Sequential Leadership

122 Leadenhall Street, alternatively known as the ‘Leadenhall Building’, or the ‘Cheesegrater’ because of its distinctive wedge shape, is one of London’s newest and highest skyscrapers.

The building’s tapering profile, which when viewed from the west appears to ‘lean away’ from St Paul’s Cathedral, and its high-profile location – characterised by narrow and densely populated streets – along with the site’s remarkably tight footprint, made the construction process exceptionally challenging.

In order to successfully complete the building it was vital that the construction process was very carefully planned and managed –with a key element being the sequential delivery and assembly of 83% of the building’s components which had been made off site.

Such was the need to control the assembly process that the engineers created a virtual replica of the building that allowed them to manage the project in what was known as a ‘just in time’ process, where materials and components arrive at the very moment they are required and not before.

In many ways the construction of the Cheesegrater provides a perfect representation of what might be termed ‘sequential leadership’ where a leader sets out to complete a clearly defined task in a well-ordered and definitive manner.

The classic project management approach in the UK is PRINCE – what fascinates me is that despite the ubiquity of the methodology, particularly in public services very few people know that the acronym stands for PRojects IN Controlled Environments. The key statement in that title being ‘in controlled environments’.Such approaches are sometimes referred to as ‘waterfall’ or ‘domino’ methodologies.

Such a capacity to set about tasks in a controlled, disciplined and logically ordered manner is a real asset for a leader – especially where the end product can be as well defined as a skyscraper.

However, the challenge comes when the leader chooses to rely upon their default characteristic even when the environment is anything but controlled or predictable.

Yet the temptation to reduce everything to logical steps in complex and complicated environments is very difficult to resist. For leaders like to give the impression that they are in control of even the most multifaceted situations – even if the end solution is anything but clear. Such temptations are even greater in challenging financial circumstances such as those faced by many public services across the world.

That’s perhaps why we see so much use being made of so called end-to-end methodologies, which encourage leaders to reduce waste by breaking things down into component parts to re-engineer processes. Once again these are legitimate actions to take in relation to some processes but it’s a short step from there to start to see everything as a reducible process – even when it’s anything but.

Yet even those projects that appear well suited to sequential methodologies can run into problems, e.g.

$80 -145 billion per year is spent on failed and cancelled projects (The Standish Group International, Inc.)
25% – 40% of all spending on projects is wasted as a result of re-work (Carnegie Mellon)
50% are rolled back out of production (Gartner)
40% of problems are found by end users (Gartner)
Poorly defined applications have led to a persistent miscommunication between business and IT. This contributes to a 66% project failure rate for these applications, costing U.S. businesses at least $30 billion every year (Forrester Research)
60% – 80% of project failures can be attributed directly to poor requirements gathering, analysis, and management (Meta Group)
Nearly two thirds of all IT projects fail or run into trouble. (2006 CHAOS Survey)
One of the challenges facing leaders who are working towards a longer-term goal is that over the course of the transformation period that the environment itself changes. This has often been a problem in the world of software development where a team sets out to build a software package to meet a particular need. However, over the period of the project the available technology changes, the needs of the consumer or user changes, or financial circumstances change.

An alternative to the traditional meticulously planned and highly controlled methodology is the Agile approach.

The Agile approach still completes steps in a sequential order but promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, continuous improvement, and encourages a rapid and flexible response to change.

So in conclusion, if you have to build something akin to the ‘Cheesegrater’, where you can definitely define the end product then the Domino approach is very appropriate.

However, if you are aware that you default to the highly planned sequential project approach, then, as ever, it can become a weakness if you turn to that asset in every circumstance. If that is the case it might be time to turn down the volume on that asset in order to adopt a more adaptive and flexible approach to change in changing environments.