Leaning to Action Positive Outliers Self-Awareness

For the Love of Work

Photo by Michel Stockman on Unsplash

When a friend invited my wife and me for lunch recently, I had the opportunity to talk more deeply with another guest, a friend of mine called Mike who, among other things, invents electronic gadgets.

However, Mike is different. He describes himself as retired, but his love of working on technical challenges in his workshop was palpable and infectious. He is a quiet man, and he shared with me what he is working on.

My mind quickly returned to the potential rewards of his inventions, but Mike was content simply to invent. He didn’t want, he explained, the irritation and stress of attempting to patent and defend his patents. He just loved to work in his workshop. His reward was being allowed to work. His motivation was not financial.

For the last few posts, I have been focusing on dreams, desired outcomes, and on the motivation that comes from imagining those outcomes as reality. In so much of business writing, success is assumed to be financial. But what if there is another reward to work, not focused on financial rewards and threats?

The influential psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes Mike’s state of being as Flow. The indicative criterion for flow is pursuing work for its own sake, not for the reward it brings. There is a transcendent fulfilment in work when we experience flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi.

Now, pause for a moment.

How do you find yourself reacting as you read this?

  • Is all this totally foreign to you? Have you never experienced work that was a pleasure in and of itself to do?
  • Or do you read this with all kinds of ‘yebbuts’ rising in you? “Yebbut, this is unrealistic!” “Yebbut, in the real world…” 
  • Do you feel work is only legitimate if has a clear consequential reward at the end or avoids some key risk, or else it is just frivolous indulgence?
  • Or does your heart resonate with Mike’s working lifestyle?

According to Susan Cain, in her best-seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, your response may have as much to do with whether or not you are an introvert, as it has to with your background and current circumstances. She writes:

If you’re an introvert, find your flow by using your gifts. You have the power of persistence, the tenacity to solve complex problems, and the clear-sightedness to avoid pitfalls that trip others up.

Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Photo by Matthew Fournier on Unsplash

Craig Lambert, the world-class rower, describes this in his autobiography this way:

Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.  Rowers have a word for this frictionless state: swing. . . . Recall the pure joy of riding on a backyard swing: an easy cycle of motion, the momentum coming from the swing itself.  The swing carries us; we do not force it.  We pump our legs to drive our arc higher, but gravity does most of the work.  We are not so much swinging as being swung. The boat swings you.  The shell wants to move fast: speed sings in its lines and nature.  Our job is simply to work with the shell, to stop holding it back with our thrashing struggles to go faster.  Trying too hard sabotages boat speed.  Trying becomes striving and striving undoes itself.  Social climbers strive to be aristocrats but their efforts prove them no such thing.  Aristocrats do not strive; they have already arrived. Swing is a state of arrival.

Mind Over Water: Lessons on a Life from the Art of Rowing

Maybe the key, then, is not so much to abandon any attempt to imagine the desired outcome but rather to work as if you have already arrived.

The Seven Keys to Exceptional Work
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Leaning to Action Positive Outliers

Outcome Thinking for Projects

Most people in project management have been told about the classic triangle: time, cost, quality; sometimes called the scope triangle. Its overall focus is on stewardship of spend, on containment, on control. You know, the one that looks like this:

It encourages managers to consider how the impact of a suggested change might affect the scope of the project and to consider the knock-on effects between time, cost and quality.

Fair enough. It is a sound management framework, focusing on three of the key areas in a complex resource system.

But my concern is that this view comes from a control mindset, a mindset most managers consider normal. It is not really leadership, is it? It focuses on setting and defending project budgets in these three dimensions. Apart from maybe the focus on quality, this is pretty reactionary – it reacts, rather than initiates or creates. It is a controlling, defensive way of seeing a project through.

I submit that a better triangle is one that appears in my book, Practical People Engagement (Elbereth, 2013) and it is this:

Now, this triangle requires a shift to outcome thinking. Essentially, it is success-oriented.

Let me explain by looking at each of these interactions in turn.

Different stakeholders will recognise different benefits; they will benefit from the same project in different ways. We see this using a benefits distribution matrix (see our Exploring People Engagement programme). For example, a replacement website might be justified by increased sales forecasted, something the Board really wants. However, line managers may also benefit from that website helping them brief new staff in a way that saves their time in induction using that new site. Also, by engagement, stakeholders such as the marketing team, can improve the realisation of benefits already identified (sales growth).

