Monday, March 21, 2011

Forget the RACI chart

Steven Pinker adapts Anthropologist Alan Fiske’s work to identify 3 major relationship types across the world’s cultures.

The relationship types are:

• Dominance (boss, mafia, fear)

• Communality (Uchi/Sotto, Dunbar number)

• Reciprocity (‘On’, scratch my back)

All three have an evolutionary basis and are used to manage and distribute resources. One type is preferred and applies most naturally to certain people but can be applied/ extended to others through negotiation facilitated by language (communication).

Dominance – ‘I’m the Decider’ is inherited from our primate ancestors and many personality assessments have tried unsuccessfully to measure it. (DISC, MBTi…).

Communality – ‘Share and share alike’ - is extended to family, spouses and friends and evolved by kin selection and mutualism. It may also be heavily influenced by our brain capacity as measured by the Dunbar number. It is also reflected in the Japanese concept of Uchi/Sotto to identify those within and those outside.

Reciprocity – ‘Give and take, scratch my back’ approach that has enabled so much trade to flourish into the larger population. It forms the basis for reciprocal altruism (i.e altruism outside of a genetic component, Hamiltons law of kin selection).

In an Operations environment these relationship types are clearly and sometimes explicitly understood. Dominance is reflected in the Functional Organization chart, Communality in the team ‘norms’ (rarely documented but clearly enforced in UK) and Reciprocity in the agreements with other departments and contracts with vendors. An employee often only has to deal with one relationship type at a time and often has been chosen, trained and rewarded for being successful in that type.

However on a project we can easily encounter all three types of relationships and the relationship type can change as the project progresses. Many times the individuals are not aware of the different characteristics of the types leading to awkwardness, embarrassment or potentially worse scenarios. It is important to know that behaviour that is acceptable in one relationship type can be unappreciated or anomalous in another.

Steven Pinker uses this idea to give a great explanation of a scene from the movie ‘When Harry Met Sally’ - Pinker is a heavyweight thinker on language – and make a playful connection to a dating faux-pas in the movie.

On a project many situations can arise where there is ambiguity on the relationship type leading to an unpleasant (in UK) emotion related to awkwardness and embarrassment. A skilful PM can recognise and anticipate or at least react quickly to these situations by clarifying the relationship type that exists (e.g. Dominance) and lead or facilitate any change in relationship type (say to Community or Reciprocity) as smoothly as possible. This skill is mostly undervalued and poorly understood. Therefore it is not identified, selected, valued and improved – you either have it or you don’t might be the norm.

A big complication for some in this area comes with the use of indirect language and actions even when there is no uncertainty present. This may be extremely difficult for someone not skilled in this area. Deniability is a factor and gets into the ideas of individual and mutual knowledge. Individual knowledge is where you know something and I also know the same thing. Mutual knowledge adds the certainty that you know that I know and visa versa. The state of knowledge has changed and actions may need to occur that could have been avoided (plausibly denied even to the individual).

Overt language has consequences (you can’t say that!) that can be avoided with indirect language or innuendo. A skilful communicator can help to smooth the waves on projects – remember they are ‘temporary’ endeavours.

For a PM is a global project with resources from multiple functional departments this can be THE key characteristic to determine success and failure of the project. The ability to understand and manage any frictions in the relationships that exist within a project is a full time job. The growth of communications channels with the size of the team leads to a non linear explosion in the probability of a troubled relationship.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Spots and Stripes

“Imagine that they have stripes” whispered Mark.

“What do you mean?” said Tom a little too loudly. “Who has stripes?”

“Ssh,” said Mark nodding in the direction of a group in the corner of the large conference room. “They might hear you. They are all project people, be very wary of them”

“What are you talking about?” replied Tom “Why on earth should I be wary of anybody?”

“Because they are not like us.” said Mark “We have spots and they have stripes, but don’t worry - nobody can see them.”

“You are nuts” said Tom a bit louder this time.

“Don’t worry” said Mark “It is just a little game I like to play when we have these big project meetings. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the project people from the operations people. There are those that like big, swift changes and then there are people like us who prefer to move more slowly.”

“I'm still not with you” said Tom “We are just here for a meeting, aren’t we?

“No, It's much more than that” said Mark “Decisions are being made and plans are being hatched. Expectations are being set and futures are being decided even as we take our seats in the room. You need to look more closely.”

“More closely at what?” said Tom getting frustrated “And how does having spots help me in this?”

