Irrational Exuberance!

Selecting project leads.

July 12, 2018. Filed under managementinclusion

Have you ever worked at a company where the same two people always got the most important projects? Me too. It's frustrating to watch these opportunities to learn from the side lines, and reliance on a small group can easily limit a company's throughput as it grows. This is so important that I've come to believe that having a wide cohort of folks who lead critical projects is one of the most important signifiers of good organizational health.

It's a particularly powerful metric because it simultaneously measures the company's capability to execute projects, and the extent that its members have access to growth. The first helps determine the company's potential throughput, and the latter correlates heavily with inclusivity.

In this context, there are two kinds of projects: critical projects and everything else. Critical projects are scarce. There are more folks who want them than can get access to them. Other projects are abundant, if you might not be able to get one immediately, but if you wait a month or two the odds are good. There's no need to be structured about abundant projects!

To increase the number of folks leading this kind of project, I've iterated into a structured process that has worked quite well:

  1. Define the project's scope and goals in a short document. Particularly important are identifying:

    • time commitment: so folks can decide if they need to ask permission from their manager,
    • requirements to apply: if there are no requirements, say so explicitly, a lot of folks will opt out, assuming there are),
    • selection criteria: if multiple folks apply, how will you select the project leader between them?
  2. Announce the project to a public email list, at an all hands, over Slack, or however your company does persistent communication; I tend to use email for these. What's most important is that you:

    • allow folks to apply in private - some folks will be uncomfortable applying in public,
    • that they don't see who else has applied - some folks will see someone they view as senior apply, and will immediately disengage because they feel they are less qualified,
    • whenever possible, give at least three working days for people to apply, as some folks will need to talk with their manager or peers to get confident in applying.
  3. Nudge folks to apply who you think would be good candidates but who might not self-select. Particularly important for getting new folks into the process.

  4. Select a project leader based on the selection criteria you specified. Take the time to consider every single applicant against the criteria, and if possible write up a paragraph or two about each of them. Once you've selected the leader, privately reach out to them to confirm that they're able to commit.
  5. Sponsor the project leader by finding someone who has successfully completed a similar project to be their advisor. This sponsor will be accountable for coaching the leader to successful completion. This is a great learning opportunity for the sponsor, as they are typically folks who are great at doing things themselves, but not as used to teaching others how to lead large and ambiguous projects.
  6. Notify other folks who applied that they were not selected. It's extremely helpful if you provide them feedback on why you didn't select them. Sometimes it's because they've already done something great and you want to create room for another person to learn, and that's a totally reasonable thing to tell them!
  7. Kickoff the project, notifying the same folks you Announced to who the project leader is, who the sponsor is, and their plan for running the project.
  8. Record the project, who was selected, and who is the sponsor into a public spreadsheet. Also link out to a project brief!

Done over time, you'll get a clear sense of who gets leaned on for the most important projects, and done well you'll see that cohort continue to grow!

The first few times you do this, it will feel very constraining and inefficient. Previously you would have just sent a ping to a favored individual and they'd have been off and running, now you have to run a slower and deliberate process, but increasingly I believe this is the most important change in my approach to leadership over the past few years, and that done well it can be cornerstone in your efforts to grow an inclusion organization.

I wrote about this idea a bit in an earlier blog post, but may have been guilty of burying the lede, hence this post!