Lessons from a Lift

January 31, 2011

Do you suffer from ABPS or know someone who does? This newly defined syndrome can be highly counterproductive……

People in a lift (elevator for those who speak American) fall into two broad groups; the first group walk into the car, push the button they want and wait for the control systems to do their job. Others believe that the more they push the buttons the more likely the elevator is to respond.

In reality the vast majority of control systems log the first call and then optimise the movement of the elevator to meet all of the different calls from different levels of the building. The second and subsequent ‘button pushes’ add no value at all.

However, people with Advanced Button Pushing Syndrome (ABPS) receive positive feedback from their actions, the elevator arrives after they have pushed the button 4, 5, 6 times, or more, therefore the multiple pushing clearly made a difference……

In an elevator, ABPS makes no difference and anecdotally I understand many ‘close door’ buttons have no wiring behind them, they are in the lift simply to make people with ABPS feel in control even if they are not.

ABPS in the workplace is an altogether different issue. When a project is running behind time, overrunning costs, or experiencing other difficulties; the equivalent of the elevator being slow to respond; many managers demand additional meetings, more frequent reports and other responses from the project team that consume time and money that could be better spent working on the project deliverables. These project resources are being diverted to placate the manager’s ABPS to the detriment of the project.

This phenomenon has been recognised for some considerable time without the underlying syndrome being defined. Cohn’s Law states: The more time you spend in reporting on what you are doing, the less time you have to do anything. Stability is achieved when you spend all your time reporting on the nothing you are doing…… (this should not be confused with Cole’s Law which is thinly sliced cabbage!).

Unfortunately, when the project is eventually delivered, the manager’s ABPS is reinforced because obviously all of the extra reports and meetings helped achieve the outcome; unfortunately correlation is not the same as causation! There is no easy way of measuring how much sooner the project would have finished if the resources had not been diverted by ABPS, but the manager feels ‘in control’.

This is not a clear cut situation, frequently there is need for better information to base decisions on (see more on decision making). However, it is easy to slip from requesting useful information that will help inform decisions (useful information is useful because it is used) into ABPS where the requested reports and meetings are actually counterproductive and make the situation worse.

So next time you are considering requesting more reports or extra meetings think about ABPS, will the diversion of resources from the project’s work to respond to your requests be constructive or detrimental? There’s no easy answer to this question!

If you are a victim of your managers ABPS the only antidote is to try and make the person with ABPS aware of the resource being consumed by their ‘syndrome’. A temporary solution may be to identify your version of the unconnected ‘close door’ button where the manager feels in control but there is minimal to no effort expended in response to the button pushing.

For more thoughts on ‘Advising Upwards’, my new book will be published mid year.

The value of Practical Wisdom in organisational governance

January 22, 2011

Wisdom is a state of the human mind characterised by profound understanding and deep insight. It is the consciousness of wholeness and integrity that transcends rules, often referred to as common sense in an uncommon degree.

2400 years ago, Aristotle identified two types of wisdom – the esoteric/metaphysical and practical wisdom – more recently psychologist and author, Barry Schwartz has been discussing the importance of Practical Wisdom (see the book) and the ‘right way to do the right thing’.

Aristotle believed that to do the right thing, and ultimately to be happy, required you to be a person with the right character – courage, honesty, perseverance, etc; but that having these virtues wasn’t enough, because, you need to decide how courageous should you be and when to be courageous? You need to use your judgment. And the virtue of good judgment is what Aristotle called practical wisdom. Practical wisdom is knowing when and how to display the other virtues and how to choose when two virtues or requirements conflict.

Whilst rules are important in the governance of organisations they are not enough. Practical wisdom requires the use of wise improvisation! In the service of the right aims, the wise person will ‘bend the rules’ in the service of good. As the proverb suggests: Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the blind obedience of fools. Or more usefully, Rules are for the obedience of the inexperienced and the guidance of wise men. (WW2 British RAF Ace, Sir Douglas Bader).

What this means is standard conduct is justified in most situations. However, the rules should not be followed blindly particularly where following the rules will cause disadvantage or be detrimental to a key objective. In these circumstances, there may be a more effective procedure. Effective leaders need the moral skill and the moral will to improvise effectively at the appropriate times. Virtue and wisdom are almost inseparable.

