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Author: George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

Remove Causes to Solve Problems

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” ―  Albert Einstein


Performance problems are found wherever projects exist. There are two ways to resolve a performance problem: address its causes and address its symptoms. Effective problem-solving uses both approaches. Remove or remediate the symptoms while doing the work to address the causes.

Einstein’s advice is to think about a problem before jumping into to solve it. The solutions will be obvious as the problem is analyzed. This advice works well if you adapt the amount of time you spend thinking to the needs of the situation.


If the problem requires immediate attention, you still do better to think about it before deciding what to do and doing it. Then you can treat the symptoms with a temporary solution while you figure out what to do longer term to address the causes and conditions that gave rise to the problem.

Of course, there is the exception to every rule. If a lion is attacking you, don’t think for too long or you’ll get eaten. Fortunately, in projects we rarely encounter immediate threats. If we frequently react rather than respond thoughtfully, that’s a problem.


Everything is Caused by Something

Problem solving is on a firm foundation if you accept the systems and process thinking principle that everything is caused by something under existing conditions.

If everything results from causes and conditions, then resolve the causes and change the conditions, and the problem’s symptoms are resolved.


The symptoms are what tell us that a problem exists. For example, unhealthy conflict is a symptom, it can be addressed by separating the conflicting parties, so they don’t get into arguments. That solution removes the symptom without addressing its causes.

Symptoms are easier to remove, but the solution is temporary. On a personal level, treating the causes of anxiety or depression by taking drugs has side effects and fails to address the cause so that when the drugs wear off one either must take more or be anxious or depressed. The symptoms, or others that can be worse, return as the impact of the causes take effect.


Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. In our example, separating conflicting parties stops the conflicts. But if skillfully exploring differences would add value in planning, design, or making other decisions, removing the symptoms not only makes decision making less effective but it perpetuates the problem of unhealthy conflict management.

Causes are more difficult to remove than symptoms. They take much more time, sometimes years, and patient effort to change systemic factors and old habits.  But once the causes are addressed the problem can be permanently resolved. Of course, the solution might generate future problems. So be ready to refine any solution.


Example: Estimating

In projects, problems that effect performance include inaccurate estimating, unnecessary unhealthy conflict, perpetual performance shortfalls, high turnover of the most valuable staff, and poor decision making.

To address them all is beyond the scope of this article, so we will use the problem of inaccurate estimating as a prime example.


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The practice of padding (unjustifiably adding time or costs) to an estimate solves the problem of underestimating a single project’s costs and duration but undermines best practices and leads to distrust in the effectiveness of the estimators. It perpetuates padding.

With or without padding, continuous estimate adjustments throughout the life of a project gives stakeholders a continuously truer sense of cost and duration. Though, again, there may be distrust in the estimating process, particularly if the adjustments are too frequent and the result is far off from the original estimate. There is perpetual uncertainty.


The solution to the problem of chronic inaccurate estimating is found by exploring its causes and doing something about them. For example, causes may be the absence of historical project data that can be used in future estimating, unskilled estimators, fear of giving a realistic estimate that would displease clients or other powerful stakeholders, etc.

Note that, conceptually, the solution is the same for all performance problems – courageously and objectively look to the system (the organizational setting) and the mindset of the stakeholders in it. Be ready to eliminate the causes you find and at the same time apply temporary fixes to minimize the symptoms project by project.


Old Habits are Hard to break: Manage the Process

Solving chronic project management and performance problems through cause removal is a critical part of process and quality management.

Tactics like padding estimates to address inaccurate estimates become habits. Over time they get so ingrained in everyday activity that they become accepted normal behavior and after a while become part of the organization’s character..

You know that from personal experience that habits are hard to break. Changing or removing habits requires that first you recognize and acknowledge them. Then you can identify the ones that get in the way of improved performance, decide what (if anything) to do about them and do it.


Knowing that every outcome is caused by a process, a chain of causes and effects under conditions, processes like estimating, conflict, and quality management can be analyzed to enable assessment and the discovery of the causes of current or potential problem causes. Once causes are discovered you can decide what to do. You can live with things as they are, keep applying band-aid symptom removal solutions, or change the process to address the causes. If you choose to address the causes, you may find the need for anything from minor tweaks to cultural transformation. Bring cost, benefits, and risk assessment into play to decide what to do and when to do it.


