Viewing Posts by Lynda Bourne
Communicating in Conflict
by Lynda Bourne
One of the realities of project life is every once in a while you are going to become embroiled in a dispute that is emotional and personal. It does not matter how cool and professional you are, you cannot control the other party’s emotions and perceptions — and very often you also need to win the dispute.
In my post Fight or Flight?, I looked at the power of emotions, which can escalate a disagreement into a fight. Now, I want to cover some of the ways to minimize conflict so you can reach a successful outcome.
When dealing with someone who’s upset and emotional, the first thing to remember is they are not acting rationally and are not interested in optimizing their outcome. It is not uncommon for someone to be far more interested in hurting you than in achieving a mutually acceptable outcome, even if this hurts them as well.
There are a number of tactics you can use to stop the dispute from getting worse. From there, you can hopefully move forward to an outcome you can live with.
Watch What You Say
Always remember: You cannot un-say something or un-send an email. If in doubt: Don’t say or send it! Every communication needs to be crafted from a minimalist viewpoint, conveying nothing more than the necessary information. And you should not respond to provocation. Making statements that can be interpreted as threats will be highly counterproductive.
At the same time, your demeanor needs to remain strong and assertive rather than being too aggressive or too passive. An aggressive stance simply adds to the fight. If you are too passive, the other side may not feel any need to respect you and break into a bullying mode.
It’s a hard balance to strike. The best practice is to find an impartial mentor who can help you stay calm, collected and review every communication before you send it. The time lag needed to allow the mentor’s review helps you stay in control of your feelings. If you cannot find someone willing to help postpone any action, literally sleep on it — come back to any message in the morning and see if you really need to send it. Very often, a deliberate strategy of doing nothing or saying nothing can break a tit-for-tat cycle of escalation.
Use Time to Your Advantage
When dealing with someone who’s really upset, it may seem like a natural response to offer practical or helpful advice. That will often backfire, however. They will automatically assume you are in the same place they are, and everything you do or say will be interpreted as an attack or a ploy to gain an advantage over them.
The only way around this impasse is to find a third party, who is trusted by the other party, to act as a messenger. But even then, any communication has to be carefully thought through — never in the entire course of human history has anyone ever calmed down and become reasonable just because someone has told them to. You need options that may be rejected in the short term but allow the person ways to move forward once they have calmed down enough to start working toward an outcome.
Time is a valuable ally. It takes a lot of energy for someone to remain really upset for an extended period of time. Consider Napoleon Bonaparte’s advice to one of his generals: “Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake.” As much as possible, control the tempo of the dispute and reduce pressure. If you can identify the other person’s hot buttons — the things that will instantly reignite the full intensity of the dispute — look for ways to avoid them.
Have an Exit Strategy
Regardless of the other party’s approach, you still need to focus on outcomes and your real requirements rather than positional bargaining and winning at all costs. You need to clearly understand what’s in it for you and when to walk away.
As strange as it seems, really bitter disputes often become the center of the other person’s existence and they cannot see anything else. Therefore, having a number of exit strategies is critically important — your time and energy are valuable resources, and there is no point in fighting a dispute if there’s nothing in it for you.
Ideally, the exit strategy will allow you to walk away and block the other person’s attempts to keep the fight going. If this is impossible, look for ways to lose elegantly — allow the other side to feel like they’ve won while you haven’t lost too badly. It’s far easier to get into a dispute than it is to get out of one once it is in full swing. Smart negotiators always understand their Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). In the type of dispute we are discussing in this post, your BATNA should be the trigger for your exit strategy and every move you make should be planned to keep these strategies open.
Remember, when Napoleon invaded Russia, he won every major battle and still lost his Grande Armée’ and the war — the Russians simply reframed the rules of 18th century warfare.
How do you reframe the rules to help manage this type of emotional dispute?
by Lynda Bourne
A person’s attitude is derived from their perceptions of a person or situation. In the project context, it is often the stakeholder’s perception of your project and how its outcomes will affect the stakeholder’s interests.
Fortunately, perceptions — and therefore attitudes — are negotiable and can be changed by effective communication.
In my research, I’ve found two key dimensions to attitudes:
Levels of Support
Support can range from active opposition to active support. The project team needs to understand the stakeholder’s current level of support and then determine what is a realistic optimum level to facilitate the project’s success.
However, what represents a realistic optimum level varies. For example, environmental activists can never be realistically expected to support a new road through a wilderness area. In this circumstance the realistic optimum may be passive opposition as opposed to active opposition. On the other hand, your project sponsor should be an active supporter.
Creating Open Communication
The key to achieving either of these objectives — and support in general — is open communication. If the stakeholder is unwilling to communicate (either because they don’t like you or they are just too busy), you need to devise ways to open channels.
This may involve using other stakeholders in the network, using someone else on your team as the messenger, changing the way you communicate or just plain persistence.
If you can’t gain credibility — one of the key factors within your control that will influence the effectiveness of your communication — with a particular person because of their perceptions of you or your project, make sure you find a credible messenger to carry your communication.
