Flexibility is an essential aspect of leadership. As is frequently quoted: “No plan survives contact with the enemy” (usually attributed to George Patton, but actually first used by Helmuth von Moltke in the late 1800s) … this applies to the modern industrial complex as much as to nineteenth century warfare. An effective leader must be flexible so that when things change, they can adapt swiftly. What could change? Just about anything:
- Resources – People, funding, support from other groups … all can change easily during the course of a project. Flu season wreaks havoc with schedules — taking people out for a week or more. The one person with the critical skills needed for the project gets an offer that they can’t refuse (and that you can’t counter). Your budget gets cut … or gets doubled — which can sometimes be worse. All of these will impact your project, and none of them are under your control.
- Schedule – You thought you had a month to get things done, but now you have a week. The task that was supposed to be an insignificant short activity off the critical path just exploded and became the critical path. The software delivery that could not be late … arrived a month after it was due. Your fault? No … but you still have to deal with it.
- Management Support – You did all your legwork … convinced everyone in all the right places that this was the right thing to do. You got approvals and funding … you were golden! Now, the environment has changed: there’s a new VP that doesn’t agree with the old one, or the company started a new strategic initiative that needs the resources allocated to your project, or they lose focus on what you’re accomplishing. All of a sudden, you are fighting for your project’s very existence.
- Unexpected Success – The part of your project that you were expecting to be the most risky ended up going so smoothly that you’re now a week ahead of schedule. The senior executive that was your biggest critic finally saw the light and became your biggest ally … and wants you to talk with his boss. Not all problems are negative … sometimes we are victims of our own success. This can sometimes cause more disruption than catastrophes!
Flexible leaders need to be both resilient and creative to survive challenges such as these. Resiliency enables them to take these blows and come back swinging … knowing that while it sometimes feels personal, it is just the price of doing business. Recovering from problems (both good and bad) requires a bit of a thick skin, determination, and some serious creativity to figure out what to do next. A quote that seems obvious, but sometimes gets lost in the thick of problem resolution is: “you can’t keep doing the same thing and expect something different to happen”. Success depends on your ability to change something — not just any thing, but the right thing — to get things back on track.
As important as — if not more important than — what you do when problems hit, is how you treat your team. You can be making all the right changes, adapting your plan to meet the new challenges, and yet still lose your team. If you communicate with your team, letting them know what’s happening — both good and bad — you will help them work through the problems. If you engage your team to help resolve the situation, they will both have a stake in the solution, and understand that you really do care about them. Finally, your honesty with them will reinforce their trust in your leadership and give you the backing you will need to successfully complete this project, as well as those in the future.