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!

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.



Sales: not a dirty word

Saw this Salesforce blog article and it reminded me of something vital; selling can be both ethically and morally the right thing to do.

The article’s reference to puppies is emotive but trivial – there are really important sales that make a huge difference not just to your business but to the client.

Moral sales are win:win i.e. the client ends up better off as well as you.
Ethical sales are win:win:win i.e everyone ends up better off.

I first worked with Salesforce in an organization providing professional training and development, and at a fair price, this is a win win win situation for the student, the supplier and society.

I’m in a volunteer group working on how to improve the way megaprojects are run, to greatly increase their chances of success, but to have any impact, the group must ‘sell’ the concept to  a wide range of stakeholders. I volunteered to lead that workstream, as most engineers are distinctly uncomfortable around selling – they are not ready for the ‘puppy conversation’.

It’s proving to be a happy experience – we have all had experiences of doing something good that no one then exploits, so as the appreciation grows that working in the right way, the work will be appreciated is a great motivator for this unpaid volunteer force!

Some lessons in leadership from Baseball coaching

Another good and very though-provoking article from the Internet on leadership style lessons.

It’s good to look at other fields of excellence to cross-fertilize out thinking in business, and the 5 rules here certainly do that:

1. “Cultivate the farm” –  i.e. Succession planning – actively develop leadership skills in the next generation of leaders to deepen overall strength

2. Emphasize leadership – Leadership is something you do, not just think about. Encourage people to lead and take charge.

3. Encourage accountability – Create a “No Blame” environment that encourages people to “own” their performance and mistakes. 

4. Provide ‘bursts’ of motivation – Fire up people with one or two quick motivational messages every so often – avoid burn-out through constant slave-driving

5. Be abnormal – winning is the exception, not the rule, so encourage and recognize continuous improvement

Why first…

Some time back I went to a course on “telling my story” run by Andrew Thorp, of MojoLife.

He stressed the point that people are most moved not by what you can do for them, but why you do it – your passion is your biggest asset in sales.

He drew on the work of Simon Sinek on TED – I just watched Simon’s TED video – worth watching, as it it indicates clearly why so many large companies are in trouble.