Coping with uncertainty during a major project – climbing the mountain versus Brexit

IMAG0844I had a hip replacement last November, 27 years after I broke it in an accident. The surgeon who set it then explained that though they’d done a good job, it wasn’t a perfect job and eventually the hip would wear out.

Last week I was walking with friends in the Pyrenees, just 3 months after being discharged from the hip replacement. This was a tremendous occasion for me – would I still be a partial cripple, or would I find myself as good as new?

We set off to climb the pic de Saint-Barthélemy, at 2348m the second highest in the Corbieres region, ascending steadily through mist and low cloud from 1300m. We debated options – ascend by the “scenic” but rather harder route, or just go straight for the summit. Given the dull grey cloud we were in spoiling any view, and my natural concern about not overdoing things, we decided to split up; 2 of us went direct for the summit, the other 2 went the harder route (taking the guide book).

So two of us set out for the summit with 50m visibility and no guidebook or map. We just put our heads down and slogged upwards, eventually bursting through the top of the clouds into brilliant sunshine. As we continued up, we then saw the summit, and realised how far we still had to climb, but trudged on steadilyi

The view from the empty summit, when we finally got there , was breath-taking – the tallest summit was before us (just 20m higher) and other mountain tops peeking from the sea of cloud. 15 minutes later our friends arrived, seriously tired after an even harder grind, especially the final ascent.

What has this to do with project management?

Many projects hit a period in their life where leadership changes or vanishes, visibility of the overall objective is obscured or challenged and the team starts to fragment, pulling in different directions.  Brexit is a fine example of this happening from the very start!

When this period is entered, it is easy to panic and start a blame storm that quickly leads to the project stalling and potentially failing – David Cameron resigning and Theresa May stepping up to take the poison chalice was an example of this, the huge swing against the Conservative party at the subsequent election another.

What is needed is, as on my climb, to keep slogging on while things become clearer before making critical decisions, because hard work and progress almost always provide more clarity on the way forward. The objectives may flex, but a project that is making good progress in difficult circumstances is far more likely to succeed than one that stalls and flaps about.

Again, Brexit shows what happen when steady hard work is replaced by dogma, rhetoric and outright lies – the government “demanded” a deal that is worse than was already on the table from the EU when negotiating on citizens’ rights.

Where the Brexit project will end up, no one knows, but we must all keep slogging along to make the best of this farcical project.

 

 

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Teamworking: wishing you peace and happiness at Christmas and in the new year.

Just over 4 weeks ago I went into an NHS hospital for a hip replacement. I was stunned by the efficient and effective way I was treated, and how quickly I was discharged to go home – 30 hours.  What really struck me was that the staff were working together as a team, despite the usual NHS pressures, and I was treated as a human being, not  a number.

Has that  stayed the standard? Well, not quite – when I went to see Outpatients Physio, the handover and integration were less slick and integrated.  After, I felt less comfortable both physically and mentally than I had done. My GP surgery has done a lot to balance that out though, whipping out a couple of undissolved sutures at less than 24 hours notice.

Teamworking is something that makes everyone involved feel better, which directly and indirectly boosts performance.  I spend a lot of my time building up team behaviour in the early days of the projects I lead as I know the investment will repay huge dividends.

So why is it that the wreckers and tearers-apart are in the political ascendancy? People are feeling under pressure, for whatever reason, and this forces behaviours towards the extremes of the build up/split apart spectrum.

War is a major pressure, obviously. I’ve just finished reading a reference work on the British invasion of Madagascar during the Second World War, and it revealed to me the huge political impact of individuals’ relationships; Churchill and de Gaulle couldn’t get on together, which led to decades of Anglo-French acrimony after the was was over, and the UK’s delayed entry to the Common Market. Churchill didn’t trust the Vichy regime to stand up to Germany and Japan and stay truly neutral, leading to tragic events like the shelling of the French fleet at Mers el Kebir and the consequent vicious fighting by the Vichy French forces against the UK and its allies.