The challenge facing organisations and society at large is that developing wise people requires a degree of freedom to make mistakes and learn. This freedom is progressively eroded as the reaction to each unvirtuous action is almost universally the creation of new rules and the removal of the freedom to make judgements. Unfortunately, rules will never constrain the actions of the unvirtuous.

The challenge is to move away from a hide bound ‘rules based’ approach to governance to a place where there are sufficient rules to provide effective guidance linked to sufficient freedom to allow people to apply practical wisdom to achieve the strategic objectives of the organisation. More on this next time……

Who is a stakeholder?

January 11, 2011

A number of years ago, Paul Dinsmore quoted a trainee who defined a stakeholder as ‘one who holds the beef’. In many situations, a fairly accurate description!

During a trip to Paul’s second home in Rio de Janeiro last year, my wonderful hosts from PMI Rio, introduced me to professional steak-holders…… and the steak was good!

Which more than anything else defines the problem with communicating in English. Communication is not that simple even when using basic words sometimes spelled different but pronounced the same, stake -v- steak. Sometimes spelled the same but pronounced differently. Whilst you are mulling over this I will just take a minute to polish the Polish pewter I intend to present to a friend as a present (ie, give as a gift).

One of the key themes in my new book Advising Upwards is the different ‘languages’ used by managers at different levels of an organisation. Communicating effectively is a skilled art that needs practice and you need to speak in the language of the listener to achieve the greatest effect.

140 PM Tips in 140 Words or Less

January 4, 2011

A new book, Lessons Learned in Project Management: 140 Tips in 140 Words or Less has just been published by John A. Estrella, the ‘tips’ were contributed by a wide range of authors. Our tips were:

Tip 36: Understand who’s who and who’s playing
Projects attract stakeholders. You need to find out who they are and manage their relationships with the project if you want to succeed.

Only when you understand who the important stakeholders are can you develop and implement a structured communication plan to positively influence their attitudes and expectations. Your stakeholder community is never static! People’s attitudes change, and individual stakeholders become more or less important as time goes by. Routine monitoring is critical, supported by adjustments to your communication plan.

If this sounds hard, it is a lot less difficult than dealing with a failed project, and help is at hand. Take a look at http://www.stakeholder-management.com/ for a range of resources to support the Stakeholder Circle® methodology. This lets you focus on the right stakeholders at the right time to maximize your chances of success.

—Dr. Lynda Bourne, DPM, PMP
Managing Director, Stakeholder Management Pty Ltd

Tip 37: Treat your schedule as king
Useful schedules are used! The only thing management can influence is the future; the past is a fact, and the present is too late.

Useful schedules are developed collaboratively, are used to coordinate the work of the project team and help management formulate wise decisions. Good schedules are:
• Elegant and easy to understand
• Concise and accurate
• As simple as possible
• Maintained by regular status/updates—all incomplete work MUST be in the future!

To achieve these objectives, you must avoid vast schedules and unnecessary detail—no one understands them, and you can’t maintain them; for guidance refer to the PMI Practice Standard for Scheduling. Only after you understand the flow and timing of the work can you hope to develop accurate resource plans and then cost budgets.

—Patrick Weaver, PMP, PMI‐SP
Managing Director, Mosaic Project Services Pty Ltd

To read the other 138 tips, buy the book form Amazon, see:
http://www.amazon.com/Lessons-Learned-Project-Management-Words/dp/1456357581 for details.

2010 in review

January 2, 2011

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is doing awesome!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 3,500 times in 2010. That’s about 8 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 42 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 65 posts. There were 4 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 148kb.

The busiest day of the year was December 3rd with 41 views. The most popular post that day was Procrastination is Genetic.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were mosaicprojects.com.au, linkedin.com, en.wordpress.com, stakeholder-management.com, and mosaicprojects.wordpress.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for stakeholder management, stakeholder circle, stakeholder relationship management, the stakeholder circle (bourne 2007), and “illusion of control” project.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Procrastination is Genetic November 2010


Stakeholders and Change Management January 2010


The Value of your PMP Qualification January 2010


The powerful illusion of control March 2010
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The Central Role of Stakeholder Management April 2010