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6 Stages of Learning

Project Management

by Neil D. Hymas, PMP and George Davis, Ph.D.

 

Are there skills you’d like to have, but don’t? Things you wish you could do, but don’t know how? Taking a broader view, are there combinations of skills you’d like to have? Are you having trouble using the seven basic tools  of total quality management, the six steps to successful selling, the seven habits of effective people, and the principles of managing by project, all at the same time? How do they work together? How can you apply complete sets of skills to your work and your life?

Stop for a moment. How good are you at brain surgery? Sure, it’s a joke, but think about it: is a neurosurgeon born with fully developed surgical skills? When were the skills learned, and how? What about an airline captain, a software programmer, a heavy equipment operator, a TV technician? What about a car mechanic, an author, a teacher, a nurse? How did they learn to do what they do?

Think about some of your own skills. What are you good at? Are you a good writer, cook, water skier, parent, manager? Are you better than when you started? How did you go from no skills to fully-skilled? How did you learn?

There is a predictable process we follow as we learn new skills. Whether the skills are physical, like swimming or hang-gliding, or managerial, like leading a team or facilitating a meeting, learning them seems to follow the same process.

This learning process has six stages, which we accomplish in order, though we may stop at any stage, inadvertently or on purpose. We don’t reach Stage 5 or 6 for every skill we try, nor would we want to, and in some skill areas we don’t even get started. (How many brain surgeons do we need?)

Let’s take a closer look at each of the six stages of skill learning.

1 Blissful

Not knowing we don’t know

Ignorance is bliss. We know nothing about thousands of skills that others use every day in their work. In most cases, we don’t even know the skills exist, and it’s all right. For our personal well-being and peace of mind, we spend most of our lives insulated from what we can’t do; we can take comfort that the world passes us by!

Stage 1 is usually safe. Sometimes, though, being at Stage 1, not knowing we don’t know, can get us into trouble. At this stage we may think we have a skill, even though we don’t. Examples abound, from gamblers who “know” how to beat the odds, to new restaurant owners who are certain of success because “I’ve been eating all my life”, to excited start-up entrepreneurs who are certain the world will beat a path to their door. When amateurs  think they’re pros, the outcome is predictable. In general, though, what we don’t know won’t hurt us.

2 Frustrated

 

Knowing we don’t know

 

It is easy to reach Stage 2. All it takes is awareness, and we become aware in the natural course of events. We read newspapers, magazines, and books, we watch TV, listen to the radio, sit in church, and talk to our friends and coworkers.

As we live day to day, we can’t help being exposed to new skills and areas of knowledge, and once we are exposed to a new skill, we become aware of something we don’t know or can’t do. If this missing skill is perceived to be a desirable one, it can be frustrating to be at this stage.

This happens regularly, actually by design, when we attend seminars and lectures. We assume we’ll learn by listening, but we won’t—lectures can do no more than move us into this frustrating second stage. It’s too bad that lectures are the core of higher education, self-help workshops, and professional seminars. They result not in learning, which we hoped for, but in feelings of incompetence and inadequacy.

When a lecturer (teacher, speaker, minister) is dull, we try to forget the dreariness of the lecture and most of its content as soon as we can, usually before it’s over! Even when the speaker is wonderfully inspiring, we soon forget the euphoric feeling, and can rarely remember the material for more than a short while. No matter how we cut it, the underlying message in a lecture is that the speaker is smart and we’re not. Lectures make us aware, but rarely is there any lasting learning or enriching effect from them.

Motivational seminars are excellent examples of non-learning experiences. Motivational speakers are master entertainers, skilled at manipulating our emotions for a moment of elation. But even when the best of speakers or lecturers builds a fire in us, the fire doesn’t last. We buy the books and tapes being sold in the back of the room, and not just to make the speaker rich. We remember how great it felt while the speaker struck those chords  within us; so we listen again and again, wondering how it happened.

If feeling good is our motive, then listening is enough. But if learning (lasting change, growth, improvement) is our motive, then we have to do more than listen and feel good. We need to do something. We need to experience what it is we want to learn, what it is we want to become. Experience is not a passive activity. We need to participate, to get involved.

3 Awkward

Knowing, but clumsily

 

Experience, actually using a new skill, no matter how clumsily, is the key to becoming skilled. Think about learning to drive, or to type, or to use your computer. You had to think your way through each step. It was a conscious process, done cautiously and deliberately. The rules of the game, the “right” way to do it, occupied your mind.

At this Stage 3, it is very easy to slip back into old habits. The newly promoted supervisor finds it easier to do the work rather than to teach a team member to do it. The manager who wants to adopt Total Quality Management (TQM) principles finds it easier to let a few marginal products slip by, “to make quota just this month.”

In training and education, we help students learn by giving them work assignments and practical exercises — multiplication tables, essays, laboratory work, driver’s education. We may also use role playing and case studies  where appropriate. And while most computer-based training falls in the category of automatic page turning, the best of software tutorials actually invite us to try out a skill, at least one time. The key is hands-on experience,  and it works.

Even if it gets this far, which is rare enough, most formal education stops at the third stage. So does management development. So do self-improvement programs. That’s unfortunate, because through Stage 3 the skills have  not been permanently learned. We are still awkward and uncomfortable and, being human, we prefer to avoid discomfort. We avoid it by ignoring or rejecting the new skills and clinging to our old familiar ways. It feels better  than pushing out of our comfort zone into new and difficult territory, so we let the infant skills atrophy and die.

