Who, me?

Jun 10, 2019

When working on a project, there are various human roadblocks that consistently clog the path to project execution.

On my parents’ otherwise unadorned coffee table lay two items: a tasteful, albeit unused, ashtray, and a large, red book. The book contained a cartoon collection from the famous British humor magazine, Punch. We spent hours giggling through its many pages of droll English humor.

They included such gems as the butler standing at his lord’s breakfast table, holding a silver tray and saying, as he served tea, “Sir, the west wing burned down last night.” Or, the image of another breakfast table at which the husband sat at one end with his head buried behind a newspaper and his wife at the other end aiming a toaster at him.

One cartoon sticks in my memory because of its enduring relevance. It showed a windowless, doorless house. At the bottom of the center front wall appears a saw protruding from its interior, cutting an opening for the two people stuck inside. The caption reads, “Confound it! I thought YOU were building the door!”

To me, the image captures the impact of undefined roles and responsibilities, an affliction in virtually every organization I’ve encountered. They create good project ideas, but when it comes to who does what, the initiative founders.

Creating the roadmap. Every project needs a roadmap with a decision-maker, subject matter experts, and doers. The absence of agreed upon roles and responsibilities inevitably leads to confusion. It appears when a project is in full swing and important steps are missed. They produce such disruptions as, “Did anyone check the project scope?” “Did someone call the city about how long this permit process will take?” or, my personal favorite, “Did you check with the attorney to make sure that’s okay?”

Cries of recrimination erupt because things are done incorrectly, without authority, or not at all. The cure for chaos is to develop a roadmap that everyone understands and supports. It sounds simple and yet, it does not happen. Why is that?

While having no roadmap could be simply due to a bias for action rather than planning for it, formalizing roles and responsibilities trips defensive levers around power, identity, and avoidance. Their behavioral consequences can cause negative impacts on projects.

The human roadblocks. Below is a cast of characters whose behavior can thwart project planning and execution:

  • The Over-Functioner. This individual derives their value from being the go-to person who will always come through, even when it is outside their job function. Others like it because it allows them to avoid things they don’t want to do. What results is a bottleneck while the Over-Functioner struggles to figure out how and when to do the work.
  • The Martyr. Similar to the Over-Functioner, the Martyr inherits the void others have created. Unlike the Over-Functioner, the Martyr hates the extra work and feels abused. They passive aggressively react by doing a mediocre job and complaining about it. It provides them with an identity and a guilt-tripping opportunity.
  • “Moi?” This person can never find a reason why they should be responsible. They constantly question whether something falls within their job description. “Well, how could we possibly do Y when we haven’t seen the X study results?” They pass on suggesting how to overcome the contingency.
  • The Border Guard. This person treats their functional area as a personal fiefdom. This often appears in project management roles with generic position definitions. Nevertheless, they will start a holy war if anyone fails to respect the ill-defined boundary. They spend little time learning what others do, much less how to advance the project goals.
  • The Procrastinator. A first cousin of “Moi?” this person knows their role, but the right time to act never appears. “We don’t have enough data,” they whine.

These counterproductive behaviors may be conscious or unconscious. Both result in project dysfunction.

How to overcome this? Preventing project dysfunction offers an important leadership opportunity. Somebody has to lead the way through the thicket of confusion, stubbornness, and fear to establish an agreed roadmap. Conversations about roles and responsibilities are not known for their entertainment value, but the contribution to project success is worth the pain. Most important to formalizing roadmap agreements is the conversation itself, because it surfaces assumptions that must be aligned. It requires many follow-on questions, good listening, and a focus on closure.

A project roadmap creates group cohesion and overcomes project gaps and overlaps. It also redirects human roadblocks toward a more productive and successful outcome.

Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past 16 years has coached and consulted with executives from virtually every industry. She earned her stripes for leading in the discomfort of the new as Amazon’s first global real estate executive. She is an award-winning author of The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. Her new workbook, The Journal of Not Knowing, a self-guided discovery guide based on the Journey principles, was released in fall 2018. She can be reached at juliebenezet.com.

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