However, we are not at war, and the UK hasn’t had to fight a war locally within the lifetime of many people.  It’s something that others fight and suffer through – we just have to pay taxes to support our forces. The paradox is that the apparently despised EU, with NATO, has reduced the level of military conflict in Europe almost to zero as more states appreciate that membership means stopping fighting their neighbours and minorities.

Are we just bored with peace and prosperity? In 1957, just 12 years after the end of WW2, the PM, Harold Macmillan, had to rally the country and remind them that most people had never had it so good, following 6 years of war that bankrupted the country and 12 years of austerity.

People are often quite bad at comparing where they are now with where they were in the past, and are disillusioned they don’t have everything they could possibly want, when in reality nearly everyone has FAR MORE now than when I was growing up.

According to Oprah Winfrey, “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough”

At this time of year, with the awful prospects facing the word from the “votes of hate”, and the very real  fighting destroying the lives of so many, please relax for a moment, think of everything you have achieved in your life, and decide whether you can step back from our society’s obsession with accumulating yet more money and possessions and focus on working with people in peace and harmony as teams.

Oh – and stop buying newspapers. They lie to make money, and make you miserable and dissatisfied without any basis. You won’t find anything in the papers praising the NHS!

 

Deadlines – the great motivators

I went to “Joint School” on Friday, our local pre-surgery induction for hip replacement patients.  I came away really fired up with all the things I need to get done before I go in for surgery in 2 weeks.

So what is it that this deadline has triggered?

  1. Priority – I now have a list of things that must be done, a list of things that should be done, and a list of things I’d like to do.
  2. Focus – I’ve immediately cancelled all the “nice to haves” that require significant time and distract me from hitting the deadline
  3. Timeliness – I’ve already done lots of things that I’ve known needed doing for months but kept postponing due to “high priorities”
  4. Energy – I will be the one to suffer if I don’t hit the deadline, and  I’ve discovered that lots of “huge” tasks have been finished pretty quickly and easily because they have to be done now, rather than shuffled off into the future
  5. Personal effectiveness – because a change is BETTER than a rest. Swapping to another task when I run out of steam re-energises me while doing something useful

Setting deadlines is a key skill in project management, and if done well can stimulate the team very powerfully.

Are deadlines always so effective?

Well, no. Deadlines can be hugely demotivating when:

  • They are not real – they have been created by an executive or manager to “motivate” the team
  • They are too tight:
    • perhaps they are labelled “stretch” but failure to achieve them is unacceptable
    • perhaps they’re simply impossible
  • They are too far in the future:
    • breeding complacency and indolence
    • relying on staff to create their own interim deadlines and motivate themselves
  • They are too abstract – the team can’t relate emotionally to hitting or missing the deadline, so their energies are not tapped into.

Ensuring these do not happen is the responsibility of business leadership, portfolio and programme management, and a critical requirement for such leaders is to have their fingers on the pulse of reality, and occasionally lift their noses from Excel spreadsheets and abstract numbers.

Over the last few years I have seen 2 glaring examples of deadlines being set without a sound justification for considering them viable, then the leaders going ballistic on being told, when the feasibility studies were completed, that the targets were not achievable.

The other end of the spectrum is as bad – many years earlier, I saw a project team that had been set up 6 years before the regulatory deadline, and had spent 5 years making very limited progress. This demanded a huge effort to rescue the project at the last moment

Business leaders need to think very hard about using deadlines to motivate teams – they can work very powerfully both towards success and right into failure!

What Really Makes Change Fail?

This post by Steve Barlow intrigued me: I think he has some great insights, and the idea that we are not “change fit” is a new idea for me.

I agree completely that people are usually delighted with change they see as an improvement e.g. mobile phones, the Internet, on-line shopping, Sunday shopping etc (though you will find people who hate all of these things). Forcing change on people, when they don’t see the benefit, fear they will be worse off and don’t see why it should happen, quite naturally falls far short of a no-brainer!

