Thinking like a group? Part III

After the second installment of Thinking like a group? anyone tired of groupthink yet? Hang with me a little while longer for a strong finish.

Expert’s Input: In Avoiding Groupthink in Project Management Teams Mark K discusses this topic after he read an article about flying. In it he lists several key points to consider in order to avoid groupthink in terms of project management:

  • As a project manager or leader it is our responsibility to create a culture where the discussion can always be open and frank.
  • We should also be careful in what we says in the beginning because team members are more apt to go along with the leader’s opinion as opposed to voicing their own opinion.
  • We need to take all internal and external opinions seriously.
  • We should be alert for anyone who is not saying anything and ask them directly for their opinion.

I especially identify with this last one but on a larger scale. What do you do when person not saying anything is the whole group? Say there is a group of twenty employees or more and they are being addressed by the owner/CEO of the company. And after delivering the news of a new course of action or changes to be made in the company’s structure the floor is turned over to the group for response. And all that’s reciprocated are crickets, nothing, nada, what then? It’s widely known that as soon as the meeting is adjourned, everything that was not said, will be said. How do you create an healthy atmosphere where all that cubicle talk (cubetalk) can take place in the open forum provided? From whom does the role of critical evaluator come from? In these situations, groupthink is rampant in both the silence and in the cubetalk afterwards. Ultimately it all depends on the type of leader and the type atmosphere they have created for groupthink to either flourish or never be given the chance to take root.

So is all group think bad and where did it come from?Bee

Expert’s Input: In Animal and Human Grouping Jim Sheedy discuses a version of group think in animals. “Some animals like bees and ants have very complex group behaviors and relationships that enable them to build impressive colonies.  These relationships largely serve to protect the species and/or to further its propagation.”

There are probably a lot of nature shows out there that show just what happens to that bee or ant that rejects complex group behaviors. They are probably rejected by the colony and turned out. It’s no wonder adhering to the group is easier then voicing our own dissenting opinion with the alternative of that being rejected and turned out.

He goes on to discuss: “Humans have demonstrated an amazing ability to work with one another … humans have been able to use their speech-based cognitive abilities to establish “group thinking”. “Survival of each human and their individual ego was dependent on the group. Individuals within the group began to acquire knowledge or skills that could benefit the group.”

So, is that where we got it from? We’re hardwired with some sort of survival mechanism to groupthink? In regards to groupthink it’s an obvious thought that our internal instinct is to follow the herd and feel safe, be protected. It’s easy to keep quiet, it’s easy to follow, but the rewards for critically thinking and speaking up can far outweigh to possible nasty outcomes associated with groupthink (think lemmings). I just hope you’re a part of a team, or the type of leader where one can speak up without fear of reprisal, where opposing opinions are encouraged.

Expert’s Input: In Where Group-Think Is Good Keith McFarland’s final comment in his article is: “If you’re looking for a way to make better decisions in your company, you will find that the more minds you get working on the problem, the better the solution.” So, there are ways in which groupthink can take place and be healthy given the appropriate platform. But, as a leader, we need to be facilitators of that platform, inviting anxious thinking and rewarding opposing views.

Very Expert’s Input: I’ going to wrap up with a blog post I found by Bret L. Simmons, who himself references then Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a speech to the West Point graduating class of 2009. The piece is entitled Gates on Leadership and in it Simmons outlines four points that resonate strongly with his philosophy of leadership. The third point is:  “Have the courage to say and do the right thing to further the shared purpose, even if no one else around you will do the same. Always see it as your responsibility to say what people need to hear, not what you think they want to hear. Fight with
every fiber of your being the insidious and pervasive phenomena of groupthink, and encourage others to do the same.” Wow! He makes it clear and with what I believe to be direct and necessary language that the greatest tool we have available to us to prevent groupthink: ourselves.  Reading further, in Simmons exert from CourageGates’s speech I found a related sentence and I want to wrap up these three groupthink posts with it:

“The hardest thing you may ever be called upon to do is stand alone among your peers and superior officers. To stick your neck out after discussion becomes consensus, and consensus ossifies into groupthink.”

Groupthink has been written about way too much because it’s in our nature to revert to it. We need to keep writing about it to remind us of its pitfalls. It’s never going to go away but the tools are there for us to fight it. We just have to have the courage to pick them up and use them properly. So, talk about groupthink, get it out in the open and make use of the greatest tool available to you to fight groupthink, yourself. The success of you as an individual, of your team and of the project will be rewarded in the process.

Image Credits: Sketches by Author


Thinking like a group? Part II

We’re back, did everyone have a good night after reading Thinking like a group? Part I?  Did everyone evaluate the type of leader you are or want to be: complex and open or simple and closed? Let’s jump right back into groupthink by looking at a couple other types.

