American politics and bank projects share a common dysfunction. In the political arena, very few qualified individuals are willing to subject themselves to the “mud” that is constantly thrown at elected officials. The world of bank projects faces a similar fate: fewer and fewer bankers are gutsy enough to initiate and lead projects, as those that do become easy targets for the mob of passive managers who sit back and say, “I told you so.”
When this type of environment persists in a bank, good people get burned out, low performers spew out the sound bites, and the bank implements change at a painfully slow pace.
Make no mistake – projects today are fundamentally POLITICAL activities. Anyone who doesn’t recognize this hard truth is destined for the project scrap yard. Every day, project managers have to persuade people over whom they have no formal control to do things for them. They have no choice but to make friends, negotiate with rivals and build credibility for their initiatives. This is about as easy as getting Bill Clinton appointed as dean of an all-girls boarding school.
To get at the roots of this dysfunction, bank executives need to acknowledge the following truths:
People with hands-on project experience cringe when an executive boasts: “I don’t see what’s so hard about it.” If they only knew. Anyone down in the trenches of a new system implementation or product rollout constantly faces systems issues, unrealistic deadlines, unreliable project team members and budget constraints. And unfortunately, lurking somewhere is that PowerPoint presentation that promised the world when the project started.
One of the biggest misconceptions about projects is that a good manager can and will pick the “right” course of action for the bank. What few people understand is that project managers are constantly forced to pick the lesser of two evils:
This is the kind of junk project managers deal with on a daily basis.
Like politicians, banks would be better served if, in the process of identifying, defining and prioritizing their projects, they’d drop the sound bites and get down to the real issues. In banks that lack a formal project prioritization and management process, it is not necessarily the most capable managers that garner the resources, but the managers who give the best speeches, look best on camera or know about the CEO’s secret side door. Strong managers thrive in organizations that formally debate the costs, scope, business justification, and timing of any given project. Unfortunately, this type of environment is rare.
In some banks, the most politically sane thing to do is stay clear of difficult projects. While this strategy necessarily forfeits the occasional “atta boy,” it also eliminates the gossip-infested, career-threatening downside that accompanies tough projects. Passive managers can basically act like Dilbert’s “Masters of the Obvious.” They lean back in their chairs during meetings and say profound things like, “I am fully supportive of this initiative as long as it doesn’t negatively impact our customers,” or “It is important that we retain our good employees.” But once the doughnuts are gone and the meeting is over, the tougher, riskier decisions are left to the project managers.
Banks CEOs have a valuable leadership opportunity to change the way projects operate in their organizations. CEOs who take the time to separate fact from publicity will win the respect of their very best people. Endorsing an above-board process for prioritizing initiatives and allocating resources will give CEOs better information to make executive decisions. However, operating with a rational, above-board process means the bustling side door to the CEO’s office must be closed for good. It also means that bank executives will need to take the time to understand and appreciate the complexity of certain projects.
Management guru Charles Handy sagely states that a critical duty of executives is to judge subordinates by both the mistakes they make and the risks they are willing to take.
Handy concludes: “Traditionally, we have run organizations on the basis of making sure that no mistakes are made. However, people also need to be judged as to whether they seized every opportunity and made all possible improvements.”
Only a bank’s CEO can instill a culture that balances progress with perfection and enforces a rational debate about what needs to be done, how it should be done and who should do it. Only the CEO has the power to eliminate a partisan atmosphere in their company. From my consulting travels, I fear that we are coming dangerously close to breaking the spirits of many great, dedicated bankers. As one recently lamented to me, “Anyone who steps up around here gets stepped on.”
At GonzoBanker, we like to say that the road between a bank today and its vision of tomorrow is paved with projects. To successfully navigate these projects, bank leaders need to consider some serious political reform in the ways their organizations implement change.