That’s why it is so crucial throughout this stage that the learner be committed to learning the new skill. It is this resolve that keeps us moving forward and prevents our easy slide back into old styles and habits. Only the most committed learner, whether committed by choice or by coercion, will keep working at it. Stage 3 is not a fun time.

4 Natural

Automatic, habit, routine

 

It is at Stage 4 that a skill becomes automatic and routine—a natural habit. In skill-based occupations we expect or require performance at this level. Think about the last time you had a haircut, an oil change, ate in a  restaurant, or went to a doctor. We expect high performance from skilled people, and when we get it we refer to them as “professionals.” They’re very good at what they do.

We should expect knowledge workers, including managers and teachers and salespeople, to meet equally high standards of skill performance, and yet we are extremely forgiving of sloppy managerial performance. Even at the highest levels of business and government, we allow our leaders and officials to get by with performances that we’d fire a housekeeper or mechanic for. It’s time to expect that these people, routinely and automatically use professional level skills for problem solving, decision making, team building, coaching, mentoring, facilitating, and serving us.

 

How do we reach Stage 4? Experience. Lots of experience. Successful experience. Does “successful” experience mean doing it right, or better than someone else, or making money, or being fulfilled and satisfied? No, none of the above. Having a successful experience means only that during and after the experience, we gained relevant and useful feedback on which to base future decisions and actions. Another way to describe the process at this stage is to say that our learning is being reinforced and finetuned. The important thing here is to keep practicing. Keep doing it. Keep applying the skill. Don’t give up!

So is experience the best teacher? Maybe. Or maybe not. If we’re thinking work experience, there are five reasons we want to rethink this old cliché. First, experience takes a long time, often much longer than we can afford it in this fast-paced, quickly changing world. Second, it is costly. Third, educators are finding that work experience not only takes too long, but is too random to be efficient as a learning tool. Fourth, cause and effect are so separated by time that their dependency relationship goes unnoticed. We don’t know what caused what. Fifth, there are significant risks in learning on the job, many of which are either expensive or dangerous.

Let’s put it all together. On the job, we make many decisions today that will have impact days, months, or years from now. By the time the results are in, we no longer associate the results with the decisions or actions that caused them. At the very least, the good decisions we have made go unreinforced. From a learning point of view, we either don’t know why things happened the way they did, or we mentally assign an erroneous cause to the result. And along the way, we have exposed ourselves and others to serious risks. The costs are high.

If learning at work is faulty, how then can we acquire the hoped-for skills?  Clearly, what is needed is a highly-focused,  laser-beam approach that emphasizes desired learning and compresses the time required. In many  learning situations, especially where the stakes are high, this need is served by computer-based workplace simulations. The simulation may be an aircraft in flight, a delicate surgery, or a management situation. In all cases, real decisions are made and applied, then followed by immediate feedback and results. The process can easily be tailored to the exact needs of the learner, and can be repeated again and again dozens of times until the desired learning is thorough and complete.

We must take care that the simulation is a realistic representation of the workplace, so the bridge from learning to work application is short and direct. It is unfortunate that much of computer-based training takes one of two forms which are misleading. One is the video game, in which cause and result are deterministically related. If you press button A at a certain time, the result is always exactly the same. The popularity of video games depends on this fact. No one would play if the results varied randomly.

The second misleading formfrom an education point of view—is the “war game,” which enjoys great popularity in business today. That’s sad, because the underlying principles of a “war game” are competition, deception, and an assumption that resources are finite— that is, we cannot create new resources and wealth. These games simply perpetuate out of- date, inapplicable, and unsuccessful business and organization strategies.

When designed properly, however, workplace simulations are certainly better learning tools than random daily experience, and are rapidly becoming the new core of serious education.

5 Confident

Skills integrated into useful sets

A skill is rarely fully useful in isolation. For example, we will enjoy diving much more if we can swim, too. Wilderness backpacking is more satisfying if we can also read a topographical map. Leading a team works best if we can combine leadership skills with goal setting, performance measurement, collaborative decision-making, and many other skills at the same time. It is the skill sets that make the difference, that not only give us the feeling of wholeness and completeness, but make our skills useful.

In our work experience, skill sets are put together randomly, for the most part, especially in the world of leadership and management. We grab a video here, a seminar there, add a few pages from a book of buzzwords, and hope the magic will enfold us. Or, as we often believe, the stardust of many years’experience surely will transform us into world-class leaders. It won’t happen. Neither will we become a “complete” manager by being  awestruck by a world-famous leader addressing 500 of us packed into a hotel ballroom. Skill integration does not come from undirected daydreaming (visioning), or from waiting to see what will happen. Skill integration into applicable, useful skill sets comes about only one way: selecting the skills and carefully planning their practice.

What one must do above all is to choose from amongst the myriad possibilities, plan how to achieve the desired set of skills for our own particular managerial success, and then clearly focus on their accomplishment. Put  another way, you must identify the skill sets needed to become the leader you want to be, learn the individual skills by focusing on them, and then combine the skills by practicing them together according to a conscious plan.

In getting to this fifth stage, we encounter the same practical difficulties that we found in reaching Stage 4: experience is the best teacher, except that work experience takes too long, costs too much, is too random, separates cause and effect, and is too risky. Other than that, it works fine. Here again, we can use simulations to help us learn. At this stage, the combination of skills is so complex, however, that paper and pencil simulations are not adequate. Only actual replications of the workplace in computer-based simulations can effectively handle all the variables at once. The depth and permanence of learning are impressive under these conditions, though, and the effort taken to create the necessary tools will be well-rewarded.

