Confirmation bias – sleep-walking into the same old problems

I was watching an episode of “Air Crash Investigation”, a great programme for understanding what can go wrong and how, in the  very public and challenging world of civil aviation.

An airliner ran out of fuel and crash-landed more than 700 miles from its destination, having flow in the opposite direction to its destination.

The pilots blamed technical failure, but there was none – they had mis-set the autopilot and set off in completely the wrong direction, and when they realised they were really lost, instead of asking air traffic control for help, tried to sort it out themselves, making the problem even worse, because they interpreted what they saw as what they wanted to see, not what was really there (confirmation bias).

Many project teams start with a low expectation of success because they have always fallen short of delighting the customer. Repeated failures confirm their bias that they will always fail, so why bother?

Since they are not expecting to succeed, they don’t look how they could do things differently to improve their chances of success. I had a very serious argument with the existing team I inherited when asked to recover a failing programme. “We always do it this way” they said, to which I replied “and you always fail!”

I won the argument, losing one team member in the process, and we tried a completely different approach, very focused on customer experience, and succeeded beyond all expectations.

Taking a fresh look at the complete problem, understanding the true success criteria and designing the whole approach to achieve success, quickly transformed project performance, lifting the team’s self-esteem in a virtuous circle!

This isn’t a one-off – tackling the root causes of frequent problems in a railway infrastructure company saw a 25% reduction in recurrent problems in just 4 weeks!

Coping with disruption!

Took another look at this post as I’m working with innovative products. Disruption isn’t just in IT – new legislation and changing political environments are putting massive evolutionary pressure onto businesses. The thoughts below are still good, just more general that when originally written!

We live in an age of disruption, where new IT-driven models of commerce are ripping the heart out of the High Street, and transforming whole markets. What makes this possible is the rapid development of new IT solutions, linked to businesses that are adapting to the new technology; they are ready to deliver value.

Many of these disruptive organisations are new, though – starting from scratch, with the business built around a new, technology-driven business model.

Are existing businesses like dinosaurs, doomed to extinction as this comet of disruptive technology hits their world?

Some have already died out, and others will follow, but it’s a big world, and those organisations willing to evolve quickly can still prosper, I believe, if they address business change in an integrated way.

I was recently asked to help the University of Cumbria develop a new project management course for a major client, and in doing so I reread a lot of published wisdom on project management, illustrating it with case studies from my own experience.

The mismatch between the published wisdom (around which that client operates) and my experience of successful projects, is in business readiness to create value from the project. This is CORE to success, not a bolt-on at the end, I have found.

The published project management bodies of knowledge mention business engagement in the right places; it’s the emphasis that is wrong, as they are largely derived from major engineering activities. In the world of business change, the short timescales and return demanded on investment put business readiness at the heart of all successful change, and quite quickly, corporate survival.

Solicitors, accountants – take a look at estate agents!

The Elephant in the room – delay in project start

Isn’t it frightening that we take delays to project start so much for granted that we don’t recognize one of the most common causes of “failure” in projects?

Over the last 2 weeks I’ve been talking to many project professional, at the University of Manchester, in a major construction company and at the recent APM conference on Risk Management at Alderley Park (which was excellent, by the way).

We were all discussing the things that go wrong with projects, but the startling point that everyone was making is that late project start against an agreed plan is the most common problem, and that it usually threatens project success before it even starts.

It’s bad enough when the start date slips and the end date matches it, as the context of the project has changed (summer becomes winter, resource is redeployed while waiting etc) but what is even worse is that the target date often slips less than the start date, if at all.

As project professionals, we give realistic estimates for the cost and duration of our projects, only to find that we have to do most of them more quickly with less resource, in more demanding circumstances.

Late starts to projects are not a project management failure, they are a commercial issue, and project managers rarely have any influence over this, but we have to do the best we can and are accused of failure if we fail to do the impossible.

This is due to poor accountability within organisations – if Procurement were held to account for delaying the start of the project  and its consequent failure,  instead of being measured on penny-pinching and trying to squeeze out the last penny on price, things might get better. The cost or project delay needs to be understood and measured, and commercial teams held accountable.

None of that helps the project manager, of course. I’m currently working up my thoughts on this as part of a new programme for the University of Manchester and some industrial clients.



One small step for a man …

I got a “Thank you” card yesterday from my daughter’s house-mate I had helped. I put him in contact with a company that then offered him an internship for his year in industry (in event management).

As it’s a prestigious company in London, he’s pretty happy (though when he faces the joys of living and working in London, he may be less so) with the prospects it offers. I hope it’s a giant leap for him.

So what was in it for me?

Nothing tangible, nothing financial – just the warm feeling of having helped someone who benefited from it.

There is a downside to trying to help others – they may not want it or appreciate it. Why might that be?

  • Clinical Depression is a real condition that needs treatment
  • Whingeing is the national participation sport of the UK – just read the papers.
  • It’s much easier to feel sad and hard done by than to change your life – change is really hard work and needs help and support

In business, one can try to “pull rank” to insist on some changes, but only if the culture is positive – most of the time it requires deep empathy and influencing skills. Most of all, it requires patience – people sunk in the Slough of Despond are short of the drive, energy and traction needed to get out – you have to help them little by little.

If you have enough money, improve your own life by helping others!

English as she is spoke: the science of communication

Quite probably the most essential element of anything in business is accurate communication, and though there are vital communication media that are non-written e.g. technical drawings, imagery etc, the vast majority of communication falls on language.

I’m not one of these reactionaries that don’t like to see new words, terms and phrases appear in our language – it’s a living thing and we must let it evolve.

