George Pitagorsky (57)
About a year ago, I wrote about uncertainty in project estimating. This is a reminder that in project management, as in life in general, there is one thing you can be sure of, things will not always turn out the way you expect them to. Impermanence and change are facts of life. Everything is the result of causes and conditions. As one event occurs it affects other things in a network of ripples.
In a complex system, nothing is certain because it becomes impossible to predict all the occurrences and interactions among the occurrences and the things they affect. Projects are complex systems. In complicated systems, such as airplanes and other mechanical devices, in which there is a high likelihood that an event will result in the same outcome time after time, under consistent conditions. In complex systems people, as opposed to machines, are unpredictable. Moods change, fatigue sets in, there are political issues, and other conditions that effect the way people respond and react.
To think that you and your team of planners can predict the outcome of a project with 100% accuracy is delusional.
As you plan your project, you define objectives, requirements and deliverables, identify the tasks and resources required to achieve them, schedule and budget. Each of these is subject to change. As objectives change the effect ripples through every aspect of the plan. As resource availability or the schedule changes, that may cause key stakeholders to change objectives.
Decisions drive projects. There is a decision to proceed that makes a project a project. There are decisions regarding requirements, the choice of resources, design approach, and various other issues. Decision making is a critical success factor.
Ways to Make Decisions
There are three primary ways to make a decision in a group, by authority, by majority (or plurality), and by consensus. Compromise, conflict avoidance and assertiveness, dialog, debate and facilitation are techniques used in the decision making process. The art of decision making calls for the practical application of these in an approach that depends on the needs of the situation. There is no absolute one best way.
Consensus decisions are those made when everyone in the group agrees to a single outcome. The outcome may not be everyone’s favorite decision but everyone agrees that it satisfies the objective. Consensus decisions arise out of dialog and debate that engages people with divergent ideas, common objectives and constraints. They converge on a decision that satisfies their common objective within the constraints. Consensus decisions can be good, bad or anywhere in between. Bad ones are likely when the group is overly homogeneous or when members do not act upon their responsibilities to be actively engaged in the process. Consensus implies open mindedness and a willingness to let go of attachment to one's own idea and accept the ideas of others with objectivity. When this is missing, there can be a consensus around an ineffective decision.
Sometimes when reading books about project management or listening to PM experts, it seems as if they say that there is one acceptable way to manage a project. However, There are many types of projects in many types of environments managed and performed by people with varying degrees of emotional intelligence, knowledge and expertise in and beliefs about project management. Some project managers have sophisticated tools available others do not.
Experience has shown that project management performed with sensitivity to these differences is more likely to be successful than project management being performed according to a model that does not fit the situation at hand.
There is no one right way. There are some basic principles that should to be applied, but the way they are applied must be tailored to the situation at hand. Principles, best practices and models of all kinds can be very valuable but only if they are situationally appropriate.
In project work it is often necessary to act quickly and decisively as things change and situations arise. These changes and situations might include the loss of a resource without notice, discovery of a serious design flaw or significant new requirements, all in the face of a committed deadline and budget.
Reactive vs. Responsive
The need to act quickly may be taken as an excuse for reactive behavior. Reactive behavior is action taken without sufficient thought or planning. It is one of the key causes of poor individual and project performance.
Effective performance requires responsiveness as opposed to reactivity. How do these differ? Responsiveness implies thoughtful action that considers long and short term outcome in the context of the situation at hand. Reactive behavior is immediate and without conscious thought, like a knee jerk response. Reactive behavior is often driven by the emotions.
The place for Immediate Action
Clearly, there is a place for immediate action, action that takes place with no more of a second or two of thinking.
Pretty much everyone knows that it is beyond clever to learn from past performance. Unfortunately, not everyone takes the time and effort to do it.
To paraphrase an often repeated warning, if you don't learn from the past you are likely to repeat it.
