Returning to the (Electronic) Cottage

Electronic CottageThis is not a post about rich people now able to visit their second homes after the lockdown, instead, a revisit of the concepts of decentralized work being the new way of undertaking projects.

In 1980, Alvin Toffler’s book The Third Wave introduced the idea of “The Electronic Cottage” as the modern workplace where information technology allows more people to work from home or wherever they want. Toffler was a futurist and businessman who did not get the attention he deserved. Even though Accenture identified him as one of the most influential voices in business leaders (along with Bill Gates and Peter Drucker), we do not hear much about him.

When I was at university in the 1980s, we were required to read The Third Wave. At the time, I was more interested in learning about compiler design and database structures, but I read the book and the ideas stuck. Thinking back, The Third Wave, along with Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenace, are the only books from my entire degree that I still remember.

The First and Second Waves
The first wave was the agricultural revolution when hunter-gathers started farming and settled in villages.

The second wave was the industrial revolution, when cheap, non-renewable fossil fuel energy was used to leapfrog previous levels of productivity. This industrialization required mobility from the workforce, and people moved from villages into cities to work in mills and factories. This movement resulted in the end of the large multigenerational families rooted to the soil.

The “nuclear family” (of father, mother and a few children, with no burdening relatives) became the standard, socially approved model for industrial societies. Schools started emphasizing punctuality and rule-following to condition children for working in factories.

The Third Wave
The “third wave” is the information revolution. It is what Peter Drucker called the knowledge worker age. What set Toffler apart was his ability to see how the second industrial age must end and why the information age was inevitable in 1980, more than 10 years before the internet was invented (let alone became popular).

Toffler described factors that make the continuation of the second wave impossible, including: “The biosphere will no longer tolerate the industrial assault” and “Non-renewable energy sources are drying up (one of the hidden subsidies of the Second Wave).”

He went on to describe factors that made the third wave possible and inevitable. These included:

  • Cheaper electronics and computers: “If the auto industry had done what the computer industry has done in the last 30 years, a Rolls-Royce would cost $2.50 and get 2,000,000 miles to the gallon.” Computing is cheaper and more powerful than ever.
  • De-massification of the media: As the quantity of information available to people expands, they become less and less able to cope with it all. People fall back to paying attention to only what is important to them. We see a rise in the number of specialty channels appealing to narrow segments of the population.
  • An intelligent environment: Home computers networked together and notifying us of weather alerts, home security alarms, etc. What we now call the connected home and IoT.
  • A new social memory: Originally, human groups stored their shared memories in the minds of individuals (tribal elders, wise men, etc.). The second wave moved beyond memory by spreading mass literacy. Libraries and museums were built. By increasing the store of cumulative knowledge, it accelerated all the processes of innovation and social change. Now information is stored electronically and can be readily searched by all.

The fact these predictions came true show the credibility of Toffler’s forecasts for the electronic cottage. Our recent work-from-home mandate has accelerated the transition to the electronic cottage, and maybe some of Toffler’s other predictions about changes to work and society will come true also?

Here are a few things he said about this shift in working practices. The opening points are ideas from the book; the thoughts that follow are observations from today…

  1. IT makes it possible to work from home.Computers and electronic communications make it possible for many types of work to be done from home.

Observation from today: Recent work-from-home mandates have pushed even laggards of this technology to try it and work through the kinks. While everyone wishes for freedom to return, maybe we can capitalize on the positive aspects of working from home, or from a favorite café, or a pleasant, local co-working space?

  1. Commuting diminishes.Consider the cost incentives to companies. Commuting, which they indirectly subsidize, runs an average of 29 times as much as the installation of telecommunication equipment in a person’s home. Also, considerable savings in real estate costs, capital building investments, and building maintenance can be had. Staying at home will also reduce pollution and the cost of cleaning it up.

Observation from today: Most organizations do not need to pay for any additional equipment since many people have high-speed internet and their own computers. People may currently have less-than-ideal working conditions with children being home from school, but once they return, do you want to go back to commuting with the associated cost and time drains?

  1. Shorter work week:On the home side, as shorter workweeks become common, the higher ratio of commuting time to working time becomes more irrational, frustrating and absurd. Millions of jobs could shift out of the factories and office into which the second wave swept them and right back where they came from originally: the home. If this were to happen, every institution we know—from the family to the school and the corporation—would be transformed.

Observation from today: Our current glimpse of homework and closer family relationships is artificial and lacking many of the benefits of being able to escape to the company of friends when we want to. The FIRE movement (Financial Independence, Retire Early) has already seen people reduce the number of hours they work, consume less and spend less on nonessential items like expensive commuting options. Few people have been talking about impacts on family, but the nuclear family might become a relic of the past.

  1. Customization of products and in-home production:Most highly developed countries will concentrate on the creation of one-off and short-run manufactured goods depending on highly skilled labor and automated production systems. Customization will lead to the manufacture of one-of-a-kind products with items custom-made for individual users. This home-centered society will bring many changes:
  • Greater community stability due to less forced mobility, less stress on the individual, fewer transient human relationships, and a greater participation in community life.
  • Energy requirements will be reduced due to energy decentralization. Energy demand would be spread out, making it easier to use solar, wind and other alternative energy technologies.
  • The auto industry, oil companies and commercial real estate developers would be hurt.
  • The electronics industry, computer companies and the communications industries would flourish.
  • Increasingly, workers would own the means of production.

Observation from today: We are seeing these shifts already. As I sit typing this from home, a 3D printer next to me is producing something (incredibly slowly) that my wife designed. Increasingly, we can create and customize products from home or locally within the community.

  1. Radically changed corporations:The big corporation was the characteristic business organization of the industrial era. Just like families, the mass media and schools, corporations are facing drastic changes:
  • An accelerated economy: There is a drastic speed-up in the pace of business. An accelerating wave of change, pushed by the coming third wave, is causing disorientation, frustration and increased mistakes on the part of managers.
  • The de-massified society: Today, as the third wave strikes, the corporate manager finds all their old assumptions challenged... the marketplace and the labor market are beginning to break into smaller, more varied pieces. Second wave corporations are uncertain how to cope with this rising tide of diversity among their employees and customers.
  • Public anger at corporations: People are demanding a new definition of what corporations are and what they do. They want to see more responsibility and more accountability—not merely for its economic performance, but for its side effects on everything from air pollution to executive stress. The result will be corporations who attend to multiple bottom lines. Some examples are already happening as organizations are focusing attention on social impacts as well as economic results.

Observation from today: Incredibly, those words were written 40 years ago—they read like a modern description of emerging organizations. Just recently, PMI started talking about the triple bottom line (people, profit, planet). Organizations now revolve around the customer, and customer experience analysis is driving more diversification of products along with accelerating rates of change.

What this Means for Project Managers
The way we engage with teams is likely to be different in the future. For projects in the knowledge worker space (legal, marketing, sales, education, IT, research and development), having whole teams onsite will likely become a rarity. These roles can be done from the electronic cottage, whether that is someone’s home, a café or a community co-working center.

Work times for project work will likely relax, and family activities take a more influential focus. Industrial factories needed everyone in one location—at the same time—to function. Knowledge work does not; as project managers, we need to get used to that and accommodate for it. Maybe we need everyone to be available for core meetings, but outside of that, we let people work when they want to. As long as they meet their commitments, why does it matter when the work gets done?

The Future
Not all of Toffler’s predictions became true. He also suggested we would be growing a significant proportion of our food needs in the oceans. That might be possible, but we have not seen it happening yet.

The second wave of industrialization brought tremendous economic growth and technological development. Yet those brief 300 years were non-sustainable to the planet—and also ripped people from homes and family structures that had existed for 10,000 years previously. Nobody is suggesting we return to being farmers. Instead, do more creative work without the time and space constraints industrialized work demanded.

It seems the world of work is changing to meet Toffler’s predictions. Perhaps the social forecasts about a revival of putting down roots, staying in one place and returning to live with extended families will happen also. Recent events seem to be accelerating these trends, and I am optimistic about our future.

References

  1. The Third Wave Book
  2. The Third Wave Book Summary
  3. Alvin Toffler Wikipedia Bio

 

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

 


My Work-From-Home Mistakes

“It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”
– Despair calendar quote

MistakesToday I am going to get some work done. I am because yesterday, to be honest, was not that productive. It started with the best intentions. Without a commute, I was at my computer by 7:30 a.m., earlier than my usual start time at the office. Pleased with my head start, I rewarded myself with a read through my news feeds.

I use a news aggregator to collect all my science, sports, local interest, photography and project management articles and announcements in one place. Most items I just scan in the aggregator platform, only clicking into the full articles for relevant or exciting topics.

Before I knew it, it is 8:40. Crap, there goes my early start…time to buckle down. Reading and replying to emails takes me to my first phone meeting. It is slow and lumbering, but mercifully finishes 10 minutes before the one hour allotted. I go and have a coffee with my wife.

The coffee was good, so was the toast and chocolate cookie. When I return, I have more emails, but I get through them and open up my “real” work. Having three monitors now is fantastic, but my new monitor has a higher resolution than the others so when I drag documents to it the text is too small. Maybe I should just set it to the same resolution as the other two? Thirty minutes later, I have all three monitors running updated video drivers at the same resolution and a fancy new screen saver that flows across all three monitors…sweet. But now my mouse is acting up.

It probably just needs a new battery. There should be one in this drawer. Wow, we need a good clear-out. None of this junk is used anymore; I am going to make a pile of things to keep and a pile of things to throw away. Hey look, an old digital camera…I wonder, what is on the memory card?

Wake up
That was an excerpt from my life five years ago when I first started working from home. It was ridiculous; I hardly got any work done. It was actually far worse than that because I had made the switch to work from home in part to live more simply. The idea was to spend more time with my family and enjoy the outdoors in the mountain town we had just moved to. So in addition to endless in-office distractions, I would also take two- to three-hour breaks to go trail running or mountain biking. As a result, I achieved almost nothing.

If you are struggling to get work done from home, do not feel bad. I am confident my procrastination, short attention span, and penchant for anything but work were as bad as it gets. Yet, now I am more productive than ever.

Last year I consulted at several organizations, taught training courses, wrote a book and 40 articles for ProjectManagement.com, developed courseware, presented at numerous conferences and—according to the GPS tracking website Strava—still managed to fit in 460 hours of mountain biking and running.

So, if you are having difficulty focusing while working from home, I think I can help. I know it is difficult with children to help home-school and more significant problems like a global pandemic, but what worked for me will likely work for you too, if you are ready to try it.

