Project Management

Easy in theory, difficult in practice

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My musings on project management, project portfolio management and change management. I'm a firm believer that a pragmatic approach to organizational change that addresses process & technology, but primarily, people will maximize chances for success. This blog contains articles which I've previously written and published as well as new content.

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Could nudges help to increase psychological safety?

Does your board need a business agility committee?

Helping team members avoid the fears of working remotely

Chronic Complainer or Cursed Cassandra?

Seven Sins of Reviews

Could nudges help to increase psychological safety?

In one of my earlier articles, I had proposed the use of behavioral nudges to help improve project governance. After reading an HBR article this week in which the authors provided a number of suggestions on how to sustain newly adopted behaviors in the context of the imminent return to in-person office work, I thought that a nudge-based approach might also help with increasing psychological safety.

On the surface, this might seem like a bad idea. After all, if your prevailing culture is toxic, drastic actions might need to be taken to see meaningful improvements. There could be a few "bad apples" at all levels of the organization structure who won't change and may need to be shown the door. There would also be some benefit in providing education to all staff on the importance of psychological safety and what they can personally do to build it.

But once the dust has settled on these overt tactics, different approaches are needed to sustain the desired types of behavior.

At the risk of necro-quoting, following Gretzky's “I skate to where the puck is going” approach will work well when hiring if we bring on new staff who are committed to creating safe environments, but what about our existing staff?

Hallway posters are not the solution. "Loose lips sink ships" might have worked during past war times, but we are playing the long game when we want to build psychological safety. And with the strong likelihood that flex-place arrangements will persist well beyond the end of the pandemic, such visual cues won't translate well to the virtual world.

Rewarding or recognizing behaviors which promote safety helps, but if not designed properly, such carrots could generate unwanted consequences and won't generally contribute to long-term sustainability

But if we think of Daniel Kahneman's System 1 and 2 model from Thinking, Fast and Slow, a well-designed nudge could shift the cognitive System 2 process required to behave in a different, safer manner to the lower effort, default-driven lazy System 1.

One example of such a nudge might be an add-in for e-mail, persistent chat and instant messaging tools which would analyze content as you type it and offer suggestions on different wording. Such an assistant should be more like the intelligent suggestion capabilities offered in e-mail platforms such as Gmail rather than the reviled Microsoft Clippy assistant which plagued MS Office 2000 users.

Another nudge could be an assistant which would analyze received text content to proactively alert you that it might contain bad news so that you can be better prepared to respond to it.

And yet another would be to use virtual backgrounds in video conferences with key messages highlighted so that while we are speaking with someone, the importance of safety remains front and center.

If developing sustainable psychological safety is a journey, it might keep rolling with a few nudges.

Posted on: May 16, 2021 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Does your board need a business agility committee?

Categories: Agile, Change Management

An HBR article piqued my interest: “Your Board Needs a People Committee”. In it, the authors provide services which a talent-focus on the part of a subset of the board could bring to helping the leadership teams they support in attracting, retaining and developing their #1 asset. The authors assert that the typical annual reviews of people data conducted by most boards are insufficient as these only provide lagging evidence of where corrective change might be needed.

I realized the same benefits could arise if boards took an active interest in how companies are going about increasing their business agility.

A year ago, I had written an article covering the benefits of a top-down and bottom-up approach to improving organizational agility as in many companies middle management is where transformative change goes to die. A top-down approach is likely to be side-stepped or given lip service by middle managers and might be actively resisted by teams. A bottom-up approach might work for individual teams but to get commitment from the delivery and control partners which make up value streams, top-down support is essential.

But the fly in this particular ointment is that senior leaders rarely stay put.

It is not uncommon for a senior executive to change portfolios every two years, especially if they are being groomed for a C-level position. I’ve seen more than my fair share of transformations which were cancelled or rebooted prematurely because the original sponsoring executives had moved on and their replacements either felt that the changes were no longer a priority or they had a different vision for the desired end state.

We know that the road to increased business agility is a long and arduous one for large companies. The likelihood that the primary executive sponsor or key members of the steering committee will remain the same over the journey is quite low. Given this, wouldn’t it make sense to actively engage the board to guide (and in some cases drive) aspects of the transformation?

