The Project Shrink

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Bas de Baar is a Dutch visual facilitator, creating visual tools for dialogue. He is dedicated to improve the dialogue we use to make sense of change. As The Project Shrink, this is the riddle he tries to solve: “If you are a Project Manager that operates for a short period of time in a foreign organization, with a global team you don’t know, in a domain you would not know, using virtual communication, high uncertainty, limited authority and part of what you do out in the open on the Internet, how do you make it all work?”

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Sensemaking: Turning What We Know Into What Must Be

When Columbus set out to discover America, he didn’t have a map that had America on it. That was the whole point of discovering it. Centuries ago people were sailing the world with incomplete maps.

Some knew that the earth was a sphere. A globe. A ball. A round thing. Some maps were created representing the world as a sphere, without having all the information available.

This is important for people working together in uncertain and ambiguous situations.

The coin dropped when I read this story by Cynthia Kurtz where she talks about reading the book “Maps: Finding Our Place in the World” (affiliate link) with her son:

“What amazes me about these early globes is that people built a coherent representation of the world as a sphere even though they were missing part of it. They sewed together the edges of what they knew to be so as to make it into the shape they knew it had to take. This is a perfect analogue to sensemaking: we take what we know and form it into something that represents what must be.”

Aha. Sensemaking.

According to Wikipedia sensemaking is “… a collaborative process of creating shared awareness and understanding out of different individuals’ perspectives and varied interests.”

Although, the way Cythia Kurtz wrote it, sticks longer in my brain: “we take what we know and form it into something that represents what must be.”

Someone recently told me that the topic of sensemaking is a hot item. Especially due to the books by Karl Weick (affiliate link), who covers this topic at the organizational level. It is his work that is “… providing insight into factors that surface as organizations address either uncertain or ambiguous situations.

Properties of Sensemaking.

Weick describes seven properties of sensemaking. And when I read them, I recognized every topic I have been discussing on this blog. So. Sorry for confusing you all these years. But know you know. I am talking about sensemaking. How we turn what we know into a representation of what must be to handle uncertain or ambiguous situations.

Here are Weick’s seven properties:

  1. Identity and identification is central – who people think they are in their context shapes what they enact and how they interpret events (…).
  2. Retrospection provides the opportunity for sensemaking: the point of retrospection in time affects what people notice (…), thus attention and interruptions to that attention are highly relevant to the process (…).
  3. People enact the environments they face in dialogues and narratives (…). As people speak, and build narrative accounts, it helps them understand what they think, organize their experiences and control and predict events (…).
  4. Sensemaking is a social activity in that plausible stories are preserved, retained or shared (…).
  5. Sensemaking is ongoing, so individuals simultaneously shape and react to the environments they face. As they project themselves onto this environment and observe the consequences they learn about their identities and the accuracy of their accounts of the world (…).
  6. People extract cues from the context to help them decide on what information is relevant and what explanations are acceptable (…) Extracted cues provide points of reference for linking ideas to broader networks of meaning and are ‘simple, familiar structures that are seeds from which people develop a larger sense of what may be occurring.”
  7. People favour plausibility over accuracy in accounts of events and contexts (…)

(source Wikipedia. Removed references for brevity.)

This links directly to the role of identity in projects, the importance of narratives, the use of social cues and the need for context.

That makes perfectly good sense. To me.

Yes. Couldn’t resist.

That was a wordplay on “sensemaking“.

Yes.

Bas de Baar is a Dutch cartoonist. Documenting a world in transition. He loves to make inspirational cartoonstravel guides and other story-telling structures for the collaborators of our brave new world. 

Posted on: November 27, 2013 03:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Why I Focus On Conversations

I read an article a couple of years ago that contained my missing link. It is an article called: “Culture and complexity” and it contains this paragraph:

“… culture is the result of all the daily conversations and negotiations between the members of an organisation. They are continually agreeing (sometimes explicitly, usually tacitly) about the ‘proper’ way to do things and how to make meanings about the events of the world around them. If you want to change a culture you have to change all these conversations—or at least the majority of them.”

Yes. Culture as emergence of conversations. And. Interventions should be focused on the conversations.

Thank you.

So.

If you want to have a culture that is in tune with a project, you have to make sure certain essential conversations take place. With our team members, our stakeholders and ourselves. About the goals, the roles, what people have done before, the trip itself, the way interaction with the stakeholders is done, how we know how far we are. Stuff like that.