I was so frustrated at my lack of focus and inability to get work done that I treated researching the cause and solution as a project. I discovered my work hygiene was to blame. I created new habits, saw the results and now get my work done early. It was not comfortable, but better than the feeling I had of repeatedly achieving practically nothing all day.

Lose the distractions
Prolific writer Jon Morrow, tells us: “There is no such thing as focus. There is only an absence of distraction.” So, when we remove the distractions, there is nothing else to do but work. The trouble is that distractions come from many sources.

1. Close the door– I used to have an office off the kitchen. It was great for relaxed conversations, efficient for grabbing a quick coffee—also a nightmare for distractions. I moved my office downstairs and now close the door when I am working. The closed door means I am working. I do not want a coffee; I do not want to see a funny cat video. (I probably do, but I will not; instead, I am working.) Every hour I will come out, be friendly and chat, but when the door is closed, please no interruptions. It sounds harsh, but is nothing compared to what happens behind that closed door; things get much stricter.

2. Personal Pomodoro– When I do not have meetings, I work on a task for 45 minutes out of an hour. Then spend 15 minutes checking and responding to email, being social with the family, getting snacks and drinks, moving about, etc. For those 45 minutes, I eliminate rather than try to avoid distractions. So for me, this means no cellphone, no email, no internet, no music, no drinks, no snacks, nothing. Only the task and a countdown timer to tell me how much longer to work.

People with more self-control or better multi-tasking skills may not need to be so extreme, but I do. Fidget toys, squeezy balls, paper airplanes—anything that is more fun than a keyboard is banished.

The original Pomodoro technique uses a 25-minute mechanical timer. I tried that followed by a five-minute break two times per hour—but kept overrunning my five-minute breaks. So, I switched to 45 minutes focus, 15 minutes for interruptions and everything else. 

This ratio works for me, but something different might work better for you. The timing is less critical than being brutal and obsessive about the elimination of all distractions. After actually working for 45 minutes, I am happy to open my door, chat, mess about with my son, or whatever; now I am no longer anxious about underachieving. (I like the electronic Time Timer because it is quiet and the ticking of mechanical timers seemed enough to distract me too.)

3. Start Earlier– By going to bed earlier and getting up earlier, I gain an hour of quiet time in the mornings before everyone else gets up. I no longer waste it reading news feeds, I plan or complete an extra 45-minute work period while there are few distractions.

I check my calendar, plan when I will do my 45-minute chunks based around the meetings I have and readjust to do say a 20-minute session if I have only a 30-minute time slot.

4. Evolve– My original plan was to be very strict with the no distractions rule until I caught up on my backlog of work. Then I might reintroduce having my phone with me so that I could reply to text messages, or maybe the radio on, or a collaboration website open.

However, my productivity went up so much that I would hate to lose it again. Finally, I get to finish work earlier and get more free time. I just wish I’d discovered 30 years ago how easily I am distracted, how poorly I multi-task and the actual cost of task-switching. For me at least, they are significant.

Different Strokes for Different Folks
Your work-from-home situation is different from mine. Your schedule, personal distractions and options for isolation will be unique. However, I expect you can relate to some of the challenges I encountered when I started working from home five years ago. I hope some of the approaches I adopted to solve my productivity problems will help you, too.

 

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


Reset, Refocus: 2 Concepts and 8 Tips for Making Progress During the Pandemic

Ideas to tryIt is a dilemma. We need to move forward. Not just to make progress on projects, but also to give people something else to focus on beyond the tragedy and fear filling the news.

At the same time, we need to be sensitive to how people have been impacted. We need to demonstrate support and empathy. We need to be available to listen and help wherever we can. We need to step up and be professionals.

Context
More than ever, context is king. How to respond and lead in your environment will depend on how your project and stakeholders have been impacted. There is no universal best response. All I can do is offer some tips for consideration. You can then decide if they apply—and how to implement them for your environment.

Concept 1: Demonstrate Empathy – Cut people some slack. Be there for them, listen and empathize with them. Maybe they have lost family members or are worried about elderly and at-risk family members. Perhaps their work-from-home environment is challenging with children needing help, poor internet service, and less-than-ideal work set-up.

So, provide some emotional support, and demonstrate empathy and active listening. Now is not the time to be a stickler on schedule or tasks. Now is the time to show compassion and build a stronger foundation of understanding and trust for future performance.

Concept 2: Take an economic view of decision-making – Social distancing and work-from-home policies have likely blown away your original project plans. We now need to determine what can be done and what should be done first. There will be some tasks that can still proceed, and some opportunity or threat responses than can be pursued…but how do we decide the sequence?

Taking an economic view of decision-making helps with sorting through the options. After reviewing what is possible, ask “Where is the next best dollar spent?” We can then start to prioritize work and match it to availability. The goal is to deliver as much value and make as much progress toward the desired business outcomes as possible.

So, if Activity A has a projected ROI of $15K, Activity B will save $18K in maintenance and Activity C has a 50% chance of returning $32K, prioritize them B, C, A. Share these ideas with the team; we need everyone to adapt and prioritize their time toward the high-value activities.

8 Tips for Reprioritizing

1. Check-in with your sponsors. Explain how you plan to continue working toward the intended business outcomes despite the changes. If appropriate, ask them if there are any new, higher-priority initiatives the team can be helping with. You do not want to be the project still making door handles when the rest of the organization has switched from building cars to ventilators.

2. Scan your WBS or backlog. Can any items of work be pulled forward and worked on remotely? Can some portions of future work be done now and remotely? Usually, we avoid partially completed work as it raises WIP, but these are extraordinary times. If it will need doing and can be done now, it might be the next-best-dollar-spent thing to do.

3. Revisit the vision and business case. Look for untapped opportunities and benefits. Perhaps there are objectives that were not immediately scheduled because they were a lower priority or required skills in short supply back then. Maybe we can find useful activities or different paths to the same goals that might now be viable?

4. Review the risks. Review the risk log to determine if any opportunities can be exploited, shared or enhanced at this time. Do the same with the threats and ask if any could be avoided, reduced or transferred by action that could be done remotely.

5. Communicate to your stakeholders what work can go ahead and what is not happening right now. Keep your communications short; stakeholders likely have plenty of extra work of their own that they are trying to get through. However, provide links to where they can find more information should they want it. So, short announcements and emails, with “more details” links so people can pull more information if necessary.

6. Put it to the team. Do not try and solve everything yourself. Your team members likely have some great ideas, too. Engaging them in finding ways to move forward recognizes their expertise and also demonstrates the desired behavior of asking for input and help.

Ask them what we can be working on. What are the highest value activities that they could be doing right now? Invite them to review the WBS/backlog and risk lists also. Ask about useful maintenance work and new product ideas. How can we use some extra thinking time to emerge stronger?

7. Contact suppliers, vendors and partners. Ask them how they are coping. Maybe there are some easy things we could do to help them. Or, an early heads-up on insolvency is better than learning about it when we need them for something.

Also, ask them for ideas. They likely know aspects of your project very well. Perhaps they can identify valuable work that could be done early. Check their suggestions for validity and self-interest bias. Ordering that flux capacitor jetpack might help them, but does it really help your project and organization right now?

8. Upskill. Use work-from-home time to gain new skills and undertake training. As a minimum, make sure everyone completes their compliance training, which includes working through all the mandatory health, safety and respectful workplace modules. That way, when people return to work, they will not be taking time out to complete these activities later. Then encourage professional development. What new skills, roles or tools would be helpful to learn?

These are challenging times. They are also opportunities to demonstrate desired behaviors. Being compassionate, helpful and understanding in times of stress and hardship are critical. So too is keeping a cool head, being flexible to change and open to help.

The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”
― Albert Einstein

Thanks for reading, and please share other ideas for us to consider.

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


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.


How to Adapt and Flourish in the New World of Project Management

How to adapt and flourish in the new world of project managementDo you wonder how to stay current in your PM role? 

Is your industry evolving so quickly that one day you might no longer be required? 

With the rise of AI, agile, and empowered teams, are project managers even needed anymore? Maybe, but not for the reasons you might expect.

As we enter a new decade, it’s an excellent time to reflect on how project management has changed and where it is going in the future. Professional project managers need to stay current and adapt to change to thrive. We all want to remain valuable to our organizations and teams. Tips include:

Focus Wisely

You might be expecting to hear about the usual list of topics: big data, IoT, and artificial intelligence. These are undoubtedly happening, but project managers have little influence over them. Instead, I suggest that project managers focus on people skills. 

People originate projects, people undertake projects, and people consume the results of these projects. These characteristics are not changing anytime soon. However, what is happening is a massive mobilization of talent and services. These changes will have a profound impact on the way we work and how to retain the best people.

As the saying goes, The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” We have seen the war for talent driving demand for skilled professionals in places like Silicon Valley, Bangalore, and Beijing. Organizations are now looking further afield for workers, and technology is making remote work more accessible. So as project managers, we should be getting familiar with online collaboration tools and how to facilitate geographically dispersed teams.  

Choose Your Attitude

Attitudes are changing too. People do not appreciate being treated as interchangeable resources. Instead, they want to be inspired, led and valued, especially younger workers who may not have been through economic downturns with job scarcity. 

These new expectations present a problem for traditional organizations with their human resource departments and standardized job roles. The high demand for top talent,  growth in online collaboration tools, the gig-economy, and access to online job sites make moving roles easier than ever. 

‘Sedimentation’ is a term used to describe organizations where all the best and brightest have moved on, leaving behind those that cannot find other jobs or choose not to. People move because they did not feel valued or lacked inclusion/influence in decision making. Like with ponds, too much sedimentation creates a toxic environment where nothing grows or flourishes. 

How to Keep Your Best Team Members

Employees don’t leave companies; they leave managers – Don’t be one of those managers!

A Gallup poll1 of more than 1 million workers concluded that the number one reason people left their jobs was a bad boss or immediate supervisor. Also, 75% of workers who voluntarily left their jobs did so because of their manager and not the role itself. Despite how good a job is, people will leave if their relationship with their project manager is unhealthy.

Solutions exist to make people feel valued and reduce sedimentation. Project managers who demonstrate compassion and understanding can use empowerment to create environments where people want to stay, even if the organization is not the best in class.

The PMI 2020 Jobs Report2 explained, “Showing empathy is fast emerging as a leadership superpower. Fostering an empathetic culture can lead to stronger collaboration, less stress, fewer conflicts and faster recovery from burnout.” Project managers who create these environments get noticed by executives and are highly valued. 

Furthermore, 91% of CEOs believe that empathy is directly related to a company’s financial performance3. So, what does that mean for project managers?

The Magical Es

Exploration, Empowerment, Empathy – they all sound good, but how do we achieve them? Let’s look at some concrete examples for each.