Other Types and Outcomes of Groupthink:

Expert’s Input: Elizabeth Harrin addresses some really great topics in her blog A Girl’s Guide to Project Management but I’d like to focus on her piece Group Think and Risky Shift. In it she talks about Risky Shift which is “… the difference between the average risk taken by individuals and the risk taken by the group. This can generate either a risky shift towards a higher risk position or, equally, a cautious shift towards a more risk-averse stance.” What a powerful concept to consider and even more so what dangerous situation to be in. That way of decision making could wreck your project in a few short steps in the wrong direction. And even if the project is successful through a process of risky shift, how healthy was the process if your project succeeded because everyone jumped on board to a risky decision; especially when members knew better? That’s the difference there, risky decisions are necessary sometimes for your project but in the face of your internal voice telling you to “stop”, “speak up!”. Again, if the project is successful because of this type of decision making, it will only go to justify this type of behavior on future projects, in future groups. Don’t be a part of bad habit making that could ultimately damage the individual for all future projects; bad habits are hard to undo.

Side Note: In my search for quality content I ran across an article called: To avoid groupthink, become religious by Dale Davidson. It does not apply here but I thought it was an interesting approach to the very common subject of groupthink.

Expert’s Input: In an article titled ‘Happy Talk’ and the Dangers of Groupthink the authors Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie discuss a type of group think called “Happy Talk”. They define it as: “Happy talk occurs when group members say that all is going well and likely to go even better—that there is nothing to worry about.” The article is focuses on the type of leader that creates an atmosphere where Happy Talk can flourish and where it will probably never show up in the first place. Those two types of leaders are:Happy Talk

  • “Complacent leaders: Relaxed, upbeat, and contented. They think that things are entirely under control.
  • Anxious leaders: Focused on possible disasters. They fear that things are about to go wrong and perhaps spiral out of control.”

“Complacent people tend to be immensely likable. They seem like perfect team players. They can tell a terrific story. Some of them are visionaries. They don’t rock any boats. They are buoyant and full of smiles. They have plenty of ideas, many of which are excellent. They tend to be happy, and they like happy talk. It’s tempting to hire and promote them.”

By contrast: “When groups ultimately do well, it is often because they have anxious leaders and hence are better able to obtain and aggregate dispersed information—and to ensure that the groups know everything that their members know. Groups are also capable of learning, because anxiety is a great motivator. Groups need a little anxiety, maybe even a lot of it. They need a culture that enables them to find out what they need to know.”

Is it true that organizations tend to hire complacent leaders more than bringing abroad or elevating anxious leaders? Prior to this article, I myself could be very guilty of this; it’s definitely food-for-thought. Sounds like it would be very beneficial were I to have someone that was questioning, worrying, encouraging an atmosphere that learning. Why? “…because anxiety is a great motivator”

More on How to Steer Clear of Groupthink

Expert’s Input: In The dangers of “Groupthink” to effective decision making by Tony Grima lists six ways you prevent groupthink. These are somewhat different than the six listed in my last blog (with two overlaps) and you could probably compile a gazillion long list of other ways to fight groupthink.

  1. Be impartial and do not state preferences.
  2. Assign everyone the role of critical evaluator.
  3. Assign the devil’s advocate role to at least one person in the group.
  4. Use outside experts to challenge the group.
  5. Be open to dissenting points of view.
  6. Select a diverse team.

I love the idea of openly assigning the role of critical evaluator to everyone. But let me focus on this last step: “Selecting a diverse team”. Below are his three positive qualities to a diverse team:

  1. Diverse teams made better decisions– “… not only combining their strengths, but also Diversitycompensate for each others’ weaknesses. Different personality types balance and complement each other, which leads to more effective group processes and outcomes”
  2. Diverse teams avoid “groupthink”– “In homogeneous teams their main concern is to minimize conflict and reach agreement quickly which can miss critical problem analysis and evaluation. Diverse groups are more likely to raise new and innovative ideas and explore all information available.”
  3. Diverse teams produce better results – “… diverse teams were more productive and achieved better results although the journal can be bumpy with conflict and tension which if managed well, can lead to superior solutions to business problems.”

It’s easy selecting a bunch of like minded “self’s” to come in and agree with everything you say but for a successful project you’re going to need diversity and a devil’s advocate. Don’t forget that guy.

I was going to wrap up groupthink in this second of two posts but there is enough material to carry this over until tomorrow. While it would fit in today’s post, I’ve leaned towards keeping it “bite-sized-quanta” as a delivery method. So, to wrap up today, we’ve added to the type of leader that is best for eliminating the possibility of groupthink. In Part I, it was complex and open or simple and closed. Today we’ve added complacent or anxious. I will ask again, which are you or which do you want to be? A complex open leader with anxious tendencies? Or, a complacently simple and closed leader? Marinade on that and check back tomorrow for the THRILLING CONCLUSION.

Image Credits: Sketches by Author

Thinking like a group? Part I

Groupthink has been written about way too much. If we know what it is, why does it still exist so prevalently? If we know how to combat it, why are we going to be continually fighting it? If it’s been written about it so much, why am I writing about it?

