The Project Manager Trap Part 2

I recently wrote about the Project Manager Trap, where the skills we seek in our project managers don’t match those needed to deliver on complex projects. Too often, it seems, our aspiration to work collaboratively outstrips our capability to think and act collaboratively.

In this post I’m continuing that conversation with a few more sample skills I’ve pulled from current job ads in the water sector. If you want to know more take a look at our Collaboration Builder program, which is specifically designed to build 'collaborative muscles'.

A current employer is seeking someone with:

  1. Strong knowledge of strategic and technical solutions for water and sewerage

In a business as usual world the manager with this characteristic would say:

“I draw on my knowledge to quickly diagnose and solve problems as they come up, or to recognise when the team has found the way forward.”

But in the complex world of integrated water planning or catchment management the successful manager will say:

“I resist the urge I and others feel to solve the problem, rather bringing the players together to explore how we each experience the dilemma we need to tackle together. I openly acknowledge that even with our collective knowledge we can’t be confident how to approach this problem nor where best to start.”

  1. Strong project management skills

Typically this means:

“I make sure all the boxes are ticked, that good practice is followed and that we have our ducks lined up to ensure smooth progress.”

Whereas in the complex world we might need to think differently:

“Instead of being ruled by the project plan I embrace the emergent practice that complexity requires. I use my project management skills to help others be comfortable in the face of uncertain process, timeframes and outcomes, knowing this is the key to success.”

  1. Ability to balance competing demands and priorities in a sensitive environment

Again, the employer is probably expecting someone who says:

I juggle the competing demands and navigate the sensitivities to ensure outcomes are delivered on time.”

When in reality the collaborative thinking required would be more like:

I share the complexities and sensitivities with all collaborators, acknowledge I don’t know how best to prioritise, and work with them to navigate the way forward together. I embrace trial and error, recognising that we can’t be certain how best to do this.”

The difference between a traditional project management approach and the collaborative mindset is significant. As we move more into a world of integration and working ‘with’ others, we need to be recognising this and ensuring our people have the mindset and capabilities they will need in order to deliver what we ask of them.


Making Every Drop Count

In March 2018 the UN HLPW published Every Drop Counts: An Agenda for Water Action. It makes a number of clear recommendations about the future of the water sector internationally. My question is, does the sector as a whole have the requisite mindset and capabilities to put those recommendations into practice.

In particular, does the sector have what it takes to successfully integrate planning across water systems?

Here’s why this question is on my mind: The report notes that water needs to be managed as a system – usually as a basin, sub-basin or aquifer - and that water system boundaries tend not to correlate with political or administrative boundaries. In this context it makes the recommendation that the industry “implement integrated approaches to water management at local, national and transboundary levels…”

Having spent much of the past several years supporting water planners to do just that I’m concerned that the drive to do more integrated water management is outpacing the capacity of organisations to build the appropriate skills in their workforce.

Water professionals are highly capable with enormous expertise. Yet this deep well of capability tends to be about the technical challenges of water management, such as the impact of nitrogen on water quality. This expertise is less helpful when tackling transboundary integrated water governance.

To meet the challenge posed by Making Every Drop Count, planners will face more complex questions such as:

  • How to build trust across different groups
  • How to shift from a solution to a problem orientation
  • How to make progress in the face of great uncertainty
  • How to learn with your stakeholders, rather than provide answers to them

These are tough things for experts to do, and not things they’ve learned at school.

In my experience, successful integration of water planning across boundaries requires individuals, teams and organisations to grapple with different questions, such as:

  • How do we deal with complex situations like this?
  • What gets in the way of working with ‘others’?
  • What is involved in thinking and acting differently, more collaboratively?
  • How do we need to think and act in order to ensure others really own the plan?
  • How can I lead when I don’t have the answers?

These questions, and others like them, look straightforward on the page, but having worked closely with water planners to support them to build their capability in these areas, I have learned not to underestimate the struggle involved. Business as usual emits a powerful force that continues to suck people back into old habits and existing comfort zones.