Exploration – keep an open and growth-oriented mindset. Learn about the new tools for team collaboration and managing geographically dispersed teams. You never know, you might be in a  meeting where questions arise about this and being able to offer an insightful solution could land you a new opportunity.

In 2010 a team developing software for a large trucking company was also responsible for developing training materials. Ashley, a junior team member, lamented whenever she wanted to learn something she just looked on YouTube. This was before microlearning became an established approach.  

However, the team acknowledged short videos would be a great way to teach drivers about the new system. Ashley set up a web portal allowing drivers to access training videos on-demand and also tracked their viewings. Ashley studied the emerging field of microlearning, created the videos, and took a much more senior role out of IT in corporate training. Her interest, research and delivery on in a field of interest served her and the organization well.

Empowerment – people are hard-wired to get an endorphin boost from problem-solving. So bring teams problems and challenges, not task-lists. Allowing teams to choose how they work and solve problems is a more empowering and engaging way to work. Team members who have a say in defining their way of working are more committed to their success and happier in their jobs.

Within the bounds of what is acceptable in your organization, empower teams to make as many local decisions as possible. What time should we have stand-up? What tool should we use for prototyping? How are we going to solve the nose-cone problem? Whatever the question, asking the team for a solution brings many benefits:

  • By asking the team for an answer, we gain consensus for the proposal. – the team has vetted it internally already.
  • We are accessing a broader knowledge of the facts – the team members are closer to the technical detail.
  • When consulted, people work hard to generate good ideas – it shows we care and value their input. People recognize this and respond. Seeking ideas models desired behavior – it shows it is good to ask for insights and help.

Empathy – make the time to get to know your team members and take an interest in their wellbeing and aspirations. Truly listen to what they are telling you, and not discussing with you. Empathy is a core building block of emotional intelligence. Only when we demonstrate we understand how others feel, do our messages begin to gain credibility. In other words, project managers are not trusted until they show authentic care for their teams.

I worked on a project where a team member explained he had just received a call from his wife, who was sick. He wanted to go home to see her. I could have just said: “Sure, no problem, go home and see her”. However, because I knew he walked to his nearest train station and took the train to get into the office, I asked if I could drive him home. He was very appreciative, he saved 30 minutes on his journey home, and I was back in the office in under an hour.

It was no big deal to me; the team was very self-sufficient, and I was glad to assist. However, he did not forget that simple gesture, it helped strengthen our work relationship and was repaid many times over.

Future Challenges and Changes

Shifting demographics, work attitudes, and technology adoption will transform entire industries. A trifecta of factors are impacting organizations: 

  1. More millennials and Gen Y workers entering the workplace with high expectations for inclusion and influence in how they work,
  2. Increased acceptance of changing jobs, the rise of the gig-economy and fewer people treating organizations as life-long employers,
  3. Technology and websites that facilitate remote working, finding new work, and sharing experiences which make changing jobs more tempting than ever.

Savvy project managers will be of great value as organizations grapple with responding to these factors and try to retain the best employees to help them be successful. 

While technology trends such as artificial intelligence, IoT, and big data will undoubtedly impact business, organizations will become more reliant on retaining and directing collaborative teams to deliver their transformations. Project managers who can understand and navigate the emerging world of work will be more valuable than ever.

To prepare for these changes, project managers should be building their capabilities in new collaboration tools, empowering their teams, and developing genuine empathy to increase team member satisfaction and retention. As we move into a new decade, project managers should double-down on what they can control and what makes project teams great – the people and their operating environment.

References:

  1. Gallop Poll – State of the American Manager
  2. PMI 2020 Jobs Report – Empathy Amplified
  3. State of Workplace Empathy, Businesssolver, 2019

Career Development in Overdrive

OverdriveIn his best-selling book Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us, Dan Pink explains three attributes (Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose) that people need to feel satisfied and motivated at work. It is a great book, but we can do more. Drive only gets us started. As project managers, we can do more to help the people on the projects we manage.

Remember, Nobody Wants to Be Managed
It’s important to remember that PMs manage projects, not the people working on the projects. Rarely can anyone effectively manage people, and rarer still are the people who want to be managed.

Instead, “We manage property and lead people; if we try to manage people\e, they will feel like property.” Over the long-term, people are more satisfied when they have control or input into how they undertake their work. Using our own skills, insights and decision-making process is more rewarding than blindly following instructions.

Yet there are a few instances when we want to be told what to do. These include emergency situations or a scenario that is totally foreign—such as a temporary volunteer role. However, they are not common, and satisfaction at work requires freedom of choice in how to work—and an opportunity to bring our skills to bear on a problem.

This freedom and skill opportunity make up the “autonomy” and “mastery” components of Dan Pink’s motivation triad (which also includes purpose). Pink explains what people want to feel satisfied and fulfilled. Here’s the recap…

What People Do Want Instead
When we can provide freedom of choice (autonomy) with an ability to apply and learn new skills (mastery) in an environment that pursues a worthwhile goal (purpose), the magic happens. Now people are motivated. Then our role as leaders and managers of projects is to channel and coordinate these driven contributors in their pursuit of that goal.

If that sounds unrealistically optimistic, maybe you have never felt or seen true motivation. Maybe YourGreedyCorp’s reason for being (max profits for owner and shareholders) lacks any sense of purpose for its employees?

Unfortunately, organizations with uniting and worthwhile missions are scarce. We cannot all work for companies like PatagoniaTesla or Buurtzorg, so how can we support people working in more traditional organizations?

If we cannot influence the purpose of our organization, we can try to find the compelling purpose for our project and create as much autonomy and opportunities for mastery as possible. Then we can see what other motivational factors people desire.

Beyond “Drive” Enablers – Into “Overdrive”
A recent Entrepreneur article about seven basic human needs provides great insights into a holistic set of motivational/satisfaction ideas we can bring to teams. Let’s review them:

  1. Safety/security: - Without it, we feel anxious.” Creating a psychologically safe environment is critical for experimentation and learning. People need to feel it is not only okay for them to extend themselves and try new things, but are positively encouraged to do so.

As leaders, we can help by modeling the desired behavior and talking about our own learnings and failures. For example, “I made a mistake on the status report I am sending it again” or “I heard my presentation to the steering committee was too technical; I would like your help explaining it in simpler terms.

This second example also demonstrates vulnerability by asking for help. It turns out vulnerability in leaders is less a sign of weakness and more a bridge to building stronger relations with team members. Creating a safe environment and being human produces a better working environment.

People join companies because of the opportunities and leave them because of the managers they encounter there. Don’t be one of those managers.

 

  1. Variability/challenge: - Without it, we are bored.” Our brains are wired to seek new experiences and solve problems. It releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates the pleasure circuits in the brain. It is likely to reward exploration and learning, which is critical for our evolution.

We can take advantage of the motivation circuits everyone comes wired with by presenting work as problems, not tasks. Outline the problem, let the team tell you how it intends to solve it. This will usually be how you would have structured work tasks, but it might be a better plan. Then, providing it is legal and appropriate, let the team execute its plan. Now the team members have ownership of the approach and are much more invested in ensuring its success.

It’s not rocket science, it’s neuroscience—and very well worth the extra steps of framing new work as problems and vetting proposed solutions.

 

  1. Status/significance: - “Without it, we feel undervalued.” We need to recognize the role and significance people play on projects—and not just at the end of them. That is too little, too late. Instead, we need to find ways to acknowledge and explain the contributions people are making on a regular (say weekly) basis.

It does not have to be much, but it does have to be something. People working without recognition can slide into doing the minimum tolerated. Instead, people who know their work is recognized will be more likely to try and do it well.

Yes, making sure we talk to everyone about their work each week takes time and effort. However, it is much easier than explaining lackluster performance to executives or recruiting new team members because someone quit or was fired for underperforming.

People need momentum to push past the obstacles they will inevitably face on projects. Regular recognition of their work creates and builds that momentum.

 

  1. Love/connection: - “Without it, we are lonely.” We spend a large proportion of our waking hours at work. As social creatures, we crave some connection—but the depth varies from person to person. For some, it is enough to be recognized and have your name remembered. For others, they want to learn about their teammates and share their interests and dreams.

HR departments can get justifiably concerned about inappropriate friendliness, and so often tend to err on the transactional side of interactions—e.g., “Bill, here is the marketing report you asked for.” However, this misses the opportunity to connect. “Hey Bill, there you are…here’s that marketing report. How did Wendy do at her first basketball game?

Having someone that cares enough to ask how you are—and also learn whatever aspects you want to share—is significant. We should try to learn what our team members like to do in their spare time, what causes and activities they enjoy.

People make terrible interchangeable cogs in a machine. They are inconsistent, unreliable and malleable, always changing shape. However, they make fantastic flowers in a garden. Some like shade, some like the sun; once we learn more about them, we can help them flourish.

 

  1. Self-expression: - “Without it, we can’t express our personality.” We need to let people show us who they are. Let them customize their work environment appropriately. If working the front desk of a fancy hotel, that might not be much visually; but in other environments, it could be considerable.

Dress, music, work time flexibility to go rock climbing or see the new Star Wars movie all show we recognize what is important to people. We hire people for who they are and their ability to contribute. Let’s not forget who they are, or they will forget to contribute.

 

  1. Growth/knowledge: - “Without it, we feel stuck.” This is the “mastery” component of Dan Pink’s three motivators. People want to improve their skills. They want to get better at the craft they chose as a career. Providing training, access to education and conferences improves job performance, employee satisfaction, and retention.

Education and training not only improve people’s sense of job worth, but it also improves their self-worth. People recognize and remember that.

 

  1. Contribution: - “Without it, we don’t have the satisfaction of helping someone.” This is the “purpose” component from Pink’s Drive book. People seek meaning, a purpose, an opportunity to help build a valuable legacy.

Connect work to a worthy goal. People do not want to spend a day pushing keyboard buttons. They want to know they helped people get access to healthcare or education, or book a fun night out with friends.

 

Putting the Seven Human Needs to Work
Great leaders and the best project managers do all of these things instinctively. They weave and blend the concepts into every interaction and conversation they have each day. The rest of us likely need some coaching until we feel natural—and then they become habits to us.

There is nothing wrong with creating a checklist of people to go talk with each day. We do not want to use the same questions, but instead develop interest, appreciation, and opportunities for growth.

Demonstrate the desired behavior, admit your failings and concerns. Ask questions, be upbeat, seek connections and knowledge. Everyone in a leadership role is being watched and judged, whether they like it or not. So, behave as if every action—seen or unseen—is being scored. Integrity and transparency remove the need for remembering the story for this situation, or what you told who.

