Project Management Institute

Communication, commitment, and the management of meaning

by Bud Baker

TWO PROJECT TEAMS. Similar tasks, similar staffs, similar qualifications. Yet the two teams operate in totally different atmospheres. One group works ably enough: they seem to be getting the job done. But there's no camaraderie, no spark, no sense of urgency. No excitement.

The other team is different. Here, there's a definite sense of purpose, a certain tension, at times even a feeling of crisis. Leaders are visible and involved, and communication is fast, furious, and not particularly formal. People move more rapidly here: they seem to have a mission.

If you've worked in project management for any length of time, chances are that you've experienced both kinds of teams. And while all the forces behind great project performance are not always obvious, some themes are clear. One key variable is the richness of project communication and how it determines whether the project team achieves an ethic of mere compliance or reaches toward a far higher level of commitment.

Compliance May Be O.K.…To Start With. Let's define an ethic of compliance as “following directions to get the job done.” Surely this isn't totally undesirable. In a project characterized by compliance, team members do what they're told. They come to work on time, they follow the organization's rules, and they generally behave like good corporate citizens. Neither malcontents nor miscreants, these are good people, trying to do a satisfactory job.

But if compliance-oriented teams are generally solid citizens, it is also true that they rarely create truly exceptional outcomes. Great teams break rules, or they create their own. Apple's Steve Jobs appealed to this tendency with the development of the Macintosh: He referred to his young team as “pirates” and challenged them to produce not just a fine computer, but one that was “insanely great.” Following the rules was for those other companies: the Mac team's goal, in Jobs’ words, was to “make a dent in the universe.” And in many ways they did, with Macintosh, and all that it foretold about the future of personal computing.

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Imagine settling into your seat in an airplane and hearing the pilot say: “Uhhh, hi…Ahh, we're going to be trying to take off, I guess, in a little while. We'll be going to—where is it again?—oh, yeah, Denver. If everything goes okay, we'll try to land there…” We all want our leaders—even “temporary” leaders like airline pilots and project managers—to be more qualified than we are.

Compliance—people following the rules—isn't bad, but neither is it sufficient. The very nature of project management—built upon unique, nonrecurring efforts—means that often there simply are no rules. And sometimes, what rules do exist may need to be broken. Truly great leaders know this, and they know that they need to move their people beyond compliance, toward a sense of real commitment. Because it's that extraordinary commitment that sets truly great projects apart from all the rest.

Beyond Compliance. Where does such commitment come from? Surely one major source of commitment is the team's belief in upon the importance of their mission. To some great extent, that belief is nurtured in the team by its leadership, through strong and effective communication. This communication is often verbal, but there's much more: leaders of great teams continuously impart meaning, through a variety of tools.

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose, recognized by yourself as a mighty one…the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

George Bernard Shaw

This isn't news, of course. Steve Jobs is one example, but many others exist. Kelly Johnson, and later Ben Rich, did much the same at Lockheed, ensuring that all involved understood the national importance of the revolutionary aircraft designed and built by the legendary Skunk Works. More recently, a documentary film highlighted the efforts of Phil Condit and Alan Mulally, as the two Boeing leaders assembled and led the Boeing 777 project team. Much of their leadership energy was spent persuading the team that the world aviation market had changed, that the rise of Airbus meant that airlines enjoyed unprecedented choice, and that the very future of Boeing was riding on the shoulders of the 777 team.

If great results are the products of committed teams, committed teams are themselves the products of strong leadership and stellar communication of values and meaning. Characteristics of leadership communication include six specific areas that deserve mention:

On-scene, hands-on leadership. Woody Allen once said that “80 percent of life is just showing up.” A corollary applies to project managers: Absentee leadership fails to even gain compliance, and it certainly does not lead to commitment. Such absentee leadership can have many causes—a project manager spread too thin is a common cause, but geographical distance or organizational barriers can contribute as well. In fact, the cause doesn't really matter, but the result does: anything perceived as less than fully committed leadership will communicate a clear, negative message to the project team.

Face-to-face communication. Sure, voice-mail, faxes, and video-teleconferencing communicate vital information. But they are not substitutes for face-to-face, personal interaction. This was axiomatic for Kelly Johnson's Skunk Works, and contributed to his lifelong belief that, when it came to project team size, smaller was better, and a lot smaller was a lot better. After all, the smaller the team, the less the necessity to rely on “management by memo” and other means of mass communication. Face-to-face communication was a guiding principle of the Air Force's “black world” stealth programs of the ’70s and ’80s—it was actually a requirement specified in the program management directive for the B-2 “Stealth Bomber.” And it guided the development of some of Detroit's biggest successes, including Chrysler Corporation's Neon and Viper development teams. The bottom line: Management by memo may earn compliance, but it's impossible to beat face-to-face communication if true commitment is your goal.

People have to feel that their task matters. Often the role of cheerleader doesn't come easily to project managers. “We're all professionals” the reasoning goes. “We don't need to be constantly stroked and complimented.” But over the life of a long project, everyone's batteries can run low from time to time. Even the most dedicated team members need to be reinvigorated, reminded about the importance of the project, and where they fit in. Leaders of committed teams never take their people's motivation for granted.

Persuasion, not authority, drives the best teams. Under coercion, under the oppressive influence of authority, the best one can expect is compliance. While that may be preferable, generally, to non-compliance, we've seen that compliance isn't enough. Commitment—true commitment—can only come from within the hearts and minds of project team members. A simple test: Do you generally do your best work when ordered to perform, or when persuaded to do so? Why, then, would you ever expect your team members to be any different?

Optimism matters. Imagine your next commercial flight. As you're settling into your spacious seat in coach, the captain makes his usual welcoming remarks. But these are a little different. “Uhhh, hi…”, a timid voice begins. “Ahh, we're going to be trying to take off, I guess, in a little while. We'll be going to—where is it again?—oh, yeah, Denver. If everything goes okay, we'll try to land there…” Not exactly what you want to hear, is it? We all want our leaders—even “temporary” leaders like airline pilots and project managers—to be success-oriented, to know how to do the job, and be more qualified, in a sense, than we are. Absent those feelings of confidence and optimism, people can lose heart, and they can retreat from the risky realm of commitment to the safer territory of compliance.

“High tech, high touch.” Most projects (not all, but most) involve advanced technologies. But as Peters and Waterman pointed out in In Search of Excellence, the greater the technology, the greater the corresponding need for human support systems. Committed teams often tolerate—indeed, thrive on—absolutely atrocious surroundings. The importance of the project work seems to overshadow working conditions that would otherwise be offensive—long hours, dilapidated offices, and constant travel are not exactly rare in projects today. But the human side, the “soft” side of project leadership still counts. Committed people expect commitment from their leaders as well. Who's making sure that needed training and development opportunities aren't being lost in the press of project demands? For that matter, who's tracking birthdays, and who's keeping the pulse of the project team's morale and welfare?

Managing Meaning. The issue isn't the need to communicate. Project managers, by their every word and action, cannot help but communicate to their teams. Rather, the issue is what is being communicated. One set of signals can bring about compliance, but that is rarely enough for project greatness. Another level of communication—one aimed at gaining commitment, not just compliance—can take a project to a higher plane.

As project managers, the choice is up to us. ■

Bud Baker, Ph.D., is associate professor of management at Wright State University, where he also directs their MBA project management program. A former Air Force project manager, he is a frequent contributor to PM Network and Project Management Journal.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • December 1997

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