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Amplify Your Effectiveness (AYE) Conference: Day 1

Morning Session: Project Patterns

I chose to attend a session entitled: Is this the Way We Really Want to do Things? Seeing Project Patterns and Changing What You Don’t Like (Johanna Rothman). My goal was to explore the causes of the troublesome patterns I see in projects at work. In particular, I see:

  • Too many projects starting up at once
  • Projects being instantiated without enough consideration for the probability of success (“is this a good idea?” rather than “can we realistically achieve this?”)
  • Key people finding out too late about projects which affect them

All of these patterns lead to increased project risk, communication bottlenecks, low motivation, and high stress.

In the session, we conducted a simulation of a team, with engineers, a project manager, a senior manager and a customer. I took on the role of the senior manager.

In the course of the simulation, we received requirements from the customer, implemented them, and delivered products. While the team was working on implementation, I talked with the customer about what was coming next: what would happen when we delivered, what the next project would be, and so on. Part of the simulation was that I had to be separated from the group while they were working.

When we delivered the first batch of products, and the customer was happy with them, it was time to decide what to do next. We gave the customer a choice of two projects we had discussed, one of which was similar to the previous one (but larger scale and more involved), while the other was different. Despite repeated attempts, we could not persuade the customer to prioritize one over the other.

So, I decided that we should change gears and start work on the “different” project. It seemed to be of greater economic value to the customer, and simpler to execute. One of the engineers disagreed with this decision, but didn’t explain why. The project manager seemed to agree, and I left the team to work. They produced a prototype, which the customer liked, and with a few small changes it was accepted as a finished product.

To my surprise, though, I found out later that the team was in fact working on both projects at once, delivering two different types of products. The decision hadn’t actually been made. These unexpected products were delivered to the customer, but didn’t meet the expanded requirements, and that work was wasted.

The debrief which followed was unfortunately too short, and I didn’t feel that we were able to fully explore what the simulation had revealed. The project manager indicated that he hadn’t understood the decision to have been made, pointing to a communication failure.

This reminded me that while we often think of a decision as an event which happens at a point in time, it is more commonly a process of change, which takes time and must be revisited in order to check progress and evaluate. A decision is really just an idea for a change, and there is more work to be done in order to implement that idea. This can be true even when there is a very explicit “decision point”: it still takes time for that message to be received, interpreted and accepted.

One of the tangents we followed during the debrief had to do with how humans think about numbers. Jerry asked each member of the group to write down a random number, and then we wrote them all on a flipchart. They were: 8, 75, 47, 72, 45, 44, 32, 6, 13 and 47. This reminded me of the analyses of election results which indicate fraud.

Afternoon Session: Saying No

After lunch, I decided to attend Jerry Weinberg’s session, Saying No That Really Means No. This was much larger than the morning session, with over 40 people sitting in a large circle.

The subject of discussion was the variety of difficulties that people face in saying “no” to things which don’t seem right for them. For example, saying “yes” to a project which is doomed to failure. This seemed like a good follow-on to the morning’s exercise.

Jerry began by asking the audience to name some of their difficulties, and tell stories of times when they had trouble saying “no”. One of these stories was role-played and analyzed as an example. Most of the time, though, was filled with storytelling and discussion.

This is a deeply complex topic, because this problem is rooted in self-image, social norms, egocentrism, misperception, and other cognitive phenomena. There was no key insight for me, just a reinforcement of the necessity of self-awareness. The only way to avoid patterns like this is to notice when they are happening, and that can be challenging, especially in a stressful situation.

Once you realize what’s happening, there are all sorts of tools which can be applied to the problem: negotiation, requests for help, problem-solving, even simple inaction.

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Written by Matt Zimmerman

November 10, 2009 at 04:34

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