When outlining work, start and end with the problem. Let people decide how best to solve it, and invite their ideas. Providing the solutions are legal and efficient, let them run with them. Check-in frequently to see how things are going. Investigate failures calmly. What can we learn? What can we do differently next time?

It takes time, but it gets easier. Then people start helping you when they see you are not a total jerk. Then things get much easier, and it is tempting to think you are hot stuff and become a jerk. Stay humble, stay thankful and always be learning.

Summary
Dan Pink’s Drive motivators of autonomy, mastery, and purpose are critical in ensuring motivation at work. However, they are a subset of the seven universal human needs we all seek to feel satisfied.

As we manage our projects and lead our teams, we should check to see how many of them we can engage every day.

[An earlier version of this article first appeared on ProjectManagement.com here]

(See www.LeadingAnswers.com for the full list of articles from Mike Griffiths)


Agile Illustrated – Sample #3

Agile Illustrated - Cover smallThis is the third sample from my new Kindle book “Agile Illustrated: A Visual Learner’s Guide to Agility”. The book is a graphical introduction to the agile mindset and servant leadership behaviors for working with agile teams. If you missed the first two samples you can find them here and here.

Also, just in time for Christmas, Agile Illustrated is now available as a physical paperback book. So if you prefer to hold a physical book rather than read a Kindle book you can now get your hands on a copy. Or, if you would like to give a copy to a manager or executive who is unlikely to read a normal length book on the agile mindset and how to support agile teams then buy them a copy as a gift.

Agile Illustrated New Physical BookAt just 88 pages and mainly pictures it is a quick read that explains the agile values, principles and servant leadership behaviors needed to support agile teams. Available from your local Amazon online store, the US link is here.

Today we will review Team Performance. The Team Performance domain includes Team Formation, Team Empowerment, and Team Collaboration activities. (Anyone taking the PMI-ACP exam should expect to see 18-20 questions on this topic.)

Here is a mindmap showing all the tasks, we will then review them one at a time.

Domain_04_d (1)

 Team Formation

D41
 
Task 1 – Jointly create team norms

Learn how people want to work and agree on how things should be done and how issues should be handled.

As a group, develop the group rules that will be followed. By being involved in the creation of the team norms, people are much more likely to feel ownership and commitments towards them. Telling people how we should work is much less empowering than engaging those people in jointly developing their own framework.

 

D42

Task 2 – Help develop technical and interpersonal skills

Encourage the development of technical and people skills so everyone is equipped to work effectively.

Knowledge work requires two sets of skills. The first is to do the technical work as a subject matter expert (SME), the second is to work productively with other SMEs and stakeholders, including the business and customer. The job of learning and honing these skills is never done, and we should always be improving our technical and collaboration skills.

 

Team Empowerment

D43

Task 3 – Encourage generalizing specialists

Encourage people to have a broad range of skills, not only deep, narrow ones, so that as workload varies people can help other team members out.

The concept of “T” shaped people rather than “I” shaped people captures the idea of having skills in surrounding fields of work, in addition to a specialization. To maximize the value delivered we want global rather than local optimization. This means focusing on overall throughput of value over people-utilization efficiencies. T-shaped people are valuable for optimizing value since they allow us to share work to reduce bottlenecks.

 

D44
 
Task 4 – Empower team members

Encourage people to step up for new roles. Allow them to make their own decisions. Put them in charge of many elements of their job.

We want people to take ownership of their work and start to make their own improvements. So encourage people to look for opportunities for improvements and take initiative to make them happen. These are forms of emergent and shared leadership. Subject matter experts know their domains best, so empower them to manage complexity and create solutions to the problems they face.

 

D45

Task 5 – Proactively manage morale

Learn what motivates people and provide that motivation in their workplace.

Frequently observe and ask team members about what motivates them individually and as part of a team. Also, learn what demotivates or upsets them. Then try to find ways to improve the work environment to foster happiness, productivity, and satisfaction.

 

Team Collaboration and Commitment

D46

Task 6 – Encourage ongoing communications

Encourage dialog and technology that helps share information.

Usually, the best way to help communications is to physically co-locate with the people you need to communicate with. Nothing beats seeing them and talking with them. It allows for the richest exchange of information accompanied by body language and emotion.

When colocation is not possible, provide the best tools you can to keep people in communication. Monitor communications and look for ways to reduce miscommunication or address missing communication. This helps reduce costly and wasteful rework caused by miscommunication.

 

D47

Task 7 – Protect team from distractions

Shield the team from interruptions.

Distractions and low-priority interruptions can come from many sources. They might be requests from superfluous sources or demands for low-priority admin work. Even quick interruptions cause task-switching and interrupting flow.

Special-ops and Skunkworks teams have been effective and highly productive in part because they were separated and shielded from interruptions.

 

D48
Task 8 – (Re)communicate the vision to align the goal

Show the end goal and how people’s contributions help get us there.

People should understand how their work contributes to the end goal. So we need to align the team goals with the product or project goal and show the connections and steps along the way to our final destination.

 

D49

Task 9 – Measure performance to help forecasting

Encourage people to measure and share their performance so we can get better at forecasting at a high level.

In order to improve our ability to forecast, we need to track how things actually turned out. If we keep making estimates without checking actual performance, we will keep making the same estimation errors. Tracking velocity and work delivered helps create a more accurate view of the team’s true capacity for future work.

I hope you enjoyed these samples from my most recent book. It was a fun project for me and my wish is that people find it an easy introduction to agile values.


Innovation: Running Experiments and Learning

Experiment DesignIn my last article on Incubating Innovation, we explored the culture and mindset of accountable experimentation. This article focuses on actionable tools and approaches.

Within agile frameworks, the team retrospective is the primary workshop for planning and evaluating experiments. Yet most team retrospectives I see are broken.

Teams spend too much time recording viewpoints and information—but not enough time reviewing or planning experiments. It is common to see the majority of the time spent gathering what went well, what did not go well, and appreciations. Yet where’s the focus on experiments, the learning process and trials for the next iteration?

To make things worse, some teams do not take the retrospective seriously. Maybe after the potential stress of the sprint review, the largely internal retrospective is a relief. A chance to chill out, maybe share some food, and pat each other on the back. However, innovation and learning take conscious effort, forward planning and accountability.

As I work with organizations, I often sit in on retrospectives. Of all the regular workshops/ceremonies, these sessions are typically the least prepared for and worst executed. I often see lazy retrospectives where a basic lessons-learned format is used, but timings are not managed and the recommendations for the next sprint get skimped as they run out of time.

The pie chart below shows a typical planned allocation of time—and the reality of how time is actually spent:

R1

In these lazy retrospectives, people are slow to start, spend longer on recording what went well than what could be improved, and then try to cram the recommendations for experiments (the most important part) into the last few minutes. As a result, experimentation suffers. Few experiments are scheduled for the next sprint, and those that are run are not evaluated properly.

This is not how agile retrospectives are supposed to operate. An excellent guide to running effective retrospectives is Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. In it they describe a five-step process:

  1. Set the stage – Help people focus on the task at hand; check that people are ready and willing to contribute. Outline and gain consensus on the process we will use. Techniques we can use include: check-in, working agreements, focus-on/focus-off (see the book for full descriptions of these techniques).
  2. Gather data – Create a shared view of what happened during the sprint/iteration. When completed, we should have a common understanding of the observations and facts. Team activities we can use include: timeline, mad-sad-glad, team radar.
  3. Generate insights – This focuses on understanding the implications of our findings and discussions. We need to see the impacts of the problems we are faced with before trying to solve them. Techniques we can use include: five whys, fishbone analysis, dot voting.
  4. Decide what to do – Now we move from thinking about the iteration that just ended to what we should try next to improve things. We identify the highest-priority action items, create plans for experiments and set measurable goals to achieve the desired results. Techniques we can use include: SMART goals, circle of questions, short subjects.
  5. Close the retrospective – Here we reflect on the retrospective process and express our appreciations. We may summarize what we have decided to keep or change and what we are thankful for. Team-based activities we can use include: plus/delta, return of time invested (ROTI), appreciations.

This is a more useful format. However, despite people having access to good retrospective advice, poor implementations are still common. Teams continue to attend late, start slowly and run out of time or rush the agreement on what experiments to run.

R2

The recurring theme is poor experimentation design and restricted learning. Gunther Verheyen summarized the problem nicely in his recent post entitled “Inspection Without Adaptation Is Pointless.” Gathering data and deciding what to do is pointless if it is not acted upon. We are doing most of the preparation work but not getting any of the benefits.

Experiment Design to the Rescue
Fortunately, there are some good models we can use. We need to manage time and effort more effectively and use retrospectives to plan and evaluate more experiments. We should spend only 50% of the available time on gathering information and the remainder reviewing the results of past experiments, making wins part of our process, designing new experiments and learning from inevitable failures.

We can help the time management problem by assigning work to be done in advance. People should be thinking about issues and potential solutions independently. There are benefits of group discussion and consensus gathering on agreed experiment design, but observation and idea generation is best done individually.

The New Yorker magazine [3] describes numerous studies that show how brainstorming groups think of fewer, lower-quality ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas. There have been numerous reports on the downsides of brainstorming ideas as a group. Groupthink and the halo effect stifle idea generation. So, ask for people to come with ideas, then use the group setting to vet and vote for them.

Visualizing the ideas and experiments is an effective way to bring collective attention to them. Trent Hone and Andrew Jarding developed the “Ideas and Experiments board” pictured below. It shows the progression of ideas through experiments and their success or abandonment:

Experiment Board

Ideas and Experiments Board (Image Credit: Trent Hone and Andrew Jarding, MindSettlers)

As discussed in the last article, by design, 50% of our experiments should fail since we are trying to maximize our learning, not validate things we already know. So I would expect to see an equal number of abandoned experiments as successful ones.

However, this format (or a slightly modified version that represents an experiments Kanban board) is a useful tool to bring the focus for retrospectives to the experiments being run and considered. With some pre-work on idea generation and an increased focus on experiments, we can structure more effective retrospectives.

R3

This retrospective format saves some time by assigning idea generation as pre-work; this also helps avoid the groupthink pitfalls. It furthermore places emphasis on the experiments—the inputs for learning and innovation.

I have experienced pushback from teams about the goal of 50% experiment failure. People understand it optimizes learning—but say it sets people up for too much failure. I understand the sentiment but counter with two perspectives.

First, these are experiments; they should be dispassionate explorations, not evaluations of the people undertaking the work. We need to be professional and try to overcome habits of internalizing results. I know this is easier said than done, so also offer a second reason: We need to kill bad ideas early to save time and money for better ones.

