initiative on the organisation, navigate the politics, mitigate disruption and resistance to change, rather than being too internally and technically focused.
Even small changes to IT Services and business processes need to do be done with our colleagues/customers, not to them. It is a myth that everyone resists change. What people don’t like is the unknown, the ambiguous, the arrogant or aggressive. No-one is obliged to collaborate so we need to understand what would make them want to. The strongest human drivers at work are enjoying a sense of belonging, seeing we are making an effective contribution and feeling appreciated/recognised. So find ways to involve people in ways that genuinely meet these universal needs. You can’t reach everyone so build a strong network of reliable advocates who know each community affected by the project or change to involve them and give support.
Suggestion: Are your stakeholder needs being met? Could they help you succeed if you worked more closely with them? Consider who could act as advocates and get them on board. Create a ‘stakeholder map’ to better understand who you need to engage with, and work out a plan to build those relationships and get support.
Thread 6 – Making it happen
This thread focuses on personal resilience and emotional intelligence – how we handle the interpersonal interactions. Skilful use of different leadership styles in different situations is key: when to push for action and when to open up the debate; when to set the pace yourself and when to coach others to lead; when to focus on the task or relationships to get the job done.
We need to look after ourselves, manage stress levels and workload, emotions and needs, as well as being there for others. Authentic leadership is all about making sure we are able to be ‘mindful’ or present in the moment. We need to understand what is reasonable pressure – which can be very energising and bring out the best in us and our teams - and what is actually stress or overload. Under stress we can get tunnel vision which affects our judgement, relationships and decision making, even our health. Keep taking the pulse: yours, the team’s and the organisation around you.
Suggestion: Take a step back and make sure you are leading your projects or initiatives and they aren’t driving you. We are all human, so ask for help if you need it. A good tip is notice how you are feeling physically. Are you noticing any tension or physical habits such as fidgeting? The tension can feel like a tight knot in your stomach or chest or head, or an overall sense of tiredness over and beyond the work itself.
Thread 7 – Reviewing, learning, celebrating
This is the thread of continually ensuring the work provides opportunities for learning and putting in place the mechanisms for this. These can be coaching, for individuals or teams, and constructive reviews and knowledge sharing at meetings. It can also include feedback on the job, e.g. making sure, activities are properly finished, and to the necessary standard. Take time to ensure each new tool or process or change is embedded in day-to-day practice and has actually been an improvement for the people involved. Innovation is fuelled by continual iterative cycles of improvement, each building on the successes and lessons of the previous cycle.
Good service leaders know that expectations are best managed by dividing a large piece of work into manageable chunks, then visibly signalling completion of each chunk. Regularly recognise effort, remind all of what the changes have contributed to the organisation and agree what still needs fixing, without blame. Summarise those achievements for your different audiences in language that will engage and inspire them, give you credibility and consolidate your relationship.
Your action: Consider how often you have reviews, what they feel like and what they deliver. Don’t accept, long, dull and unproductive meetings. Make them short, inspiring and productive!
Also think about who you involve, how you prepare, how much care you take when you document or present information about progress, problems handled, issues resolved and opportunities seized. This should not be ‘boring documentation’. If it is, do it differently. It should be your legacy and track record of adding value to the business, and yet another opportunity for leading and influencing.
About the Authors
Philippa Hale and Jean Gamester are senior consultants at Open Limits and on the Associate Faculty at Henley Business School.
They work with organisations including Harrods, FT, British Transport Police and many regional police and local government IT departments, Hearst UK, Orient Express (now Belmond), BG Group, HR Wallingford, Pincent Mason, Punter Southall, Royal London Asset Management, Which? Vodafone, and CIPD.
They are regular writers, advisors and speakers for professional bodies including itSMF, SDI and the BCS.
They help IT organisations in particular weave the threads of service leadership, team skills and continuous improvement into their day-to-day delivery. Through team workshops and coaching, business simulations, training and action learning, they help teams and leaders make change happen.
Open Limits - 01202 473782