Harvard Business Review published an article this week about how boards can prepare for unexpected calamities such as pandemics, natural disasters or cyber-attacks. The authors provided a three-pronged approach for dealing with both true black swan events as well as the more common black elephants (a low probability significant threat which leaders are aware of but don't wish to address proactively). While the strategies provided apply to board members who are looking after the health of their companies, after reading the article I felt they could be adapted to apply to projects as well.
Boards play a key governance role in the successful running of companies. Steering committees play a similar role when it comes to projects. A common mandate for a steering committee is to help guide projects in the right direction by providing ongoing support to the sponsor and project manager. Some steering committees merely play an advisory function whereas others might be more directive. If the sponsor or key risk owners are ignoring looming threats, the steering committee could push them to do more and can encourage these stakeholders to take a more proactive stance. Steering committees can ask these stakeholders the tough questions which project managers or team members might be afraid to ask. To do this, committees need to be staffed with a diverse group of leaders.
Boards are often actively involved in the succession planning process for leadership positions, helping to cue up the best candidates for key leadership roles. Executive teams can play a similar role with projects by identifying who possesses the right risk appetite to be the best sponsor for a project. They can also plan for the future by creating leadership development programs incorporating effective risk management lessons. And, capacity permitting, they can act as mentors for senior stakeholders on critical projects, helping those leaders to plan for the threats they'd rather not think about.
The article also recommends that boards can design or adjust leadership compensation programs to compensate leaders for taking steps which will protect the company from unplanned disruptions. These programs can also be tuned to penalize leaders who prioritize personal short term gains over long term organizational resilience. The same ideas can be used when defining performance plans for sponsors and other key senior project stakeholders. Incorporating project success within the performance plans for these leaders is a good start, but ensuring that the measures also assess how the leaders are going about ensuring success and what they are actively doing to protect against threats is equally important.
The authors close the article by reminding us that building up organizational resilience is a long game. If senior leaders fail to plan for black swans and elephants they will plan to fail when those are realized.
Following a presentation I gave this week on how project managers can cultivate psychological safety within their teams, an attendee asked me to what the relationship is between psychological safety and emotional intelligence (EI). After answering her I felt it was worth writing about it.
EI is normally considered to be a personal trait although it is possible to claim that one group of people has a higher degree of EI than another. Psychological safety is usually defined in the context of a team as it wouldn't make sense to assess the level of psychological safety of an individual unless they are suffering from multiple split personalities! It would be difficult to assess psychological safety for an overall organization as companies are normally composed of multiple overlapping teams. However, it is possible to assess if the executive team is committed to building a team culture of high psychological safety within the divisions which they lead.
One model for EI uses the following four attributes: self-management, self-awareness, social awareness & relationship management.
How do these traits help a team to become psychologically safe?
Team members who are effective at self-managing and are self-aware will be better equipped to handle actions, comments or behaviors from their team members which they take exception to. They know what their own strengths are but they also understand their weaknesses which means that they are more likely to say when they don't know something, are making an assumption or need assistance from someone else on the team. They have self-confidence which means they are comfortable with experimenting and not feeling that a failed experiment reflects poorly on their abilities.
Social awareness and relationship management relate to how much empathy we demonstrate towards others and to our ability to work well in a team as both a contributor and a leader. Having higher levels of these characteristics means that individuals will be better at picking up on the discomfort of their peers and can help those who are silent to find a voice. It also means that they will be more effective at resolving conflicts which could mean interceding on behalf of a team member if they are being persecuted.
So it seems like a reasonable assumption that on those teams where the members exhibit higher levels of emotional intelligence they are likely to become psychologically safe quicker than others.
But is there an inverse relationship as well?
It is difficult to effectively improve one's emotional intelligence without receiving coaching and support from those whose feedback we trust. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel safer providing feedback with radical candor to their peers. As such, I'd assert that psychological safety can act as an accelerator for increasing the overall emotional intelligence of the members of a team.
A rising tide lifts all boats!
The restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in more project managers working remotely. While this keeps everyone safe, it also means that there is a larger supply of project managers available to lead a given project since location is less critical. So long as a project manager is temporally close to key stakeholders, in many situations they should be able to get the job done.
While this provides greater opportunity to gain experience outside your locale it also means you are facing much more competition for these roles. Your experience, education and "who you know" can certainly help to differentiate you relative to other candidates, but building a solid brand is equally important.
One of the definitions which Merriam-Webster provides is apropos to our purposes: "A public image, reputation, or identity conceived of as something to be marketed or promoted".
The first thing is to decide what you want your project manager brand to be. Perhaps it is a "Steady Eddie" who can be relied upon to get the job done or maybe you want to be the "Red Adair" of the profession who can always be counted on to extinguish the flames of a project which is on fire.
But once you have decide what your brand is, how do you go about proving that you live up to it?
A simple answer is to deliver expected project outcomes, but that's table stakes. If you don't have a track record for that, you may be in the wrong profession or, at the very least, working for the wrong company.
