My Leadership Experience at Dell

Cadence: Updates, Milestones, and Execution – Extreme Project Management

A few posts precipitated this one. They are about project planning failures (Get Over It) and project management in high-speed organizations (Speeding Train). Today I’d like to explore the other side of project management: how to reduce friction, increase productivity, and keep everyone informed of the progress. These are the golden rules of project management, but they can be executed with a heavy hand that makes your team feel micro-managed, OR… they can be less authoritarian and more democratic. Let’s look at how to make your team happier, while getting the results your executives require.

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My mentor at Dell liked to talk about cadence. It was a word that I understood the first time they brought it up. We were talking about a new “project team” I was struggling to get off the ground.

The issue I was having with the team building was one of commitment. I had several director-level members (a level above me)  as well as several peers in this group. The mission of the project was to define and establish new “innovation” projects for Dell.com. There were two problems with that idea right off the bat.

  1. I was not an established “leader” to the Director-level team members;
  2. At Dell, “innovation” was not always tied to ROI, and thus people’s commitment to do the work was going to be a matter of “leadership without authority.” They were volunteers not conscripts.

Basically, I needed them and needed their participation. They did not need me, nor did they necessarily want another “project” or another “meeting” to put demands on their workload. In a heavily siloed and matrixed organization I relied on my people skills, my enthusiasm for doing good work, and my ability to lead without authority. (Leadership by consensus: It’s a skill they try to teach in project management classes, look into it.)

So here’s what cadence is all about.

  1. Understand the rhythm or timing necessary to get the work done, while not asking for too much from these “volunteers.”
  2. Prepare for every meeting like it was a major presentation, give a detailed agenda, follow up with detailed action item lists within an hour of the completion of the meeting.
  3. Establish a regular meeting that works for everyone who is essential to success. (It’s okay to let some nay sayers, or “anti-bodies,” drop off the radar, but for the critical path team members do everything you can to accommodate their schedule requests.
  4. Give credit, spread the love, share the wealth. (Many times these “innovation” teams will not have a focused project to deliver on. I this case, we were trying to make the business cases for budgeting and getting approval for new projects. The process was the project.)
  5. Be firm, friendly, and establish your leadership of the meetings. (A high-ranking member of the team in this case, was not all that supportive of my including them on this new team and thus signing them up for meetings and “possibly” action items. But losing this person’s involvement would’ve been devastating to the project. So I bent over backwards to give them flexibility. At the same time, I had to show my commitment to the project, and my commitment to keeping them as an essential player on the team.
  6. Value every one’s time. (If you can give back minutes by breaking up your “call” early, do it. And always, always keep everyone “in the loop” on progress, kudos, and visibility within the company.

So the essentials of Cadence, on this project were the things that I could have an impact on.

Frequency of the standing meetings. (Once a week for an hour is a HUGE commitment. But every-other-week for 30 minutes might allow your program to drop off their radar completely.

Frequency and quality of the emails regarding agendas, summaries, action item requests, check-ins and progress. (Too many updates and folks will start to tune you out. Not enough and they will forget about your requests and maybe “miss” a meeting or two.)

Syncing with the style and communication preferences of each member. (Some people like Instant Messaging some people hate it. Some are email adverse and prefer the phone. As in any performance, know your audience. The more you know about working with each individual the better you can support their work on your project.

Always offer to help on any of their non-essential projects. (Returning the favor with volunteerism is a great way to establish rapport with your team mates. I would often ask each member, in private, “How can I help you?” Sometimes the offer was suspect and refused. But often I got a few tasks or “reviews” that I could do easily to help establish the connection and camaraderie with the other person.)

Here’s the slide I used to show my manager what my leadership plan was for this extraordinary team.

Extreme Project Management - Dell

Here’s the complete point: Without direct authority over some one’s time or budget, we are all volunteers on cross-departmental teams. “Air cover” comes in when you need to ask for a higher-authority to give attention to your project for the benefit of every one’s motivational participation.

And while air cover from your manager or your manager’s manager (at Dell VP endorsements motivated participation about 5X that of a Director) can inject some energy into your troops, it’s really the leadership and consideration of your role as volunteer coordinator that will make or break your non-essentential project. Because to me, as the project manager and team lead, given the opportunity to take on a “innovation” project, it was a huge win for me. Success was essential to my success as a Dell employee and as a future leader.

@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)
Source Inspiration: Fast Company Leadership Presence.

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