No I am not getting all ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and aggressive but rather reflective on a presentation I delivered earlier on this year – titled ‘The F-Word’.
Well you can’t accuse me of not going for the attention grabbing headlines in my blog articles Actually the ‘F-Word’ I want to talk about is not the one you may be thinking of…
The conference theme I presented under was in fact ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’ and this is what inspired me to consider these responses and validate that they were aligned to the spirit of ‘The Lazy Project Manager’.
There are actually 4 responses to a stress situation, or imminent danger event:
The fourth was named by Pete Walker, a therapist who said ‘I have named it the fawn response...the fourth ‘f’ in the fight/flight/ freeze/fawn repertoire of instinctive responses to trauma. Fawn, according to Webster’s, means: to act servilely; cringe and flatter’.
To explain this further to my audience I used a mammoth v caveman situation back in pre-history, the dawn of the would-be Lazy Project Manager/Caveman/Hunter.
Ug, let us call our caveman Ug for the sake of a name, was pretty fed up. He went out each day to hunt for food for his family and tribe members and each day, after many hours, he would return home with a small mammal of some sort and each day his family and tribe members would consume the food and demand more for tomorrow. And so the next day Ug would have to do it all over again. No rest. No time to himself.
And yet, budding deep inside Ug was the makings of a ‘Lazy’ (in a good way) man.
One day, as he gazed down across the plains from the cliff side where he and his family and tribe lived in the caves he stared at the herd of mammoth wandering around and eating. It suddenly came to him – if he could kill a mammoth his family, tribe and pretty much anyone else that might wander past the caves at meal times would eat for days and days and he, Ug, could take a well-earned rest.
And so Ug hatched a plan to kill a mammoth. To be honest it wasn’t a good plan but it was his plan and the next day saw Ug action his less than well thought through plan by striding down the hillside with a large stone club in one hand a large spear in the other. He headed directly for the first mammoth and with a loud war cry that attracted the attention of all of Ug’s family and friends, not to mention the attention of all of the mammoths nearby, Ug hurled his club at the head of the mammoth. The club flew through the air and bounced on the mammoth’s large hairy skull.
This resulted in two things. One that Ug now only had one weapon left, the spear, and two Ug had the full and undivided attention of the rather large mammoth with the three metre length tusks, 8 tonnes of body weight, and a minor headache. Ug moved on to stage two of his unfortunately unimpressive plan and threw the spear at the same mammoth, again with a mighty war cry. Up on the hillside his family members cheered (hopefully) at Ug’s bravery.
This then resulted in only one thing that really mattered. Ug was facing a charging mammoth of significant size coming at him at impressive speed and he now had only four options:
History will allow us to fast-forward some months and see Ug, the now truly ‘Lazy Project Manager’, with a significantly improved plan born out of vivid personal experience overseeing an organised activity with all of the male tribe members driving a mammoth isolated from the herd towards a pre-selected cliff edge to fall to certain death ready for the hunters to recover the body.
Fast-forward a few hours from that and we can see Ug and all of his family members feasting on roasted mammoth and Ug looking forward to a few weeks rest and relaxation before his next hunting trip – hunting smarter and not harder!
Flight in this case was the right choice but there is another F-Word that Ug should have considered before that almost fateful first attempt at mammoth hunting.
Now let’s meet Nigel, Nigel has a body – lots of it, inside and out and Nigel is in ‘a situation’ – what happens to Nigel’s body? (Warning – this is the science bit)
A reaction begins in the amygdala, which triggers a neural response in the hypothalamus. The initial reaction is followed by activation of the pituitary gland and secretion of the hormone ACTH. The adrenal gland is activated almost simultaneously and releases the neurotransmitter epinephrine. The release of chemical messengers results in the production of the hormone cortisol, which increases blood pressure, blood sugar, and suppresses the immune system. The initial response and subsequent reactions are triggered in an effort to create a boost of energy. This boost of energy is activated by epinephrine binding to liver cells and the subsequent production of glucose. Additionally, the circulation of cortisol functions to turn fatty acids into available energy, which:
Do you recognise any of this?
I certainly do. I ran a significant project in the early days of my project management career and, to put it simply, I made myself pretty ill as a result. I was so focused and so involved in well ‘everything’ that I suffered from stress both during and after the project ended. I did neither myself nor the project any good acting this way.
