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.
I’m very proud of my daughter, Sarah. She has made a name for herself in the very male-dominated world of historic building restoration and ornamental plastering. She uses all her skills as a sculptress and has developed a keen eye for the health of historic buildings. I was walking with her recently through the centre of Newbury, an old market town in Berkshire, UK, that boasts a fairly modern shopping centre. And she began to illustrate for me how ambiguity works in a VUCA world. (‘VUCA’ stands for an environment defined by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.)
Ambiguity is all around us. The trouble is, by definition, we don't recognise it.
So when Sarah suddenly moaned at the sight of this wall (pictured above) it got my attention. What was wrong with it? To my untrained eye, someone had been responsible for preserving this fine building by re-pointing the wall. That was a good thing, right?
Well, no. Sarah pointed out that the traditional material to bind bricks was lime. Concrete, though less perishable, does not absorb water.
I still didn’t get it. Not absorbing water is a good thing, right?
Again I stood to be corrected. A building such as this, Sarah explained, is a living system. When it rains, where will the water go? It will seep into the most porous – and also the most precious – element of the structure, the timbers, stay there and eventually rot away the wood. In about ten years time, these ancient timbers will be rotting and need replacing. And they are irreplaceable.
This illustrated a couple of things for me about ambiguity:
Our worldview conditions how the world occurs to us.
In the world of leading change, we make assumptions about people and their behaviour. For example, someone reacts with surprising hostility towards the changes we are trying to make. We can make the assumption that they are a trouble-maker, they dislike us, or that they are just a stubborn reactionary.
We need to look closer. My experience draws me towards that person, towards that conflict; it triggers exploratory, compassionate questions. And my frame of reference is that very few people are sociopaths, so there is probably another reason why this person appears unreasonable.
I look deeper, and I find that this person is going through a domestic trauma and that the only stability in their life right now seems to be their workplace. And I'm about to take away that last refuge of stability.
Suddenly their reaction begins to make sense.Now I can view them very differently. I can begin to work positively with that person.
Ambiguity in this VUCA world is all around us. The problem is, by definition, we don't see it.
The more we grow in experience and what worldview we bring to our work, the more we challenge our own initial assumptions, the more we are likely to uncover and recognise important ambiguity.