Do Your Job: Then Let Go
Human Aspects of PM
Categories: Human Aspects of PM
A very good friend of mine, Francis Pring-Mill, with whom I spent much time teaching dozens of multi-day project management courses to groups of consultants in many cities around North America, wrote a book called "In Harmony with the Tao: A Guided Journey into the Tao Te Ching". In this analysis, he helps us read between the lines of wisdom conveyed by this ancient Chinese text, written over 2,500 years ago by Lao Tsu. We all know at least one line from Lao Tsu's book: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
Why am I talking about this here? I knew one day Francis would somehow tie together the Tao and project management and In a recent newsletter to his loyal followers, he did just that. I thought I would post the article in its entirety here for the benefit of those who practice or are interested in servant leadership, since I believe the message of the article certainly applies.
“If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go.”
Let go? But what if things don’t turn out the way we want? What if others don’t notice who we are and what we’ve done? The Tao Te Ching (Chapter 24) reminds us we can either be directed by our self-image and cling to what we’ve done, or we can let go and live in harmony with the Tao. It’s our choice.
Wouldn’t it be great if we always got to do a job we loved to do, the world paid us a living to do it, and we could just lose ourselves in the joy of doing our work? At the end of the day, we could let it all go knowing we could do the same again next day. The reward, as it were, would lie in the moment; it would not lie in some future payoff.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time our work is not a joyful end in itself – it’s a means to an end. Often, a large part of the reason for doing our work does lie in the future. We’re striving after something we desire: more money, or more security, or the esteem of other people. It’s the results we want, and we don’t have them yet. Nonetheless we act and feel as if we own the results already. So we take our work very personally. This is why we stay close by and why we don’t “let go.” Why do we do this?
I think part of the reason is because we’ve invested a lot of ourselves in doing the work. And we tend to cling to it precisely because we haven’t yet got the results. The previous sentence in Chapter 24 says “He who clings to his work will create nothing that endures.” We cling because we want to make sure we reap the rewards of our efforts. We desire the money, or the security we believe the money will bring, or the esteem of others who will notice what a great job we’ve done and think more highly of us. In a nutshell, once basic needs are met, we cling to our work because it’s the fame and fortune we’re after.
The bad news is that neither fame nor fortune are certain, and both of them have a habit of hiding in the future. What’s more, if they arrive in the present, they are seldom things that “endure.” In the words of the quote, they do not accord with the Tao.
So what does Lao Tzu mean when he invites us to let go and thereby “accord with the Tao”? I think he’s suggesting we let go of desiring particular future outcomes from what we do. Note this does not mean that we don’t care one way or another. Nor does it mean we have no goals. I think it simply means that when we act, we desire no particular outcome and expect no particular result.
Desire and expectation are not needed. What’s more they interfere because they linger once we have acted. They are our vested interest in a particular outcome or a particular result. Desire and expectation are what prevent us from letting go. In the grand scheme of things, all we have is the opportunity to influence what is unfolding anyway with or without our help. We don’t get to control all the detailed consequences of our actions. What if we let our goal be no more than a creative intent to shape the unfolding of what is about to be?
If we did this, I think we’d spend more time listening. We’d spend more time responding rather than reacting. We’d aim to create harmony. We’d forget desire and expectation. We’d act with intent and caring. Then we’d let go.
Well, I certainly wish I could do that consistently on a daily basis! What would that look like for me?
Suppose I was managing a project involving other people, I think it would look like getting less involved in the details of what everyone was doing, and getting more focused on building the vision of the project. I would do more letting go and trusting people to bring their skills to achieving our common goal. I like to think I wouldn’t lose sight of staying on time and on budget, but would be more open to changing our project plan if someone came up with a better way to do things.
Would I be “according” with the Tao? Well, that’s a tough question. However, I think the project would flow a lot better. In short, I think I’d still “do my job” but I’d also be more open to letting go. And if I was concerned that people wouldn’t notice what a great project manager I was, I’d try to remember the Harry S. Truman quote: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” I can’t help thinking Lao Tzu would agree.
What’s an example that’s true for you? Where do you think you might “cling” to your work? What would “letting go” look like for you? What aspect of your job might go better if you did some of that?
If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:
Thanks for reading. Feel free to share this newsletter.
(In Harmony with the Tao: A Guided Journey into the Tao Te Ching is available as an e-book or as a paperback from your nearest independent book store, from White Cloud Press, from Amazon.com, or from Amazon.ca.)
A recent question on Quora prompted me to spend 20 minutes writing an answer because I believe it to be a critically important question.
The question was "How is strategic management used in project execution?" I didn't really want to answer that question, so I indulged myself and changed it to “How does project management fit with strategic management?”
Organizations must have a strategy. If they don’t, let’s just stop the conversation here.
Strategy needs to have a plan of execution. It is of no use for a bunch of executives to fly to some resort somewhere and dream up a strategy, then fly back, dispersing it to the minions, expecting that they will run off in all directions implementing it exactly as they envisioned. Strategy without execution is no more than a puff of smoke. It is where the rubber meets the sky, as we used to say at Michelin Tires.