The bottom line is to recognize that problems are natural parts of life. And the best way to work through them is to:

  • Step back, accept, describe, and think about the problem,
  • Weave a solution from options to let the problem persist, apply symptom removal, and cause removal solutions to address immediate symptoms and long-term effects,
  • Assess and refine, as needed.


Stepping back and accepting is often the most difficult part of solving performance problems. It takes objectivity and courage, remembering that ignoring problems will not make them go away and that limiting solutions to symptom removal will perpetuate the problem.

Best of: The Paradox of Patience, Planning and Expectations

If your goal is optimal performance, cultivate the mindful awareness that enables clarity and responsiveness. Accept and work with paradoxes to embrace both-and thinking.

A well-respected mindfulness meditation master, advised that “A mind which thinks, expects, and plans, blocks off wisdom.” Following this advice would leave most of our projects at sea without a rudder. That is the problem with a great deal of the mindfulness teachings that have become common in the project management and general business communities – over simplification. The wise embrace both-and thinking.

The full quote is:
“Notice every time the mind is eager for
results and remind yourself of the right attitude.
You need to practice patience.
Only when the mind is simple, can wisdom develop.
A mind which thinks, expects, and plans, blocks off wisdom.” Tejaniya



Mindfulness is the ability to objectively observe everything occurring within and externally. It is beneficial, based on many studies and personal experience. Mindfulness techniques – formal and informal meditation methods – increase mindfulness and concentration. Mindfulness enables responsiveness as opposed to reactivity. Concentration brings calm, relieves stress and enables focus in the face of distractions. Together with effort mindfulness and concentration promote wisdom.

But how many project managers will sign up for simple mindedness? How many organizations will hire simple minded project managers who are not eager for results? Not many.


The Wisdom of Paradox – Eager and Patient

Yet, there is wisdom in the master’s advice. Like all quotes it is taken out of context. No meaningful statement about the nature of mind and mindfulness is absolutely true. There is paradox – events or ideas that are unlikely to coexist. Paradox is “seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true:” Oxford Dictionaries.

Investigating more deeply, we can know that to be aware of the eagerness for results and to have patience is good advice. Over eagerness in projects leads to rushing to complete, by-passing risk management, testing, and other parts of planning and controlling the project. The over eager stakeholder is more likely to make mistakes and set unreasonable expectations. The eager stakeholder is motivated to achieve.


Right Attitude – Patience

The “right attitude,” is to be both eager and patient. Patience is a tough one, particularly when faced with high ranking stakeholders who are eager for results. Patience is “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset:” Oxford Dictionaries

Patience requires a stepping back to mindfully observe the uncomfortable feelings that get in the way of consciously taking stock of the situation, planning, communicating, and establishing the most effective foundation for performance. Alan Lokos, in his book “Patience:The Art of Peaceful Living” makes the point that patience is not passivity. Patience is taking control of thinking, speech, and action so that what you say and do makes good sense and gets the results that you want. Patience is an ingredient for effective project management and performance.

Practicing patience requires effort. It requires the ability to notice and be able to accept the urge to dismiss the annoying functional manager or team member who is ‘obstructing’ progress. Noticing and accepting are part of the practice of mindfulness. When I teach meditation practices, I often recommend “sitting with an itch,” patiently waiting for the itch to change or disappear on its own rather than scratching it. Try it the next time you have an annoying itch. It builds the patience “muscle.”


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Who Wants a Simple Mind?

Now lets turn our attention to “Only when the mind is simple, can wisdom develop.”

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein

To have a simple mind does not mean to be simple minded. A simple mind, in the context of mindful awareness, is a calm mind that sees things objectively, as they are. There is elegance in simplicity. The simple mind can integrate the sophisticated, complex skills and thoughts needed to manage and perform complex tasks in a complex, changing environment. The simple mind is free of the unnecessary noise of biases, confusion, and obsessive thinking.

