Industrial Management's bimonthly column by Dan Carrison (May/June 2010)
By Dan Carrison
During the heady days of the American industrial revolution, major construction projects often were launched with a blue ribbon ceremony where tycoons in top hats would dig the first symbolic shovel full of earth with silver spades. That tradition still is honored occasionally by various government agencies during their “groundbreaking” ceremonies of high profile projects.
But private enterprise normally does not indulge in such practices. It is not uncommon for large projects to begin almost in secret, as if it might be “bad luck” to celebrate prematurely a major undertaking that is sure to confront myriad challenges along the way. It’s almost as if the successful contractor wants to avoid the notice of fate itself.
But there are several reasons why senior management might want to begin a project with the same hoopla normally accorded its successful completion. There is no better way to demonstrate to the employees that the world is watching and that success is expected of them. An opening ceremony is a public pledge. With so much organizational commitment on the line, the employees charged with the project experience a sobering sense of obligation.
But perhaps even more important than the kickoff is the meeting of a major milestone.
When the first 777 jetliner finally took form in its hangar, there was still much to be done before Boeing could deliver it to United Airlines, its first customer for the new plane. The empty shell had yet to be outfitted with all of its instrumentation; then the plane would begin the many months of FAA testing. Nevertheless, Boeing went all out in its celebration of this major milestone.
In the midst of an economic depression, Boeing held a party – not for the press, but for its people. And what a party! Ten thousand Boeing employees brought their extended families to the weekend presentation of the assembled jet. Choreographed by Dick Clark Productions, the event never would be forgotten by the nearly 100,000 who attended the showings on Saturday and Sunday.
The visitors were led to their seats by ushers in a completely darkened hangar. Suddenly, to the sounds of swelling orchestral music, the dramatically arranged spotlights snapped on – revealing a shining creation so beautiful that even the Boeing execs did not trust themselves to speak for several minutes. Even stopped, the dynamic shape seemed to move; the swept back wings expressed an impatience to get into their proper element. People in the audience cried at the beauty of it.
History never will know if Boeing’s accountants were among those who cried: This was, after all, a million-dollar bash. But Boeing, in its wisdom, had created a whole new level of “informal” management. From that moment on, the 777 team members would be queried about the progress of their project at the dinner table by family members who had been profoundly impressed by the weekend event.
Smaller organizations similarly have celebrated the completion of major milestones. One manager at Jet Propulsion Lab, for example, invited the family members of his overworked staff to sign an interstellar greeting card, which was reduced to microfiche and placed inside a space probe destined for the far reaches of the universe. After that fanciful gesture, the spouses of the JPL engineers felt part of the project – and felt a corresponding understanding and sympathy when their husband or wife came home late from the lab.
Boeing and JPL senior management showed great judgment by involving “the other half” of the employee work force during midproject celebrations. The time to pump people up is in the course of their work, not at the end of the journey.
Dan Carrison, a business writer and consultant, has authored or co-authored four management books: Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way, Deadline! How Premier Organizations Win the Race against Time, Business Under Fire and From the Bureau to the Boardroom. Carrison is a general partner of Semper Fi Consulting and founder of www.ghostwritersinthesky.com. Carrison lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches corporate communication for the University of La Verne. He can be reached at email@example.com.