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Regaining Trust: The Winners and Losers of a More Cautious Tomorrow

Future ProjectsPeople are smart, resourceful and inventive. We are also dumb and irrational. This combination makes forecasting nearly impossible.

People build cities, express themselves through art, and push forward our understanding of the world through science and logic. At the same time, they exhibit cognitive bias and often behave in ways that defy this same science and reasoning.

The simultaneous application of logic and defiance of logic is part of what makes humanity rich and complex. It is also why predicting how the world will change after the COVID-19 pandemic contains much uncertainty. Some effects will be the sensible results of events and reactions. Others will be nonsensical reactions (like hoarding toilet paper) due to cognitive bias. These factors will intermingle and interact with new yet unknown events to create a tomorrow that is impossible to calculate.

So, while nobody knows how our future will be different, we do have some ideas to help make an educated guess.

(Y)Our Thinking is Flawed
Before following the conclusions to their impacts on project management, such as more remote work and an aversion to collocated workplaces, let’s review why this logic will be proved wrong. People do not behave rationally. Instead, we exhibit many illogical behaviors called cognitive biases. There are several informative lists and pretty maps of cognitive biases, but some that apply in predicting life after COVID-19 include:

1. Loss aversion – The feeling that it is better to avoid a loss than acquire an equivalent gain. In experiments that ask people how much they would need to win to risk losing $100 on the flip of a coin, the answer is always over $200, which has financial parity. We genuinely do not like losing things.

Evolution has taught us to be cautious. When prehistoric man hunted for survival, seeing something in the grass that could be a deer or a lion, it was best to consider it a lion and live to hunt another day. The gain (food) is much less than the potential loss (death). All the people with a more optimistic viewpoint were soon eaten and did not get to further contribute toward our evolution.

2. Availability bias – The tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events with greater “availability” in our memory, which is influenced by how recent the memories are or how emotionally charged they may be. People are not going to forget COVID-19 for a long time, and will likely behave disproportionally to the risk of a similar event.

In 2013, my home town of Canmore, Canada experienced a freak weather event when three storm systems became stuck in place for days, creating unprecedented rain and flooding. Scientists estimated that the likelihood of it ever happening again is tiny. However, because it happened once—and it was recent and unpleasant—all kinds of flood mitigation and debris-capture dams were justified and built.

Logical and Flawed Forecasts for Project Managers
The logical and illogical ramifications of the pandemic will change how we work in large and small ways. At a macroeconomic level, the business case for many projects will change. Entire industries will flounder while others flourish. Project managers should expect to see a shift in project types as investments change.

Industry Changes
The cruise ship business may take a generation to recover as the vivid reporting of confinement and concern will be hard to shake off. Air travel industries and support services could be severely reduced for a couple of reasons:

  1. First, more people have now tried remote collaboration and worked through the kinks and learning process. People will question if all meetings in the future have to be face to face. A switch to just, say, alternating remote with F2F would be a 50% reduction.
  2. Second, the pandemic accelerated through air travel and people were stranded in foreign countries away from their family. People will think of travel differently in the future and be more reluctant to go.

On the upside, remote work tools, health care, personal protection equipment and a host of other industries will see increased investment and growth. Online products and services and business-to-consumer retail sales will likely stay in high demand as people get used to cutting out the middle man and saving money. Project managers would be well served to learn about cloud-based platforms and remote collaboration tools as their adoption has been rapidly accelerated.

Project and Personal Changes
At the project level, what might change? We often want what we cannot have; as people are told to work from home and stay indoors, they naturally want to go out. Yet, once the restrictions are lifted, I think more people will want to work from home when they realize the savings in commuting costs and time.

Do we really have to drive for 45 minutes to sit at a desk and do knowledge work we could do from home? Yes, F2F meetings are superior for communication, but perhaps just two or three days a week in the office is enough, the rest from home. Many organizations had work-from-home and entire remote work structures before the pandemic. What may change is the broader adoption of these ideas. Hot desking can save organizations billions of dollars in office space reductions alone.

What about open-plan offices, high-fives and shaking hands? Open-plan offices favored by agile teams were criticized as “germ factories” long before COVID-19. We often see people wearing headphones to counteract noise pollution (and undermine some of the reasons for having an open space)…might we see face masks, too? When people start pushing back with legitimate health and safety concerns, HR departments might be nervous to support project manager requests for team colocation.

