The art of giving feedback

January 31, 2014

feedback (1)One of the key supervisory skills needed by every leader is the ability to give feedback to their team on individual performance. The reason is simple, if the team don’t know what you expect from them, you are unlikely to get the performance you need. If someone is doing the ‘right thing’ they need to know it’s ‘right’ and be encouraged to continue. If someone’s not doing what’s required they need to have their efforts redirected.

Feedback is different to motivation – a highly motivated worker producing the ‘wrong thing’ quickly and efficiently has the potential to do more damage than an unmotivated worker producing very little. The ideal is a highly motivated team, all doing the right thing and all knowing they are doing exactly what’s required. Effective feedback is one of the keys to achieving this nirvana.

The starting points are effective delegation, making sure each team member knows what they are expected to achieve and why; and a constructive team environment where people understand the ‘rules’ and are willing to help each other. Delegation is discussed in our White Paper: WP1091 The Art of Delegation. Aspects of team leadership are discussed in a range of posts at

Once your people are busy working, the opportunity to use feedback effectively cuts in. As a starting point all types of feedback need to be genuine. The purpose of giving feedback is to improve the behaviour of the other person and to bring out the best in your team and this won’t happen is the feedback is seen as disingenuous. There are essentially three types of feedback and all three have their place:

  • Positive reinforcement where you acknowledge good work.
  • Constructive feedback where you suggest improvement.
  • Negative feedback where you highlight unacceptable behaviour.

Negative feedback
Negative feedback should be rare, and generally used only where there is some form of unacceptable behaviour. The key with this type of feedback is focusing on the behaviour not the person – you are dealing with an unacceptable behaviour, not an unacceptable person. Geoffrey James suggests these 10 rules for giving negative feedback:

  1. Make negative feedback unusual. The ratio is five or more positive feedbacks to one negative; and this may mean you need to plan to ‘accidently find the person doing something right’.
  2. Don’t stockpile negative feedback. Feedback is best given real time, or immediately after the fact; there is no ‘best time’.
  3. Never use feedback to vent. It creates resentment and passive resistance.
  4. Don’t email negative feedback.
  5. Start with an honest compliment. (Discussed below)
  6. Uncover the root of the problem by asking open questions.
  7. Listen before you speak. (See more on active listening)
  8. Ask questions that drive self-evaluation. (See more on effective questions)
  9. Coach the behaviours you would like to see. (See more on coaching)
  10. Be willing to accept feedback, too.

The vast majority of your feedback should either be constructive feedback where you help someone improve or positive feedback where you reinforce desirable behaviours:

  • Positive feedback includes praise, reinforcement, and congratulatory comments to reinforce and encourage the current behaviour or performance to continue essentially unchanged.
  • Constructive feedback includes suggestions for improvement, explorations of new and better ways to do things, or indicating the ‘correct way’ to do something that was done in a less than optimal way.


Positive feedback
This is by far the easiest feedback to give, helps develop moral and commitment and most people appreciate recognition for a ‘job well done’. The challenge is to make sure this type of feedback is distributed evenly and fairly across the team. If someone feels they are being ignored and ‘others are getting all of the praise’ the feedback can be counterproductive.

Constructive feedback
Done well, constructive feedback is even more valuable than positive reinforcement. A recent survey by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman has found that 57% of people preferred corrective feedback; compared to 43% who preferred praise/recognition. But how the feedback is delivered really matters 92% of the respondents agreed with the assertion, “Negative (redirecting) feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.” The challenge is to make sure your feedback contains information that is useful in a way that can be used.

In this respect, constructive feedback and coaching are very closely aligned. Coaching is discussed in more depth in my post Developing your team.

Giving Constructive / Negative Feedback
As already mentioned in the ‘negative feedback’ section the key to having your suggestion/criticism listened to is to start with an honest complement. One of the easiest is simply to say “Thank you for your hard work on this…” and then provide some feedback or even criticism immediately after. This approach is effective because:

  • It acknowledges the person’s hard work – Right or wrong, chances are good that the person worked hard on whatever it is that you are providing feedback for. It makes the person feel good at the start, because it tells them you noticed.
  • It doesn’t throw everything out of the window – It acknowledges that there is a good base to start from and with just a few tweaks and revisions it will be just fine.
  • It comes from a supportive angle – By verbalizing your position of appreciation and support, feedback will sit much better with someone who feels as if you have their interests in mind.
  • It is non-threatening – The person receiving the feedback immediately understands that you are not gunning for them, that your only motive is to help them and the deliverable to become better.