6 Right

Congruence of skills with belief systems

We can perform skills entirely satisfactorily at the Stage 4 level of habit and routine or the Stage 5 level of skill integration. Most of us do. On our jobs we often feel that we have reached the pinnacle of our performance at one of these stages. We’re satisfied, we’re happy, and so are our bosses and customers. And yet once in a while we have an extraordinary experience, one in which our work moves forward significantly, yet smoothly and effortlessly. We have hit our stride. It can happen to anyone. It has probably happened to you. Think of some skill or area of knowledge about which you can talk extemporaneously for hours. Or have you ever “worked” at something you liked for hours, for days without getting tired? Did you lose track of time? It is easy to devote energy to these tasks because it is as natural as breathing. You are in “flow.” You are doing your right work. You are having a peak experience. The skills you are using are truly a part of you. You and the skills are one entity. Take them away and you would not be you anymore. It is part of how you identify and describe yourself.

It may be easier to recognize this gift in another person. Frequently we meet someone who is extraordinarily good at what he or she does. We know this is a special person. We feel better around them. They go beyond the required or expected, and seem to be giving of themselves. In fact, that is exactly what they are doing: giving of themselves. They are the true artists of every calling, the real leaders, the great teachers, the most fulfilled of people.

How does one get to this remarkable Stage 6? It is profoundly simple, and it is automatic —whenever a learned skill is in harmony with your core values, whenever a skill set is aligned with your personal value system, then you are there. You can’t help it. That’s another way of saying you feel complete and fulfilled, and you perform exceptionally well, when you’re doing something you believe in.

That is the extremely important phenomenon associated with Stage 6 learning—when new knowledge or skills do not conform to your initial belief system, your belief system may change to accommodate them. This is personal transformation. You have new skills, a new understanding, a new set of guidelines to live by, a new paradigm!

In an organization, this leads next to the possibility of fundamental change. What if a significant percentage — say 30% — of the people in an organization experienced the same change of belief system? Wouldn’t that change the organizational paradigm? Wouldn’t that change the culture?

The six stages of learning described here can be the road map to automatic skills application, personal transformation, and culture change in an organization. They can be a framework for the growth and improvement of an individual, a work group, a project team, or an entire company. Put them to work for you now.

Plan For Performance

Project Management

“Plan for Performance” is the next critical pillar that supports the “Project Performance Bridge.”  When combined with the first pillar of “Clearly Define Success,” the project team is well on its way to building a solid bridge toward effective performance and customer satisfaction.

High performing project managers have the ability to help the project team translate the PSP into goals, metrics and integrated baselines that effectively induce team performance.

This section discusses the second pillar of the bridge (“Plan for Performance”) by illustrating the importance of setting goals and metrics and integrating project baselines with the vision and PSP.

Goals and metrics are the project equivalent of a scoreboard in an athletic event.  Many people enjoy athletics.  Basketball makes a good illustration.  For some reason, running up and down the court and putting a ball through a rim positioned ten feet from the floor is exhilarating.

Many of us have spent time playing basketball with a group of men or women in early morning exercise sessions, in which the score really doesn’t matter.  In these kinds of games all that matters is that we exercise and have fun.

However when these same men or women find themselves in evening or corporate leagues the score matters.  The minute the scoreboard is turned on and the horn sounds the whole scenario changes.  Every one of these men/women becomes more focused, intense, driven and desirous to win.  Sometimes we marvel at the difference between the two environments.  The only real difference is the scoreboard!  Yet the difference in performance is significant.

Good project managers understand this concept.  They know that helping the team create PSP focused goals and metrics will become the project scoreboard against which their performance will be measured.  When people have a scoreboard tracking their progress, their performance improves.  It is simply human nature.

There are many tools that can assist teams in setting goals and objectives and that can serve as scoreboards.  The best of these are the prioritized PSP, combined with the simple concept of a “project dashboard.”  A dashboard is a project manager’s version of a scoreboard.  In fact, every project should have goals and metrics driven by PSP, with the results displayed on a dashboard.

As teams develop, goal statements must be clear, focused, measurable and achievable – and they should cause the team to stretch.  Metrics should support goal achievement and provide a method of measuring performance.

Figure 4-7 on the next page illustrates possible goal and metric development for the “Time” PSP of the IT Speed to Market sample we have been tracking.

Using this information, a project dashboard can be developed to track Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).  An example of this is shown in Figure 4-8 on the following page.

Dashboards can become much more complex than this, depending on the needs of the project.  There are excellent companies developing software and dashboards that use extensive graphics, pie charts and tracking mechanisms to provide necessary information.  No matter the complexity of the display, we believe a project dashboard is a simple concept that can produce powerful dividends.

As we mentioned earlier, higher priority PSP may need more extensive metrics for proper control, while PSP that are flexible may require fewer metrics to provide effective control.

We can also see that there are fewer metrics regulating the performance of quality and cost than there are regulating time.  Thus, in planning this particular project, we are attempting to more tightly control and meet the customer’s desire for speed to market, yet we are providing some flexibility to the project team in meeting some of the other success parameters.