Will people still want to attend project management conferences and in-person training courses packed into hotel ballrooms with communal buffets? Or will lower-cost and more time-efficient virtual conferences become the norm?

Project Managers Have an Advantage
Projects are all about change. We are always building some new product or service, or enhancing something and then working with people to facilitate its introduction. As such, project managers instigate and deal with change in our everyday lives. We have access to organizational change models that explain when people resist change and when we welcome change. We know about stages of loss, building support for change, and confidence assessment models.

This knowledge makes us uniquely equipped to deal with a new tomorrow. Once we realize it will be a weird combination of logical and irrational behavior, we can use our skills to embrace it and move with the changes. It’s the slower-moving industries I feel sorry for, like auditors, tax accountants and lawyers…they may all be in for a wake-up!

 

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


New Trends in Online Learning

New Trends in Online Learning SmallFinished Netflix? Done with “doom-scrolling” social media? Maybe it’s time to gain those skills you have been putting off.

The expansion of online learning was booming before COVID-19 emerged. Now, with the rise of work from home and homeschooling, the switch to online study has been massively accelerated.

However, before enrolling in some uninspired port of traditional course content to an online platform, let's see what else is out there. What are the emerging trends and good practices? What can we look forward to seeing in the world of online learning for project managers?

Increased Focus on the Learner Experience
Work-from-home orders aside, organizations typically struggle to get staff motivated to learn, whether for new skills acquisition or compliance training (safety, HR policies, etc.). At the same time, training platforms are competing to win market share by creating the most engaging frameworks and enjoyable learning experiences.

The period from 2005 to 2010 brought YouTube, Twitter and iPhones. Searching for content and consuming videos would never be the same again. LMS (learning management systems) evolved to become LXP (learning experience platforms). These new platforms focus on content discovery, content recommendations, career paths, skills mapping and, in some cases, self-published content with automatic content indexing.

We will look at some project management-based examples shortly, but first, let's examine how these systems differ from old training platforms. What do people want from a modern learning experience?

  • Mobile-first: Content must be formatted to work on mobile devices such as phones and tablets, as well as larger computer screens. Research[1] from over 700 organizations indicates that employees typically only have 24 minutes a week for “formal learning.” Using a mobile device enables more learning opportunities.
  • Streamlined, reduced time to find content: Searching skills catalogs and competency frameworks is a drag. People want curated playlists, channels, and “top-rated”/“others enjoyed” smart content suggestions that we see on YouTube, Netflix and Amazon.
  • Personalized recommendations: Extending the easy-to-find concept, people want tailored recommendations based on their learning goals, career paths and current progress. These can be extended by AI-based suggestions and people's history of consumption.
  • Video-centric content: Organizations used to be worried about video-based content. Would people learn anything? Is just watching active enough? The popularity of YouTube how-to videos is living proof of the format. From wiring a socket to rebuilding an engine, videos provide a rich, high-bandwidth learning experience. 
  • Micro-learning: Just enough, just in time. Our brains do not learn over long continuous periods; instead, we learn incrementally. Often, the best motivation for learning is having an immediate problem to solve. Microlearning uses short-form modules of four minutes or less, often with a video component, to answer an “I need help now” problem. It also drops a lot of the preamble and “why” background to focus on the “how.”
  • Micro-credentialing: Online assessment allows for awarding micro-credentials. These are smaller achievements, such as electronic badges that recognize achieving minor learning goals. Frequent small rewards closely linked to recent performance is more motivating than less-frequent large rewards. Computerized tests and credentials are cheaper to administer and reward than physical ones so that they can occur more frequently. Many people are motivated by collecting badges and can display them on portals like ProjectManagement.com and LinkedIn.
  • Gamification: Micro-credentials tap into gamification, which is the neuroscience of rewards, motivation and psychology to encourage learning by making it more enjoyable. Other strategies include “keep the streak going” reminders, points, leaderboards and community features.
  • Interactive: Watching videos, listening to audio and reading text is a one-way flow of information with a decreasing information-retention rate over time. Productive learning environments punctuate this flow with interactive exercises to reset our focus and hit the “save” button on content. The best platforms mix in visual and text-based activities to break up content delivery, test understanding beyond regurgitation, and reset our focus.
  • Repetition and reinforcement: Unfortunately, our memory is weak, and retention fades over time. Studies on spaced learning and skills acquisition show we need to review content multiple times and apply it in various settings to retain it. Language learning platforms such as DuoLingo does this well, requiring repetition and reinforcement in different contexts to ensure we master content.
  • VR/AR: Some platforms use virtual reality and augmented reality to make training more relevant. For instance, oil rig workers can practice evacuation drills wearing headsets to show what they would see when navigating an emergency. Likewise, engineers can use augmented reality to identify aircraft parts and show torque settings and service recommendations using AR-equipped glasses.

