When Being Good is Not Good Enough
Successful projects are managed differently from really successful projects, says Jane C. Linder in her new book, Spiral Up ( ... And Other Management Secrets Behind Wildly Successful Initiatives) (Amacom, 2007).
Linder, a former Harvard Business School professor and technology industry executive, interviewed scores of managers to distill the essence of initiatives with a transformative impact. She came up with a long list of guidelines. In this excerpt Linder discusses an EPA program that grew without the help, or hindrance, of conventional management rules.
In August 2006, Chet Wayland, associate director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Offi ce of Outreach and Information, fl opped into his favorite easy chair and took a deep breath. He had just fi nished another briefing on the latest efforts by his staff to help Chinese government offi cials understand the EPA's unusual air quality initiative dubbed AIRNow. This had been one of many briefi ngs by his staff in the past two years, as the team had traveled to China, Brazil and Europe to promote the realtime data delivery program.
The initiative had grown to provide the public across the U.S. and Canadian provinces with up-to-theminute air quality data and one-to three-day forecasts. Although participation in the program was voluntary, air quality engineers across U.S. state and county governments, national parks and Canadian provinces pooled their data every hour to produce color-coded maps. People with asthma or heart problems, those who cared for young children and those with regular exercise regimens could tell at a glance when to shift their activities indoors. They could also tune into The Weather Channel, check on the Internet or pick up a copy of USA Today to fi nd out whether they could breathe easy tomorrow.
From the beginning, Wayland and [AIRNow program director] Phil Dickerson had orchestrated the AIRNow initiative as a grassroots program, relying on voluntary participation and building its international scope one air-quality region at a time. Eight years later, Wayland says, "I'm happy to report that we still haven't had to fi t into the confi nes of 'Project Management 101.'
Our initial goal was to get the 50 U.S. states on board with hourly ozone mapping, and we had no plan except to build from what we had. That bottom-up approach has allowed us to grow organically. Today all 50 states report fine particulate matter as well as ozone, and we're expanding into other pollutants and taking the program global. We just started AIRNow by making contacts and reassuring them: We're in this together.
If we had planned it all out carefully, I'm convinced we never would have done any of it."
By the end of 2003's ozone season, the AIRNow team had reached a plateau. Almost all of the U.S. states were contributing data, and the few that were not had so little ground-level ozone that they didn't even run monitors. Was it time to close down the growth initiative and put AIRNow on a maintenance diet? Privately, the team members also wondered whether it might be time to shift to more formal, disciplined, deadline-driven project management. They had been extremely successful using their contrarian, all-volunteer, organic method, but the EPA leadership continued to question this distinctly nongovernmental approach.
The AIRNow team pushed ahead in spite of the issues. The team members decided to continue in a collaborative way, reasoning that they had always had more success by engaging their colleagues in the regions than by demanding compliance. Dickerson explains, "People tell you to plan things in advance.
But with AIRNow, if we had planned up front, I'm not sure we would have done as well. We would have come up with a different answer." Says Wayland: "We were trying to get people engaged. They don't want a big design; they want you to show them something that will help them. AIRNow was not full of bureaucracy or pie in the sky; it was not some big design on how it could work; it did work."
REPRINTED FROM SPIRAL UP (...AND OTHER MANAGEMENT SECRETS BEHIND WILDLY SUCCESSFUL INITIATIVES) BY JANE C. LINDER. COPYRIGHT 2007 JANE C. LINDER. PUBLISHED BY AMACOM BOOKS, A DIVISION OF AMERICAN MANAGEMENT ASSOCIATION, NEW YORK, NY. USED WITH PERMISSION. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.