One of the areas I explore when working with my clients is what they see in the landscape of their work. Reality is so multifaceted that we have to be selective about what we see. For example, when driving on a busy road, we are scanning for the main pieces of evidence and may be unaware of the beauty of the scenery through which we are driving.
I've found that when engaging with a new project, most project managers 'see' documents, tasks, and process.
For example, when you look at the picture below, what do you see?
Some see one thing, others another. Some people see a young woman looking away; others see an old hag looking down.
If you saw this picture before, maybe someone had explained it to you. You can shift between seeing one image and another.
If you don't know what I'm talking about then look at the almost-horizontal line at the bottom: it's the neck-band of the young woman and the mouth of the hag.
Got it?... OK...
Gestalt psychology demonstrates with images such as this that the human brain makes sense of reality more by interpreting whole patterns than individual elements.
This ability for the brain to make selective conclusions from reality has a consequence in our performance. We tend to focus on certain matters in the foreground of our consciousness while filtering out a lot of other detail. Such detail may not fit the structure we recognize, so we put it into the background. In this way, we all approach reality with certain frames of reference.
Our research tends to confirm, for example, that not all project managers have the same frame of reference.
Some see data, see evidence, see indicators that others do not see.
This kind of selection is not merely a product of personality or taste. It is more to do with our theories of what matters, that we bring to reality. For this reason, our frames of reference are vital. It seems that some of us have been blind to some quite critical data.
Because of our frame of reference, some of us are blind to quite important information.
The data our brains notice seems to matter to our performance. In our research, we began to see a clear frame of reference for the few high-performing project managers, what I am now calling the positive outliers, that is different from the rest. The positive outliers get extraordinary results because they focus on and prioritize different things.
Much of that critical information is largely in the area of people and relationships, of stakeholders and communication.
For all too many project managers, people, relationships and conversation are all just a distraction; such things just slow them down.
And yet the evidence is there: higher performers have a leaning to relationships: a focus on exploring people and relationships.
For a period of time, a friend of mine prevailed on me to take up golf. To begin with, it seemed like I was doing random gardening on a long walk. I became very conscious of my muscle movements in a swing, which club to choose, and experimenting with little rituals, like the number of times I looked up at the target spot I was aiming for. I also became aware of two things that could undermine my performance as the game progressed: my inner emotional state after a ridiculously bad shot, and my physical stamina - or lack of it.
For me, golf was like random gardening on a long walk.
I realised that the inner game of golf was all about self-awareness. What I became acutely focused on was being aware of my muscle movements, grip and so on. If I made a bad shot, I would attempt to adjust and see if I got a better result. I was constantly correcting myself.
In yesterday’s post, we looked at the Apollo 11 mission and how the accuracy of the launch targeting was a delusion; the reality was that they landed within the lunar landing zone by a process of constant correction - a sort of feedback loop.
Then I moved to talking about a more personal kind of feedback loop, the Daily Heads-Up technique that I use for my personal organisation.
At least every week, I review, hone and improve my key workflows.
Feedback loops can operate at different cycles, such as at:
In each case the feedback loop provides the opportunity for us to correct our course, to learn, and to get better results.
In the next post, I’ll look at how neglecting the course corrections, the feedback loop can hinder our effectiveness and growth, and why it is so easy to neglect this.
Have you ever found yourself influencing people to change and found that there was more than a lack of motivation, there was a lack of belief in the proposed change?
Next week I’m speaking at the BCS Business Change SIG in London to this title. I’ve discovered a real power in hope when it is applied to business change.
However, this kind of hope done not mean this:
No, what I will explore is something rarely mentioned in change management literature that I call resilient hope.
If you’d like to know more just enter your details here:
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]