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Tale of Staffing for the General

Having just published an article on Governance, both around projects and long-term continuous improvement programs, I am now going to embark on further stories, or examples both of how the structures I have discussed are used to keep programs on track, and also to identify and discuss the large inventory of skills and experience that is required to increase the chances that you will be successful in achieving the benefits that are possible with SAP.  In previous articles, I have discussed the number of continuous learning commitments that need to be made in order to keep up with ever-advancing technologies and increase your ability to suceed and contribute.  In addition, there are many personal skills and concepts that you may need to discover through “doing” or observing and even these can be enhanced by continuous education through reading, seminars, University programs and certifications to expand your knowledge and currency.  Many of these “Tales” are a combination of all of these.  This Tale is called “Staffing for the General” and it relates to how consultants and client project team members can become more effective in getting effective decisions made and endorsed by senior leadership in order to meet critical path needs and keep programs on track. 

Nearly four decades ago, I had the opportunity, as a young Air Force Captain, to work as staff for a week for a 3 star Air Force General Officer.  As a junior officer, I was somewhat in awe of this very well known general and anticipated having the opportunity to observe how someone of his stature made decisions and ultimately declarations that set the tone and direction for large groups of people.  My “business model” at the time was that folks with input and positions would present their arguments for one option or another, and then my general, along with another 3 star and a 2 star general would debate the question and announce their decision.  I suppose that I believed that the general with the most seniority would inevitably impose his decision on the rest if agreement were not reached.  Just to make the point, we were fighting the war in Vietnam at the time and these decisions could have a material impact on some aspects of that mission, so the questions were far from trivial.  What I discovered over that week has set a tone for my ensuing career and is a fundamental tenet in how to effectively use the SAP Governance process described in my last article to address critical decision-making in highly political environments. 

The Executive Officer and other staff

Have you ever wondered why it takes literally months of preparation for a President to meet with one of his/her counterparts to discuss issues of mutual self-interest?  Often the urgency of leaders meeting and working to settle critical issues seems to be overwhelming and yet the preparation for this appears interminable.  On the other end of the spectrum, business executives, who are highly accomplished and have been effective leaders appear unwilling or unable to address critical issues in a timely fashion even though the need is abundently apparent and sometimes embarrassing.  The answer in all of these cases goes to the nature of politics, power and longer term relationships and issues.  I think that in my young niavete, I believed that power begets power and allowing very senior leaders to debate contentious issues was always a good idea.  However, that is far from the way to create a sustainable change culture, even when the cast of characters is competent and ready for action.   

We were preparing for meetings to discuss base security, military assistance in the form of training in SE Asia, and a couple of other sensitive issues, and the opinions on what to do and how were not universally accepted either between the generals or their respective staffs.  As the general went into a few private meetings with senior officers whom he knew well, his Exec and I went to meet with staff representatives of the other generals to prepare for the meeting.  Each of the staff officers were well versed on the thoughts and opinions of their respective bosses and the meeting proceeded to lay out the thoughts, similarities and differences between the top officers.  The session was really quite remarkable and determined that there were two issues that were in major contention with seemingly little room for debate.  Nevertheless, the meetings proceeded until all points of agreement were catalogued, points of discussion where there wasn’t strong opinion were defined and the two points of disagreement were discussed to seek some neutral position, then the meeting broke up for a few hours.   During the next few hours the Exec consulted with our general on principles and points of disagreement, then back to the other staff officers.  After several back and forth exchanges, basic agreement was reached (included one personal phone call to the other general to agree on a common position). 

All that was left was to have the larger meeting, which happened the following morning.  At that meeting the subject was presented by our Exec, including the solution that was being proposed.  There were a few points of clarification discussed between the generals and then the conclusions were outlined by the two senior generals and the message of how this was to be implemented was explained in no uncertain terms.  You would have thought that these two officers had been in agreement from the start, no uncertainty about who might have won and lost, no ambiguity about the actions required and the mission existed.  If, on the other hand, the meeting had been held when the officers were in disagreement, the debate would have occurred in full view, the winners and losers would have been obvious, the final message more ambiguous and the war effort could have been negatively affected.  You could easily argue that this was as highly politically charged an environment as anything that might occur in business, and that the lessons on managing change, decision-making and politics can be universally applied. 

