It’s a Different World
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, this frightening intruder once again reminds us of the insight from Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” We have been challenged in the past with pandemics, prevailed over time, and we shall do so again.
With the perspective of the glass half full, we have an opportunity to learn, to problem solve, and act on the trauma and drama of this current threat.We would be the worst of fools if we squander this experience and not use it to help reshape our approach to life, to business, and our own readiness.Below are a few key tenets from change management that we may want to consider:
The paradox of managing change is that when it is done well, nothing happens. So, you will not see the ‘drama’, experience the disruption, or pay the price of poor implementation.
What can be described as V3, the velocity, volume, variety, and impact of this unprecedented event has taught us that mind-bending change can happen at supersonic speed.
This unwelcome and traumatic intrusion into our lives has clearly exposed numerous weak spots. We encourage you to be proactive and productive during this time of forced hibernation to reflect and prepare for reentry into a very different world.
As you begin to reengage into this new world of work and beyond, a challenging question emerges, “Are you ready to navigate the personal change that will confront each of us in this radically new era?”
Be well and stay safe!
“A leader is great not because of his or her power, but because of his or her ability to empower others.” This quote comes from author John C. Maxwell. I believe it’s a great quote and it has helped shape my professional purpose to empower people to deliver results. The quote stirs your emotions and makes us think of leaders in our lives who have empowered us. Unfortunately, most leaders don’t live up to the greatness of the quote.
Why does this matter? What is the current situation which prompts us to consider making a change? As I shared in my previous post, the trends from PMI’s Pulse of the Profession shows a flat line of ~55% success on projects over the past decade. This shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone in our industry. We can do better than a coin flip on projects and we should explore new solutions for how we deliver. One solution is to empower our people. Give our project managers and project teams the authority to succeed!
It’s common practice for executives to proclaim, our people are our greatest asset. Yet, when I work with my clients, I rarely find actions to match the words. I see layers of bureaucracy and process handcuffing peoples at all levels of the organization. I see organizations driven by top-down leaders whose actions clearly speak “do as I say.” How do we break this cycle? Where can we look for examples of successful organizations empowering people? How can empowered project teams deliver better results?
First let’s explore the military. You said, “The military?!?” Why would we look to the military for examples of empowered people? Aren’t the troops just following orders, void of thinking? That is often the impression we civilians have but consider this quote from General Patton, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” There is a principle in the military called Commander’s Intent which essentially means focus on what needs to get done and leave the how it gets done to those on the front line. Contrast that with how direction is given in corporations across the world. We’ve all been in situations where our boss is hovering over our shoulder asking, “why are we doing it that way, why don’t you do it like this?” Under our breath we are screaming STOP MICROMANAGING ME!
The success of the US military is built upon 1) trust within teams, 2) creating a common culture, 3) being disciplined in execution, 4) accepting risk, 5) understanding the mission and 6) Commander’s Intent1. Each soldier understands their role and trusts their team to deliver on their respective outcomes. The teams are trained to be successful and empowered to accept reasonable risk to achieve the mission. In our corporate world we do almost the reverse of this on our projects.
We generally build project teams by pulling people out of their regular job. We don’t train them on being a project team member. They have not established trust within the team and often they are competing against one another for promotional opportunities and compensation. The project objective is rarely shared by leadership. We establish rigid process we must follow and when something outside of process occurs, we ask for someone to revise the process or establish a new one. We aren’t focused on the outcome, the mission. Our focus is on the process and ensuring we’ve adhered to it, so we’ll be able to pass the next gate review.
Also, organizations usually bring the team to the project rather than the project to the team. That is opposite of how work is done in the military. We often hear of elite special forces missions such as the one conducted by Seal Team 6 to kill Osama bin Laden. When that mission, or project, was approved they didn’t select different operators from different teams to come together for a one-time project. No, they went to an existing team and gave them the mission. The team had already established roles, trust, and confidence to be successful.
Commander’s Intent and bringing the project to the team are great examples of how we can learn from the military to empower people to deliver results. We can also look to the corporate world to find organizations succeeding by empowering their resources.
