Meet OD Innovator Al Cini

This month’s OD Innovator Spotlight features Al Cini, founder, and managing partner of BCAT Partners, as well as co-host of RVN TV’s CEO Chat streaming video program. For more than 30 years, he has helped organizations promote successful business outcomes by lowering the behavioral barriers to open communication and willing cooperation.

You’ve spent much of your career as a senior project leader for global corporations, including 15 years at General Electric. What trends have you seen in project management?

First of all, I want to thank you for this opportunity to add what we’ve learned in our research to what I read all the time in OD Innovator magazine. That is, while management is mostly about paperwork, leadership is about “people work.” I completely agree with your magazine’s emphasis on the value of people and the importance of understanding what motivates them in leading projects to successful outcomes.

Unfortunately, when it comes to managing projects, and maybe because they’re driven mostly by fear of failure, many corporations have become fixated on the discipline and rigor of project management. They’ve formed PMO bureaucracies and invested heavily in project management (PM) technology that meticulously tracks expenses and activity, all aimed at driving down costs and reducing error.

But the fact is, if the people on a project team aren’t motivated to cooperate in completing its mission, no amount of tracking and accounting will help. To get the job done, you must earn the kind of committed buy-in that inspires team members to freely commit themselves to the effort. Freedom is the key here. People who can’t work freely won’t work well.

Traditional project management encourages micromanaging behavior, which restricts freedom and pushes people into a counterproductive mindset. With traditional PM, you get lots of activity, people working long weeks—60-70 hours—but not much actual accomplishment. The goal should be to shift people from being proud of how hard they’re working to taking pride in what they’re accomplishing.

This shift requires change, in both the members and leaders of the team, and traditional PM just isn’t up to the job. As Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, said, “People don’t resist change; they resist being changed.” To evolve from fear of failure to pride in success, PM needs to focus more on inspiring motivation and less on blaming and shaming.

What are you doing now and for whom?

For the past decade, we’ve been developing and delivering a team-building methodology that aligns a team’s members with their shared goals and inspires them to shift from tracking and accounting for their activity to achieving measurable results. We call it the Brand and Culture Alignment Toolkit, or BCAT. When the members of a team align the way they do their work— their brand—with their passion for the work they do—their culture—they consistently produce excellent results.

Business and HR consultants freely toss the term “alignment” around a lot these days, which begs the question: “alignment with what?” In our research, we’ve discovered that, at the heart of every truly effective team, there’s a role model that identifies its collective best self. Using an online survey instrument, simple graphics and relatable examples, our system brings a team’s signature role model to life and guides its members in adjusting their behavior to emulate it. People become more supportive members of their team, better servants of their team’s mission, and they do it freely and willingly.

The process starts with what we call the Incorporating Question. We ask the team’s stakeholders to think of their entire team as though it were a single person doing its best work on its best day to keep all of its promises and to accomplish all of its goals. When they get a good visualization of this ideal virtual person, we ask them to complete a 15-minute online survey that describes it from their point of view. We analyze their responses and plot them as points on a Brand and Culture Map.

Everyone on the team uses this information to create Personal Alignment Plans: commitments to changing two or three things about themselves in order to emulate their team’s role model. The process only takes a few hours, and it can spark powerful results.

How do you and your clients measure those results?

Our approach significantly boosts employee engagement as measured by Gallup’s Q12 survey instrument.

For about 20 years, Gallup has been polling the international workplace to measure the percentage of employees who are engaged in their companies’ work. They’ve found that typical engagement levels hover around 30%, which, of course, means that 70% of employees are not engaged in their organization’s goals. Disengagement costs money. Gallup consistently finds that organizations with higher Q12 scores have lower operating costs and higher productivity. They grow faster, work smarter and consistently report better results. Their message is clear: by increasing engagement, you can improve your company’s top- and bottom-line performance.

In our validation studies, we used the Gallup Q12 survey before and after 120 engagements—with a broad mix of partnerships, small and mid-sized companies, functional departments within larger organizations, service delivery and manufacturing, for- and not-for-profit organizations—with a combined total of 1,500 participants. Our pre-Q12 numbers confirmed Gallup’s findings: only about 31% engaged. Our post-trial Q12 numbers, measured 90 to 120 days later, were 60% to 66%.

What common challenges do you encounter?

The biggest misconception we’ve seen is that a “good leader” is a personality that people tend to follow. Chasing this illusion, companies spend a lot of money on leadership training for their managers, with little to show for it.

Our research shows that people really don’t follow people. Instead, they follow what people follow. When project managers define and clearly articulate the end state of a collective effort, and repeatedly demonstrate, through their actions, their love for it and their commitment to achieving it, they naturally become the kind of project leaders who can inspire the shift from activity to accomplishment. These leaders bring out the very best in all their people—not just in the “rock stars,” but in everyone.

Project leaders get the best results by keeping this vision fresh throughout the entire project, by making time for periodic meetings organized around the Incorporating Question, by adjusting and keeping alive their team’s signature role model as they move from phase to phase, and by keeping everyone—all generations and regardless of rank and seniority—aligned with the vision.

Really effective project leadership taps into the power of our personal aspirations. As we’re gathered around and answering the Incorporating Question, we’re really describing the better version of ourselves that we hope to become by working together. People become more receptive, open, flexible and collaborative. You defuse so much negativity and counterproductive conflict by approaching people on this basis.

