Monthly Archives: September 2007

//September

Finding the Hidden Agenda

There are project managers and there are good project managers. But you will also come across, only ever so often, really outstanding project managers. This week I gave a key note speech to the Benelux PMI chapter at their annual event in Rotterdam on the subject of ‘Finding the hidden agenda’. Because it was so warmly accepted I thought I would share with my readers the basic outline of the speech.

My definition of a hidden agenda is:

• Something undisclosed that potentially conflicts with the required outcome
• A plan that you don’t know about…
• A plot that you are unaware of…

The principle is this: If you want to get the most out of a team, then you have to get the most out of all of the individuals who make up that team. You have to have them pull together and form a tight knit group that trust one another and compliment one another with their skills, energy and creativity.

There are thousands of books on motivation and most of us have our own techniques that we try to apply. But the question of the hidden agenda is so often over looked. If you know where each of your team members is going to, what their ideals, visions and dreams are, if you can anticipate what their hidden agendas might be, then (in the best case) you are well on the way to being able to motivate them to producing excellence and (in the worst case) you can see that their hidden agendas may well be on a collision course with your desired outcome and thus can begin to manoeuvre a way to avoid to catastrophe and even to enhance the outcome by finding a way to combine the agendas to compliment one with the other.

I find that hidden agendas are often detected by the following:

1. The simple avoidance of a question
2. When all logical arguments fail to impress
3. A proposal from a sponsor or team member sounds unusually crazy
4. Decisions appear illogical or ‘daft’
5. A lack of interest from those you expect to behave otherwise
6. Abnormal bouts of behavior

Of course there are those people who are generally known to be ‘poker faced’ who are almost impossible to read, but most people (luckily for the PM or IM) are not that good at keeping their hidden agendas hidden. There are times when you simply must though, and experienced interim and project/program managers simply have to, especially in times of:

• Mergers and Acquisitions
• Immanent Downsizing
• Handling cases of suspected corruption or other illegal activities


Mostly I find that hidden agendas are only covering a narrow range of possibilities, such as:

• A fear of rejection, incompetence, or being replaced
• Ambition or greed
• Guilt
• Insecurity

Hidden agendas on a one to one basis are something usually containable, but sometimes one comes across, multiple hidden agendas, even in a single project, a typical case could be:

• The project manager wants to close the project on time to hide some outstanding issues
• The operations director wants to keep the project open to book extra (non project) costs
• Finance director wants to put the project on hold until the next financial year to spread CAPEX without overspending this year’s budget
• Marketing wants to add new features (scope creep) to the project to cover up for departmental failure

In these situations it can be very difficult for an interim manager to resolve, even assuming that the hidden agendas somehow become ‘unhidden’.

In any case the outstanding project and interim managers are those who have very high emotional intelligence and can read people and situations very well, thus uncovering what is hidden and doing so in a subtle way that allows them to manipulate the situation into a direction that they choose.

Of course this subject deserves much more, but this is only my blog, not a thesis or essay, your comments and own experiences are very welcome!

More on my views on the hidden agenda can be found in my book, ‘Making a Difference’ published by Lannoo Campus and available for purchase on line here

0 Comments

You only get one chance in Interim Management

Some people have been complaining to me that the competition in ‘Making a Difference' is far too tough because you can only submit your advice to the David CEO once! There are some situations in life when you get a second chance (in certain sports for example) but I fail to understand why anyone can imagine that you can listen to someone’s dilemma, read lots of background information and then have the ability to ask an additional question and then expect that if, after a period of time, you are dissatisfied with the advice you gave that you can somehow go back and say ‘sorry David’ I have been thinking about it, the advice I gave you, well I have changed my mind, I think you should do something different!

It’s like a Doctor prescribing an operation and then afterwards saying, ‘oh dear, I think we should have done something different’. I have heard of surgeons amputating the wrong leg, but I can not imagine that trial and error could ever been adopted as a possible way forward.

In life, Interim Managers also only get one chance. The difficulty is that they have to come up with advice that not only makes sense, it also has to be possible to implement and sound attractive to the dominant coalition. That is why the job is so tough!

Obviously the CEO’s dilemma in my book, offers very little information, but the question and answers should give the readers of the blog some additional insight. However the blog readers who have not read all the books nine steps may also be argued as being at a disadvantage.

Tip: The answers to the dilemma that come in early on, are judged less critically as those submitted later in the competition. This is because, as the competition progresses, there is every week more and more information on the situation being published on the blog. The judging panel will be taking this into account.