Bertrand Russell said, “Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.” The simple mind, the mind that is mindfully aware, sits behind it all, open-minded, free of the comforting convictions. It observes objectively. The simple mind is like the eye of the storm – calm and clear while the storm rages. The flies are still there but they no longer get in the way of clear, focused thinking. In fact, mindful awareness promotes greater clarity and focus.

We can have a simple mind and simultaneously achieve objectives by applying our intelligence, skills and knowledge.


Planning, Expectations and Wisdom

To say that “A mind which thinks, expects, and plans, blocks off wisdom.” is overly simplistic. It is misleading. It is the kind of thing that can drive people, particularly project managers, away from the practice of mindfulness and the benefits it brings. The meaning is clarified by saying that a mind that is distracted by thinking, that unrealistically expects, and over-plans blocks off wisdom.

Wisdom is seeing things as they are and having wise intention. Wisdom can be blocked by Russell’s “flies.”

In Buddhist thought, things are impermanent, imperfect and the result of a continuous process of causes and effects. Wise intention is to give up the causes of suffering, cultivate good will, do no harm, and to ethically achieve objectives to benefit stakeholders.

Expectations are normal. Planning is necessary if you want to successfully achieve project goals and satisfy stakeholder expectations. However, having irrational, unrealistic expectations leads to disappointment and suffering. Constantly changing the plan moment to moment, gets in the way of being in the moment and performing optimally.


The Bottom-line

In the spirit of both-and thinking, we can say that we can both be patient and take skillful action. We can keep the mind simple and apply complex skills and knowledge to complex problems. And we can expect and plan and be in the moment, performing optimally, while allowing wisdom to develop.

Mindful awareness is the foundation for optimal performance. Cultivate it by practicing to focus the mind and open it to the full range of internal and external experience. Practice both-and thinking.


Published on: November 18, 2020

The Power of Active Listening

“ It is only in listening that one learns.” J. Krishnamurti

Communicating is central to optimal performance. Listening is a powerful capability for success. It is the most critical part of communicating. As a project manager, or in any role, in any relationship, listening both shows respect for others and informs you, so you are better able to learn and respond effectively. Listening enables a meeting of the minds.


Hearing, Listening, and Active Listening

Listening is different from hearing. Hearing is passive. A sound is received by the ears and registers in the brain.

Listening is active. It exercises focus, self awareness, and social intelligence. It is giving attention to (“I am listening to what you are saying”), making an effort to hear (“I am listening for a signal”), or it can mean to act on what someone says (“The kids/my boss/the staff just don’t listen”). Not listening is ignoring or not making the effort to hear and understand.


In the context of relationships, leadership, and management, we have changed the meaning of to listen from “give one’s attention to a sound”[1] to give attention to the communication experience. We refer to this as active listening. active listening is not just about sound. It is paying attention to the full experience of the sounds, words being spoken (or written), tone of voice, facial expression, body language, and  “vibe” or emotional state.   Active listening involves questioning to validate understanding. And it includes listening to one’s inner voice and feelings.


Meeting of the Minds

Communication is an act of sharing. It consists of giving, listening, and understanding. It is most effective when it achieves communion – the sharing of detailed and thorough thoughts and feelings to reach a meeting of the minds – mutual; understanding. Active listening promotes mutual understanding.

Some may question whether the sharing of thoughts and, especially, feelings has a place in organizations and business relationships. This kind of sharing does not mean sharing one’s deepest feelings when that is inappropriate. But with detailed and thorough knowledge, there can be the mutual understanding that leads to better decisions and healthier relationships.

Mutual understanding transforms the state of mind of the participants. It implies that the people involved meet one another with open mindedness and the intention to understand one another’s meaning. With that kind of understanding, team members are motivated to act, to follow through on agreements, or to know that the there is disagreement.


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A Scenario

I recently requested information from a colleague. I was clear that obtaining the information was important to me and he made it clear that while he was aware of that, he was not going to share it.

We had a meeting of the minds. It was an agreement to disagree.


My sense was that while he was listening to me and I to him, we were not thorough in our sharing. We had listened to one another’s words. I had listened to my feelings, and they gave me the sense that he had not shared the underlying reason for his position.

