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046 – Work the plan and work with the people

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —August 26, 2019
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Podcast

Luke Brown shares the story of how his mantra went from ‘plan the work, work the plan’ to ‘plan the work and work with the people’ and illustrates the importance of building strong relationships at work.

3 fighter jets

In this episode of Anecdotally Speaking, we welcome another guest! Luke Brown has been a friend of Mark’s for many years. He joins us to share a story from his time working as a project manager for the Australian Defence Force.
Luke has successfully run multiple multi-million dollar aircraft acquisition projects. There were, however, three projects at the beginning of his career which didn’t go according to plan. They led him to realise that there was more to project management than what he had learned through his studies, and caused him to change his mantra from ‘plan the work, work the plan’ to ‘plan the work and work with the people.’

For your storybank

Tags: failure, hard work, leadership, learning, persistence, project management, relationships

After working as an airforce engineer for quite some time, Luke Brown decided he would like to try his hand at project management. His first roles were in managing aircraft acquisition projects.

He was determined to be successful, so enrolled in a few project management courses. He learned that if he had a strong project plan and a detailed schedule, he would succeed.

So, for his first project, he worked hard on getting his project plan and schedule right. But, within a couple of years, the project started to go off the rails. They were falling behind schedule. 

Luke struggled to understand why. He thought he had put everything in place.

He asked a few senior executives why they thought the project hadn’t run to plan.

“You need a better plan and a more detailed schedule,” they told him.

For his next project, he was determined to do better. He put more work into creating the perfect project plan and a more detailed schedule. He talked through them more carefully and took more time breaking down each component. But, once again, the project went off track. They weren’t meeting their performance targets, and disagreements were occurring.

Again, he asked senior execs what had gone wrong.

“You needed a better schedule and a better plan. You should have rewritten the plan when you started to fall behind.”

For his third project, he wasn’t going to get it wrong. Luke worked side-by-side with the team. He held weekly reviews and monthly deep dives. He also conducted regular, detailed risk analyses. But, again, the project went off track.

He started to think, “Maybe it’s not me, my plan or my schedule. Maybe there’s something more to it.” His mantra of ‘plan the work, work the plan’ wasn’t working.

He then sought out people within his organisation who had successfully managed difficult projects and asked for their advice.

They didn’t tell him he needed a stronger plan or a more detailed schedule. Instead, they told him that they had succeeded because they had built strong relationships. They had gotten to know their broader teams, including their contractors, and as a result, they all worked well together.

At the same time, he enrolled in a masters in complex project management. It placed much more of an emphasis on teams and relationships and reinforced the advice he had received.

He soon found himself managing a project that was later in its life cycle. The project had fallen behind schedule due to a dispute with a contractor. It had been labelled a ‘major project of concern.’

Within about a year, the project was back on track. Within two years, the project had delivered most of its capability. Luke had turned the project around with his new mantra, ‘plan the work and work with the people.’

Podcast transcript

Shawn: 

Welcome to Anecdotally Speaking – a podcast to help you build your business story repertoire. Hi, I’m Shawn Callahan.

Mark:  

And I’m Mark Schenk and we’ve got a treat this week; another special guest. I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, a guy I’ve known for about 30 years, Luke Brown. We learned to scuba dive together back in 1987. I met Luke first when he was a young Air Force engineer and Luke’s going to share some of his experiences around project management.

Just to set the scene; Luke worked in project management in defence, acquiring aircraft—multibillion dollar projects often taking a decade or even longer and involving 100s of people in the project team. These are not small projects. So, here’s Luke to explain some of his insights around project management.

Luke:

Hi, my name’s Luke Brown. I’m an aircraft engineer by trade. I worked in the field on aircraft and project management for acquiring aircraft. More recently, I’m working in space acquisitions; satellites and communications.

Mark:  

Cool. So you’re going to share some of your experiences around project management so I’ll let you start with the first project that you worked on and what that was like.

Luke:      

I’m an ex-Air Force engineer so I worked on aircraft for the Air Force.  I realised I really wanted to get into the business of acquiring aircraft for the Air Force. I started as an engineer and because I was so interested in it I did a lot of the courses about project management to learn to be good at it as quickly as I could.

Those courses taught me that what I needed to do to succeed was to have really good project plans, well-developed project schedules, specifications to support the work and that if you had all those in place and worked them well between all of the stakeholders then that would provide success.

And that structured approach really appealed to me as an engineer because essentially you were designing the work. I thought I can be good at this because it’s really part of what I knew how to do. So I worked very hard at doing that on my first project, which was to buy a transport aircraft for the Air Force.