It might be tough, or even considered unfair by some, but quite frankly, life is like that! When my children were young they sometimes used to complain to me ‘Daddy that’s not fair!’ I always replied ‘You are right, life is not fair and if you go around this planet of ours expecting it to be so, you will always be unhappy and disapointed’. This does not condone cheating, not at all, this does not mean that they should be rude or act antisocially, not at all. All it means is that the challenges that life throws at us, should be seen as just that. Challenges, either we take them on, or we walk away, possibly to return another day, when we are better prepared and in the right frame of mind to deal with them.

0 Comments

What ’s the ideal age for an Interim Manager?

“But I was so much older then, I am younger than that now” Bob Dylan

When I was a teenager, I could never quite understand that line from Dylan’s song ‘My Back Pages’, but as I grow older it becomes clearer. In my teens and early twenties I thought I knew everything, there was not much that anyone could teach me. I was not ready to listen. Recently I heard a recruitment manager for VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) talking on the BBC World Service and she was saying that today she is trying to recruit doctors and other professionals in their late 50’s rather than their early 20’s. The reason being that in Africa, as in many continents, people are much more likely to listen to someone older and wiser than themselves. ‘Imagine’, she said ‘the trouble that a young female midwife (who has never had children of her own) might have, trying to persuade a woman older than herself, who probably has already had a few children, the benefits of a particular method of child birth or child after care’. Well, I can tell you that the same is applicable to interim management.

Even if you have been to the very best business school and even if you are rich, with cash ready to invest, you can only speak with theoretical knowledge. A brick layer can explain the relatively simple task of laying bricks. But experience will show you just how tricky it is to make the mortar to the perfect consistency so that it does not fall off the header of the brick before you place it on the wall, let alone have all the qualities that it must have to ensure a good bond for many years to come.

An interim Manager needs a blend of knowledge and experience. He, or she, needs to have witnessed as many as possible differing types of company and business cultures. Or they must stay solely in the narrow experience of a particular kind of company and business sector to which they are very familiar. (I personally believe an interim manager can adapt very quickly to differing industries and sectors but, cultures and environments are much harder to adapt to).

So what is the ideal age for an interim manager? It has to be 50. at 50 you are still young enough to run for the train, to be the first in the office. Your children have almost certainly left home, so working late or in a foreign country is never an issue. At 50 you have enough experience to match it to the scores of management books that you read in your spare time. At 50 you still are very much open to new ideas yet you are old enough to inspire younger people, but not so old that they think you are already dead in the water. At 50 you are still looking for that big assignment, the one that is seemingly impossible but you believe you have the resources to handle. At 50 you have enough friends, business contacts and other resources to be able to get yourself out of any mess. At 50, you are ready to perform on the plateau of the performance graph, not getting better not getting worse. At 50 your memory is still ok and the mild aches and pains you may feel in the morning are still only an inconvenience. By the time everyone else has woken up and eventually arrived in the office, they have disappeared completely.

So why do I write this? Of course it has nothing to do with the fact that my book launch party, roughly coincided with my 50th. birthday, it’s just the culmination of a scientific theory that I have been working on and adapting subtly each year for the past ten years.

If you don’t agree, then you better have a damned good argument ;-)

* The launch Party was for my book ‘Making a Difference’, which was published on 14th. of September 2007

0 Comments

Mine Your Own Business

A few years back I was working on an assignment for a Belgian company whose slogan was ‘Mine Your Own Business’. I always found it a great slogan as it related directly to their product, catching attention while doing so. The point the company was making was that their tools could help exploit the data within a business. They took product and marketing data and automatically generated, product brochures, price lists, catalogues and other media sets and published them to websites, print ready formats, and CDRoms etc.. It was a great product and they had some impressive clients. But despite all their best efforts, persuading new customers to purchase their licences proved incredibly hard.

There are some things in life I find difficult to understand and one of them is the slow take up of proven technologies that so obviously benefit both business and society (a typical example of this is the incredible length of time it took for the building industry to adapt to using Gyproc plasterboard on a generic scale). I digress…

The point is that this week, while being interviewed in connection with my book, which is only five days away from launch, a red thread emerged that passed through the interviews on how exactly do I make a difference? And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that apart from the structured methods and all the tips and trick I suggest in ‘Making a Difference’, it largely comes down to mining the talent at ones disposal.

