Project Practitioners > Dancing With The Stars

Dancing With The Stars

By Michael Aucoin

In Patrick Lencioni's, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, he describes one manifestation of trouble on a team as avoidance of accountability. Many would readily recognize this dysfunction as finger-pointing or placing blame elsewhere. A telltale sign that there are accountability issues on your project team is when you hear the familiar and irritating pitch of whining.

When a project isn't going as we'd like, it is a natural human tendency to find fault with someone else. "The customer keeps changing the requirements." "The sponsor didn't fund the project fully." "Sam let's his meetings get out of control." All those may be true, but what is left is an implied, things won't improve until someone else gets their act together.

But here's the overlooked truth. Every relationship of any kind is much like a dance. We develop patterns of interaction with varying degrees of effectiveness - we dance together well or poorly. I played a role in how we got to this place, and I have a role in getting us to a better place. Both partners have the power to change dance steps and move the interaction into a different direction.

To cut to the chase, what I need to do is change how I dance. If the situation is not functioning to my satisfaction, it is up to me to change it. That is what being accountable means. When a team adopts this attitude, there is almost nothing that is beyond their reach – they are dancing with the stars!

Mind you that as I write these words, I am looking in the mirror, because I've done more than my fair share of whining and blaming in my life. I need constant reminding - if I want someone else or a situation to change, then I need to change myself. To lead others, I must first lead myself.

I have found that it rarely works to criticize someone else’s behavior directly. If I tell Sam that he does a poor job of leading meetings, he will likely get mad and defensive. A better approach is for me to change my behavior in a manner that is confident, positive and perhaps even clever.

I stumbled across this approach to improving work relationships quite by accident. For a while a co-worker, let's call him Pat, got into a habit of completing sentences for other people. Now, this could be an endearing form of affection when used sparingly with a partner in a close, romantic relationship. But it quickly wore thin when practiced frequently with professional peers. Feeling a bit mischievous, I decided to try an experiment in some new dance moves.

The experiment involved setting up some sentences so they appeared to be easy softballs for Pat to hit - introductory ideas with obvious conclusions that he couldn't resist to finish. During a hot spell, I'd start, "It sure has been hot lately - I can't wait until..." and Pat would finish with, "... the weather cools off." My reaction would be to look at him confusingly. "What I was going to say was, 'until I get a glass of iced tea.’” My dance move was, no matter how he ended my sentence, I would act puzzled and give a different ending. Within a couple of days, Pat completely stopped his sentence completion routine.

If you’d like something to change on your project, be accountable and take the lead. Soon you will be dancing with the stars!

B. Michael Aucoin, D. Engr., PE, PMP is president of Leading Edge Management, LLC and author of Right-Brain Project Management (Management Concepts, 2007). He can be reached at


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