Tag: lessons learned

Unethical Behavior? The psychology behind

“Playing with the numbers “just this once” may well be the CEO’s intent; it’s seldom the end result. And if it’s okay for the boss to cheat a little, it’s easy for subordinates to rationalize similar behavior.” (Warren Buffet, Letter to Shareholders, 2018).

Paraphrasing the above in the project management context: playing with the numbers “just this once” may well be the project manager’s intent; it’s seldom the end result. And if it’s okay for the project manager to cheat a little, it’s easy for team members to rationalise similar behaviour.

Merete Wedell-Wedellsbort explains the psychology behind unethical behaviour in her article published in Harvard Business Review (12 April 2019). I very much recommend to read the article. It raises the awareness of own behaviour and explains others’ behaviour next time you find yourself in an environment prone to unethical démarches.

As Merete Wedell-Wedellsbort puts it “three psychological dynamics  lead to crossing ethical lines. First, there’s omnipotence: when someone feels so aggrandized and entitled that they believe the rules of decent behavior don’t apply to them. Second, we have cultural numbness: when others play along and gradually begin to accept and embody deviant norms. Finally, we see justified neglect: when people don’t speak up about ethical breaches because they are thinking of more immediate rewards such as staying on a good footing with the powerful.”

In project management, your “audience” is neither experts of any sorts nor politicians/commentators. Your audience are the tax-payers (in development management) or the shareholders. The numbers that flow up to you as a project manager should be the ones you send on to those who gave you the money to implement the project. They send auditors to attest to that. The above applies not only to money. It also applies to relationships with stakeholders; communication with the public; rewards for team members and many other aspects of project management.

Case in point:

Upon arrival on the team as a new project manager, Avril (not real name) learns that the donor will send an audit in two months. The last financial report raised a number of questions. She realised the report was made to match the numbers and did not reflect accurately the actual spending. Avril knew the report was done to please the previous project manager, who believed the rules of accountability do not apply to him (omnipotence). After discussing it with the financial assistant, it became clear that the later admired the project manager (cultural numbness) and played along (justified neglect).

Avril prepared all the supporting documents required by the auditors in advance. Upon the arrival of the auditors in the morning of the appointed day, she acknowledged the mistakes made in calculations, exchange rates and the like. There was nothing to hide and the numbers had to be corrected before the final financial report. The auditor tuned in Avril’s readiness to correct it with “you are glad we are here”.

As a result, the implementing organisation was spared of the need to repay a six figure amount and the reputation of the project was restored.

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“Quiet influence: the introvert’s guide to making a difference” by Jennifer B. Kahnweiler PhD

I found the book valuable from a number of perspectives. It is well-researched and anchored in real-life experiences of introverts in different lines of businesses. Yes, introverts do work in sales and project management!

I am an ambivert, so the book spoke to me, as the narrative is respectful in the sense that the author does not re-educate the introverts. The book rather builds on introverts’ strengths and skills to help them maximise success with a clear call to stop acting like an extrovert. The basic idea is that you do not need to raise your voice or exude passion in excess in order to make a difference. The author offers towards that goal a number of tools, strategies and inspirational stories. I find many of them relevant in the project management world, as we aim at making a difference within and through projects.

I have successfully applied some of techniques, as I was reading the book. For instance, developing an influencing project plan, preparing LAQs (Likely Asked Questions) before a meeting, AEIOU technique, “the eyebrow test” and many more.

Enjoy reading it and share what you liked, as well as what other books you read on the topic.

“Getting Past No” by William Ury

“Getting past No” is one of my favourite books on the art of negotiation. Its author, William Ury, is the cofounder of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard University.

Cooperation is one of the most effective means of achieving the objective of any project, hence my interest in the art of negotiating and breaking barriers to cooperation.

The value of the book is in the techniques it offers and the explanations behind their efficiency and effectiveness in different power relations. So, if you are looking for inspiration or help in difficult situations, I highly recommend the book.

Case in point: how I used one of the techniques offered by the book to breakthrough in a difficult situation. The technique is called “don’t escalate: use power to educate”. The author used a quote from Sun Tzu to anchor this technique: “The best general is the one who never fights”. In one of projects under my responsibility, the team was confronted with a client whose desire to exercise power was notable. It manifested in the smallest project’s details, up to the desire to veto the selection of service providers. The team kept explaining how service providers are selected based on the legal agreement the project had with the sponsor. Nevertheless, many activities remained blocked as the client kept insisting.

I travelled to the project’s site for a face-to-face meeting with the client. We had one hour. I started the meeting with “easy to digest” stuff, were we achieved together considerable progress. My colleagues, noticing that 50 minutes into the meeting we have not tackled the contentious issue, started showing signs of worry.

I was waiting for the right moment. When the body language of the people on the other side of the table told me that they begun to relax, I brought up the issue. First, I reiterated what they already knew from my colleagues (to show that we act as a team and they can trust them). Secondly, I used our power to educate by explaining the administrative and legal consequences of an additional clearance mechanism, which was not in our initial agreement. I also knew how important for them was to complete the project on time, as any delays would have been costly. We concluded the meeting with the client by sealing our initial agreement and no further demands in this respect were made.  Upon the project’s completion, the client wanted to continue to do business, which is a clear sign of “win-win”.

Training: here we come again

We learned from Harvard Business Review, that in 2018 U.S. companies spent roughly USD 90 Billion on learning and development. Some entire countries only aspire to reach that amount of GDP. According to the same source, the average American employee received training at a cost of around USD 1,000 per person. For a company of 50,000 employees, that’s an annual USD 50 million per year.