Expert’s Input: In A brief history of groupthink, Kathrin Lassila talks about psychologist Irving Janis (the Father of Groupthink) who explained “… how a group of intelligent people working together to solve a problem can sometimes arrive at the worst possible answer. He called it ‘groupthink’.” The article goes on to say those in the group: “… adhere to group norms and pressures toward uniformity, even when their policy was working badly and had unintended consequences that disturbed the conscience of the members.” He continues: “Members consider loyalty to the group the highest form of morality.”

In terms of project management what a devastating place to be. Later in the same article he says: “Each member is likely to become more dependent than ever on the in-group for maintaining his self-image as a decent human being and will therefore be more strongly motivated to maintain group unity.”Groupthink

It’s bewildering to think that group members will stick to the group and its direction even when that direction has already proven wrong. That they will continue to support that direction until the group or leader decides otherwise. Even when outside solutions or possible alternatives are presented, we’re apt to ignore outright in favor of the groups direction.

What thought is further disconcerting is that even if we acknowledge internally that the direction is incorrect, we look to the group to justify our decisions further cementing ourselves in a viscous cycle or blind support-acknowledgement-justification and then support again. This is the extreme end of groupthink but in the face of our internal struggle either with the morality of the decision, or our own integrity, we rely on the group more and more to justify our illusion that the group’s decision is the right direction. That the group’s reliance becomes our justification.

Expert’s Input: In a blog about Communication Theory, they discuss Groupthink they list Janis’s eight symptoms of group think:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability: Displays of excessive optimism and take big risks.
  2. Collective Rationalization: Rationalize thoughts or suggestions that challenge what the majority is thinking.
  3. Belief in Inherent morality of the group: That whatever the group does it will be right as they all know the difference between right and wrong.
  4. Out – Group Stereotypes: Belief that those who disagree are opposed to the group on purpose.
  5. Direct Pressure on Dissenters: Majority directly threatens those who questions the decisions by telling them that they can always leave the group if they don’t want to agree with the majority.
  6. Self – Censorship: Belief that if they are the only odd one out then they must be the one who is wrong.
  7. Illusions of unanimity: Silence from some is considered to be acceptance of the majority’s decision.
  8. Self – Appointed Mind Guards: Members who take it upon themselves to discourage alternative ideas from being expressed.

So, what drives us to this place? Is it because in the beginning when the group or team is assembled for the project, there is a strong sense of “we”? In all likelihood that “we” is very positive and very healthy for the team as a launching point. But, can it be that this very sense of togetherness can become the projects downfall? The problem might be that in the beginning the team is all in agreement and seemingly for the right reasons. Is it our clarity of vision and unified spirit that opens the door for groupthink down the road?

Expert’s Input: In Groupthink: The Role of Leadership in Enhancing and Mitigating the Pitfall in Team Decision-Making, Arpita Das Behl talks about the “Antecedent Conditions for Groupthink according to Janis and Mann:”

  1. High Cohesiveness within the group
  2. Insulation of the group from outside sources of information
  3. Lack of methodical procedures for information search and appraisal
  4. Directive Leadership
  5. Homogeneity in members’ backgrounds
  6. A high stress situation with little hope of finding a better solution than the one advocated by the leader.
  7. The absence of disagreement

Homogeneity of the member’s backgrounds with high cohesiveness and the absence of disagreement. All seeds that can be planted in the formation of your team from the very start. So how do you combat this in the beginning? The author goes on: “A leader is one who has the ability to influence members of a team to work effectively towards their goals. Leader behavior strongly influences the number of alternative solutions proposed and discussed by groups and the actual final decisions made by them.”

So, we have it within ourselves to determine the direction our team is going to go and the question now becomes what kind of leader can handle this? The author goes on: “Cognitively complex and open leaders are more receptive to new information and are thus more flexible about their beliefs than their cognitively closed and simple counterparts. While Janis model of groupthink emphasizes that members get influenced by the leader’s suggestions because they identify with the leader’s values and goals.”

Before we ever choose your team or step into the leadership position, we should be asking ourselves, no, challenging ourselves are we going to be “complex and open” or “simple and closed”? You already know which one is going to take more work but it will also yield the most positive results for our team and the project. So, not that the groundwork is laid and we’ve established the type of leader that’s going to be necessary to avoid groupthink, what additional steps can we take?

Expert’s Input: Art Petty has a great list in 6 Steps for Avoiding Groupthink on Your Team Here is the list with some descriptive omissions

  1. Anticipate Groupthink in your Risk Plan.While it might sound like planning to fail, Devil's Advocateignoring the potential for Groupthink is a failure to plan for a very real risk.
  2. Size counts.Limit the typical team size to less than 10 and ensure that there are well-defined boundaries for inclusion.
  3. Invite external perspectives at various stages of the process.  Have the procedures in place to both protect external viewpoints and to find ways to incorporate them into the group’s thinking and plans.
  4. Lengthen the discussion phase…use structured discussion to focus on vetting the issues.  Delay a rush to judgment.
  5. Develop a second solutio Challenge your team to assume that management will reject their first solution.
  6. Invite the Devil’s Advocate to the party.Someone that will be throwing rocks at the groups beautiful picture.