And right from the start, from the specification stage, I built the things as described by those courses and put a lot of work and effort into that. I was very excited about the products we’d produced with the contractors and inside a couple of years of working all of those things the project started to go off the rails.

It started to fall behind, couldn’t get agreements on where we were going with the performance. I tried to understand this because we’d put everything in place. I spoke to people around the organisation and the feedback I was getting was that clearly we didn’t have a good enough plan and schedule.

That’s why we weren’t achieving the schedule; we needed to be better at doing that. So I continued that with the next project I worked on. Another aircraft and I thought I’ll be better this time. I’ll have a better plan to start with, a more detailed schedule and we’ll talk through it much more carefully; we’ll take longer, break it down and understand it. So, we did that and put that in place.

And inside a couple of years, we’re starting to move off-track again. And I saw similar things start to happen; falling behind schedule, not hitting performance targets, disagreements started to occur and the momentum becomes one of negativity rather than positivity. And I wondered, what’s gone wrong this time?

Talking to senior people I was getting the same feedback. Some years later and another project, which obviously needed a better plan and schedule with more time working with the contractor on the schedule.

The next project I worked on I was actually embedded with the company in Europe to work on this particular project. I was more in the project management phase of my career at this stage so I was a senior project manager embedded in the company to work with them side by side.

I had weekly schedule reviews, monthly deep dives, risk analysis so I was not going to get it wrong this time—we were going to really drive that schedule and focus on it. And inside a couple of years, we were starting to move off track. The same sort of things; behind schedule, arguments about performance and to that point I had believed that these problems were because I wasn’t good enough at it.

At that point I started to think maybe it’s not me, maybe there’s something else to this. I’m seeing the same pattern but I’m doing exactly what the courses told me and exactly what our senior execs were telling me. The mantra I had at the time; ‘plan the work and work the plan’ was how you achieve success.

And that wasn’t working and I was starting to think that maybe there is something else I’m not doing right, that doesn’t seem to be working; there is something missing. So, I deliberately went searching for that missing key. I searched out people in my organisation who I respected and who were respected by the organisation for being successful in difficult circumstances (complex projects or projects that were struggling and they had helped bring them to success).

I sought out successful people and asked them what they thought gave them success. The interesting thing was they weren’t telling me they succeeded in having highly detailed schedules. Nearly every one of them told me they succeeded on how well they worked with each other, how well the team worked, how well they got to know all the main people in their broader team, including their contractors, and how they worked together. Their relationships were the foundation of success.

And I’m thinking but that’s not what I’ve been taught. That’s different to what everyone’s been saying for years. Around that time I also pursued further learning: a Master’s programme in complex project management. The interesting thing about that was it focused very much on teams and relationships, more than it focused on helping you write a schedule and a contract.

So, it wasn’t about how good your contract was; it was more about your relationships. And that reinforced the practical advice I was hearing from successful people in my business. The next project I had, I moved in when it was later in its lifecycle and it was off track. We were in significant dispute with the main contractor and had been for some years.

So, I moved into that project as the project director and I was given the role of trying to turn it around and deliver that project. I took this different viewpoint of focusing on the relationship rather than rewriting contracts, schedules, or project plans. I really focused on why people were struggling, where they were all coming from.

I sat down to talk with people rather than bring the lawyers together to argue contracts and over a period of about a year, trying to turn the team around to a view of how do we work together as a team to succeed rather than how do we prove we were right (which tended to be a lot of the discussion).

We went from being a project that was publicly viewed as being unsuccessful (working with the government who were looking at it as a major project of concern). And there were concerns about whether we were going to deliver the aircraft capability at all. So, we focused on the people and a different way to solve it. Inside a year of hard work we were moving forward again.

And inside a 2nd year we had actually delivered the rest of the capability. Compared with the 10 years before those 2, the difference now was the focus on forming a team that could finally deliver it to the end. We focused on the people. And that reinforced for me that rather than plan the work and work the plan (you needed a plan, a foundation) but genuine success came from the people, the relationships.

So, I moved my mantra to ‘plan the work and work with the people’. That’s the difference that I got from that whole process. Rather than there is a simple process and if you follow that you will succeed I came to the conclusion that that doesn’t guarantee success. What you need for success is to have really good relationships and to work well with people.

Shawn:  

What a great story. It’s always great to hear a longer story now and then. I can imagine young project managers hanging off Luke’s every word. I think there are just so many lessons in there and we’ll talk more about that.

What is it in that story that helps it work for you, Mark? What are some of the elements you like?

Mark:

One of the elements I like is Luke’s real sense of purpose where he is so committed, he’s so bought into the importance of project management and how it’s so suitable for an engineering mindset. And then how dedicated he is to getting it right.

