Many years ago, I created a metaphor for a cognitive model that addresses a prevalent problem for our clients that I repeatedly observe: large projects which are stuck, costly, maddeningly slow. Our clients attribute the main cause of this enormous problem to the highly matrixed nature of their organizations.
After considerable analysis, we found structure to be a factor, but not the root cause issue. We created a simple model of skills, or lack thereof, to provide a better explanation. We created the following metaphor of the four different laps in a relay race to describe the skills that are required for a large project. First, the model:
- Lap One Skills – a person with the ability to very rapidly understand the “gestalt” of the business leader, to build trust with this “client”. This person is flexible, mentally quick and deeply empathetic. While this is an extraordinary skill, one which is vitally important to the success of large projects, many times this person is not skilled in the hand-off to someone who will create action and implement a solution.
- Lap Two Skills – given the high level understanding of his/her Lap One colleague, the Lap Two person is like an architect. This person has the patience and experience to think the project through on multiple levels: from high level vision to details, from technical barriers to organizational barriers, from the strategic to the tactical and with both a bias for action and a process focus. One of our best Lap Two colleagues calls it “let’s go slow to go fast.” The best Lap Two people I know, however, get very bored with the detailed execution.
- Lap Three Skills – the General Contractor. Given a blueprint from a Lap Two colleague, the slogan here is “give me the right resources and I’ll bring this project in on time and on budget.” This person is a brilliant juggler of resources, a “can do” person, oriented to tracking down and dealing with multiple and varied details and a communicator of status, issues and milestones. The General Contractor loves detail, execution and results.
- Lap Four Skills – a close cousin to his/her Lap Three colleague, the Lap Four person has chosen to be a specialist and less of a general manager. He/she “does windows” or plumbing or electric. Focused, quiet and a very key player to their team, the Lap Four person revels in accomplishment of tasks and in being the “go to” person for their specialty.
The “perfect” Lap Two profile is found in less than 5% of the population. The lack of these skills is the single biggest cause of failure of leadership of large projects. Without a Lap Two designer, our Lap One visionary tends to provide too little direction to the Lap Three General Contractor who can unwittingly begin to progress toward a slight variation of the vision. Over time, expectations are not met, huge disappointments and frustrations can ensue. Roles and responsibilities are not likely to be clear because there is no document laying out the overall march. Lack of accountability, confusion, turf orientation, frustration and anger are the symptoms of the dysfunction.
My advice? Locate your Lap Two folks and treasure them, coddle them and have them do “their thing” at the beginning of each important initiative.