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Scaffolding of Change September 10, 2013

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Quite often during a consulting engagement, a client will question the need for a particular tool or meeting that has been implemented as part of the project.  It might be a new method of data collection, additional paperwork for change management, or a rigorous weekly review of project deliverables.

In some cases, these things are intended to become part of the client’s new way of doing business.  It is what they have paid the consultant to bring to the organization: some change in the way managers make decisions, the way their product is developed and produced, or increased efficiency of the operation.  Quite often however, the ultimate outcome – behavior change – doesn’t depend on any particular form or spreadsheet or meeting.  The specific tool is less relevant than its use in facilitating and catalyzing the desired change.  Indeed, it is merely scaffolding – something that is necessary for construction but nevertheless temporary.

Many clients fail to recognize the time and effort required to construct this scaffolding (and tear it down at the end).  It can be a project in and of itself, but is not the “real work” that they expect to see.  The deliverables of scaffolding – the most visible and tangible of the consultant’s early work on a project – are often frustrating distractions from the true operation.  It is often difficult to perceive the behavior change going on behind the scenes and this can in turn can put the project at risk.

From the consultant’s point of view, it is important to clarify as early as possible what the project will and won’t deliver.  It’s also important to outline the need for some of the tools that will be used during the engagement and specify which will be permanent and which will be temporary.  The client then is obligated to take on some of this “extra work” as their part of the bargain.  They hired the consultant to facilitate organizational change – this won’t occur without the processes more regimented than they were used to before.


Small Victories July 22, 2013

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So often, especially with social media posts flying like mosquitoes around a barbecue, we read the same platitudes over and over, having long since taken any real meaning from them.  Sometimes, however, someone will recast even tired sayings with a different perspective – and in the process provide a way to create real actions out of them.

In today’s Monday Morning Memo, Alan Weiss sums up in just a few words what many consultants’ clients often have the most difficulty with.

“If you never fail, you become comfortable with increasingly minor victories.”

I can’t count how many times I have advised clients that they need to just take that first step.  Develop a log of actions for the week, start breaking long-term, unmanageable tasks into smaller bite-size chunks.  And it works…for a while.  Alan’s advice warns that the small satisfactions obtained from crossing off to-do lists is only good as we progress forward a few steps – it is not a path to long-term growth.

Another aspect of my consulting work is continuous improvement.  Once an organization has mastered a particular method, it’s time to look ahead to how it can be improved.  This may mean, by the way, that it be eliminated in favor of a new method.  Need to have a meeting established to implement a new program?  Fine.  But don’t forget to terminate it when the project is done.  Don’t even let it “evolve” into a meeting that covers some other topic.  Make conscious decisions to maintain those tools that continue to add value.  Be especially critical of meetings, but really, anything goes.  Forms, procedures, job descriptions – everything will eventually change to accommodate new technologies, skills, competitors, and regulations.

Those small victories are indeed critical to building positive habits and motivating an organization going through a difficult change process.  But small victories eventually will only provide the illusion of progress through activity rather than bona fide results.  Crossing off to-do lists is an important step, but always challenge yourself and your organization to take on ever bigger goals.  Continuous improvement comes at a price: not being 100% perfect.  Accept that some ‘failures’ will occur and that your learning of a new process is as important as getting it right the first time.

Can you manage people without destroying trust? May 28, 2013

Posted by Jason in Management.
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Most of us might not readily associate project management – or any other management – with the fields of sociology or political science.  But just as engineering is the application of scientific principles toward a specific objective, management is very much the application of social sciences to coordinating groups toward an objective.

Unfortunately, sociology is rarely given much consideration in engineering curricula, and only passing interest in many business courses.  Surely, many business concepts are founded on sociological and psychological theory, but students aren’t often exposed to the raw studies or how more obscure analysis might be applied in new ways.  What is business and economics but a subset of the continual interactions we have with others every day of our lives?

Columbia University sociologist Herbert J. Gans wrote Middle American Individualism in 1988 as a short examination of the public’s relationship to Big Business and Big Government, especially Americans’ unique distrust of large organizations.  Though focused on how government can better reach such a disaffected population, the book yields some very interesting insights – several of which crop up again in the more recent Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam.

Putnam highlights the significant drop in “social capital” since the 1960’s and uses decades of survey data to analyze reasons and consequences.  He singles out our collective trust in each other – or rather lack of it – as being a contributing force in our declining social capital, the glue that allows our various short- and long-term activities to be reciprocated in the future.  Social capital could in some ways be a synonym for a more familiar business buzzword: synergy.  In short, the sum of our social connections is greater than the individuals we know.

In particular, Putnam highlights the concept of economic “transaction costs” as a consequence of less social capital and trust.  It is these transaction costs that hold particular pertinence to management.  We can think of transaction costs as the various tangible and intangible investments, such as research, bargaining, and enforcement (especially through contracts and courts), of any particular exchange.  These may be informal and individual (the time and effort involved in preparing a dinner for a sick neighbor) or complex business agreements (the process of hiring an engineer, preparing a contract, and executing the work).