There are two caveats:

  1. If they didn’t work hard don’t use this opening, a different conversation is needed with a different complement to start the discussion (nice hairdo… / how are you feeling…. / I like your poster….). Honesty and integrity are key components of effective feedback and that starts from the very beginning.
  2. Don’t ever use ‘but’ or ‘however’ after the complement! “Thanks for all of your hard work, BUT…” simply means please ignore everything before the ‘but’. Use a construct similar to: “Thanks for all of your hard work, do you think we could make you job easier / quicker if …….”.

    It may old fashioned English grammar but (ie, ignore the beginning of this sentence), but is an exclusionary word similar to or;  “You can go to the cricket or the tennis” means pick one. And is an inclusive term. “You can go to the cricket and the tennis…” and in this context “Thanks for all of your hard work the outcomes are great and we can get even better…” (similar constructs exist in Spanish, and I suspect most other languages).

Why feedback is hard
One of the other interesting findings in the Zenger Folkman survey was people who don’t like receiving feedback don’t like giving feedback. And those who are open to feedback also find giving feedback easier. As a starting preposition, one of the easiest ways to gather ideas on how to improve your business is to have employees give feedback to managers, both in their own unit and in other units on options for improvement! But it is still not easy.

There are a number of reasons why feedback and certainly criticism are hard to administer and swallow at the same time:

  • People think you are attacking them personally.
  • People think you don’t have the right to offer feedback.
  • People think you think you are better than them.
  • People think everything they do is terrible.

The antidote is a strong team culture, showing you care and making sure you focus on the problem, not the person (unless the feedback is positive).

The ability to give corrective feedback constructively is one of the critical keys to leadership, an essential skill to boost your team’s performance that could set you apart.

PMI Voices Post

January 30, 2014

My latest contribution to the PMI Voices on project management blog has just been published: Careful — What You Measure Is What You Get    What is easy to measure is not necessarily important.

My earlier ‘voices’ posts are at:

Tired workers lose their ethics

January 24, 2014

Having recently suffered a week of extreme temperatures and sleepless nights in Melbourne, with more to come, everyone is aware of some of the effects of sleep deprivation including short tempers, the loss of concentration and the reduction in some fine motor skills. In short, tired people are more grumpy, absent minded and clumsy than normal and new research suggests that they are more likely to cheat!

The underlying cause is the same; the lack of sleep reduces the amount of glucose in the prefrontal cortex and only adequate amounts of sleep can restore it. Physiologically, self-control occurs largely in the pre-frontal cortex region of the human brain, and uses glucose as a fuel. The act of implementing self-control draws upon this fuel, and can eventually exhaust the fuel causing one’s ability to exert self-control to reduce. And when self-control is depleted, people are more likely to cave in to temptations to behave badly or unethically. Start with the fuel in short supply due to lack of sleep and self-control dissipates sooner.

This has important business and team management implications. Ethics are central to the ‘good governance’  of an organisation and an important management concern; ethical behaviour will boost the reputation and performance of the organisation, whereas unethical behaviours can damage it significantly. And lack of sleep affects everyone, not just ‘bad’ people. Whilst it is common view that good people do good things and bad people do bad things, the behavioural ethics literature indicates that this is simply not the case; everyone has the capacity for both ethical and unethical behaviour and the balance is affected by how tired they are.

restless2In both laboratory and field contexts, Christopher M. Barnes and his team found that a lack of sleep led to higher levels of unethical behaviour. Moreover, they found that it was small amounts of lost sleep that produced noticeable effects on unethical behaviour. In one of their laboratory studies there was a difference of only about 22 minutes of sleep between those who cheated and those who did not. In their field studies, they found naturally occurring variation in sleep (with most nights ranging from 6.5-8.5 hours of sleep) was sufficient to predict unethical behaviour at work the next day.