But here is the catch.

Conversations aren’t just about the content. They are about all the cues that come with them. The way you have these conversation, the way you talk in these conversations determine if people are willing to listen and engage.

When someone has a Powerpoint presentation crammed with bullet points of text, I tune out. I have to force myself to listen. Too bad, as the actual content might be great.

Others will thrive on all factual text. Oh yeah, baby!

So.

The way these conversation take place, the words used, the symbols attached, determine if people enter the conversation.

A small thing can have a rippling effect. 

So. Now you know why I focus on conversations, the cues around conversations and the spaces in which the interactions take place.

I probably have to explain this to myself next week again.

Bas de Baar is a Dutch writer who draws. Documenting a world in transition. He loves to make inspirational cartoonstravel guides and other story-telling structures for the collaborators of our brave new world. 

Posted on: November 14, 2013 08:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Dorothy, Toto And The Diversity Of Human Interaction

“How is your marriage?” “Well, we have 2 kids out of the 3 we planned. A mortgage at an y% rate. $x dollars in savings. And we are in our 10th year.”

It’s an answer. Hey! You could even mention a “emotional index” to indicate progress on the “mood”.

Not everybody would be happy with this answer. Pop quiz. Why? Anyone? Come one! Raise your hands!

“What do you do?” “Well, I add value to my customers so they can do the best work they ever did, even without them being good at what it is they do.”

It’s an answer. Hey! We could automate this, and let a machine put in some random keywords! Oh. And let a machine with a metal voice provide the answer. Automation! Yes!

“I-ED-VAL-U” “What? You are Ed Valley?”

Oh yeah. Me. Big fan of the 10 second elevator pitches.

“What is that organization like?” “”We are the best. We are the world. We are the children. In our last management survey, over 50% voted for these values.”

Oh really? Ah. The verbal diarrhea fest called “Name That Shared Value“. The more abstract the keywords, the bigger the distance with human beings.

I have a point. Yes. Really.

In projects we have learned that to make it all work we need to have a couple of essential conversations. With our team members, our stakeholders and ourselves. About the goals, the roles, what people have done before, the trip itself, the way interaction with the stakeholders is done, how we know how far we are. Stuff like that.

We, Project Managers, have learned ways to have or initiate these conversations. We have codified them. We have these conversations by using our tools like Gantt charts, risk logs, simulations, grids and many, many metrics.

We have created “templates” for our conversations. Need to have a talk about uncertainty? We have a grid and checklist for that! Just follow the script and the conversation is taken care off.

“Template” (or scripted) conversations are not bad.

They can be helpful for when you are new, or when you are in a hurry and want to make sure you have everything.

But they also have embedded in them assumptions about the problem, the solutions and the path to take. They also have embedded cultural element in the language used and presentation provided. My main point with the examples at the start of the post.

You can have the same essential conversations without the template. You can facilitate the conversation among the people involved. Focus on the conversation and not so much on which template society says we must follow.

Perhaps you read “Project Management” and think “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.” Well. We can create a metaphor that is human, fun, playful and still addresses the same principles as the scripted approach.

Yes. Yes. For me this would be “The Wizard Of Oz“.

Or pretend I am on a big adventure.

If this is not your cup of tea and you are very comfortable with scripted versions of the conversation, that’s cool. No worries. Keep on doing what you do.

But! You’re not alone… (cue for creepy sounding background music.)

As a Project Shrink I am finding ways to deal with the diversity of human interaction. Diverse. As in. People are not all the same as you. Or me. Or Dorothy. And Toto.

There is a point to the language and illustrations used on this blog. It is the illustration of diversity in interaction.

Waaaah.

See.

Bas de Baar is a Dutch writer who draws. Documenting a world in transition. He loves to make inspirational cartoonstravel guides and other story-telling structures for the collaborators of our brave new world. 

Posted on: November 04, 2013 05:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Project Therapy. What Else Did You Expect From A Project Shrink?

Remember that grumpy employee that just kept on complaining about the company? Or perhaps you can recall your team mate that was just indifferent to the host organization?

You don’t have to be all ecstatic about your company to do a good job – although it would help. But real negativity and indifference can be a source of project trouble.

For some reason an employee has this horror picture of the organization in his mind. The story that is told inside his head is not one of joy. It’s this negative narrative that causes the behavior.

This narrative can be changed. It’s a bit like the David Copperfield solution to problems: if you cannot move the mountain, just change the angle of the camera.