“Don’t worry.” said Mark “They can’t see them either and it’s best not to reveal them too early.”

“Imagine that instead of this conference room in a suburb of London that you are on the plains of southern France - about 8 thousand years ago.”

“Eh ok” said Tom not sure where he was going with this.

“The various people present are divided into two main groups - spots and stripes to represent their characteristics and motivations. “

“And spots are people like us” said Tom cautiously “and they are the stripes over there?”

‘Correct’ said Mark ‘We are the farmers. We are the ones who keep this place running and we like to change things at our own pace. And the ‘stripes’ are the hunter/ gatherers. They are the ones that get excited by large projects and don’t understand our needs and motivations.”

“Really.” said Tom incredulous “You think that it goes back that far. Is that why the consultants and some of our Tech group are having coffee together?

“Perhaps” said Mark “I think that it is carried forward in our genes. But you have to look very closely. Nobody is purely spots or stripes and I also draw a distinction between the size or thickness of the spots and stripes as well.”

“It’s not as easy as I first thought” said Tom. “I must admit that it's more fun than trying to read body language and clothes for clues about their behavior. I suppose we have to be careful not to prejudge people.”

“Very true” said Mark “That's a real challenge. However I have been playing this game for many years now and it hasn't let me down yet. I've seen kids with small spots grow to adults with larger ones. And I have seen kids with thin stripes expand theirs. Sometimes I have been fooled and small spots actually merged to become thin stripes and vice versa.”

“Ok” said Tom “Let’s play the game during the meeting and see how I fare.”

Locked Out Syndrome

My daughter took the wrong keys to school the other day. On arriving home she panicked to find that she couldn't get in. She had no way of knowing that the other keys belonged to a friend and so confronted the challenge by continuously trying the keys over and over again until she broke down in tears and was rescued by a neighbour.

In many project management situations we are similarly faced with a lack of knowledge and vocabulary to deal with our challenges.

A short course on the knowledge and skills of project management can provide us with the necessary tools to face the situation. This will not change the gravity of the situation in any way but will inform and improve our approach.

So instead of succumbing to the locked-out syndrome of mindlessly repeating the same approach and rising stress we should be able to face the situation in a more efficient and effective manner.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Is Tiger Woods winning the Masters?

In class the other day we were discussing the benefits of a RAG or BRAG report. The main problems seem to be the definitions of the various colors and also the complete lack of objectivity in switching between them. We were further adressing the difficulties of keeping score of a portfolio of projects using a portfolio management tool. To add some humor and clarity to the situation we imagined a portfolio manager reporting on the Masters Golf Competition in Augusta, Georgia.

Our ‘reporter’ began by asking each golfer how they were doing at various points of their rounds.

Tell me Mr. Woods how are you doing now? “I'm doing pretty well considering the conditions I'd like to be doing better.”

Our intrepid reporter then moves to another hole and asks the same question of Mr. Els “Oh. I'm not doing so good. I started out well but I had a few fat shots and I'm losing ground. But thanks for asking. “

He then spies Padraig Harrington sauntering up the 10th fairway with a smile as wide as Galway bay. And how are you going sir?

“Grand” says Padraig. “Just grand”

He then returns quickly to the scoring booth and puts a red circle beside Ernie Els, a yellow one by Tiger Woods and a Green one beside Padraig Harrington and the crowd gathered by the scoring tent goes wild with cheers.

A crazy and impractical situation of course. Each golfer keeps meticulously objective score at all points of the competition and is accountable for completing his own scorecard.

We should take a leaf from the professionalism of these pros. We have become accustomed to keeping score in the operation of our companies however we rarely keep accurate score of our projects.

Bring back cigarette breaks.

Have you ever left the office and wondered what you have achieved during the day?

Meetings, meetings, meetings, they seem to have become the norm in the modern workplace – an endless round of emails, teleconferences and face to face meetings. A student smiled ironically as she explained that she had 28 hours of pre booked meetings each week in her calendar.

Ask yourself - does a doctor have meetings? a carpenter or plumber?

However they do take breaks and frequently of the unfashionable kind – a cigarette break. Many smokers try to quit but along with the biological difficulty also express a longing for the pause or break in the day, a chance to think and plan.

Much as I disagree with the damage and effects of smoking  I also miss the truthfulness of conversation, the clarity of thinking, the strength of the bonding that accompanied these breaks – and I have never been a smoker.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Decisions - Naiveté and Innocence

A student at an investment bank asked an interesting question yesterday and my answer unfortunately lacked the benefit of the perspiration, incubation, inspiration that comes from a good nights sleep.