In the article “The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures,” Gary Pisano describes how killing bad ideas is critical. He profiles Flagship Pioneering, a Massachusetts-based R&D company. It uses a disciplined exploration approach to run small experiments minimizing expenditure. Instead of running experiments to validate ideas, it designs “killer experiments” to maximize the probability of exposing an idea’s flaws. The goal is to learn what went wrong early and move in a more promising direction.

Other useful ideas from the paper include:

  • Tolerance for failure, but no tolerance for incompetence – Hire the best people you can. Explain the goals clearly and let go of those that do not perform.
  • Psychologically safe, but brutally candid – Encourage frank but respectful two-way dialog. It may feel uncomfortable, but it can prevent issues or concerns from going unreported.
  • Collaboration—but with individual accountability – Encourage discussions, but avoid groupthink and hold people accountable for decisions and outcomes.

These are all great concepts and align with the frustrations I experience when I see teams not taking retrospectives seriously—or following through on conducting experiments. I realized I needed a better model for discussing the problem. Fortunately, I found the field of collaborative problem solving (CPS).

CPS is the study of how we work together in groups to solve new problems, innovate and build products. The innovation process and retrospective workshop fall squarely within its scope. CPS skills are quite separate from individual task-focused skills, meaning people can be great at working individually but poor at working together.

A good introduction to CPS frameworks can be found in the article “Advancing the Science of Collaborative Problem Solving.” One model they feature is the “PISA 2015 Collaborative Problem-Solving Assessment.” Unfortunately, like many academic models, the degree of difficulty goes downward, which may make sense as you read down through more advanced stages. However, I think graphically, so I have redrawn the model to show degrees of completeness and difficulty radiating up and out from a 0,0 origin, as shown below:

PISA 1

Along the X-axis, we see three categories of collaborative problem-solving competencies. These are:

  1. Establishing a shared understanding
  2. Taking action to solve the problem
  3. Establishing and maintaining team organization

Up the Y-axis, we have four categories of problem-solving:

  1. Understanding the problem
  2. Representing the problem
  3. Planning and executing
  4. Monitoring and reflecting

Within the body of the model, each square is labeled with the column number and row letter, and describes the tasks that occur in that space.

The model provides a diagnostic tool for identifying broken and lazy retrospectives. The poor engagement and weak follow-through I see in many Scrum teams is characterized by an incomplete execution of column 1 and only half-completion of columns 2 and 3 (as shown by the red outline below):

PISA 2

Teams are not spending time in “(D1) – Monitor and repairing the shared understanding,” nor are they getting to the “(C2) Enacting plans,” (D2), (D3) and (C3) areas to follow through on plans and hold each other accountable for actions and results.

What we want is a complete execution of all the collaborative problem-solving competencies; only then is the framework complete (along with the feedback mechanisms to keep things in check and moving in the right direction):

PISA 3

Summary
Innovation involves combining the right mindset and philosophy with tools and practical steps to ensure its execution. Motivation and attitude are paramount; people have got to want to do this work, enjoy it and create a pull demand for the tools and process that enable it. Trying to foster innovation with demotivated teams is like trying to push a rope.

When motivated and happy people create a strong pull demand for innovation, we need to be ready with the right tools to support the process and keep the momentum going. This includes designing experiments to maximize learning and killing bad ideas quickly—all while demanding competence, accountability and candor.

It is not easy to master the combination of soft skills and techniques required for successful improvement and innovation. However, organizations that succeed can respond to market changes faster and are poised to exploit new technologies and opportunities. Ideas and inventions are spreading quicker than ever. Learning how to build collaborative, innovative teams has become a critical skill.

References

  1. Book: Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen
  2. Article and video: “Inspection Without Adaptation Is Pointless” by Gunther Verheyen
  3. Article: “Groupthink: the Brainstorming Myth” by Jonah Lehrer
  4. Article: “The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures” by Gary Pisano
  5. Article: “Advancing the Science of Collaborative Problem Solving” by Arthur Graesser, et al.

[Note: I first wrote this article for projectmanagement.com here]


Let’s Rewrite the PMBOK

Future PMBOK
Phew, the wait is over! I have been wanting to talk about this for what seems like ages and now the official announcement is out! If you have ever been frustrated by the PMBOK Guide now here’s your chance to fix it.

We are looking for volunteers to write and review the next edition of the PMBOK Guide. However, this will not be just an update, instead a radical departure from all previous editions aligned with PMI’s new digital transformation strategy. That’s all I can explain for now, but more details will be announced when I can say more.

Meanwhile, we would like people with knowledge of the full value delivery spectrum (waterfall, hybrid, agile, lean, etc.) to participate.

The full details of volunteer opportunities and entry requirements can be viewed at the PMI VRMS site Here.

I will be acting as Co-Lead for the initiative, which is like a co-chair role. However, Chair and Co-Chair sounds too hierarchical so we switched to Lead and Co-Lead role to match the new structures we will be embracing.

If we want to change the future of project management I believe the best way to do that is from the inside outwards by doing the work - not from the outside inwards just criticizing. Longtime readers may recall my 2010 post Raise A Little Hell when the PMBOK v5 Update was being commissioned. Since then we developed the PMI-ACP, PMBOK Agile Appendices, and the Agile Practice Guide.

This is going to be different!

Click here to see full volunteer role details.


Incubating Innovation

InnovationIf success goes to those who can innovate the fastest, how do we nurture innovation? The basics are simple to understand—but difficult to implement and stick with in the face of adversity. We need to create an environment that encourages experimentation while also tolerating, investigating and learning from the inevitable failures.

It may sound easy, but executives and shareholders demand results, not “learning opportunities.” We need an approach that fosters experimentation and learning in a defendable way, with a bias for results. To innovate faster than our competitors, we need to maximize our learning potential. This means that by design, 50% of our experiments should fail since we are seeking knowledge expansion, not validation of things we already know. The trick is keeping people engaged and motivated when half of their experiment time is spent failing.

It starts with leadership and cascades down to a shared mindset of team members. Leaders need to be transparent about their own mistakes and learning moments. They need to model the desired behavior, share what they have learned and their new plan of action.

These can be strategic learnings (“Our European market testing has been poor, we are reworking the price options”) or personal (“Feedback on my presentation to investors indicated I was too technical; I need to find simpler ways to describe our technology”). Until team members see transparency in common use, they will be reluctant to practice it themselves for fear of reprisal or criticism.

We Are in the Maze-Solving Business

Maze 1
Developing new products or services is a maze-solving exercise. Nowadays, it is also a race. We need to find a workable solution faster than our competitors. There will be obstacles and dead-ends along the way, and that is okay. We must not let them demoralize us; we just need to learn from them, not repeat them, and keep going.

The process of learning starts with understanding the knowable and then adding to this through experiments and new learnings. So, we start with smart people who understand their industry domain, technology and the business goals. We then need to create an environment with a dual track of product development and experimental learning.

Organizations that run more experiments and iterate faster also learn faster. Scientists studying inheritance use mayflies because they reproduce and provide experimentation results so quickly. The more experiments you can run in a year, the more you can learn.

Our Mazes are Really Big

Maze 2

Developing a new product does not happen overnight. Outside of movies, rarely do lone geniuses develop a marketable product themselves. Instead, it takes teams of subject matter experts months to create proof-of-concepts and multiple iterations of tweaks to complete a viable product. These teams need support and coordination services throughout the process.

Sponsors, executives and shareholders need plans, projections and updates. Product managers, project managers and team leaders all play an important role in keeping the maze-solving teams motivated and moving in the right direction. They also need to keep funding and support going while providing inputs about changing market demands and conditions.

It sounds a difficult balancing act, but approaches such as design thinking, lean startup and agile provide stewardship models for development with inbuilt experimentation, observation and learning. What gets less attention is motivating teams to persevere despite the many failures encountered when experimenting for learning, not just validation.

The “Success Leads to Happiness” Fallacy
Most people start their lives with the mistaken view that success leads to happiness. Our internal dialog creates a series of “if/then” scenarios:

  • IF I pass this exam, THEN I will be happy.”
  • “IF I get this job, THEN I will be happy.”
  • “IF we finish this project on schedule, THEN I will be happy.”

However, the brain has a knack of moving the goalposts. We might be happy briefly, but then we quickly focus on the next exam, an even better job or a more ambitious project.

While it is good to progress in life, we should not connect achieving a goal with achieving happiness. Instead, we need to understand that happiness is only 10% extrinsic (external things that happen to us, like success) and 90% intrinsic (how we think and feel about things).

A Happy Brain is a Productive Brain

Dopamine

Happy workers are more productive and creative than stressed or unhappy workers. In our brains, the chemical dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for sending reward-motivated happiness signals. Put more simply, dopamine is a happiness chemical—it gets released when we are happy. Interestingly, dopamine also switches on more learning circuits in our brains.

Research [1,2,3] shows that happiness improves work performance. Happy people are 31% more productive, happy doctors are 19% more accurate at diagnosing correctly, and happy salespeople are 37% better at sales.

This intuitively makes sense. When we are unhappy or stressed, the brain prioritizes circuits for survival. If you spot a sabre-toothed tiger, it is probably best to focus on escape rather than contemplating the interplay of sunlight and shadows through the leaf canopy. Yet when searching for an innovative solution, we want all these extra brain circuits engaged. This brings us full circle on the “I’ll be happy when I am successful” logic. It turns out, being happy actually activates more of the brain to help us be successful.

Success Fallacy

Nurturing Happy Teams
So, if the smartest workers are happy workers, how do we make them happy? Well, we don’t “make them happy” at all—that would be trying to force it in externally, using weak extrinsic motivators. Instead, we equip them with the tools to help build intrinsic happiness themselves.

This might be sounding more touchy-feely than you are comfortable with. However, hard economics show that happy workers also persevere with problems longer, take less sick days, quit less and sue for wrongful dismissal much less, too…so let’s suspend the cynicism for a moment.

The good news is that with as little as 30 minutes a day, measurable increases in dopamine levels are achieved in three weeks. So, if we can encourage these behaviors and turn them into habits, we get happier, healthier, smarter and more productive workers.

These 30-minute exercises don’t even require expensive equipment or management consultants. They are simple, backed by research and include:

  1. 3 Gratitudes – a daily recording of three new things you are grateful for [4]
  2. Journaling – recording positive experiences from the past 24 hours [5]
  3. Exercise – increases blood flow to the brain and helps eliminate toxins [6]
  4. Meditation – resets multi-tasking fatigue and helps with concentration [7]
  5. Acts of Kindness - helping others and saying “thanks,” which makes us feel better [8]

Organizations spend vast sums of money hiring smart people and providing them with complex tools and training. In comparison, the cost/benefit potential in investing and encouraging team happiness is extremely compelling. As project managers, team leads and executives, we need to be conscious of the behaviors we model, because people are watching us.

