One of the great projects I had the opportunity to work on was the IBM consultancy to Mercedes-Benz South Africa. The project managers did everything right. At the start of the project they took the time to properly establish a project team comprising of MBSA and IBM staff. This included classroom training for the team to ensure a common approach, team-building activities and engaging with the client. This foundation ensured that the project was enjoyable and rewarding. The hours were long as is normal on a consultancy but nobody seemed to mind.
The end of my involvement on the project correlated well with my move to Australia. I made the final recommendations presentation to the MBSA executive team and two days later I moved to Australia. The presentation had gone very well and I was on a high.
Once I found my feet in Australia, I reapplied to IBM to join the local consulting practice. My application was accepted and I was soon on the projects. The problem was that the projects were not MBSA. The teams were new, the objectives were different, and the project culture was different. In short I was unhappy and I quit. On the MBSA project I had been part of a high-performing team, established over months of focused project work. I mourned for what I had left behind.
As a consultant you are expected to move from project to project without difficulty, and I do it today without thought. What made the MBSA experience different is that I left it at the high point. I had delivered a successful final presentation and walked out of the boardroom, out of IBM and out of the country. I took no time to celebrate success with my colleagues. No time to debrief from the project and no time to bring closure to my role.
My experience provided me with firsthand practical insight into Dr. Bruce Tuckman’s model on teaming. Dr. Bruce Tuckman published his “Forming Storming Norming Performing” model in 1965. He added a fifth stage, “Adjourning,” in the 1970s. Tuckman’s model explains that as a team develops maturity and ability, relationships establish, and the leader changes leadership style to further the team’s evolution. He or she begins with a directing style, moves through coaching, then participating, then finishes delegating and ends with a style that is almost detached. At this point the team may produce a successor leader and the previous leader can move on to develop a new team.
The adjourning stage is also referred to as the mourning stage, when team members mourn for the high performance “hellfire” days of the project and the camaraderie of the project team.
This final phase is frequently not recognised as important or, at best, is poorly managed. As professionals, managers are expected to “just deal with it” and keep their problems to themselves. As I found, this is not that easy.
Once I had lived the experience, I began to see it all around me. I met many senior executives who were put in charge of large business improvement projects within their company, and who resigned after the project completed. Not immediately after the project, but within a reasonably short time of the project end. For the company, this is a problem, as frequently these projects are part of the manager’s succession plan.
The more I saw it, the more I took an active interest in the problem and, through discussion and observation, concluded that the primary cause was one of exposure.
Prior to commencing the project, a manager will have been working in their normal role, dealing with the daily routine expected from that role. They would have known where the role started and ended and what the limits of their authority were. They would be diplomatic with their colleagues, preferring to worry about their own role and allowing others to do the same in theirs.
When the manager is taken out of their routine and placed in a senior project role, the rules change. No longer are they confined to the boundaries of their position. No longer do the rules of business diplomacy prevent them from enquiring about why their colleagues are doing what they are doing; in fact, they are now expected to investigate the way their colleagues work.
Driving a large business improvement project gives them licence to ask questions of the company and to review material they would not typically see in their daily role. Through the project they are exposed to the “soul” of the company. They are exposed to the inadequacies of the senior managers. When you look into the soul of a company, you cannot forget, you cannot “un-see” what you have seen. You cannot go back. The firm assumption that senior managers know what they are doing becomes less firm.
As a project lead, they are expected to think strategically and consider the big picture. This can be vastly different from their previous role as a silo manager.
When the project is over, it is almost impossible for the manager to return to their old position. They have just spent six months or more working harder, longer, and with more freedom than they ever had before. They have had almost unlimited access to the executive team.
In short, they are no longer the same employee as they were when they started the project and it is foolhardy to expect them to forget and return to the comparatively bland existence of their previous routine. If they are asked to, they quit.
There is an equally dark flip side to this issue. As the manager grows in confidence through the project and develops their insights into the company, they become a threat to more senior management who don’t want their “dirty washing” exposed and don’t want the manager getting ahead of themselves. The end result is that the manager is forced out of the company.
To address the issue and to save the skills within the company, senior executives need to create a new role for the manager coming off the project. Invariably this requires that the company find or create a suitably senior role that allows the manager to come “back into” the company whilst respecting the journey of discovery the manager went through over the course of the project. It is important to recognise that the manager who led the project is not a professional project manager and frequently they wish to keep their line management career intact.
The same issues exist for more junior staff members seconded to projects to work with consultants, either as subject matter experts or as a general project resource. These employees are also exposed to company details they would not normally see and witness or participate in conversations with the consultants that discuss the failings of the company. Under the influence of this often negative messaging, they start to see their managers in a different light. They will also start to work longer hours than their colleagues. As an individual, they will grow in confidence and as part of a team, they start to “perform.”
Project staff do not expect to get promoted when a project ends, but they do expect to be recognised for their contribution and to this end it is important to hold structured celebratory events to recognise the project and individual efforts. Failure to recognise an individual’s contribution will almost certainly cause the staff member to become disillusioned with the company. They will feel as if they have become an expendable commodity and not a valuable contributor to the company.
It is unlikely that they will resign, but it reasonable to expect that they will be less engaged with the company. This feeling of isolation can be amplified if the project has caused them to drift apart from their colleagues. Before they could gossip and share information. Now that they have had access to confidential information, they cannot share information and invariably this creates distance between themselves and their colleagues.
There is no easy remedy for this problem. The most successful mitigation strategy is to agree the post-project role description for the employee before the project starts. The new role should stretch the employee more than the project did. In this way they will rely on skills they learnt through the project and will not have time to mourn the end of the project. Done well, the employee will hardly notice the change.
An equally viable strategy and similar to the above, is to ensure the employee has a structured succession or career development plan in place. This plan should supersede the project enabling the employee to contextualise the project as part of their greater development program. In this case, it is expected that the employee will come off the project requiring less structured support for their re-assimilation into the business-as-usual routine. Their period of mourning should be reduced but it is unlikely to be removed altogether.
Both of these strategies will be of immense benefit if the company works with the consultancy from the beginning to agree how the consultants should develop the employee. This will includes activities such as allowing the employee to deliver important presentations through the course of the project.
In closing, I note that the above observations and strategies are general in their nature and will assist executives and managers to retain staff, but when it comes to human nature, each person is different and has different needs. Those staff who are in “deep mourning” will require a re-assimilation strategy personalised to their specific needs.