I was satisfied that my sense of a hidden agenda was not driven by my disappointment but from an interpretation of his tone and unwillingness to address his motivation. Unless he shares it, I can only guess at his thinking. While we had a meeting of the minds regarding the content, we did not meet on a deeper, more meaningful level.

You might ask, “What does meet on a more meaningful level have to do with project management and performance?” The answer is that when there is unwillingness to honestly share, relationships suffer. When relationships suffer, performance suffers.


Listening is a Challenge

“And for most of us, listening is one of the most difficult things to do. It is a great art, far greater than any other art.”  J. Krishnamurti Excerpt from What Are You Looking For?

Listening promotes healthy relationships and optimal performance. But it is a challenge. It requires the intention to actively listen, and the mindful self-awareness to know if you are paying attention or are distracted by our own thoughts and feelings; to assess your patience, and focus.

Are you busily planning what to say next or caught up in judging yourself or others? Are you verifying that the other party has understood what you meant and that you accurately understood what they meant?

For example, I have a habit interrupting others because I think I have understood their meaning before they have finished talking. Most of the time I do understand, and often they are going on and on repeating the same thing. But my interrupting is driven by impatience. It violates one of the most important parts of listening, respecting others’ need to express themselves.


Questions as a Way Of Listening

Working with my impatience (habits are hard to change), I am learning to step back and let the other party speak his piece. If I feel it is useful, I interrupt with a question. For example, “What I think you are saying is … . Do I have that right?” Questioning in this way shows that you are interested in what is being said and gives the other party an opportunity to see if you do understand and to correct or further describe their content. Questioning can also be a way of making sure the other party is paying attention and that there is successful communication.


What if the Other Party Isn’t Listening

Communication seeks mutual understanding. Listening is an individual act. When one party is not listening, communication is limited, mutual understanding is not achieved.

In the midst of conversation, there are ways to manage the situation to get the other party to listen. One way is to stop talking. It gets the other party’s attention and once you have it you can continue. Questioning is another useful way. In this context, you can say “I’d like to make sure I am being clear. Would you mind telling me what you think I’m saying?” Questioning engages the other and lets you know if they were listening and whether they ‘got’ what you were trying to get across. It transforms the conversation from a lecture to a dialogue.


Seek to Improve

In the long run there is a need for training in communication skills.

Start with yourself. Assess your skills, particularly your listening skills, and make a commitment to get them to be as sharp and effective as possible.

Then do what you can to promote effective communication in your team and other relationships. You can raise awareness by implementing a team training or engaging a coach or facilitator.


[1] Oxford Languages

Star-staffing SMEs on Change and Transformation Projects

Smart organizations assure quality results by making sure their change and transformation projects are strategically staffed with star performers. They realize that these projects influence the future for years to come. They are willing to invest the time and effort to make sure the best people are in the right places.

There are many facets to managing change projects, this article addresses project stakeholders, with an emphasis on subject matter experts (SME) and their role.

The Change Project Continuum

All projects that make significant changes to products and processes are change projects. These projects range from ones that improve existing products and processes to those that fundamentally change, transform, the way an organization functions.

The difference between simple change and transformation is like the difference between gradual maturity and the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly.

The Stakeholders

“Too often, the people side of change is either not addressed or not addressed adequately.”

Stakeholders are “individuals and organizations whose interests may be affected by the program outcomes, either positively or negatively.” They are sponsor(s), members of the steering committee (“board of directors,”), architect(s), SMEs, functional, product, program and project managers, engineers, technologists, facilitators, BAs, operational staff (current and future), regulators, QA, QC, administrative, and more.

While many factors contribute to the success of change projects, stakeholders are the most critical. These are the people who authorize, pay for, plan, implement, benefit from, and live with the results. All stakeholders must understand their roles and the nature of the change – the reason for it, the desired outcome, the plan to achieve it.

Subject Matter Experts (SME)

This article zeroes in on SME’s and the need to make sure their role is well understood. All stakeholders are important. SMEs are singled out because their role is often misunderstood and understaffed or given to less-than-optimal players.