So, the need to integrate water planning at multiple levels is critical. Most water planners know this. It is now time for their organisations to recognise that success requires an additional suite of skills and a real investment in their people.

Only that way can we make every drop count.


The risk of your 'like' bubble

I am noticing more and more as I surf the web how my apps keep managing my feeds - identifying what I click, like, find, etc, and tailoring the results so I get more stuff that will probably appeal to me.

At a deep level I suspect it is quite satisfying and gratifying - making me feel good as I read more stories that I like.

But part of me feels that this isn’t really OK, that I might be at risk of being somewhat manipulated – even just that I’m at risk of missing the bigger picture and perhaps missing out.

So quite a dilemma - because if I opt out I might feel worse off!

It strikes me that I see the very same curating happening with our clients, as they work to collaborate on complex issues across boundaries.

This most often manifests in a discussion about stakeholders - it seems that they often unconsciously select those they like (are easy to get on with, probably agree with, or at least they think might be constructive), rather than those who might disagree, and hold diverse views  that might take the activity in new and potentially challenging (but perhaps more useful) directions

So how might we force ourselves out of our “like” bubble? Here are some simple suggestions:

  • Invite those who the organisation is most likely to be nervous about
  • Sit with the person you like the least in the room
  • Pair up with the person you know is most likely to disagree with you
  • Find the wisdom in the view you are most opposed too
  • Share information with those who you think are most likely to misuse it/or use it against you

While such actions may go against the grain, they might just reduce the risk that we compromise the power of our collaboration by relying too much on our curated feed, and not opening our minds to the diversity that we know is a requisite for improved outcomes.

What is your experience? Is your collaboration in a 'Like' bubble?


Making a leadership choice

I’m just back from a fascinating 5 week exploration of Japan. During a train trip out of Kyoto I stopped briefly in the city of Gifu where, very close to the station, is a very handsome golden statue of a daimyo, or feudal lord, called Oda Nobunaga. Our guide that day explained that Nobunaga was one of three 16th century Japanese leaders who unified Japan. The other two were Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu whose Tokugawa family then ruled Japan until 1868.

Our guide described the leadership styles of these three unifying leaders in the following way:

  • If you disagreed with Oda Nobunaga he would kill you.
  • If you disagreed with Toyotomi Hideyoshi he would influence you through powerful argument.
  • If you disagreed with Ieyasu Tokugawa he would wait and work with you until you found common ground together.

This quick story resonated with me.  Three men with very different personal leadership styles all with a hand in unifying Japan. Together they achieved a very difficult task. Perhaps, individually, they wouldn’t have had the same longterm success.

When I returned to work this week, I found my colleague John Dengate, reading Adam Kahane’s book “Collaborating with the Enemy; how to work with people you don’t agree with or like or trust”.  In Chapter 2 called “Collaboration is not the only option” Kahane describes four ways of approaching problematic situations:

  • Exiting unilaterally (or getting out) if we don’t believe we can change the situation and we can’t live with the situation as it is.
  • Adapting unilaterally to the situation if we can’t change it and need to find ways to live with it.
  • Forcing (the Nobunaga or the Hideyoshi approach) if we believe we have the power to change the situation ourselves without involving others.
  • Collaborating (the Ieyasu Tokugawa approach) when we believe we can change the situation but can’t do it alone; we must work with others to get essential outcomes.

Each approach is legitimate (well, perhaps not the killing bit in the 21st century).  The three Japanese leaders adopted their own style of leadership for better or worse.  However today, when facing a challenge we can choose, after asking ourselves key questions. Can we change the situation? Can we adapt to it? Can we influence or force the necessary change ourselves? If so, we can walk away from the situation, adapt to it, or force our own desired outcome.

If we believe we can change the situation, but need to do this with rather than to others, then we need to ask ourselves how do we step into a collaborative process?

Centuries apart, the options are very similar. Interesting isn’t it?


The Project Manager Trap

One of the most common things I see companies doing is asking their project managers, who are experienced and competent in one way of working, to lead complex, collaborative projects that require a very different approach. The outcome is stress and slow progress and a slide back to business as usual. It's a real trap.