Whenever we use a written contract, we increase the cost of that transaction – sometimes literally when we pay attorneys to draft them.  Aside from this, there are other intangible costs derived from the effort involved in setting up the agreement, managing the specific deliverables, and enforcing any variances.  To be sure, complex engineering designs do require clear contracts.  But has our litigious society forced us into formal agreements for even trivial matters?  When we micro-manage a project, do we inherently distrust the other parties when we insist on written documentation of every single activity?

Many businesspeople around Montana pride themselves on the magnitude of agreements executed with a handshake.  Similarly, master consultant Alan Weiss has noted that contracts are part of the implementation, not the sales process.  If you haven’t established the deliverables beforehand, the contract is premature at best.  Quite often, you may find yourself explaining away these written documents as “formalities”.  By requiring them, we are expressing at least some degree of distrust.  When developing relationships, that is the last thing you want to do.

Just how accurate are your eyes? February 6, 2013

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Our local news station’s weather department came up with an interesting little slogan for their mid-day ads.  As probably every local weather reporter does, ours wants you to know that when the storm of the century hits, he’ll be there to keep you informed.


So, it’s all the more interesting that they selected the slogan, “Nothing more accurate than seeing it yourself.”  As in, if you look out the window, you’ll know more than we can tell you from the TV station.  Strange as it is for our weatherman to promote, does this phrase even hold true?

On one level, it does.  We trust our eyes to absorb the visual spectrum and our brains to interpret those signals, presenting “factual” information and predictions.  We believe that which we “see”.  Speaking of weather, we could all be professional meteorologists if the extent of the job were to look outside and report rain, snow, or sleet.

Of course, it is much more than that.  First, what you see is not always what it seems.  Science has shown that in addition to cognitive biases, we also suffer visual limitations when concentrating on particular tasks.  We can literally be blind to something right in front of us, as this great video summary of Daniel Kahneman’s work shows.

On another level, we can ask what “accuracy” even means.  It’s probably fair to say that most people don’t need a meteorologist to decide whether to carry an umbrella RIGHT NOW.  On the other hand, most of us would be at a loss to guess whether it will be raining in three hours, or three days.  Our “accurate” visual understanding of the environment becomes almost useless very quickly.

We need meteorologists (and doctors, and engineers) to help interpret observations and then literally PREDICT THE FUTURE – at least with a reasonable degree of certainty.  I would trust the professional estimate any day over what my eyes may be telling me at that moment.

Are you driving your meetings into a ditch? December 2, 2012

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As a consultant, I help managers and front-line supervisors to achieve their myriad, sometimes conflicting, corporate goals.  Usually, in the mining environment, this relates to daily production rates – how many trucks, how much rock, how many tons processed and sold.  Despite mining’s many inherent challenges of geology, mechanical breakdowns, and logistics, seasoned professionals have seen most of them before.  One of the largest barriers to improvement isn’t any of these, rather, it is the staff itself – sometimes an individual, but often a corporate culture that has become bogged down in habit – a habit of bad meetings.

One of the first things we do on a site is examine meeting effectiveness.  We use the 5-P model, modified to fit our particular clients’ needs.  Our model requires that each meeting have:

  1. Purpose
  2. Payoff
  3. Participants
  4. Process
  5. Preparation

In short, we want clear outcomes (for the meeting itself and the longer term strategy), the right people, a clear agenda, and enough preparation that no one is receiving important information “cold turkey”.

But there is another, sneakier way that meetings can be hijacked.  This article illustrates another “P” – one that you DON’T want to have if you want to get things done.  PLOT stands for Parkinson’s Law of Triviality.  It states that more time is spent discussing low-impact issues simply because they are more familiar and controllable.  Bigger, more important issues are given mere minutes due to complexity and a tendency to trust the ‘experts’, while low value ‘bike sheds’ consume hours.

Though intended as a spoof, indeed there is likely some behavioral science behind this (Dan Ariely, are you reading this?).  We know that people can act quite irrationally when emotionally involved with an issue.  And if there’s anything that meetings seem to be especially good at, it is the nurturing of irrationality.

Committing to Change September 24, 2012

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I recently revisited “Your Brain and Business” by Srinivasan Pillay, in which the author describes many behaviors and habits studied by psychologists, sociologists, and economists in terms of recent fMRI research.  Even though it’s a fairly new field of study and its implications are not completely clear, we can still learn much from studies of emotion, decisions, and creativity and the connection between brain physiology and real-world behavior.

For example, most of us are familiar with visualizing a task or goal as a key step in achieving it – especially when behavioral change is necessary.  We might be trying to decide about a new job, resolve a conflict at home, or even simply lose weight.  Trainers and coaches advise that you should picture yourself in whatever “end state” you aim to reach.  You would visualize yourself in your ideal job, with your happy spouse, 20 pounds thinner – or whatever your goals might be.  Some might call it psychobabble, but fMRI demonstrates there are important changes in our brains when we visualize this way compared with not.