Here we see the two-way connection between stakeholders and risks. Good engagement of one particular stakeholder (say the web developers) can reduce the threat of unforeseen cyber vulnerabilities, but can also open up new opportunities for a website that would otherwise be fairly hum-drum. By the same token, a good risk analysis – both opportunities and threats – can help us engage stakeholders with whom we would otherwise ignore.

Finally, risks (both opportunities and threats) will have an impact on both benefits we have identified in the project business case, and on those benefits that we have yet to recognise and to claim for the project. Benefits themselves, may well reduce strategic and operational threats to the business, as well as opening up new opportunities beyond the project.

So, all in all, these three dimensions, stakeholders and their interests, risk and benefits all interact with each other. 

Outcome Thinking

Customers of projects don’t buy budgets, they buy solutions.

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This is a shift to outcome thinking. It is success oriented. Customers do not buy a budget estimate, they buy solutions. They buy results. They look for the benefits of the new solution. And the three key areas of success are the individuals and groups involved or affected (the stakeholders), the threats and opportunities as they arise (the risks), and the benefits, both intended, emergent and unwanted (so called ‘dis-benefits’).

The success triangle is a shift to outcome thinking. #projectmanagement

The success triangle is a significant shift to outcome thinking. #projectmanagement

The Project as Mere Scaffolding

Think about a project as the equivalent to scaffolding in constructing a building. A project is really management scaffolding. Nobody intends to live in scaffolding, but rather they will use the scaffolding as a means to an end. Eventually, we hope to take the scaffolding away. In the same way, with a project. I have noticed that some in the project management profession have become so obsessed with the scaffolding of the project that they have made it an end in itself. It would be far better if they led towards the outcome and its consequential benefits. So an alternative focus is on the end benefits.

Some project managers make the project an end itself. #projectmanagement

VUCA (the environment of volatility, complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity) means that the project journey will mostly be somewhat exploratory for the customer. They will be catching up with the possibilities of what current technology can do for them. Realisable benefits will change. So a better mindset becomes one of cultivation, not control; cultivation and nurturing of benefits, optimising them, and being alert to windfall benefits.

This makes the whole project less about a cost burden, to one which is an investment, where we look for a return on investment. It is a more entrepreneurial way of looking at a project. In this way, we may even find that our project business case improves as we go along.

Purely focusing on cost blinkers the project manager to the customer’s potential outcomes.

Thinking Risks

Now, the risks involved are an interesting dimension as it can be much more inclusive of time, cost, scope and quality. Thinking risk, particularly in how it relates to benefit realisation, begins to steward everything to head off, mitigate or minimise anything that might threaten our benefits.

Risk, as including both threats and opportunities, is a large enough mindset to allow that entrepreneurial approach, where risks are not merely threats, but also opportunities. We begin to think in terms of considered risk-taking rather moving from fear. Psychologically, for both customers and the project manager, this can be very powerful.

Risk, as including both threats and opportunities, is a large enough mindset to allow an entrepreneurial approach. #riskmanagement

And risks lead us to one of the most important sources of risk: people, our stakeholders.

Being Negative

We all know that people can make themselves a nuisance, uncooperative or even openly resistant. They can become a drag on the project unless we engage them well.

A rather clumsy term in use is dis-benefit. (I hate the term, but I can’t think of a better one.) This is where we know that some stakeholders will be disadvantaged by the change the project brings. It’s not the possibility of a loss (a risk) but is something we know the project will bring. We know that there is always loss with a change, there is always dis-benefit. Particular stakeholders will be disadvantaged in some way, will lose by what we do as a project. 

With dis-benefits we must never assume that we are more aware of someone else’s dis-benefits than they are. The opposite is almost always true. If we don’t appear to recognise how they lose or cannot show empathy for their losses then that stakeholder could easily resent us and the project. As a general rule, it is far better to be open about dis-benefits. With this stance, we will find that our credibility grows.

So then, all three dimensions in this triangle can be positive or negative: risks as both threats and opportunities, and benefits as positive benefits and dis-benefits. And people can be a nuisance, uncooperative or even openly resistant, as well as being key enablers of the outcome we want.

Shaping Success v Managing to Cut Losses

Overall, though, the success triangle focuses us more on shaping success rather than operating merely to cut our losses.

So, how about the success triangle appearing on our project dashboards? Might it begin to shift mindsets for the better?

Leave me your comment on this below.

The Seven Keys to Exceptional Work
The Seven Keys eBook

The Seven Keys eBook

Revealing the Seven Key Areas that High Performers Pay Attention