Beyond the issue of executive attrition, there are a couple of other reasons why this is worth considering:

  • Board members are usually involved with multiple companies and could help the leadership team in establishing realistic targets as well as in identifying innovative practices which they have seen work elsewhere.
  • Increases in business agility should lead to greater value realization and improved talent retention. Both of these should be of great interest to boards, so why would they not want to be more actively engaged?

Of course, to make this work, the board and the executive team will need to develop rules of engagement and some definition of roles and responsibilities to reduce the likelihood of board members overstepping their boundaries.

So if you are leading a business agility transformation and have got buy-in from your senior leadership team, your selling work is not done. Take it to the board!

Posted on: May 09, 2021 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Helping team members avoid the fears of working remotely

HBR published an article this week titled Managing your WFH paranoia. In the article, the author focuses on the impacts of the “out of sight, out of mind” concerns which many workers have developed over the course of the past year resulting from COVID-19 pandemic work restrictions. Such fears could include a sense of persecution, feelings of abandonment or being disrespected.

She also provides a number of tips on how team members can avoid or overcome these concerns including:

  • Establishing clear expectations with stakeholders
  • Prioritizing what’s important and not overextending one’s commitments
  • Being aware of one’s reaction to negative feedback or a lack of feedback from others, and seeking to understand it rather than becoming defensive or more paranoid
  • Compartmentalizing the concerns and finding methods of being able to park those concerns at the end of the workday

Such tactics are helpful, but always remember that it takes two to tango. While we want our team members to be as self-managing as possible, what we do as leaders will go a long way towards helping them do so.

So what can you do as a team lead to help your team members avoid such fears?

Tune up your team’s working agreements

Assuming your team members have already developed a set of ground rules for how they will interact with one another, it might be a good time to refresh these rules. Facilitate a candid conversation with your team about fears of isolation and encourage them to identify additional rules for how to go about surfacing such fears. Explore what behaviors should be reinforced or avoided to reduce the likelihood of such fears festering. Don’t hesitate to lead by example. Give them instances of when you might have felt these same concerns and how you dealt with them.

Be (more) responsive

You might feel that you are an excellent communicator, but are you testing this assumption regularly? Could you do more to provide feedback in a clear, timely manner? Is the way in which you respond (or not) sending the wrong messages? Ask your team members, either in a group or one-on-one, if they can think of a recent specific scenario where their your remote interactions with them made them feel more concerned than if you had been working with them in person.

Check in regularly

While I’m sure you are using regular informal surveys or other techniques to see how your team is feeling, you might wish to add some questions specifically related to how your team members are feeling. As as example, you might ask them to grade their level of comfort or confidence on a sliding scale.

Be aware of their commitments

Make sure that there is transparency around who has committed to what. Encourage your team members to work a sustainable pace and to come to you if they are not confident in pushing back when someone asks them to take on more work than they feel comfortable juggling.

Provide support resources

If you have the ability, set up some virtual workshops or lunch-n-learns on how to manage stress and fear of failure concerns when working remotely. Encourage your team members to identify a “buddy” within their team with whom they can have candid, safe two-way conversations about this topic. Locate suitable online videos related to the subject and view and discuss them together during team meetings.

Remote work is here to stay.

If team leaders and team members work together to tackle the concerns that come with this way of working, their efforts will be like a bright sunshine burning off the fog of fear.

Posted on: May 02, 2021 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

Chronic Complainer or Cursed Cassandra?

Having the courage to speak up within a team without fear of social repercussion is a symptom of a higher level of psychological safety. Depending on the context of the complaint it might, in fact, be evidence of Challenger Safety which is the top level of Dr. Timothy R. Clark’s 4 Stages of Psychological Safety model, and is a prerequisite for unleashing the creativity of a team.

Sounds good, right?

But what should we do when one person’s raising of concerns becomes chronic? Left unchecked, such behavior could alienate the individual from the rest of the team as others within the team might not want to have someone bringing them down. If allowed to fester, the individual’s contributions will be criticized or rejected based on how they are perceived by others in the team. Even worse, their regular ranting could become contagious and infect other team members which will bring down the team’s overall morale and productivity.