Shawn:

Exactly, he’s looking out for every trick and tip but he wants to do it right.

Mark:   

And not just because that’s the sort of person Luke is but these are huge things. There is an enormous amount of money, time and capability at stake.

Shawn:      

In fact, you get a nice insight into his character just through that element. One of the things I really loved and it struck me how important it is to do this in stories; he tells 3 examples of failure so that the listeners start to see a pattern. They get the pattern before he tells them the pattern. Stories, by the way, love 3s.

It’s literally a triangulation for the listener. They’re going, one example could just be bad luck, 2nd example, may be a coincidence, 3rd example, now we have pattern happening. That’s lovely. It really makes me realise that if I was going to pitch a change in an organisation and wanted to marshal my evidence; having the one good story is not going to be enough. You have to have at least 3 events that illustrate the point you want to make.

Mark:    

If you look for 3 data points and then present them in that way it becomes really compelling. Now, a single story on its own is often compelling but if you’re trying to make a case—high stakes, it’s critical, you want to make sure you get the approval or agreement then having the 3 is great.

That story gave a really good insight into that triangulation approach.

Shawn:  

Luke didn’t do this—I felt each story was equally weighted—if you had examples where it’s an escalation of error; that might have an even bigger impact on the impact of that story.

Mark:     

It became evident later in the story was that Luke had progressively senior roles until the final project where he decided to take a completely different approach; he was the project director, the whole thing was his responsibility.

Shawn:      

Power helps.

Mark:        

Well it does but by the time he’d got to that level he had the very clear insight into the things that work and those that don’t and he could make the difference.

Shawn:   

There was another element in this; he sought a solution to this. He realised there was a pattern here but what was the right answer? He did the equivalent of a bright spots activity. He tried to find the people who do it well and asked them what do you do to make these things happen?

An engineer will often go to where it’s not working to work out what the solution is but he’s gone the other way and asked where is it working, how can we do more of that, and come out with a new approach.

Mark:   

He did that after the realisation that it wasn’t him. Perhaps there was a flaw in the approach that had been advocated to him. It wasn’t about him executing that approach more effectively; it was about realising there was a completely different approach.

Shawn:

Are there other elements in the telling of the story that jumps out that you like?

Mark:  

I like some of his mantras. What ones do you recall?

Shawn:   

I recall, plan the work; work the plan.

Mark:  

Absolutely. You hear that a lot in defence.

Shawn:   

That alliteration helps a lot. Too bad it hangs you up the wrong tree but he gets to his new mantra. Can you remember the new mantra, Mark?

Mark:    

Plan the work and work with the people.

Shawn:

When I first heard this story I retold it and my version of the mantra which came off terribly was ‘plan the work; work the people.’ Don’t do that. Work with the people is much better.

Mark:    

I liked that he took over the final project, which was in a really bad state (on the government’s list of major projects of concern)—it’s a bit of a euphemism, isn’t it?

Shawn:      

Talk about understatement—billions of dollars were at risk—and they have a list which everyone is trembling about major projects of concern. They need to come up with a scarier title.

What about the things that could make this story even better. What would be the one thing you would start with?

Mark:   

I know there are things that Luke really remembers about this final project and one of them was about a year into the project when they were really starting to get traction around plan the work and work with the people and it completely changed. And one of the senior engineers walked into his office and she sat down and said ‘I wanted to tell you, a year ago I hated coming to work (I felt a huge weight was on my shoulders) because this place was awful and now I love it. I come to work excited because we are making a difference. I want to thank you for that’.

Shawn:       

Yeah, that’s nice. That’s dialogue, it’s concrete, you can visualise it—having those little moments bring it to life. Sadly, I was at a funeral this weekend and my wife gave a little eulogy/ speech. And this is the problem when you’re in the story world; you’ve got your ears open for it all the time.

There was this little story that Sheena told around how Kathryn and Larry met and she said, ‘I got this sheepish phone call, would you and Shawn like to come for dinner?’ We went for dinner and there was Kathryn sitting next to guess who and of course we all knew it was Larry.

And you could feel this frisson in the room and laughter. Those little concrete moments make all the difference.

Mark:         

I was there and I remember it so well. It only took her 30, 40 seconds to tell and she had the room in the palm of her hand; everybody was wondering what next. That was beautiful. What about for you? If you were giving some coaching, how would you advise to make that even better?

Shawn:    

I’d try to crunch it down a little bit. Even though it had lots of interesting ins and outs, the repetition made it feel like this was a bit of a slog, which it was. I quite liked the length but to crunch it a little would be good too. I could imagine a group of project managers sitting on the edge of their seats, hanging off every word because these are the lessons you’re not going to get through the education.