I wonder if it is time to think differently about how and who we are recruiting and what we need to do to support them once they are in. To explore this question I’ve been looking at job ads for project managers in the water industry to see what skills they require of their candidates. Here are three, pulled verbatim off current job ads:

  1. Strong, broad knowledge of the water and wastewater industry;
  2. A proven track record in delivering on time and to budget;
  3. Advanced level of experience with risk analysis, mitigation and contingency planning.

These are from the water sector, but job ads from many other sectors would look very similar. When working on well-defined, technical projects with clear objectives and limited scope, you want a manager to demonstrate these attributes in a traditional way. So if you want someone to build a pipe from A to B, all is well.

But many of my clients find themselves facing situations that aren’t so straightforward. For example, what if we need to work across a whole catchment to co-create a strategy for improving water quality? Applied, traditionally these very skills and attributes get in the way of progress.

To illustrate, let’s take each of them one by one.

  1. Strong, broad knowledge of the water and wastewater industry;

When applied to a traditional project management situation with a complicated technical project this attribute might look like:

I draw on my experience to understand the problems we are facing and identify the best technical expertise we will need to solve the problem. I get the right people in the room.

But applied in a complex collaborative project this attribute should look something more like:

I acknowledge that I don’t know what the problem is nor how it should be solved. I recognise the knowledge and experience others hold and value it just as much as my own. I value lived (non-technical) knowledge. I tap into the experience of those from outside the industry, recognising that diversity brings innovation. I don’t know who the ‘right’ people are.

See the difference? What about the second one:

  1. A proven track record in delivering on time and to budget;

Again, applied in a complicated, technical context this might look like:

I focus on the Gantt chart and critical path. Getting the job done on time drives my actions so I manage things closely to ensure milestones are met.

On a complex project this would look something like:

I constantly share the challenge of time and budget with my collaborators and look to them to find ways to move ahead efficiently together. I continually invest time in relationships and building trust, knowing that we deliver faster when we are more able to work together.

And thirdly:

  1. Advanced level of experience with risk analysis, mitigation and contingency planning.

Traditionally applied: I use my skills to minimise risk through careful planning and implementation. Nothing happens without my say-so.

Yet we may need something more like: I recognise the risks inherent in this situation and apply a safe-to-fail approach to making progress, learning from ‘failure’ as much as from success. I reframe risk as inevitable uncertainty and build the confidence of my collaborators to work within this paradigm.

Looking over these three examples it is clear to me that our management skills can be applied in very different ways and are likely to have very different outcomes. If you are employing a project manager to lead a complicated technical task then go for someone who will take the traditional approach. But if you are seeking someone to lead a more collaborative approach in the face of greater complexity, you will need someone who thinks and acts quite differently. You will probably also need to redesign your performance management and reward system as well so that their different thinking is supported rather than stymied.

So which type of project manager do you need and have you trapped them or will you support them to work differently?


Struggling to Collaborate

One day a man was walking in the deep forest and he came upon a twig in the path. When he picked it up he saw that there was a cocoon hanging from it.

 He took it home, put the cocoon into a glass jar and placed it on the kitchen shelf. He watched it carefully for some time and one day saw the cocoon move ever so slightly. He was very anxious to see the unknown butterfly, so he watched it  for several hours as it struggled inside its cocoon. Eventually he made a slit in the side of the cocoon and a beautiful, brilliant blue wing popped out. Then the butterfly emerged and crawled along the edge of the table slowly flapping its wings.

 After several hours, it was still crawling around so he realised that something wasn't right.

The next door neighbour was a biology teacher so went and told his story.

 "Ah" said the teacher, "I know what the problem is. You see, it's in the process of struggling to get out of the cocoon that the butterfly gains the strength to fly."

 

I was reminded of this story recently when reflecting on some recent client work in Queensland – in particular as a group workshopped a collaborative approach in tackling a complex issue.

A couple of the senior staff expressed concern about the impact on their team members - they seemed very keen to protect their staff from some of the confronting revelations that the group were exploring together.