If not already doing so, we can use these techniques ourselves to improve our own happiness and productivity—then share and encourage others to make use of them. A great benefit of intrinsic motivators is that they can be applied anywhere. It does not matter if you work in a toxic environment or report to a jerk. There is likely nothing stopping you making sure the first email of the day you send is to thank someone for their help or contribution. Also, no one will know if you make notes about positive experiences.

People with budgets and hiring authority do know that yoga instructors are much cheaper than labor relations consultants and HR lawyers. Longer lunch breaks and fun team activities may require some explanations, but improved problem solving, fewer sick days and better ideas are definitely worth it.

Don’t wait until project completion to celebrate team achievements. That’s too little, too late—and our brains have moved the goalposts to be thinking of the next project. Instead, celebrate the little things that recognize effort, persistence and displaying a good attitude.

Obviously, it is not as simple as “happy people are the perfect innovators.” There are some concerns that people characterized as “happy” might be less likely to spot certain types of risks. Optimism needs to be tempered with realism. However, given the variable success rates of helping people become happier (“leading horses to water,” etc.), there will still be some pessimists; but on the whole, it creates a positive change that is worth the risk.

Summary
Smart companies know the future belongs to the best innovators. Building and maintaining teams of productive innovators requires investment in tools, techniques and people. We need to have the right tools and be using today’s techniques such as the design thinking, lean startup and agile approaches. Then it comes down to our people. An appreciation of what truly makes us happy—and its effects on success—is a great starting point.

Most organizations are not R&D labs, so we need to balance innovation with everyday production and service. The mindset and changes described here may feel uncomfortable (or even unprofessional) at first. However, a quote from Eric Shinseki explains that “If you dislike change, you're going to dislike irrelevance even more.” It reminds us that the business landscape is changing faster than ever—and that we need to change with it to stay valuable.

References

  1. The Happiness Advantage
  2. The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?
  3. Happiness and Productivity
  4. Counting Blessings Versus Burdens
  5. How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Words, The Social Effects of Expressive Writing
  6. Behavior Matters
  7. One Second Ahead
  8. Interventions to Boost Happiness and Buttress Resilience

[Note: I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


Focusing on Results, Not Agile Approaches

Focus on Business Value


Quarter Century

25 Years Agile2019 marks the 25 year anniversary of Scrum and DSDM. I was involved in the creation of DSDM in 1994 and was an early adopter of Scrum and FDD shortly afterward. Now, having been at this for a quarter of a century I am reflecting on where my journey has taken me compared to others.

I am agnostic about agile. I value the mindset and goals more than approaches that preach a single path. This has had mixed blessings for me. I remain agnostic and impartial, but I have not jumped on any of the approach bandwagons.

I received more training in Scrum by Ken Schwaber in 2002 and offered a training role (before they were called CSTs)  but I have never offered Certified Scrum Master training. I would feel wrong evangelizing the singular view of Scrum as the way, or role of the Scrum Master to spread Scrum. That feels too religious to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Scrum is an OK starting place, but I would not recommend only using a Scrum approach - since approaches like Lean, Kanban and FDD have great things to contribute too. Some Scrum practitioners correctly explain that Scrum does not say you cannot add other approaches. In fact, it can be viewed as a deliberately incomplete framework, so organizations have to add their own process to make it successful. Yet this message is undersold as I visit organization after organization that only use Scrum practices with maybe some XP engineering practices. They are missing out on so much more and struggling because of it.

The Scrum community often has a myopic focus blaming implementation struggles on a failure to understand or apply Scrum properly - when maybe something outside of Scrum would better suit the situation.

Likewise, I think SAFe does a great job of packaging and presenting some good ideas for organizations to consider - but its adoption draws too much effort away from developing valuable product. By all means, raid SAFe for valuable content and ideas, but create your own approach with the bare minimum of process. Then continue to ditch that process as soon as it is no longer worth the effort.

 

Take Off

Agile TakeoffIn the 25 years I have been using agile approaches, I have seen companies like LeadingAgile and LitheSpeed form, grow and prosper. They offer Scrum and SAFe training even though they are also agnostic and understand the benefits of various approaches.

I have thought about just sucking it up, drinking the cool aid and offering these courses. I could also explain there is nothing to stop us blending other approaches too. However, then its not really Scrum or SAFe, or whatever I am peddling so it is not a genuine message, which is important for me.

I offer my own training courses in agnostic agile, focussing on the philosophy and tools available for a variety of circumstances. However, like trying to market a healthy, balanced diet, I am first to acknowledge the message lacks the clarity, simplicity or sex-appeal of a single, silver-bullet solution.

People want a “Paleo”, or “South Beach”, or “Atkins”, “Mediterranean”, “Keto”, “Raw”, or “<Whatever>” solution to follow. I can yell, “Stop being lazy sheep and think for yourself”, but the majority of people want recipes and ready-meals, not to learn nutrition and cooking skills.

 

 

Benefits, not Popular Fads / Staying On Track

Staying On TrackThat is OK, I would rather be genuine than popular. I truly believe we are most successful when agnostically taking the most suitable approaches for our circumstances. Then, ruthlessly reviewing, morphing and pruning these approaches as our teams evolve.

We need to focus on the output, the business value, not the process. If wearing purple hats produced better results than agile then I would be all for purple hats and ditching agile. This is one reason I named my company as LeadingAnswers and not a name with the word “Agile” in it. I am focussed on solutions and outcomes, not a single approach. I still believe Agile is our best starting point, but I am always hopeful we will create something better.

As 2019 starts, I am doubling down on my “Yes, and…” commitment. I realize the message lacks the clarity of a single, sexy, (sub-optimal) solution and so it will never be widely adopted. However, my last 25 years has taught me that there are enough people who see the benefit of a balanced, evolving approach.

So, I hope you stick with me as I explore being successful by focussing on delivering business value regardless of approach. I think there is merit in traditional processes in the right circumstances. There are also many underemployed benefits from leadership, emotional intelligence, and industry specific practices that get used in pockets that we could all learn from.

Here’s to another 25 years of delivering the most business value we can through situationally specific approaches.


Hybrid Knowledge: Expansion and Contraction

Knowledge Expansion and ConsolidationExpansion and Contraction

Project management requires the combination of technical skills, people skills and industry-specific knowledge. It is a true hybrid environment. This knowledge and its application also forms a beautiful paradox. Our quest to gain skills is never complete and always expanding, but the most effective tools are usually the simplest. Smart people do very simple things to achieve desired outcomes. Yet, they probably considered fifty alternatives before choosing the most effective, simple approach. You must know a lot to be confident your choice is apt.

Knowledge and experience in project management follows the same pattern. Learning about project management, how to work effectively with people, and our industry domain is never complete. We then use this knowledge to choose the best action, which for ease of understanding and implementation, is usually a simple course of action. I call it Expansion and Contraction, but there is probably a simpler name I will learn about one day.

Learning as a Project Manager

One of the things I love about project management is the opportunity to expand our knowledge. There is so much to learn that is useful and applicable to projects. We also live in an age where there are more avenues for learning than ever before. Like a hungry kid in a candy store, the options seem endless and enticing.

But what should we learn next to make the biggest impact? We could learn techniques to make us more effective or alert us to risks earlier. While earned-value is widely used, earned-scheduling is just getting started but promises useful tools. Alternatively, we will never be done learning how to better work with people. Communication, collaboration and motivation skills are more important than ever now talent is so mobile.  Likewise, expanding our industry and business skills are critical to build credibility with sponsors and useful collaborations with teams.

The PMI Talent Triangle nicely describes these connected but infinitely extending fields of study.

Talent triangle tm

For learning purposes, the Strategic and Business Management segment includes all aspects of your industry. For example, if you work in IT, learning anything your team does or uses would be valuable.

Hybrid Learning Model

We should study topics from each of the Talent Triangle segments. However, it needs be fun to be sustainable. We learn best when we are interested and engaged, not when trying really hard to stay on topic or complete a task. Learning also needs to be balanced with other aspects of our lives. We need to look after ourselves and our relationships. We won’t perform or learn well if sick, depressed or lonely. (See the Project You post for more on this idea.)

When we get stuck, tired or burnt-out on one topic, switch to another after recording what is challenging. Our brains process things in the background. Often the simple act of recording that we are stuck on a topic yields an A-ha breakthrough days later in the shower or out on a walk. 

In addition to a stuck list, recognize all the things already studied. The following Kanban board has columns for To Learn, Studying Now, Stuck On, and Studied Already.

Learning Board

Personally, I try to limit my studying to one topic per Talent Triangle segment at a time. That’s my mental capacity, but I might mix in some short articles alongside a book on a similar topic.

Line Chefs not Eggheads

Knowledge is only useful if we can apply it when necessary. We want people who are humble and smart with a bias for action. When presented with a problem, recalling potential fixes is only half the solution. We then have to select one and try it otherwise we have analysis paralysis. The selection might be done individually or through discussions with the team, but we need to go from many options to a preferred one.

Many people find having too many options with no clear preference overwhelming. Kicking around alternatives is good to select the best solution, but be aware of the anxiety this can cause. So keep it short. Power comes from agreeing and focussing effort on the selected approach. A 40 watt light bulb is barely enough to light a room. Yet a 40-watt laser beam will cut through cardboard and aluminum. It’s the same amount of light energy, just focussed in one direction.

For me, there is an analogy or parallel between learning multiple skills and navigating. Once we know our way around we can create new pathways and connections. I live near the Canmore Nordic Centre. It has> 100km of cross-country ski trails tightly winding through a heavily treed, mountainous park. It also has > 100 km of summer mountain biking trails in the same space.

People describe the trail network and map as confusing as a plate of spaghetti (summer trails) dumped on top of another plate of spaghetti (winter trails). It took me a couple of years of frequently getting lost to become comfortable navigating there. Now knowing both sets of trails allows me to create new loops by tagging trail segments together. It also allows me to get from point A to point B quickly or get back to the Day Lodge swiftly if needed. In short, learning where all the connections are allows us to link elements together for better flow and shortcuts.

Learning as much as we can about project management, emotional intelligence and leadership builds similar skills. It allows us to see connections between ideas, link concepts together like creating a common vision for a project through storytelling.  Or, resolve conflict with empathy and appreciative inquiry.

If we can layer these skills with learning more about our industry, then in the eyes of our sponsors, we go from effective employees to trusted advisors.

