From zero to hero

15 Dec 05
Fed up with slaving away in the background on your worthy but dull project while others bask in the glory of their ground-breaking, award-winning pathfinders? Well, suffer no longer. Michael Ware has 20 ways to make yourself mission critical

16 December 2005

Fed up with slaving away in the background on your worthy but dull project while others bask in the glory of their ground-breaking, award-winning pathfinders? Well, suffer no longer. Michael Ware has 20 ways to make yourself mission critical

The people at the very top of both public and private sector organisations will normally have built their careers on a solid platform of high-profile achievements. Their CVs will be chock-a-bloc with stories of how they transformed, turned around and delivered innovative projects with demonstrable benefits to local stakeholders, shareholders, under-privileged children, etc.

This is all laudable stuff but what if these opportunities don't come along? What if you are stuck with humdrum run-of-the-mill projects that are not groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting and so on but are simply boring solutions to boring problems?

The key is to manage other people's perception of what you are doing. By using the following tips, you can take the raw straw of your dreary project and spin it into career gold.

1. Have a vision or a dream – think Moses, think Martin Luther King. Your project is right up there with these sort of guys. You are not managing a schools building programme, you are 'delivering an education vision'.

2. Use big macho metaphors – water-based ones are good. You should be regularly talking about making waves, swimming against the tide, being in uncharted waters, dealing with sharks. Air ones also work, reach for the skies, new horizons, blue sky thinking, etc.

3. Co-locate – Put together disparate, unrelated organisations into the same building and call it joined-up service delivery. You will spend the next ten years adjudicating rows about parking spaces but you can claim the credit for the undoubted synergy of having the police station situated between the library and the pest control team.

 4. UALOA – Use A Lot Of Acronyms.

5. Spend a lot of your budget on computers – but call it IT or even better ICT for the absolute nirvana of creating 'virtual organisations providing digitised services' – whatever that means.

6. Hold community open days – particularly when your project is uncontentious and of no interest to the wider community. A few open days in draughty church halls attended by a smattering of pensioners, single mums and bored teenagers can easily be portrayed as a pioneering example of community involvement in policy formation.

7. Challenge everything and anyone – do not be seen to be lulled into the mistake of thinking your predecessors and the rest of the world know what they are doing. Your project is unique, it has a unique set of problems and the established ways of doing things do not work for you. You are a dictator, this is year zero and your project is the start of a new era. Of course, this scorched earth approach invariably ends in tears and your peers will all hate you but hey, at least you tried. See also 'Import ideas from overseas'.

8. Create new structures and organisations – and call them service delivery vehicles. Your project is too radical to be developed within the dull constraints of existing organisations. It needs something hard and radical like a JV, an LEP or a Lift. Remember hierarchies are bad, matrices are good, untested amorphous partnerships are fantastic.

9. Be on a critical path – this is a great phrase that combines your undoubted importance with a sense of dynamism and focus. Project plans are for losers. Try also regularly to say 'this is mission critical' and 'Houston, we have a problem'.

10. Involve the private sector – or, if you are in the private sector, try to involve the public sector, or you could both try the voluntary sector, the international community, lost tribes of the Amazon. Anybody will do, as long as you are perceived to be breaking down barriers that hitherto nobody else cared about.

11. Have regular crises – which you solve single-handedly. Make people think you are constantly on the edge of a precipice, slaying dragons, etc. Never be available for last-minute meetings and never answer the phone.

12. Think and, more importantly, talk big picture – your project is not small and discrete, it is a forerunner, a catalyst, almost a revolutionary act. You are not buying computers, you are 'using IT to engineer paradigm shifts in service delivery'.

13. Import ideas from overseas – we British are quite insecure about our ability to manage so you can give your project an instant veneer of international credibility by claiming 'it is based on an idea that was originally developed in…'. Northern European countries are good for social policy, the US for customer care initiatives and Japan for new management practices and organisational structures. Never say France, the Ukraine or anywhere you can't drink the tap water.

14. Pick fights with people – even if you do not face any opposition. It always looks better if you are overcoming the forces of conservatism, battling against Luddites (who were only trying to protect their jobs) and dinosaurs (don't mention the unfortunate fact that dinosaurs lived for 200 million years which is 200 times longer than humans so far). Remember all history is written by task-orientated managers. Napoleon was not famed for his people skills.

 15. Quote management gurus – preferably by their surname only because you are so intimately acquainted with their work. Very effective if you breezily assume that your audience is equally up to speed and you don't need to work through the tedium of having to explain yourself, eg, 'I think Porter's take on this is useful'. 

16. Measure spurious things – most normal non-geeky people with clear complexions are easily spooked by statistics, so expressing the problem and your solution as a series of numbers and graphs will add instant street cred. Think of the 'killer fact', strip out all the messy things like contextualisation and qualitative considerations and express your solution accordingly. Improvements in casualty waiting times are a good example.

17. Use lots of pictures, graphics, etc – images of small children with chocolate-smeared faces are always effective, whatever the issue. For a project as exciting as yours, mere words are not enough. Think how much better Shakespeare would have been if he had had access to an Apple Mac and a colour printer.

 18. Promise new models of service delivery – quite what this means is never clear, but it always sounds impressive. Remember change is always perceived to be a good thing. Moving around the desks, redesigning the reception, closing outlying offices to bring things back into the centre, these are all opportunities to claim new service models. Your project is all about breaking new ground (although this is what they did at the Somme but never let doubt cloud your judgement).

19. Provide services for the twenty-first century – this sounded really good in the 1970s but it still creates a frisson in your readers of something bold and futuristic. Best before 2010 otherwise you will sound out of touch. If promising to deliver by a specific future date sounds too risky then fall back on the old standards of future proofing, building for the future, new services for a new century, etc. The past is another country; modern, forward-looking things are always better.

20. Finally, get out after two years – even the most ill-contrived edifice will generally last this long, so build your dreams, surf your wave, see the whole of the moon, claim the credit then move onwards and upwards.

Michael Ware is corporate finance partner at BDO Stoy Hayward