I was working with a client recently that had decided to start a program of work involving 15 independent project teams, all working together to deliver a few key business objectives. 15 project teams comprised of roughly 140 people, all co-ordinating and collaborating together from different departments, locations and functions across a global organization with a few external vendors thrown in to add a little spice.
A challenging mission at best, I was keen to understand how the Program Management Office would measure progress towards the identified outcomes while ensuring that individual teams shared information across the program of work.
“We’ve a program dashboard that each team populates with project status, progress, risks and issues each week”. I looked at the dashboard. “Everything is on track and has been since we started a few weeks ago. We’re confident we’ll deliver everything within the program timeline and constraints”, said the Program Lead. All the initiatives were green. “I think you’re carrying watermelons”, was my response.
What is a watermelon?
Green on the outside but with orange or red cores, watermelons are a nice analogy for healthy-looking project reports served to PMOs on a weekly basis. In an environment of mistrust, fear or bureaucracy watermelon serving is rife. Teams tend to suppress or hide information that may highlight that everything isn’t executing as defined in ‘the plan’ – especially when everyone else in the program is serving up fresh green goodness too!
No one wants to be the focus of management never mind the PMO, they paint the happy, healthy and wholesome picture, avoid discovery and convince themselves everything will work out before the next checkpoint. The Eye of Sauron moves onto the next green blip and the team hopes to pull back the difference by the next time the dark lords glare comes around.
HealthCare.gov was a $93.7 million investment that turns into a $292 million failure for the US Government. People and teams within the program were aware that the initiative was not in a good state, yet they continued to report that everything was running to schedule, on track and green — even though inside the projects people knew the reporting was a fallacy and the status was red.
They lived their days hoping that everything would turn around, that they would reach the dates, and deliver the system. No one wanted to be the bearer of bad news. No team wanted to highlight that they had an issue, they were waiting for someone else to blink – why, so everyone could blame someone else for the failure that was about to happen?
Breaking open the watermelon culture
Visibility, transparency and the appropriate level of decision making lead to better choices. But yet, there are prerequisites that must be in place to get there.
To calibrate openness and safety teams monitor the response of leadership to difficult situations and emergent circumstances. Teams adapt the quality and detail of information they share in relation to the actions, not the words, in response to the information.
Encourage teams to cut the watermelon open and have a conversation about what you find inside. Then by working together to eat up what you find it encourages others to do the same.
Team will always encounter problems with any delivery initiative. Our mission is to create a willingness to take accountability for the challenges faced and find the best solutions together.Decisions on how teams work towards solving the challenges should be made by the teams doing the work, not someone in management located on the other side of the world.
However, these teams are then responsible for the outcomes of their decisions thus empowered to be accountable to do the right thing. The job of leadership is to provide support, space and remove blockers in their way.
In my experience programs based on cultures of fear tend to follow the pattern below
Transparent, trusting and teamwork-based programs tend to be this pattern
We need to change the way our people think and work together towards a common goal. To do this, we need to address a few aspects;
- Clarity of Purpose – clear direction from leadership and the team on the outcome (or target condition) to achieve
- Alignment – collaboration and agreement on the tactics to achieve the target condition
- Engagement – regular feedback loops with everyone involved in achieving the target condition. Then adjust and adapt based on the information we are learning from performing the work to address the issue at hand
When working with teams, I favor a “Go to Green” strategy by reviewing all aspects of the current situation including data presented by other team leaders in the program. By creating visual artifacts (not paper reports) where teams can meet, share and collaborate on current state and circumstances we can make better decisions that will improve outcomes for the entire initiative. It also serves to foster transparency and trust between all parties as they work together to solve problems and win.
Plan, assign and execute those decisions in an agreed time frame, then set a frequency to review outcomes, share successes or revise activities based on what we’ve learned from doing the work.
If you have a culture based on fear, you will never have true information flowing through your organizations network. People will share the right information, not the correct information.
The role of leadership is encouraging transparency and recognize that their actions in response to negative news are what will create an environment of safety. When people feel secure to share real information on the situation, knowing that leadership will work together with them to identify strategies directed to solutions not blame, the system improves for everyone.
Encourage teams to work together to solve problems, thus building relationships and trust with one another to achieve successful outcomes for all by eating up those watermelons together!
The first time I heard the term ‘Watermelon Reporting’ was from Marc Loffler when he got on the stage at ALE 2011 with a meat cleaver and a bag of watermelons. I’ve kept it with me since then.
All watermelons from http://www.whataboutwatermelon.com