I began my career in the industrial business. I spent my time with contractors, machinists and other tradesmen who were building and maintaining factories, refineries and other similar structures. I spent most of my time working with mechanical engineers and their blue line drawings.
Matthew Crawford, in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, talks about the tactile nature of the work done in the trades as opposed to the more esoteric work done by knowledge workers in the high tech world of software and computers. In the chapter titled The Contradictions of the Cubicle, Craford describes the difference between the way a team of knowledge workers are led and the way a construction crew is directed. I think there is something we can learn from his description:
“…In the trades, a master offers his apprentice good reasons for acting in one way rather than another, the better to realize ends the goodness of which is readily apparent. The master has no need for a psychology of persuasion that will make the apprentice compliant to whatever purposes the master might dream up; those purposes are given and determinate. He does the same work as the apprentice, only better. He is able to explain what he does to the apprentice, because there are rational principles that govern it. Or he may explain a little, and the learning proceeds by example and imitation. For the apprentice there is a progressive revelation of the reasonableness of the master’s actions. He may not know why things have to be done a certain way at first, and have to take it on faith, but the rationale becomes apparent as he gains experience. Teamwork doesn’t have this progressive character. It depends on group dynamics, which are inherently unstable and subject to manipulation.”
I’m not suggesting that project leaders need to have the same type of expertise as those working on the project team (the master and apprentice relationship). However, I think we can learn something by how the master interacts with the apprentice. It’s definitely not from a private office behind a closed door.
This type of environment also eliminates one of the weaknesses associated with the modern organization and leadership structure. I once worked with a guy who felt the need to take credit for anything good that happened within his department. If anyone noticed something the team had worked on in a positive light, he took credit for it. “Yeah, that was my idea,” he would say. If it was something that wasn’t positive, he would blame the team. Most of us had skid marks on our backs where the bus had slammed on the brakes for another pass.
Needless to say, it didn’t really take very long for him to expose himself as the fraud he was. The team didn’t like him, didn’t like working for him, his boss didn’t respect him and he was sent packing.
In the trades, the leaders are doing the same work as the rest of the team. They have the respect of their less experienced colleagues because they demonstrate every day that they know what they’re doing and what they’re talking about. If something goes wrong, it’s difficult to blame others because everyone was working together. There’s also no question at the end of the day who did the work, the team did the work. A successful outcome points to a successful team.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that project leaders needs to have the same technical skills as the rest of the team, but I often wonder how much more effective project leaders could be if more of them stepped away from the computer, put down the Gantt chart and spent time with team members helping overcome obstacles and facilitating an environment where individuals on the project team could learn and succeed. I have met many project leaders who do this, and I observe that they are also very successful and an integral part of an organization’s success (unfortunately, they are not always the norm).
I wonder if project teams would be more successful generally if they acted more like their “blue collar” contemporaries on a “crew”. In my opinion, an important part of leadership is a willingness to roll up the sleeves and pitch in on a regular basis. I have certainly appreciated the leaders who were willing to do that over the course of my career. What’s more, they seem to have a better handle on what’s happening, are less likely to arbitrarily take credit for the successes of others and tend to express themselves in terms of we, ours and us rather than me, mine and I.
Does this mean that project leaders need to lead their teams the same way a master directs the work of an apprentice? Probably not, but there are things we can learn from that relationship—and I think we should.