The diagrams we have constructed above are very simplistic.  However, the beauty of planning tools such as these (especially dashboards) is that they are scalable and flexible enough that they can meet the needs of any project team, large or small. While these are nice tools, they are only useful if all stakeholders buy in.  Project managers must work diligently with the customer and other stakeholders to ensure they have the right dashboards in place before the project begins.  Once they are approved, the team then has precise direction regarding what is important to the customer and the success of the project.  They understand what it takes to create value for the customer and can define activities and continue building a plan that is truly performance based.

As part of putting the project dashboard in place, project teams must integrate this important information into their project baselines.  Translating project vision, PSP, goals and metrics into baselines that stimulate performance is truly an art that requires an outcome oriented mindset.  Performance baselines must be focused in a manner that will allow goals and PSP, and ultimately customer satisfaction, to be achieved.

Project baselines are the basic models or plans the team intends to use to guide project execution.  There may be many baselines associated with a given project.  Most projects have scope, schedule, cost, quality, resource, and risk baselines.  The scope baseline is usually called a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) which is a deliverable-oriented breakdown of project activities.  The schedule baseline is the network diagram and/or Gantt chart that delineates project activities, durations and relationships.  The cost baseline models budgeted and time-phased project costs.  The quality baseline outlines the standards, codes or quality specifications that must be met on the project.

The resource baseline is a model of all resources (including their costs, availability and timing) that will be used on the project.  Finally, the risk baseline is the team’s risk management plan.

As we know from basic project planning practices, the scope baseline, or WBS, is the cornerstone of project management.  Project managers must know what they are delivering before they can integrate the rest of the baseline plans.  The WBS is a tool that assists project teams in breaking down an entire project into realistic, achievable and success focused activities that lead to project deliverables.  One might say the creation of a WBS is an exercise in understanding what it takes for a project team to execute, provide deliverables and meet project vision.

If project teams can look at each activity in the WBS and try to understand how they relate back to the vision, they will then be able to assign appropriate activities, resources, durations, costs, quality parameters and risk response strategies to facilitate successful outcomes.  In this way, the team is truly integrating the project baselines with each other and with vision, PSP, goals and metrics.  The key is focusing planning efforts on actions that produce customer satisfaction.

As an example, let’s refer back to our project dashboard example in the previous section.  In this example Speed to Market is the vision and Time is the most important success parameter.  Assume that as we are building our WBS and schedule baseline, we come across an activity that we believe is on the critical path.  We know that any delays to this particular activity will delay the overall project.  Furthermore, we find that the person we plan to hold accountable for this activity does not have a particular skill that will enable him to complete this activity within the time we have allotted.  In fact, it will take this person twice the time we plan to allocate.

How do we “Plan for Performance” in this instance?  Our clearly defined and most important goal in the project is to “Have the product on the shelves prior to competitors and ready for holiday sales NLT 11/1/05.” Do we allow this team member to flounder and feel the stress of not meeting project goals and metrics?  Or, can we look at better ways of performing this activity?

There are many options available.  One might be training the assigned team member to improve their personal abilities and performance.  Another might be to reassign this team member to another activity in which they can produce success and bring in someone else with the skills to accomplish this task in the allotted time.  A third option might be to reduce the duration of other activities along the critical path to provide extra time for this team member to perform.  A final option may be to take a team approach and assign one or two more employees to assist this person in their responsibilities.

Interestingly, each of these options might work, depending on the situation.  The key to performance-based planning is looking ahead enough to create an environment, choose the option, and build a plan that allows the team and its members to successfully meet performance requirements.  Once this is done, we can integrate the solutions with the rest of the baselines and execute accordingly.  If we focus on vision and success in our planning, execution and performance follows naturally, leading us to the final pillar of the project performance bridge, “Perform.”

As an example of how good planning leads to performance, we had the opportunity over the past year to work on a highly technical project in which the team truly understood how important the Project Performance Bridge really was.  This understanding led to some wonderful up-front planning based on their abilities to “Clearly Define Success” early in the project.  The team worked well together to create a performance-based project plan, and the creation of this plan was the key to their success.

In their plan, they developed an in-depth understanding of the success criteria, the objectives, the metrics, the deliverables, the activities and the risks involved in executing the project in order to completely satisfy the customer.  They took the opportunity to look at solutions to problems they had addressed in previous projects and incorporated appropriate lessons learned in their plan.  They also looked at how they might minimize potential risks to the project and the customer.

They spent time reviewing project activities and ensuring the right resources were available to guarantee high-performance.  They looked at the success criteria and saw where they might have some flexibility so they could focus their efforts and improve their performance in other critical areas.  They made specific assignments as they built the “Plan for Performance” pillar to help in measurement and control efforts.   Finally, they ensured appropriate buy-in to the plan by all stakeholders.  In short, they truly integrated their project baselines.

Some might think that this type of planning takes too much time.  They don’t want the project to be paralyzed by over- analysis.  We agree that project teams need to move to the “Perform” stage at the right time.   However, the right plan must be in place in order to perform properly and efficiently.

As an interesting look back at this project, placing the first two pillars of the Project Performance Bridge did not take a lot of time.  Yet the performance-based plan saved critical time during the “Perform” stage.

Upon completion of the plan, all stakeholders on this project were in agreement that execution would be simple if they followed their performance-based plan.

As the team prepared for the execution phase of this project, they realized that their planning efforts had already constructed two very solid pillars of the “Project Performance Bridge.”  They had “Clearly Defined Success” and “Planned for Performance.”

Although the plan was one of the best they had ever created, the team fully understood that to cross the final span to “customer satisfaction” they actually had to perform the activities they had planned.  They understood that excellent performance was critical to their total success.