Number one and number six strike me as being the most difficult. First: it’s not easy openly acknowledging the possibility of groupthink. But the power of it is almost tangible. Can you imagine opening up your first meeting with “Okay, I’m excited your all here now let’s acknowledge that groupthink is real, that we’re all responsible for it and that as well as holding myself accountable, I’m holding you accountable for not letting it creep in”. Well that’s a good start but what do you do then? Acknowledging it might not be enough. An open discussion about what it is, and how to fight it would probably do the most to ensure the absence of groupthink.

Second, inviting the devil’s advocate to the party; this is really difficult. You know that individual, the one that no matter what’s said they’re not in agreement, they have better ideas, and they have done it differently in the past. You need that individual in your group. Regardless if their ideas are great or they have more experience than the rest of the team, they will question and that questioning is going to allow you and your team enough pause to consider the validity of the current decision making process and also hopefully the validity of outside expertise, sources, and ideas.

Tomorrow I’ll talk more about groupthink focusing on other types of groupthink, more on how to steer clear, and is all group think bad? I know you’re TOTOALLY EXCITED but be patient and in the meantime, evaluate the type of leader you are or want to be: complex and open or simple and closed. I know the “open” part is a challenge for me.

Image Credit: Sketches by Author

Ouch! Paper Cut! Part II

Since my last post did you have your cup of tea and or coffee? Did you put on some good music and get down to business with the day’s paperwork? In handling dreaded paperwork that was one of the recommendations in yesterday’s post. It’s probably applicable to today’s post so pull up a seat, let me pour you a cup and we’ll tackle the budget.

Under budget or worse, over budget, the numbers can be the worst part of the project. Why?

Expert’s Input: In an article about personal budgets the author lists 28 Reasons Why Budget’s Suck! (& What Really Works). Yes, this list can be considered typically for the home but the ones of the 28 listed here I believe are relevant to any budget and why they suck!

  • Budgets are boringBudget
  • Budgets are too time-consuming
  • Budgets are prone to A LOT of errors
  • Budgets are not empowering
  • The word “budget” itself is cringe-worthy
  • Budgets are more about tracking money then about what really matters to people
  • Budgets fail more often then they succeed
  • Budgets don’t factor in the variables of life
  • Budgets can actually INCREASE spending!
  • They’re frustrating

Ten out of 28, the point is clear, preparing and or balancing the budget is not something that is looked forward to.

Who’s Responsible?

Expert’s Input: In a downloadable PDF, John Cammack talks Project budgeting related to sponsor funded programs. It has a lot of great detailed information but what I want to share here is his answer to the question: “Who is responsible for a budget?” His answer and what your answer should be is: “Managers and staff responsible for the activity should prepare and monitor budgets and see detailed transactions. Finance staff are a technical resource, who often provide information and make sure that the process is completed professionally. Trustees should monitor a summarized version of the budget and ask questions about the big picture.”

He breaks it all down very well. You are responsible and your financial staff are there to provide you with the information needed to track the budget. Don’t get caught in the easy assumption that the financial staff has your budget under control. Because when the trustee’s come and ask questions, they are not headed to your financial staff for the answers.

Before You Get Into the Numbers

Expert’s Input: On the website PROJECTinsight, they discuss: Project Management and the Comprehensive Project Budget. It’s a good read on the ‘S’ curve in its analysis of project expenditures and Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). But for this post I want to just pass on a couple things: “A comprehensive budget can only be developed as a result of the project schedule and resource plan.” the Project Schedule could have its own post entirely but the point is clear, unless you know where your project is on your established timeline, your numbers in the budget aren’t going to give you a ligament picture of what’s going on.

They also say: “A key role of the project manager in the planning process is to build consensus from the team and sponsor on each of the WBS task elements, recognizing that as you elaborate on those tasks, the budget associated with that task may change.” This reinforces the need that you have a comprehensive picture of the tasks related to your project in hand before tackling the budget.

How to Keep the Books:

Expert’s Input: Jason Westland in Project Management: 4 Ways to Manage Your Budget he puts it bluntly: “If a project goes wildly over-budget (as they often do), it will not be considered a success, even if it’s delivered on time and meets end users’ needs.” He then goes on to list “four strategies for maintaining control of your project budget and preventing massive cost overruns.” My thoughts of support are after each point.