Far too often I see companies recruit brilliant performers, only to see that within a few months (sometimes even weeks) of their being recruited, they are not deployed for what they were recruited but are pointed in a different direction. Consequently, their real talents gradually become buried, along with their promising CV, deep down in the bottom of the bottom drawer of their bosses filing cabinet.

For example: A young marketing executive, is recruited for their originality, passion and clear thought. Two weeks into their new job their N+2 urgently needs some product sales figures analyzed and put in a presentation which he will give to his board. Because the new recruit is available, she is given the task. She does a really great job, crunching the numbers and displaying them in exactly the way her N+2 wants. She surprises him by the speed of her result and the original way she displays the information, emphasizing the strong points and burying the less attractive ones. Instead of asking himself ‘what else can this person do?’, from that day on, she is seen as the Queen of MS Excel and analytics. Ten months later, when the novelty has worn off, she feels under valued and is looking for a new opportunity.

Successful sports coaches, are forever tweaking their teams, and having them change positions, sometimes playing in one position, sometimes playing in another. They make a mockery of the idiotic saying ‘never change a winning team’. They like to dig out and encourage every piece of hidden talent and build on it. Professional sports players don’t come cheap and nor do the human resources in our businesses.

When I am on an assignment, I am always trying to find the extra depth in people. I try to encourage them to step forward and utilize their skills and ideas. If they don’t fit where they are, I try and move them to somewhere where they do. This is particularly important in Belgium, because the cost of ‘letting people go’ is so hideously expensive that there is no fluidity in the HR market, except for interims and consultants, but they should not be seen as the foundation of a business, or should they?

The company I was referring to in the beginning of this piece was MediaMine nv. Times have changed, and so have they, but you can find out more about them on their website: MediaMine.com

0 Comments

What ’s in a question?

In life there are two main kinds of question:
1. A question solely intended to obtain some useful information
2. A question to show off how cleaver or knowledgeable the questioner is.
Professional Interim managers know that the secret to finding the truth lies solely in the quality of the question and not in the ego of the questioner.

This week I was having lunch with the son of a business associate, he was starting out into his professional life and I was trying to offer him some advice and to possibly help him find the best path forward. For someone, such as he, with many options and an abundance of ideas, the first steps can be very tricky to say the least.

During our lunch he was asking me some pretty good questions, but then I began to realize that the questions he was asking were designed to show me how smart and knowledgeable he was. He had obviously been taught all the smart questions and had learned them off by heart, probably thinking up some of his own along the way. The advice I gave him was as follows:

In an interview you should only ask a question if you genuinely want to know the answer. You should never waste a question by trying to show off. In any kind of interview, the interviewer has already read your CV, the selection process has already singled you out as a possible candidate, and you are very likely to be asked many questions that interviewer wants to know your opinion on. Answering questions is the opportunity you are given to show off your knowledge and skills. In many interviews, you only get the chance to ask just one or two questions (prior to the negotiation round) and therefore these need to be thought through very carefully. They are your ace cards and need to be deployed extremely wisely.

The young man in front of me told me that when he was applying for a sales job, he always asked what the unique selling points were of the product or service he had to sell. But I discovered that he was not asking it for the right reason because he was solely relying on one answer with no further qualification.

i.e. if the answer he receives is ‘Quality and reliability’, it tells him nothing unless he knows who the target market is. (If the target market is currently happy with a cheap throw away solution, it might mean that he is going to be working for a company with a fantastic product that is extremely hard to sell because it is too expensive and actually nobody really wants it). Therefore, he needs to ask his question with a second one in mind. Like in Chess, he needs to think at least two or more moves ahead. So, if his follow up question is ‘and how do the USP’s relate to your target market?’ Then he will get all the information he needs, especially when he relates it back to the commission schemes and average earnings of the company’s sales team. In fact he simply needs to tie the two questions together and he probably will launch a whole raft of very useful information from the interviewer that will make his choice of which employer to work for so much easier. Thus his question should be ‘What are the unique selling points of your product and how do they relate to your target market?’

Similarly, questions are beginning to come in on my article about the CEO’s dilemma. Some of them will give the questioner a lot of information. However, unless the questioner genuinely knows what information they are looking for in the first place, then the answer they receive might be disappointing and not help them that much with their recommendation.

I believe more training should be given in schools on the power of asking the right question, rather than an ‘impressive’ one.

1 Comment