It would be tempting to jump in and confront the team member, but before directly intervening, seek first to better understand what is going on. Consider their most recent set of complaints and ask yourself the following questions.

  • Are their concerns legitimate or are they unfounded?
  • Are the concerns they are raising too general or are they very specific?
  • Assuming the concerns are both legitimate and specific, has the individual attempted to address them constructively and what has the response to those actions been?
  • What are they seeing which you are not?

Once you have gathered this information, look at it objectively, and if you find yourself unable to do so, invite a trusted peer, in confidence, to review the evidence and provide their opinion.

Is your team member a chronic complainer or are they a cursed Cassandra? There are many examples of those unfortunate few who tried to make the many sit up and pay attention only to be persecuted for their efforts and do YOU want to be on the wrong side of history?

Intervene too soon and you will send the message to the individual and the rest of the team that you can’t handle the truth. The next time they feel concerned about something, they will stay silent as they no longer feel safe.

But once you are convinced that intervention is needed, don’t delay. Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries wrote an article for HBR providing guidance on how to do so once you know it is warranted.

Work with a diverse group of people long enough and someone is guaranteed to complain. This is natural human behavior and we want to encourage the healthy expression of concerns, especially if addressing these concerns directly could help to create a better outcome for our customers, our company or society in general.

Posted on: April 25, 2021 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Seven Sins of Reviews

Categories: Agile, Kanban

Whether your team follows a specific framework or has taken a mix-and-match approach with its practices, a tenet of agile is the use of short feedback loops to support inspection and adaptation.

Whether your team sets a regular cadence for external product reviews or they are conducted on a just-in-time basis, it is important to get actionable feedback. But conducting a review is not just a matter of bringing people together.

While there are probably more than just these ways of messing up reviews, here are seven which I’ve witnessed.

  1. The only attendee is a Product Owner (or similar role representing the voice of the customer). While we expect that Product Owners are knowledgeable, their feedback is one step removed from that of real external stakeholders. The Product Owner can judge whether the product is meeting needs, but the team loses the benefit of asking questions such as “What new ideas for the product does this feature give you?” or “How could we make this feature add more value to you?“. In addition, Product Owner feedback should be received by the team on (ideally) a daily basis rather than having a special event just for that purpose.
  2. Cramming too much into a review and not allowing stakeholders sufficient time to digest what they’ve seen. As teams get better at delivering, they might be able to complete more work in the same amount of time. In such cases, the frequency of external reviews should be increased so the content reviewed is less and the content covered should be organized in some prioritized order.
  3. Holding a demo rather than a two-way exchange. If the only purpose of a review is to show what the team has completed, that could be recorded and provided to stakeholders to watch at their leisure. The real value of a review is the rich back and forth discussions which happen between team members and stakeholders and between different stakeholders based on what they are seeing. Using powerful, open-ended questions is one way to ensure that the knowledge sharing doesn’t just happen in one direction.
  4. Having the wrong people in the review. It is almost as bad to have the wrong external stakeholders in the room as it is to have none. If personas are being used to facilitate requirements discovery, there should be representation for each persona if the content of what’s being reviewed impacts them. And because a review is a working session and not just a forum for sharing information, we don’t want to have too many people in the room either.
  5. Making commitments during the review. It can be tempting for a team member or the Product Owner to try to curry favor from a powerful external stakeholder by committing to a specific product change or to a release date, but this is not the right forum for it. Desired content and target dates can be captured but the Product Owner and team should take the time to understand the impacts of such changes.
  6. Open criticism of the team’s work. It is natural for an external stakeholder to get frustrated if their expectations weren’t met for the content being reviewed. Such feedback is crucial to help the team improve over time. But if that criticism is provided in an abusive manner, the team’s morale and productivity will take a hit.
  7. Not taking sufficient time to analyze what was learned during a review. If we are using up valuable stakeholder time, it behooves us to use their feedback well. It might be convenient to hold a retrospective or similar event immediately after a review but this might not allow the team and Product Owner the time required to properly digest the feedback they received.

Well-run reviews are a key ingredient of building the right product for our customers, so avoiding these seven sins will go a long way to getting real value out of these critical events.

Posted on: April 18, 2021 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)
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