Rediscovering my curiosity at Creative Melbourne

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As I write this I am somewhere over the middle of Australia, flying back to Perth after participating in a 3 day event that was fun, challenging and highly insightful. The conference was Creative Melbourne, and I am proud to say I was one of the inaugural speakers. If they want me back again, I will do it in a heartbeat, and I hope a lot of you come along for the ride.

CreativeMelbourne-1

The premise: practical co-creation…

First the background… I have known the conference organiser, Arthur Shelley, for a few years. We first met at a Knowledge Management conference in Canberra and though I have no recollection of how we got talking, I do recall we clicked fairly quickly. At the time I was starting to explore the ideas around ambiguity, which eventually formed my second book. Back then I had a chip on my shoulder about how topics like complexity, Design Thinking and collaboration were being taught to students. I felt that the creative and fun parts glossed over the true stress and cognitive overload of wicked problems. This would produce highly idealistic students who would fall flat on their face once they hit a situation that was truly wicked. I therefore questioned whether anything was being built into students mental armory for the inevitable pain to come.

Now for some people who operate and teach in this space, making such a statement immediately and understandably gets their defenses up. But not Arthur – he listened to everything I had to say, and showed me examples of how he structured his courses and teachings to deal with this challenge. It was impressive stuff: every time his students thought they had a handle on things, Arthur would introduce a curveball or a change they were not anticipating. In other words, while teaching the techniques, he was building their capacity for handling ambiguous situations. Little did I know his conference was about to do the same to me…

One thing about Arthur that blows me away constantly is his incredible network of practitioners in this space. Arthur has long had a vision for bringing a constellation of such practitioners together and he hand-picked a bunch of us from all over the world. The premise, was to create an event that had a highly practical focus. He wanted practitioners to help attendees “Discover creative techniques to enhance performance and engage your team back at the office to increase productivity.”

Now where did I leave my curiosity?

While I am a sensemaking practitioner, I’ll admit straight up that I get irritated at the “fluffiness” and rampant idealism in this space. A good example is Design Thinking in this respect. While I like it and apply ideas from it to my practice, I dislike it when Design Thinking proponents claim it to be suited to wicked problems. The reality is the examples and case studies often cited are rarely wicked at all (at least in the way the term was originally conceived). When I see this sort of thing happening, it leaves me wondering if proponents have truly been in a complex, contingent situation and had the chance to stress test their ideas.

Now I don’t apologise for critically examining the claims made by anyone, but I do apologise for the unfortunate side effect – becoming overly contrarian. In my case, after all these years of research, reading and practice in this field, I am at the point where I see most new ideas as not actually new and are rediscoveries of past truths. Accordingly, it has been a long time since I felt that sense of exhilaration from having my mental molecules rearranged from a new idea. It makes sense right? I mean, the more you learn about something, the more your mental canvas has been painted on. In my case I already have a powerful arsenal of useful tools and approaches that I call upon when needed and more importantly, I was never on a spiritual quest for the one perfect answer to the mysteries of organsiational life anyway.

In short, I have what I need to do what I do. The only problem is somewhere along the line I lost the very sense of curiosity that started me along the path in the first place. It took Arthur, fellow presenters like Stuart French, Jamie Bartie, Jean-Charles Cailliez, Meredith Lewis, Brad Adriaanse, Vadim Shiryaev and a diverse group of participants to help me rediscover it…

Disrupting the disruptor…

Imagine someone like me participating in day 1, where we did things like build structures out of straws, put on silly hats, used the metaphor of zoo animals to understand behaviors, arm-wrestled to make a point about implicit assumptions and looked at how artists activate physical space and what we could learn from it when designing collaborative spaces. There was some hippie stuff going on here and my contrarian brain would sometimes trigger a reflexive reaction. I would suddenly realise I was tense and have to tell myself to relax. Sometimes my mind would instinctively retort with something like “Yeah right… try that in a politicised billion dollar construction project…” More than once I suppressed that instinct, telling myself “shut up brain – you are making assumptions and are biased. Just be quiet, listen, be present and you might learn something.”

That evening I confided to a couple of people that I felt out of place. Perhaps I was better suited to a “Making decisions in situations of high uncertainty and high cognitive overload” conference instead. I was a little fearful that I would kill the positive vibe of day 1 once I got to my session. No-one wants to be the party pooper…

Day 2 rolled around and when it was my turn to present. I held back a little on the “world according to Paul” stuff. I wanted to challenge people but was unsure of their tolerance for it – especially around my claims of rampant idealism that I mentioned earlier. I needn’t have worried though, as the speaker after me, Karuna Ramanathan from Singapore, ended up saying a lot of what I wanted to say and did a much better job. My talk was the appetizer to his “reality check” main course. He brilliantly articulated common organsiational archetypes and why some of the day 1 rhetoric often hits a brick wall. It was this talk that validated I did belong in this community after all. Arthur had indeed done his homework with his choice of speakers.

That same afternoon, we went on a walking tour of Melbourne with Jamie Bartie, who showed us all sorts of examples of cultural gems in Melbourne that were hiding in plain sight. The moral of the story was similar to day 1… that we often look past things and have challenge ourselves to look deeper. This time around my day 1 concerns had evaporated and I was able to be in the moment and enjoy it for what it was. I spoke to Jamie at length that evening and we bonded over a common childhood love of cult shows like Monkey Magic. I also discovered another kung-fu movie fan in Meredith Lewis, who showed me a whole new way to frame conversations to get people to reveal more about themselves, and develop richer personal relationships along the way.

Petcha Kucha – Getting to a point…

Day 3 was a bit of a watershed moment for me for two reasons. Months prior, I had accepted an invitation from Stuart French to participate in his Petcha Kucha session. At the time I said “yes” without really looking into what it entailed. The gist is you do a presentation of 20 slides, with 20 seconds per slide, all timed so they change whether you are ready or not. This forces you to be incredibly disciplined with delivering your talk, which I found very hard because I was so used to “winging it” in presentations. Despite keynoting conferences with hundreds of people in the room, doing a Petcha Kucha to a smaller, more intimate group was much more nerve-racking. I had to forcibly switch off my tangential brain because as soon as I had a thought bubble, the slides would advance and I would fall behind and lose my momentum. It took a lot of focus for me to suppress my thought bubbles but it was worth it. In short, a Petcha Kucha is a fantastic tool to test one’s mental muscles and enforce discipline. I highly recommend that everyone give it a go – especially creative types who tend to be a bit “all over the place”. It was a master-stoke from Stuart to introduce the technique to this audience and I think it needs to be expanded next time.

I presented the first Petcha Kucha, followed by Stuart and then Brad Adriaanse, who described the OODA Loop philosophy. OODA stands for observe, orient, decide, and act, providing a way to break out of one’s existing dogma and reformulate paradigms, allowing you to better adapt to changing circumstances. Dilbert cartoons aptly shows us that we all have incomplete (and often inconsistent) world views which should be continually refined and adapted in the face of new observations. Brad put it nicely when he said OODA was about maintaining a fluid cognitive state and that assumptions can be a straightjacket and dogma can blind us. This really hit home for me, based on how I reacted at times on day 1. Brad also said that the OODA loop can be internalised by adopting a lifelong learning mindset, being curious and become more and more comfortable with ambiguity.

It was at this exact moment where I rediscovered my latent curiosity and understood why I felt the way I did on day 1 and 2. It was also at this moment that I realised Arthur Shelley’s genius in why he made this event happen, who he brought together and what he has created in this event. All attendees need to be disrupted. Some need their idealism challenged, and some, like me, need a reminder of what started us on this path in the first place.

I have returned a better practitioner for it… Thankyou Arthur

 

Paul Culmsee

p.s Arthur Shelley is still a giant hippie

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Teddies, Fetishes and the Management Consulting Scam

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jediteddy.jpg

What if I told you that the key to becoming a successful management consultant was to become a Teddy Bear?

What if I also told you that it involves fetishes? You might be re-checking the URL to make sure you are on the right site!

Fear not, this article is definitely not “50 Shades of Management Consulting Grey”. Nor is it about donning a cuddly animal suit as a mascot for a football team. To borrow from the much loved children’s TV show “Playschool,” there’s definitely a bear in there, but not the one you might be thinking!

You see, for many people, modern corporate life is now at a point where pace of change is accelerating, unrelenting and fatiguing. In my home state of Western Australia, businesses are reeling from unprecedented levels of disruption and uncertainty, be it the end of the commodity boom, the impact of global competition or disruptive, technology-enabled innovation. It is now difficult to think of any industry that has not had the ground shift beneath it in some way — except perhaps, for Management Consulting.

Management Consulting thrives in an environment of fear, ambiguity and doubt, principally because its business model is based on the presumption that they can make it go away. It’s lucrative too — ambiguity is such a powerful force that executives will part with copious amounts of cash in attempts to escape it…

read the full article at medium.com

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My new book about Teddies and fetishes is out…

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cover7

 

Hi all

I am pleased to announce that my new business book, The Heretic’s Guide to Management: The Art of Harnessing Ambiguity is now available in ebook format (The print edition is still a couple of weeks away). Once again I wrote this with Kailash Awati and is a loose sequel to our first book, The Heretics Guide to Best Practices.

Many reviewers liked the writing style of our first book, which combined rigour with humour. This book continues in the same vein, so if you enjoyed the first one we hope you might enjoy this one too. The new book is half the size of the first one, and I would say, less idealistic too. In terms of subject matter, I could probably just say “Ambiguity, Teddy Bears and Fetishes” and leave it at that. I’m sure someone would think that we have moved into erotic fiction Smile

Unfortunately for those looking for some titillation, I’m afraid we did not write a management version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Instead, we aim to help readers understand how ambiguity affects the human behaviour and more importantly how it can be harnessed it in positive ways. We noticed that most management techniques (eg strategic planning, project management or operational budgeting) attempt to reduce ambiguity and provide clarity. Yet in a great irony of modern corporate life, they often end up doing the opposite: increasing ambiguity rather than reducing it.

On the surface, it is easy enough to understand why: organizations are complex entities and it is unreasonable to expect management models, such as those that fit neatly into a 2*2 matrix or a predetermined checklist, to work in the real world. In fact, expecting them to work as advertised is like colouring a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa and expecting that you can recreate Da Vinci’s masterpiece. Ambiguity remains untamed, and reality reimposes itself no matter how alluring the model is…

It turns out that most of us have a deep aversion to situations that involve even a hint of ambiguity. Recent research in neuroscience has revealed the reason for this: ambiguity is processed in the parts of the brain which regulate our emotional responses. As a result, many people associate ambiguity with feelings of anxiety. When kids feel anxious, they turn to transitional objects such as teddy bears or security blankets, providing them with a sense of stability when situations or events seem overwhelming. In this book, we show that as grown-ups we don’t stop using teddy bears – it is just that the teddies we use take a different, more corporate, form. Drawing on research, we discuss how management models, fads and frameworks are actually akin to teddy bears. They provide the same sense of comfort and certainty to corporate managers and minions as real teddies do to distressed kids.

base teddy

Most children usually outgrow their need for teddies as they mature and learn to cope with their childhood fears. However, if development is disrupted or arrested in some way, the transitional object can become a fetish – an object that is held on to with a pathological intensity, simply for the comfort that it offers in the face of ambiguity. The corporate reliance on simplistic solutions for the complex challenges faced is akin to little Johnny believing that everything will be OK provided he clings on to Teddy.

When this happens you, the trick is finding ways to help Johnny overcome his fear of ambiguity (as well as your own).

jediteddysithteddy

Ambiguity is a primal force that drives much of our behaviour. It is typically viewed negatively – something to be avoided or to be controlled. The truth, however, is that it is a force that can be used in positive ways too. The Force that gave the Dark Side their power in the Star Wars movies was harnessed by the Jedi in positive ways.This new management book shows you how ambiguity, so common in the corporate world, can be harnessed to achieve outstanding results.

The book should be available via most online outlets.

Paul

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The ASS Scale. The best 2*2 management model ever!

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So today I was inspired to come out of blogging hibernation because I saw possibly the worst dodgy 2*2 management matrix ever. The piece below was something that was originally going to be part of my next book with Kailash – as we spend some time on why models like this are so popular. Unfortunately this piece never made it, but Craig Brown told me I had to release it or he would. Thus, I feel it is now appropriate to unveil the greatest 2*2 dodgy management model ever! Without further ado I present to you the ASS Scale…

Does your team kick ass?

Want to improve team performance? Do you want your teams to be more agile, resilient, flexible, strategic, emergent, dynamic and follow orders without question?

The Agile Synergy Scale (ASS)™ is a cutting edge team diagnostic tool that provides a typology of team states. This provides CEO’s and other people who control the budget a sure-fire way to bring the best out of your people, help them reach their full potential and Kick Ass!.

The Agile Synergy Scale draws on several beers worth of research into all the latest literature from Wikipedia and Social Media, such as Big Data Analytics, Neuroscience, Holocracy, Transdisciplinary Intelligence, Innovation Ideation, Neurolinguistic Complexity Theory, Tasseography, Graphology, Craniosacral Therapy and 3D Printing. It explores the relationship between people, motivation and intelligence and unlocks an entirely new way of thinking about all forms of organisational awesomeness.

The framework consists of 4 domains – or “ASS cheeks” as shown below. There is a fifth domain – but we will get to that in a moment. These domains are illustrated in the diagram below.

assscale

The X axis represents team ability from low to high – and incorporates all of the sheer talent and expert knowledge necessary to probe for outstanding achievement for team and organisational excellence. The vertical scale represents a team desire – the lube of synergy that is the difference between accommodating maximum motivation versus constricted performance.

Let’s examine each ass-cheek in more detail and see where you and your team sits.

High Desire, High Skills: Kick Ass!

You and your team are as awesome as the Avengers. Perfectly balanced between brain, brawn and beauty, there is no challenge too tough for you and a Nobel prize in the category of legendaryness is a foregone conclusion.

High Desire, Low Skills: Kiss Ass

You and your team so want to be awesome, you all read the clickbait pearls of wisdom on your LinkedIn feed and therefore “talk the talk” with the best of them, but when the rubber hits the road and pressure is on, there is nothing under the hood. A dangerous sub-variety of kiss-asses are scary-asses (those who think they are kick-asses but are blind to their skill deficiencies.)

Low Desire, High Skills: Slack-ass (or “Can’t be assed”)

You all know your stuff as good as anybody, but nevertheless, you all withhold your discretionary effort (loafing). This is likely because the psychological needs of your team and individual members are not being met – either that or you are all whiny bitches.

Low Desire, Low Skills: Suck-ass

This quadrant has two sub-types. Rational suck-asses and stupid suck-asses. Rational suck-asses have the self-awareness to know they suck-ass and remedial action can be undertaken. Stupid suck-asses unfortunately have their head so far up their asses that they have little awareness of how much they suck-ass.

The toxic hole of chaos

There is a fifth domain (in the middle of the diagram): The toxic hole of chaos, which is the state of not knowing what sort of ASS cheek your team aligns with. It is extremely important you avoid this area in the long term as prolonged exposure can stifle and suffocate your team.

How to measure your ASS

We measure your teams ASS by administering a Rate of Extrinsic Collaboration and Team Agile Leadership Exam. This psychometric instrument can be administered by one of our certified Agile Synergy Scale PROfessional Business Excellence Reviewers. Our ASS PROBERS have gone through an extensive vetting process via a comprehensive multi-choice exam, and can administer a RECTAL exam with minimum discomfort.

So what are you waiting for? Sign your team up for a RECTAL exam today and measure your ASS.

 

Paul Culmsee

www.hereticsguidebooks.com

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Join me learning Dialogue Mapping in the UK/Ireland in September

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Hi all

I will be in the UK in the first week of September for various matters (like watching Kate Bush in concert) and while I am there will be running a 2 day Dialogue Mapping introductory class. If you liked Heretics Guide to Best Practices, or If you simply want to learn a great collaborative approach to help groups solve complex problems, then this is a great opportunity to add a powerful and practical technique to your arsenal.

Dialogue Mapping has had a massive impact on me professionally and personally, and in this intimate, face-to-face class I’ll be covering all of my learnings and insights in applying this technique in hundreds of different workshops. Just to be clear, this is not a SharePoint, nor an IT class. It is open to anybody of any discipline and is very activity driven, to help you acquire a hugely valuable life skill. Not only does it only equip you with a great technique for tasks like business analysis, requirements elicitation and design thinking, but also allows you to get involved with more complex problem solving scenarios like strategic planning and team development work.

Where, when and how much?

Plans are still being finalised, but at this point I can confirm that one class will be held in Dublin thanks to my old friends at Storm Technology. Storm are Ireland’s leading Microsoft Business Technology Consultancy and are well known for their expertise with Microsoft technologies. Storm have great team of consultants who really understand how to harness  information- structured, unstructured, digital and tacit – to create transformation business solutions for clients. Thanks to Storm’s help, I am very pleased to be able to bring this class to you at less than half the usual cost. As a result, this 2 day class will be around £420GBP instead of the usual price of £995.00.

I also hope to get a London class off the ground, and will let you know as soon as I have confirmation. No matter that the city, if you are interested in attending this class, it is super-important to let me know. Part of the reason we can bring it to you at such as great price is we have access to some great facilities, but numbers are limited. So please register your interest as soon as you can at this site. More information on the class, and Dialogue Mapping itself check out the resources and information below…

  

  

 

Why Dialogue Mapping?

  • Maps decision and detailed rationale behind decision-making; maps the thinking process of the group
  • Concentrates on pros and cons to an idea, encourages and explores all view
  • Promotes greater shared understanding of the problem at hand
  • Represents and clarifies diverse points of view, conflicting interpretations and goals, inconsistent information and other forms of complexity
  • Opportunity for all to be heard, contributions acknowledged
  • Keeps participants on topic – they can see the progress of the discussion visually, the bigger picture can be absorbed better and they can appreciate the validity and value of a larger perspective
  • Helps participants come up with better ideas and avoids jumping to simplistic answers and superficial conclusions
  • Promotes deeper reasoning, rigor and crowd wisdom
  • Supporting information (such as documents and images) can easily be attached to map to back up group reasoning
  • Participants can see the effectiveness of mapping and genuinely will try to make the discussion more productive

Class audience

Perfectly suited to both IT and non-IT audience; those involved in highly complex projects, including:

  • Leaders
  • Consultants
  • Facilitators
  • Strategic planners
  • Organisational development professionals
  • Business analysts
  • Change agents
  • Managers and engineers

Class aims and outcomes

  • Create great maps – clear, coherent and inviting
  • Immediately start mapping effectively in your work and life; the class will focus on practical experience and map building
  • Command a rich range of options for publishing and sharing maps
  • Lead with maps; create direction, momentum and energy with dialogue maps
  • Quickly and effectively do critical analysis in dynamic situations
  • Organise unstructured information and discover patterns and connections within it
  • Make critical thinking visible for inspection and analysis
  • Recognise early, the symptoms of wicked problems and the forces behind group divergence
  • Start capturing the rationale leading up to the decisions by using IBIS and Compendium software
  • Recognise the importance of capturing the rationale behind decisions, as well as the decisions themselves
  • Rethink the traditional approach to meetings and decision making
  • Gain a deeper understanding of:
  • The fundamentals of IBIS and Compendium
  • The structural patterns that give clarity and power to dialogue  maps
  • How decision rationale is represented in a map

How Seven Sigma uses Dialogue Mapping

  • Strategic planning workshops
  • Envisioning workshops
  • Goal alignment workshops
  • Requirements gathering
  • User engagement/ User adoption
  • Training
  • Internal meetings
  • Client status meetings
  • … and more

Class requirements

This class will be hands on. Please bring your own laptop with Compendium software installed (we will help you with this).

Class duration

2 intense days with homework after the first day and optional homework after course completion

What’s included

The Issue Mapping manual, morning/afternoon tea breaks, lunch, tea/coffee throughout the day.

Cancellation Policy

Event cancelled by Seven Sigma:

A full ticket refund will be given, minus the registration fee. The class will be confirmed 21 days prior to the event date. Should you be flying over for the event, we advise that you leave flight and accommodation bookings ’til we send you the confirmation as these bookings will not be covered by Seven Sigma should we cancel the class.

Booking cancelled by the registrant:

(a) 14 working days prior to the event, 50% refund given

(b) within 14 days of the event, and no shows – no refund given.

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“Assumption is the mother of all f**k ups”

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My business partner, Chris Tomich, is the John Deacon of Seven Sigma.

In case you do not know who John Deacon is, he is the bass player from Queen who usually said very little publicly and didn’t write that many songs (and by songs I mean blog posts). But when Deacon finally did getting around to writing a song, they tended to be big – think Another One Bites the Dust, I Want To Break Free and Your My Best Friend.

Chris is like that, which is a pity for the SharePoint community because he outstanding SharePoint architect, software engineer and one of the best Dialogue Mappers on the planet. If he had the time to write on his learning and insight, the community would have a very valuable resource. So this is why I am pleased that he has started writing what will be a series of articles on how he utilises Dialogue Mapping in practice, which is guaranteed to be much less verbose than my own hyperbole but probably much more useful to many readers. The title of my post here is a direct quote from his first article, so do yourself a favour and have a read it if you want a different perspective on sense-making.

The article is called From Analyst to Sense-maker and can be found here:

http://mymemorysucks.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/from-analyst-to-sense-maker/#!

thanks for reading

 

Paul Culmsee

HGBP_Cover-236x300.jpg

www.hereticsguidebooks.com

p.s Now all I need to do is get my other Business Partner, mild mannered intellectual juggernaut known as Peter (Yoda) Chow to start writing Smile

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What does project management mean to me – a Project Manager’s sermon

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The "message"

What does project management mean to me?

Well if you want me to give you the ‘glass half empty’ perspective, it’s easy. What project management means to me is a confused discipline where practitioners routinely do really dumb shit in its name.

Sermon over – go forth and spread the word…

Okay so that was fairly blunt, so I had better elaborate and perhaps take a more positively framed ‘glass half full’ approach to this sermon. To do that, I need to tell you about the legacy that Cleo magazine has left on society.

When I was younger, I used to skim through magazines like Cosmopolitan and Cleo while waiting in line at the checkout. Now you might think that I must really be in touch with my feminine side in admitting this, but no: the reality is that raw testosterone was the motivator. You see, Cleo would have headline articles like “10 great sex tips (in 50 words or less)” Or “The 10 things he doesn’t want in bed.” Titles like that dangled the possibility in front of me of finally understanding women, with the added bonus of developing Olympic class skills in the bedroom. Of course, each and every time the actual article never lived up to the catchy title. I rarely learnt anything new and in fact the “10 things” were usually pretty banal, self-evident and left me none the wiser.

So as our collective attention spans diminish via constant exposure to “5 steps to success with [insert buzzword here]” articles (articles designed more for search engine placement than actually informing an audience), the curse of Cleo-like catchy titles telling you stuff of little value is now so commonplace that it is hard to suss out the stuff that really makes a difference in outcomes.

So where does one go to find out the answers in project management? Should aspiring Project Managers master the dark arts of their craft by learning everything there is to learn from one or more of the bibles that contain the word “BoK” in them? On the surface it would seem so, given all of the past collective wisdom that is claimed to be codified therein – as well as shiny certification proving that one has passed the multi-choice exam on its contents.

But wait…which BoK is best? After all, we have multiple to choose from, with each making their own claims to the truth. Some BoKs even reject the key tenets of other BoKs, arguing that theirs offers a better answer. Of course, this leads to an endless stream of debate by their respective proponents as to which is really best and who is really the wisest. Not to mention that over time, new and updated BoKs emerge like phoenixes from the ashes of older BoKs. (Sometimes they are so cool that they don’t even claim to be a BoK at all).

It’s little wonder that Project Management is a confused discipline. No matter where you turn, someone is bound to tell you that you are doing it wrong.

While I am on the subject of doing it wrong, let’s poke a stick in one of the well-known project management hornets-nests: the “Waterfall vs. Scrum” argument. We all know that any self-respecting Scrum guy will not miss an opportunity to tell you about the evils of Waterfall – and for the most part they are right too, as Waterfall has a dubious history of which most people are not aware.

But that is not the reason I chose this particular topic, even though it is much loved by PMs who spend endless hours filling up the forums of various LinkedIn groups with discussion. I chose it simply because it’s fun to mess with Scrum guys – particularly the zealots. So if you have a “scrumdamentalist” in your midst, try this question on them:

Would Waterfall work if one could create an environment where all parties—as soon as they become aware of something that might affect a project materially—communicate it to all other parties involved in the project in a full, sincere and open way?

I have posed this question to many Scrum people. Most will think about it for some time, before answering a grudging “possibly” or “I don’t see why not.” Try it yourself… it’s fun pulling the rug out from under their firmly held convictions.

The best answer I have ever got to this question was from Chris Chapman – an Agile coach from Toronto. He gave me what I think is the perfect answer when he astutely observed that in the environment I described, Waterfall would actually not exist in the first place!

Therein lies the heart of my sermon. I contend that the endless debates over the efficacy of methods, tools and even BoKs are answering the wrong question! Don’t worry though, Project Management is not the first, nor the last discipline to lean their ladder against the wrong wall in this regard. To explain, let me introduce you to the work (and genius) of J Richard Hackman.

From the late sixties, Hackman spent his career researching and teaching about team performance, leadership effectiveness, and the design of self-managing teams and organizations. He died in 2013 and one of his last papers he published was called “From causes to conditions in group research.” In this swansong paper, Hackman explained how he spent years examining the factors that made teams work really well. He studied hundreds of teams (not just project teams mind you, but sporting teams, orchestras and flight crews), with the aim to distil the causes of success. Each time Hackman thought he had the causes figured out he would create a model, plug his model into a stats program, and work with real teams to see if the application of his model led to better performance.

On the surface, this approach seems like a logical thing to do. After all, if we can work out the magic levers that cause team success, then organisations would surely work better because they can start to pull those same levers. This is precisely the value proposition offered by the aforementioned BoKs as well.

When Hackman applied the models he lovingly researched and developed, he found they did not make a significant difference in outcomes. Being an academic, he did what most academics do: he spent years trying to refine his models and then re-tested them against real life teamwork situations. But this didn’t work either; his models got no closer to predicting or influencing outcomes in a reliable fashion. Reality it seemed, never fitted the models he developed.

At this point, Hackman began to question whether he was looking at the problem through the right lens. He wondered if trying to determine the causes of team efficacy by looking at successful teams retrospectively and then codifying these into causal models was the best approach. So he changed his focus and asked himself a very different question – a question that every project management practitioner (and project team member) should be asking themselves:

What are the enabling conditions that need to exist that give rise to great outcomes?

Now if, at this point, you think that this is the same question as “What are the causes of successful projects” you would be mistaken. Think about the BoKs and consider this: if you have ever argued with someone about whether a tool, methodology or some process is great or completely sucks, eventually someone will say something like “Well it can work for the right organisation.”

The implicit point here is that depending on the conditions, something that works for one organisation may completely suck for another (thereby invalidating the notion of a “best” practice). The genius of Hackman is that he challenges us to stop arguing about whether one methodology or model is better than the other and focus on what the enabling conditions are instead. Think about it – if project managers and developers did this, we would be able to avoid low value arguments like earned value management versus burndown charts.

In the case of Hackman, he re-examined all of his work on teams and boiled it down to six essential conditions, arguing that irrespective of what else you did or what methodology you used, having these conditions tended to lead to better results. Hackman did not rank any one condition over any other, instead arguing that all were needed for teams to have a greater chance of being high performing. The conditions are:

  1. A real team: Interdependence among members, clear boundaries distinguishing members from non-members and moderate stability of membership over time
  2. A compelling purpose: A purpose that is clear, challenging, and consequential. It energizes team members and fully engages their talents
  3. Right people: People who had task expertise, self-organised and skill in working collaboratively with others
  4. Clear norms of conduct: Team understands clearly what behaviours are, and are not, acceptable
  5. A supportive organisational context: The team has the resources it needs and the reward system provides recognition and positive consequences for excellent team performance
  6. Appropriate coaching: The right sort of coaching for the team was provided at the right time

There is more to that list than what I am covering here, and it is important to note that I’m not saying that Hackman’s conditions are *the* conditions. But I would contend that they are a pretty good start. Look at Hackman’s conditions for teams above and think about your projects and how you manage them. Did you have these conditions in place when you started? If you had them, would it have led to better outcomes?

I believe that it is a huge mistake to attribute success or failure of projects to methods, processes and models used to manage them rather than the conditions in which those processes operate. As long as this attribution error persists, people will continue to get suckered into B-grade verbal-slugfests about whether method X is better than method Y.

What exacerbates this “causes over conditions” problem is that enabling conditions rarely get codified in procedures, governance models, bodies of knowledge or certifications. As a result, the very factors that leads to success (the conditions) are entirely absent from the models that we use. My contention is that most organisations, when delivering projects, do not have the right enabling conditions in place to begin with. If your organisation has a blame culture, then chances are that any process, no matter how noble its design or intent, has the potential to become a blame apportionment mechanism or a responsibility avoidance mechanism.

So Hackman, despite looking at a different discipline of teamwork and leadership, gives us an important clue about what ails project management and how to we might improve it. Focus on enabling conditions rather than attributing causes!

Let’s get back to Chris Chapman’s answer to my Waterfall question. His assertion that Waterfall would not exist in the conditions I described holds a less obvious lesson. That is, the way project management tools or methods are used will affect conditions as well. So if you have ever said to yourself “I can’t believe that I am being forced to follow this wrong-headed process” chances are you have been on the receiving end of negative conditions created by application of a process. (So in this sense the agile dudes have it right.)

So what does project management mean to me? In short, focusing on creating the enabling conditions for great performance, and then getting out of the way!

 

Thanks for reading

Paul  Culmsee

 

Epilogue:

In this sermon I cannot hope to cover all of the things I would like to cover but never fear, Kailash Awati and I already piled some of our thoughts into 420 pages of goodness known as the book “The Heretics Guide to Best Practices” – so if you like what you read here, you will really like what is in there.

Acknowledgements:

As usual I have to thank Kailash for reviewing this post and making it suck much less than it did 🙂

Further reading:

  1. My series on rethinking SharePoint maturity: Don’t let the title put you off – the material here further explores the conditions for great project performance: http://www.cleverworkarounds.com/2013/08/19/rethinking-sharepoint-maturity-part-1-conditions-over-causes/
  2. Jon Whitty’s brilliant work on memeplexes and reconceptualising project management: http://espace.library.uq.edu.au/eserv/UQ:8801/sjw_ijpm_05.pdf
  3. Pretty much anything on Kailash Awati’s blog, but in particular his sermon in this flashblog: http://eight2late.wordpress.com/2013/09/25/what-project-management-means-to-me-a-metalogue/
  4. Stephen Duffield’s work on project knowledge management and risk: http://www.invictaprojects.com.au/pmlessonslearnedblog/?p=850

p.s: This post is published as part of a first ever project management related global blogging initiative to publish a post on a common theme at exactly the same time. Over seventy bloggers from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, UK and the USA have committed to make a blogging contribution and the fruit of their labor is now (literally NOW) available all over the web. The complete list of all participating blogs is found here so please go and check them out!

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Introduction to Dialogue Mapping class in Melbourne June 13-14

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Hi all

We have all felt the pain of a meeting or workshop where no-one is engaged, the conversation is being dominated by the loudest or everyone is mired in a tangle of complexity and there is no sense of progress. Not only is it incredibly frustrating for participants, but it is really inefficient in terms of time and effort, reduced collaboration and can lead to really poor project outcomes.

The big idea behind the technique of Dialogue Mapping is to address this problem. Dialogue Mapping is an approach where a project manager or business analyst acts as a facilitator while visually mapping the conversation of a group onto a projected display. This approach reduces repetition by acknowledging contributions, unpacks implicit assumptions and leads to much better alignment and understanding among a group.

For SharePoint projects, this is a must and I have been using the technique for years now. Other SharePoint luminaries like Michal Pisarek, Ruven Gotz and Andrew Woodward also use the approach, and Ruven even dedicated a chapter to Dialogue Mapping in his brilliant Information Architecture book.

In Melbourne, I am going to be running a 2 day Introduction to Dialogue Mapping class to teach this technique. There are only 10 places available and this is one of the few public classes I will be running this year. So if you are attending the Australian SharePoint conference, or live near Melbourne and deal with collaborative problem solving, stakeholder engagement or business analysis, this is a great opportunity to come and learn this excellent problem solving technique.

Hope to see you there!

Paul

   

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An Organisational Psychologist is keynoting a SharePoint conference? What the…

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Collaborate

Yup you heard right. I am particularly excited for the Melbourne SharePoint conference in June because I get to unleash “Dr Neil” onto the SharePoint world. Neil (who’s full name is Neil Preston) is an Organisational Psychologist who I have been working with for several years now in all sorts of novel and innovative projects. He’s not a SharePoint guy at  all – but that doesn’t matter for reasons that will soon become clear…

I spent January 2013 on holiday in New Zealand and caught up with Debbie Ireland in her home town of Tauranga. We talked about the state of SharePoint conferences around the world and mused about what we could do to raise the bar, particularly with the Melbourne SharePoint conference in June 2013. Both of us felt that over the last few years, the key SharePoint message of “It’s all about business outcomes” was now:

  1. well understood by the SharePoint community; and
  2. getting a little stale

So the challenge for Debbie and I – and for that matter, all of us in the SharePoint community – is how to go beyond the paradigm of “It’s not about SharePoint, it’s about the business”, and ask ourselves the new questions that might lead to new SharePoint powered innovations.

The theme that emerged from our conversation was collaboration. After all, one of the most common justifications for making an investment in SharePoint is improved collaboration within organisations. Of course, collaboration, like SharePoint itself, means different things to different people and is conflated in many different ways. So we thought that it is about time that we unpacked this phenomena of collaboration that everyone seeks but can’t define. This led to a conversation about what a SharePoint conference would look like if it had the theme of collaboration at its core. Who would ideal to speak at it and what should the topics be?

As Debbie and I started to think more about this theme, I realised that there was one person who absolutely had to speak at this event. Dr Neil Preston. Neil is a world expert on collaboration, and his many insights that have had a huge influence on me personally and shaped my approach to SharePoint delivery. If you like what you read on this blog, or in my book, then chances are that those ideas came from conversations with Neil.

Debbie then suggested that we get Neil to keynote the conference to which he graciously accepted. So I am absolutely stoked that attendees of the Melbourne SharePoint conference will have the opportunity to learn from Neil. I can guarantee you that no SharePoint conference in the world has ever had a keynote speaker with his particular set of skills. Thus, I urge anyone with more than a passing interest in developing a more collaborative culture in their organisations should come to the conference to learn from him.

Then, in one of those serendipitous moments, a few weeks later I was in the US and met an amazing schoolteacher named Louis Zulli Jnr who presented a case study on how he enabled 16-19 year old students to develop SharePoint solutions that would be the envy of many consultancies. As I listened to him speak, I realised that he was the living embodiment of the collaborative maturity stuff that Neil Preston preaches and I asked Debbie about bringing him to Melbourne to speak as well.

So there you have it. On June 11, you get to hear from one of the most brilliant people I have ever met who’s understanding of collaboration and collaborative maturity is second to none. You also get to hear an inspiring case study of what how the incredible potential of enthusiastic and engaged students can enable SharePoint to do amazing things.

That is not all either – we have Craig Brown (of betterprojects.net and LAST conference fame) introducing Innovation Games and we also have John Denegate from collaborative governance specialists Twyfords, speaking on the curse of the expert.

So don’t miss this event – I think it will be amazing. In the next blog post I will write about the 2 day post-conference workshops

 

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

SPC MEL 2013 Im speaking        SPC MEL 2013 connect with us

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