Agile Development Leadership

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No Budget for That!

By Gary Hinkle


There’s a TV commercial for oil filters where the mechanic warns the customer, “You can pay me now or you can pay me later.” Of course what he means is maintain your car, or wait for an expensive breakdown and an engine overhaul.

Makes total sense, right?

So why is it that companies wait until things get bad, then bring in expensive consultants to fix things, rather than investing in developing their own leaders to handle challenges before they become a problem? Paying expensive consulting fees is like paying for an expensive engine overhaul that could have been avoided.

Here’s what I see: companies engage our consulting services because they are in trouble, yet their problems are always due to lack of leadership ability among their own employees.

Education is what’s needed to turn their business around before disaster strikes—and education is a lot less expensive than consulting services. It’s ironic. At companies that say “we have no budget for training,” we ask people we know there whether they have significant leadership, management or communication challenges. Usually they laugh out loud and go on at great length describing dysfunction—managers who never communicate, projects that run off the rails, botched re-orgs, and plenty of misunderstandings.

We all observe dysfunctions at work to some degree. They come about simply because we’re human and we miscommunicate, hesitate, disagree, etc. But this kind of significant dysfunction, combined with financial constraints that limit learning and growth, is a recipe for a marginally successful company. You can’t avoid trouble unless you know what you don’t know, and that requires looking beyond the familiar activities of day-to-day work and knowing what to look for. That’s where continuing education comes in.

Managers who don’t fund continuing education see it as an expense with no clear return on investment. Instead, executive decision-makers often rely on expensive consulting services in desperate situations, not realizing that it’s the lack of organizational leadership knowledge that’s the root cause. I’ve been aware of this for quite some time, but this observation hit me hard the other day while working with an especially desperate business. They’ve never invested in developing their employees—no leadership, communication, or management development at all—and are suffering dire consequences as a result.

A Common Costly Leadership Problem

Repeatedly late projects are a common problem that has several layers of complexity. To solve it means breaking it into pieces to find the root cause. Were the requirements clearly written and kept up-to-date? Did the project plan contain enough detail? Was it realistic? Were enough people assigned, and were money and equipment sufficiently allocated? Did the team follow the plan?
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Examining the answers to these questions is a leadership practice, yet I’m continually surprised to learn how often late projects keep flailing before anyone actually drills into the problems.

Suppose that the culprit is an unrealistic plan. A leader, then, needs to step in and take a hard look at the plan. Which part of it wasn’t realistic? Did management dictate an impossible deadline? Were tasks underestimated by team members? Did the staffing plan consider support needed from team members outside the project?

When organizations don’t know to ask these questions, or don’t know what to do with the answers they get, they call in consultants to help. Expensive consultants. Expensive consultants they wouldn’t need if their own leaders were better prepared for these leadership assignments.

What happens next? Finger-pointing. Engineers say, “It’s management’s fault. They make commitments to customers we can’t meet.” Or managers say, “It’s late because the engineers don’t work efficiently.”

Finger-pointing isn’t constructive, but it happens all the time. It, too, is an organizational dysfunction. The way to stop it is to set a leadership example. When leaders don’t engage in finger-pointing themselves, when they actively discourage it, it stops. But many in leadership roles need to be made aware of the damaging, unproductive effects of finger-pointing. That also comes from education to increase awareness and knowledge.

The Challenge of Developing Leaders

Do you know how many times I’ve heard about leadership development initiatives that weren’t effective? More than I can count or remember. Leadership has so many elements, so it’s important to break it down and understand specific aspects of leadership that are problematic before investing in education.

It’s not easy, but it’s not rocket science either. This is where a consultant can be utilized inexpensively. A good consultant will objectively assess an organization, and break down the problem areas to find very specific opportunities to educate the staff. That can be done for a typical business unit in about a week.

Subsequent training and education that focuses in those very specific areas – the root causes of known business problems – will surely be worthwhile. It might seem expensive to spend part of a budget on consulting fees for an assessment, but it avoids wasting money on training that misses the mark because the learning objectives weren’t correct before the training was scheduled.

This goal is to make the most out of limited budgets. Investing in organizational knowledge is the way to avoid costly engine overhauls.

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