An example within the corporate world is Ritz-Carlton. As you know Ritz-Carlton is a luxury hotel with customers who expect a level of service to align with the luxury price being paid. To help meet these expectations Ritz-Carlton has empowered their “ladies & Gentlemen” or as we commoners call them, employees. Ritz-Carlton does not shy away from sharing their culture of empowerment. In fact, it is on their website and you can read it here - https://ritzcarltonleadershipcenter.com/2019/03/19/the-power-of-empowerment/
Their policy allows each Lady & Gentleman at The Ritz-Carlton, at all levels, are empowered to spend up to $2000 per guest, per incident. The amount isn’t as important as is the message is sending to their employees - You are empowered to satisfy our customers. From their website, “The $2000 amount is worth a lot, both financially and symbolically. And the symbolic part is what’s truly important. It shows how much we trust our Ladies & Gentlemen. It’s how much we trust them to do the right thing, how much we trust them to resolve a guest issue well, and how much we trust them to always think of creative and memorable ways to elevate the experience.”
Has this policy paid off for Ritz-Carlton? For the 5th consecutive year they have been ranked the #1 luxury hotel brand in guest satisfaction by JD Power2. This obviously isn’t a fluke as it is 5 years running for them. Empowering the Ritz-Carlton Ladies & Gentlemen is delivering results and with that comes repeat business, industry recognition, and satisfied employees.
We have success stories to point to both in the military and the corporate world where empowering people delivers results. We should explore opportunities to follow their lead with our project teams. We see this more within Sales teams than we do on the delivery side. I’ve attended several executive level meetings where the CEO declared, I don’t care how you get it done, but hit your sales goals by the end of the quarter.
Imagine if we empowered our deliver teams the same as we do sales. Imagine if we provide Commander’s Intent to our delivery teams. Imagine if we organized our teams to bring the work to them as is done in the Military. Now, let’s stop imagining and let’s start doing. Let’s empower our people to deliver results!
Let me start with what I have come to believe as truth:
What is Mental Maturity?
Mental maturity relates to our ability to think in more complex and agile ways.
Let me give you an example of what this means.
Consider the conflicting needs that we are all facing with regards to the Covid-19 situation: need for safety and the need for a healthy and working economy.
Those who are less mentally mature tend to either (1) avoid the conflict altogether, or (2) rush to take a stance on one side or the other, often with rather strong opinions.
Those who are more mentally mature do a better job sitting with the conflict. This allows them to do a better job of exploring the pros and cons associated with each side of the conflict
Thus, one indicator of our mental maturity is that we have the ability to sit with and effectively deal with complexity.
Levels of Mental Maturity
I don’t think that mental maturity is as cut-and-dry as this, but experts on the topic have identified three different levels or plateaus of mental maturity.
1. The Socialized Mind
Someone at this level is subject to the values and expectations of their surroundings. Their desire is to “fit in.” Any perceived unalignment with their social surround feels risky and dangerous because not fitting in means being cut off from the social protections of being involved in the group. One’s focus at this level of maturity is on being evaluated favorably by those around them, and their sense of self is directly related to how the group views them. They look to the group as the authority.
2. The Self-authoring Mind
Someone at this level is able to distinguish the opinions of others from their own opinions. They may take the opinions of others into account, but they choose how much and in what way those opinions influence them. Rather than seeing their membership in a group as their identity, they see their membership in a group as part of their identity. They are able to see themselves as a more complex creature. Rather than always going with the opinions, values, and beliefs of the group, they are able to prioritize them, combine them, and create new ones, which enables them to be the author of their reality, and to look within them to find the source of internal authority. They are no longer anxious about being excluded from the group, rather they are anxious about falling short of their own standards.
3. The Self-transforming Mind
Someone at this level is more of a systems thinker. Where someone on the previous level is able to create their own value system, someone at this level is able to recognize that they have multiple value systems, that they are even more of a complex creature. A key ability at this level seems to be that we possess the ability to look at our frameworks, paradigms, and mental lenses, rather than choicelessly through these things. We create a bigger emotional and mental space that allows us to see our current state, not as a finished product, but as a current draft. This is important because when we view ourselves as a finished product, we regard all suggestions to the contrary as a blow to the self. But when we view ourselves as a current draft, we regard suggestions to the contrary as being valuable pieces of information.
Why it is so Important to Improve Our Mental Maturity
We can think about the importance of improving our mental maturity in two different ways: (1) overcoming problems, and (2) reaching goals or developing ourselves.
If we are having problems or experiencing friction at our current level of mental maturity, we have got to realize that resolving those problems or that friction is unlikely to occur at that current level. If we stay at our current level, we will be unable to activate the change and transformation to bring about the solutions to the frustrations we are currently facing.