He wanted to know if there was a mathematical formula to enable correct selection of projects into a portfolio. We had discussed differences between subjective and objective methods and he was leaning towards the latter.

I should have asked him how he had chosen his wife – and did he believe that a formula could exist that would have made a better choice for him? for her?

I should have explained how great thinkers had grappled with this very problem from Quentelet, Laplace and Hume right up to Lehrer, Bernstein and Talebs of today.

I should have told him a story of our selection method for General Motors projects in the mid-90’s that involved a weighted matrix approach. We measured 7 target ‘benefits’ for each project and gave them a weighting score to reflect their true relative value. Unfortunately my naiveté led me to take the numbers literally until a senior manager took me aside and quietly explained that the weights were for public consumption (e.g. sustainability ranked above preserving the architecture and both above cost) but were not be used in real decision making. I felt like a schoolboy in front of the headmaster instead of a professional earning his keep.

Which leaves me with the last regret:

I should have explained the difference between Innocence and Naiveté. That innocence was keeping alive the idea that it might be possible in the future but naiveté to believe that it could be done today.

Or more simply as a great thinking friend put it - Innocence is to childlike as Naiveté is to childish.

So Max – there are no easy answers, no simple formulas to take away the pain and frustration of decision making at this level. You are senior enough to take on this responsibility. Maintain your innocence as you go forward but leave behind the naiveté as it will only cloud your thinking even more.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Universal Truths

I have just returned from a pan Asia trip that included stops in Dubai, Bangalore, Mumbai, KL, Tokyo and Hong Kong. At times the diversity and contradictions were hard to manage and I reached out to local philosophies and religions from various people in an amateur attempt to come to a single framework to understand the passing world. I heard about Rama, Vishnu and Shiva, about rice pickers and potato pickers, blood types, numerology and star-signs but alas nothing seems to fit.

How could it be that such differences had developed in these extremes. From the heights of the Dubai Khalifa tower to the slums of Mumbai. From the chaos of Bangalore traffic to the white gloved taxi drivers of Tokyo. From the politeness of Japanese restaurants to the bustle of the horse racing at Happy Valley. And so I decided to play with the idea myself.

Hunter Gatherers don’t like cubicles either!

Dilbert by Scott Adams devotes a whole section to the identity, purpose and dilemmas of seating in the modern workplace. He links the shape and size of the typical cubicle to 4 previous incarnations (Veal pen, Cardboard box, baby’s playpen and hilariously a prison cell) as he mercilessly lampoons the cube and all its derived forms.
In a previous role I was the PM for a project to design seating for 22,000 engineers in the mid-west of America.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Social vs Natural Science in Management

Have social scientists have kidnapped management thinking?
Consider the following:
•a considerable number of outdated management theories based on dubious science pervade every facet of a modern organization and are not value managed.
•Social scientists push ‘empiricism’ as their new religion into the training rooms and ‘buzz’ books that greet every business traveler.
•It is true that humans are different from other animals because we can change based on knowledge. But for how long can we change our behaviour because of a book, leadership dictate or inspirational training. Hawthorne, Forer, Observer effects etc, are not properly discussed.
•Proof and results have not been forthcoming and the theories are remolded and re-presented to account for the many anomalies.
•Experiential learning may be fine as a concept but we do experience the world as flat and ourselves as younger, taller and less grey! But thankfully we have satellites and mirrors to put us right.
•And just because 200 students in the professors department say so doesn't make it true. John List (Chicago Economist) is challenging a lot of the economic behaviour study methods ('truths') that have filled many airport bookshelves recently.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Are Humans Intelligently Designed?

I was recently in the Toyota design showroom near Miraikan in Tokyo. On the wall they listed the 7 principles of good design that they had borrowed from an American, Ron L Mace.

I wanted to do a thought experiment where Mr Mace was asked by God (or a representative from the 'intelligent design' community) to review the human body as a designed product to see how it would fare against a modern automobile from Toyota. I imagine Mr Mace making notes on his 7 principles check list as follows:
Equitable use (all sizes and types and Handicapped access etc)
Relatively easy to interact with but somewhat harder to ensure correct interpretation of communicated instructions. There is a wide variation of abilities and traits between genders. A general bias exists against females in strength and size and against males in lifespan and number of friendships. Older models have limitations with mobility and sense perception but generally may be considered equitable in use.
Overall score - not bad - 7/10