If you screw-up, own-up

March 5, 2015

Screw-upOne of the traits that strong leaders and credible advisers have is the willingness to ‘own up’ to mistakes they’ve made.  No one operating effectively as a project or program manager, or for that matter any type of manager making decisions can expect to be correct 100% of the time.

If you do something new some mistakes are inevitable. If you accept risks, some negative outcomes are inevitable. And time pressures increase the probability of error. And given project management is all about accepting and managing risks to create a ‘new’ product service or result under time and cost pressures – we probably have more opportunity to ‘get it wrong’ than most.

The generally accepted way to deal with ‘your mistake is:

  • Acknowledge it (“my mistake”)
  • Make restitution if needed (eg apologise)
  • Learn from it
  • Move on, only people who have never made anything have never made a mistake.

Conversely if someone makes a mistake involving you look for the best outcome rather than blame of revenge. We have discussed these concepts in a couple of posts:

https://mosaicprojects.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/mistakes/

https://mosaicprojects.wordpress.com/2008/12/13/learning-from-your-mistakes/

What is rare is a really good example of the basic steps outlined above being implemented.  This changed with a publication on page one of yesterday’s Age (also reported in the Sydney Morning Herald). What could have been a bitter and dragged out defamation case – you probably cannot be more insulting these days than incorrectly accusing a Muslim of being a terrorist – both The Age and the aggrieve person applied common sense and resolved the issue in a way that would appear to have left everyone ‘feeling good’ and with a sense of closure, not to mention thousands of their readers.

If you missed the item, you can read the story at: http://www.smh.com.au/national/fairfax-media-says-sorry-20150303-13ttpd.html

Mistakes are inevitable – strong people deal with them in an appropriate way, The Age’s example being exemplary.  This is a salient lesson we can all learn from.


Dealing with bad news

February 25, 2015

The current faux furore around the Australian Governments response to the Human Rights Commission offers a textbook study on dealing with bad news.

I am assuming none of the protagonists believe child abuse is acceptable and everyone is ultimately interested in minimising harm to vulnerable children. However, the political grandstanding may well be restricting the opportunity to achieve the generally desired harm minimisation.

Given the fact that the report from the Human Rights Commission was delivered to the Government in November last year, and they have had two to three months to carefully consider their response my other assumption is none of the reactions are ‘accidental’, rather the attacks on the commission are a deliberate (but I would suggest flawed) strategy.

So what are the lessons for project managers and business people that can be derived from the activity to date?

#1 – You need to be strong to deliver bad news effectively. The unprecedented personal attacks on the President of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, is unusual at this level of society, but all too common within business and other situations. Generally, only bullies and people who know they have no substantive counter arguments resort to this type of tactic and try to ‘shoot the messenger’ to avoid dealing with the substantive issues.

Bad-news1

If you are the messenger, it helps to try to determine the nature of the person you are delivering the ‘bad news’ to, and prepare accordingly. If you are dealing with a bully, try to ensure you have support from others in a position of power. If you are dealing with a response based on no substantive counter-argument be prepared to ‘weather the storm’ and let the facts do the talking. Watching Gillian Triggs responses in the Senate Enquiry yesterday to thoroughly unprofessional attacks from Liberal Party Senators who had not even bothered to read the report they were attacking her about (despite having access to it for 12 weeks) was a classic example of weathering the storm and not being dragged down to the other sides level of ignorance.

Bullies don’t like being wrong, it pays to have a fallback position. The Abbott Government took exactly the same line of attack against the Climate Commission and defunded the body, fortunately that group were able to quickly reorganise as a ‘crowd funded’ body and are continuing to provide scientific information to the Australian public as the effects of global warming continue to manifest (for more on this see: Why we support the Climate Council of Australia Ltd) . The Human Rights Commission may need to have similar ‘fall back’ positions.