With this in mind, they set out to build the “Perform” pillar of the bridge and reach the ultimate goal of customer satisfaction.  The next section of this book illustrates many of the things project teams must do to perform and satisfy the customer.

From “The Art of Project Management” book

Clearly Define Success

Project Management

What defines project success?  There have been many projects completed on time and under budget that have not been successful.  There have also been projects that did not meet schedule or budget requirements that were considered very successful.  So how can a team determine if they are achieving success on their current project?

We believe that project success is tied to one key, major principle – customer satisfaction.  At the outset of most projects, teams may have a good idea of their capabilities.  However, as the team members look across the oceans of uncertainty that separate their performance from customer satisfaction, their vision of success may be a little blurred.

(When we use the term customer here, we are referring not only to those external to the organization, but also to customers within the organization.  Projects are run for internal clients as often as they are for external clients.)

It is here that a good project manager begins adding a little color to the project by building the “Project Performance Bridge.”  The first section of the bridge is entitled “Clearly Define Success,” as shown on the next page in Figure 4-3.

Project managers can assist the team in clearly defining success in two ways.  First, they must create a project vision.  Second, they must prioritize Project Success Parameters (PSP).

We have already discussed the importance of over all vision at length.  However, it is critical that each project has its own project specific vision.  This vision should provide a convergence of need with possibility.  It should afford team members a clear picture of the desired outcomes that will, in the end, satisfy the customer.

One stakeholder group with which we associated created this vision statement for their project:

“We are a unified, dedicated, high-performance team, committed to providing a quality and timely installation of an emergency generator system that meets EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and JCAHO (Joint Commission for Accreditation of Hospital Organizations) regulatory standards and timelines, while maintaining uninterrupted health care at the hospital.”

Prior to going through an exercise to create this vision statement, many of the team members did not understand the importance of meeting the EPA and JCAHO regulatory standards and timelines.  The discussion that occurred helped the team understand that if they did not meet a specific EPA timeline, they would have to purchase entirely new generators and redesign the entire project around these new generators.  If they did not meet the JCAHO timeline, the hospital would risk losing accreditation.  This made it absolutely clear to them that these standards and timelines were positively the most important elements for achieving customer satisfaction on this project.

Creating a project specific vision was therefore a critical first step to clearly defining success and building the “Project Performance Bridge.”

Customer satisfaction is always the objective of any project.  As discussed, we believe that a project team cannot satisfy the customer unless they first build this critical portion of the “Project Performance Bridge” by “Clearly Defining Success” as early in the project as possible.

Dr. Denis Petersen is co-author of the book “Project Management Paradigms”, and founding partner with Milestone Management Consultants, LLC.

Managing Processes

Project Management

Success Paradigm 4:

Just as people need leadership and partners need partnerships, processes need management. However, they don’t need micromanagement!

Proper management of project processes is an art that relies heavily on leading the team, rather than micromanaging it. For too many years project managers have been forced into roles of micromanagement. They have become overly busy managing the miniscule details of their projects and less focused on that which is most important – performance of their team.

The problem we encounter almost every day is that governments, and even private companies, incorporate prescriptive, cookie-cutter management methods into their contracts, which end up forcing project managers to become micromanagers. Often, much of their time is spent producing reports and other paperwork, which has very little to do with the success of the necessary projects.

In both government and the private sector the contractual arrangements often force managers to act as watchdogs within our litigious society; in order to protect themselves and their companies, project managers must make up reams of reports that have little to do with performance. Their greatest worries are avoiding law suits. We, of course, believe this is counter-productive. It would be much better for these managers to be focused on performance and success, rather than mistrust.

The following example vividly illustrates this point:

We recently worked with a team that was involved in a government project. They knew their business well, particularly the project manager. All of them knew what it meant to be a high-performance team. In all cases where we were involved their performance was excellent.

However, on this specific project, the government quality assurance (QA) representatives did not trust this team to do the job right. They seemed intent on showing the project team who was in charge and correcting the team’s supposedly flawed understanding of project requirements. Interestingly, most of what these QA reps said was based purely on opinion.

The micromanaging tendencies and lack of trust shown by the government representatives had a significant impact on project team performance. Instead of seeing an increase in team productivity, the project saw an increase in unnecessary paperwork and meetings. Instead of having a project manager to focus on team performance, the manager was forced to micromanage the entire effort. Instead of providing innovative solutions to problems, the manager was relegated to implementing the unwise opinions of the QA reps.

In looking closely at the situation, we discovered that an interesting phenomenon had occurred. Risk gradually shifted from the shoulders of the contractor to the shoulders of the government representatives. The contractor would no longer take responsibility for product quality, delays and cost overruns. He attributed all of these problems to the government. The government was dictating quality – so he let them do quality control. They were also dictating time and cost impacts – so he let them take responsibility. He spent most of his time documenting problems created by the government representatives, rather than focusing on the performance of his team.

As a result, the project experienced difficulties with quality, significant schedule delays and large cost overruns. The irony of this mess is that the government paid for these problems in the end. Since the project manager spent so much time documenting the problems, he was able to prove that the government had removed the risk from his shoulders. Since the government reps were so busy micromanaging the project, they didn’t have documentation to refute the contractor. So the taxpayers paid a high price for lack of trust, incompetence and micromanagement.