Now that's not bad if past performance has been error free, cost effective and has resulted in optimal outcomes. Though reality seems to be that without learning we are more likely to repeat poor performance than we are to repeat optimal performance.
Humans are learning machines. As individuals we soak up knowledge from the time we are infants. We try to walk, fall down, getup and keep at it until we get the hang of it. The same thing happens when we learn to ride a bike or swim.
We learn communication and relationship skills, learning skills and other complex skills through trial and error and emulation.
We can learn to do things well and we can learn to do things badly. The more conscious the learning process, the more likely the outcome will be positive. If each experience is see as a learning experience and there is clarity about what the objective is, then there will be continuous improvement.
What does it mean to be a caring manager who is there to serve his subordinates as well as to make sure they perform and achieve organizational objectives.
Recent incidents reminded me of how easy it is for a manager to lose track of the importance of making sure his/her subordinates are properly cared for and respected.
In one case a manager verbally abuses and threatens her subordinates when they fail to meet her expectations.
In another case, a long time employee, who for several years, had been competently performing work well beneath her capacity had made it known that she would like a transfer to a role that was both needed in the organization and which she was trained to play.
Some responses to last month’s article on managing incompetence led me to continue on the subject with a follow up about the word incompetence itself and how to influence superiors to improve performance.
Incompetence – A Strong Word
One reader commented that the word incompetence is a “turn off” and that competence has multiple dimensions - technical performance, collaboration and communication skills, etc.
Yes, incompetence is a strong word. Labeling a person as incompetent in a session to address their performance and competence level would tend to shut down the communication process and make remediation difficult, if not impossible. When we address issues with the people we are managing we need to be sensitive to their feelings and how words may affect them. In short, starting a performance review with a statement like "Your incompetent" is not recommended!
Incompetence is a strong word. It means the inability to perform; a lack of competence.
There are degrees of competence – master, expert, competent, marginally competent, marginally incompetent, incompetent, disruptively incompetent, … .
Competence goes beyond the relatively easy to measure performance of concrete skills to include behavioral /relationship competencies, emotional intelligence, thinking skills, mindfulness, concentration and self awareness.
Someone who is highly skilled and able to perform competently when working on his or her own can be incompetent when working in a team. A person’s level of competence is influenced by a complex of communication, collaboration, conflict management, emotional intelligence, and concrete skills.
Another person may be less than competent in applying concrete skills, for example a programmer who can’t program very well or an analyst that gets the numbers wrong, a teacher that doesn’t teach well. But that person may be competent in the sense that he/she communicates and collaborates well and is open to learning to acquire or improve skills, and , in the extreme be ready to acknowledge the need for moving on. Others are incompetent across the board, with neither concrete nor behavioral and awareness competencies.
"It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society" J Krishnamurti
Adaptability is an important trait. It is what one needs to be effective in changing situations or when moving from one environment to another. For a consultant, new employee or anyone who is working in an organization that is undergoing change it is necessary to be able to adjust to current conditions in order to manage projects or simply to be an effective team member.
But what if the environment is unhealthy? Does one adjust to it and become part of the problem? Or, does one resist and attempt to inject health?
Of course there is no single easy answer. As with all complex issues the answer is "It depends." It depends on just how sick the environment is, what one's level of authority is, ones role, skill level as change agent or facilitator, and more.
Take a situation in which a new employee, an experienced project manager, finds himself in a position reporting to a verbally abusive boss, who gives incomplete and fuzzy direction and then loudly berates, using vulgar language, those reporting to her for making errors when they fail to meet her unstated expectations.
It seems that there is a never ending flow of work and that new work is almost always higher priority than old work. This leads to multitasking and "thrashing".
Thrashing is the constant shifting from one task or project to another as priorities change. In the extreme, it gets so bad that nothing ever gets finished. More often, everything takes longer to accomplish and with more effort.
Portfolio management and the management of ad hoc work, when done well, will resolve the problem by moderating the flow of work to permit efficient and effective performance.