Tom Pyzdek  |  10/29/2008

Be Careful What You Wish For

When asked for help, leaders need guidance, too.

Over the years I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard the lament, “We don’t have management support!” I sympathize. Lack of management support is without a doubt one of the prime causes of failed process and quality improvement efforts. Without leadership backing, any organizationwide initiative is ultimately doomed. This column will explain why it’s not enough to ask for support in general. If you’re not very specific, you might find that the management support you asked for ends up killing you with kindness. Consider the following ineffective strategies:

Strategy No. 1: Command people to act as you wish. People in less senior levels of an organization often have an inflated view of the value of raw power. In truth, even senior leaders have limited power to rule by decree. Human beings by their nature tend to act according to their own best judgment. The result of invoking authority is that decision makers must constantly try to divine what the leader wants them to do in a particular situation. This leads to stagnation and confusion as everyone waits on the leader. Even under the best circumstances, people will often misinterpret the leadership’s commands.

Strategy No. 2: Change the rules by decree. What are the rules today? What will they be tomorrow? This leads, again, to confusion and stagnation because people don’t have the ability to plan for the future. Although rules make it difficult to change, they also provide stability and structure that may serve some useful purpose. Arbitrarily changing the rules based on force instead of a set of guiding principles does more harm than good.

Strategy No. 3: Authorize circumventing the rules. Here the rules are allowed to stand, but exceptions are made for the leader’s pet projects. The result is general disrespect for, and disregard of, the rules. It’s better to develop a formal method for circumventing the rules, e.g., deviation request procedures. Although less arbitrary, it adds another layer of complexity and still doesn’t change the rules that are making change difficult in the first place.

Strategy No. 4: Redirect resources to the project. Leaders may also use their command authority to redirect resources to the project. A better way is to develop a fair and easily understood system to ensure that projects of strategic importance are adequately funded as a matter of policy.


There are effective management support strategies to consider instead:

Effective strategy No. 1: Transform the formal organization and its culture. By far the best solution to the problems posed by organizational roadblocks is to transform the organization to one where these roadblocks no longer exist. This process can’t be implemented by decree. As the leader helps project teams succeed, he or she will learn about the need for transformation. Using persuasive powers, the leader-champion can undertake the exciting challenge of creating a culture that embraces change instead of fighting it.

Effective strategy No. 2: Mentoring. In Greek mythology, Mentor was an elderly man, the trusted counselor of Odysseus, and the guardian and teacher of his son, Telemachus. Today the term “mentor” is still used to describe a wise and trusted counselor or teacher. When this person occupies an important position in the organization’s hierarchy, he or she can be a powerful force for eliminating roadblocks.

Effective strategy No. 3: Identify informal leaders and enlist their support. Because of their experience, mentors often know that the person whose support the project really needs isn’t the one occupying the relevant box on the organization chart. The mentor can direct the project leader to the person whose opinion really has influence. For example, a project may need the approval of, say, the vice president of engineering. This person may be balking because his or her senior metallurgist hasn’t endorsed the project.

Effective strategy No. 4: Find legitimate ways around people, procedures, resource constraints, and other roadblocks. It may be possible to get approvals or resources through means not known to the project manager. Perhaps a minor change in the project plan can bypass a cumbersome procedure entirely. For example, adding an engineer to the team might automatically place the authority to approve process experiments within the team rather than in the hands of the engineering department.


When harried managers are told that their support is needed, they might respond without giving the matter adequate thought. The result might be that the situation is made worse instead of better. When you appeal to leadership for help, be sure you provide guidance on just what kind of help you want.



About The Author

Tom Pyzdek’s picture

Tom Pyzdek

Thomas Pyzdek’s career in business process improvement spans more than 50 years. He is the author more than 50 copyrighted works including The Six Sigma Handbook (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Through the Pyzdek Institute, he provides online certification and training in Six Sigma and Lean.