#2 – Dealing with bad news effectively needs subtlety. The attacks on the messenger and the timing of the Human Rights Commission’s report leave the Abbott Government looking like uncaring bullies who have no interests in child welfare. Assuming all of their allegations about political bias are correct, the way they are managing the problem simply makes the leaders of the attack look like uncaring bullies. The simple fact is children are still in detention and are still being abused. Consider the alternative approach that was open to the Government which is also the ‘text book’ approach to dealing with bad news.

1. Acknowledge the report and its contents.
2. Appreciate the work in the report: Regret the report had not been available sooner.
3. Highlight the positives: Note that since the Abbot Government has been in office the number of children in detention has been reduced by more than 80% from the numbers detained by the previous Labour Government.
Note: this tactic does not deal with the two main concerns in the report which is the length of time children are detained and child abuse but it does create a positive ‘atmosphere’.
4. Deal with the negatives: Describe how the Government will work to resolve the remaining cases.

Bad-news2

The facts around ‘children in detention’ are complex, but what would be better for the government (and the prospects of Tony Abbott)? The current situation of looking like an ignorant bully who is only interested in political point scoring (not to mention the overtones of misogyny, child abuse and the inability to accept bad news – just shoot the messengers); or looking like a strong and caring leader focused on doing the right thing despite the poor timing of the Human Rights Commission report? Unfortunately it’s too late for the latter option and the people likely to suffer most as a consequence are the children in detention.

The ABC’s ‘Fact Check’ outlines the rest of the data: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-23/triggs-detention/6083476

The report is available from: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/publications/forgotten-children-national-inquiry-children

Summary: The next time you have to deliver or receive bad news remember, the facts are simply facts, you choose how you deal with them and as a consequence how the information will be used and how you will be perceived. Importantly, when the sort of furore we are currently seeing around the Human Rights Commission report breaks out, the one certainty is the ‘report’ will get far more attention for far longer then would otherwise occur – there really is no such thing as ‘bad publicity’.

For more on delivering bad news see: Integrity is the key to delivering bad news successfully.


Take the time to be creative

January 22, 2015

Smell the dasiesOne of the most overlooked aspects of creativity and learning is simply taking the time needed to reflect and think.  Professor Manfred Kets De Vries suggests that the fast paced, continuous access, instant response culture we operate in is eroding people’s ability to reflect and create innovative solutions to problems.  The pressure to ‘just finish this’ or ‘find out about (and hit Google on your smart phone)’ is usually too great to resist. But working quicker and harder is not necessarily working smarter.

De Vries believes that deliberately slowing down  and setting aside regular periods of ‘constructively doing nothing’ may be the best thing  you can do to induce a state of mind that nurtures imagination, creativity, and improves your mental well-being, by giving ideas time to mature.

“Learning without reflection is a waste, reflection without learning is dangerous” – Confucius

Business may be all pervasive, almost everyone seems glued to their PDA and feels compelled to respond to virtually every email received instantaneously but being busy and being effective are not the same thing unless you work in a customer service or support role!

If you are in a management, problem solving, or creative role a significant part of your job is developing new ideas or concepts that have been though through  and optimised. This requires thinking time.  But is creatively doing nothing really acceptable? Most of us feel guilty if we don’t have something to do, and we get a buzz when we feel really busy. And these busy behaviours generate their own reward by stimulating the brain to shoot dopamine into the bloodstream giving us a rush that can make stopping being busy so much harder. It really is nice to feel wanted, busy and in demand.

The problem with being busy is that if you don’t allow yourself periods of uninterrupted, freely associated, thought then personal growth, insight and creativity are less likely to emerge. And taking the time to ‘smell the daisies’ has multiple benefits……

The world of multitasking and hyperactivity helps us to delude ourselves that we are productive. The reality is that social media is reactive and not very original. It contracts creativity and can impact mental health. If we don’t know how to calibrate the balance between action and reflection we may become a casualty of information overload and psychological burnout.