Reaching Goals/Developing Ourselves
If we are not yet where we want to be, we have got to realize that there is a path that takes us where we want to go. But, that path will always take us to higher and higher levels of maturity. We just have to be willing to go there.
Generally, our first step in reaching goals and developing ourselves is to employ plans, improve our knowledge, and/or enhance our behavioral repertoire. When we do any of these things, we are focused on getting where we want to go at the same level of mental maturity that we are currently on. If this works, great! But, what we generally discover is that this rarely works.
Most agility development efforts primarily involve learning new skills, not unlike downloading new files and programs onto a computer. While this might give us greater range and versatility, our abilities to resolve problems and to grow will always be limited by our current operating system. Improving our mental maturity is how we upgrade our operating system.
Improving our Mental Maturity
When it comes to improving our mental maturity, there are two things to consider: (1) what generally prevents us from becoming more mentally mature, and (2) things we can proactively do to enhance our mental maturity.
What Prevents Us from Becoming More Mentally Mature?
The reality is that we do. We are the ones preventing ourselves from greater mental maturity, and all of the benefits that come with it.
Generally, we are comfortable on our current plane of mental maturity, and further, much of our identity is wrapped up in this current plane. So, any invitation to improve our mental maturity feels uncomfortable and scary.
For example, why is it that after doctors tell patients that if they don’t change (e.g., diet, exercise, stop smoking), they will die, only one in seven actually end up changing? It isn’t because they don’t care about dying, and it isn’t because they don’t want to make the change. It is because they want to ‘save their life’ as they currently know it.
When we are invited to change, our current “life” is put at risk. In fact, transformation suggests that we have to let our “old self” die, in order for our “new self” to arise. This is a scary proposition.
According to change experts Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey: “The implication is that we cannot succeed with adaptive challenges without recognizing that we are putting at risk what has been a very well-functioning way of taking care of ourselves.”
When we resist the calls for enhancing our mental maturity and respective transformation, our fear of change to protect “our self” leaves us blind to possibilities, prevents new learning, and constantly prolongs any anxieties or friction that we are feeling.
Overcoming this natural and instinctive reaction to self-protect and enhancing our mental maturity takes courage. We need to take action and carry on even when we are afraid and uncertain of what life will look like as our “new selves” because that is the only way to realize the new, higher level of functioning we truly want to attain.
Something We Can Proactively Do to Enhance our Mental Maturity
An indicator that we are improving in our mental maturity is when we can look at what before we could only look through.
To better explain this, let me introduce mindsets. Mindsets are the mental lenses that we look through to view the world. They dictate how we think, learn, and behave. They are the reason why two people can see the same situation, yet interpret it differently.
Our mindsets generally reside below the level of our consciousness. While we may not be aware of them, because we are looking through them, they are dictating nearly everything that we do.
Recognizing this, it suggests that if we want to improve our mental maturity, we must have the ability to look at what we are used to looking through. In other words, we need to become conscious of our nonconscious mindsets.
As we do so, our mindsets become less of things that control us, and more of tools that we can transform and employ to more successfully navigate our situations.
As we become more conscious of our mindsets, we become able to step outside of our own ideology or framework, observe the framework’s limitations or defects, and re-author better and more comprehensive ideologies and frameworks.
And, if we really want to push the envelope with our mental maturity: even in re-authoring better and more comprehensive ideologies and frameworks, true mental maturity is demonstrated when we recognize that our re-authored views will have its own limitations that will require eventual transformation once again.
In all, if we want to improve our agility, we must operate at a qualitatively higher level of mental maturity than we currently possess.
Leadership Lessons on Project Management: What Project Sponsors Can Learn from Swiss Cheese
Professional techniques for project management have made a huge impact on the success rates of projects in the past three decades, but there’s no denying that we still have a long road ahead of us. Statistical information from G2.com gives us a peek into this challenge. Most organizations have a 70 percent project failure rate, only 28 percent of companies use project performance techniques, on average one in six projects has a budget over-run greater than 200 percent, and only 2.5 percent of companies complete 100 percent of their projects successfully.
That’s probably not a surprise to you, since I’m preaching to the choir here. The question is what else we can do to improve project management reliability. I believe we can learn much more from a technique called the Swiss Cheese Model of Accident Causation which has been used to dramatic effect in several industries including aviation, to improve reliability.
