As weather gets colder, it is common to see squirrels digging holes to bury nuts and other food items to feed themselves when resources becomes scarce during winter time. But given the volume of nuts which are required to sustain squirrels through the long winter months and the large areas covered by an average squirrel, they often end up forgetting where they have buried all of their treats. While observing the little fellow I captured in the photo above, I was reminded that we are not so different from our furry friends.
Whether we capture lessons over the life of a project or wait till the end of a phase or the project as a whole, we frequently end up forgetting most of the lessons we have foraged.
Squirrels will eat a few nuts while they are in the process of gathering them. In the same manner, there will be certain lessons which we can implement right away.
But what of the remainder?
If we just store them in a repository or, worse yet, in standalone documents or distributed Wiki pages, we are no better than squirrels who have forgotten where they have buried their nuts.
Thankfully, unlike squirrels who are unable to invent and use GPS-based nut finders, we do have a few options:
Putting the "learned" back in lessons learned begins with doing a better job of learning from the lessons we have previously identified.
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:
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)
My formative years were the 1980's which were the heyday for slasher film series such as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. With Halloween rapidly approaching I felt it might be timely to draw three parallels between the villains of horror movies and dealing with project problems.
Never say "It won't happen to me!"
A common method of identifying which characters in a horror film are likely to be eliminated early is to look for the most arrogant or overly optimistic ones. One of the more humorous examples of this is Samuel L. Jackson's character in Deep Blue Sea who gets eaten by a shark right after he has made a wonderful, passionate speech expressing his certainty in being able to lead the survivors to safety.
Project managers and their team members should feel bullish that they can successfully deliver a project, but this confidence should come as a result of effective risk management rather than blind optimism.
Don't assume it's dead
In nearly every horror movie, just when the hero or heroine believes they have successfully eliminated the monster, it finds a way to come back to life. The first Halloween movie had one of the most unexpected comeback scenes. Whereas you knew that the villains in other slasher flicks (e.g. Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees) were supernatural entities and hence normal human limitations wouldn't apply, in the original Halloween movie Michael Myers appeared to be a run-of-the-mill psychopathic human being. It was only at the very end of the film after Dr. Loomis has shot Michael a few times at point blank range and he's fallen from the second story of a house and managed to get away that you finally realize he's going to come back.
While it can be very satisfying to resolve a tricky project issue, we need to remain vigilant to the possibility that it could recur. If it had been previous identified as a risk, we now have quantitative data regarding its impact which we could use to be better prepared in the future.
Never say "I will be right back!"
If there is one thing a character should never do in a slasher flick, it is to head off on their own. Just as carnivores in the wild prefer to hunt prey who have got separated from their herd, movie villains delight in dispatching foolhardy wanderers. While it can be tempting to try to tackle a problem on our own so that we are feted as heroes, for resolving really challenging ones, there is strength in numbers.
One, two, project issues haunt you
Three, four, you can't ignore
Five, Six, there's no quick fix
Seven, Eight, don't hesitate
Nine, Ten, they will come again!
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!
A frequently asked question in the main ProjectManagement.com community discussion group is about the perceived impacts of machine learning on project delivery.
Some contributors worry that sufficient advances in AI will render the role of a project manager obsolete whereas others remain bullish about the prospects for the profession.
A recent Harvard Business Review article by Stephen M. Kosslyn titled "Are You Developing Skills That Won’t Be Automated?" would support a positive outlook on this topic. In the article, the author asserts that roles in which emotion and context play a strong influence will still need to be performed by human beings. We have enough challenges with human leaders struggling to inspire team members or effectively align stakeholders to expect that machines will have an easier time doing so.
I'm expecting that enhancements in current machine learning technology will free us from rote administrative activities which even the most senior project manager finds themselves having to perform from time to time. While such advances might reduce a full-time requirement for project administrators on large, complex projects, it might enable such roles to support a larger number of projects at the same time.
What might projec managers do with all of this extra time?
Being assigned to more projects concurrently is not the answer! If we believe that project management is a strategic role then we should be encouraging greater focus, not less.
Freed up capacity could be better utilized on frequently neglected practice areas such as stakeholder engagement, risk management and knowledge creation. Envision the potential benefits to your projects if you had even 10% more time to devote to such practices.
We could also invest more in our own personal development or giving back to the profession or the community.
Is it possible that at some point in the future, AI will have the ability to independently manage a project staffed with humans?
This seems realistic if we agree with Gene Roddenberry's vision of intelligent sentient machines such as Commander Data, but I'm equally optimistic that the next one or two generations of project managers will have little to fear so long as they continue to invest in developing their soft skills.