However, simple errors are a different matter, as they can create confusion and mistakes in understanding. This article on common errors in English chimes with me – as professionals we should be masters of our most important tool, the language we use.

Unfortunately, the fact that English is a second language to many, plus the absence of teaching English grammar for many decades, means that poor grammar is not only tolerated, it’s even copied.

<Rant mode on > My pet hate, showing the illiteracy of some journalists, is “The H.M.S. XXXXXX”.  Complete nonsense – either “Her Majesty’s Ship XXXXX i.e. H.M.S. XXXXX” or “The XXXXX”. Of course, the U.S.S. YYYYY is fine as it makes sense.<\ Rant mode off>

It’s important that we focus on the accuracy of what we communicate, otherwise we’ll get misunderstandings and errors, and errors cost lives, time and money.

Leadership: best by example?

Just been marking assignments that analyse projects that fail to deliver a quality outcome i.e. the right solution on time and budget. These assignments are from people with responsible jobs in big-name companies.

Earlier this week I was running a workshop with engineering and project delegates from a global energy company. I asked them to analyse the reasons that quality wasn’t always delivered in their company.

2 years ago I was leading an innovative project for a multi-national manufacturer of consumer goods, which went well during feasibility, but got into major difficulties after I handed over the implementation.

The pattern is very clear; executive-level managers are normally focussed on numbers, and know the cost of everything. Unfortunately they are often so divorced from the reality of the coal face that they know the value of nothing (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde), and are reliant on robust cost-justifications coming up from the “front line”.

This gulf between the people doing the work and the executives prevents leadership by example i.e. “do what I say, not what  I do”.

The contrast with my recent project at the University of Manchester couldn’t have been greater. Not only did I try to lead the project team by example, living by the standards that I hoped others would adopt, but I found that the executives involved were doing the same, displaying a real enthusiasm for rolling up their sleeves and pitching in as needed, and everyone was happy. The outcome? We overcame all the challenges to deliver a successful launch.

I’m told that isn’t always the case there either, so perhaps I can take some credit for an approach to leadership that transfers between organization. It’s not about process or tools, it’s about values and behaviours – friendship, trust, support, sharing problems, solving issues together, and no “blame storms”.

Leadership is about “Do as I do”, not “Do what I say.”

The “Wormtongue” Effect

A few things have happened over the last week that have led me to think hard about a  phenomenon I’ll refer to as the “Wormtongue Effect” after the character in J R R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Wormtongue is the trusted lieutenant of King Theoden of Rohan, and his influence on the King is to disconnect him from informed decision making, allowing Wormtongue to become a de facto Regent – a position of unlimited and abused power for Wormtongue. Colin Gautry in his article on Seven Things your Opposition Hopes You’ll Never Learn talks about the challenges of working with such a character.

I’ve run into a few such untrustworthy “trusted lieutenants” in my career, and they have a lot to lose, and they can fight dirty.

There are 2 extremes of executive management style:

  1. Fully informed, fully transparent, active monitoring of options and decisions, even though the executive manager has delegated the decision-making
  2. Focussed reporting from a trusted lieutenant

Option 1 is hard work, and requires a degree of humility of the executive manager.

By comparison, when times are good, option 2. seems great – the executive manager can reap the credit for success without any of the hard work of keeping his finger on the pulse – he just has to think deep strategic thoughts and give direction. The lieutenant is rewarded for reporting good news, while having great delegated power and responsibility, an addictive situation.

It’s when the going gets really tough that option 2. starts to fall apart.

The trusted lieutenant doesn’t want to admit that he can’t deliver the goods, and conceals problems as they develop, sliding down the slippery slope from honesty, through concealment, into dishonesty, while spreading the responsibility for problems onto anyone but himself. Meanwhile the executive manager is left fat, dumb and happy, being told all is well until the Titanic hits the iceberg. Nick Leeson demonstrated to great effect the destructive power of concealing the truth by bringing down Barings Bank single-handedly.

But it’s never that simple – no manager is so isolated that no rumours and even direct escalations of problems reach them, yet often he doesn’t react until too late – why?

After a conversation only today, I suspect it’s a combination of factors:

  • Wanting to believe it will all be alright
  • Unwillingness to recognize that their trust was misplaced – a key skill of these trusted lieutenants is to ingratiate themselves and come across as virtuous and capable
  • Character assassination by the trusted lieutenant of the “doom mongers”, and blaming others for their failure (in the nicest possible way)

It’s worth reading and musing on Colin’s article and thinking how such insights about opponents can help avoid the icebergs!

Businesses more like dinosaurs than we like to think?

Just a brief thought for the New Year as Comet disappears, a sad loss as one of the big name companies from my home town fizzles out.

Recessions are like the extinction events that punctuate the history of life on earth: they kill off businesses that:

  • don’t have the fat reserves to see them through the lean times, 
  • are too specialized to survive when their ecological niche disappears
  • are too inflexible and unresponsive to adapt to changing circumstances
  • are too big for the food supply

The one thing we should reasonably expect business leaders to do that dinosaurs never could is to look into the future and plan for it!

Sadly, most people are incapable of seeing any further into the future than the ends of their noses, and expect good time to keep rolling on indefinitely. 

For the business owner that fails to plan well, the loss of their business is the harsh penalty. Unfortunately in large corporate life,the people who can’t foresee the consequences of their actions that have created this recession, yet have been rewarded for doing so.

Unlike dinosaurs and business owners, they have not been “killed off”, society and shareholders keep them going in great comfort – not a good thing for evolution through survival of the fittest, more survival of the fattest.