  1. “Continually forecast the budget: A project run without frequent budget management and reforecasting will likely be headed for failure.” I personally really struggle with this. Getting the motivation to tackle the budget the first time around is hard enough, repeating the exercise is even more difficult. I talked yesterday about some habits that aid in the paperwork process and could be applied here again today. What works for me the best establishing a habit; typically at the end of the day, right before bed. It sucks at that time of day but if done on a daily basis the process is really quick and I’ve found I sleep better and wake more refreshed knowing the numbers are inline. It’s a good feeling and frees your head to focus clearly as the day starts streaming in.
  2. “Regularly forecast resource usageThis ties into knowing where your project sits in the overall schedule. If you aren’t aware of your resources, the numbers in the budget are not going to mean anything that can be effective.
  3. “Keep the team informed: An informed team is an empowered team that takes ownership of the project. By keeping the team informed of the budget status, they will be more likely to watch their project charges …” This is something new I’m going to adopt. Typically in the recent past after going over the numbers and going to bed, I send it out for the group to review on their own. And only if the budget am I bringing up the budget and throwing cautionary snippets here and there. That’s not effective. If I were to instead go over those numbers with a few of the individuals reporting directly to me, working along side me, then they become engaged in the project which is more likely to lead to effective management of spending.
  4. “Manage scope meticulously: Scope creep is one of the leading causes of project overruns.” A good way to keep it in check “Change orders authorize additional funding for the project to cover the cost of extra work, and thus keep the project to its new budget.”

The author has a great closing statement to wrap this piece of but for me, knowing the budget is kept within the bounds necessary allows me to effectively deal with all the other aspects of the project. Why? Because all the other aspects relate back to the budget in some fashion and knowing where you’re at, it will allow you to steer safely to a successful project completion.

What to Avoid:

Paper Cut (2)Expert’s Input: In Late And Over-Budget? A Method To Avoid Project Management Disasters, Philip Moscoso talks about “Breaking Molds”. In particular “Just because certain kinds of projects are managed in a traditional way does not mean this is the best way. Sometimes it is possible to achieve substantial improvements with alternative approaches.”

This is so huge. I know I’m guilty of it and especially with budgets it’s an easy trap to fall prey to. Just because it worked for your last project doesn’t mean it should be used on your next. A reevaluation needs to take place from top to bottom, constantly refine and know there is ALWAYS room for improvement even on what you experience might might be considers the elusive “perfect” project.

Expert’s Input: Stef Gonzaga also has a great list on How to Complete Your Project on Time and Under Budget. Her second point is: “2. Assemble a Team Who Believes in Your Project. Research shows that the biggest barriers to project management success is actually rooted on people factors—changing mindsets, disagreements, miss-communication, etc.” I love it when I come across something that is research based. I kept to link of where the extensive research came from and it’s compelling.

She follows up: “With this in mind, your project team should comprise of people who truly believe in your project and are dedicated to seeing and making it succeed, even if it means reminding you of your own tendencies to sway from the original plan.”Make a note and remember when choosing your team, you need to be surrounded by people who tell you what you need to hear not what you want to hear. If you’re humble enough to embrace this form of communication, the whole project will benefit and you’ll grow as an individual along with it.

The End is Nigh:

So, the project is over, what now? Close out the project by going over the budget once more. If you were over budget there might be a few areas that are glaringly the reasons. But don’t stop there; if you were over in areas chances are you were under in other areas. Even if they were minute savings, examine those with the same scrutiny for the keys to costs savings in your next project.

And if you’re under budget? All the more important to get into the numbrs so you can answer why were you under budget? Was it less material or were you operating more effectively? Can those costs saving measures be used else ware? Can they be repeated? It’s not until you look at the data that you can you understand the project. And it’s in the data that the answers to your next efficient and effective project can be found. The numbers never lie.

So, get out there, put another pot of coffee on and get after your next Paper Cut.

Image Credits: Sketches by Author

Ouch! Paper Cut! Part I

Paper CutSometimes it feels like when you’ve been elevated to the Project Manager position, all they did was change your title and hand you a stack of paperwork. So, why does the paperwork suck and what to do about it? I’m going to start right off with someone else’s opinion.

Expert’s Input: In an article from Kelly Holland about tax returns titled: Here’s the paperwork we hate doing the most  she writes: “Tax returns top the list, with 46 percent of respondents saying they would like them to be finished instantly, followed by motor vehicle registration.”

WOW! That’s really telling and while it’s not directly related to project management paperwork, it is sure establishes a view on the subject. There is actually a website called It’s a software development company but the name definitely caught my attention. And continually on many other websites the phrase “…bane of their existence” is used in reference to paperwork. In truth, I think a lot of project managers would love to be in the field, or at the project site, or down the hall with the team, but then who would do the paperwork?

The problem is established so lets move quickly to solutions:

In a relatively short search I didn’t find a lot about how to handle a project’s paperwork. So, maybe all the project managers out there are just so dazzling at it that there’s no need to write about it. But, in this PM’s world, paperwork sucks and is viewed as a task I would love to avoid.

Expert’s Input: Scott Young in How to Find Motivation for the Things You Hate Doing, outlines a few strategies you can use to make paperwork a little more pleasant. Here is one that I’ve used and found effective.

“… simply to focus on it. You might have noticed that you chew a lot more when you don’t like the food in your mouth. This is probably an instinctive reaction to force you to carefully examine what you’re going to eat before you swallow. You can do the same thing with the work you don’t like. By focusing on boring or awful work, it is easier to overcome your reflex to spit it out and work on something else.”