Now let’s talk about projects. This is where the rubber meets the road. Others may have said that Projects are used to execute a strategy, and therefore must be aligned with the strategy.
I take a slightly different view. That is, Portfolios of Programs and Projects must align with the Strategic Intent of the organization.
Portfolios are often based on business units, answering the question “To be successful, what set of Programs and Projects must my part of the organization execute over this period of time, and for which I have funding, in order to meet the business goals set out for my part of the organization, interleaving with other parts of the organization?” The period of time may be a year, three years, five years or more; or changing continuously as in Agile Organizations - another topic.)
So you might ask, “What is a Program, then?”. I’m glad you asked.
A Program is a series of inter-related, and possibly inter-dependent projects, all of which must be executed to achieve a business benefit or set of benefits. That is, if any one of the projects is not executed (not necessarily at the same time), the business benefit cannot be achieved.
So - Projects are part of Programs (and for various reasons, if we define it this way, we must also say that a Program may contain many Projects or even only one Project). Projects deliver products, usually on time, on budget and to the desired level of quality using either traditional (predictive) or Agile (adaptive) methods. Products of projects are used to realize the benefits defined in the strategy and in this way set the stage for delivery of benefits, albeit not the actual benefits themselves. Benefits Realization Management is another topic for another day.
So how does all this answer the [modified] question?
Strategy is a must-have for any organization. Implementation or execution of Strategy has to be funded and planned. The best way to do this, in my view, is through Business-defined Portfolios containing Programs and Projects, that are created to be in lock-step with the Strategy, and through which executives who created the strategy cause their vision to become a reality.
It goes without saying that executives who implement their Strategies this way must provide the organizational resources required: their personal support, funding, people, and careful attention to change and how it will impact the organization. This raises the specter of Organizational Change Management, also a topic for another day.
I believe executives who set strategy and then empower their people to deliver it, providing the required resources and support whenever they need it, represent the epitome of Servant Leaders. Set the direction, trust your people and give them what they need to do the job.
What do you think? What is happening in your organizations? Is strategy delivery baked into your DNA? Or is it an annual talk about corporate vision that does little but excite people for a few hours a year?
This past winter I helped coach a recreational league high school basketball team for my son. I am always up for the challenge of coaching a youth sport for our town. Over the years, I have coached lacrosse, soccer, baseball, and most recently basketball. There are many challenges to a successful season, and at this level success isn’t always defined as how many wins a team can get. It sure helps with morale, but the most important gauge of success is that a player has become a better player playing for the team I coached. That being said, I find myself pulling from my Project Management background in so many areas. Utilizing the practice of initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing the work has helped tremendously in making the whole experience for the other coaches, the players, and the parents a smooth and enjoyable one. I thought it would be fun to look at the areas that I have pulled from.
Initiating can be hectic. Luckily, most of the parents and other coaches also realize that the number of wins isn’t the only way to have a successful season. This all starts way before a team is actually put together. We need to meet with the full league, secure gym time, set up a way for players to sign up, and figuring out and coordinating the practice and game schedules.
Planning, for me, is the fun part. We finally are ready with lists of players and it’s time for tryouts. Similarly to hiring an employee that you are going to work with on projects, we always focus on how coachable the kids are. This doesn’t mean that they are the best at the sport, but it means that they are ready and willing to learn. The same goes for business. If everyone focused on all stars for projects, we may do well on that one project, but it is important to also train other players for other projects and for the future. A good project team is a blend of experienced, motivated individuals with multiple skills. On a basketball team, we want everyone to come to practice with an open mind. Sure, it helps to have teammates who can shoot and score, but it sure helps having someone that may be good at defense, or great at bench morale. These all make for a great team and a fun experience.
Executing comes in many forms, especially during a season. Each game requires execution; from the players and the coaches. On a project team, executing well allows the team to succeed at their ultimate goal of successfully finishing the project on time and on budget. Executing plays is what is required of the players, while figuring out player matchups and what the other team may be throwing at us is what is required of the coaches.
Controlling in terms of a sports team can be broken down in a couple of different parts. Off the field, there are a lot of moving parts, most of which are coordinating various schedules, vacations, carpooling, and the occasional sicknesses… making sure that we have enough players to play in each game. On the field, or court in the case of basketball, we as coaches must look at the players as individual parts of the team. We need to ensure that they are not getting worn out, not getting into foul trouble, and, ideally, trying to control the other team enough to win the game. I did mention that winning isn’t everything, but it sure is part of a competitive sport.
Closing the season out can be in the form of a playoff run. But, more than that, it is important to make sure that the team’s goals have been satisfied and hopefully a handful of them are willing to come back for another season. Having a team that has been together for one year can drastically help ease startup of the next season. On a project team, there will be turnover due to promotions, change of job, retirement, etc… but making sure that they are all motivated to be successful again on another new project is the ultimate goal.