Accident Prevention and Swiss Cheese
The improvement in aviation reliability from the early days of World War 1 where pilots flew “on a wing and a prayer”, to 99.999999% reliability today has been an inspiration to several industries, including medical safety and computer security. Flight safety in the early days of aviation was not a given. The airplanes which were made of fabric, glue and wood for the most part made flying more a game of skill than process. Takeoff and landing crashes were common. The intervening decades have seen an improvement in both design and methodology. The Swiss Cheese Model was one of the risk minimization techniques employed.
The Swiss Cheese model of accident causation states that human systems are similar to slices of swiss cheese that are placed vertically in front of each other. The holes in the cheese represent defects or weaknesses in each system and tend to be of different sizes and positions. If a line can pass through the stack of cheese holes then that represents failure of the system as a whole, leading to an accident. The goal in designing the system is to reduce the probability of an accident by improvements on both “holes” and “number of slices”.
James Reason, who created the Swiss Cheese Model (SCM), believed that accidents can happen for four reasons i.e. organizational influences, unsafe supervision, preconditions for unsafe acts, and the unsafe acts themselves.
Organization-centric vs. Individual-centric Causes of Project Failure
Let’s try and get this back to project management. There’s something intriguing about the number 70, which indicates the percentage of failures in project management. That number shows up in other industries too. In an interesting analysis by the Colorado Firecamp, called the Human Factors Analysis and Classification System, it is pointed out about 70 percent of aviation accidents can be partly attributed to human error (Shappell & Wiegmann, 1996). However, we know the attribution of a large percentage of failure to pilots alone is misleading. Their analysis rightly argues that to off-handedly attribute accidents solely to aircrew error is like telling patients they are simply “sick” without examining the underlying causes or further defining the illness. In other words, we need to look at not just the final visible cause (individual-centric), but also to the previous layers of issues (organizational-centric). It’s well known that aviation accidents are the end result of a number of causes, only the last of which are the unsafe acts of the aircrew (Reason, 1990; Shappell & Wiegmann, 1997a; Heinrich, Peterson, & Roos, 1980; Bird, 1974). That’s true in project management failures as well. Attributing most of the failures to the project manager and the project team ignores the three other preceding layers in the swiss cheese model i.e. organizational influences, unsafe supervision, and the preconditions for unsafe acts. That’s where project sponsors need to play an important role.
The Sponsor’s Role in Addressing Organizational Influences, Unsafe Supervision, and Preconditions for Unsafe Acts
Unsafe acts in Project Management are generally based on the foundation laid by Organizational Influences, Unsafe Supervision, and Preconditions for Unsafe Acts. So, for example, choosing a weak software solution in a given project is an unsafe act. However, when we step back a layer it’s possible that the poor choice was based on lax procedures in either technology standards, or in matching-and-mapping process design to software solutions (precondition for the unsafe act). Step back another layer and we may find that the project board did not ask the right questions while overseeing the project (unsafe supervision). Go back yet another layer, and we might find that the siloes between the IT architecture group, the software procurement function and the project management group sub-optimized the software choice while trying to optimize individual department results (organizational influences). Who needs to help the project team across these layers?
I believe project sponsors play a key role here. To be clear, it is impossible for any given project sponsor to systemically fix all issues across all four layers. A good sponsor, however, is educated enough in these practices to work alongside the project team and guide them in avoiding these traps when they cannot be systemically addressed.
As Vice-President at Procter & Gamble’s famed Global Business Services and IT, I considered the ideal project sponsor to be a person who had four qualities. They had to own the organization that needed the project, they needed to have enough time to devote to the team, they had to have enough knowledge of the project’s subject matter to add value, and they had to be effective in breaking organizational barriers for the project team. This worked extremely well for us. Unsurprisingly, these are also the qualities that help project sponsors address all four layers of the Swiss Cheese model.
Agile science or why we need a change of mindset about project management for academic research (and how)
Image from Pixabay
Science advances through projects, and projects are the very basis of scientific research. From master and doctoral thesis involving a handful of people to large international collaborations with hundreds of team members, academia is full of examples of projects. Fieldwork campaign, satellite missions, laboratory analysis, numerical modelling experiments are only a few examples of the type of projects one can find in science. For scientists, project management is a tool that helps us carry out our research in an organised and sensible way to decrease the chances of errors and failure and increase the impact of our research. Scientific projects are most often international, interdisciplinary, intercultural and intersectoral and thus require tailored project management approaches.