His use of the word “probably” leads me to believe it’s not a scientific answer but I love the analogy. Regardless, it’s true. When I really focus on an unpleasant task at hand, I can really slam it out and usually I learn quite a bit in the process. Ultimately paperwork is no different than any other unpleasant activity, like dusting.

Expert’s Input: In 6 Small Things You Can Do When You Lack Discipline, Leo Babauta says something interesting about unpleasant activities. They are much more “life-lesson’d” oriented but relevant none-the-less. He says we “… have goals or habits we want to achieve, but lack that discipline needed to stick with it.” I’ve cropped his list a little but here are the 6 Small Things when faced with unpleasant activities:

  1. Forgive yourself … And move on.Paper Work
  2. Realize that discipline is an illusion. While discipline is a common concept, it doesn’t actually exist. It’s not a thing you can actually do. Think about it: people say discipline is pushing yourself to do something you don’t want to do. But how do you do that? What skill is required? There isn’t a skill — it’s just forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do. And that requires …some kind of motivation.
  3. Focus on motivation. It’ll pull you along — that’s more powerful than trying to focus on the push of discipline. — This is something that’s real, that you can actually learn how to do.
  4. Make it easy. Discipline is tough because whatever the task or habit you’re trying to do is tough. Instead, make it easy. Remove barriers.
  5. Focus on enjoyment. Hate doing your paperwork? Find a peaceful sanctuary where you can do the paperwork and enjoy yourself. Maybe have a nice cup of tea or coffee, play some nice music. And focus on the enjoyment.
  6. Repeat. When you inevitably slip up, don’t take this to mean you don’t have discipline, and then just beat yourself up and give up. It’s just a bump in the road. Get up, dust yourself off, and get going again. Start from Step 1 and start all over.

I really like #2. And to emphasize, listen to the difference in these two statements:

  • “This project has required a lot of discipline to get unpleasant activities like paperwork done” … or
  • “The project has provided me with a lot of motivation to get unpleasant activities like paperwork done.”

It changes it from something that is forced to something that is desired. I love it and is something that’s going to stick with this author. Like I said, this list is about life’s uneven road but in the scheme of Project Management, these principles are relevant.

Expert’s Input: Shannon Kalvar lists Three tips about project management paperwork, she says: “Sometimes, even a practiced project manager gets tired of all the paperwork. Here are three tips for sorting out what’s important to keep up on and maintaining an audit trail without going completely insane.” I might be off base but her use of the words “sometimes gets tired of” might be understated; at least for this project manager. I also chopped up her list a little for the sake of the audience but its content is the same, and she makes some great recommendations.

  1. “Ask you project coordinator to help keep a project diary. Sit down at a fixed time each day and rehash the day’s events. It will help to put everything into perspective. It will also force you to organize your thoughts into a coherent narrative. It will retouch on the day’s events, so that you both know what’s going on. It will also create a historical record of what transpired, so if a question comes up later you can go hunting for it rather than trying to remember.” If you don’t have a coordinator, select someone close to the project to help you with it. It will be a good exercise for you both.
  2. “Make sure each milestone has at least one useful supporting artifact. Not every phase, which seems to be the auditing trend, but every milestone. Every important achievement, every real gain, in project management comes as the result of painstaking negotiations. Failing to record those agreements in addition to acknowledging their success means the milestone itself becomes open to renegotiation.” That there is a solid recommendation
  3. “Go over the final agreements with you project sponsors and business users at the end of the project. These final agreements include both what you did do and what you will try to do next time. In many cases, the second is more important than the first. It’s easy for people to see what they did do. But promises tend to get inflated as the months pass and people start to think about how great the “next thing” will become.” This is difficult and takes time but when applied it can have large dividends.

It doesn’t matter where you reside in the hierarchy of the project, there’s always paperwork to be done. And when you do your part, you keep things flowing; no bottlenecks. It also puts you in a position of authority, where you can speak from a place of effective knowledge and understand. Paperwork is not just filling in the blank spaces, it is a trail of the success of the project. So, go “have a nice cup of tea or coffee” and check out tomorrow’s post and your next Ouch! Paper Cut! Part II.

Image Credits: Sketches by Author

It’s Not My Fault

So far, in my current project, I’ve learned a lot of what not to do. This is about a very specific incident with broad implications. Let’s say that the factors involved surrounding the incident in question were the Perfect Storm for something to go wrong. These factors include but are not limited to: the Superintendent was new to the job, I’m new to managing these types of projects, they system we were working can be considered difficult for good results and there was a breakdown in communication all at the same time. In the meantime, closely monitoring the situation were regulatory agencies.

Definitions: So, what direction should I go from here? Let me define a few things first. Two types of attribution errors.

  • Fundamental attribution error: tendency to make attributions to internal causes when focusing on someone else’s behavior (BLAME)
  • Self-serving bias
    • Prevents individuals from accurately assessing their own performance and abilities and makes more difficult determining real cause of failure
    • Tendency to blame others for a person’s own failures associated with poor performance and an inability to establish satisfying interpersonal relationships at work and other social settings

How it went.

