Tag: book review

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

I started reading it couple of years ago. I abandoned it 20% in. It seemed discouraging to learn that humans react rather than they actually think. This year, I decided to give it another go. And I appreciated all the wealth of perspectives about how we can improve our decision-making once we are aware about our biases and the shortcuts our brains take. Kahneman puts it this way: “So this is my aim for watercooler conversations: improve the ability to identify and understand errors of judgement and choice, in others and eventually ourselves, by providing a richer and more precise language to discuss them. In at least some cases, an accurate diagnosis may suggest an intervention to limit the damage that bad judgements and choices often cause”.

At times the book is theory heavy, yet I found many useful things for my project management work. I learned more about how the human brain works, so that I improve my interactions with others. It can serve us in preparations for the project’s board or in negotiations with the project’s sponsor. Especially, if we remember that “We can be blind to the obvious. And we are also blind to our blindness.”

For teams management, I found it useful to note that “Too much concern about how well one is doing in a task sometimes disrupts performance by loading short-term memory with pointless anxious thoughts. … self-control requires attention and effort”. Or that for some of us, “cognition is embodied; you think with your body, not only with your brain”. And the concept of affect heuristics – the tendency to base our decisions on our emotions; “the emotional tail wags the emotional dog”.

When we do risk management in projects, it is useful to remember that “risk” does not exist “out there”, independent of our minds and culture, waiting to be measured. Human beings have invented the concept of “risk” to help them understand and cope with the dangers and uncertainties of life. Although these dangers are real, there is no such thing as “real risk” or “objective risk” (see Slovic’s theory for more).

For a drop of intellectual humility it is useful to be aware that “Expertise is not a single skill; it is a collection of skills, and the same professional may be highly expert in some tasks in her domain while remaining a novice in others”.

These are just a few of my takeaways. You are welcome to share yours if you read the book.

“I would rather eat a cactus…than run a project” by Lesley Elder-Aznar

I found the title funny, even if I would rather not eat a cactus, in any event, unless it has been processed into agave syrup. Many of the aspects touched upon resonated with my project manager’s life in the corporate world: negotiations with other departments, the surprise of learning about costs recharging, change management…

The book covers the lifespan of a project from initiation to the business case, kicking of the project, executing, communication and training plans, to closing and monitoring of the project. Sections on project roles (who is who), agile project management and behaviour changes enrich the technicalities with insights.

As the author tells us herself: “The whole purpose of this book was to demystify project and project jargon, to make it less scary, to make it more accessible to everyone. Not just the people who are working in project world, but all of the people who are on the receiving end of change, or unwittingly seconded onto a project.”

It is indeed a book largely for uninitiated. Yet, those who are more experienced can still find useful reminders. I also read it as an invitation for staying humble in interactions with more junior by experience colleagues.

It also felt at times as reading through training materials or attending a training as on some pages the author “speaks” to you (“hold on..”, “humor me…”). There is nothing wrong with that and there are readers who prefer this way of presentation of information. It can also inspire you in you are preparing for a training delivery – forget not to give credit.

The lines that made me smile:

“If you have a Finance team that can organise this without you promising to name your first-born child after the Finance Manager, then you are destined for success!”

“Your friendly Finance business partner will spend much time explaining to you about cost-centres and WBS (work breakdown structure) codes and how it’s all going to take place in the monthly cycle. Just nod along and ask them to email you when it’s done. Or you risk wasting years of your life trying to understand it.”

“The presentation secrets of Steve Jobs” by Carmine Gallo

I like books which make me think, books that help me move on the path I choose. Books that bring out the best of my inquisitive instincts. “The presentation secrets of Steve Jobs” is such a book. It is loaded with unpacked and ready to use techniques of the best CEO of the times we are living in.

