Prepping the Management Team for Introduction of New Concepts
by Mark Leonard
In chapter 2 of O’Rourke’s Management Communication: A Case-Analysis Approach, O’Rourke outlines several strategies which will help managers ensure that their proposals are accepted by peers. One of the methods he suggests is finding ways to motivate the audience to accept your message. This can be accomplished by approaching upper management prior to presenting your case to a wider audience, or approaching respected peers prior to presenting your proposal to get them on your side. Certainly, the last thing you want to do is walk into a meeting and try to convince a room full of smart, busy, skeptical people that a paradigm-shifting concept needs to be implemented without having someone on your side.
Before returning to academia to pursue my masters, I spent a few years working for KBR in Iraq. We ran the bases so the military could fight the war, we built bases, provided meals, cleaned laundry, trucked in supplies, provided power, fixed the plumbing, removed waste, you get the idea, imagine whatever it would take to run and provide utilities for a small city. In 2011, we played a critical role in helping the military withdraw from Iraq, but there was a huge amount of work required to close out the books for 10 years and $40 billion dollars worth of contracts. So, KBR headquarters formed a team that would relocate from Iraq to Kuwait and execute contract closeout. This would mean a paradigm shift in our outlook towards reporting because instead of reporting status updates for a sustainment operation, we would now be tracking closeout workload from a defined quantity down to zero. For instance, we had 6,000 laptops to scrub (wipe the hard drives clean) and either ship back to the United States or set aside for our charitable initiative to donate laptops to the Iraqis. Instead of tracking the location and usage of these laptops, we would now need to track the scrubbing process from 6,000 down to zero. Each of our 21 departments (property, materials, HR, logistics, quality control, construction, Maximo, payroll, aviation, etc.) faced a similar requirement.
The task of effecting this paradigm shift fell into the lap my department, HQ Special Projects. We routinely took on tasks that did not conveniently fall into the scope of other departments, required a fast turnaround, or were ultra high priority. We created a spreadsheet that would reduce the reporting requirement of the 21 primary staff members to updating a few cells on a spreadsheet rather than drafting emails, word documents, and power points. We even quantified their workload for them, listing out each task they would have to complete in order to close out their department’s books. It seemed like such an easy sell, they basically had to sit there and watch their reporting requirements reduce to almost nothing.
The meeting to roll out this new reporting scheme was a complete disaster. Special Projects reported to the Chief of Staff, one of five senior program managers. In addition to the 21 primary staff, the other four senior program managers were in the room for the presentation. The 21 primary staff members and the four other senior program managers reacted violently to the drastic change in reporting requirements. It was all so foreign to them. They started asking questions that we didn’t immediately have the answers to. How are we going to get this information? Who is going to provide this for me? Won’t we still need this? The questions went on and on, and with only the Chief of Staff on our side, we limped out of the room with our tails between our legs.
Eventually everyone saw the benefit of using our new reporting system, and when it was implemented we received accolades from the KBR executive board, our counterparts at the Department of Defense, and the contract oversight folks at the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) for ‘leaning’ our reporting system. But how could we have approached that meeting differently? We knew the concept was technically sound but what could we have done to prevent such an epic rhetorical failure?
O’Rourke’s recommendations are spot on. After the meeting ended I made some very bold comments to our project manager about how we had succeeded technically but failed miserably from an organizational communication perspective. He was a retired full bird colonel, and I still remember the, “I can’t believe this 28 year old kid is sitting here lecturing me,” look on his face. It was risky but sometimes as a young professional you have to take a chance and voice your opinion, he eventually conceded and we outlined an approach to the next concept roll-out exercise that we used in the future to great success. We had unofficial meetings with loud mouths on the primary staff, to present the idea and ask for their input so that they could feel like they were part of the development process, thus making them more likely to champion our product instead of criticizing it. We also approached other senior program managers in the same manner so that our product carried authority.
If we had used these strategies from the onset, if we hadn’t focused so much on technical development that we ignored the organizational communication aspect of concept integration, it would have saved the HQ team time and prevented unnecessary stress during a period when everyone was already strung out trying to manage the drawdown from Iraq.