One of the fundamental problems the western rationalist mind is that it finds it hard to think in non-linear terms. Our thought processes habitually follow the linear, “If I do this, then I will get this, and then I will achieve this” kind of mental narrative. We can find this works, but only in limited contexts.
In the world of engineering, marketing and projects, to name but three fields, we are learning to think more iteratively: to revisit and rework the results. This is more like thinking and moving in circles.
W.E. Deming, the American quality guru who was credited with revolutionising post-war Japanese manufacturing advocated his classic PDCA cycle:
Practising this led to continuous improvement. Manufacturing results improved because of attention to the feedback and improved as a result. In marketing, deliberate A/B testing yields similar results. In projects, we are learning to iterate, improve our estimates and customer satisfaction.
I remember a situation comedy on UK TV a few years ago called "Ever Decreasing Circles." It had a hapless hero who always found himself in a spiral of frustration.
Circular thinking has had a bad rap. I'd like to reframe circular thinking as "ever increasing circles." That is to say, that some circular workflows become more and more powerful.
Shall I go over that again?
Someone once said that life was like learning to play piano in a public concert. I think I know what they mean. We all feel vulnerable when we make mistakes. Nobody likes being seen making a mistake. So we try to do this secretly, don’t we?
When it comes to the area of project management and strategic change this works itself out in a different way: it is very hard to see good case studies. Why? Because a “warts and all” account might show the organisation or people within it in a poor light. They would not publish such a report.
This is a pity because the rest of us could learn valuable lessons. We could learn from their mistakes and so avoid failure in those areas.
But that is not going to happen. Organisations can suffer reputational damage, even damage to their stock prices if some juicy failure leaks into the public domain. As a result, there is a dearth of learning.[shareable]Unwillingness to share case studies – good or bad – means a dearth of learning.[/shareable]
The opposite can also be true: an organisation innovates, makes a breakthrough, a disruptive change. As a result, that firm makes huge inroads into a market previously dominated by its competitors. So is it going to share how it achieved the breakthrough? Senior management gets uneasy. Surely this would erode their competitive advantage. Better to keep it under wraps. And so more potential learning is kept from us all.
There is an outstanding exception to this pattern. And this exception has played no small part in my own career. The exception is the public sector; particularly, the UK Central Government. Here we have a Government that is subject to intense, and sometimes very public scrutiny.
In the area of major public projects, over the three decades from the 1960’s, there were some major failures: such as Trident, TSR2, and Nimrod. The UK Central Government began to set about identifying and defining what it called project management “best practice.” It codified it, first into a methodology called PROMPT, then PRINCE®, and finally PRINCE2®.
And it did this publicly.
Private sector consultants were not ready to praise these efforts too quickly. Some were even quite critical, in fact, but the truth was we all benefited from this sharing.
For the early part of my career, I worked in the public sector in the UK, in local government across three bodies. After 15 years of working in local government, I made the transition to the private sector.
At that time, we were watching TV programmes like, “Yes, Minister.” I believed the stereotypes. Public bodies were extremely bureaucratic, stuffy, hierarchical, formal, and conservative, whilst private sector organisations were all entrepreneurial, more casual in dealing with each other, and, above all, innovative.
In 1990 I made the transition to the private sector.
I was in for a rude awakening.
I found the organisation I had joined was far more hierarchical, bureaucratic, self-indulgent and inert than I had experienced in the public sector. My government days felt positively entrepreneurial. This was counter to all the stereotypes.
The truth was, and still is, that within central Government there is much progressive, innovative work. This had to come forth when the public was seeing so much waste on major projects. Excellence emerged.[shareable]My government days felt positively entrepreneurial.[/shareable]
Much of my career has centred around progressive management approaches such as PRINCE2®, MSP™, P3O® and more recently, Better Business Cases™. These have all helped UK public programmes succeed more often than not. Partly driven by HM Treasury, partly by the Cabinet Office, and partly by the National Audit Office, the UK Government has raised its game in programme and project management significantly. And all this in the context of a fairly hostile national press and intense political scrutiny through the Public Accounts Committee.
With MSP (Managing Successful Programmes), I recently was part of the panel on a Webinar, hosted by Axelos the owners of MSP, and I noticed keen interest from all over the world. This framework is, in many ways, ahead of its time. For example, I was asked: “Can you make MSP agile?” My answer, in brief, was, “It already is agile.” And I went on to explain why.
Last year the Banco Central do Brasil invited me to speak at a conference in Brasilia on MSP programme management. I used the London Olympics Case Study. You can imagine, less than 17 months away from the Rio Olympics they were all ears. I am continuing to discover other countries benefiting from the wealth of good practice coming out of the UK Central Government.
Better Business Cases (BBC) is another gem. Pioneered out of Whitehall and the Welsh Government, BBC takes the business case and turns it into a strategic tool that develops in a most appropriate way throughout the start and life of a project. We hear of the UK’s NHS using this to good effect.
