MSP Program Managers Drive Success Through Collaboration

August 20, 2016


Around 1983, we witnessed the stirrings of what would become micro-managing “helicopter parents,” who in turn sired a generation of young, hovering warders instead of mentors. The problem, according to child development experts, is that these failure-intolerant practices have created a generation where more people hesitate to take risks, express unconventional ideas or test new approaches to solving problems for fear of rebuke. MSP program managers, who are often tasked to accomplish more with less or fret constantly over performance levels, can also fall into this trap. With so many client demands heaped on their shoulders, it makes sense that program managers would lean toward strictly policing suppliers and their workers. Yet as child development and business experts attest, tightly controlled attempts to prevent failure may only prevent success. Let’s look at how MSP program leaders can staunch the rise of helicopter cultures and foster collaboration.

Helicopter Parents Cleared for Takeoff

Although this may sound foreign to Millennials, there was a time when parenting was a more hands-off exercise. Once kids came home from school, they were told to finish their homework and then head outdoors until the first twitching of twilight. These youths were unchaperoned. There were no cell phones or GPS tracking devices. Replacing these marvels of communication and geolocation was a sense of trust, of fostering independence and respect, and levying consequences for not returning at the appointed time.

In 1990, child development researchers Foster Cline and Jim Fay coined the term “helicopter parent,” which describes a parent who hovers over a child in a way that contradicts the parent’s responsibility to foster independence. In Julie Lythcott-Haims’ recent New York Times bestseller How to Raise an Adult, the former Stanford dean describes the events that sowed the seeds of helicopter parenting — and how these shifts could impact the perceptions of Generation Y in terms of management and exploration.

  • The first shift took place between 1981 and 1983, when child abduction cases became highly publicized. Parents found themselves staring at the faces of missing kids on milk cartons and obsessing over terrifying true crime shows such as “America’s Most Wanted.” As Lythcott-Haims writes, “Our incessant fear of strangers was born.”
  • A second change occurred with the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” which argued that American children weren’t competing well against their peers in other countries, including underdeveloped nations. “Since then,” Lythcott-Haims observes, “federal policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have fomented an achievement culture that emphasizes rote memorization and teaching to the test.”
  • A third shift rose from the self-esteem movement, “a philosophy that gained popularity in the United States in the 1980s that said we could help kids succeed in life if we valued their personhood rather than their outcomes.”
  • The fourth event came with the introduction of the monitored playdate, around 1984. With more parents working, reliance on daycare increased. Fewer children were going home after school. For those who did, the intense fear of child abduction or abuse drove their parents to limit unsupervised play time. The playdate emerged as a practical tool for scheduled and managed socialization. The downside, according to Lythcott-Haims? “Once parents started scheduling play, they then began observing play, which led to involving themselves in play.”

These trends have not abated. In fact, during her tenure at Stanford, Lythcott-Haims witnessed how much farther they had reached. She and her colleagues noticed the growing phenomenon of parents on college campuses: “Each subsequent year would bring an increase in the number of parents who did things like seek opportunities, make decisions, and problem solve for their sons and daughters — things that college-aged students used to be able to do for themselves.”

Failure Is a Key Ingredient to Success

What does all this mean in terms of business and the workforce? That our emerging breed of leaders may harbor some of these tendencies. We’re often told that Millennials crave mentoring. However, at what point do they differentiate coaching and guidance from needing constant direction and reassurance? At what point do they stop learning independence? And at what point do they become helicopter managers themselves, stifling teams from exploring new ideas, innovating or taking constructive risks? Welcoming failure, as noted by leadership experts like Tony Robbins and Google’s Laszlo Bock, is the key to achievement.

In a micro-managed culture, only the most outspoken or authoritative voices dominate the conversation. Talent who may have creative solutions and an eagerness to experiment find themselves discouraged from participation. Instead, they end up blindly agreeing with the opinion of the helicopter manager. In this age of hyper-competitiveness and pressure to innovate, a restricted environment just isn’t productive.

Famous performance coach Tony Robbins recently addressed this issue during a Facebook Live question and answer session for Business Insider. One viewer asked, “How can I turn my team from followers into collaborators?”

Robbins replied, “You have to make the environment safe. I know that sounds corny as s**t, but people have to feel like they can share ideas and the ideas aren’t going to be attacked and destroyed.”