I was home, it was late and we were performing an operation in the field that required a test. The guidelines for the test were laid out by the regulatory agencies and we had to pass the test before we could move on. Up to this point we had been battling the system and ever increasingly it was throwing up red flags to our agency friends. Finally, that evening, I got a call that the test was successful and we could move on. So, I said “Great news! Move on!” But, I didn’t pay close attention to the results of the test and trusted the Superintendent to relay to me worthy information.  The Superintendent was basing his interpretation of the results on similar previous tests in which this would have been a pass. But those previous instances weren’t in this same type of system so our assumptions didn’t apply. Also, unbeknownst to me and the Super, we were supposed to contact the gentleman at one of the agencies no matter what time the test was completed. Oops! Well, since word never got to us on that little stickler, we moved on.Attribution Error

Expert’s Input: Esther Derby, in The fundamental attribution error and accountability, discusses the negative implications if this attribution error but I want to quote what she talks about when you are accountable:  “When managers do their part and create work systems that makes it easier—not more difficult—to get work done, they usually find that suddenly they have people who are accountable.  Accountability is about negotiation and partnership; it is not a cudgel to blame people for not meeting unilateral demands.”

To continue:

This happened on a Thursday night before a three-day weekend and most of the state workers were taking Friday off as well to make it a long lasting weekend. We were already close to completion after that last test and so by the time the long weekend was over we were done with that portion of the project. So, by the time Tuesday rolled around we were taking down equipment and getting ready for Phase-II; that’s when it started. The regulatory agencies finally caught up to us and were saying “Wait, what’s going on? Why is this portion of the project considered done when you didn’t pass that last test.” By this point there were a lot of emails flying around loaded with questions and answers. Both internally and between us and our agency brethren.

Expert’s Input: Max Wideman in Why is Good Project Decision-Making So Difficult? Lists the top fifty different biases that he got from Lev Virine and Michael Trumper. He defines: “Self-Serving Bias: The tendency to claim responsibility for successes rather than failures.” Thank you Max for defining what I failed to do above. I’m still jaw-dropping at all the biases that exists, and that there can be a top-fifty. Damn! There are apparently a lot of ways to be biased, so watch out.

Time to lay blame?

We weren’t trying to dodge anything, we were just running under assumptions that in this instance, were now not qualified. The Agency obviously felt otherwise and their feelings on the matter trumped our assumptions. By this point there wasn’t much we could do to go back and attend to the failed test. Phase-I had been completed and we had moved on to Phase-II. But, we still need to be accountable and that meant meetings. Our permitting department facilitated two different meetings; the first, a preemptive meeting and much smaller between myself and the Agency along with two gentlemen from permitting. And the second an all hands-on-deck meeting. The initial meeting went well enough and we got into the semantics of the situation enough that the ground work was laid for the second meeting. It was really good that the preemptive meeting took place. Because in it, the Agency now had a face to subscribe fault to. Not that they were finger pointing, in fact they were very conciliatory in trying to find a way through this mess. But let’s call it what it was, it was my fault.

Self Serving BiasExpert’s Input: In: Attributions: The Fundamental Attribution Error and The Self-Serving Bias, Bret L. Simmons hits on both attribution errors. There’s a great video but since I can’t show that here I do want to pass on what he says about each.

  • The Fundamental Attribution Error: “… because it is very likely that their behavior was driven by external things outside of their control.”
  • The Self-Serving Bias “… leads to inaccurate explanations, ineffective action, and interpersonal conflict.”

He hits it there when he says “…things outside of their control”. Was the situation ever outside of my control? Does it matter? And did I want to be inaccurate, ineffective, or create conflict?

Wrap it up already

The all hands-on-deck meeting involved three different agencies, the heads of three different departments and various underlings including myself. In the meeting we started from the beginning and went over all the nuances of how this occurred and how to keep it from happening again. Ultimately it was indeed a Perfect Storm for something like this to happen. The system we were working in, the assumption that prior practices would be allowed here, the inexperience of the Superintendent and myself, etc. And what it all comes down to, the bottom line of what I’ve been rambling on for ages now is that it was indeed was my fault. Why? Because I was in charge; plain and simple. And after everything was out there on the table, I fully admitted to the same. You see, it doesn’t matter that I didn’t know the rules, it doesn’t matter that I had someone in charge under me handling the situation, it doesn’t matter that we got away with it in the past. Each and every situation needs to be treated separately and with new vision, no assumptions can be made and you not knowing the rules is your fault. We wrapped up with possible solutions to the existing failed test and with a clear way forward so that it doesn’t happen again.

Final thought:

I’m not sure I tied that drawn out piece of prose to the attribution errors but I know that I want to steer clear of them and I feel this was a good start. It all turned out for the positive in the end and I learned a lot even though in the midst of that meeting I was to sole owner of a lot that went wrong. So, think about it before you lay blame, as a project manager, you’re responsible for everything beneath you. And, being accountable may just be the best way out for everyone involved.