Example fMRI results

For many reasons, we are wired to set ourselves into habits.  It saves energy, protects our egos, reduces fear and anxiety, and feeds our feelings of reward when we accomplish things that are within our abilities.  Moving out of these habits then takes away all of these ‘good’ feelings and replaces them with brain chemicals that drive our fight or flight reflexes.

The fMRI studies show that when we visualize, we are literally training our minds to be more accustomed to our desired end state.  By reducing the novelty through mentally simulating our achievements, our brains are less likely to perceive these as fear-inducing unfamiliar situations.  This makes it easier to create further commitment to our goals, as each small step becomes an achievement (releasing reward chemicals) rather than a seemingly insurmountable task.

The Information Drug July 31, 2012

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We are all prone to hear and retain information that supports our existing beliefs.  This phenomenon of “confirmation bias” is one of several innate mental quirks that cloud our thinking and cause us to act more irrationally than we would like to believe.

This recent article highlights not only the confirmation bias, but the active role that we play in selecting information the first place.  For example, if we face two opposing viewpoints about which we know nothing, the one supporting our preconceived beliefs is the one that attracts our attention and lodges in our memory.  This more insidious finding leads to the conclusion that even when approaching a problem, we are selecting information that will most likely support our position – even without knowing for sure beforehand.

Naturally, like all our mental faculties, there are certainly ranges of behavior that deny the possibility of a hard, fast rule.  Nonetheless, the fact that we are capable of tricking ourselves should give us pause when gathering data or seeking others’ opinions.  If anything, we must go out of our way to seek contrary opinions and give equal chance to data that may not necessarily support our case.

We have enough to worry about without our own brains working against us.

Scumbag Brain

It Can Always Be Better May 18, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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As any artist knows, the job is never really finished.  It can always use a little tweak here, a different word there, a different color, another nub of clay.  The joke could be funnier, the song more in tune.

So it is with almost any project.

The plan can always use another step, another detail, a finer division of time and effort.  The scope could always be just a bit bigger to cover that one final eventuality.  And surely, for just a few dollars more we could make the product just so and really push it over the top.

As you might guess, this approach to project management will lead to what is commonly called “scope creep” (not to be confused with the project manager himself). In the engineering world, it can take the form of “analysis paralysis” as decisions are postponed until “we have all the information”.

But what about a more insidious effect, born of our need for order and solutions to everyday problems – such as “where did I leave my keys”?

When your organization or industry is changing, there can be many overwhelming activities occurring all at once.  In addition, most of us lack the ability to filter out all of them, as they actively occupy our attention.  Why?  When faced with the threat of change, our brains are wired to pay special attention.  It’s as if we are walking down a forest trail, minding our own business when suddenly

Your brain ignores the trees, the sky, and all the other things around that pose no threat.  You focus on the changed conditions and the immediate threat to your survival.  As crazy as it sounds, this happens in everyday life as well.

It is mentally taxing to worry about all the little things that can inevitably could stand some improvement.  And our brains are wired to reduce risk whenever possible.

The challenge then is to literally train yourself to focus on only the most critical items that demand your attention.  There are many small annoyances that aren’t important to the organization’s success.  They may be small inefficiencies, some extra paperwork, or a procedure that no one follows properly.  They may even be costing the organization real money.  It’s quite tempting to address them because they are easy and can provide a short-term reward because you “solved the problem”.

But if you manage a large staff, a capital-intensive operation, or a complex project, these shouldn’t even be on your radar screen.  They are distractions – and dangerous ones at that.  They lull you into a false sense of security and postpone the inevitable when the big issues finally become critical, unavoidable, and expensive.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.
Albert Einstein

Qualifiers April 10, 2012

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It’s not uncommon for people to hedge their speech when stating a fact.  A fun game is to see how many of these someone can string together in one sentence.

What Will You? April 3, 2012

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Almost every project contains a “post-mortem”.  I’ve always disliked the concept, not just due to the connotation of death (especially if the project was indeed successful) but because it implies that the only lessons we learn are those at the end – and that they are in turn due to some failure.

Simply learning from failures is a reaction to outcomes rather than setting out to learn during the process.  Case in point: how many performance reviews are there that ask the question, “What did you learn from the experience?”  All retrospective.  20/20 hindsight.  No challenge, just facts (and hazy recollections of them at best).

Instead, try turning the question around.  Ask, “What will I learn from this?”  Now, you are on the leading edge, looking forward.  Failures are possible, but so are successes.  You are moving forward with intention, rather than being carried down the stream looking back.  You plan on learning something – anything – from your next experiences.  Lessons that may have easily been forgotten many months later can be recorded, recognized, and immediately taught to others.

The nice thing about will?  It’s free.