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.


Lessons from manufacturing

December 6, 2014

In much of the developed world, and particularly Australia, small to medium sized manufacturing businesses are in decline.  However, the manufacturing landscape is not all ‘doom and gloom’ there are always a few organisations that are developing and performing well above the trend. This blog will suggest the ‘high performance work practices’ used in many of these high performance manufacturing businesses are directly transferrable to project teams.

Research has shown a correlation between High Performance Work Practices (HPWPs) and ways high performing manufacturing SMEs tend to operate.  HPWPs are a set of management tools and practices that help get the best out of an organisation and its employees, creating business success. The practices are divided into three broad areas, developing and encouraging:

  • Knowledge, skills and abilities;
  • Motivation and effort; and
  • Opportunities to contribute.

HPWPs manifest in five interlinked organisational outcomes:

  1. Self-managed work teams.
  2. Employee involvement, participation and empowerment.
  3. Total quality management.
  4. Integrated production technologies.
  5. The learning organisation.

hilst some of the specific tools are unlikely to be directly translatable to many project teams, the key practices are.  High performance organisations are focused on motivating their team members (employees), building their knowledge and giving them opportunities to contribute to the success of the organisation.  If your team is happy, safe and efficient, you maximise the opportunity for success (see more on team motivation) .

HPWPs are not ‘rocket science’; most of the individual concepts are well established in management theory, what’s new is a clear demonstration of the advantages gained by integrating the elements in a coordinated and planned way to drive high performance. (See more on HPWPs).

Achieving this is partially governance, partially organisational management, ensuring the team has the tools and skills to succeed, and that the work environment allows then to work efficiently.  The rest is attitudinal, ensuring the team are happy and feel valued, and employing team members that have a positive, collaborative and supportive attitude; leadership is the key, but so is ensuring you have ‘the right people on the bus’ (see more on leadership). It is much easier to teach a person new skills than it is to change their attitude.

Achieving a ‘high performance’ culture is a journey that needs planning; successful manufactures built their HPWP structure incrementally starting small and adding to the practices over time, ensuring all of the elements work together; a similar approach should work for project teams.

The trigger for this post was a recent survey by the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Workplace Leadership that has clearly demonstrated the value of HPWPs in SME manufacturing sector (see: http://www.workplaceleadership.com.au/projects/high-performance-manufacturing-workplaces-study/), and as the title suggests, we believe translating these concepts into practical project team management should drive similar successes.