This is the thing that amazed me that he’d had years and years of professors teaching this one way which must have been costing the department a fortune.

Mark:   

And it’s not just the project that Luke’s working on. This philosophy is right across the project management world. And if you look at the Prince 2 Methodology or the PMBOK—it’s just so embedded in those approaches; you’ve got to have a plan, get the schedule, tighten it up, weekly meetings to discuss the schedule, hold the contractor’s foot to the fire, don’t let them get away with anything.

Shawn:    

I love the Malcolm Gladwell approach to bringing characters into his story. He’ll say things like, ‘I remember the day I met John, he was a short, chunky bald fella in his 50s…’—a little snapshot. So when that woman comes into the office—you don’t have to do much—but for those main characters bring them in so we can see them.

Mark:    

That reminds me of another opportunity to make that story even better which is to talk about the moment when he had the first conversation with the successful project manager who told him of a completely different way and how he felt in that moment.

Shawn:   

That first insight.

Mark:   

How would we use this in a business context? If Luke was asked to give a talk about leadership, he could just tell that story. It shows so many things about leadership particularly to contrast the management view, which is to plan, organise, control, direct with the leadership view, which is all about coordinating people, building relationships, and allowing people to be successful.

I also think it’s a good story about leadership because it’s about vulnerability because he is fessing up to the fact that he got it wrong for years and years and thought it was his fault and just worked harder and harder. So, that’s one way you could use it.

Shawn:      

That’s great. The other thing that stood out for me was when Luke discovered that it was about planning the work and working the plan, it just fitted his worldview as an engineer and he locked into it almost immediately because it makes so much sense, like two pieces of the puzzle just snapping together.

The preface to this story would be something along the lines of ‘be wary of the worldview. Are you just accepting something because it fits into your own way of thinking? Is it actually evidence-based? Does it actually work that way? Go and talk to the people who are successful because maybe they do it a different way’.

Mark:     

I agree; beware the worldview. You could use it to make a separate business point which is beware who you get advice from. He spoke to a lot of people who told him to do the theory thing: plan the work, work the plan. Get your schedule and plan tighter, work the contractor harder.

Shawn:    

My daughter, Georgia, came to me when she got her first job (a few years back) and she said, ‘Dad, I’m getting some money now, what should I do financially?’ I said, ‘first thing is only get advice from people who are successful financially—so don’t talk to me’.

But she’s lived that out. She finds people who do have that experience. Everyone wants to give you advice but you’ve got to get it from the people who are actually successful in that area.

Mark:     

We also need to be careful about how we define success because success does not mean somebody who is in a position of power. So you need to find people who have been successful in the way that you want to be successful.

Shawn:       

Yeah, you’ve got to be clear on that definition.

Mark:     

The reason I draw that distinction is because Luke went and asked people who from one perspective could be viewed as successful in that they had been promoted up the ranks of the hierarchy to a position of power. But have they successfully delivered difficult projects? So when Luke spoke to people who had he got a completely different world perspective.

So, that is another good business point; to be aware of who you get advice from. Beware of the difference between theory and practice.

Shawn:     

I think it’s time for us to look at a rating.

Mark:      

I told the story so you get to go first.

Shawn:      

There are a couple of reasons I really love this story. It’s great to be able to tell stories from very senior people in important organisations. We’ve got essentially Australia’s space agency, Luke telling the story. That in itself will give it a little cache.

Mark:      

Absolutely.

Shawn:    

Secondly, it’s a story I could tell easily; I can remember the 3 failures, I’ll get some of the details wrong but generally speaking I can tell that story and the turnaround. I’m going to give it an 8.5. I’m kicking it right up there.

Mark:  

I think that’s your 2nd highest score on the podcast ever.

Shawn:       

I think so.

Mark:    

I love it and I’m giving it an 8.

Shawn:  

Terrific. Well, guys, that’s another story and we’re going to be bringing you a few more interesting guests in the future—we won’t give that away right at the moment. But if you have a recommendation for a guest who you think would be fantastic on our show, got a good story to tell that could be told by other people—that’s the important thing we’re trying to do here.

We’re trying to build your story repertoire. We want you to have more stories in your back pocket so you can tell these off the top of your head.

Mark:    

That story with Luke—many of us work with people who want to have a process for everything—and that’s a great story anyone can use to argue that maybe it’s not process that’s going to make a difference or the only thing that makes us successful—so kind of disarm them using an example from a very experienced, senior executive.

Shawn:       

I think we’ll wrap it up there. Thanks again for listening to Anecdotally Speaking and we’re looking forward to you tuning in next week for another episode on how to put stories to work.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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