Communication is a two-way process. Only after communication channels are open can you start to listen to the other person and understand their needs, concerns or ambitions. Once these are known, you are then in a position to either explain how the current project meets those needs or consider risk mitigation strategies to modify the project to reduce issues and enhance opportunities.
Communicating for Effect
The whole point of stakeholder management is to optimize the overall attitude of the stakeholder community to allow the project to succeed.
Communicating for effect means focusing your communication efforts where the need is greatest:
Remember, a very significant proportion of the risks around most projects are people-based. The only way to identify, manage and/or mitigate these risks is by effective two-way communication designed to effect changes in attitude.
How do you focus your communication effort for maximum effect?
By Lynda Bourne
In the world of materials science, resilience is the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape after it has been deformed by a force or load. Resilient materials absorb the stress by flexing under the load —typically with increasing levels of resistance the further they bend.
Provided the material’s elastic limit is not reached, it will return to its original state once the stress is released. Plastic materials perform similarly under load but retain their new shape after the load is released. Brittle materials do not deflect under load, they retain their original shape until the load exceeds their load-resisting capacity (strength) and then they break.
Most practical materials used in the modern world combine these attributes in different ways to optimize performance:
For more than 1,000 years, Japanese swordsmiths have combined resilient steels to provide strength with hard, brittle steels to provide a “cutting edge” in the manufacture of their swords — the Celts, Vikings and Saxons used similar techniques. In the days when having a good sword was literally a matter of life-or-death, the best weapons combined steels with different aspects of resilience, hardness and strength — no single option was “the best.”
Now, however, everyone is talking about “resilience” as being desirable, both as a personal attribute and as an organizational characteristic.
But is this really the best option?
The Case For Resilience
In terms of a personal or organizational characteristic, resilience is the ability to adapt to stressful circumstances or bounce back from adverse events. This is particularly important when dealing with the unknown in risk management. By definition you don’t know these risks exist and therefore cannot put management processes in place to deal with them.
Only after the risk eventuates can the organization start to adapt to the situation and deal with the issues. Flexibility and strength are essential. Once the risk is controlled, the organization returns to its original “shape” and work can resume as planned.
At the individual level, resilience is defined as the psychological capacity to adapt to stressful circumstances and to bounce back from adverse events. It is a highly sought-after personality trait in the modern workplace. But is too much resilience a bad thing?
Too Much Resilience
Too much resilience can easily drift into a stubborn refusal to accept reality. “The Serenity Prayer,” written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, says “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
In many situations, an excess of resilience can be very counterproductive. It can lead to:
Persistence and resilience are valuable attributes in the right place at the right time but need to be applied sensibly.
As with the manufacturing of swords, resilience, plasticity, hardness and softness are all important characteristics that are needed at different times. However, unlike a sword, people can adapt their behavior to each situation.
At times an agile/adaptive approach is best, bending to the needs of other stakeholders and changing the goals you are working towards. At times a fragile approach is best — break the relationship and walk away from the unnecessary stress (but you do need the internal resilience to accept the break and move on). In other circumstances, resilience and persistence are precisely the right response to adverse circumstances.
The difficulty we all face is knowing which option is best in each situation both as an individual and as a member of an organization or team. Acquiring the practical wisdom to know the difference is never going to be easy. Perhaps one solution can be found in an effective team. Melding people with different characteristics into a strong and effective solution — it worked for the ancient swordsmiths, why not you?
How do you balance resilience and adaptability?
Maximizing the Value of Agile
By Lynda Bourne
Everyone wants to “go agile.” But far too many organizations seem to think agile is simply a different way of doing project work that will miraculously achieve major efficiencies.
For the approach to achieve its promise, the upper echelons of the organization need to become agile aware and adapt the way projects are initiated, funded and governed so that the project team can optimize their use of agile processes to create value. After all, one size does not fit every situation in an agile world.
I’d like to look at the differences in the management approach that are needed to maximize the value of agile in different situations.
One quick note: Different agile methodologies have different terminology and approaches. For this post, agile is defined as producing an output using a series of relatively short, time-boxed iterations, or sprints, where the work to be accomplished in each sprint is sized to be relatively consistent (e.g., can be accomplished by a team in two weeks), and what is to be done in each sprint is determined during the lead-up to that sprint.
There are three environments where the agile approach can add value:
1. Maintenance environments: In these efforts, the application of agile concepts without the need for project management overheads can be very beneficial. Techniques including small focused teams, short sprints, backlog prioritization, and management. Burn down reporting can show how much maintenance work is facing the teams, the team efficiencies, and the overall backlog trend.
Agile does not need to be embedded in a program or project to be effective. In this situation, the finance and resources (i.e., the agile teams) are the fixed constraints; the organization’s budgeting procedure funds a predetermined level of staffing on an annual basis. The management variable is the amount of work accomplished each month and deals with new and emerging maintenance issues and minor enhancements in a timely manner based on some effective form of prioritization.