I believe each project manager is a CEO, by roles, if not by definition. It is one of our roles to come forth in front of various audiences of teams, stakeholders, sponsors. If you want to learn Jobs’ secrets behind being “insanely great in front of any audience” then you may want to read this book. If you’d like, you can do your own research into it. Only if you want to. Otherwise, Gallo did it for us. He unpacked Jobs’ magic in tiny bits to absorb with ease.

Gallo takes the reader through 18 scenes divided between 3 acts on Create the story, Deliver the experience, Refine and rehearse. In each act, there are doors and passages to simple, yet amazing techniques to apply in presenting to any audience. He highlights the basics of preparations and unveils what I see as the essence of it all: talk about things you are passionate about; rehearse, rehearse, rehearse; and be authentic.

“Battle mind. How to navigate in Chaos and perform under Pressure” by Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg

If you are looking for inspiration in times of adversity, you’ll find it in this book: “My basic reason for writing this book is that I believe that people can become better at dealing with adversity, if they know the concept Battle Mind, and master the underlying techniques.” the author tells us.

The concept of Battle Mind came from military psychology. Accordingly, the Battle Mind is “a state of mind that helps soldiers survive, focus, and take action in military operations, where there is no room for hesitation.” Merete takes forward the question why do some people perform better under pressure, while others lose control. The book offers practical guidance and techniques to master the art of dealing with crisis and emergencies.

In addition to the practical advice and actionable tips it offers, I appreciated the book for a number of other reasons. It is rich in real life stories from battle fields to corporate floors to learn from. It contains numerous references to other great books and research papers to get further in-depth inspiration for a “yes, we can” mood any project manager needs to exhibit for the team to follow suit.

“The biggest bluff” by Maria Konnikova

Project managers are decision-making machines. Every day, our brains process enormous amounts of information and engage in decision-making almost incessantly. It gives us the feeling of being in control.

Maria Konnikova challenges that with “We humans too often think ourselves in firm control when we are really playing by the rules of chance.” From academic research to gambling/poker, “The biggest bluff: how I learned to pay attention, take control and master the odds” is a witty immersion into psychology, people reading and emotional nuance. The book is beating out a number of illusions we hold dear in decision making.

It is not rare in project management to attribute success exclusively to skill and dismiss pure luck. In all of honesty, some things are pure chance. It is up to how humble we are to recognise it.

«Can you hear me? How to connect with people in the virtual world» by Nick Morgan

This is a book I find to be appealing to different audiences in the same clear and friendly language. If you are looking for advice on your online and social medial presence, this is the book. Equally, if you work in a virtual working environment, this is the book. It is written by Nick Morgan – one of America’s top communication speakers, theorists, and coaches. He also did lots of research for the book and offered us a product of collective wisdom.

The author is tranchant – “ the virtual work is not working”. He brings compelling arguments as to why. “Here’s the main lesson: If you can possibly begin a relationship of any importance in person, you should do so. Period, full stop, end of discussion.” I am fully with him on this.

I found an abundance of great advice and tools here: a revealing empathy quiz, how to create and manage your online persona, where to get started with your remote team, temperature taking at the start of virtual meetings, tips for business email writing, how to manage audioconferences etc.

The webinar got a separate chapter. I was bothered by this new form of “communication” and the author articulated it so well all that was nagging me: “ The webinar is simply a disembodied voice from a relative stranger, emotions stripped out, leaking out of a computer or phone. Or worse—a computer phone.” He calls webinars a “form of torture”. So next time you want to plan a webinar, think twice. I will, definitely.

The book was a page-turner for me. On every page I found tips and valuable advice which is gold for a project manager with remote teams spread on different continents.

“No” – the project manager’s best friend?

I remember my first change request: “We need the center to host 150 people, 50 more than initially planned, which means building one extra wing.” That would have increased the budget by 30%. It was unrealistic, given the budget cycle. I had to ask another colleague from the regional coordination to say “No”. Then I came across Peter Taylor’s book ““The project manager who smiled” where I read:  “The most valuable and least used word in a project manager’s vocabulary is ‘No’.

