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Making sense of organizational change – a conversation with Neil Preston

with 6 comments

In this instalment of my sensemakers series, I chat with Dr. Neil Preston, an Organisational Psychologist  based in Perth, about the very topical issue of organizational change. In a wide-ranging conversation, Neil draws interesting connections between myths that are deeply embedded in Western thought and the way we think about and implement change…and also how we could do it so much better.

KA: Hi Neil, thanks for being a guest on my ongoing series of interviews with sensemakers. You and I have corresponded for at least a year now via email, so it’s a real pleasure to finally meet you, albeit virtually. I’d like to kick things off by asking you to say a bit about yourself and your work.

NP: Well, I’m Dr. Neil Preston. I’m an organizational psychologist…what that means is that I’m specially registered in the area of organizational psychology, much like a clinical psychologist. My background professionally is that I originally worked in mental health, as a senior research psychologist. I’ve published 30 to 40 peer-reviewed papers in psychiatry, mental health and psychometrics,  so I know my way around empirical psychology.  My real love, however, has always been in organizational and industrial psychology, so in 2006 I decided to leave the Health Department of Western Australia and move into full time consulting.

Consulting work has led me mainly into infrastructure projects-  these are very large, complex projects where organisations from both the private and public sector have to get together and create alliances in order to get the work done. My job on these projects – as I often put it to people – is to make the Addams Family look like the Brady Bunch [laughter]. The idea is to get different value systems and organizational cultures to align, with the aim of getting to a shared understanding of project goals and a shared commitment to achieving them.

My original approach was very diagnostic – which is the way psychologists are taught their trade – but as problems have become more complex, I’ve had to resort to dialogical (rather than diagnostic) approaches. As you well know, dialogue is more commensurate with complexity than diagnosis, so dialogical approaches are more appropriate for so-called wicked problems. This approach then led me to complex systems theory which in turn led to an area of work that Paul Culmsee, I and yourself are looking into: emergent design practices. (Editor’s note: This refers to a method of problem solving in which solutions are not imposed up front but emerge from dialogue between various stakeholders.)

KA: OK, so could you tell us a bit about the kinds of problems you get called in to tackle?

NP: Very broadly speaking, I’m generally called in when organisations have goals that are incommensurate with each other. For example: a billion dollar road that has to be on time and on budget…but, by the way, the alignment of the road also takes out a nesting site of a Carnaby White Tailed Cockatoo which triggers the environmental biodiversity protection act which in turn triggers issues with local councils and so on.

Complexity in projects often arises from situations like these,  where the issue is not just about delivering on time and on budget, but also creating a sustainable habitat and ensuring alignment with local governments etc.

KA:  So very broadly, I guess one could say that your work deals with the problems associated with change. The reason I put it in this way is that change is something that most people who work in organisations would have had to deal with – either as executives who initiate the change, managers who are charged with implementing it or employees who are on the receiving end of it.  The one thing I’ve noticed through experience –initially as a consultant and then working in big organisations – is that change is formulated and implemented in a very prescriptive way.  However, the end results are often less than satisfactory because there are many unintended consequences (loss of morale, drop in productivity etc.) – much like the unintended consequences of large infrastructure projects.  I’ve long wondered about this is so: why, after decades of research and experience do we still get it so wrong?

NP:  Let me give you an answer from a psychologist’s perspective. There are a couple of sub-disciplines of psychology called depth and archetypal psychology that look at myth.  The kind of change management programs that we enact are driven by a (predominantly) Western myth of heroic intervention.

James Hillman, an archetypal psychologist once said that a myth is what is real. This is somewhat contrary to the usual sense in which the word is used because we usually think of a myth as being something that is not real. However, Hillman is right because a myth is really an archetype – an overarching way of seeing the world in a way that we believe to be true. The myth of the hero – the good guy overcoming all adversity to slay the bad guy – is essentially an interventionist one. It is based on the Graeco-Roman notion of the exercise of individual will. Does that make sense so far?

KA: Yeah absolutely. Please go on.

NP: OK, so this myth is dominant in the Western imagination. For example, any movie that a kid might go to see like, say, Star Wars is really about the exercise of the individual will. In much the same way, the paradigm in which your typical change management program operates is very much (individual) action and intervention oriented. Even going back to Homeric times – the Iliad and Odyssey are essentially stories about individuals exercising authority, power…and excellence is another word that crops up often too. The objective of all this of course is to effect dramatic, full-frontal change.

However, there is a problem with this myth, and it is that it assumes that things are not complex. It assumes that simple linear, cause-effect explanations hold – that if you do A then B will happen (if you restructure you will save costs, for example). Such models are convenient because they seem rational on the surface, perhaps because they are easy to understand. However, they overlook the little details that often trip things up. As a result, such change often has unforeseen consequences.