Another quick story to illustrate the impacts of micromanagement may be appropriate. A very large corporation decided to prepare a critical manual to illustrate their products. The company had several levels of management. Two levels above the project manager there was a man with tremendous company history. He was assigned to be on the project team. He was bright, resourceful, and innovative when working by himself. However, he had one fatal flaw: he was a micromanager. He insisted that he have the final say about what went into every detail of the manual.

As the project progressed, the team found that this executive was dictatorial, intolerant, and rude. In this case the project manager and team thought they had no choice but to accept his rule. They labored for over a year. When the final product was presented to upper management, they found the writing forced, inaccurate and, at best, dull. They rejected it outright.

The project manager was called to the board room to explain. He finally had to admit that he had allowed this higher level executive to dominate the work, overshadowing the rest of the team’s contribution. The reaction of the board was simply, “You had the responsibility to inform us of this situation long before a year had passed. We did not know that this member was exercising such unwarranted control. But that doesn’t excuse this poor performance.” The project manager was held to account for the failure. He didn’t get another chance to lead a team in such critical circumstances.

These examples are two of many that show it is difficult for project teams to produce success if project managers are not focused on performance. Thus, we believe it is time to abandon the old paradigm of micromanagement and mistrust and replace it with a new paradigm involving performance-based management.

Performance-based management is different than micromanagement because it is focused on outcomes and customer satisfaction, rather than miniscule details. High performing project managers and teams understand it is their responsibility to create a bridge between their performance and the desires of the customer.

The three foundational pillars supporting this bridge must be the guides of high performing project managers and teams. High performing project managers help their teams:

  • Clearly define success
  • Plan for performance
  • Perform

They also understand that for the team to be effective, they must lead the team, using these guiding principles, not micromanage them to the point that team members want to dive off this bridge into the swirling waters below.

Innovating

Innovation , Project Management

We believe that partnerships and synergy are catalysts that set innovative processes in motion.  In fact, innovation is one of the most rewarding results of partnership.  It is one of the best ways to capitalize on the effects of synergy, and thereby balance project success parameters.  As positive synergy builds, innovative power increases, bringing life and meaning to projects!  But this can only happen when people, teams and partners truly unite under a common cause.

The experience of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team brings home the importance of partnership, synergy and innovation.  This “project” brought together a group of people with very different perspectives and molded them into a partnership that achieved greatness.  Their historic and exhilarating journey toward Olympic Gold provides a wonderful lesson in partnership and innovation.

Looking beyond the final outcome and glory that came with this brilliant victory, one can see that the experience of this team was not easy.  These young partners did not truly become great until they united under a common goal and bought into the innovative game plan of the coach.

At first, they literally could not adapt to the coach’s innovative approach.  It was not until they worked together to increase team synergy that the team began to seriously contend for the coveted medal.  At the beginning they experienced significant friction, inertia and turbulence all because they seemed not to be able to work for the team.

The Olympic journey seemed all but dead.  However, once they came together, they not only accepted the ideas of the coach, but individuals began to think and perform innovatively.

In layman’s terms, innovation is the ability for people to develop new and better ways of doing things.  The coach believed they had to play a new style of hockey to win on an international stage.  Even he, however, had little hope of beating the dominant Russian team.  If it were to happen, his methods had to root themselves firmly in the team’s collective play.  His methods were unfamiliar to the young U.S. team members.  Initially the players felt these methods were just different, not better.  However, the coach was very persuasive and helped them see things in a new light (not that we totally agree with his persuasion tactics).  As they came together and adopted his style, innovative power alone propelled them to success.  The victory, of course, filled everyone across the world with admiration.  It never would have happened without the power of innovation.

Like the hockey team, businesses cannot achieve greatness without synergy and innovation.  Peter Drucker says, “Any existing organization, whether a business, a church, a labor union, or a hospital, goes down fast if it does not innovate….Not to innovate is the single largest reason for the decline of existing organizations.” (Drucker, p. 8) This translates easily into the project management environment.  If project teams and partners do not develop a synergistic, innovative environment, they will “go down fast” and have difficulty balancing the project success parameters.

If we think about the purposes of projects and partnerships, we can easily see that they lend themselves to innovative processes.

Projects are implemented to create unique systems that in turn will lead to unique products which will meet the needs of individuals or organizations.  The term “unique” describes the process we’re looking for: individuals, teams and organizations must innovate to produce their products in a new or better way.  In other words, projects must create change.  Innovation is change.  Thus, successful projects naturally generate opportunities for innovation.

Partnerships are almost always created to generate synergy.  As people work well together, synergy increases.  As positive synergy builds within a team, innovative processes become easier and performance improves.  Thus partnerships naturally generate innovation and performance improvement.

Recently we were providing consulting services to a project team that was responsible for making some clinical and facility improvements in a large portion of a hospital.  Part of the project involved some unique improvements to the communications infrastructure.  Along with standard office IT infrastructure, this particular facility was installing a telemedicine system, a remote monitored security system, a high tech environmental control system and a medical equipment monitoring system – all of which would provide the hospital new and better medical capabilities.

The project team had a wonderful knack for partnering.  They truly had a synergistic, partner-focused work environment – with the exception of one particular stakeholder, the IT Division, which had not bought into the team concept.  In truth, it seemed they were actively opposing the efforts of the primary project team.  Furthermore, they had a reputation for providing poor, untimely support.

The communications requirements of this project generated a significant need for innovative thinking.  The project manager began to notice this, and he saw that this need would not be met unless the IT group became part of the team.  To address this problem he began making efforts to bring this group into harmony with the project team’s thinking.  Instead of challenging the IT group’s thinking, the project manager listened to their concerns.  He talked them through the project vision and goals and ensured their participation in future planning efforts.

