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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Don't be like a squirrel hiding nuts with project lessons!

I may be a "Crazy Fool" but I consider the A-Team to be agile!

Understanding the mismatched is another benefit of long-lived, stable teams

Horror movie lessons for managing project issues

Progress is the secret sauce of motivation...

I may be a "Crazy Fool" but I consider the A-Team to be agile!

When teaching agile classes, I'm occasionally asked if I could provide an example of an agile team from cinema or television. While the first Avengers movie does a good job of illustrating Bruce Tuckman's stages of team development (especially storming!), they are far from being agile.

The example I most frequently provide is that quintessential 1980's TV show, The A-Team. If your only exposure to The A-Team was the horrible 2010 movie starring Liam Neeson, you owe it to yourself to watch a few episodes of the original series. Keep in mind, this was the 80's so the show does glorify violence, isn't very politically correct and shows many tropes from that era, but it is still worth seeing!

Here are a few of the reasons for this:

  • The team is self-managing. True, they have been disavowed by their government and are being hunted by military police for a crime they didn't commit, but with each episode where they help a new client they figure out their way of working without being mired in bureaucracy or seeking guidance from outside the team.
  • Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith is the leader of the team, but acts as a servant-leader. While he leads planning efforts for their missions, he does this in an inclusive, collaborative manner and will defer to his other team members during the execution of their missions.
  • Plans are created, and Hannibal loves it when a plan comes together, but they are also willing to throw the plan away when it is no longer realistic.
  • They exploit the diversity of their team rather than being constrained by it. Bosco "B.A." Baracus might call H. M. "Howling Mad" Murdock a "crazy fool", but he respects Murdock's ability to fly almost any type of aircraft. Each team member brings a different, but complementary skill set to their missions. In this regard, they are a "whole team". Each is highly skilled at what they do which could have resulted in ego clashes, but they always put the team ahead of themselves.
  • They are comfortable with complex, uncertain situations. Every episode challenges them with a unique mission where their resources are constrained but they still manage to put together creative gadgets and weapons with common household items to help them succeed.
  • There is a high degree of psychological (if not physical!) safety within the team. They operate with true radical candor - while they care deeply about each other, they don't pull any punches when providing constructive feedback. They are also very supportive when a fellow team member takes a risk - they will always have that person's back!
  • They are working towards a shared, strategic vision. While most episodes focused on their helping clients through difficult situations, the team continued to work towards their overarching goal of clearing their names.

Finally, they are long-lived and stable, and as I wrote in my article from last week, this helps to overcome many of misinterpretations which can occur when we first work with someone. This is best illustrated in the following quote from "B.A." Baracus:

B.A. Baracus: You learn to love him, Mama. But it takes a long time. (Referring to Hannibal)
Amy: That's the same thing he said about you.

 

 

Posted on: November 03, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Understanding the mismatched is another benefit of long-lived, stable teams

In his latest book, Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the problems which can result when we expect that there is alignment between how people act and how they really feel internally. Gladwell call this the transparency problem and provides multiple examples to illustrate the challenges we face when we assume that what we see is what we get.

He presents the assumptions which Neville Chamberlain made in the years leading up to World War II based on the meetings he had with Adolf Hitler. Chamberlain assumed that Hitler was being genuine when he indicated that he had no interest in starting a major conflict in Europe and yet his near term actions clearly showed that this was not the case. He talks about the difficulties which judges face when having to decide whether or not to grant bail based on not only case information available to them but how an accused behaves when they are in front of the judge. And he writes about the Amanda Knox case where Italian authorities assumed that she was guilty of murdering her roommate primarily because of her behavior when she was questioned after the incident.

Gladwell sorts people into those whose external behavior matches what is happening inside of them and those who don't. We are quite good at identifying matched people. In fact, Gladwell indicates that our ability to detect when a matched person is lying is almost as good as that of law enforcement experts. What's chilling is that when dealing with mismatched people these experts are no better than we are.

It is not that assuming transparency is a bad thing to do. As Gladwell states, Charles Darwin felt that transparent behavior was critical to creating trust between strangers which enabled our species to survive.

But what's the relevance of this to project delivery?

When interacting with those who we've never worked with before, most of us default to expecting transparency. When someone appears to be acting in a negative manner, this assumption might result in us becoming offended. Alternately, we might be getting warm, friendly vibes from a team member which causes us to assume that they are on our side only to be shocked when their subsequent actions prove they were not supporting us at all. In the latter situation, the individual may be purposefully deceiving us by providing false "tells" (to use the poker term) but in the former, it might simply be a case of someone who is mismatched.

This is illustrated in the movie Joker. Joaquin Phoenix's titular character is prone to burst out laughing hysterically at inopportune moments as a result of childhood head trauma. Strangers exposed to this behavior assume transparency and respond negatively. To attempt to compensate, he has cards which he hands to offended strangers providing the justification for his inappropriate laughter.

But once we get to know that these team members are mismatched, we begin to understand them for who they truly are, and the likelihood of misinterpreting their behavior is vastly reduced. When we are part of long-lived, stable teams, we are able to appreciate the diversity of those who work with us and are able to leverage these differences as strengths and not as sources of conflict.

Posted on: October 27, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Progress is the secret sauce of motivation...

I've written about many drivers of individual motivation. Receiving regular recognition (Early Saturday morning alliteration!), effective empowerment giving us autonomy over our work, having opportunities to improve our skills, belonging to a team where psychological safety is valued and feeling that our inner purpose is linked to the outer purpose for our projects are all important.

But the missing component from the above ingredients list is seeing frequent (ideally daily) evidence of the progress we are making through our work efforts.