I had seen similar patterns play out in a number of interactions - a desire as a leader to:

  • keep their people safe,
  • to help them through the difficult patch,
  • to smooth out the speed humps,
  • to control the situation,
  • to reduce the tension,
  • to minimise the conflict,
  • to manage the dynamics,

While no doubt well intentioned, the risk is that in shielding staff from uncomfortable situations, we may block key insights and unknowingly prevent the uncomfortable practice that leads to new thinking and skills.

Like the butterfly, people need to struggle a bit to exercise their new “muscles” needed to tackle the uncertain and emergent environments.


Got solution-itis? You may need to visit the dilemma doctor

In my travels I see a number of common ailments including:

  • Duck flu - recognisable by the persistent need to 'get our ducks in a row before talking to our stakeholders', when logic tells you that early engagement would be most useful.
  • The Screaming DADs - an affliction common in government, recognisable by the compulsion to Decide, Announce and Defend, while promising people they will be consulted.
  • Influenca - a nasty affliction recognisable by an irrational fear of allowing collaborators any influence over 'my project'.

The ailment I've seen most recently though is Solution-itis, a surprisingly debilitating condition.  You know you are suffering from solution-itis because you have many, sometimes dozens, of solutions but you don't all agree on what the problem is.

Solution-itis: A Patient History

My client in government has taken on the task of solving a complex and long-standing problem relating to how water is managed.  For years - even decades - attempts have been made to tackle the situation. Agencies, industries and communities have the resolve to fix it.  The funding is there.  Yet all attempts to date have been unsuccessful.  Why so?

In talking to my client it quickly became clear that we were dealing with solution-itis.  That is, every stakeholder, for many years, had been advocating for their preferred solution to the problem as they see it. My client found herself bombarded with an array of uncertain solutions to unknown problems that she simply couldn't work with.  She became almost overwhelmed with the task of doing something with all these proposals and, ultimately, began to doubt her managerial ability because progress felt impossible.

Solution-itis at its worst.

The cure is at hand

So what's the cure?  Simple really.  My client and her many stakeholders have since been to see the dilemma doctor.  In a couple of workshops they gained the confidence to stop talking about solutions and to focus instead on understanding together what the problem is - what is the dilemma that they collectively need to resolve in order to be able to find a lasting solution?

After a short course of co-defining the dilemma all stakeholders now understand it and have plotted out how they will collaborate in coming months to co-create the solution.  The solution-itis has cleared up and the prospects are good.  Importantly, all participants recognise that they did this work themselves; that they didn't really need the 'expert doctor' after all.  That's very confidence-boosting.

If you are facing a complex problem be on your guard for solutions-itis.  It is an uncomfortable affliction and at its worst can be debilitating.  The good news is that a trip to the dilemma doctor is certain to put you back on the road to solution.

Next patient please....


The Secret to Doing Strategy Collaboratively

Many clients come to me saying “we want to create this strategy and we want to do it collaboratively so that everyone owns the actions and everyone will be committed to implementation”.

It’s a great aspiration, because we know the alternative tends to be another orphaned strategy gathering dust on a shelf, beside its orphaned sister strategies.

But having watched clients grapple with the task, I have learned more about the challenges of creating a strategy that everyone owns.  I have also drawn some conclusions about what works, so here is my key insight into creating a strategy together.

Focus on the how rather than the what

A typical strategy would comprise, among other things, a list of agreed actions, projects or deliverables.  For example, in catchment planning those actions could be about naturalising storm drains, fencing waterways, limiting fertiliser use, etc.  In other words, there is lots of detail about what we will do under this strategy, what actions are to be done by whom and by when.

But isn’t that exactly what those orphaned strategies are full of?  The problem isn’t a lack of actions, it’s a lack of ACTION.

I see all my clients struggling with this.  Everyone wants to focus on solutions, which at face value makes a lot of sense.  After all, ‘fixing the river’ is what we all care about isn’t it?  But in focussing on the solutions it is so easy to ignore the single most important element of any collaborative strategy, which is how are we going to work together differently to create an agreed way forward and to implement actions we identify?  By focussing on the what, we ignore the how, and condemn our brilliant strategy to the orphanage.

What does the how look like?