When We Get it Wrong

This is all great in theory, but we will inevitably screw-up sometimes. We will assess the options and gallantly blaze our way forward into bigger problems and unintended consequences. This is when being humble and flexible pay dividends.

Just as a lack of direction in the face of uncertainty looks like fear or paralysis, then dogged adherence to a doomed plan looks like blind stupidity. By carefully framing decisions with qualifiers such as “Right now, our best course of action looks like X” or “We have decided to try Y for an iteration and evaluate the results” this way we reserve the right to be smarter tomorrow than we were yesterday.

People are more likely to forgive a mistake and try another approach when it was originally positioned as today’s favoured strategy rather than our only hope. This is not to say we should get into the habit of failing and flip-flopping, just be smart enough not to get preachy about decisions in case the occasional one turns out to be a dud.

So, strive for clarity with options to change direction if needed. We can explain: Here is what we are going to do... but, if along the way we learn of a better approach we reserve the right to revaluate and change direction. In fact, we have a duty to our sponsors to change direction if there ever looks like a better option.

Summary

If we cast the net wide and learn all that we can about project management, leadership and our industries we will never be bored or lacking topics to explore. The beauty comes when topics connect and we make links between subjects. Like always wondering where that unfamiliar road goes only to emerge from it one day and suddenly realize where you are and make the new mental connection.

As we grow in our careers we see how management is really about leadership and leadership really starts with ourselves. Then a simple shift over here makes things go better over there. Project success is a hybrid of technical, leadership and strategic domains. As we grow we see more connections and then achieve more through doing less. It is great when it works but still uncomfortable when it fails so, follow the advice of Patrick Lencioni, and stay humble, hungry and smart.

 

[Note: I wrote this article for ProjectManagament.com first and it can be found here - membership required ]

 


The New Need to be Lifelong Learners

Never Stop LearningWe are a generation who stand with one foot in the outgoing industrial era and one in the knowledge-based future. Training and education that prepared us well for careers in the past will not work in a faster-moving future. Now, we need to be not just lifelong learners, but engaged, active lifelong learners.

The move from industrial work to knowledge-based or learning work can be difficult to see because change does not happen uniformly. Instead, some organizations push ahead, while others lag behind. However, all industries are changing and terms like “Retail Apocalypse” are invented to describe the trend in just one sector.

Some product companies have learned to generate revenue from digital services while many traditional models are disappearing. While I drafted this article gadget store Brookstone declared bankruptcy and Apple became the world’s first publicly traded trillion-dollar company, with Amazon close on its heels. Each are landmarks along the road to a different future and world of work.

People have been through similar transitions before. The Agricultural Revolution moved nomadic hunter-gathers to farmers. They no longer had to wander around in search of food and allowed for permanent, full-time settlements which changed humanity. I am sure there were many people who rejected the new way of working and elected to live out the remainder of their lives as nomadic hunter-gathers. However, the general population reached a tipping point and changed.

Then came the industrial revolution. Many of the dispersed farmers moved to cities to work in factories. Again, a huge change that did not happen overnight, or around the world at the same time. There were some people left farming, but most transitioned. The next stage was known as the Information Revolution. This revolution focused on information and collaboration, rather than manufacturing. It placed value on the ownership of knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge to create or improve goods and services.

We now live in an era dubbed the Learning Age by Jacob Morgan, author of “The Future of Work”. New technologies are evolving so rapidly that company training departments cannot provide all the skills their employees needed to perform their job in an effective manner. Instead, with the rise of internet-based information and learning, workers have the skills to learn as they go. Capacity to learn and a willingness to self-study are the hallmarks of learning workers.

 


MindsetA New Mindset

Becoming an active lifelong learner requires more than just a willingness to self-study. It is linked to a totally new mindset and values structure. Susan Cain, author of Quiet (and presenter of my favorite TED talk with no slides,) explains how each work era brought a new value mindset.

The Agricultural work period valued character and hard work. Role models included Abraham Lincoln and self-help books had titles like “Character, the greatest thing in the world”. Then, the Industrial Revolution moved people from small communities into cities, so they now had to be heard and prove themselves in a crowd of strangers. Qualities like magnetism and charisma became important and self-help books had titles like “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. In the Industrial era role models were great salespeople.

Today knowledge, learning, and experimentation are rewarded. The goal is to quickly test new ideas or products and then profit (if it works), or pivot to something else if it does not. Books like “The Lean Startup” and “Blue Ocean Strategy” have become the new how-to guides for people wanting to innovate. In demand skills are less sales or personality focused and more experimentation oriented. Today’s role models are engineers - who would have thought!

 

FutureThe Future of Work and Learning

Futurist Magnus Lindkvist explains there are only two types of development: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal development involves spreading existing ideas to everyone else. 30 years ago, only a few people had cell phones, now most people in developed countries have them. 20 years ago, online shopping was a small segment of sales, now it is huge. 10 years ago, ride-share and gig-economy jobs were rare, now they are commonplace, etc.

There is a lot of opportunity and work for people spreading ideas horizontally to markets or segments that currently do not have them. According to McKinsey research, more than half the world’s population is still offline. About 75 percent of the offline population is concentrated in 20 countries and is disproportionately rural, low income, elderly, illiterate, and female. This is an example of horizontal growth potential to these 4 billion people currently offline. However, once a market is served the challenge then becomes one of differentiation on price, features, and service. Things get competitive very quickly.

The other sort of development is vertical, creating new markets and products that do not currently exist. This is error-prone and uncertain. Most initiatives fail, but the rewards for the successful can be enormous. Since the cost of communications continues to fall, digital markets are global and expanding as more people get online.

Samsung recently announced it is investing $22 billion into emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, 5G, automotive electronics and biopharmaceuticals as it searches for new products to power growth. Much of this work will be exploratory with high rates of failure, but that is normal in vertical markets.

Workers in these markets are unlikely to have the prerequisite skills since the technologies themselves are still being developed. Instead, the most valuable employees are rapid learners and linkers & thinkers who can take partial solutions from other domains to solve novel problems. 

One such example of linking ideas provided a solution to a rare liver disease in children called Tyrosinemia. The condition prevents the body from processing the common building block of protein tyrosine. Swedish doctors Elisabeth Holme and Sven Lindtedt stumbled upon the results from a failed herbicide experiment in Australia.

Chemicals in the bottle brush plant suppressed competing vegetation, making it a candidate for a natural herbicide. Unfortunately, experiments with mice led to eye issues and the product was abandoned, but the failed experiment was documented along with the plant’s tyrosine processing change. The doctors gained permission to run a small study and the results were dramatic, with liver function returning to normal. The failed herbicide became the miracle drug Orfadin that has saved the lives of countless children worldwide.  

We need to experiment and document not only our successes but also our failures. Who knows they might be useful to others. Ideally, this information should be openly available which will likely be a challenging concept for many traditional organizations. Even encouraging the sharing of positive experiments can be difficult for old mindset companies that rank staff performance against peers and create competition for resources between departments. In such environments, there is little reward for sharing valuable breakthroughs.

Nucor Steel solved this issue with its bonus pay system. Incentives are rewarded one level above people’s span of control. So, as a plant manager, bonus pay is not based on how well your plant is doing, but how well all the plants are doing. This encourages learnings and breakthroughs to be shared with other plants. It encourages global rather than local optimization. The model repeats at all levels, department heads are not rewarded on their department’s performance but a composite of all departments. The same for team leads and individual workers. Rewarding learning and collaboration has made Nucor steel one of the few successful US-based steel companies.                                                         

 


ExperimentsBetter Experimentation Design

If we are engaged in vertical development, we need to overcome our aversion to failure. As professionals with many years of experience, there is a stigma with failure. We are paid to know our field and deliver positive results, not failures. However, this is legacy industrial thinking. As knowledge workers, we need to be designing and executing low-cost experiments to learn more quickly than our competitors.

Paradoxically, if most of our trials and experiments usually work that does not mean we are great developers. It means we are wasteful innovators. By design 50% of our experiments should fail, this is the quickest path to learning and innovation. Failed experiments tell us just as much (and often more) than successful ones. We should not be duplicating confirmed ideas but exploring new ones.

Low cost and fast experimentation lead to more profit-or-pivot decisions. Organizations that can do this quicker than their peers emerge as the new Apple’s and Amazons. Organizations that do not, follow the path of Brookstone and Blockbuster.

 

LearningPersonal Learning

Going forward we need to recognize how people learn best which is through storytelling and visual learning. YouTube’s How-to videos are popular because they combine both elements in a time efficient delivery mechanism.

Checking our ego and embracing humility is also necessary for learning. We might be experts in horizontal development of the known, but no one is an expert in vertical development of the new. Instead, we must learn how to be collaborative problem solvers.

Harvard Innovation Lab expert Tony Wagner puts it this way. “Today because knowledge is available on every internet connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate – the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life – and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge.”

We cannot predict the future and that’s what makes it exciting. We may not know exactly what technical skills to pursue next, but a couple of quotes that seem to apply include: “Once we rid ourselves of traditional thinking we can get on with creating the future” - James Bertrand and “The essential part of creativity is not being afraid to fail” – Edwin Land. So, go forward and experiment boldly.

  

References:

  1. Minifesto: Why Small Ideas Matter in the World of Grand Narratives, Magnus Lindkvist
  2. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, Peter M. Senge
  3. The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, Eric Ries
  4. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant, W. Chan Kim

 

 [Note: I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here – free sign-up required]


Got Your CSM, Now What?

Credential QuestionPerhaps, like 500,000+ other people, you have some form of Certified Scrum Master (CSM) credential and are looking to distinguish yourself and continue your learning journey. Of course, learning is not tied to credentials, many people are anti-certification and that is an understandable choice. I encourage lifelong learning separate from credentials. However, for credential seekers, this article explores some common credential pathways beyond the CSM.

I want to disclose upfront that I have been involved with the development of ICAgile, PMI-ACP, and DSDM Leadership credentials so I likely have some bias and preferences. However, my goal here is not to recommend specific credentials but instead to explain options and environmental factors to consider, helping people make their own choice based on their own situation.

Also, because there are so many credentials available I will undoubtedly miss out many credentials in this discussion, maybe including your favorite or your company’s. This is not meant to be an exhaustive catalogue of agile credentials rather a thinking or discussion tool for getting the research process started. 

How Did You Get Here?

When people ask me what credentials to get next, I ask how they got where they are now. Did they move from software development into a Scrum Master role? Were they previously a PMP certified project manager who took a CSM class to learn a little about Scrum? The answers to questions like these and the next one: “Where Do You Want to Go?” help ground and orient the decision-making process. If we don’t know where we are to begin with, then a map is unlikely to be helpful.