If successful delivery is the foundation of your brand, you still need some solid walls. These include:
But these just relate to the projects you've managed.
What do you do to give back to others? Perhaps you mentor some practitioners who are new to project management. Or maybe you volunteer your time and skills to lead initiatives for not-for-profit organizations. Maybe you are a thought leader and have helped to evolve the profession through research or work developing standards or practice guides.
Your brand as a project manager is built across multiple dimensions. Neglecting those might result in you receiving a different type of brand as per Merriam-Webster: "A mark of disgrace"!
Scott Adams does a good job above of illustrating one of the many perils of low levels of psychological safety within a team. Dilbert is trying to raise reasonable doubts with his leader, the Pointy-Haired Boss, but his concerns are met with the threat of losing his job. How likely is it that Dilbert will raise such concerns in the future?
While this scenario has been dramatized for comedy purposes, it sometimes ends with tragic results. In those cases, lives are lost and the post-incident investigations often reveal systemic repression of raising any information which would refute established plans. The March 1977 collision of two Boeing 747 jumbo jets in the Canary Islands is a textbook case of what can happen when staff don't feel safe challenging assumptions.
But most of us don't find ourselves in situations where sticking with the wrong plan will result in loss of life or limb. However, there can still be negative impacts including:
Invalid assumptions are often a source of risk which is why assumptions analysis can be an effective method of identifying project risks.
If assumptions remain unstated because team members don't feel comfortable sharing them, the team loses the opportunity to challenge those assumptions. When they don't feel safe, team members will keep their concerns to themselves, valuing short-term security over long-term benefits. And if the risks are realized, they are likely to say something to the effect of "But they never listen to us" or "I was worried about losing my job".
On the other hand, when the members of a team feel safe, they are less likely to worry about the short-term negative impacts of having made a mistake and will be comfortable proactively speaking up when they are making an assumption about something. That provides an opportunity for the rest of the team to assess the assumption and identify any risks associated with that assumption being invalid. Then, if the severity of the risk is sufficiently grave, they can define when that assumption should be verified and even have a contingency plan to implement if that assumption is proven to be invalid.
But sometimes the assumptions being made are not ours.
In the Dilbert cartoon, the invalid planning assumptions are those of the Pointy-Haired Boss's. Another benefit of a team operating at a high level of psychological safety is that the team members are more likely to challenge their leaders when those leaders have made faulty assumptions. While that is helpful to the project, getting such feedback in an honest, timely fashion will also help the leaders' decision-making to improve.
Silence doesn't create project and organizational safety, it erodes it.
A few years back, I wrote an article in which I provided some gardening tips to developing good teams. I'm spending more time tending my garden these days so I decided to share a few more lessons for those wishing to cultivate a team building "green thumb".
Fertilization should be regular, but situational
Grass lawns need to be fertilized at regular intervals but the composition of the fertilizer (the proportions of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) varies by season and by the needs of the grass. Whereas you might use a 20-5-10 mix in the early Spring to give the dormant grass a boost of nitrogen to rebuild and to get ready for the heat of summer, a 13-25-12 mix is better in the late Fall to stimulate root growth in preparation for the following year.
When considering the professional development needs of team members, we need to regularly give them the time and resources for professional development, but the specific tactics used to develop should be dictated by their development objectives. Just like the three ingredients which go into fertilizer, there are three components for learning - formal training, relationship-based, and experiential. Depending on the development objective, the specific percentages of each should be varied.
Don't delay deadheading
Deadheading, the task of trimming faded flowers from plant stalks, is not just about maintaining the aesthetics of the garden, but is also about avoiding energy wastage by the plant. Gardeners don't relish this task but it is critical to developing stronger plants and getting more bloom cycles from your garden.
We may not look forward to the unpleasant task of removing someone from our team, but prolonged procrastination or wanting to be perceived as a "nice person" will hurt your overall team when there is a toxic, inefficient or ineffective team member who is clearly not improving in spite of support and coaching. Your best performers will be demotivated and may even leave and you will be sending the message that mediocrity is tolerated to the remainder.
Be thoughtful when adding a new plant into an established garden
When I have to replace one of the existing plants in my garden with a different variety, I always take the time to consider the impacts of the new arrival on the other plants in the garden. I learned this lesson the hard way. A few years back I replaced a large but unhealthy tree in my backyard with a small fruit tree. There were a few smaller stunted flowering shrubs under the old tree. When it was removed and the new tree was planted, the shrubs took this opportunity to spread like wildfire, risking the health of the fruit tree. I ended up having to transplant a number of those shrubs to a different spot in the yard to ensure the new tree remained healthy.
Even if you have a long-standing team with well defined ways of working, never underestimate the impacts on the team when a new team member is added. Involve the team in the selection of the new team member and make sure you build in sufficient ramp up time to help the newcomer understand and adapt to the culture and behaviors of the team.
Healthy, beautiful gardens do not develop by accident and the same can be said of good teams. As Rudyard Kipling wrote in "The Glory of the Garden": Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.