Similarly, in many contemporary organisations work addicts are encouraged and rewarded; the behaviour is superficially useful to the organisation. Unfortunately, a workaholic environment can contribute to serious personal and mental health problems including low morale, depression, and above average absenteeism. The most effective knowledge workers are those who can both act and reflect, which means unplugging themselves from the compulsion to keep busy.

Deliberately doing nothing creates valuable opportunities for unconscious thought processes. Unconscious thought excels at integrating and associating information; we are less constrained by conventional associations and more likely to generate novel ideas. As well as being good for our mental health, doing nothing may turn out to be the best way to resolve complex problems.  Italian painter Giorgio Vasari summed it up well when he said “Men of genius sometimes accomplish most when they work least”.

Some of the ways you can create time for reflection include:

  1. Maintaining your relationships. We all need meaningful contact with people to feel fully alive. Maintaining our relationships needs interaction, engagement and time out from work. Conversation is also a powerful stimulant for creativity (just make sure you have a notebook handy).
  2. Saying No. Being able to say no is a key skill. Simply saying no to unimportant requests can free up time for more important things (see more on personal time management).
  3. Managing your sleep habits. In a perfect world we should all sleep around eight hours a night. Good sleep is essential for personal growth and creativity.

The challenge with taking time out to be creative is the good ideas always come ‘from nowhere’, usually at the most inappropriate moments (eg, in the shower). If this happens to you, you are not alone; from Archimedes in his bath, to Newton in his Lincolnshire garden (but no ‘apple’), brilliant ideas just seem to just appear. So the final element in creatively doing nothing is being able to trap your ideas when they surface.

ProductivityIn summary, a walk around outside or time spent with your feet on the desk can be more productive than working through a lunch-break – now all you have to do is convince the boss.

For a different take on productive laziness see: http://www.thelazyprojectmanager.com/


Ethics, Culture, Rules and Governance

January 7, 2015

RulesFar too many governing bodies spend far too much time focused on rules, conformance and assurance.  While these factors are important they should be an outcome of good governance not the primary focus of the governors.

When an organisation sets high ethical standards and invests in building an executive management culture that supports those standards the need for ‘rules’ is minimised and the organisation as a whole focuses on doing ‘good business’ (see: Corporate Governance).

The order of the functions outlined in The Functions of Governance, places: ‘Determining the objectives of the organisation’, ‘Determining the ethics of the organisation’, and ‘Creating the culture of the organisation’ ahead of both assurance and conformance.  The rational being creating a culture of ‘doing the right thing’ that extends from the very top of the organisation to the very bottom, means most people most of the time will be doing the ‘right thing’ making assurance and conformance a relatively simple adjunct, there to catch the few errors and malpractices that will inevitably occur.

A very strong endorsement of this approach to governance has recently come from one of the world’s most successful business people, Warren Buffet.  His recent memo to the top management of his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway’s subsidiaries (his ‘All Stars’) emphasised that their top priority must be to ‘zealously guard Berkshire’s reputation’ (read act ethically). He also reminded his leadership team that ‘we can afford to lose money–even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation–even a shred of reputation’.

His advice to managers also included this good advice ‘There’s plenty of money to be made in the centre of the court. If it’s questionable whether some action is close to the line, just assume its outside and forget it’. This is a simple ethical guideline that avoids the need for pages of precise ‘rules’ designed to map the edge of legality drafted by lawyers and argued over endlessly.  See more on Ethics. (http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1001_Ethics.pdf)

Rule#1Reading the memo, its clear Buffet has built a massive organisation based on an ethical culture, employs executives that reinforce the culture, and still makes a very good profit. It’s a long term investment but infinitely preferable to the sort of issues that confronted Salomon Bros., 20 years ago (see: Warren Buffett’s Wild Ride at Salomon), the banks associated with the GFC, and the on-going damage continuing to be suffered by the Australian banks as more ethical failures come to light. I’m sure they all had hundreds of ‘rules’ some of which may even have been sensible.