Executives and managers should keep this in mind – the more they push employees to work late, come to the office early, and use their smartphones to answer emails and calls at all hours, the more they invite unethical behaviour to creep in. Ethics is defined as ‘doing the right thing even when no-one is looking!’ Particularly the small things needed to ensure a job is done properly and necessary procedures followed, and it only needs one check or test to be omitted or short-cut at the wrong time to open the potential for a crisis.

Smartphones are as bad as a heatwave!! They are almost perfectly designed to disrupt sleep by keeping us mentally engaged with work late into the evening. The problems caused by using these phones late at night include:

  • they make it harder to psychologically detach from the most pressing cares of the day so that we can relax and fall asleep;
  • they encourage poor sleep hygiene, a set of behaviours that make it harder to both fall asleep and stay asleep; and
  • perhaps the most difficult aspect to avoid is that they expose us to light, including blue light. Even small amounts of blue light inhibit the sleep-promoting chemical melatonin, and the displays of smartphones are capable of producing this effect.

One solution suggested by Harvard Professor Leslie Perlow, is improved ‘sleep hygiene’. Sleep hygiene refers to the pattern of behaviours associated with sleep. There are patterns of behaviour that are conducive to sleep, and other patterns that make it much more difficult. With some relatively simple steps, you can improve your own sleep hygiene, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep:

  1. Create agreed predictable time off. The best way to start is for management and the team to agree that evenings and normal sleeping hours are the most important times for people to be predictably off. This will allow employees to psychologically disengage from work and minimize exposure to the blue light produced by electronic display screens.
  2. Consistent bedtimes. Your body has a circadian system that functions as a 24-hour clock, regulating processes such as body temperature and heart rate. An important part of that circadian system is the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a chemical that your body uses internally to promote the process of falling asleep. But changing your bedtimes is disruptive to this process. You should enable your circadian system to work smoothly by going to bed at the same time every night (preferably an early enough bedtime to get a sufficient amount of sleep).
  3. No television, laptops, tablets, or smartphones in bed. You may think that watching television in bed is a good way to relax. But physiologically, the light exposure associated with these activities inhibits melatonin production. This is true for any light, but especially blue wavelength light that is common in these devices, and especially when the source of light is so close to you. It’s good policy to stop using any of these devices a few hours before bedtime. But at the very least, do not use them in bed.
  4. No activity in bed other than sleep and sex. Think of Pavlov’s dogs. By pairing one stimulus with another, he created an association between meat powder and a bell that was so strong that the dogs began to salivate when they heard a bell even if meat powder was not present. You want to take a similar approach to your bed and sleep. Strengthen that association as much as you can by pairing your bed with sleep, but not with other activities.
  5. No stimulants within a few hours of bedtime. Physiological arousal and sympathetic nervous system activation oppose the process of falling asleep. Any substance that has stimulant properties should be avoided before bedtime. Nicotine and caffeine are two common such substances. Everyone knows that caffeine makes it difficult to fall asleep. But not everyone knows that caffeine has a metabolic half-life of several hours (typically at least five hours, and sometimes more). So if you plan to go to bed at 10:30, coffee with or after dinner is generally a bad idea. Nicotine persists in the body for a shorter period of time than caffeine, but still has a half-life of a few hours.
  6. Exercise, but not within a few hours of bedtime. Exercise has many beneficial effects on human health. Regular exercise can be helpful in regulating sleep. However, research indicates that it depends on the amount of time between exercise and sleep. One study in particular shows that because exercise is physiologically arousing, it makes you less likely to fall asleep in the very near term, but more likely to fall asleep later. So develop a pattern of exercising, but not late at night.

By following these steps, you can improve your sleep hygiene which will make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep, Good sleep hygiene is not a fix-all panacea, but the research data indicates that is will certainly help.

And because leaders help to set norms by modelling behaviours, my recommendation is to prioritise sleep in your own life, while encouraging your team to do the same. Do what you can to support employees’ sleep health rather than disrupt it. The better rested we all are, the more effective we will be at work supported by more ethical and considerate behaviours.

These ideas can help with office induced disruptions to sleep. Now all we need is a way to avoid the next heatwave.