Can you share a specific client example?

A couple of years ago, we did a project for a well-known theme park, a great organization on an entertainment mission. We started with a problem area in their internal quality control (QC) group, which was not communicating very well. We started with the Incorporating Question and, not surprisingly, we found the QC team’s signature role model—their personified brand and culture—to be an analytical, methodical risk-management expert. Based on this, our alignment exercises opened lines of communication within the department, reduced internal conflict, and re-aligned everyone with their department’s QC mission.

We did the same thing for the park’s executive leadership team a few months later, and this exercise revealed a quite different role model: a fun and exciting family-oriented entertainer.

The real reward was in what happened next, when we conducted alignment exercises for the park’s combined QC and leadership teams. Emulating the leadership team’s entertainment role model, several of the QC expert participants volunteered to become part-time customer experience consultants. They committed to leave their “silos” and to work in the park during the season to survey families to study how they were enjoying their day and to gather suggestions about how the park might make their visit more enjoyable. We later learned that the leadership team had been trying for years to get their QC people to do this. They finally did it, not because they were ordered to do it, but because they were inspired to do it. “People don’t resist change; they resist being changed.”

How can organizations encourage that kind of participation?

Organizations need to re-think and re-imagine management authority. Authority isn’t a tool. It’s a responsibility. The traditional exercise of authority—“I’m the boss, so do what I tell you”—triggers the two dreaded syndromes of dysfunctional organizations: silo-thinking and passive-aggressive behavior.

When people think in silos, they focus strictly on what they’re trained and paid to do, without considering the larger mission their work serves. You get lots of effort with little to show for it, and none of the innovative breakthrough thinking needed to successfully finish complex projects.

You also get what we call “don’t diligence.” When you micromanage people and deny or ignore their voice, they become passive-aggressive. They begin to define themselves not by what they’re able to do, but by how they can hinder or prevent others from doing things. This raises the cost of an idea so high that no one wants to be creative and innovate. You lose because no one wants to help you win.

Cracking the whip may feel good to a manager, but it almost always works against you. As soon as you put your foot down, you’ve put your foot right in it.

Will better project management help people focus on the right things?

Certainly, better project leadership will. But that requires paying attention not just to the actions, but also to the actors. Microsoft Project is a great tool, but, when your people just aren’t motivated, it can be like throwing gasoline on a fire. Gantt charts are great for mentoring because sometimes people get lost and can’t figure out the steps they need to follow to get things done. But when you’re using Gantt charts to micromanage and shame people rather than to inform and support them, you’ve created a psychological mess that Microsoft Project can never help you solve.

What I’ve found often works better is a high-level PERT chart (MS Project calls this a network diagram) that sets out overall milestones, dependencies and goals. The magic is in what this kind of chart doesn’t say. You get amazing results from showing people what the goal is and earning their buy-in, without explicitly telling them what the means are. The people you’re trying to lead are the ones whose creativity you want to unlock.

We find the Holy Grail of project management when our people, working in freedom, exceed rather than merely meet our expectations. As leaders, we want to be amazed. Those little miracles happen all the time for project leaders and hardly ever for project managers. When things start happening that you don’t expect to happen, then you’re leading rather than managing the project. Unexpecteds don’t have to be bad; often, they can be great.

When I was working with GE, my teams always came up with better results than I ever could have on my own. You want people to love what they’re doing so much that they solve problems before they show up, rather than stamp out fires as they happen. I think the projects I ran finished on time and within budget because the people on my teams didn’t want to disappoint me. It was miraculous, and, rather than feeling pressured and panicky, it kept me in a near-constant state of amazement, gratitude and appreciation. All very rewarding for me.

How do you create the opportunity for those miracles?

When I finished at GE, I pulled back and tried to build on my experiences there. I realized that I wasn’t getting my team members to do what I wanted them to. I was getting them to think deeply about why our team encouraged them to do their very best. Why did they want to be on my team? What made them proud of their work with us? This approach earned their commitment to doing not “my thing,” but the right thing.

I recently worked on aligning the brand and culture of a restaurant chain in Australia. From those exercises, one of the participants offered a great Personal Alignment Plan: “Starting next week, if a party comes in with a member in a wheelchair, instead of talking to everyone standing at my eye level, I’ll stoop down to the level of the person in the wheelchair and ask them what they want from their dining experience.” This great suggestion emerged from a young woman who had just started her career. She didn’t have a lot of experience, but she was brimming with sincerity and enthusiasm, and I was happy to play a small role in giving her a voice.

The senior members of the group were amazed. They’d have never been able to come up with that idea on their own. These old guys were being schooled by a young rookie—and they loved it! They immediately added her alignment plan to the restaurant chain’s code of ideal conduct.

At the end of the day, I guess my job as a project leader is to create circumstances that bring out the very best in others, sometimes in a big way. What sparks innovation? Freedom, validation and respect. The best ideas are in your people’s heads, just waiting for your support and encouragement to let them freely bubble up. At the end of the day, that’s how great things get done.

Mistina Picciano

About Mistina Picciano

As Managing Editor of OD Innovator, Mistina Picciano combines her passions for communication and peak performance. She researches and writes about leading practices to help individuals and organizations realize their greatest potential.

View all posts by Mistina Picciano →

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