A copy of Warren Buffet’s memo can be downloaded from:  http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/pdf/Ethics_Culture_Rules-Buffet_Memo.pdf


Fine Tune your detectors

January 3, 2015

Fine tune your detectorsThe quality of any decision you make is determined by the quality of the information and advice you receive. Good information does not necessarily mean a good decision, but bad information will almost certainly lead to a bad decision.

The decision making process and the types of decision a project manager, and almost anybody else, has to make are discussed in WP1053 Decision Making.  The closely aligned process of problem solving in WP1013. Good information and advice is an essential input to both of these processes.

The right information has the potential to reduce or remove the uncertainty at the centre of every decision. If you are lucky and the information or advice removes all of the uncertainty, then there is nothing left to decide! Usually even with good advice, there is still some uncertainty and you still have to make the decision.

In reality, we rarely if ever have enough information; the challenge is to get as much information as is sensible in the circumstances and then make a timely decision accepting there will inevitably be gaps in your knowledge potentially leading to suboptimal outcomes.

However, simply collecting vast quantities of information does not help (unless you are using data mining). Generally information has no value, unless it has the potential to change your decision! The critical thing in decision making is having the key elements of information available when needed, in a useful form, which improves your awareness of the situation and your ability to decide.

But no information or advice is perfect. Before making use of any information, the decision maker has to evaluate the reliability and accuracy of the information or advice and look for any vested interests or bias on the part of the people developing the information or proposing the advice. Good decision makers usually have very finely tuned ‘bull s**t’ detectors.  And whilst this skill often seems to be innate to an individual many of the skills can be learned.

Some of the elements to consider when weighing up information are:

  1. As a starting point, everyone is biased and most people have vested interests. The antidote to bias and vested interests are to consider what effect these influences may have. The more effort someone has committed to developing a set of information, the greater their vested stake in the work. See more on Biases.
  2. Beware of factoids!
    You will be pleased to know, you are one of the 1635 people who have read this post, and as a consequence are now aware of factoids.How do we know this? We don’t. I just made it up; but you can’t call me wrong, because you don’t know, either. A factoid is something that looks like a very precise fact. The antidote to factoids is source information. Good source information in the statement above would be ‘our web counter shows that you are visitor 1635 to this page’. Start worrying if the source is nebulous ‘our webmaster advises’ or ‘based on a sophisticated time related algorithm…’.
  3. Beware of false precision.
    Almost everything that affects project decisions is a guess, assessment or estimate (the terms are largely synonymous) about something that may occur in the future But no one has precise information about the future! False precision damages credibility (see: Is what you heard what I meant?) and is generally less than useful.  The antidote to false precision is to ask for ranges and the basis of the range statement.
  4. Lies, dam lies and statistics 1.
    Some statistics result from the counting of real things. If you trust the people who do the counting, the math and the reporting, the data is as good as you are going to get. However, most statistics are estimates for a large population, derived from the extrapolation of the results from a small sample. Professional statisticians and pollsters attach a calculated margin of error to their work – this margin is important!  The antidote to false statistics is to ignore any that do not come with a statement of the margin for error and how this was derived.
  5. Lies, dam lies and statistics 2.
    Understand the basis for comparison – it is very easy to distort information. Project A will increase the profit on the sale of widgets by 50% whereas project B will only increase the profit on our training business by 10%, if both projects involve a similar cost outlay which one is best??? You need to know the basis for comparison to answer the question: a 50% increase in profits from a base of $100,000 = $50,000 which is half the value of a 10% increase in profits from a base of $1 million.  The antidote to statistical distortion is to largely ignore percent changes and statements such as ‘fastest growing’, ‘biggest increase’, etc.  It is always easier to be the ‘biggest’ if your starting point is the smallest.
  6. The ‘one-in-a-million’ problem
    Discussed in The role of ‘sentinels’ many ‘one-off’ problems are symptoms of a much deeper issue. Our entire working life is less than 20,000 days so the chances of you encountering a genuine ‘one-in-a-million’ event, just once in your working life, is about 2%. Other phrases that should trigger concern include; ‘she’ll be right’, ‘no-problems’, ‘it’s easy’, etc…The antidote to these type of expression is to simply reverse the statement:
    – one-off / one-in-a-million = there’s probably a structural cause to be discovered;
    – she’ll be right = I have no idea how to fix it (and its definitely not OK);
    – no-problems = this is a major problem for me;
    – it’s easy = this will be very difficult (unless the ‘easy’ is followed by an explanation of how it is easy).
  7. The false prophet
    False prophecies are allegations and unsubstantiated statements made with the expectation that the ‘expertise’ of the person the statement is attributed to will cover the statement with absolute credibility. If the statement is improbable, it is improbable regardless of the alleged source.  The antidote to false profits being quoted in the ‘third party’; eg, “Einstein said controlled nuclear fusion was easy”; is simply to seek authentication from the source. If the ‘prophet’ is present, ask them for more information.  Real experts know both the upside and the down side of any course of action they are proposing – they understand the uncertainty. Wannabe experts pretend there is no downside or uncertainty.
  1. Well known facts
    Remember, most ‘well known facts’ are in fact commonly held misconceptions (this statement is a factoid but also useful).  The antidote to ‘well know facts’ is to dig deeper and gather actual facts.