The Executive Steering Committee

OK, so what in the world does this have to do with a SAP project?  And how does this relate to the implementation team?  Obviously in the business world we are not fighting a war (at least in the military sense), but at the ESC, everyone in the room has power, has influence, has pride, has a career direction and is engaged in political relationships with the others.  There is a tendency for project teams to get into disagreement at the team level and find that they do not have the ability or authority to get resolution between their respective organizations.  In this situation, typically they will defer it to be presented to the next ESC meeting which may be days or weeks away.  Even if the meeting is timely, the presentation of unresolved issues to be publicly debated, where there have to be winners and losers, typically results in more issues than were brought to the table.  We tend to look at this process simplistically and blame “bad politics”, but this is more a case of junior team members not understanding how to support decision-making in the inevitable political environment. 

Much of the same dynamic applies to getting decision making done in the highly political world of corporate politics.  Beyond that even, many of these decisions can affect compensation programs for each executive that are obviously not known by the others, as well as change initiatives that each executive has that will be perhaps derailed by the new designs.  There is a great book by Chris Argyris called Overcoming Organizational Defenses (Allyn and Bacon, 1990) that talksabout why high powered executives fail when these issues are not discussable.  In my case, I have built the governance process to include the Program Governance Office, with direct access to all of the members of the ESC, so that issues such as this can be discussed individually or in small private groups to get to acceptable resolution.  When personal issues (compensation) make even this difficult, the program officers can take the issue of resetting objectives so that they are consistent with the new design, off line to the ESC chairperson who has the authority to get them resolved.  In this way, issues that were undiscussable in the public forum can be identified and resolved prior to the meeting. 

So, why have the meetings?

Basically, they act as checkpoints in the program, keep all senior executive’s focus on the goals, and provide insight for the ones not directly affected by a decision on the overall direction.  In my program, we never had an instance where two senior executives got into a conflict in the meeting because the issues had been staffed prior to the meeting.  At times, the team leaders where unable to work through to solution between their departments and had to call on the Program Office to work with them and their leaders to find a solution.  On a few instances, it required me to have a meeting with the ESC Chair to lay out the issue, potential solutions and get a read on how he/she would like to have us proceed.  In all cases, including the last ones, these were handled in the manner that I learned when I was staffing for the general and in all cases the issues were resolved in order to keep the project on the critical path.  Just the existence of the ESC schedule and the certainty that the senior executives would attend in person was enough to validate the decision-making process and the timing.  At the ESC meeting, there were vigorous discussions at times to fully understand the issues involved, and in one case, a department that we did not believe would be seriously affected, was in fact going to be hurt by our decisions.  We took the move to step back, take the issue back to the staff levels and were able to resolve it within 24 hours. 

The political process

It is important that the management of significant change in the organization must be handled in such a way that the decisions are made within the process in place.  As I said previously, sometimes the process is benign and these things proceed easily and other times they can be quite Machiavellian, but either way, the decisions still have to be made, the critical path still has to be met, and the governance process in place still must be used to ensure that all of these things happen.  You can see from this the need to have the unwavering support of the senior leader who is called upon to legitimize all of this structure and who is committed to achieving the ROI. 

Education

You will note, that I have not talked about certification or software here, not talked about functions or programming.  I have talked about the reality of how businesses operate in what is always a political environment.  My experience tells me that many clients and consultants have become accustomed to railing against the politics and culture of the client organization.  What I have tried to point out here is the tools that can be used to navigate your project to success, regardless of these elements of organizations that will always be there.  In order to continue to bring value to the companies or clients you serve, you need to focus on continuing education in any and all aspects of your skill sets where you can add understanding and skills to accomplish the difficult task at hand.  This could be working on interpersonal skills with seminars on mutual gains negotiating techniques, or increasing business process knowledge through TERP 10 or the new BPX certification in SAP (yes, on top of your MM, PP or NetWeaver certifications), or perhaps an MBA program like the one at Central Michigan University or others who focus on other aspects of management.  Regardless of what you choose for your approach, it will always be the skills and ability to execute programs to accomplish the intended results that will be the most valued and also those in the shortest supply. 

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