Slowly a partnership began to build.  As their partnership progressed, synergy began to develop between the IT group and the rest of the project team.  This led to some interesting innovations which surprised the members of the project team.  And certainly the final performance surpassed the expectations of the medical staff.  It also led to an improvement of the IT group’s overall performance.

This experience is just one of many which have showed us that as project teams improve their partnerships and begin to innovate, the bottom line improves.  Sometimes this is dramatic improvement.  Again, as partnerships are developed, synergy builds, innovation becomes possible, life and meaning are infused into the project, and chances of success increase.

The creation of the Project Management Institute (PMI©) is an example of tremendous innovation.  This organization has had a dramatic impact on the success of innumerable projects. And, although it had very humble beginnings, it has become a powerful tool for change.  It was originally formed by a very small group of people who simply understood the principles of partnership and innovation.  This group used the synergy developed through the creation of a partnership to implement innovative processes which fundamentally changed the world view of project management.

Through the organization’s efforts project management is now viewed as a profession, rather than a set of skills.  Through their determination, a common body of knowledge and a certification process has been formed to assist project managers in balancing project success parameters.  Through their vision, the Project Management Institute is a world leader in promoting project management principles.  Their abilities to partner, synergize and think innovatively changed the entire project management landscape.  They literally breathed life into a profession!

As said earlier, we believe that partnerships and synergy are catalysts that set innovative processes in motion. Perhaps one more story might be useful.  Kenny Saunders worked for a large corporation that used multiple forms of film and video products to enhance its image.  These were critical to the success of the company.  Building these promos was the express responsibility of the Audiovisual Department.  Kenny worked as head of one production team.

He was asked by the Department Director to take his team on location.  The promo they were to work on required a western theme.  They wanted cattle and horses and cowboys.  And there was a time deadline that was somewhat unrealistic.  Within three weeks Kenny was to return with sufficient footage so the Department “cutters” could form a promo that was exciting and real.

When Kenny arrived at the Laramie location he found plenty of cattle, horses, and an abundance of cowboys.  He rounded up those he needed and headed for the shoot location.   On the way the cattle broke free from the wranglers.  They ran to an underpass on the freeway in a regular stampede.

There was real danger that the cattle would run onto the freeway and cause severe accidents.  The wranglers seemed unfamiliar with the real dangers.  They were used to the open range.  Kenny and his team, of course, had little knowledge of how cattle would react to fast moving traffic.

In a panic, he reached for his cell phone.  To his director he said, “I’ve got twenty cows on the loose.  I’m not sure we’re insured for this kind of thing.  What should I do?”

The director told Kenny the company was insured, but he also said that the cows were his problem.  “I’ll get the state troopers on the scene, but you’re in charge, be innovative.”

Kenny then did the unthinkable.  He knew he did not have the skills to control the cattle.  So, acting in partnership with the troopers and wranglers, he stayed out of the way and let them do their jobs.  He then grabbed a hand held camera, mounted a horse and filmed the entire melee.  The troopers had slowed the traffic to a crawl.  So there were no accidents.  But the unique mix of cowboys, cattle, ten wheelers, and passenger vans made such an exciting stretch of footage that when the cutters looked at the film they decided to change the entire scope of the promotional.

It finally became one of the most effective scenes ever put together for the company.  It could have been a disaster; it could have been lost time and terrible expense for the company.  But it became a valuable innovation set in motion by a director who trusted his on-site project manager to make the right decisions and innovate.

Each of the examples in this section provides insight into the importance of innovative processes.  As project teams see success through innovation, they become even more united, excited and innovative.  Synergy literally builds and spills over into all their activities.  This upward spiraling movement is the life-blood of successful projects.  Thus, innovation truly gives life and meaning to partnerships and projects.

The previous blog post is an excerpt from the book entitled, “Project Management Paradigms” by Dr. Denis Petersen and Daniel Anderson,

© 2006 Milestone Publishing

Partnerships: a New Paradigm

Project Management

Old Paradigm: Adversarial Relationships
New Paradigm:  Partnerships

Success Paradigm 3:

Project teams will most likely succeed if they abandon adversarial relationships and create an environment of partnering and facilitation.  High-performance partners are valuable and critical to success.

Effective partnerships are vital in today’s project management environment!  As we mentioned in the Preface, agility, speed to market, team complexity, diversity, globalization and other similar environmental factors dictate the need for a new paradigm involving the art of partnership.

In the past, adversarial relationships have been the rule, rather than the exception among project stakeholders.  Being adversarial doesn’t make sense, since this approach almost always defies the law of synergy on any project.  High-performance partnerships, on the other hand, build synergy among stakeholder groups and create project success.  In fact, we believe that promoting project synergy, affiliating with high-performing partners and “playing nice in the sandbox” will do more for the success of a project than all the creative management charts, graphs, estimates and paperwork project managers can assemble.

We have been involved in many projects in which high-performance partnerships were developed and nurtured, creating an environment in which success flourishes.  With many of these projects we have seen the law of synergy at work.  Truly, the success of a project team (the ability to balance the PSP) increases exponentially, depending on the synergy between stakeholders.  Conversely, we believe success decreases exponentially in an adversarial or divisive environment.

