On a gloomy Monday morning in October, in a prison cell-like conference room in northern part of Singapore, a group of people gathered around a whiteboard each with a marker pen of different color in their hands. Their expressions were deadpan. Their eyes fixated on a RACI chart in the center of the whiteboard. The atmosphere was intense. A heated debate had just ended a moment ago. The group could not reach an agreement on the ‘R’, ‘A’, ‘C’ and ‘I’ assignments for the RACI chart.
RACI chart, in general, describes the participation by various roles in completing tasks or deliverables for a project; nothing more, nothing less. However, most of us are pretty lousy when it comes to using the RACI chart correctly. I am not sure since when we have become so ‘RACIst’. It did not happen overnight for sure. Like it or not, we have long been abusing the use of RACI chart. We are using it more for defining political boundaries than as a tool for clarifying roles and responsibilities. A RACI chart, to us, is a power map – one that defines who are in control and who are being controlled. It defines the territories each marked in different color and alphabet. As a result, we have to struggle through the ‘RACI chart battle’ every now and then due to this aberrant ‘RACIsm’ in us.
The RACI Chart Battle
Most people vie for the ‘A’ in every task as it symbolizes authority and control. They want the authority to approve as many tasks as possible yet, most often than not, they have all forgotten about the accountability part of it. The fights on this piece are the most intense. Each ‘A’ won is a critical map pin that can help them to extend their political boundaries. The more map pins the merrier, nothing else matters. On the other hand, people are also trying their best to push away the ‘R’ assignments. They see the 'R' as bane that belongs to no one else but the pathetic scapegoats. It is easy to pay lip service, but when it comes to actually doing the job, nobody really likes to be held responsible for it. This is partly due to the fact that people that are responsible to get the job done are usually not given the right or sufficient authority that is required for the execution. Then there is this ‘egocentric’ group. They want to have a say and their voices to be heard in every single meeting and discussion. They aim for the ‘C’ in every task and want you to seek their advices in everything you do. Attention is what they want to get from you. As the saying goes, ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’. In fact, if you have to consult a long list of people before arriving at a decision in your project, you would probably have a hard time in getting things done efficiently. Last but not least, we have the Kiasu group. They are the nosy type who afraid of being ‘kept in the dark’. Although they have nothing to do with anything, they often demand others to keep them in the loop of everything. People in this group have huge appetites for reports. You should not be surprised to find them subscribed to hundreds of newsletters but hardly read one. To them, information is power, relevant or not is the least of their concerns. They feel insecure and get panicky if they are out of the loop. Apart from the bloodshed, the battle usually leaves us with a useless RACI chart that is full of wrong and redundant responsibility assignments. Time wasted and relationships worsened. What do we gain here?
Battles like this have plagued many projects in the past. It is time for us to put things back in the right perspective by reestablishing RACI chart back to its original form and let it be what it should be. If you have not been through a RACI chart battle yet, then well, congratulations! However, if you have gone through one or participated and contributed in some of those battles, you should seriously consider pulling yourself out. Do your homework and use RACI chart correctly for the right purpose. Stop being a ‘RACIst’!
No, I am not going to talk about Bananarama’s eponymous chart topper in the 1980s. I am more interested in the day-to-day rumors that you eat, sleep and dream with. Rumor is like a giant octopus; it sucks up all your energy as you wrestle with it. Unfortunately, it is something that you have to deal with in all projects even though you hate it down to your bones. Like it or not, you probably have, unintentionally, become part of the conduit that has helped rumor to propagate. Yet in other occasions, you might even have played the victim role yourself. Dealing with rumor in projects is a waste of time. It not only affects the team’s productivity, it also dampens morale, destroys bonding, creates anxiety, ruins reputations and crushes the confidence of stakeholders. However, you can’t just ignore it. Failure to manage rumor properly will bring your project down in no time. How can you fight back against rumor? Below are some rumor management tips that may help you in your projects.
Singaporeans had been through an unforgettable week with their hearts going through an emotional roller coaster ride on the events of the Singapore General Election 2011 that ended on 7th May. While my mind was still trying to recover from the aftershock of the election results, one particular rally speech given by candidate Denise Phua from People's Action Party (PAP) had struck me so hard that I have been pondering on those words that she said since then.
Denise said: “The easiest thing to do in this world - is to criticize somebody else and find something that is wrong in a person, in a situation. The hardest thing to do and a more respectable thing to do - is to take action, to do the job no matter how small or unglamorous it is and to make a difference.” (You may view this part of her speech in this clip from 9 min onwards).
I couldn’t agree more. Indeed, it is easy for us to find faults and criticize. How many people out there really have the might and mettle to stand up and take ownership of the problem? Most of us just keep whining without taking any constructive action. On the other hand, the elites of the PAP-dominated government in Singapore have been badly lambasted for being too arrogant, stubborn and unwilling to listen to the people. Sometimes, when people have stayed too long in the same place, they tend to get too deeply entrenched to the spot and have forgotten to look around for alternatives beyond the immediate boundary. They have become dogmatic and stopped listening to criticism.