Gamification – A new way of working

January 16, 2014

gamification-user-experienceGamification is discussed in Chapter 7 of my book Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders.  This post takes a closer look at the topic from a more basic level and based on some of the research, and will suggest options for making your next wait at the dentist’s fun!

In my book, Robert Higgins, the author of Ch. 7 – The New Confucian Communication Game: Communicating with the Nintendo® Generation, suggests the way to lead in business is very similar to being a superhero in an on-line game and explains the self-organising networks of communication and status that develop (with plenty of help for non-gamers). But the potential is much wider. Gamification has the potential to revolutionise the way people see work, and how they interact with one another within the workplace.

Gamification is the concept of transferring the positive mechanisms present in games (such as badges, leader boards and other forms of ‘instant feedback’) to mundane work tasks, creating a more dynamic, fun approach to the working environment. Applied effectively, Gamification restructures a typically boring task into something fun, competitive and engaging.

Technology research and advisory company Gartner has identified four principle means of driving employee engagement through the use of gamified techniques:

  • Acceleration of feedback cycles to maintain engagement
  • Use of clear goals and rules of play
  • Allow players to feel empowered to achieve these goals
  • The building up of narratives that engages players to participate and achieve the goals of the activity

When used in a positive way, gamification will encourage people’s psychological desires for competition, drive them to engage and participate in a community structure, and increase workplace morale and productivity; it is a great way to motivate and engage the new generation of knowledge worker and reduce attrition.

The key is to develop a meaningful ‘points score’ associated with the performance of the work and then provide effective (and visible) feedback. Built from Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of need’, three key areas to include are:

  1. Level 1: Recognition. This first level focuses on highlighting success and engaging novices. The key themes drive personal brand recognition.
  2. Level 2: Access. This second level builds demand for association and attracts intermediate users by creating value and scarcity around access to ‘special’ resources, people, and tools for improvement.
  3. Level 3: Impact. This third level appeal to power users and advanced users. At this level, bragging rights and incentives align with impact on the growth of the organisation.

Gamification as a concept within business is still in its infancy, but with the energy surrounding its adoption it seems inevitable that in the long term we will all be exposed to this fast growing phenomenon. The statistics certainly suggest there is a potent demand for gamification. Research by Gartner suggests that by 2014 more than 70 per cent of global organisations will have at least one ‘gamified’ application, and by 2015, the research shows that 50% of Global 2000 organisations that manage innovation processes will have gamified those processes. Although this current wave of enthusiasm may be at the ‘peak-of-inflated-expectations’ and about to descend into the ‘trough-of-disillusionment’ on Gartner’s Hype Cycle.


Used effectively, gamification has the potential to improve productivity significantly. Three examples include:

  • Using gaming to revitalise ‘lessons learned’, and promote the creation and sustenance of organisational and project knowledge ‘wikis’ rather than boring databases using competitive knowledge ranking systems to encourage increased contributions and improved team engagement (often seen in enthusiast online forums today).
  • Using challenges and rewards to track performance against the plan (where the on-time performance for the updating of progress information and the accuracy of the data provided is weighted more heavily than the actual achievement of results – the ‘players’ all have equal control over updating their progress accurately, but may not have control over the pace of work).
  • Workflow processes can be visually represented and improved by managers and team members alike, with leader boards in turn highlighting and rewarding the innovative thinkers (see more on process improvement).

The use of feedback mechanisms, such as leader boards, allows the creation of a potent dashboard from which other managers can gauge the health of each project. As well as allowing the day to day monitoring that is essential to ensure on time delivery.

Gamification has the potential to become part of the project managers ‘toolkit’, and when combined with other innovations, to contribute to successful project delivery, but it is not a one size fits all remedy to all project problems and should not be forced upon a workforce without first gauging the level of buy-in amongst individual employees. And, it may just be another business fad, but who could deny that to make work fun is a laudable aspiration? Your next challenge is to make a ‘game’ out of waiting at the dentists…..

Integrity is the key to delivering bad news successfully

January 9, 2014

Integrity2Integrity is the result of a combination of virtues, including the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, supported by ‘soundness’ and completeness in what you do and say. You have to earn a reputation for integrity based on what you are, and more importantly what you are known for by the people you have to deliver the bad news to.