Project Management Examples
Today, we can see instances of these new learning trends in products such as PMI's Snippets and the training elements of StandardsPlus. These tools offer short-format, video-first, micro-learning options on project management topics. They are focused on explaining how-to content and incorporate some of the gamification and content curation features described.

Learning Cycles and Choices
Micro-learning modules can seem fragmented to people used to full-length textbooks and traditional multi-day training courses. Like perpetually snacking instead of having proper meals, it may feel unorganized, trivial and too random. However, we need to remember that before COVID-19, employees often only experienced minimal periods for their on-the-job training.

Micro-learning fits the time-pressured need, but there is still the market for longer macro-learning. Traditionally, this was at the beginning of careers or new roles and then supplemented by micro-learning while on the job (as pictured below):

Traditional Learning Cycle

Now, with a work-from-home reset for many of us, maybe it’s an excellent time to insert some new opportunistic macro-learning as well as micro-learning (perhaps to learn about program management, Kanban or leadership—whatever you have hoped to achieve).

New Opportunity Learning Cycle

Macro-learning is the longer format, more focused training that often comes to mind when we think about learning a new skill. It includes multi-day courses and in-depth study with practice.

However, this does not mean giving up on the learner experience trends discussed earlier. Options such as LinkedIn Learning uses many of these learning experience concepts and bundles micro-learning modules into more extensive courses and more substantial credentials.

Other offerings in the macro-learning space include EdX, Coursera, Udemy, Udacity and NovoEd. Like most platforms, they contain some great content taught by experts—and some not-so-great content. However, with the option to read reviews, sort by top-rated courses and try free samples, much of the risk of choosing a poor curriculum can be avoided.

So, if you have some time to gain new skills, do not settle for old LMS platforms with tired and uninspiring learning experiences. Lifelong learning should be fun and rewarding. Explore some of the latest offerings. Maybe the new formats, gamification or social aspects will be just what you need to stay focused and get more out of the process.

References

  1. Learning in the Flow of Work by Josh Bersin

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


Available For Remote Work

  • Mike Griffiths Remote WorkDo you need relevant, high-quality articles for your corporate website?
  • Are you looking for an expert in leadership, agile, or project management?
  • Maybe you require some training materials, exam preparation support, or remote coaching?

I am available for remote work. If you like the ideas on this site or in my books, please get in touch, I would love to discuss opportunities to work together.

Details

Long before the COVID-19 crisis, I reduced traveling for consulting and training due to family health issues. I have worked mainly from home for the last five years and have been fortunate to stay busy. Now, because of COVID-19, a couple of my regular clients have suspended operations, and I have some spare capacity.

Please get in touch to discuss consulting, mentoring, courseware development, and writing opportunities. My email is Mike <at> LeadingAnswers.com


Playing in the Gray of Hybrid

Playing in the Gray of HybridGray areas occupy the transition from one world to the next. Neither black nor white, predictive nor agile, project managers are increasingly finding themselves in the gray area of hybrid project management. This can make us feel uncomfortable since we are neither faithfully following either approach—instead living a compromise between seemingly different value systems.

We could get uncomfortable, guarded and hesitant to embrace the reality we face. Or, we could welcome it, use it to our advantage and share the benefits/trade-offs with anyone willing to listen. This second option of embracing, using and sharing is “playing in the gray area,” a term I learned at a recent workshop I was giving. It nicely summarizes the idea of accepting and making the most of our reality rather than uncomfortably accommodating it and mainly keeping it to ourselves.

Hybrid Environments
Let’s talk about what hybrid environments are and why we might find ourselves operating in one. A hybrid is a combination of two (or more) different systems. Hybrid cars can use internal combustion engines (ICE) and electric batteries, or ICE and hydrogen fuel cells. Both combinations are considered hybrids.