There are many negative effects of stress:
Stress is, in the short-term, a good thing in that those instinctive responses to trauma kick in and we move in to survival mode rapidly and go for our selected ‘F’ response but stress in anything but the short-term is a bad thing, as I found out to my own personal cost. But I learnt from the experience and this led me to the revised behaviour that forms the basis of The Lazy Project Manager - just like Ug I learnt from the bad experience and changed the way I acted.
And there is more - It has to do with the ‘fight or flight"’ gland in our brain, the amygdala mentioned earlier. As it turns out, this little gland has significant implications for project communications. When the amygdala ‘takes over’ in a ‘fight or flight’ situation we almost instantly lose the ability to do three things:
Given how crucial those three things are to productive and constructive communications (both personal and professional!) then we need to be pragmatic and realistic about our communications whenever we are angry or very stressed. Specifically, we might need to give ourselves a ‘time out’ by not sending that email, or making that phone call, or continuing a heated ‘discussion’ with our significant other or our work colleague.
One last piece of advice – there is a real risk with regards to the ‘Fight’ syndrome option. Used successfully in one situation there is a real possibility of a future addiction to this option in the next situation and the one after that and so on. You face a tough situation and select fight mode, as a result you win the day or get want you want – you feel great! And so you respond the same next time around and there is no longer a possibility for any other response and this doesn’t make for a good project manager (or person).
And so on the real ‘F-Word’, the one I want to talk about, the one that our caveman friend Ug should have used, the fifth ‘F’.
This F-Word is ‘Foresight’ – the greatest strength a project manager has is to be prepared. I was given some great advice when I started out from my manager and that was ‘No surprises’ – he said that he would support me in all situations as long as he was pre-warned by me. He didn’t expect me to be perfect and he knew there would be problems at times but as long as I was the one telling him about the issue or challenge first he was confident that I was in control but if someone else told him first then I perhaps wasn’t.
So ‘No surprises’ is a good motto for all project managers. And that is where ‘Productive Laziness’ comes in – working smarter and not harder – being well prepared and therefore being capable of dealing with anything.
Go forward use the F-Word wisely and have foresight!
The buttered cat paradox is a common joke based on the tongue-in-cheek combination of two pieces of wisdom:
Now consider what would happen if the piece of buttered toast was attached, butter side up of course, to the back of a cat and then the cat was dropped from a large height. Some people suggest that the following will occur. As the cat falls towards the ground, it will slow down and start to rotate, eventually reaching a steady state of hovering a short distance from the ground while rotating at high speed as both the buttered side of the toast and the cat’s feet attempt to land on the ground.
This idea appeared on the British panel game QI, as well as talking about the idea, they also brought up other questions regarding the paradox. These included ‘Would it still work if you used margarine?’, ‘Would it still work if you used I Can't Believe It's Not Butter?’, and ‘What if the toast was covered in something that was not butter, but the cat thought it was butter?’, the idea being that it would act like a placebo.
The supposed phenomenon was first observed in the New York Monthly Magazine, which published the following poem in 1835:
I never had a slice of bread,
Particularly large and wide,
That did not fall upon the floor,
And always on the buttered side!
A study by the BBC's television series Q.E.D. found that when toast is thrown in the air, it lands butter-side down just one-half of the time (as would be predicted by chance)] However, several scientific studies have proven that when toast is dropped from a table it does fall butter-side down at least 62% of the time.
Why is this?
Well when toast falls out of a hand, it does so at an angle. The toast then rotates. Given that tables are usually between two to six feet there is enough time for the toast to rotate about one-half of a turn, and so it lands upside down relative to its original position. Since the original position is butter-side up then the toast lands butter-side down.
Now ignoring the paradox and concentrating on the simple piece of buttered toast dropping from your hand you could address this ‘risk’ in two ways. The first being that you rip out all of your kitchen fixings and tables and then re-install new ones that are at least 10 feet off the ground. This will result in any future toast drops have a 50/50 chance of turning sufficiently to end up buttered side up – a saving of 12% of cases using the Q.E.D. experiment results.
But this would be pretty costly and impractical.
Alternatively you could just be more careful when you eat buttered toast. Sit down. Don’t rush. Have the butter and toast on the table together. This would potentially deliver greater end results regarding a significant reduction in dropped buttered toast in the first instance and therefore the percentage of cases where the toast falls buttered side down would be irrelevant. Risk management needs to be relevant, appropriate and reasonable.
Besides, cats hate having toast stuck to their backs!