Project managers get often requests like: “We want these new features to the product. And by the way, why doesn’t the software have these new reporting tools we just adopted?!” or  “We liked the study visit. We would like to go on one more by the end of the year.”

These are not Christmas letters to Santa. Yet, it is pretty close. In the course of project implementation, beneficiaries tend to try to get more than initially planned. And it’s normal for them to try, for different reasons. I usually do not questions their motives. Not my job. My project manager’s job is to give them what we agreed, when we agreed and for the budget we agreed, without jeopardising the expected quality.

Because the project manager is not Santa, it’s ok to say “No”. There are a number of ways to say “No” by considering the repercussions on the project and ultimately the beneficiary. The most important part is to have the beneficiary understand why the project manager says “No”. Reference to facts or similar past experience may support the understanding of pragmatic beneficiaries. One approach is to show what would happen if “yes” would be the answer.

Let’s take one of the wishes from the above list. “Yes” to an extra wing would mean delayed opening of the temporary detention centre (due to reopening of the construction authorisation procedure etc.) and increased risks of revolt at the current facilities, which hold 100 people in less than acceptable conditions. Data shows that over the last three years the number of incomers is stable and the documents processing rates have improved. Therefore, the centre’s capacity is aligned with the demand. It worked in a project I managed years ago with a data-adept beneficiary.

When the beneficiary is guided by emotional or more personal motives, he/she may not hear /want to hear a reasoned “No”. The costs of “No” can be also high. For example, it asks to choose a certain consultant/service provider. A “No”, even if demonstrated by strictly adhered to procurement procedures and open competition rules, can have the beneficiary complain to the project sponsor and/or lead to the rejection to work with the chosen consultant/service provider. Each project is different and each beneficiary’s powers are context specific, so careful consideration is warranted. What I found important in such situations is to be as open and transparent about these kind of requests with all concerned. It cost me once a friendship, but then it was not perhaps the kind of friendship I would keep.

A “No” does not need to be brutal and cutting-off. One soft way of saying “No” is to help the beneficiary find another project who can accommodate the request. It will bring value added through networking to the relationship with the beneficiary, in addition to the opportunity for a good collaboration with another project/partner.



The story of a book which saw the light in lockdown

On a bright April day, as I was casually browsing Linkedin for updates, I noticed a post by Peter Taylor:

A month into full lockdown, my brain jump at it with delight. “A legacy-book to be published in 21 days? Phew! Why so long?!” I thought to myself. So, I responded to the challenge and so did 55 other project managers across industries from around the world.

“The Projectless Manager: Inspirational Thoughts from a World of Project Managers” is now on Amazon, both in paperback and for Kindle.

It is dedicated to “A global community of health carers and key workers. Its proceeds go to NHS. The book is, as Peter puts it, “unique ‘in the moment’ and ‘of the moment’ book.”

It was such a by-the-book project by itself: on time, within budget and objective – achieved, all this with members of a tribe who basically only know each other by Linkedin profiles.

I have to mention kids here. Those who know me, know that I am a full-time kids’ advocate. The cover is a result of a challenge for 9 year olds. So, it is also an inter-generational act of contribution and sharing. Kudos to kids!

“Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get from Good to Great” by Carmine Gallo

Persuasion is an ancient art many know about and very few excel at. Carmine Gallo, bestselling author of Talk Like TED, builds the bridge between ancient Aristotle’s formula of persuasion to our modern era of “tectonic change”.

The book is full of evidence that communication is a must-have skill, collected from works of and interviews with renown economists, neuroscientists, global business leaders and billionaires.

Communication is the top skill which sets apart successful project managers. Team communication, stakeholders communication, sponsors communication and, sometimes – self-talk, are daily tasks and duties of a project management.

The author shares tips on how to master the art of communication from good to great. I wholeheartedly recommend the book to anyone aspiring to do so.