Unfortunately, much of the stuff that comes out of the Big 4 consultancies is based on this myth.  The thing to note is that they do it not because it works but because it is in tune with the dominant myth of the Western business world.

KA: What you are saying definitely strikes a chord. What’s strange to me, however, is that there have been people challenging this for quite a while now. You mentioned the predominantly linear approach – A causes B sort of thinking – that change management practitioners tend to adopt. Now, as you well know, systems theorists and cyberneticists have proposed alternate approaches that are more cognizant of the multifaceted nature of change, and they have done so over fifty years ago! What happened to all that? When I read some of the papers, I see that they really speak to the problems we face now, but they seem to have been all but forgotten (Editor’s note: see this post that draws on work by the prominent cyberneticist,  Heinz von Foerster, for example). One can’t help but wonder why that is so….

NP: Well that’s because myths are incredibly sticky. We are talking about  an ancient myth of the exercise of the individual human will.  And, by the way, it’s a very Western thing: I remember once hearing on the radio that the Western notion of the “squeaky wheel getting the grease” has an Eastern counterpart that goes something like, “the loudest goose is first to lose his head.”  The point is, the two cultures have a very different way of looking at the world.  That myth – the hero myth – is very much brought into the way we tell stories about organisations.

Now, why does that matter? Well, JR Hackman, an organizational psychologist said it quite brilliantly. He called our fixation on the hero myth (in the context of change) the leadership attribution error – he argues that we tend to over-attribute the success of a change process to the salient things that we can see – which is (usually) the leader. As a result we tend to overlook the hidden factors which give rise to the actual performance of the organization.  These factors usually relate to the latent conditions present in the organization rather than specific causes like a leader’s actions.

So there are two types of change: planned change and emergent change.  Planned change is the way organisations usually think about change. It is a causal view in which certain actions give rise to certain outcomes. But here is the problem: the causal approach focuses primarily on salient features, ignoring all the other things that might be going on.

Now, cybernetics and systems theory do a better job of taking into account features that are hidden. However, as you mentioned, they have not had much uptake.  I think the reason for this is that myths are incredibly sticky…that is the best answer I can give.

KA: Hmm that’s interesting…I’d never thought of it that way – the stickiness of myths as blinding us to other viewpoints.   Is there something in the nature of human thought or human minds that make us latch on to over-simplified explanations?

NP: Well, there’s this notion of cognitive bias – persistent biases in human perception or judgement   (Editors’ Note: also see this post on the role of cognitive bias in project failure). The leadership attribution error is precisely such a bias. I should point out that these biases aren’t necessarily a problem;  they just happen to be the way humans think. And there are good evolutionary reasons for the existence of biases: we can’t process every little bit of information that comes to us through our senses, and these biases offer a means to filter out what is unimportant. Unfortunately, sometimes they cause us to overlook what is important. They are heuristics and, like all heuristics, they don’t always work.

So in the case of leadership attribution bias – yes leadership does have an effect, but it is not as much as what people think. In fact, work done by Wageman (who worked with Hackman) shows that what is more important for team performance are the conditions in which the teams work rather than the qualities or abilities of the leader.

KA: From experience I would have to say that rings true: conditions trump causes any day as far as team performance is concerned.

NP: Yeah and there’s a good reason for it; and it is so simple that we often overlook it. Take the example of sending a rocket to the moon. If you set up the right conditions for the rocket – the right amount of fuel, the right load and so forth, then everything that is necessary for the performance of the rocket is already set up. The person who actually steers the rocket is not as critical to the performance as the conditions are. And the conditions are already present when the rocket is in flight.

Similarly, In the case of organizational change, we should not be looking for causes – be it leadership or planned actions or whatever– but the conditions that might give rise to emergent change.

KA: Yeah, but conditions are causes too, aren’t they.

NP: Yes they are, but the point is that they aren’t salient ones – that is, they aren’t immediately obvious. Moreover, and this is the important point: you do not know the exact outcomes of those causes except that they will in general be positive if the conditions are right and negative if they aren’t.

KA: That makes sense. Now I’d like to ask you about a related matter. When dealing with change or anything else, organisations invariably seem to operate at the limits of their capacity.  Leaders always talk about “pushing ourselves” or “pushing the envelope” and so on.  On the other hand, there’s also a great deal of talk about flexibility and the capacity for change, but we never seem to build this into our organisations. Is there a way one can do this?

NP: Yes, you can actually build in resilience. Organisations generally like to keep their systems and processes tightly coupled – that is, highly dependent on each other. This tends to make them fragile or prone to breakdown. So, one of the things organisations can do to build resilience is to keep systems and processes loosely coupled. (Editor’s note: for example, devolve decision-making authority to the lowest possible level in the organization. This increases flexibility and responsiveness while having the added benefit of reducing management overhead).