In development projects, capacity building and training are often an intrinsic part of the intervention. Question about the efficiency and effectiveness of the investment in training  are not new. Yet, the answers continue to come with delay or in part only. Tax- payers want to know what changes are brought by development money. What changed for victims of violence after police officers or social workers were trained in country X?

Back to the private sector, a survey in the U.S. among 1,500 executives found that one in five organisations do nothing to measure the impact of trainings.  Of those that do, only 13% calculate quantifiable results. I have yet to see similar data on development projects.

Measuring the impact of trainings is often seen as an extra activity, which is not part of the scope of the project. There are reasons for that. There are also good arguments for revisiting that view. Measuring the impact of the training will show where, when and what kind of training is needed in the context the project works in. This will maximise the effect and support the sustainability of the capacity building.

To measure the impact of trainings in projects, specific activities can be introduced at a number of levels at certain intervals. The Kirkpatrick model of training evaluation is a useful tool. According to this model, the training can be evaluated at four levels:

  1. reaction (post-training evaluation by participants);
  2. learning (knowledge and skills acquired at the training);
  3. behavior and job performance changes after the training;
  4. impact on the performance of the entity/organization.

For 1 and 2 pre and post-training questionnaires are appropriate. For 3 and 4, co-operation with the client’s organisation will be necessary. Some organisations have performance management systems, where recommendations for training and post-training follow-up on skills’ upgrade are included.

For further inspiration:

Data based on “You learn best when you learn less” by Laszlo Bock, 17 June 2019, Harvard Business Review.

“An investigation into the relationship between training evaluation and the transfer of training” by Alan M. Saks and Lisa A. Burke, in International Journal of Training and Development 16:2

Nr 1 ability of a project manager

If there would be only one ability of a project manager I would choose from it would be resourcefulness. Resourcefulness is the ability to explore options, connect dots, step outside the comfort zone and think outside the box. It is to find water in a place others call “desert”.

Yes, projects are resources based. They have human and financial resources, and they are often seen as scarce. You know the story: not enough budget, not enough people, not enough time, not enough of something else …

Resourcefulness is connected to the mind set. The mindset is usually of scarcity or abundance. Some call it a “growth mindset”. See also “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” from Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2018/05/what-it-takes-to-think-deeply-about-complex-problems. 

In Romanian, we say “Fa rai din ce ai” – make haven from what you have. Sure, there can be times when you genuinely think things through and still can’t find a solution. Yet, often just taking a step back, changing the perspective, will open the road to the solution. There is always a source of information to access, a door to knock on, a dormant budget line, a collaborative hand, an expertise to reach, even a chance remark by someone we value. It might be as simple as saying STOP to excuses and justifications, for a start.

If you need a change of perspective, there are a number of techniques in the world of psychology to acknowledge, validate and reframe how you see a situation. You can take a break and watch “Sing” – the part in which Buster Moon turned the ruins of his theater into the greatest show in the town.

Case in point

When I started working on a project, it was at month 18 and had 6 more months to end date. It had of number of symptoms of a troubled project. The delivery rate was 50%. A number of milestones were not achieved and unfinished tasks “rejoiced” in the backlog.

The organisation had only a national consultant on the ground and no other support staff in the country the project had to be implemented, 6000 km away from headquarters. Each deliverable was painful for those who organized it before me. At that rate, we could have as well closed the project upfront.

A quick review of the modus operandi made me realise the biggest bottleneck was linked to the organisation of events in the country. Each activity required a venue, transportation, catering, interpretation, translation, printing, accommodation for consultants. Performed individually, these tasks ate up all of the previous project managers’ time and efforts.

The solution was an events management company to deal with all the logistics on the ground. A tender was organised to choose the best value for money on the market. Once the contract with the winner was signed, the project team was able to fully focus on the content and milestones of the project.

As a result, the delivery rate increased in 5 months to 85 percent of the budget, all products were delivered and the project’s objective – achieved. All – to the clients and donor’s satisfaction.

How to maintain collaboration between project team members who do not like each other

A very good colleague of mine – Peter – told me once “At work, there is professionalism, respect and chemistry. It is ideal when you have all three. You can still work with the first two only though”.

Indeed, chemistry is valuable and rare. Not all project teams have it. Sometimes it is possible to create it. Sometimes it is not. We all have examples of “cats and dogs” teams or “implosive teams”. Regardless, the project has to be delivered and the client – satisfied.

As a project manager, you might find yourself in between. The tension might be silent or loud. Team members might want you to deal with it or just, quite the opposite, to not get mixed up.

Over years, I learned that there are a number of things a project manager can do:b2d06893c54fd55be2c739138ea5f712

  1. Observe to be able to prevent and to react, as appropriate.
  2. Learn about what’s behind the tension by listening. Truly listening to both sides.
  3. Clarify what’s in your power to change. Can you:
  • redistribute roles based on team members’ strengths?
  • offer space for people to get it off their chest?
  • give other channels of communication between the “belligerents”? for example, communication through Slack, if they cannot talk to each other, or encourage more face-to-face communication, when misunderstandings arise from written communication.
  • replace irreconcilable members of the team on areas which are essential for the project’s success?

4. If the organisation has training opportunities, offer to the members of the team to go to inter-personal and communication trainings.

5. Remind everyone of the common objectives the entire team works for. Focus on what the team members have in common, not their dividing lines.

6. Organise informal team gatherings, over a beer or a bowling night or even a battle of any sorts (rap, dance, storytelling). It will offer team members an opportunity to know each other from other perspectives.

7. Above all, lead by example. Team members will often mirror the project manager’s preferences or dislikes. Keep your integrity in check.