Think about The Travel Guide To [your organization].

In this exercise you are asked questions about your organization that explore your relationship with its culture. You talk about habits, rituals and anecdotes. The interaction with with these cultural elements help you shape a new narrative.

By creating something, in this case a Travel Guide and drawing maps, you externalize your relationship with the organizational culture. This allows you to explore the connection from a small distance, taking a step back from the sensitive topic.

I didn’t make all this stuff up. I borrowed it and applied it to the context of projects.

It’s stuff from therapy. Sssst. I’m a Project Shrink, what else would you expect! (Disclaimer: I’m not a licensed family therapist or something similar. You already knew that. But. Just saying.)

To be precise, Narrative Therapy:

“This process of externalization allows people to consider their relationships with problems, thus the narrative motto: “The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.” So-called strengths or positive attributes are also externalized, allowing people to engage in the construction and performance of preferred identities.”

Basically, if you help people to change their internal story, they can change their attitude. I said: “help”. Not “tell”. If you are explaining the values of your company, you are entirely missing the point. And oh, yes, there is so much more to it.

Within projects there are more typical problem areas. More mental stories that can cause trouble. Not only the relationship with the host organization. Think about relationships with the team, the project, individual stakeholders, your role and your working environment. Problems around expectations, trouble caused by friction between the project and the host organization.

You can apply this technique of revealing the narrative without dictating the story to all those areas. Yes. It’s the cards of Your Big Adventure.

In 2008 I wrote about “being a Project Shrink”:

“With a project shrink I was thinking more along the lines of relationship therapy. Without having all details, you can improve a situation by means of having guided counseling. “How did you experience this situation?” “What is your relationship with your mother like?” It can provide a needed “snap-out-of-it” moment for a PM (or BA). Reflection is not something that comes natural to all of us. We discussed earlier that cause-and-effect chains are getting complex, so someone to help you order your thoughts on any situation can be beneficial.”

Well. This appears to me the structure to do it.

Bas de Baar is a Dutch writer who draws. Documenting a world in transition. He loves to make inspirational cartoonstravel guides and other story-telling structures for the collaborators of our brave new world. 

Posted on: November 01, 2013 05:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Essential Conversations. And Where Babies Come From.

“Where do babies come from?”

I watched the dad move uncomfortably when his kid asked him The Question in a crowded Starbucks.

“Uhm. Well.”

What was there to think? You are in your thirties! I guess you get the picture by now!

Let me step in here for a moment. I know Darwinism, biology, gaming theory applied to mating strategies, and a lot of other important stuff. It is complex you know. Life is. And you need lots and lots of facts. FACTS! And models. MODELS! To explain the true working of life. And meaning. Otherwise you are doomed. DOOMED!

Apparently, this was a conversation that matters, an essential talk, between the boy and his dad. At a certain moment this conversation is important to go further in your life.

“You know when I told you about the flowers and the bees?”

“Yes.”

“Well. That’s it.”

“Oh.”

What!?

You use a simple metaphor to facilitate an essential talk!? And you are both happy with it? Dad can stick to a comfortable storyline and the kid gets enough explanation to get on with growing up?!!

WHAT?!

You are not going to tell me that in projects we also have Conversations That Matter?

You are not going to tell me that we can use metaphors for each conversation to make the talk easier?

“Yes. Actually. I am.”

Who are you? This is getting confusing.

“It doesn’t really matter. We moved from the coffee house inside your head. In projects we have a couple essential conversations. About the goals, the roles, what people have done before, the trip itself, the way interaction with the stakeholders is done, how we know how far we are. Stuff like that.”

And we can use metaphors to facilitate the conversations? To make them less awkward, a little fun, get the pressure of the topic, and generally guide you through the process?

“Yes. That's what The Big Adventure project cards are all about.”

Really? Never looked at it like that before?

“I know.”

But don’t people need to know EVERYTHING!? You know. Huge confusing models. Theories. They need certainly THEORIES. Lots. It’s complex, you know.

“Nah. If you get people moving in the right direction, they’ll find their way.”

Oh. Just need to get the essential conversations going with a nice storyline to get them rolling?

“Yeah. That’s it.”

Bas de Baar is a Dutch writer who draws. Documenting a world in transition. He loves to make inspirational cartoonstravel guides and other story-telling structures for the collaborators of our brave new world. 

Posted on: October 28, 2013 04:52 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)
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