Monday, March 23, 2015

The Impact of Project Collaboration

This month’s blog is adapted from a recent article entitled “What Successful Project Managers Do” published in the March 2015 issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review. In addition to Alex Laufer and Jeff Russell, the other co-authors are Edward J. Hoffman, NASA's Chief Knowledge Officer, and Scott W. Cameron, Global Project Management Technology Process Owner at Procter & Gamble.  

In the article we demonstrated that the first role assumed by successful project managers in a variety of industries is to develop project collaboration. In today’s blog we present four examples that highlight the paramount impact of project collaboration.

Example A, The Power of Trust

NASA project manager Tim Flores looked at three projects at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL): the Pathfinder, Climate Orbiter, and Polar Lander. Although all three projects had the same guiding principles, similar scope, and shared elements (including some team members), the Pathfinder was a success while the other two failed.

Flores thought he’d find that the Pathfinder project stood out from the others in things like resources, constraints, and personnel. To some extent this was true, but what he found to be the primary difference was the level of collaboration. The Pathfinder team developed trusting relationships within an open culture. They felt free to make decisions without fearing severe punishment for mistakes. The other two project teams never developed such a high level of trust.

Example B, The Power of Openness

NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WIRE) mission studied how galaxies formed and evolved. They used a telescope so delicate it was sealed inside a solid hydrogen cryostat. Shortly after launch, the cryostat’s cover ejected prematurely and the Explorer craft tumbled wildly through space. The entire mission failed.

Jim Watzin, project manager at NASA and a team member at the WIRE project, commented on the official NASA after-action report: “WIRE failed because people could not or would not communicate well with each other….Individuals simply were uncomfortable allowing others to see their work.” He added: “The real lesson of this loss is that any team member that does not participate as a true team player should be excused (from the project).”

Example C, The Power of Partnership

Allen, a payload manager in NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) project, developed trust between his team and 20 groups of instrument-developers using a three-stage plan. First, he picked team members who could operate in a university environment—they knew when to bend or even break the rules. Second, he permanently moved his team into a university environment, realizing it would provide a more open, flexible culture than the home-base environment. Third, he came up with an uncommon process for interacting with the scientist groups.

Allen anticipated that it would be difficult to get the scientists to regard his team as partners. Having dealt with NASA before, the scientists tended to believe Allen and his people would demand tons of paperwork and that things be done “just so.” Many of the scientists weren’t even sure they should share with Allen’s team the problems they were encountering.

Because Allen’s team had to review instrument development, he believed the best way to do this was to focus on building trust and convincing the scientists his team was there to help them problem-solve. So Allen and his team went to each university and stayed on-site for an extended period of time, spending days and nights working with the scientists, helping them solve their problems. They were there not as controllers but as partners.

Example D, The Power of Interdependence

Procter & Gamble (P&G) launched a large construction project at one of its European plants. Karl, the contractor’s project manager, had no interest in team-building efforts and kept brushing them off. Pierre, the P&G project manager, finally found an opportunity to change Karl’s attitude. Three months into construction, the contractor (Karl’s group) accidentally placed the foundations off the mark, pouring about 600 lineal feet of foundation concrete in the wrong place.

Pierre recognized the volatile and disruptive nature of the mistake. He could have ordered Karl to fix the mistake by tearing down the foundations and starting over, but he realized that would have damaged the contractor’s reputation and ego. He understood that the best plans evolve in waves as the project unfolds and more information becomes available and reliable. He thus chose a different approach. Pierre took several days to meet and negotiate with users and designers, modified the interior plant layout, and minimized the damage without tearing down the foundations and starting over.

While the mistake resulted in costly changes, Karl’s reputation was preserved and the project wasn’t delayed. Eventually Karl came around to embrace Pierre’s team approach—namely, “If they fail, we fail.” Realizing they are all interdependent led to the development of a collaborative relationship.  Developing mutual interdependence and mutual responsibility for project results is key to project success.

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