Troublesome projects…and Bertrand Russell

Line managers always get pressure from senior executives to take swift action when a project they’re responsible for experiences serious difficulty. Line managers, especially inexperienced ones, often assuage this pressure by quickly changing the Project Manager. This often-knee-jerk response doesn’t always fix the problem because although the new appointee may be conveniently available, they may not have the breadth of personal, commercial, delivery and technical characteristics needed, or be properly empowered. One of the Badger’s experiences of being appointed as ‘the new project manager’ by a panicking line manager proved not only to be reminder of the strength and diversity of character needed to turnaround a troubled project, but also a memorable introduction to Bertrand Russell.

The project in question was not meeting its contract with an international prime contractor who was delivering a huge strategic programme for their end customer. The Badger’s remit from the line manager was ‘fix everything’ because the finances are perilous, and litigation is looming. Senior executives from all the organisations involved had met in a last ditch bid to avoid an expensive, embarrassing, catastrophe for all concerned. They had agreed to leadership changes and so the Badger found himself appointed at the same time as a new opposite number in the prime contractor.

Our first engagement shortly after being appointed was at a meeting involving both of our respective incumbent team leads, ostensibly as an opportunity for them to air their thoughts and feelings about the contract’s difficulties. The two teams were polarised, divergent, defensive, inconsistent, and in blame mode from the outset! After a particularly fractious exchange, the Badger’s new prime opposite number called a halt for a coffee break and took the Badger to one side. The badger was asked if he was familiar with Bertrand Russell and two of his famous quotes, namely:   

  • The fundamental cause of trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.
  • Collective fear stimulates herd instinct and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.

The Badger said no. His counterpart then used these quotes to make the point that if we could both see the problems and resolutions but were full of doubt and worry about being different to our incumbent teams, then nothing would change, and litigation beckoned. We agreed that we were not stupid, not members of the herd, only focused on finding solutions, unmotivated by personal kudos, and that we expected to take  unpopular decisions. Following this conversation, we both did difficult things with our teams and the turnaround started.

So, remember this. To fix a troublesome project needs a focused and resilient character, intelligence and a breadth of skills, and some awareness of Bertrand Russell’s wisdom!Anyone full of self-doubt or worried about being an outsider is unlikely to succeed.

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