The strongest, most creative teams are those where brainstorming, crazy ideas, healthy dissent and broad ranges of opinions are encouraged. “There are no bad ideas,” Robbins explained. “Because a bad idea can often trigger you to think of something that is actually a good idea. The secret is not to stop the flow and just get everything out as fast as you can.”

When the workforce is populated by followers rather than collaborators, business leaders find themselves stagnating and inert because talent may be keeping the framework for the “next big thing” hidden. Their desire to express a new concept may be suppressed by the fear of rejection or loss of standing in the company. Helicopter management merely fuels this sense of repression. That’s why Robbins advises managers to explicitly end censorship that limits the incredible output produced by open discussions.

Robbins also cautions against allowing authoritarian voices to interrupt colleagues or crush their ideas as soon as they’re presented.

Let Talent Shoot for the Moon — and Miss

To promote collaboration over consensus, developing the safe culture Robbins describes is imperative. Yet, as Google’s lauded HR pioneer Laszlo Bock has proven, we need to push the boundaries beyond tolerance. The talent at Google, for example, are actually asked to fail. As Shana Lebowitz points out in Business Insider, Google deliberately requests workers to set goals that “they know will be ridiculously hard to achieve.”

It’s part of the Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) program that Bock helped install. Basically, each Googler establishes a goal and three outcomes from attaining it. At quarter’s end, they are graded on a scale between 0 and 1. However, the expectation is not to receive a perfect 1; this would indicate that the objective was too easily reached. Google wants its talent to hit a mark somewhere between 0.6 and 0.7, which demonstrates that the workers were thinking bigger picture scenarios. That’s also the realm where the most innovative ideas take hold and flourish.

“In order to set these ambitious goals and have them be credible,” Bock said, “you also have to realize they’re not all going to be successful. We look for that 60% to 70% success rate across everything we do.”

Honoring the spirit of safety that Robbins champions, Google doesn’t tie the performance of OKRs to compensation or promotions.

Cultivating Collaboration to Prevent Helicopter Management

The best way for MSP program managers to push new dimensions of performance, productivity, creativity and innovation is to design a safe culture that welcomes bold ideas and tolerates failure — whether it affects suppliers or talent. That means removing barriers and encouraging people to step outside their comfort zones, including management. Suggest projects or stretch goals, and demonstrate support and understanding for those who don’t completely hit the mark. Strive for Google’s 60% to 70% on these projects. Here are some additional best practices that can help MSP program managers eliminate helicopter cultures and facilitate amazing collaboration.

  • Routinely hold clear, open discussions with suppliers and workers about duties, performance expectations and ways to brainstorm improvements or solutions to issues.
  • Challenge teams to provide authentic opportunities to take on greater responsibilities, encourage skills development and drive them to grow professionally — make them co-creators of a productive workforce.
  • Coach suppliers and talent constructively while championing the development of perspective-taking and problem-solving behaviors.
  • Express gratitude for jobs well done, making sure that this appreciation and recognition is publicly acknowledged.
  • Become participants in the conversation, not directors or lecturers. Demonstrate your commitment and support. Position your teams to gain fresh perspectives that could lead to new innovations, more efficient methods, continuous improvements and more.
  • Lead by example and visibly work to help build a community that serves the needs of the mission.
  • Work to help suppliers and talent expand their perspectives to consider people outside their circles, making them better listeners, team members and collaborators.
  • Develop teams with a broader variety of attitudes and thinking, which spurs innovation and new methods for optimizing work.
  • Encourage teams to embrace a big picture view of business and their world — exceptional workers who are compelled to “do with” others, not merely “do for” others, to conquer the challenges facing companies as a diverse and unified team with a shared vision.

Collaboration: Strive to Soar, Not Hover

In today’s workplace, collaboration fuels success. People who are empathic and socially aware emerge as the best collaborators. And this mirrors precisely what psychologists find when they study highly effective parenting techniques. Rather than controlling the opinions and granular actions of our people, we should focus on fostering their independence and sense of exploration. We can accomplish this by cultivating and developing skills, listening, sharing and coaching — not treating those we manage as inferiors who need our constant intervention, permission and approval.

Just as children still need adults to help them reach full development, so do talent need engaged and supportive mentors to help them attain their goals. And that also requires stepping back, liberating them to experiment, accepting shortfalls and being there when they stumble — cheerleading them to get back on their bikes, rather than placing them on the seats ourselves.

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Author: Len April