Image Credits: Sketches by Author

I can’t see you, but I can hear you.

Hot off the presses, happened today and I’m honestly asking what to do? I have monthly meetings that take place between individuals located in different locals and I’ll get straight to the issue. What I’m running into is that Action Items that were outlined in previous meetings keep coming up over and over again. Last month, we ended with “Okay, this needs to be done, we’ll get this and that done.” Then, when we get to the next meeting a month later, nothing’s been done, there was no Action. It should be noted here to that this is a lateral project so I’m providing support, not managing. That support is based on data collected in-between meetings and so I can only be as effective as the information that is collected for me. By the time this conference call was to take place I was very frustrated and didn’t really know how to respond.

What’s going on?

The situation is systemic, but how do we correct a systemic issue when I can’t be there to help solve the problem. And does it stem from management on their end, or is it my responsibility to follow up?  So, going into the conference call, I wasn’t sure what to say since the latest round of items we were to address were based on information I was supposed to have received. Now, I’m sitting there with no results. And these results (data points) are supposed to go into a set tools to analyze their systems; it’s designed to help them and their project.

The Conversation

So, since we got straight into it and since I was the lead, I took the initiative in asking: “What’s going on? These same action items keep coming up over and over again and nothing is getting done. I followed with and maybe a little too bluntly that: “The results of this data collection will help you and your project. So what’s the problem?” Unfortunately I didn’t wait for an answer and followed it up with “How can I help facilitate the collection of this data when I have no physical presence at that location?” This is perhaps where I paused and asked them to fill me in but I’m sure the tension in my voice was not hidden over the speaker phone.

Their reply was: “we’re so busy with other tasks that this stuff gets lost in the shuffle.” It should be said that these are minor data points but, they could have huge impact if at the right moment we were looking at the data and bam! It tells us what’s going to happen in the very near future which is what it’s supposed to do. All it takes is once and that data collected has paid for itself in spades as it could save the company a lot of money. But, since it’s a very rare occurrence it gets kicked aside for more important issues, more immediate issues. How do you deal with something like that?

Expert’s Input: in Effective Communication Tips: Transforming Your Remote Workforce Into a Collaborative Unit, Syed Balkhi discusses three ways that Effective Communication Starts With Listening. Two are listed below as they directly relate to this situation:

  • When conducting meetings, you must create an environment in which your team feels safe to freely express their ideas and opinions whether they agree or disagree with you. Make it a forum where each person can resolve issues in a creative way.
  • Do not interrupt team members when they are speaking. When team members are airing their ideas and you don’t agree with what is being said, instead of thinking about your response, really listen to what is being said.Loud

In my conversation, I’m not sure I didn’t interrupt or talk over. Looking back, I might have been talking over someone and in the heat of the moment it’s so easy to fall into the common trap of “I’m right and you’re gonna hear about it!” So, maybe I did it wrong; not sure, let’s continue.

The Conversation Continues

Again, I asked and pressed: “Please, if this isn’t going to get done, let’s just take it off the agenda.” That wasn’t the right way to deal with it but that’s where I was at. So, next, do I throw out the possibility of me reminding them on a regular basis? I don’t want to micromanage them or the situation. They said “Hey, were at a place that we were collecting these things but of late it’s just been too crazy and yes, would you please remind us on a weekly basis of what needs to be done?” I’m not their boss and so is this a healthy solution to the problem?

Expert’s Input: Being an e-manager, an article put out by Ltd, they discuss People skills at a distance and one of the two important principles that apply here is: “… maintain a high level of contact – encouraging a two-way (and colleague-to-colleague) flow of communication” In the same article it also says” “In some ways, managing remotely means being in closer touch with staff than ever.” That is so true and yet what percent of the business around the world recognize that? I don’t have an answer but it’s something to think about.

ConferenceThe Solution

To me, the right way would the teach those collecting the data the “why” of why we need the data which would give them some sort of ownership and produce better results. Maybe though understanding they will see the need and be motivated to follow through. The guys I was talking to wanted to go the technical route and have a system send out reminders but is that the right way? Aren’t we supposed to instruct in a manner that there is no need for technology since there is understanding? Or, maybe not, maybe I’m just over analyzing this situation and since I’m not there, when I asked, what can I do to help and they said “remind us” the conversation ends there. I’m not in their shoes and me trying to get there is proving difficult.

So, there it is. If you have an issue with something, but you can’t get there for hands on eyes on, and you’re having difficulty getting perspective on the situation, then you need to trust those who are actually there to request the right kind of help from you. Your only job after that is to comply. If it doesn’t work, then you come together and try something else. But at least by now, there is a platform where this conversation can take place. The next thing I need to do, is get over there and have a face to face as I reference in one of my other posts In your face time!: “The fact that you establish some kind of human contact is important because then the remote meetings — or the collaborative but not co-located meetings — are reinforced by these personal experiences.”

If you haven’t already, trust in the people you’re working remotely with to give you the right information since they are trusting you to do the same.

Image Credits: Sketches by Author