I like the idea, though, that even desirable change fails because of mental flabbiness!

Looking at the metaphor Steve offers; I know why my New Year’s resolutions fail – the pain of changing my lifestyle in the short term outweighs the long-term benefit (no pain, no gain). It never ceases to amaze me the obsessional self-sacrifice it takes to become an Olympic athlete – how do they do it?

I think there are 2 key factors:

  • They invariably have a coach who eggs them on and sets just-achievable goals
  • They are able to visualize success in a very realistic way – what it will feel like to mount the podium and collect their gold medal – and how they will win – every move, muscle twitch, metre of track etc

Coming back to business change, what can we draw from the parallel?

  • I believe that project leaders need to act like coaches, encouraging the team and setting challenging but achievable goals
  • I believe that project leaders must support all stakeholders in understanding and feeling the benefits of the objective, explaining how they will get there and soothing fears of the unknown

These are 2 very different skills sets – planning and communication, but both are clearly essential for success in my experience.

Workload management – the 3 Ds

It’s a common saying that if you want something doing, give it to a busy person, but accepting work can quickly take you beyond your capacity for sustained performance, disappointing everyone and making you ill.

As we surge back into the whirlwind of work after the relative peace of the Christmas break, I thought it would be a good idea to recap on my disciplines for holding workload in control, the 3 Ds:

  1. Decline: the simplest, though not the easiest, is to say “No” to extra work. If you are not accountable for this work, and don’t have the best specialist skills, you should reject responsibility for it and recommend who it should go to
  2. Delegate: if the work naturally sits with your responsibilities, ask whether it needs your personal input, or whether it can be delegated (limiting your input to tasking and monitoring).  Teaching one of your team to do it may be the right strategic choice, but that is more time-consuming, so do that when you have the chance
  3. Defer: be effective in prioritising work – when does it really need to be done by? When can you realistically do it?  I worked in one organization where all IT work was prioritised “1” i.e. all top priority, so they introduced the “1*” priority – higher than “1”. Within a month, all requests were priority “1*”.  Work must be spread out over time when there are finite resources – push back those tasks that can be

Of course, this doesn’t mean what is left is always achievable, but if you don’t try, things go pear-shaped much quicker!

Clinging to the Greasy Pole

I just read an interesting post on great leaders knowing they are imperfect. It is mainly about people who are NOT great leaders, discussing the over-compensation that can result when people feel out of their depth.

I think the truth is that all of us know we have our weaknesses – the issue is whether we have the courage to forgive ourselves for having weaknesses, and having faith in our colleagues to recognize that our strengths far outweigh our weaknesses.

It is a characteristic of many heroes that they are flawed (and this is most clearly portrayed in comic book superheroes, which Hollywood is currently obsessed with). It is their flaws, paradoxically, that makes us love them as it allows us to empathise with them.

It is sad and worrying to see (highly-stressed) managers, having shinned up the greasy pole of promotion, trying not to delegate any responsibilities because any lack of control by them would be a sign of weakness. Once they reach their limits, this has a number of serious consequences:

  • Things get done slowly and badly, as that manager is a key pinch point on everything
  • Some things don’t get done at all
  • A defensive position means positive changes/opportunities are rejected
  • Staff have no opportunity to develop and grow, so the good ones leave
  • The staff that stays switches off their initiative and just turn the handle when they are told to
  • Everything falls apart when that manager gets sick or goes on holiday
  • Their defensiveness is fed by the cordial dislike of their staff

Of course, this manager goes around claiming to be a great hero – single-handedly coping with the inadequacies of their useless team and taking all the credit for any success. They may get promoted for it, but it cannot last forever, and it’s no fun for anyone.

The really great leaders are loved for their human failings, as well as their super-human strengths.

(I’d like to thank Video Arts’ video on coaching (Robert Lindsay, John Cleese and Jan Ravens) which I saw many years ago and which left an indelible impression on me!)