There is no single right way to do this, but here are some questions that a meaningful collaborative strategy might address:

  • How can we be most creative together?
  • How can we ensure our diversity is a strength rather than a weakness?
  • How do we manage the power differential between us?
  • How do we build consensus around ideas?
  • How do we work together given our different priorities, even different world views?
  • How can we acknowledge and deliver what our constituents need, while creating something new together?
  • How do we make decisions together?
  • To what extent are we comfortable with experimentation and uncertainty?

You get the picture.  These are How questions that will form the basis of a very different conversation and a very different strategy.  Note, we aren’t asking how we will work together today, we are asking how we will work together for the foreseeable future as we collaborate to improve the catchment.

When co-creating strategy it is the conversation that is important, listening to each other, struggling with the how question together, building relationships that will build our commitment to each other and to a shared goal.

A collaborative strategy lays out a process, relationships and governance that all are committed to by which you will together identify problems and solve them as you go.  Remember, it is how, not what that matters.


How high is your CQ

I read an article this week called “How High is your CQ?” The term CQ, or collaborative intelligence, is new in my vernacular, but the concepts in the article are not.

According to the article’s author, John Butcher, CQ is a special kind of emotional intelligence required by those tackling complex social problems using a collaborative approach. In our work we call it a collaborative mindset, or collaborative muscle, an ability to both think and act differently.

The article reflects strongly our experience that CQ, or a collaborative mindset, involves the capability, when working with others, to:

  • listen intently with a genuine desire to understand what the other person is saying, and what they are not saying
  • see things from an other’s point of view or “walk in each other’s shoes”
  • process information effectively, even when it doesn’t fit easily with our own philosophies or values.

In addition CQ requires the ability to:

  • build and maintain trusting relationships
  • be comfortable working in situations of uncertainty
  • explore together how the bigger system works of which the presenting problem is an integral part .
  • understand and appreciate the problem and the system from the perspectives of all who have lived experience of them, as well as subject experts
  • take an experimental approach to solution finding not spending too much time in identifying the “right” answer but trying different ways forward and learning from each one.

We find that CQ cannot be learned in a classroom; people learn CQ by doing the work, by establishing a collaboration, by being personally committed and by being supported by an organisation that genuinely wants to create a more collaborative internal culture.

I think the term CQ is a good one, coming as it does after Daniel Goleman introduced the term EQ for Emotional Intelligence. In today’s world CQ will be just as important as both IQ and EQ, and we look forward to helping client organisations develop it as a required skill. I’d be very interested to know what you think your CQ is.


Collaborating upside down

If you wore glasses that made everything look upside down, how would you cope? This question is at the core of a famous set of experiments from the mid-20th century. You can find some information about that here or try this quaint video.

It turns out that at first the brain struggles to make sense of the upside-down view, but after a few days, something miraculous happens. The brain adjusts and upside down becomes the new normal.

To me this story is a good metaphor for learning to work differently with others. In my work with clients I often encourage them to “put on their collaborative goggles” after which they won’t be able to see the world the same way. It sounds easy, but I know that those collaborative goggles can be just as disorienting as if they turned the world upside down.

With the goggles on we see opportunities to collaborate everywhere, but our business as usual brains struggle to make sense of the vista. While we see an opportunity to be vulnerable, to express uncertainty and to invite people in to our dilemmas, our business as usual brain is telling us that we can’t talk to people until we ‘have all of our ducks lined up’, or that we need to create the plan and then ‘sell it’ to our stakeholders.

Initially, the collaborative world looks strange and unmanageable and we struggle to make it work. But after a while that miracle happens and our brains begin to adjust. It isn’t long before we stop noticing the newness and strangeness, and find ourselves operating in a very different way. Rather than tell we ask. Rather than solve problems and ‘roll out the solution’ we share dilemmas and invite others in to help. Rather than apply linear thinking we value emergence in the face of complexity.

And after a while we no longer need those goggles. We have rewired our brains and can never go back to the old ways.

So, put on those collaboration goggles. The world will look strange at first, but it won’t be long before you are seeing things you have never seen before.