Chris Higgins, 35, knows how to take charge of high-stakes assignments. That's what he did in the army, where he spent four years as a lieutenant. His first assignment: running logistics and support for a battalion of elite Army Rangers. These days, he's taking charge at BankAmerica, where he is the senior vice president responsible for national currency services. His division moves, monitors, and manages all of the cash in the bank's vaults.
Why is Higgins so good at taking charge? Because he's so good at running projects. He joined the bank five years ago as a vice president in charge of project management in the payment-services division. He found 130 projects, each one in a state of disarray. He gathered his top project leaders and handed them a stack of blank index cards. He gave them a week to complete a simple exercise - to write the name of every project they knew about on one side of a card, and a few sentences describing it on the other side. Then the leaders "showed their cards." Their conclusion: 30% of the group's projects were duplicating work being done by other projects. "I got a camera, stood on a chair, and took a picture of the table with the cards on it," Higgins says. "The photo became our work program."
That story is vintage Higgins. "Project leaders are accountable for results, even when they have little direct authority over the resources they need," he says. "That's great training for all leaders. Management today is about managing change. The skills you learn in project management are relevant to every aspect of business."
And his own story bears out that argument. He joined the bank to run a team of 8 project managers. Within three years, he was running a team of 140 project managers, with a combined budget of $100 million. Then he developed a training program that 300 of the bank's project managers have gone through. And recently he took his first line job: He runs a huge operation - 2,500 people in 46 locations - that literally follows the money inside BankAmerica.
What are Higgins's action items for keeping projects on track? First, he says, spend less time "doing" and more time "planning." Higgins warns that teams are often too quick to act and too slow to think. "If you spend enough time planning," he says, "execution time can be very short. If you work on the fly, you do things fast. But you may do the wrong things - which slows down the project."
Recently, for example, Higgins led a 500-person team that had one year to develop a system for BankAmerica to accept deposits across state lines. Everyone was eager to "get to work." But Higgins insisted that the team devote six months to planning the system, evaluating business implications, and anticipating technical challenges - all before it wrote a single line of code. After writing the code, the team spent three months testing and refining it. "My approach is 50% planning, 25% doing, and 25% testing and training. It's a magic formula around here."
Higgins has a second piece of advice: Remember that different projects have lots in common. Project teams often face one-of-a-kind challenges: developing new products, entering unfamiliar markets. But not every challenge, says Higgins, requires a unique plan of operation.
Higgins first learned this principle in the army, when he was in charge of supplying a Ranger battalion stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington. He led a unit of 120 people that supported 650 Rangers. Higgins and his team had to supply diverse missions in four different climates: mountain, tropical, desert, and arctic. The goal was to have the support group airborne, headed to meet the Rangers with the right equipment, 18 hours after receiving its orders. Under the previous leader, the unit never made that goal: Its best time was 72 hours. Higgins's team eventually did the job in 12 hours.
How? "The previous team always waited until it knew where the mission was headed before assembling the gear," Higgins says. "But a lot of what the Rangers need - food, medical supplies, ammunition - is the same no matter where they go." So Higgins and his unit figured out how to prepackage such supplies and how to pack them onto airplanes with maximum efficiency. "Focusing on what's common between projects is counterintuitive for most people," he says. "But it's worked for us time and again."
Finally, Higgins says, project leaders need to remember that their work isn't just about solving problems and meeting timetables. It's also about maintaining momentum and morale. That's why Higgins pays such careful attention to project rituals. From his earliest days at BankAmerica, Higgins began projects with half-day or full-day kickoff meetings that were part work and part play. After a while, he began throwing celebrations for the completion of projects as well. Today fun and games are a ubiquitous part of project life at the bank.
"We create checkpoints along the way, and whenever we hit one, we have a celebration," Higgins says. "If project work isn't fun, people won't want to do it."
You might be able to reach Chris Higgins by email firstname.lastname@example.org .
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.