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From the Sponsor’s Desk – The Risk of Unintended Consequences

Sometimes, the best of intentions results in unanticipated, and undesired, consequences. The French economic journalist Frédéric Bastiat wrote in his essay “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen”: There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

I would argue that the same observation applies to managers. The bad ones concern themselves with the obvious, visible results. The good ones identify and deal with both the visible and the potential, positive and negative.

In this post, we’ll look at an organization that experienced the departure of a talented and respected leader and the actions taken by the CIO to plug the gap. He addressed the obvious, visible needs but failed to consider the ramifications of the leader’s departure and the affect this would have on the organization and its customers. The CIO experienced the risk of unintended consequences first hand.

Thanks to L.S. for his contributions in this case.

The Situation

This company manufactured communications equipment and software for the business and consumer markets worldwide. In the early 2000s, they had experienced a drop in sales, revenues, and repeat business because of poor quality across their product lines. To address the issue, the CIO hired a talented engineer as Quality Assurance Director. In addition to being a talented engineer, the Quality Assurance Director (let’s call him the QAD for short), was an engaging and insightful leader. He had a passion for the power of collaboration to solve tough challenges. He was an energizing communicator and had the ability to get individuals and groups motivated to achieve difficult goals.

It took the QAD less than two years to build an organization, return quality results to their previous levels, and start to compete with the industry’s best. Due to his efforts, “Build Quality In” was at the core of the company’s culture, in all product lines. And then the QAD resigned. He had been offered a vice president position with a company in another industry. The CIO was unable to compete.

The Goal

The CIO had an immediate challenge to fill the QA Director vacancy to maintain and advance the company’s quality track record.

The Project

The CIO met with the Human Resources VP to begin the search for the QA replacement. The list of qualifications included appropriate engineering designations, senior management experience, quality control/assurance experience, and industry/product line exposure. The CIO identified one potential candidate internally, a Quality Control Manager responsible for one of the product lines. She had been recruited and mentored by the departing QA.

The candidate search commenced with screening performed by Human Resources staff. Eleven applicants were selected for the interview stage, including the one internal candidate. Interviews were conducted using a behavioral interviewing approach with a standard set of questions. Interviewers included the CIO, VP of Engineering Services, and three product line managers.

The interviewers summarized their findings after each interview with both objective and subjective ratings. These results were brought together by Human Resources staff and tabulated to arrive at ranking for each candidate.

The Results

The CIO decided to promote the internal candidate even though she was ranked eighth of the eleven candidates interviewed. He reasoned that she was a known quantity who could get up to speed quickly. He thought she presented the lowest risk. She was respected by her staff and well known by the staff she would have reporting to her. As well, she was familiar with the managers and executives in the business organization. To the CIO, it looked like a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, the CIO promoted a good mid-level manager to a job that required stellar leadership talent. The newly appointed QAD was not a strong leader, not a natural communicator, not an inquisitive visionary, all attributes that were essential to move the organization forward.

In her previous role as a Quality Control Manager for one of the product lines, she had demonstrated mastery of the products and the processes and practices used to design and build them. She was able to work closely with the product engineers to improve quality and move the threshold forward. She was tenacious in pursuing her goals and rigorous in the application of company policy. These were the characteristics that convinced the CIO she was right for the QAD job.

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What the CIO didn’t recognize, however, was that she followed the path laid out by her former leader. The CIO didn’t understand that she had limited exposure working with senior managers, that she had no experience setting and selling a vision. She had limited experience mentoring staff or building and managing the transformation of a vital corporate function.

In addition, the CIO assumed that she was fully ready for the director role and spent very little time with her as she transitioned into the new job. As a result, she continued to operate as she had in her previous manager role. She didn’t build the requisite relationships with the company’s senior management, customers, engineers and staff supporting other product lines.

The danger signs surfaced soon after her appointment to the QAD role. Two of the twenty staff in her organization had been seconded to product line organizations by the former leader. He believed the more they understood the products and the people making them, the better his organization could serve their customers’ quality needs. When the seconded staff’s stints were up, they chose to stay in the product line groups rather than return to the QA organization.

Word began to filter out that the new QAD was a control freak. She tried to micro manage everything. She applied company policy to the letter of the law. Where the previous QAD had allowed some staff to work flexible hours because of the nature of their current assignments and personal life challenges, the new QAD insisted on compliance with formal company hours, no exceptions.

QA staff started to leave the organization. They claimed they didn’t know where the group was going. It wasn’t fun or exciting anymore. There were no more “all staff conflabs”. The previous mandatory daily fifteen minutes scrums that were free-flowing exchanges of information had turned into interrogations by the new QAD. Where all product line quality practices and results were once shared with all QA staff, the new QAD insisted that staff focus on their own product lines. There was no more sharing.

As staff departed, the new QAD was challenged to fill the gaps. She made some bad hiring decisions which demanded more of her time, took her away from other priority duties, and exacerbated the performance challenges her organization, and the company were experiencing. The CIO began to get demands from his colleagues to fix the QA problems.
After thirteen months on the job, the new QAD was let go. The CIO returned to the list of interviewed candidates and managed to hire the number two candidate to turn the quality performance around.

How a Great Leader Could Have Delivered

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Fools rush in where wise men never go. There are too many sayings describing the risk of unintended consequences for it to be an occasional occurrence. This CIO fell into the trap as well. He jumped at what seemed an obvious choice without weighing the reasons behind his candidate’s eight place ranking. He had well-founded due diligence in his grasp, and he ignored it. What could he have done differently to produce a better outcome?

• Evidence-based decisions

He needed to use the interview ranking results, not ignore them. If he was going to select the eighth-ranked candidate, he had to at least rationalize the reasons for the ranking and build a plan to plug the gaps that were revealed. There were also four other individuals involved in the interviewing process who should have had an opportunity to explain their views on the candidates.

• Use your network

The new QAD was known to many in the organization in her previous role as Quality Control Manager. The CIO could have used that network to solicit informal feedback on the candidate and her potential for performing the director’s job. He could have also reached out to the former QAD. Had he done so, he would have been told that the Quality Control Manager was not yet ready for the director’s job for the reasons that soon became apparent. Also, once the new QAD was appointed, the CIO should have maintained those contacts to solicit feedback on her performance. That would have provided an early warning of the difficulties she was encountering.

• Mentor

Having made the decision, the CIO needed to mentor the new QAD to help her transition to the new role as quickly as possible. A mentoring relationship would have provided the CIO with essential insight into his new director’s capabilities and development needs and the follow-on actions necessary to help her succeed.

• Progress metrics

Replacing a successful leader of a vital organizational function is a significant organizational change. The change effort should have been accompanied by appropriate goals and metrics and tracking, reporting and review processes to ensure the company was still well served, and the incumbent was performing to expectations. That didn’t happen. The new QAD and the CIO paid the price.

As managers, we’re often pressed for time to deal with pressing challenges and make appropriate decisions. How often do we jump to the most obvious decision? Sometimes, that works out, but often it comes back to haunt us. Resist that temptation on the knee jerk reaction. Please take the time to consider the options to avoid the risk of unintended consequences. If you find yourself in a similar situation, put these points on your checklist of things to do in future endeavours so you too can be a Great Leader. And remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group, the decision management process and Decision Framework best practices right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has willingly shared your experiences for presentation in this blog. Everyone benefits. First-time contributors get a copy of one of my books. Readers get insights they can apply to their own unique circumstances. So, if you have a project experience, good, bad and everything in between, send me the details, and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your insights. Thanks.

Drew Davison

Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check - The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath - The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at [email protected].