These are just a few ways bad advice and information can be introduced into a decision making process. Taking a few minutes to verify the quality of the advice you are being given, ditch the unsound advice and information, and then use what’s left to inform the decision will enhance the probability of making the best decision in the circumstances.  This is not easy to do (but good decisions are rarely ‘easy’); the consolation is once you develop a reputation for having a good ‘bull s**t’ detector, most sensible people will stop trying to use it on you. Then all you need to do is make the right decision.


Extreme Risk Taking is Genetic……

December 20, 2014

A recent 2014 scientific study, Going to Extremes – The Darwin Awards: sex differences in idiotic behaviour  highlights the need for gender diversity.  The class of risk studied in this report is the idiotic risk, one that is defined as senseless risks, where the apparent payoff is negligible or non-existent, and the outcome is often extremely negative and often final. The results suggest that having an ‘all male’ or male dominated decision making group may be a source of risk in itself.

Darwin1Sex differences in risk seeking behaviour, emergency hospital admissions, and mortality are well documented and confirm that males are more at risk than females. Whilst some of these differences may be attributable to cultural and socioeconomic factors (eg, males may be more likely to engage in contact and high risk sports, and are more likely to be employed in higher risk occupations), sex differences in risk seeking behaviour have been reported from an early age, raising questions about the extent to which these behaviours can be attributed purely to social and cultural differences. This study extends on these studies to look at ‘male idiot theory’ (MIT) based on the archives of the ‘Darwin Awards’. Its hypothesis derived from Women are from Venus, men are idiots (Andrews McMeel, 2011) is that many of the differences in risk seeking behaviour may be explained by the observation that men are idiots and idiots do stupid things…… but little is known about sex differences in idiotic risk taking behaviour.

Darwin2The Darwin Awards are named in honour of Charles Darwin, and commemorate those who have improved the human gene pool by removing themselves from it in an idiotic way (note the photographs are both of unsuccessful attempts to win an award).  Whilst usually awarded posthumously, (the idiot normally has to kill themselves) the 2014 The Thing Ring award shows there are other options.  Based on this invaluable record of idiotic human behaviour, the study considered the gender of the award recipients over a 20 year period (1995-2014) and found a marked sex difference in Darwin Award winners: males are significantly more likely to receive the award than females.