SMEs help to ensure that deliverables meet the needs of stakeholders. In a transformation or major change project there are multiple SMEs with a variety of specialties. They provide detailed information, fact check, assure compliance with regulations, policies, and standards, and promote best practices. Some provide experiential knowledge of the process being changed and its environment.

SMEs possess knowledge. They are influencers, not decision makers. Decisions are made by senior program leadership using information from SMEs, architects, and others.

Technical SMEs

SMEs may be technical or content experts. The work of technical SMEs is focused on technology, legal, regulatory, financial, policy, procedural compliance, and support matters.

The technical SME role is relatively objective, but there are always interpretations. For example, deciding if a design approach complies with regulations and standards depends on an SME’s interpretation of the regulations, their flexibility, and understanding of the design.

As a project or program manager, choosing the right technical SME (if there is a choice) means finding ones who bring options and recommendations to the table rather than making arbitrary decisions.

Because technical SMEs are often working across multiple projects and may have other, operational, responsibilities, make sure their availability is adequate and that you are building SME response time estimates and realistic delays into your schedule.


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Content SMEs

The content SME role is far more subjective. The content SMEs’ role is to provide knowledge of the program’s current and target settings. Working with content experts, business analysts document procedures, operational history, etc. Designers and architects rely on practical feedback regarding the feasibility and potential impact of design elements.


SMEs provide knowledge. There are two types of knowledge, explicit (documented) and tacit (undocumented). Explicit knowledge is easy to acquire. Though it often does not reflect reality.

To obtain tacit knowledge engage subject matter experts to get the pulse of the organization, its nuances, and its staff. As a project manager beware of subject matter experts who:
• think their perception of reality is reality
• have outdated knowledge
• lack a process understanding that considers multiple perspectives
• do not realize that they represent current, and possibly, future stakeholders
• are overburdened with operational work to dedicate adequate time and attention
• do not realize the importance of their role
• Think they are in charge (though there are exceptions).

As an example, some SMEs who are in oversight positions, such as review board members “may sit in judgment … and expect their knowledge to influence content decisions. Their input may be a distraction to the process if they insist on making their influence felt on decisions that the design team and other SMEs are in a better position to make.”


When it comes to getting knowledge that will be used to make decisions, the goal is objectivity. Though there are always personal and organizational biases. Expect subjectivity and work to integrate it into a full decision package.

For example, a very knowledgeable SME who has been part of an organization for decades may be biased towards retaining the status quo, even though the project goal is to radically change it. An SME may not understand the power of technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics and dismiss ideas from technical SMEs, designers, and architects. Another SME might be forward looking in terms of applying technology to transform a process, but fails to address the impact on staffing and customer relations.

To promote objectivity make sure the SMEs and other stakeholders understand the need for it, and are willing to take the time and effort to elicit knowledge from stakeholders with multiple perspectives.


Organizational change and transformation programs are investments in the future. They set the stage for years of operation and evolution.

Don’t scrimp on SME staffing. Put “stars” on the project. Be ready to give up key operations and management people to staff the project with SMEs who have the mindset and availability to be effective partners in the change process.

This requires dialogue among program leadership, functional and operational managers, and communication across all stakeholders to ensure that everyone is aware of the need for open-minded objectivity, their role, and how it impacts success.


Healthy Teams Achieve More

The carpet in an office building’s main floor elevator lobby read, T-Together E-Everyone A-Achieves M-More.


Having worked on many healthy teams I can attest to the power of teamwork. But then I thought, “do the teams in this organization live the slogan? Do they understand why dysfunctional teams achieve L less? Do they understand what dysfunctional teams and healthy teams are? ”

When you replace the M with an L you turn your team into a TEAL – a small freshwater duck. But joking aside, not every team does more.

Healthy teams do achieve more. Dysfunctional teams result in demoralized team members and inadequate results. So, if you want to make sure teams are healthy, that they achieve their goals, avoid unnecessary conflict, manage the necessary disagreements well, and learn from their experience, then look to the process.


Everyone Together

When it comes to teams, the key words are T-together and E-everyone. If the team members are together a team can achieve more than the sum of what the individual members can achieve on their own.