In conclusion, project management practices help me make my personal and professional lives much easier to handle. If anything, from coaching a sport or being part of a project management team, it has allowed me to break down a sometimes daunting task to one that is much more manageable and enjoyable. Applied in judicious amounts, I believe project management practices will also help you: at work, in the community and at home.
Servant Leadership is not a leadership style; it is a way of life, with genuine and generous heart and strong commitment to the humility that puts the benefit of others before self.
Sharing with you Fortune’s The World’s most Admired Companies to start our conversation today. The oxymoron term of Servant Leadership has become better known because of the internationally recognized and respected success of the mega companies such as Starbucks (ranked 3rd in 2017, 5th in 2014) and Southwest Airlines (ranked #8 in 2017, #9 in 2014). Both deliver business excellence through the culture of trust and compassion.
Many people must think that Servant Leadership only works well in small teams or small organizations, such as the Scrum Master role in the software Agile development projects. However, size really doesn’t matter. Servant leadership is a way of creating human connections of virtuous cycles and building communities that outperform, as is the case with the examples above.
The path of finding or being a person with passion and passionately committed to a cause is not an easy one nor is it straightforward. For individuals, it is important to start from becoming self-aware, recognizing one’s strength or weakness and using that to benefit others without saying it (being humble). We are shaped by our experiences as a result of our actions. So, keep going!
Imagine if we continue to practice Servant Leadership from the heart with discipline, the virtues will expand and become a multiplier for the domino effect of the universe. Imagine the world operating in resonance with much success!
Everyone can be a leader with influence. A servant leader communicates well to inspire openness and trust. A servant leader cultivates a great emotional quotient to support others and help them thrive in doing and finding meaning and purpose in life while jointly advancing corporate goals. I think a good daily measure is to examine how much time you spend polishing and re-polishing to show your manager's position and control vs. working on improving the content to further develop ideas and execute to bring great results as a team.
Are you an entrepreneur who already embraced it and leading by example? If you have an opportunity to seek your company’s executive support for the servant leadership, what would be your "ask"? What will be an effective way to shift the corporate culture paradigm?
“Because I said so…”. This is a “powerful” sentence that (almost) every child has heard at least once. When they are criticized, misunderstood or just denied of what they want (with no explanation whatsoever), a child’s first impulse is either to dissolve into tears and/or to push back, puffing and woofing angrily towards the “repressor/enemy” (usually an adult). They want to show that they are in pain (psychologically) and frustrated.
But when you are 4 or 5 or 7 years old, it’s almost impossible to describe eloquently your state of mind, your emotions. It’s much easier to display them. This is why, in those particular moments, children begin to shout, whimper or scream. They actually begin to (what psychologist call) act-out (their feelings/emotions/ frustrations).
And guess what? In the adult world, it’s almost the same.
As adults, we learn to restrain (even repress) ourselves from physically exhibiting our (deep) emotions. We try to explain them, rationalise them as much as possible. However, as soon as somebody is “pushing” (harder) our buttons, we tend to return to our inner (indignant) child. We sulk, puff and woof, retreating from that conversation or, quite the opposite, retaliating in a strong, powerful manner. And, more often than we think, we want to protect ourselves by being more offensive. Instead of understanding our fears, insecurities and self-doubts, we block them and, most importantly, we turn them back on our opponent/”enemy”.
Didn’t you feel, after a dense, heated conversation and after you had time to cool off, that you might have just overreacted? That some of the actions you took and/or replies you uttered seemed (after you cooled off) exaggerated and inflamed considering the light weight of the topic itself?
That’s because you acted-out your state of mind. In that particular moment, the anger you experienced came from the fear that you will not get what you need/want, that you are not loved, not respected, not included/accepted by the group.
Isn’t that exactly how it was when we were kids, only with more psychological “baggage” accumulated over the years? We are adults now, we can be angry and fight back with more power and more means. We can win this one - not like when we were kids.
Oh, this is such an illusion…
Now, imagine all of these for an individual in a leadership position. The number of threats and (possible) conflicts rise exponentially. Higher expectations and greater ambition bring an increased level of stress and anxiety. All of the repressed fears, emotions find an easier way to surface and the individual (the leader?!?) is more prone to act-out in difficult times such as short deadlines, conflicting teams, disgruntled employees, stressful projects and more. Just like in childhood, acting-out brings (most of the time) many disadvantages and problems in any human relation.
Obviously, we wonder if we can avoid these situations as much as possible or, at least, reduce their probability. It’s hard to give a recipe for such a complex psychological matter.
However, I would venture a guess and offer three key elements that, in my opinion, any individual should focus on if she/he wants to be a better person (and, consequently, a better leader). As a side note - these are also core elements of servant leadership and promoted as such.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, I am sure. Emotions, sensations, feelings, fears: all of them are part of a “world” that constitutes the foundation of any relationship; being personal or professional. Therefore, we must not ignore them but try to understand and have them work for our benefit as individuals, especially, for the ones aspiring to lead.
To be the leader everyone expects today, we need to heal the “wounds” from yesterday or, at least, acknowledge and start working on them. And this is the toughest leadership decision that any of us wishing to lead has to make.
Are you up for it?