Purple unicorns (and leaders) inquire within
Slalom’s delivery leadership team on taking accountability, asking tough questions, uniting purple unicorns, and getting the work done—period.
August 11, 2016
Since Slalom’s early days, our PMs and BAs have prided themselves on helping clients consistently deliver great work.
Today’s delivery leadership practice is a different twist on Slalom’s traditional bread and butter. Though it still encompasses those same skills—program and project management, business and technical analysis, agile transformation and delivery, and quality assurance and management—it’s much more than staff aug.
“Delivery leadership is the glue that holds large initiatives together,” says Josh Bates, practice area director in Slalom’s delivery leadership practice. “We are leading the execution of those large programs and projects for our clients.”
That glue—a combination of accountable leadership, deep experience, and strategic partnership—is the thing that helps our clients achieve their goals and solve their problems.
“Delivery leadership is the glue that holds large initiatives together.”
PMs get a bad rap. But it’s a reputation that’s grounded in a kernel of truth, says Sharon Lynch—and one that the delivery leadership team actively works to disprove.
“We’ve all worked with these PMs who created Excel spreadsheets, that sat at the front of the table and told everyone they were behind schedule, but had no value on the project,” says Lynch, practice area director in the delivery leadership practice. “I don’t think anyone has tolerance for these people anymore.”
To understand Slalom’s delivery leadership practice, take every PM stereotype and throw it out the window. The practice isn’t about providing status updates. It’s about leading.
“It’s all verbs, it’s all action,” says Lynch. “You have to truly be a leader. There’s no ‘management’ in ‘delivery leadership’—it’s leadership.”
To Lynch and Bates, leadership is synonymous with accountability. It’s about owning the solution and sitting alongside the client at the table as an equal partner.
“Our clients are looking for that leadership,” says Bates. “Whether it’s a single person or a whole team, Slalom is going to take accountability.”
Rather than speaking in terms of its capabilities (program and project management, business and technical analysis, agile transformation and delivery, and quality assurance and management), the team prefers to talk about its guiding principles:
We get the work done
Regardless of the project, the result is the same, says Bates: We get the work done. But that can be limiting.
“Yes, that’s why our clients hire us,” adds Bates. “And that’s great, but we also have the ability to do so much more.”
The delivery leadership team is a true strategic partner, says Bates, with the breadth and depth required to help clients with larger, more strategic projects.
Also important, says Lynch, is the team’s ability to take ownership: “A Slalom person doesn’t sit and ask for work—they’re the ones driving things.”
Your success matters to us
Lynch is a vocal proponent of the solution owner role (more on this later). The philosophy behind the role—a leader that sits at the table alongside the client, asking tough questions and taking ownership of the project’s outcomes—places a single-minded focus on the success of the client.
“Our people ask questions to really understand the why,” says Lynch. That understanding enables the team to sift through the noise and rally behind work that’s meaningful to the client and its customers.
Because, says Bates, the team’s goal is simple: “We want to leave the client in a better place.”
“It’s not ‘Here you go, good luck,’” says Gabriella McAleer, also a practice area director on the team. “It’s ‘I want to make sure that you’re successful.’”
We bring a solution-based approach
The delivery leadership team collaborates, early and often, with other practices areas from across Slalom to bring a solution-based approach that leverages our collective knowledge and best practices. They’re really interested in identifying big-picture business problems and holistic solutions, says Bates.
For example, says McAleer, it’s easy to simply build what the client is asking for, without considering trickle-down effects on the end user, such as changes in processes, job functions, or responsibilities. It’s most effective, however, to ensure that all angles are being covered to provide the best possible holistic solution. In the case of this example, that means bringing in our organizational effectiveness team to put the right trainings and communications in place to maximize adoption.
“They don’t show up with a binder and say ‘this is the way you need to do things’,” says Bates. “They show up with a breadth of experiences and an extensive knowledge network, ready to apply the right approach based on the client’s unique environment.”
“You have to truly be a leader. There’s no ‘management’ in ‘delivery leadership’—it’s leadership.”
Solution owners and purple unicorns
Now, back to the solution owner.
Picture that person who always knows the answer to any question about a project—whether it’s their job to or not. That person who knows it all without being a know-it-all. That person is a solution owner, says Lynch.
The solution owner is a purple unicorn of sorts. (More on that—and why you need one—in Lynch’s Q&A on the solution owner role.) “They lead technical deliveries and they own the solution,” says Lynch.
Beyond having a technical background, it comes down to character.
“It really is a person who’s curious, who has charisma, and who’s a leader,” says Lynch.
They become the client’s greatest ally. We tell clients “they are your person. They’re working with you to own the end-to-end solution, understand everything, and really be your advocate and listener when they’re talking to the development team,” says Lynch.
A recent Slalom blog post discusses the notion of the versatile project manager, which reads a lot like the solution owner role:
Most recently, Gartner’s Research Vice President, Michael Hanford, stated in his Project Management in 2020 webinar that the versatile project manager is "the kind of person who thinks of themselves as a business person, a technologist, a leader, a facilitator, an administrator. Someone who literally has a closet full of hats and depending on the situation, reaches into the closet and puts on the right hat, with the right label in front of the hat to say ‘hey, this is who I am today.’”
Slalom’s Eric Booth also uses the hat metaphor.
“We expect our solution owners to be able to wear at least three hats: BA, PM, and Scrum Master,” says Booth. (Bonus points for those who can wear the product owner and/or functional QA hats when needed.) That breadth enables flexibility on the project—allowing them to morph midstream to best serve the needs of the client.
That super-hero-esque breadth of expertise provides the support that allows each member of the team to focus on what they do best—whether it’s keeping the product owner focused on prioritizing and maintaining the product backlog, enabling the engineers to continue building high-quality code at speed, or keeping the QA laser-focused on ensuring quality.
Q&A | Purple unicorns and why you need one
In this Q&A, Sharon Lynch explains what her team does and why the solution owner is the “purple unicorn” of the consulting business.
The response to this piece has been enormous, says Lynch. Her favorite? “I never could classify myself before,” shared a reader. “I didn’t know there were any other purple unicorns out there.”