The reason integrity is so important in the world of project management, including PMOs, Portfolio and Program management is that most of the information and decisions we are involved in are based on a future outcome that cannot be proved at this point in time.

Any accountant can tell you a project actually cost $2million six months to a year after it finished; however, when the project estimator has to tell the Sponsor, his pet project will cost double the $1 million the Sponsor is hoping for there is no way of proving the estimates are correct. If the bad news is to be believed, the estimator has to be believed and the Sponsor’s willingness to believe is in part grounded in his impression of the estimator’s integrity.

Integrity should not be confused with ‘never making a mistake’ or the person’s passion for their work, or their producing evidence or calculations others disagree with – integrity is knowing the information produced by the person is the best they can deliver, is soundly based on sensible parameters and both the supporting information and any contra information is openly available (no secrets, and no overt biasing of the results).

In a perfect world, a person would be respected for their integrity and their opinion or information accepted on that basis, and used as the starting point for discussion, particularly if there is an alternative interpretation. In the ‘real world’ there is an unfortunate tendency to ‘shoot the messenger’ if someone in a powerful position dislikes the information.

Whilst being ‘shot at’ is never fun, watching how you are being attacked can provide very good insights into what the attacker really knows or thinks. Some of the current commentary around the climate change debate is a good example.

A couple of weeks ago the recently appointed Chair of the Australian Government’s Business Advisory Council launched an attack against the CSIRO, the weather bureau and the “myth” of anthropological climate change supported by the IPCC reports. He did NOT offer any scientific evidence to support his assertion that all of the world scientific and meteorological bodies were incorrect, rather attacked their integrity and accountability on the grounds of ‘vested interest’.

Just for the record, the primary body looking at climate change is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on which all of the 194 members of the United Nations have a right to be represented, and this body oversees and appoints the scientific panels which in turn engage with 1000s of other scientists world-wide. The work of the IPCC in turn has been reviewed by the Inter Academy Council, a multinational association of scientific academies, and found to be successful. I would suggest integrity, accountability and openness are clearly demonstrated. But this does not mean the science of climate change cannot be attacked, even if less than 2% of the peer reviewed scientific papers published in the last decade doubt the findings in the other 98% that man made greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change. Climate sceptics are happy to accept odds of 49:1 against.

The ‘climate sceptics attacks are being mounted in exactly the same way the tobacco industry attacked the emerging body of scientific evidence in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, that smoking caused damage to people’s health. Some of these lines of attack (which generally mean the attack has no real data) are:

#1 Ask for specific proof. This sounds reasonable but is in fact impossible. You cannot prove a scientific theorem! All science can state is the theorem has not been challenged (yet) Gravity seems obvious and was explained by Newton, then Einstein, then Quantum Mechanics in quite different ways.

#2 Ask for an exact number. Our $2million project cannot be ‘proved’ to actually cost $2,000,0123 in 28 months time when it will be finished. All we can reasonably offer is an estimate, the assumptions it’s based on and a possible range of outcomes. Demanding to know ‘exactly’ what it will cost or exactly how long it will take is asking for the impossible and if a ‘number’ is provided, you can guarantee it will be wrong and that wrongness will be used to attack your credibility in the future

#3 Find one point of contradiction or one ‘change of opinion’ anywhere in the overall presentation and use this ‘one error’ to condemn the whole body of work. This is relatively simple if there is lots of complex information compiled from many sources and the people developing the materials are acting with integrity and making their processes open and transparent. Intelligent people when presented with new facts change their mind and adapt their thinking. It is highly counterproductive to ignore new data that may cause a change in the results of a complex calculation but watch the attackers claim the ‘science is wrong’ because opinions have changed by a few years and a few decimal points of a degree based on better modelling and more accurate data. Changing a forecast from 2.7 degrees of warming to 3 degrees, or a time period from 50 years to 30 does not alter the basic fact of global warming and the reality will be different again (but when you know exactly what the temperature rise was it is too late to stop it occurring). This is the classic project problem do you spend money now to alleviate a potential problem or wait until its too late and you know what the issue is for certain…….

#4 Attack the messenger. If you cannot attack the basic data, discredit the messenger. Claim vested interests, lack of morals, or anything that damages the messenger (in the corporate world fire the person or transfer them – we have a really good posting for you in the Aleutian Islands…) After all, the practice has been in vogue since the times of the Ancient Greeks.

