If Project Managers Ran the Presidential Debates

As a project manager, I find the presidential debates disturbing.  If I were going to hire one of the candidates to manage the challenging project of reforming any of the major issues we have to solve in the next four years, I couldn’t make the decision based on the debates.  In fact, there isn’t much the candidates are saying or posting now that is useful for that decision.

We need to see which candidate will be best able to bring out and deliver creative solutions.  Our issues have risks with probability too high and impacts too great.  Our future leaders have to be able to deal with this.  They have to see a path forward, be willing to compromise if necessary, and get things done.  I want the presidential debates to show me who can be the best at collaborating to get things done, not who can be the biggest A&*H@!#.

Looking only at their past experience and track records, I think I could vote for either one.

Obama stepped in to one of the worst dilemmas in our history – failing banks lost jobs, a workforce and economy out of sync with global realities, questionable wars, skyrocketing debt, and unaffordable health care costs.  I don’t agree with everything he’s done, but I think that he’s tried and had some success putting us on the right track in the face of heavy resistance.  I know less about Romney, but he has had success in challenging situations, too.  Romney was a Republican governor in a Democrat dominated state and accomplished quite a bit.  I believe he did save the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.  His business endeavors were obviously very successful in accomplishing their objectives.   I think either candidate, based on their track record, and if they are willing to reach out and collaborate with all their stakeholders, could do a good job.  But, watching the debates, I want to boot both of those guys off my project.  I want someone who can get people to work together to find what can go right with our country.

I’m hearing the candidates in the debate each claim that he would be more effective than the other in reaching across the aisle to the other party to solve problems.  Then each candidate proceeds to blast the other and his party in front of 50 million viewers.  Their opponents are liars, idiots, traitors, sinners, and just plain wrong.  That set’s a nasty tone.  But, after the election, they expect to get everyone to work together.  They don’t really mean the nasty stuff.  It’s what people want to hear.  It proves they are tough and determined.  I’m not sure that people can sort out the rhetoric from the truth any more.  The flow of incoming vitriol is overwhelming.  The media fixates on the differences and dividing us into polar opposites.  The fight and who’s right seems to be the goal, not the resolving aftermath.

Every four years in our country we start a new project, a renewed journey on this project of governance and improvement.  The startup of the renewed journey is undermined by the debates and the whole campaign.  They don’t inform or unite.  They confuse and divide.  When your stakeholders and team are confused and divided at the start of the project…well, it’s not a good place to start.  The focus drifts from achieving outcomes to suppressing differences.

Looking for what could go right with this situation, and being unfettered by reality, let me propose some ideas to address this dilemma.

  • Change the electoral process so that the winner is president and the runner up is vice president.  That’s the way we did it early in our history.  Unfortunately, the Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton feud after the 1800 election changed that.  It also led to their duel and Burr killing Hamilton.  See, feuding is not a good thing.  It’s not a good model for either potential president or executive sponsor behavior.  It would be better if the two candidates knew that they would both share responsibility beyond the campaign to bring their parties together to move the country ahead.  They, both in leadership roles, would have to create a vision, make proposals to solve problems, and collaborate to move congress toward solutions.  This would be better than it becoming the loser’s job to make the winner look bad for the next four years.  Make both candidates and their parties responsible and accountable in the executive role.
  • Instead of a Great Debate, we should have a Great Collaborate.  The Great Collaborate would be a series of meetings.  Each one would address a single important issue like the government’s role in health care, Social Security’s future, defense spending, education, and the Middle East.  Only the two candidates and a skilled facilitator selected by mutual agreement would be in attendance.  The candidates would sit across the table from one another with the goal of collaboratively crafting their proposed solution to the issue. With the support of a facilitator, each would express their positions, advocate for their causes, seek common ground, and put together the points for a resolution to the issue.  They would be on camera for all of us to watch.  We would be able to judge for ourselves which candidate was better able to understand the other, be constructive, and collaborate in crafting a shared vision and coherent proposal on each issue.  Each Collaborate would be followed by a town hall question and answer session where the candidates talk about their give and take and common ground in reaching a shared vision.

I like these two ideas because they reflect how we, as project managers, have to bring people together to get things done.  We often have people with differing opinions – sponsors, stakeholders, team members, or supporting groups.  To be successful, we have to focus on collaboration and mutual understanding.  We look for common ground.  We don’t try to accentuate the differences.  We avoid getting stuck in the decision-less limbo of winners and losers.

We can’t have important stakeholders who feel beaten and discarded.  A stakeholder who feels like he has lost out is likely to resist or even sabotage project progress.  We find ways to keep those whose view has not prevailed in the fold and supportive of the project.  We don’t debate, we collaborate.  We don’t separate, we engage.  We set the tone and provide the example.  We lead others who mistrust and disagree by trusting and seeking common ground.  We aren’t just trying to stay in our jobs, we are looking to deliver new ideas, processes, and products that help our organizations grow and prosper.  We know that we aren’t really in control.  We know that we can’t do it alone.  We, we project managers, need first to be collaborators through and through.

I think our presidential candidates should be more like project managers.  Next time, let’s have project managers run the presidential debates.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk” 2012

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