Lighter Grip and More Awareness: Lessons in collaboration from Boeing
April 14, 2007
Control vs Communication
When you first learn to ride a bike it is normal to grip the handlebars really tightly and look at your hands or feet as you concentrate hard on the new “riding” task and try not to fall off. The problem with looking at your hands or feet while cycling is that you will not see the rock or pothole in the road ahead until it is too late and so, despite your best efforts, you will fall off. It is actually safer to relax, loosen your grip on the handlebars a little, and look further up the road to spot obstacles in plenty of time to avoid them.
The same goes for project management, when we are new to the role it is normal to focus on the project plans, progress against the plan, and budget consumed too closely. We focus so much on these project management tasks that we fail to see the issues and risks (rocks and potholes) the project is headed towards, until it is too late. While plans, progress and budgets are all critical elements, we can bring more value to the project by releasing our obsession on these project metrics slightly and focussing more of our attention down the road to items like sponsor satisfaction and team morale. There is little point having a perfectly executed project plan and a full set of EVA metrics if the project gets cancelled or half the team quits.
Specification vs Collaboration
Closely linked to Control and Communication is Specification and Collaboration. We can try to specify everything down to the nth degree of detail and then hope we got the spec right and whoever is developing the product develops exactly to specification. Or, we can explain our goals at a high level and then work in closer collaboration with the developer to achieve our desired results. Agile methods recommend the second option, getting the customer working in closer collaboration with the developer to ensure the right product gets built. This works well for many types of software project where it is difficult to fully articulate the complete requirements upfront. However, it is not just the software world that is switching to collaboration over specification.
Today’s aircraft are highly complex networks of sub-systems, parts and software; and Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner is about as big and complex as commercial aircraft currently get. From its ground breaking remote diagnostics that communicate component usage, wear and failure statistics to the ground in real time via satellite communications; to its novel composite material wings that save weight, the aircraft is new and extremely complex.
When Boeing sent the specifications to the electronics supplier for the 777 (the predecessor to the 787) the document was over 2500 pages. The equivalent specification document for the 787 is a mere 20 pages, how is this possible? Boeing, who are experts in specification and control, learned that to tackle a project of this magnitude they had to form closer relations with their suppliers and learn how to co-create and collaborate like never before. While it would be wrong to say: “Gone are all the detailed specs” the major shift is to increased collaboration with suppliers and less reliance upon specification.
Many industries are tapping into the benefits of increased collaboration over contract negotiation that are also embraced by agile methods. With increased collaboration comes shared decision making as well. In the past, Boeing gave the orders like a drill sergeant, and suppliers complied. Rarely did it matter if the supplier had a better idea – Boeing wanted components built exactly to specification. This time, Boeing has given all of its partners a vote on matters that affect them. Boeing and its partners are reaping the benefits as they work together on solutions and adapt to realize unanticipated benefits.
So, if you get a chance to fly on a new 787 Dreamliner any time soon, consider the new collaboration process that enabled its creation (and let’s hope they did not lose any of those story cards!)
You can read more about emerging trends in collaboration and Boeing’s new work practices in Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. By Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams.
Collaboration and partnering is more than a business model -- it’s an approach. A good collaboration and partnership will add value to all players and will serve as a strategic advantage for all.
Posted by: Nir Flatau | April 14, 2007 at 11:59 PM
I agree with less specification and more collaboration as long as project team members are using better tools to track the project and collaborate. The more disconnected a workforce is, the more they use emails and spreadsheets to collaborate, the less a project manager knows about the true status of a project at any point in time, the more a team needs regular meetings to sync up...and the more they would need a very detailed specification.
If the right systems such as workflow and collaborative project management tools are in place; and if true project costs and revenue are being tracked; and if Meetings, Emails, Spreadsheets (what I call a MES)are not being used to run these large projects; then yes, the Boeing way is the way of the future.
I blog about trends in managing project workforces on www.talentontarget.com.
Posted by: Rudolf Melik | July 11, 2007 at 01:03 PM