Washington Post

Washington Post

#5 Use obvious facts out of context or in isolation. How can the world be ‘warming’ when the USA is freezing? The cold is obvious, the cause is not. The system that keeps the Arctic weather in the Arctic is the Jet Stream; the Jet Stream is powered by the thermal gradient between the tropics and the Arctic, the Arctic is warming faster than the tropics, reducing the gradient and therefore potentially making the Jet Stream less stable. For more on this see: (then apply #1, #2 and #3 above if you want to ignore the theorem). A counterpoint to the USA freeze is Australia’s record hot year in 2013, see: However, neither the USA data not the Australian data alone proves anything used out of context or in isolation, what matters is the overall weight of evidence, not selected facts.

The good news is if your attacker is using any of these relatively cheap tactics, you know they have little real evidence to oppose you. If the attacker is of equal or lesser power to you, name their tactics and use the power of your integrity to counter their arguments, it takes time but there is nothing gained by descending to their level (except the loss of your integrity).

If the attacker has more power then you (the normal project / senior manger situation) more subtlety is required, but that requires a book to cover the options – fortunately there is one…. Treat yourself to a copy of Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders,  it may not solve all of your problems but it will increase my royalties.

Why organisational change can be difficult

January 5, 2014

Organisational change seems to be far more difficult in some organisations than others – this blog will suggest the reason and a possible solution! But before looking at these concepts, let’s lay out the basics:

  • The concept of using projects to enable the creation of value is fairly well accepted, the value creation chain starts will innovative ideas and finishes when the benefits are realised and value is created (read more on Benefits and Value):

Fig-1 Value Chain Grey

  • The effect of the ‘chain’ means that when you have got to the end of the project (or program) all that has happened is you’ve spent money, benefits and value come later and need a ‘team effort’ from all levels of management to be maximised (read more on Benefits Management).

Fig-2 Benefits_Management

  • Consequently the key to realising the benefits and maximising value is effective organisational change (read more on organisational change)

Fig-3 Change_Management

  • And the basic concepts of organisational change have been defined by numerous authorities from the perspective of stakeholder attitudes:

Fig-4 The-Change-Curve

And the rate of adoption of the change:

Fig-5 change-normal-curve

  • The concepts are documents in a range of references including
    –  PMI’s Managing Change in Organisations – a practice guide
    –  APMG International’s Managing Benefits

But none of these well established concepts really explain why some organisations are open to change and others are not; the question this post is focused on.

One insight that helps explain why some organisational cultures are resistant to change and others more open to change is discussed in an interesting paper: Darwin’s invisible hand: Market competition, evolution and the firm (Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization: Dominic D.P. Johnson, Michael E. Price, Mark Van Vugt).

The paper suggest that the Darwinian view that competition among firms reflects the ruthless logic of ‘selection of the fittest’, where the free market is a struggle for survival in which successful firms survive and unsuccessful ones die, is only partially correct.

The application of Darwinian selection to competition among firms (as opposed to among individuals) invokes group selection, which requires altruism and the suppression of individual self-interest to the benefit of the ‘greater good’ of the group and the advancement of the firm.

This effect can be achieved in circumstances where the organisation is lead by a charismatic leader who can inspire the members of the organisation to sacrifice their short-term self interest to the ‘greater good’. Or when the members of the organisation are either inspired by the organisation’s mission (eg, committed workers in many aid organisations) or feel the organisation is threatened and that sacrificing their short-term best interests to help the organisation survive is essential for everyone’s long term good. These types of situation create the same effect as a ‘high performance team’ – individual team members ‘play for the team’ ahead of any selfish interests.

If any or all of these factors are in play, and are appreciated by the individuals that make up the organisation, the ability to implement change is significantly increased (provided the change can be seen to contribute to the mutual good / mutual survival).

However, if the members of the organisation feel the organisation is fundamentally impregnable, there’s no threat (or common enemy) and no inspiring mission, a completely different dynamic come into play. The competition and Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ plays out at the individual level. What matters most is how the proposed change will influence existing power structures and networks. To most people the change is likely to be perceived as a threat; they know what the status quo is but can only imagine the future state after the change and will generally imagine the worst case due to our innate biases. And consequently the change has to be resisted – the normal ‘change management challenge’.

