Processes, Projects, Programs and People

Where do I begin?

This is a question many of us ask ourselves when we take a new position. How can you improve your team, unit, organization and how are you going to prioritize your efforts? Whether you are in the military or not, I believe this question can be answered by organizing your goals in four primary areas: processes, programs, projects and people.

Processes: Organizations exist for a stated purpose. They are established in order to accomplish some objective. In order to achieve its given purpose, every organization has a series of processes associated with its day-to-day operations. If there is unity of effort and clearly understood goals these processes will align with an organization’s purpose. For example, in running a lemonade stand – the purpose of the organization is to sell lemonade to customers. The making or purchase of lemonade supplies, its storage and delivery, the marketing and attraction of customers are all just processes associated with selling lemonade. This is a simplistic example but I think if you take a similar approach in examining the purpose of your organization or unit you will find that a core set of objectives drive your day-to-day processes.

What often happens is that the longer an organization exists and grows in scale often new day-to-day processes arise that syphon time, money, and manpower away from the broader purpose. Therefore, if you want to find a way to make a positive impact within an organization a good place to begin is to understand what the core processes of the organization are. Then, begin an open dialogue with the subject matter experts that work in those areas and ask them what they think could or should be improved. If you ask them “what keeps you up at night about X” you will get a new level of honesty and some sound starting points to begin focusing your efforts. You will also foster an environment of continuous improvement and demonstrate your respect of other’s opinions.

Projects: Unlike processes – projects tend to fall outside of the day-to-day scope of work. The Project Management Professional (PMP) definition states that a project is a temporary entity established to deliver specific (often tangible) outputs in line with predefined time, cost and quality constraints. A project should be unique.

Projects can really fall into any category though. You could develop a project to life-cycle an old technology or you could develop a project to reorganize a work space. Regardless of the scope of the project a few simple rules for success remain:

  • Develop a charter and get buy-in from whomever is sponsoring your effort. A charter simply outlines what the objectives of the project are, who the key decision makers are, and what the final deliverable will be.
  • Identify stakeholders and get them involved early. In order to reduce friction and resistance within your organizations you need to determine who will be affected by your project. If you fail to include them in your effort you increase the likelihood they might derail the effort later.
  • Have a communications plan. Figure out the best way to share information and to come to consensus. Meetings should have a purpose. Meeting notes should capture what was decided, who has what tasks for action, and when those tasks are to be completed.
  • Don’t forget to document. Too often, particularly in the IT arena, we do not develop plans to document, nor do we take the time to follow-up and confirm what has been documented. This can be disastrous if you plan to sustain whatever deliverable your projected provided.

When you take a new position, after you have surveyed your new environment, you will have to decide which projects to take on. In making this decision, I think it is best to balance a number of factors.

  • First, you have to consider how much time, money, and manpower you have at your disposal that is not already consumed with day-to-day processes. Projects can be big distractors and when they are under resourced they often fail to deliver – leaving you embarrassed and your team frustrated.
  • Next, recognize you have a limited timeframe to see a project through. Do not start projects that will not be sustained in your absence. Identify key cyclic events inside your organization that could benefit or hamper your effort. Set milestones and recognize where and when you need to make key decisions.
  • Finally, look up and look down for guidance on how to prioritize your projects. Your boss has goals and aspirations. If you fail to nest your projects inside that agenda you will fail to get the buy-in you need and may be labeled a divergent. If you do not listen to your teammates and discover what they are passionate about it, you risk isolation and passive resistance. The last thing you need is a teammate taking an effort sideways.

Programs: Programs are larger in scope than projects. They often include many sub-projects and have significantly longer duration. When you are looking to make a much larger change within an organization – either in terms of a new capability or capacity – then a programmatic approach may be the way to go. Unless you have significant authority within an organization or long-term presence you may not want to take a programmatic change on. This is because programmatic change often requires buy-in beyond a team or small unit. Achieving this buy-in requires a significant amount of effort in selling your idea and gaining allies. Furthermore, programmatic change often takes much longer to achieve as it has to work its way across organizational systems and departments.

If you do plan to establish a new program, or to fundamentally change a program already in existence, you again need to get buy-in at the top. I would also recommend looking across the organization for peers and other leaders who share your goals. Building a broader consensus will help your efforts and will provide allies which can help support your cause both in formal discussions as well as informal interactions. Programmatic change is the way for leaders to make significant change but it requires remarkable vision and intense communication and collaboration plans.

People: Last, but certainly not least, when asking where to begin I would recommend you start with your people. Every one of your teammates has unique experiences, capabilities, and insights. I have found that the more I invest in my team the more they give back to the organization. In the military, we grow our future leaders and subject matter experts from within – so there is an inherent call for continuous self-improvement. This investment in individual growth, however, must be sincere. There may be times where a subordinate does not desire to follow a path that may be most beneficial to an organization. Recognizing this – and still getting the best contribution from him or her despite this mismatch is what we are called to do. I have found that even if the particular set of skills or training I funded or allowed time away from work for a teammate to pursue did not immediately contribute back to our team – the fact that I supported an individual’s improvement plan meant that a greater good was served. Too often I have seen leaders deny folks a chance to attend training because they were leaving the organization – PCS’ing or maybe even ETS’ing. The fact is the military training translates into citizen training. In the end it all goes to improving our society one person at a time. Your teammates know when you care more about them or more about their achievements.

To sum it up:

Processes, projects, programs and people are just four categories to get you started thinking about where you can make a positive change. Do what needs to be done first – focus on those things that only you can change – and remember you don’t have to have all the answers. You just need to be willing to listen to those that do.

As always, your comments and feedback are welcome. Help the discussion by commenting below.

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