Where Do You Want to Go?

Credentials may be obtained to help secure a new job or promotion. People also seek them to demonstrate understanding of certain topics, and just for personal achievement. All of these motives are valid and help drive the choice of where to go next. If you are pursuing job opportunities then you should research what hiring managers are looking for. Are they asking for PMP, CSP or PMI-ACP credentials? If so then we are narrowing our choices down.

Alternatively, if you are pursuing a credential more for personal learning, then the curriculum is likely more important than recognition by hiring managers. Maybe there is an online program that very few people have ever heard of but it’s a great fit for your learning objectives. If so, be more influenced by content and quality rather than recognition and opportunity.

This sounds basic, but I’m surprised by how many people pursue credentials just because their colleagues did and they don’t want to be left behind, or it was the next course suggested in their company’s training roadmap. Credentials should be for you. Asking questions like: Do you want to strengthen your current role? Do you want to change roles? Do you want to stay at your current organization? All these issues factor into the next steps to take.

Directions from Here

There are a few obvious directions from CSM that include Down Deeper, Upwards and Outwards. By Down Deeper I mean going deeper into Scrum with an Advanced Certified Scrum Master (A-CSM), Certified Scrum Practitioner (CSP), or Professional Scrum Master (PSM) credential. These are good options if you want to demonstrate a further commitment and understanding focussed just on Scrum.

Upwards refers to scaling Scrum for large projects, programs, and enterprise transformations. There are several popular Scaling frameworks available including SAFe, Nexus and LeSS. All offer training paths and credentials if that is the direction you want to pursue.

The Outwards direction means broader than just Scrum. Due to the popularity of Scrum people sometimes forget there is a rich wealth of complementary approaches outside of it. Lean, Kanban, Leadership, and Emotional Intelligence are all topics that agile teams can benefit from. Certifications like the PMI-ACP and the ICAgile suite of credentials provide coverage and demonstrate knowledge of these topics. Also, I class Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) here rather than a scaling framework since it is more pragmatic and deals with more than just agile and scaling.

How to Decide: Personal and Environmental Factors?

So, knowing how we got here and a little more about where to go next and why, we can start to create some pathways.  Shown below is a sample flowchart for someone interested in pursuing agile approaches further and wondering what to consider next.

Flow Chart

However, maybe you are not interested in agile and want to pursue risk management further. That is fine, use these personal and environmental factors to create your own framework. Maybe a PMI-RMP (Risk Management Professional) credential fits the bill? My point is that with a wide variety of experiences, goals, motivations and credentials to choose from there will be a huge array of possible decision trees like this.

The purpose of this article is not to recommend a single path for the half a million CSM’s in the workforce, rather explain a framework for evaluating your options. Don’t be pressured by peers or corporate training roadmaps, instead honestly evaluate why you may want to obtain a new credential and then which would best fit your development goals.

[I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


The Importance of Focus

Edison BulbI have an old-fashioned Edison bulb desk lamp. It’s to remind me to focus (and because I like steampunk, industrial design). A 40-watt incandescent bulb will barely light a room, but a 40-watt laser can cut through aluminium, leather, and wood. It is the same amount of light energy, just focussed instead of being diffused.

The same principle applies to our attention, work and teams. Diffused and scattered there is not much impact. Focussed and concentrated that energy is very impactful. Removing distractions and focussing on a single deliverable at a time allows us to complete our work faster with fewer defects.

Aligning a team to a common vision and purpose directs their energy towards it. No longer diffused to fulfil a dozen competing demands, effort is channelled to the shared goal. Distractions come in many forms. Fancy tools, cool architecture, requests from different groups. If we do not pay attention to focus, our laser beam team becomes an Edison bulb, it is busy and glowing, but not very effective.

So, be cautious of distractions. Monitor time and energy directed to the project goal compared to energy directed to peripheral activities. Work life is like a greased pole with a 40-watt Edison bulb at the bottom and a 40-watt laser at the top. We must always be striving upwards to focus because as we relax we slide down towards distraction.

(Also visible in the picture is my “Do The Work” Post-it. another reminder to focus and a pointer to work on the same topic by Seth Godin and Stephen Pressfield. I guess I could get a 40-watt laser too, but that would scorch the cat rather than amuse it. Plus yes, it is snowing here and yes, my windows are old)


Inverted Classrooms

Inverted Classroom 2My last article on why We Should All be Learners explained how today’s knowledge worker projects are all about learning effectively. This article explains how new technology can deliver a more effective and enjoyable learning experience.  So, whether you are studying for your PMP credential, cramming on blockchain technology, or learning conversational Spanish, blended learning is something you should be aware of.

Blended learning combines online resources with in-person instruction. Both approaches have been available for many years, but their combination has recently given rise to what’s called Inverted Classroom Model that is both new and very effective.

If you have ever experienced painfully slow or incomprehensibly fast lectures, or the problems of trying to coordinate group activities outside of class then blended learning with an inverted classroom model might be just the ticket.  It works like this:

Lecture materials are made available online outside of class time and people consume them at their own pace, whenever they like. If you already know something, just skip it, if its difficult or mind-boggling pause it, repeat it, or access additional resources. You control the delivery speed of lessons, how much time you dedicate to it, and you also control when you consume it. So, if you are an early bird use the mornings, a night owl then use the evenings, it's all up to you.

Then, and here’s the clever part, during class when lectures would normally be delivered, this time is used for assignments and group exercises.  So, you attend lectures at home and do homework in class. It is all reversed – hence the inverted classrooms name.

Inverted Classroom

This brings several advantages. Students move at their own pace, on their own timetable. Also, instead of classes being spent on passive listening, they are now dedicated to active work which is more engaging and enjoyable. Trying or organize group work outside of class when people are busy can be a logistical nightmare, now everyone should be available to take part in group work during the regularly scheduled class times.

In addition, the instructor is available to facilitate group work if needed and shift their focus from getting through the material at the appropriate speed to helping students in the areas they need. It is important that people still get face to face time to interact with peers and the instructor. However, in the inverted classroom model, that time is spent applying knowledge not trying to absorb it at a standardized delivery pace.

The approach is not without its own challenges. The technology for consuming material online must be effective and easy to access. Instructors and students must also buy-in to their new roles. Students are now curators of their own content consumption and need to make sure they have understood the required topics before showing up to the next class, whether it took them 2 hours or 20.

Instructors must also switch roles, moving from narrator of wisdom to facilitator of group activities, troubleshooter, and coach. They also need to make sure the students really are consuming the course materials, not just turning up to class and coasting a free-ride on their peers. Good content management systems can track content consumption and test basic recall with tests and quiz questions.

When the technology is in place and roles understood, blended learning and the inverted classroom model can deliver a very engaging and enjoyable way of learning a new topic. It combines Goldilocks pace (not too slow, not too fast) along with engaging group activities without the logistics issue of scheduling busy learners. So, for that next credential or must-have skill, you may want to investigate a blended learning environment with an inverted classroom model.

[I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com under the title Flipped Classrooms here]


We Should All Be Learners

LearnersKnowledge work is learning work.” That was the message delivered by Dianna Larson’s keynote presentation at the Agile on The Beach conference held in Falmouth, England earlier this Summer. Dianna explained that anyone involved in today’s collaborative, problem-solving projects such as new product development need to be learners. We all need to learn how to learn new topics effectively and get used to lifelong learning to stay useful and relevant.

Technology evolution and disruptive business changes are happening at such a high rate now that we can no longer rely on the theories and techniques we gained at university to see us through our professional careers. Instead, we must learn on the job and in our own time to stay current. How much we learn and how quickly we can learn new skills become our competitive advantage.

“Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival.” – W. Edwards Deming

By learning new skills, we increase our adaptability and usefulness in the marketplace. It creates resiliency to becoming obsolete and provides more career options. Like many things, this is not a zero-sum game; it is not just about us learning things faster than other people to stay employed. If we can increase our team’s ability to learn also, it will be more successful and so will our organization.

For on-job learning to occur, we need three attributes:

  1. Courage
  2. Compassion
  3. Confidence

To be effective leaders and help promote learning in our teams and organizations, we must embrace and model these desired behaviors:

1. Courage: It takes courage to be okay with not knowing something. It takes courage to be wrong and fail as we try to gain and apply new skills. It requires a willingness to be curious and a willingness to tolerate the messiness of trial and error that comes from learning. So check your ego at the door, get over yourself and admit what you do not (yet) know.

2. Compassion: We need a safe space to learn. Also (and this is a surprise to some people), the transparency of showing what we do not know is motivating to others. When leaders learn out loud, it creates compassion toward them. So, create a secure place for people to learn on your projects. Provide psychological safety and encourage learning by doing it yourself in public.

Since we learn in the direction we ask questions, we should frame work as a series of learning problems, not execution problems. For example, instead of explaining the task of porting a system from .NET to Android, explain that our success is linked to our ability to learn Xamarin, our selected tool to port .Net to Android. Clearly explaining we want people to learn new skills is often the approval enabler they need to dedicate themselves to being more useful.

3. Confidence: We need confidence to try and we need to understand our confidence levels. When we learn anything new of significance, our confidence will likely move through the stages depicted in the Satir Change Curve. Think about when you learned to drive, play a musical instrument or learn a foreign language. First, our confidence is high at the prospect of gaining independence, becoming a rock star or traveling with ease. This is illustrated by the initial high score of confidence/comfort at point 1 on the graph below:

Satir

Then we start our learning and we quickly realize that driving, playing the guitar or learning Spanish is difficult and we are not as good at it as we are at all the familiar things we do every day. This is the confusion/loss period of the Satir Change Curve shown as point 2. Many adults who have not had to learn significant new skills for many years find this very uncomfortable.

Next, comes the “groan zone” of turmoil and despair, where some days go well and some days go bad and you seem to be moving backwards (point 3). Understanding that this is perfectly normal is a great relief for many learners. It is helpful to just point to the graph and explaining it is okay to feel bad because they are in the turmoil/despair phase of learning a new skill, and it will be followed by growth and confidence if they just stick with it.

Finally, with perseverance and practice, we acquire the new knowledge or skill and our confidence and comfort rises above our original level (point 4) along with our usefulness.

Summary
Learning and the need to learn are not identifiers of a junior employee anymore. They are the hallmarks of the professional knowledge worker. We need to move beyond the stigma of not knowing all the answers and embrace the learning path that comes with not knowing, making mistakes and asking for help.

When leaders model the learning mindset of curiosity and the courage to learn out loud, they pave the way for faster organizational learning and increased competitive advantage.

[I wrote this article first for ProjectManagement.com here]