In his last Pinkcast, Daniel Pink spoke about the perceived importance of demonstrable progress and referenced Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer's book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work

So what does this imply for project managers?

If your approach is to deliver a few, infrequent "big bang" changes rather than encouraging early and regular delivery of value, this may not support the progress principle. This is less of a concern with those projects involving tangible, visible outcomes. An engineering and construction team might be building a theatre so stakeholder value is only realized once the theatre has been fully built and turned over to its owners. Although this may not happen for months, at the end of each day on the job site the team members are able to see visible signs of the progress they've made. I believe that this is one of the motivators for the volunteers who will work at disaster sites clearing debris every day as they are able to incrementally see order returned to chaos.

But on those projects which will have intangible outcomes, this gets trickier. Assuming the context of these projects would support adaptive lifecycles, adopting such approaches should increase the likelihood of all team members seeing progress. A batched approach to processing work items implies that one skill set is highly engaged whereas others upstream or downstream are waiting. With a flow-based teaming approach, all team members should see visible evidence of the work they've completed. Sprint reviews and other similar ceremonies will provide structured product feedback and recognition from external stakeholders, but serve as motivational gravy rather than the main course.

Seeing is believing, but seeing is also motivating!

 

Posted on: October 13, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

The importance of radical candor for delivery teams

Kim Scott's bestseller is normally read as a guide for managers but it provides equal value to the members of self-organized teams. While she details a number of useful models within the book, her main model which positions a culture of radical candor relative to others can provide a good basis for team improvement. The culture of the organization in which a team is formed will often dictate the default starting quadrant for interpersonal behavior.

In those companies where higher value is placed on playing nice rather than being effective or in those where conflict suppression is preferred to confrontation, team members may demonstrate behaviors consistent with Ruinous Empathy™. If a particular team member is constantly tardy for daily standups, rather than tackling the issue directly, other team members will internally stew but silently put up with it. Over time this will damage their relationships with that team member and will impact the synergy of the team.

Where the atmosphere of a company resembles a shark tank, Obnoxious Aggression™ might be the starting point. When that same team member shows up late once for a daily standup, they will be so thoroughly chewed out by one or more team members for having wasted time that the offender would be likely to set multiple redundant alarms to avoid ever being put through that particular wringer again! Feedback is provided in a timely manner when someone violates a team norm or isn't pulling their weight, but the method in which the message is delivered bruises egos and, over time, results in a culture of docile submission and low psychological safety.

If Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish from Game of Thrones is considered a role model, then teams might start by exhibiting Manipulative Insincerity™. The team member who shows up late to standups will eventually receive feedback but only indirectly as a result of overhearing grumbling from other team members around the water cooler or through unnecessary escalation to his or her functional manager. Such passive-aggressive behavior not only delays the time for receiving and acting on feedback but it also erodes trust and reduces collaboration within the team.

One approach to address such dysfunctional behavior is to use Kim's model during a retrospective. Team members could brainstorm specific actions they witnessed (or themselves performed) which fell into one of the above three quadrants as well as recognizing other actions which demonstrated radical candor. This could be used to help the team enhance their working agreements or to identify specific interpersonal improvements. The challenge is that the team members need to be self-aware and willing to suspend their default behavior patterns in their participation. A skilled agile lead may be needed to facilitate such an event.

Psychological safety is critical within high performing teams. Knowing that your peers have your back gives you the confidence to experiment, to express vulnerabilities, and to ask for help when you need it. But another critical ingredient for building a good team is to cultivate a culture of radical candor.

Posted on: September 22, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

PMI plus Disciplined Agile might be a marriage made in Heaven

The announcement of the acquisition of Disciplined Agile (DA) by PMI is almost a month old so I thought I would share my thoughts on it.

There is no doubt that PMI has been flirting with agile progressively over the past decade. The launch of the PMI-ACP credential, the addition of adaptive life cycle considerations to the PMBOK® Guide, Sixth Edition and the release of the Agile Practice Guide were all signs of this growing interest.

However, PMI suffers from being perceived as a champion of bureaucratic, traditional approaches to business value delivery which has generated a fair bit of cynicism from the agile community. The partnership with the Agile Alliance which led to the development and publication of the Agile Practice Guide were viewed by some as a unhealthy dalliance or a marriage of convenience.

Correcting perceptions and developing sufficient intellectual property (IP) would have taken PMI many years to do organically so acquiring legitimate thought leadership, credibility and IP was the better strategic move. A key decision was to choose either a method-centric (e.g. SAFe, LeSS) or method-agnostic (e.g. Disciplined Agile, Modern Agile) organization. Given the need to address a global market with varied needs, agnosticism won out.

There are a number of potential advantages to PMI, DA and practitioners.

PMI now has the ability to incorporate the significant intellectual property of DA within their knowledge base and by doing so, enhance the value proposition of their standards and practice guides. While tailoring considerations were minimally explored in the PMBOK® Guide, Sixth Edition, they can now go much deeper by leveraging the DA process decision-making framework. PMI can also expand the breadth of their credentials and by doing so, will add credibility to the existing DA ones. Given the strategic relationships which PMI's senior leadership has forged with major global corporations, this acquisition will open doors for DA which might not have been possible otherwise which in turn might accelerate the evolution of DA. It is also an opportunity for the DA framework to go beyond technology delivery.

But there are some risks, including the dilution of thought leadership, the obsolescence of existing credentials and the risk of PMI actively competing with partners (e.g. Registered Education Providers). PMI might also make the mistake of not fully integrating DA into their offerings which would limit the benefits realized from this acquisition.

If there is a single piece of advice I'd like to pass along to PMI & DA, it is from Audrey Hepburn: “If I get married, I want to be very married.

Posted on: September 08, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (12)
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