Darwin3Of the 413 Darwin Award nominations in the study period, 332 were independently verified and confirmed by the Darwin Awards Committee. Of these, 14 were shared by male and female nominees (usually overly adventurous couples in compromising positions – see: La Petite Mort) leaving 318 valid cases for statistical testing. Of these 318 cases, 282 Darwin Awards were awarded to males and just 36 awards given to females. Meaning 88.7% of the idiots accepted as Darwin Award winners were male!

Gender diversity on decision making bodies may help to reduce this potential risk factor in two ways.  First, by reducing the percentage of people potentially susceptible to MIT. Second, by modifying the social and cultural environment within decision making body, reducing the body’s tendency to take ‘extreme risk decisions’.

One well documented example is the current Federal Government. Given the extremely limited representation of women in the make-up of the current Abbott government, and some of the self-destructive decisions they have made, I’m wondering if there is a correlation. A softer, less aggressive, lower risk approach to implementing many of the policies they have failed to enact may have resulted in a very different outcome for the government.


Are Sponsors over worked and under effective?

December 16, 2014

Sleepy-Sponsor1The Institute of Project Management (Ireland)  has published a  survey is based on self-reported information from their course based on nine major position descriptions/levels in reporting the data comparing the expected number of hours to be worked based on their terms of employment and the actual number of hours typically worked. The averaged data from senior management positions is worrying:

  • Director of PMO; expected: 39.0 Hrs, actual: 60.0 Hrs
  • Portfolio Manager; expected: 37.0 Hrs, actual: 50.0 Hrs
  • Project Manager (Senior); expected: 37.9 Hrs, actual: 50.3 Hrs.

Combine these findings with data from PMI on the hours worked by Sponsors (download the PMI report on ‘Executive Sponsor Engagement’) with many reporting working weeks of 50 to 60 hours on their ‘day job’ before taking on the additional responsibilities of sponsoring a project or a program; and, that effective sponsors report that typically they are working on three projects at a time, spending an average of 13 hours per week on each, the problem of over extension of key executives becomes obvious.

Combine these findings with the demonstrated correlation between effective sponsorship and achieving project success, the over extension of senior managers has serious consequences:

  • Sponsors have inadequate time to understand the project’s requirements and support the project manager leading to an increased probability of failure;
  • Tired managers make poor decisions, and tiredness affects ethical standards (see: Tired workers lose their ethics);
  • There is frequently not enough time to train the sponsor in his/her role further reducing their effectiveness; and
  • These pressures often lead to a lack of continuity in the sponsorship role, which is another identified source of project failure.

The evidence is clear, organisations that fail to effectively sponsor their projects and programs are making an overt commitment to wasting the organisation’s time, money and resources – there is an 80% greater probability of failure and no amount of effort at the ‘project management’ level can overcome executive management failures.

Sleepy-Sponsor2One simple way to stop the waste is for an organisation to defer any project where it is unable to find a committed, trained sponsor, with adequate time, energy and skills to properly fulfil their role. No sponsor – no project! (See more on the role of a sponsor)  This may sound extreme, but if the executive management team do not see the project as being sufficiently important to the organisation they manage, to reorganise the disposition of executive resources to properly support the work, then the project is probably not that important anyway. The organisation will be better off not spending the money and wasting its resources.

The governance challenge is creating a management culture that on one hand, actively encourages the deferment of projects that are inadequately supported (eg, don’t have a sponsor); and on the other actively encourages the development of the organisation’s capability to excel at the ‘the management of projects’ (see more on the strategic management of projects).

Sleepy-Sponsor3Creating this culture is a critical governance issue (see more on the governance of project management).  If an organisation cannot implement projects and programs efficiently, it cannot adapt and change to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world which will inevitably lead to the organisation becoming obsolete. However, achieving the necessary changes won’t happen if the executive team are already overextended – the situation highlighted in both of the reports referenced in this post! Building the organisational capability to efficiently its projects and programs is itself a major change initiative that needs resourcing and sponsoring at the highest levels.


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