One project with which we have been associated provides a good example of both sides of this diagram.  We were recently asked to provide consulting services for a construction project in which each stakeholder had a personal agenda contrary to that of the others involved in the project.  This conflict had festered into an adversarial relationship among stakeholders and had negatively impacted the success of the project.  All measurements of progress showed that this was an unhealthy situation which stifled the economics of the project and nearly destroyed it entirely.

Team members reported that partnering efforts and performance were much better at the beginning of this project.  Even though the stakeholders had had differing perspectives, there was a major effort by a few individuals to bring partners together and focus them on project goals.  Although not perfect, the efforts of these team members appeared to unite the team, create synergy, and promote performance during the first phase of the project.

At the end of the first phase, some of the key people moved to other jobs and the partnership disintegrated.  Divisiveness began to creep into all aspects of the project and its processes.  Significant turf battles began during follow-on phases.  Disagreements led to a serious lack of production and to great dissatisfaction on the part of all stakeholders.  In trying to discover the crux of the problem, we found that partnering efforts and pursuit of common, earlier goals had been laid aside.  Everyone was looking out for himself without caring about the effect this had on the common good.

In digging deeper into the causes we found some personality issues that were now impeding the project’s progress.  First, an engineer, who was working directly with the owner, held a very hard line on the specifications.  While his intentions were good, he regularly required the contractor to adopt his interpretation of the specifications.  Next, the project manager for the construction company seemed disengaged and didn’t seem to care whether the contract requirements were met as specified.  He appeared to try and get his subcontractors to complete work as quickly as possible and move on so no questions would be asked.  The owner’s facility manager liked to stir the pot, point fingers, create trouble, and then “save” the project by proposing solutions to the problems he created.  He personally did not like the idea of the owner bringing an engineer from the “outside” to oversee a project in his building.  We immediately saw these relationships as a recipe for disaster.

One pointed example of the conflicts on this project was an incident with the plumbing.  The engineer explained to the contractor his expectations as to how the plumbing should be installed.  The project manager disagreed with him and instructed his sub-contractors to install it according to his own interpretations.   The facility manager visited the construction site, noticed what he perceived to be a problem and began pointing fingers at both the engineer and the project manager in an attempt to stir the pot.  The engineer began beating the contractor with his interpretation of the specifications.  The facility manager, in trying to “save” the project, called for total removal and re-installation of the plumbing.  The project manager refused to do anything.

The three personalities could not come to a resolution of this problem.  The disagreement finally escalated into a serious contract issue over which all three were doggedly adversarial and willing to let the project fail.

As difficult as this was, it was just one example of the many issues that created an adversarial relationship among these stakeholders.  Finally, the unsolved issues piled up to the point that the project sponsors were ready to abandon the effort.  Sheer unwillingness of stakeholders had created a path to failure.  In fact, it was difficult to see how these same personalities had experienced success during the earlier phase.

As a consulting firm, we immediately went to work providing partnering and team-building sessions, along with advice on how to correct the problems.  These helped, but didn’t provide the total impact we had hoped.  Finally, the solution we proposed was to bring in a new team member with great partnering skills who could cultivate the partnership efforts necessary to save the project.

We also recommended some operational changes to assist this new team member.  The impact was not immediate, but these personnel and the operational changes slowly began to improve the situation.  The divisiveness began to give way to partnership, synergy and success as the project progressed with this new structure.  Issues like the plumbing problem mentioned above began to melt away.

In looking back at this situation, we asked ourselves how these problems could have been avoided in the first place.  How do project managers and teams create and maintain the positive synergy that must exist if a project is to be successful?

We believe that synergy and success are developed among stakeholders when three conditions are met.  First, the adversarial relationships of the past must be abandoned and performance-based partnerships created.  Second, partnerships must generate innovative processes to bring life and meaning into the project.  Finally, partners must promote positive communication in all their interactions throughout the project.

The previous blog post is an excerpt from the book entitled, “Project Management Paradigms” by Dr. Denis Petersen and Daniel Anderson,

© 2006 Milestone Publishing

Building your team

Project Management

Building a team involves assembling team members, making appropriate assignments, improving individual abilities, and helping people work together in a cohesive manner.

Assembling team members is the process of bringing together the right people with the right skill sets and abilities to accomplish project goals and requirements. Executives should allow project managers to have a say in how the team is assembled. When this is possible, project managers should take the opportunity to bring in the best talent available and weave them into the framework of the project team. If it is not possible, project managers should do the best they can with what they’ve got and ensure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities.

Once the team is assembled, project managers must make very specific assignments to place team members in the right place at the right time. Great project managers orchestrate their teams to ensure the abilities, assignments and availability of team members match up with the tasks at hand. Team members who understand and accept their roles and assignments produce at a higher level than those left without direction.

While assembly and assignment are important in getting the team moving, fostering individual improvement and team cohesion throughout the project are critical steps in keeping it moving. Project managers must provide opportunities for individual team members to grow mentally, physically, socially and emotionally to reach peak performance in their project roles. Individuals become much more valuable to the team as they improve their abilities to perform.

In concert with this, project managers must help these individuals work together in a cohesive manner.  The simplest methods of doing this involve making every gathering a team-building event. Many times people think they must have a large, expensive off-site meeting to create team cohesion. However, the best methods are usually much simpler than this. Project-planning sessions, project meetings and team communication opportunities all have the potential of breaking down barriers and building cohesion if treated as team-building exercises. Project managers must look for ways to lead their team into these opportunities.

The previous blog post is an excerpt from an article published in Business Connect magazine and with ASAPM