These ideas seem to make sense of our general observations:

  • Change seems easier in small or medium sized organisations because the members of the organisation see their self-interest is closely aligned to the success of the organisation
  • Some inspirational organisations seem to adapt to change easily, 3M and Apple spring to mind, a combination of inspirational leadership and a strongly believed mission to create new things.
  • However, in many established large organisations in both the public and private domains, the link between the individuals well-being and the organisations well-being is less clear and entrenched self-interest takes over. The well known ‘office politics’.

So how can a change agent overcome the entrenched inertia and covert opposition experienced in the change resistant organisation? Short of generating a massive crisis (eg, the General Motors reorganisation) most change initiative will fail if they are not carefully managed over a sustained period.

One idea that can be used in these circumstances is Paul Finnerty’s Big Jelly Theory.

The Big Jelly Theory, postulates that large or very large organisations are extremely difficult to change, but it is not impossible to do so. The problems change agents often encounter are caused by the approach chosen to effect the required organisational changes.

Paul’s theory is that if you throw yourself and your team members, 100% mentally and physically at the organisation in an attempt to force it to change at best the organisation will giver a little shiver, momentarily, like a giant jelly, and then immediately return to it’s pre-existing shape and carry on with business as usual as though nothing has happened.

Fig-6 Big jelly theory

The theory postulates that the only effective way, to change or realign an organisation, is to metaphorically issue each of the change team members with spoons. The team members then use these spoons, to sculpt away at the big jelly, and in doing so changing the organisations shape, to whatever has strategically been deemed as more desirable, for the future.

In other words whilst effort and enthusiasm are important, in making or reshaping organisational changes, they are very often ineffective, when used alone. Whereas the spoon approach, whilst often time consuming, yields discernible result almost from the start.

This is in effect the Kaizen Way – great change is made through small steps. Rooted in the two thousand-year-old wisdom of the Tao Te Ching, Kaizen is the art of making great and lasting change through small, steady increments. Dr. Robert Maurer, a psychologist on the staff at the UCLA recommends:
1.  Ask small questions.
2.  Think small thoughts
3.  Take small actions.
4.  Solve small problems
5.  Bestow small rewards.
6.  Identify small moments of success.

Provided you have the overarching ‘grand vision’ to coordinate and align the small changes, the results can be amazing!!!! It just needs time, perseverance and really effective long-term stakeholder management which is where tools like the Stakeholder Circle®  come into play.

Setting expectations

January 1, 2014

In a recent PMI ‘Voices’ post, Communicating Change  I briefly touched on the way expectations affect experience.  A wonderful New Year’s Eve party in one of our preferred training venues (the Bayview Eden Hotel) really brought this home!

When we turn up at the hotel for our next PMP and CAPM courses starting on the 20th January,  our previous experience and expectations of a friendly and efficient business environment with comfortable training rooms and great catering are likely to be fulfilled as normal.

However, take a peaceful PMP training room, add some bling, invite a group of old rockers from the 60s and 70s to listen to Brian Cadd an Australian songwriter-legend from that time (I know that’s before many of you were born) and watch on of the best NYE parties develop. Our expectations were dramatically reframed as we walked into the room!

Setting expectations

Fast forward 20 days and I’m sure we will be back to the calm, professional, well lit environment we are used to.

There are valuable business lessons to be learned from the way hotels quickly reconfigure the atmosphere within their public rooms. The artefacts you have on display, ambient lighting and temperature, the venue itself and the way you dress and behave starting with the invitation to a meeting all contribute to the perceptions of the person you are communicating with and their perceptions will influence the way any discussion or negotiation starts. Once started, it is very difficult to reframe the process if it is ‘on the wrong track’.

So next time you are preparing for an important communication decide if you want the ambiance to be friendly, casual, professional, intimidating or something else and then think through the list above to decide how you will present to the person.

You cannot change the basics any more than a hotel can change its physical building, but you can change the way it is perceived and the ambiance you create and use that as the foundation for an effective communication.

Wishing you all a happy and prosperous 2014 – our year certainly started with a bang.