I will call the first type of people the Whiners and the second type the Dogmatists. We see these two types of people around in all projects. They disguise themselves as the stakeholders and they hide themselves in the project team, they are everywhere. Some of them watch over you like hawks. You feel scrutinized. The moment you make a mistake, they will pounce on you like a pack of wolves without hesitation. Then there are others that make you feel like an idiot talking to lunatics. They never seem to be able to understand what you say and they just want you to get out of their way. Sad to say, you probably find yourself turning into one of them unintentionally. In my previous blog post, I have talked about how Putt’s Law pokes fun at the satirical gap between managers and techies in the technology domain. I have attempted to extend this law with a twist to include what we have just discussed.
Putt’s Law 2.0: “Project management is largely dominated by two types of assholes: those who do what they do not criticize and those who criticize what they do not do.”
What should we do to overcome this?
The book “The No Asshole Rule” written by Robert Sutton will probably give you some tips on this topic. You may also want to take a quick look at an interesting review of this book by Guy Kawasaki at his blog.
The popular Putt’s Law states,
“Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand.”
I came across Putt’s Law many years ago and was intrigued by the candidness and satirical reality pointed out by this law ever since. Even after so many years, I find the veracity of this statement still holds. In fact, it does not only apply to technology; it applies to project management as well. As a project manager, we have to deal with these two types of people in the project team and stakeholder group quite frequently. I am sure you must have met a couple of them in one occasion or another. Ironically, sometimes we are guilty of playing one of the two roles ourselves. This is inevitable. We know well that most project managers fall into the category of “Jack of all trades, master of none”. It is true that we can’t write codes better than our average programmers and we are not as experienced and knowledgeable as our subject matter experts (SME). Yet, we are bestowed upon the sacred role to manage them. The challenge is then for us to find some ways to close the gap between the managers and techies. Below are a few tips to help you achieve this.
Avoid Jargons: Avoid technical jargons in all the documentations and presentation materials. Try to ensure everyone speaks in layman’s terms in all meetings and discussions so that even your granny is able to understand. Watch out for techies who like to flaunt technical jargons around to show off their knowledge. Your duty is to put them under control.
Enforce Clarity: Whenever there is a direction passed down from the top, make sure that the instructions given are clear and specific. Avoid ambiguity at all costs. Sometimes, what appears to be resistance is often a lack of clarity in direction. Confusion arises when people below do not understand why and what people are doing at the top. Take time to explain the objectives clearly to ensure everyone follows both physically and mentally.
Improve Communication: Communication is a crucial part in project management. Identify your audience and determine what to communicate. Select the mode (e.g. email, newsletter, or meeting etc.) of communication that will give you the best results and remember to pick the right frequency. Put all these into a proper communication plan and share it out with everyone. Poor communication often leads to confusion in the team. Rectify it before it burns the bridge between the managers and techies.
Promote Openness: Adopt an open concept in the team to encourage people to ask question whenever they are in doubt or even challenge the status quo if necessary. Very often, people are just too shy to ask question for obvious reason that they are afraid to expose their ignorance. Ego breeds ignorance. Cultivate a positive environment to promote open communication in the team.
Provide Training: Whenever a project needs to involve some technical discussions that are unavoidable, it is always a good practice to provide basic training to prep the team with the knowledge required. This can be done as a separate session prior to the discussion or as a short briefing before the discussion starts. Keep the training simple and understandable without diving too deep into unnecessary technical complexities. Use more diagrams and examples instead of words to illustrate the technical concepts.
The prisoner's dilemma is a fundamental conundrum in game theory that demonstrates why two people might not cooperate even if it is in both their best interests to do so. In its 'classical' form, the prisoner's dilemma is presented as follows:
Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act? (Source: Wikipedia).
This classic problem happens in project management as well. Imagine a project team gathered around to brainstorm on the requirements of a high profile project. Since this project has huge impact on many people and is highly visible, everyone wants to have a bigger stake on it. Each team member then has an option of either takes the lead and drives the discussion, or focuses on contributing individual requirements and ideas. There are three possible outcomes based on this.
If you were one of the team members, what would you do? According to the prisoner's dilemma assumption, most people will opt for taking the lead which results in sub-optimal outcomes (either 1 or 2 above). In fact, this is often the case in real life situations. However, if everyone can cooperate well in a collaborative manner, the outcome will be most optimal that benefits everyone. Unfortunately, this requires a tremendous level of trust within the team before it can happen. In other words, each member must trust that the others will act unselfishly focusing on getting the job done before he or she will do the same. In order to achieve this, the project manager needs to pay high attention on issues like team dynamics and conflict of interest among the team members. This is a difficult, but not impossible, task that really tests out the skills of the most veteran project manager.