2. Contractual or legal obligations: In projects like these, the scope of work is fixed (or at least subject to formal change control) and the management variables are efficiency and cost consequences. In this environment, with adaptation, a whole range of standard project management processes such as earned value can be applied to the oversight of project work and used for management reporting and project control. The agile teams still function in the traditional agile way, sizing the amount of work included in each sprint, producing usable outputs in short intervals and progressively building toward the completed project. The management challenge is achieving the specified scope within the approved time and cost parameters.
3. Projects that lack a defined scope: In these projects, the client often has a vision of what the outcome should achieve, frequently framed in terms of business improvements. In this situation, the project is on a journey to optimize the delivery of as much of the vision as is sensible. The management variables for this type of project include scope, cost and time.
Decisions will have to be made about which parameters are more important—either as an overall consideration or on an element-by-element view of the various components within the project.
a. In some projects, time to market is a key factor, possibly with scope as the second most important factor. And, to a large extent, how much it costs to achieve the necessary scope within the deadline will be a consequence rather than the control. The primary management challenge is delivering the scope required to implement the vision within the time constraint as efficiently as possible.
b. Other projects have the quality of the vision as their primary drive, and the management challenge is to achieve all of the vision for the optimum time and cost outcomes. Decisions on how much and how long can vary depending on progress toward achieving the vision. Obviously, there must be some cost and time constraints. And a key conversation with the client has to be around the value proposition of still achieving their vision based on cost information to date, with the possibility of adapting the vision based on learned experience as the project proceeds.
c. Lastly, in some projects where the available funds are limited, the challenge for management is to achieve as much of the vision as possible within the defined funding limit, frequently with time as an additional limitation imposed by the funding cycle or the market. To maximize value, the client needs to be fully engaged in the decision-making process around scope inclusions, deferrals, and exclusions.
Once you understand the agile framework you’re operating within, the real challenge is making sure your clients and other senior stakeholders also understand that an agile approach to project delivery requires very different governance and decision-making processes. Organizational agility starts at the top by setting the right challenges for the agile teams within the right funding model. The next step is to use appropriate assurance functions to make sure agile teams are delivering what’s needed to create value—old-fashioned budgeting processes are unlikely to be appropriate.
How do you go about engaging your senior stakeholders in this type of conversation?
Understanding Expert Judgment
By Lynda Bourne
A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) uses the concept of “expert judgment” in most of its processes, but only has a relatively brief description of the concept. It describes expert judgment as “judgment based on expertise appropriate for the activity being performed” and advises, “such expertise may be provided by any group or person with specialized education, knowledge, skills, experience or training.”
This description leaves three questions:
Obtaining the expertise necessary to arrive at a wise judgment is not the exclusive responsibility of the project manager—you do not have to be the expert! However, the project manager is undoubtedly responsible for the consequences of any judgments that are made.
Instead, project managers should focus on knowing how to obtain the necessary expert advice and how to use that advice to arrive at the best project decision.
Finding an Expert
The first challenge in applying expert judgment is identifying the right people with the right expertise to provide advice.
By definition, an expert is a person whose opinion—by virtue of education, training, certification, skills or experience—is recognized as holding authoritative knowledge. But this definition is subjective and different experts will frequently have very different opinions around the same question or set of facts.
Also, as the Dunning-Kruger effect explains, people with limited knowledge are often absolutely certain about the facts.
Experts, however, being more cognizant of what they don’t know and having the knowledge to appreciate the complexity and depth of a problem, will frequently only provide a probabilistic answer, such as, “I would suggest this option, but….”
The decision-maker must ensure that the information brought into the judgment process is the best information—not the information that is advocated most loudly.
The organization needs to make information available to its managers about the sources and types of expertise available, and the location of useful experts. This information needs to be updated on a regular basis and be accessible.
In the context of expert judgment, judgment is an action verb—it is the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions based on information and knowledge derived from the application of expertise. Consequently, while the project manager can, and frequently should, seek expert advice to help inform his or her judgment, ultimately the considered decision that comes out of the judgment process is the responsibility of the project manager.
The defining competence of every good manager, project managers included, is their ability to make effective and timely decisions. The challenge is balancing the decision’s importance, the timeframe in which the decision is required, the cost (including opportunity costs) accrued in reaching the decision and the availability of the resources used in the decision-making process.
The key elements of effective judgment are:
The judgment portion of expert judgment is part of the individual manager’s skill set. Their innate abilities should be supported with training and a culture that rewards a proactive approach to deciding.
Making an Expert Judgment
Bringing expertise and decision-making skills together to form an expert judgment works best in a structured process. PMI’s publication, Expert Judgment in Project Management: Narrowing the Theory-Practice Gap, outlines the framework:
When significant decisions are needed on a regular basis within the organization, standard operating processes should be defined to reinforce the practice of obtaining an expert judgment using the organizations knowledge resources.
How do you go about making expert judgments?