Research project management is pervasive and becomes more and more required by funding agencies as an integral part of research project proposals. Together with scientific creativity, good research project management is one of the keys for a successful project. Good management ensures a high impact and helps demonstrate the effective use of tax money within science.
However, research project management is still not implemented as a standard procedure in science and is often also not properly acknowledged as instrumental for the success of a research project. In many contexts within science, in particular when it comes to training at the early stages of a scientific career, project management is often considered a “soft skill”, something that adds value to a curriculum, but not as essential as other more technical aspects of science (e.g., programming, laboratory methodologies, sampling or fieldwork). This needs a shift in the current cultural mindset and this shift is only possible if all science stakeholders, including project scientists, funding agencies representatives, organisation executives and project managers themselves, contribute.
An interesting opportunity to change this mindset presented last February 2020 when I was invited to participate in a 2-days symposium organised by the German Project Management Association specifically aimed at exploring how some modern project management techniques popular in sectors outside academia could be implemented to boost scientific research.
The symposium, first in its kind, was hosted at the German Research Centre for Environmental Health in Munich and opened by its scientific director Prof. Stephan Herzig who stressed the importance to combine world-class science with world-class project management to ensure scientific advancement and how investment in project management is needed to make science more effective.
Modern project management uses appropriate methods depending on the situation. It can include traditional plan-based methods as well as agile management tools. Accordingly, the content of the symposium focused on five methodologies: design thinking (how to create new project ideas), project canvas (how to plan the project), lean start-up (how to start own company from your scientific idea), agile/scrum (how to develop services), and Kanban (how to manage the workflow). The format of the symposium included general introductions of the methodologies and activities in groups to practice how to implement them in scientific activities. The idea was to give the participants an overview of the techniques for us to pick the most appropriate depending on the project or context.
Each of these methodologies has its strengths and can be applied to the many tasks of the researcher/science manager (e.g., write manuscript/prepare conference paper, write progress reports for a funding agency, review manuscripts and conference papers, develop a strategy for the research group, prepare and conduct lab experiment, work on PhD thesis, project team meetings, recruitment, write travel grants/proposals for a new project).
Some project management tasks in science include structure, assign, and schedule tasks, organise meetings, ensure the quality of results, report on performance indicators, manage costs, facilitate creativity. Modern project management methodologies can be applied to each of these tasks and help save time for research.
One major benefit I gained through this symposium is learning how to frame these methodologies in my daily work. I realised that I was already partly applying them to perform my tasks, but understanding the full methods made me appreciate their potential for more applications.
Design thinking is extremely helpful to boost scientific creativity and guide the brainstorming process to develop new scientific ideas which will be the basis on which to build the research project. Design thinking is a structured process to come up with new ideas for solutions to existing problems so it is ideal to explain the motivation for scientific research.
Project canvas is absolutely valuable when planning your project at a high level but detailed enough to appreciate its value. A canvas can be also used to explain your project in one page and have all the important information clearly visible.
Many research results have the potential for start-ups so why not use lean startup methodologies to transform an idea into innovation and start-up (spin-off)? Personally I haven’t used this so far in my work but I can see that this method will become useful for example when identifying a project’s key exploitable results and their potential applications.
Agile is the next frontier for science. As the academic world and research funding structures are by definition inflexible, there is huge potential to apply agile methodologies and scrum in particular in the smaller bits composing scientific research. For example, we apply agile methodologies for software project management in the context of Earth system modelling but also in the coordination teams of large international projects to coordinate the research in a work package leading to a defined deliverable.
Kanban is a fantastic way to visualise and follow on the work to do and to collect new ideas. In the context of scientific management, we use it to develop the project communication and outreach strategy and to organise events. Not only Kanban is useful to guide brainstorming discussion about new ways to communicate science and our project results, but also to keep track of progress, manage the workflow and implement feedback.
All these project management tools can be adapted to the type of problem we want to address. You might have a favourite methodology to manage your project but generally, and moreover in science research, project management methodologies need to be tailored to the project (e.g., size, budget, context) and the task, and it’s up to a (good) project manager to choose the most appropriate.
Only good project management practices can turn ideas into solutions for scientific challenges. Project management has long been considered opposite to creativity and science, but innovation needs to be managed and supported in order to have an impact, therefore project management is, now more than ever, necessary to make science effective.