In project environments, the use of both predictive approaches and agile approaches results in a hybrid approach. There are several reasons why both approaches might be used. Some common causes include:

  1. Agile is not entirely suitable – Agile approaches are applicable for high-change, uncertain, technically risky project work. They offer many great tools for engaging and empowering team members. They allow teams to go fast by streamlining communications and documentation. I am a strong advocate for using them where they work well. At the same time, I am a realist and understand they are not a panacea or silver bullet.

Highly regulated industries require lots of documentation. Well-understood technology can be applied without the need for experiments and proof of concepts. Stable designs can be planned and executed with few change requests. Often, projects combine work that is well suited for predictive approaches and work that can benefit from agile approaches. Here it makes sense to use a hybrid approach overall.

We can execute the predictive work using predictive approaches and the adaptive work using agile approaches. For example, a project I worked on to develop and roll out a custom GPS routing solution for truck drivers used an agile approach for the software development—and a largely predictive approach for scheduling the equipment install in the trucks and training the drivers. We use the appropriate tools for the job at hand; it is neither rocket science or anything to be ashamed of.

  1. Operating in a predictive organization – Some organizations operate with upfront requirements analysis, scope sign-off and funding. We can try to educate stakeholders on why a more adaptive approach toward these operations might be beneficial, but maybe this is beyond our circle of influence—or maybe we inherited a project with a scope and budget already in place.

Either way, sometimes we do not get to do everything by the book and we have to work with what we are given. This is not to say we should give up and not try to make improvements. Instead, accept that not everything will be ideal and that we need to choose our battles wisely. We might be asked/told to be the bridge between agile teams and not-so-agile organizational groups.

  1. Transitioning to agile incrementally – Large organizations rarely transition to agile approaches overnight. Some executives and training companies try a “sheep-dip” approach, immersing everyone in agile training and mandating a whole scale switch. However, these initiatives often fail. How big does the sheep-dip have to be? Does it include finance, HR and sales? How about procurement and suppliers? Usually, there are groups the team or supporting project managers still have to work with that have not transitioned to agile.

Whenever an agile team works with a predictive entity, there is some mapping, interfacing and translating that needs to occur. This work often falls on the team lead or project manager (if one is in place). As depicted in Figure 1, these interfaces could be between our project and other projects (1), between an agile department and other non-agile departments (2) or from our department to the broader organization (3):

Hybrid interfaces and buffering

Figure 1: Interactions that require hybrid interfaces and buffering

These scenarios are of course simplifications. Typically, organizational adoption of any idea, not just agile approaches, is fragmented and not uniform. Team leads and project managers often find themselves translating terminology, progress reports and plans to different stakeholders within the same meeting.

Embrace and Own It
The flipside of uncertainty is being able to explain topics and help people learn. Anyone who can bridge between two worlds, two sets of concepts and two slightly different vocabularies is extremely valuable. Whether as a project manager, BA, product owner or executive, organizations benefit more from people willing and able to talk about the similarities, differences and problem areas than pure converted zealots. These interpreters and linkers can help other people make the transition.

So, if asked “When will your agile project be done?”, rather than giving an eye roll for being asked such an uninformed question for an agile project—or mumbling, hand-waving or resorting to exotic terms about points, velocity and burn charts—instead, own it. This is an opportunity to talk about the gray area of hybrid metrics. So, a better response might be something along the lines of:

“Great question!, I ask this myself daily. Over the last four months, we have developed and gained business acceptance on about half of the features in the backlog (our total list of work), so that suggests we need another four months to finish. We have spent 45% of our budget, so we look on track for a Q4 completion within budget.”

Likewise, actively combine predictive and agile components. Work with your team and product owner on getting your risk register responses correctly prioritized in the backlog. What are the opportunities we should exploit, and which threat avoidance and mitigation actions should we do first? With the shared goal of successful projects and happy stakeholders, there are many synergies to be found.

The term “playing in the gray” has a couple of meanings. The first interpretation of “playing” addresses where we operate, our playing field (which these days is increasingly hybrid). The second meaning of playing is to enjoy things. Anyone bridging two environments has an opportunity to be useful, help people learn and add lots of value. It is a rewarding place to work, so own it and enjoy it.

 

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]

Copyright © 2020 Mike Griffiths, Leading Answers Inc.