Yoda smiling

Yoda Didn’t Live on My Planet

Feb 05, 2022

Yoda Did not Live on my Planet

Remember in the movie Star Wars when Yoda said something to the effect that “There is no Try, only Do?  Well, if you have supernatural powers and a Jedi lightsaber, then that might be true. But on THIS planet, there is a lot more trying than actually doing!  And a good leader always appreciates honest effort.  But not everyone is a good leader.

Business experts say unless you are failing periodically, you are not trying hard enough. (For example, getting this project leadership and Technical CONOPS training company relaunched in six months is proving to be a real challenge and there have been a few failures along the way!)  But setting lofty goals is a good thing, right? 

What if you fail?

Well, failing a lot may earn you a reputation for not delivering on your promises. The more I talk with people in business about what qualities they want to see in their employees, the more I hear the phrase “Do what you say you will do.”  

From engineering staffs to marketing teams, making things happen - - - key things and minor things - - - seems to be an increasingly important Key Performance Indicator at the old annual review.

But here is the rub - - - in business, you seldom have the autonomy you need to always promise to "make it happen".  Instead, you must rely on coworkers and teammates to help you.  As a defense contractor, you must additionally rely upon the Congress for the annual “Authorization Bill” which lets the Pentagon spend money. 

And then you will depend on a cascade of USG office symbols, any of whom can (and does) syphon off funds as the stream trickles down.  And then come the opinions and biases of  the procurement staff and the PMO/PED, ad infinitum. 

How do you do this? How do you build a reputation for reliability?  You do these three things:

1. Be very reluctant to agree to do anything in the first place. Since your word is your bond, do not give your word easily. Instead of saying “I’ll make so-and-so happen by the end of next month” when you have no idea how you’ll actually make that happen, say instead “I’ll push hard to make that happen - - - success will depend on our ability to get X and Y parts here in time.” 

You will need people/other resources.  Say so up front and be very clear about it.  And then add “That will be high risk, but we will try it.  Will you help me get the resources I'll need?” 

Just make sure the bosses know that insufficient resources = no success.  (Learn how to have difficult conversations with bosses, peers and direct reports in our blog post "Tell People What You Need" here https://www.smoothprojects.org/blog/_tell_people .)

2. Be an ACE - - - Always Control Expectations. If a task is going to be especially difficult, make sure key people know it, for two main reasons: a) You want them to know that the probability of success is low so they are not automatically counting on it and are, instead, preparing back-up plans, and b) You will need resources in order to be successful and they must help you get them.

Our research at Smooth Projects shows the number 1 reason for project failure is, by a large margin, management's under-resourcing of the project.  That usually means depriving the project/program of money and/or key people, either initially or during the project, or both.

3. Always build a User-Driven Stakeholder Matrix (USDM) to capture, document, and act on the various recommendations from all the people who have a serious interest in a project/program.

We will be publishing an article soon about the power of the UDSM and the other fifteen very cool tools in the Technical CONOPS toolkit that we teach in our training courses (www.SmoothProjects.org). 

Those were the Do's.  Here are a few Don'ts for building a solid reputation for reliably making things happen:
1. Do not cherry-pick only those jobs that you know you can easily do, finding ways to reject and avoid all the others. This will get you branded as a prima donna interested more in your corporate image than in the work of the enterprise.

2. Do not play the blame game, finding ways to blame other people (coworkers, managers, suppliers, etc.) time after time, when you are unable to complete assigned tasks on time, or at all.  Do not be a whiner. 

3.  Do not "kick the can down the road".  If a problem needs solving and you can do it, then do it.  Too many people take the easy way out, deferring for some future successor the task of solving difficult problems.

4. Do not lie.  Ever.  Be intellectually honest. This is especially true for the all-important, candid after-action reports that business teams write after proposals, contract wins/losses, etc.  You must be honest, and you must operate only in an environment of trust. Even if other people might try to use that information against you later. 

My friend JV Venable’s excellent book “Breaking the Trust Barrier” (available on Amazon and elsewhere) draws parallels between honesty, business trust and flying at 300+ miles per hour only 18 inches from another jet with the USAF Thunderbirds aerial demo team.  More about JV here:  https://www.heritage.org/staff/john-venable  .

As a leader, be sensitive to failures by your people:  If people on your team are signing up for tough jobs and then unable to complete them on time, a process (or several) is almost certainly broken:

- In BD, your forecasting process for sales may be unrealistic or your market analyses insufficient or flawed. 

- In Project/Program Management, aka line operations, your supply chain might be unreliable and impacting your deliverables, or your project managers are not accurately assessing risks and developing work-around plans.

To prevent these failures, use a Technical CONOPS to guide and document your project’s progress.

Whatever is causing the problem, get a Tiger Team to tackle it. They should dig until they find the root causes, no matter how politically painful, and then provide you with options and a recommendation to fix the problem.

Those options and recommendation are what you take to YOUR boss.  This has the additional benefits of forcing your people to adopt a mindset of continuous improvement, helping teams become more self-directed, and showing everyone that management wants solutions brought to the table whenever a problem surfaces.  Find a problem?  Good. Bring some workable solutions (options for management) and a recommendation.

That last point, making a recommendation, forces people to take a stand and suggest a course of action.  Such assertive action, taking a stand on something, builds character.

Managers always watch to see who offers thoughtful courses of action (CoA) - - - they are almost always the future managers and leaders of the enterprise.  And, leaders, when your team brings you a solution that has promise, engage with them, and give them your time and horsepower plus the other resources needed to make it happen. Not only initially but as the project evolves and resource requirements change. 

Lastly, managers and leaders, please collaborate with your people: 

  • Be a BS (bu!!sh!t) diode.  Screen your staff from distractions that would otherwise trickle down from YOUR bosses.
  • Get them the resources they request and the top-cover they need in order to make their efforts successful. 
  • Do not demand perfection.  Be happy with honest effort and reasonable progress.
  • Get back to providing your people with the basics - - - - people, processes and tools .  And then lead, damn it.



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