Lessons from Harvard

As organizational leaders, we are continuously bombarded with conflicting guidance on how to excel. A great example of this confusion is found in the April issue of the Harvard Business Review. In the cover story, we find that a leader can discover that the pathway to profitability and sustainable growth is to centralize operations, the way Home Depot did. Allowing individual store managers to respond to local market demands is great, but makes the company as a whole inflexible, and unable to take advantage of efficiencies of scale.

On the other hand, a few pages later, we find that the market actually won’t reward companies who centralize research and development functions, but the path to profitability lies in allowing individual empowerment and latitude for customer service innovation in a decentralized manner. Employees need to be able to respond to local market demands quickly, as Seven Eleven Japan allows its store employees to do.

Literally between these two articles is another, which explains that the only correct path is to localize — to determine market segments by region, and come up with customization clusters, one of several centralized models which address local concerns. Extensive data analysis will determine that Store A has an aggressive competitor located nearby and affluent customers, so should get Localization Model 1, with more store area devoted to high-tech and luxury items. Store B, in a rural area with lower-income customers, will get Localization Model 2, with greater store area devoted to clothing and food.

How does the executive process this information, and determine which model to apply to his business? The same way he reads his horoscope — he internalizes the information which confirm his vision and strategy, and dismisses the information which conflicts with his world view.

We need to watch out for this behavior as project managers. We get a lot of information thrown at us every day. We need to align more strongly with business strategy. We need to better identify, manage and mitigate risks. We hear of advanced techniques, like Earned Value, or Monte Carlo Simulations. But at the end of the day, we know we need to manage our projects so they come in on time, on budget, with customer expectations effectively managed. So we fall into habits of saying, yeah, it sounds interesting, but I’ve got this far in my career without learning it, and I have a lot of work to do, so I’ll continue managing the project the way I’ve managed projects for years — it’s successful. It takes time to learn new tools and techniques, and even longer to apply them, and if I spend time creating pretty charts my boss will think I don’t have enough work to do and will dump another project on me.

The next time you think, yeah, these ideas are good, but don’t apply to me or my company, think about this. Do you want to be the same level of project manager you are now, working for a company that only incrementally improves? Or do you want to be the project manager your company is going to need, for the company you are going to become? You are your company, and the initiative you take can create change far beyond your workday and your projects. We wouldn’t respect a senior executive who had no time to think strategically, since she spent all day in meetings. We shouldn’t have lowered expectations of ourselves.

What can you apply this week which will make you a stronger project manager, and a better leader?


2 thoughts on “Lessons from Harvard”

  1. User Avatar

    Yeah, well fortunately perhaps people don’t follow advice, good or bad. In fact there is a whole book by two Stanford professors about how knowing how to do something doesn’t change a darn thing. The Knowing-Doing Gap, inspired by Stanford Business School professors who clearly weren’t following their own advice when they themselves ran companies, makes it clear that we’re not in any danger of following any of the advice we might get from Harvard or elsewhere.

  2. User Avatar

    Great post whoever you are.

    I think we each are our own company. Accordingly, we need to know how to use our knowledge and tools to achieve our objectives for ourselves and our organization. We certainly must be capable of making the right decisions because we are being paid to produce value for our organization. We also are producing value for ourselves by making ourselves more capable and important to our organization. We must also be careful not to let the organization limit our growth and future competitiveness. A good rule for sustained personal growth is to achieve and maintain personal capabilities beyond what is expected.

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