Four questions you should ask when recovering a troubled project

I recently attended the Strategic Execution Conference jointly produced by the Stanford Center for Professional Development and IPS Learning which was held in Santa Clara, CA. The first keynote was delivered by two Stanford Professors, Huggy Rao and Bob Sutton. Their presentation focused on the 10 emerging lessons regarding how to successfully execute strategy, as discussed in their newly released book Scaling Up Excellence.

One of their lessons is “Use the brakes, not the gas pedal.” In other words, slow down initially and then go faster later, or put another way, “don’t just do something, stand there.”

Anderson of BHP Billiton. He asked for advice..and followed it!

The example they used to reinforce this idea was the approach Paul Anderson, CEO, of BHP Billiton, employed to turn around the company when he joined. I immediately saw the connection between a failing company and a failing project (granted saving a company is harder than a project!) as Rao and Sutton explained what Mr. Anderson did.

Anderson started by meeting with key folks in the company individually and asked them four simple questions:

  1. Who are you?
  2. What are you responsible for?
  3. What issues do you believe are the most pressing?
  4. What would you do if you were me?

First, it’s important to ask these questions in a face-to-face conversation between you and the other person alone, not in a group setting. People will be more honest in a one-on-one and you cut all those weird meeting dynamics

Second, you ask the very people involved in the failing project these critical questions because many, if not most, of them probably knew the project was headed into trouble in the first place. Some might say why ask the very people who caused the project to fail and how to save it, but let’s be realistic, people will often keep their mouths shut to keep their jobs and obediently follow the boss’s directions. I’ve been guilty of this in the past, and I know I’m not alone.

Because these very people saw what was coming, and probably have been on similar projects in the past, they more than likely have the best ideas as to how to “right the ship.” Why bring in expensive consultants who have no background in the issues, and no stake in the outcome, when you can get the best advice from the folks you’re already paying and have been intimately involved from day 1.

Finally, by asking to place themselves in your shoes demonstrates your respect for their opinion. I have often found in my career, there is no better way to show you respect someone than to ask for their opinion. It shows you’re humble, don’t know all the answers, and need their assistance. Nothing wrong with that.

Finally, Anderson told Rao and Sutton that he was largely successful in his turnaround endeavors  because he basically followed the advice he sought.

There you have it. No smoke, no mirrors, just sitting with people and having a substantive conversation. If it works for one of the world’s key CEO’s, there’s no reason it won’t work for you.

Footnote: This conference is only in it’s second year, but it certainly should be one to put on your list. The speaker’s list this year was a “murderer’s row” of top, and very popular, academics from Stanford and Columbia Business School (e.g. Rita Gunther McGrath), as well as successful and highly experienced executives from the likes of Cisco, HP and Facebook. One great highlight was the session with Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. This conference reminded me of the great Project Leadership Conference held for many years by the former ABT Software and put on by one of the great conference producers and thought leaders Dick Rutledge. I’m grateful a conference of equal quality has been launched focused on strategic execution and leadership.



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