But what does together really mean? Team members may be together at the same time physically co-located or virtual. They may be together because someone assigned them to the team, or they joined on their own. But the most meaningful way they can be together is to mutually understand the goal, the work to be done to achieve it, and the way they will do it. Do team members have common purpose. Do they have their act together, are they sufficiently skilled and organized to achieve their goals?

And what if not E-everyone is together? If anyone on the team is not aligned with the goal, process, and values, there is an unstable foundation for team performance. The goal of storming and norming in team development is to achieve unanimity through dialogue, analysis, and negotiation.

Whether physically co-located, dispersed, or virtual, if everyone is T-Together regarding process and goal the team will be healthy.


Process Awareness.

The key to effective performance is to make sure team members are aware of process, both their personal process and the team’s process. Process awareness means understanding that since everything is the result of a process – a set of actions and relationships that lead to an outcome – changing the process will change the outcome.

Personal process is one’s “innerworkings.” This is the realm of mindfulness, self-awareness, psychology, emotional and social intelligence. The outcomes of the inner process are speech and behavior expressed in relationships and performance.

The team’s process includes the way the members communicate, solve problems, manage projects and products, manage relationships, conflict, and expectations, and how they critically assess performance. Values, culture, roles, responsibilities, authority, and the tools and methods to be used to achieve the goal are all part of the process.

With process awareness as a base the team can agree upon values and goals, and the tools, techniques, and procedures they will use. If they take the time and effort to assess, adapt, fine tune, and improve the process.


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Resistance to Process Awareness

It is difficult to argue rationally against process awareness. And yet, we find many teams that never address the way they work together.  Here is an example:

There is a small team in which one member refused to follow procedures  causing her teammates extra work and stress and resulting in delays for clients. That team had procedures but the members were not together even though they shared physical space. The team lacked effective communication, common values, and clarity about roles, responsibility, and authority. There was no meaningful performance assessment. The most important missing ingredients in this situation were communications and leadership.


Going Beyond the Obstacles

By confronting them, a team can go beyond these obstacles. In the end it may be necessary to change the process or to expel a team member who refuses to or is unable to come T-Together and be part of E-Everyone.

The confrontation may be initiated within the team, by client complaints, or by external management. It is motivated by the desire to improve performance and quality of life. Without confronting the issues that get in the way of optimal performance, improvement is unlikely.


Critical Factors

Confronting the problem involves five critical factors for improving team health: problem definition, cause analysis, performance assessment, on a foundation of candid communication and a shared value of continuous improvement.


Define the Problem

In our example, the problem’s symptoms are long waits by clients and frustrated team members. Frustration leads to unnecessary conflict and to a sense that management doesn’t care. More universally, the problem is team performance that can be improved.

Problem definition relies on the open communication of the symptoms. Communication is enabled by having regular performance assessments. Without that, identifying the problem requires the courage of individual team members to “blow the whistle” on issues, and risks that clients will be the “whistle blowers.”


Identify the Causes

There are many causes of poor team performance. For example, individuals who do not care about achieving the team’s goals, self-centeredness, not understanding roles and responsibilities, ignorance of the procedures, ineffective procedures, lack of skill, etc.

Everyone knows cause analysis is an essential part of improving performance. Yet resistance to candid cause analysis is still a great barrier to effective teamwork. This barrier is caused by sensitivities regarding personal process, blame, fear, perfectionism, and not accepting that errors are part of the process.

The sensitivities reinforce the attitude that “we don’t have time for looking at how we work, we can barely get all of our work done as it is.” This attitude is further reinforced by leadership that does not value process management and is unwilling to address interpersonal factors..


Apply Process Management

If you want healthy teams, look to the process. To change outcomes, change the process.

In our case example, the process was broken. Leadership failed to identify, assess, and address the problem, they had no process management process. The team members, in the absence of effective leadership, did not take initiative to raise the issue or resolve it themselves. Process awareness was missing. No-one was managing the process.

Are your teams achieving M-More? Is process awareness part of your culture? Do you take the time and effort to make sure E-Everyone is T-Together.


See the following articles for more on performance management: