| The scene was all too familiar
to me: a new leader with a new project. Gone were my days
as a manager on Air Force missile development projects.
I had just joined the faculty at Defense Systems Management
College to teach project management. Now we had a new
commandant, an Air Force Brigadier General who was out
to revolutionize our capstone project management course.
In due fashion, he assembled his project team faculty
and staff and announced he had a "new vision" for project
management training in the Department of Defense. We would
create a new course with a single evolving project as
a central theme. We would cover the entire project life
cycle using a series of case studies based on this single
project. Further, we would construct the new course as
a "living project" so that student decisions could be
incorporated to change the scenario as it evolved. This
ability to adjust the case "on the fly" would allow students
to actually see the impact of their early decisions on
As he went on, I remember saying to myself, "What an innovative
concept, but it will never work in our system." We had
up to 300 students going through the course at a time.
If each student group were allowed to adjust the scenario
as they went along, we would have an enormous configuration
Also, the bulk of our cases studies came from real world
projects where we had actual cost, schedule, and performance
data. Where would we get the data to feed to each group
as they departed from the baseline scenario? Our faculty
prided themselves on meticulous preparation before teaching
each case study. What type of faculty would it take to
respond to this constantly changing scenario? A set of
"negative fantasies" raced through my mind if we were
to adopt the commandant's new approach.
reaction was, "Sure, he's interested in feedback
-- as long as it supports his idea."
After concluding with a comment about how this would revolutionize
our educational process, the commandant said he was interested
in our candid feedback on his proposal. My instant reaction
was, "Sure, he's interested in feedback -- as long as
it supports his idea." Having been through situations
like this many times before, I resolved to keep my mouth
shut and was certain my colleagues would do likewise.
Even if the vision proved futile, which was highly likely
in my opinion, we would just wait a couple years for the
next commandant to rotate in with another vision.
So I anticipated the usual prolonged and uncomfortable
silence followed by a politically correct question or
two. But this was not to be as my colleague Don, who had
convinced me to change jobs and come to the college, raised
his hand and stood up to speak from the back of the room.
"Sir, with all due respect, your vision won't work. I
admire the concept, but it is too complex for our students
and faculty to execute."
I knew Don was thinking this, but I couldn't believe he
was saying it publicly. I lapsed briefly into another
negative fantasy. Perhaps the commandant would let Don
stay on for a few months before he terminated his faculty
appointment (all faculty were on excepted service term
appointments). Or maybe he would just reassign him to
one of our new regional "outposts."
people to state their honest opinions even if they
were not in agreement with senior leadership positions.
After giving Don time to outline the reasons to support
his position, the commandant responded immediately. He
surprised us all by praising Don for his courage in voicing
an opinion counter to his vision. The general went on
to say that he encouraged people to state their honest
opinions even if they were not in agreement with his or
other senior leadership positions.
Even after this statement by the commandant, many of us
continued to expect negative fallout from Don's challenge
to the general's vision. But it never came. Don kept his
viewpoint, his job, and actually became the commandant's
favorite "lightening rod" for candid feedback on any new
And the commandant's vision? It never came to be, either.
We worked hard on it and had some success in our pilot
offering. But, in the end, Don was right. It was too complex
for both faculty and students to execute. So we gradually
moved back to enhancing our current course offering.
Ironically, there were several positive repercussions
from this experience. Don's "free to speak your mind"
example was not lost on the organization. Other faculty
and staff gradually felt more empowered to speak up and
offer their candid views about on-going projects.
Even though the commandant's vision ultimately failed,
we learned a great deal from the experience that was incorporated
as improvements to our existing project management courses.
We also kept the spirit of experimentation and allowance
for failure alive and well at the college. We continued
to try new approaches. Even if they didn't succeed, we
always learned valuable lessons from the process.
And the commandant? He gave the vision his "best shot"
and after the normal two-year tour, retired, moved to
Colorado, finished his doctorate, and embarked on a new
career as an independent consultant.
As I think back on this incident, it stands out clearly
as one of the "tipping points" in my career in project
management training. While it seemed like an almost trivial
event at the time, it reinforced the value of praising
rather than "shooting the messenger." I found myself using
this same approach on teams I led with equally successful
- Even the most trivial event can influence the climate
and ultimately the results on a project.
- Being able to speak freely without repercussion
is an important element in any team or project.
- Sometimes our negative fantasies keep us from making
positive contributions to our team or project.
In light of evidence that suggests cultural change is
rarely accomplished strictly by executive fiat, what can
we do to cultivate an environment in which speaking up
is rewarded, not silenced?
From the ASK archives
In addition to serving on the ASK Review Board,
Dr. Owen Gadeken has published a practice in Issue 2 and
stories in Issues 7 and 11. In his practice, Cross-Training
within the Project Team, Gadeken discussed the
"internal conflicts" across functional organizations that
hamper project work: "What happens is that team members
form stereotypes and make snap judgments about what their
colleagues are doing and why. To prevent this kind of
conflict from undermining the project, I believe it is
helpful to set up short cross-functional training sessions
that allow project team members to explain the key elements
of their job to the other members of the project team.
The intent of these sessions is to: (1) establish closer
cross-functional working relationships among project team
members; (2) identify dysfunctional gaps and overlaps
between team members; (3) raise the general level of project
knowledge among team members; and (4) raise the level
of trust and openness among all project team members."