Say “business case” to most project managers, and you can watch their eyes glaze over. BBC turbo-charges the approach and handling of the business case.[shareable]Better Business Cases is another gem.[/shareable]
So, is all well then with UK Government “best practices”? I’m not so sure. Not so long ago the Cabinet Office effectively sold off its ownership of most of these management methods and practice to a private concern, Axelos. To give them credit, it seems that Axelos is making gains in scaling adoption across the globe but I’m not sure that the development of these products will be as vigorous, rigorous and authentic as it was when it clearly came out of public sector ownership.
Also, major government projects now have the Major Projects Leadership Academy (MPLA). Several of my clients have been through this programme and speak very highly of it. One of my associates has actually worked with the faculty. However, there is a strong protection by Oxford University’s Said Business School of its intellectual property. This is a traditional academic value system of protecting and hoarding intellectual capital, and this School has a particularly assertive commercial agenda. So the rest of us are not likely to benefit from some of the key learning within the Academy as much as we might from a more generous, sharing approach.
It seems that more Central Government outsources, no doubt for otherwise good reasons, there is a loss in helping better practice more generally, that nobody in the private sector can give.[reminder preface=”Question:”] What are your views and experiences on this?[/reminder]
When it comes to offering advice or seeking to influence, consultants need to be aware of a very counter-intuitive truth. Many miss it. It is this: that in human relationships positives attract. When you have a positive regard for the other party, they are likely to reciprocate. When the consultant approaches a client with a positive regard for them, looking for the good or worthy in the client, the client tends to respond and opens themselves to courage and advice.
In human relationships positives attract.
The more usual frame of reference, one I confess that have used in the past, is that I am paid to be their problem-solver. Yes, clients might well want me to solve their problems, but I can't do this as successfully if I treat my client as a problem to be solved. With this problem-solving mindset, the client can feel that whenever the consultant arrives, they bring shame and guilt. The client finds this "expert" finds fault wherever they can in order to justify themselves. I’ve found that solutions are so much more powerful and likely to prevail if the client works with me to solve such problems.
So instead I use a strategy of finding the gold in people, their strengths, their better practice, the excellence that is already there. It is making me more empathetic and thereby I appear to be more influential than I once was. What does “finding the gold in people” actually mean?
I use a strategy of finding the gold in people, their strengths, their better practice, the excellence that is already there.
Recently I was in a meeting for the first time with a senior executive client. In the course of our conversation I mentioned “calling out the gold in people” and she asked me what I meant by that. So I showed her. I said, “I can already see that you are a strategic delegator with a confident sense of the value of your own team. With multiple initiatives, in your portfolio, you are able to make the biggest difference by building your team’s performance. This shows a high-order leadership.” She was impressed that I saw this so quickly at our first meeting. What I had said was positive, discerning and true. I felt she began to trust me enough to bring her most positive self to the rest of the meeting where we explored together a way through the challenge she faced.
Something profound seems to happen when you treat people as unpunishable.
Positive psychology has been making huge contributions in business. Martin Seligman has led the charge. Others have developed powerful consulting strategies such as Appreciative Inquiry. Something seems to happen when you treat others as unpunishable, instead discovering and declaring what might be uniquely positive about them. This is now happening in organisational cultures, and I’ve experienced it firsthand. In one such organisation, I received people’s positive discernment of me initially as embarrassing flattery, but after a while, my false humility dropped. I began to believe them. It’s an incredibly powerful organisation, due in no small part for its adherence to this mindset.
I recommend Danny Silk’s work, both Culture of Honor (he’s American, so we’ll forgive him misspelling honour) and Keep Your Love On. Irony warning: Silk comes from a Christian pastoral perspective so his faith may offend those of a nervous spiritual disposition … Seriously, read Danny Silk’s work with an open mind. He is a man who writes from the trenches, someone who has worked this out for real in some quite difficult situations and cares deeply about those he seeks to serve.
Why do we perform better in a positive relational atmosphere when so much of human behaviour seems to be about avoiding risk or loss?
Sometimes it seems as if the whole world around you has gone mad. And then you begin to doubt that yourself. "Am I still sane?" you ask yourself. Sometimes that is what a dysfunctional culture can do to you. It makes you doubt what you thought you knew for certain.
I was talking with a client is who leading a major transformational change and she was beginning to see signs of it all unravelling. Even the people who were supposed to be taking the lead on certain aspects of the change were flipping between platitudes - “everything is fine” - and defensiveness.
Sometimes culture can seduce us into acting like lemmings.
Here are some common symptoms to watch out for:
Another way of describing culture is a conspiracy of conceit. Culture can seduce us into acting like lemmings; we are about to rush over a cliff to our deaths and we all think we’re doing fine. We take false comfort in each other. An antidote is to listen to someone from outside, who is not in that culture. And that’s hard to do when your first reaction is to say, ”But you don’t know how we work here.”
I told my client, "You're not crazy!"
I told my client, “You’re not crazy!” She needed to hear that, in the teeth of such huge cultural inertia. She is doing well but needs encouragement, support, and guidance, in that order.
Question: How do you support your colleagues when they are not going with the cultural flow? I’d like to hear how you do it.