Conditions also play a role here. One of the things that organisations like to talk about is innovation. The point is you can’t put in place processes for innovation but you can create conditions that might foster it.  You can’t ask people whether they “did their 15 minutes of innovation today” but you can give them the discretionary freedom to do things that have nothing to do with their work…and they just might do something that goes above and beyond their regular jobs. But of course what underpins all this is trust. Without trust you simply cannot build in flexibility or resilience.

KA: This really strikes a chord and let me tell you why.  I read Taleb’s book a while ago. As you probably know, the book is about antifragility, which he defines as the ability to benefit from uncertainty rather than just being resilient to it. After I read the book I wrote a post on what an antifragile IT strategy might look like…and in an uncanny resonance with what you just said, I made the claim that trust would be the single important element of the strategy [laughter].

NP: Yeah, and trust is not something you receive as much as you give. So as a psychologist I know why it is so damaging to people. You know, “Et tu Brutus” – Caesar’s famous line – it was the betrayal of trust that was so damaging. Once trust is gone there’s nothing left.

KA: Indeed, I sometimes feel that the key job of a manager is to develop trust-based relationships with his or her peers and subordinates. However, what I see in the workplace is often (though definitely not always) the opposite: people simply do not trust their managers because managers are quick to pass the blame down (or  even across) the hierarchy rather than absorbing it…which arguably, and ethically, is their job. They should be taking the heat so that people can get on with actual work. Unfortunately managers who do this are not as common as they should be.

NP: We’re getting into a complex area here, and it is one that I deal with at length in my masterclass on collaborative maturity and leadership. This is the old scapegoating mechanism at work,  and it is related to the leadership attribution error and the hero myth. If the attribution is back to the individual, then the blame must also be attributable to an individual. In fact, I have this slide in one of my presentations that goes, “a scapegoat is almost as useful as the solution to a problem.” [laughter]

Now, there are two questions here. “The scapegoat” is the answer to the question “Who is responsible?” However, it is more important to look at conditions rather than causes, so the real question is, “How did this situation come about?” When you look at “Who” questions, you are immediately going into questions of character. It elicits responses like “Yeah, it’s Kailash’s fault because he is that kind of a guy…he is an INTP or whatever.” What’s happening here is that the problem is explained away because it is attributed to Kailash’s character. You see what is going on…and why it is so dangerous?

KA: Yeah, that’s really interesting.

NP: And you see, then they’ll say something like, “…so let’s take Kailash out and put Neil in”…but the point is that if the conditions remain the same, Neil will fall down the same hole.

KA: It’s interesting the way you tie both things back to the individual – the individual as hero and the individual as scapegoat.

NP:  Yes, it’s two sides of the same coin. Followership acquiesces to leadership: Kailash will follow Neil, say, to the Promised Land. If we get there, Neil gets the credit but if we don’t, he gets the blame.

KA: Very interesting, but this brings up another question. Managers and leaders might turn around and say, “It’s all very well to criticize the way we operate, but the fact is that it is impossible to involve all stakeholders in determining, say, a strategy. So in a sense, we are forced to take on the role of “heroes,” as you put it.”

So my question is: are there some ways in which org are some of the ways in which organisations can address the difficulties associated with of collective decision-making?

NP: Of course, it is often impossible to include all stakeholders in a decision-making process, particularly around matters such as organisational strategy. What you have to do first is figure out who needs to be involved so that all interests are fairly represented. Second, I’m attracted to the whole idea of divergent (open-ended) and convergent (decisive) thinking. For example, if a problem is wicked or complex, there is no point attempting to use expert knowledge or analysis exclusively (Editor’s note: because no single expert holds the answers and there isn’t enough information for a sensible, unbiased analysis). Instead, one has to use collective intelligence or the wisdom of the crowd by seeking opinions from all groups of stakeholders who have a stake in the problem. This is divergent thinking.

However, there comes a time when one has to “make an incision in reality” – i.e. stop consultation and make the best possible decision based on data and ethics. – one has to use both IQ and EQ.  This is the convergent side of the coin.

Another problem is that one often has the data one needs to make the right decision, but the decision does not get made for reasons of ideology. Then it becomes a question of power rather than collective intelligence: a solution is imposed rather than allowed to emerge.

KA: Well that happens often enough – this “short-circuiting” of the decision-making process by those in positions of power.

NP:  Yes, and it is why I think deliberative decision-making which comes from the Western notion of deliberative democracy – i.e. decision-making based on dialogue and consultation is the best way forward but it can be a challenge to implement. Democracy is slow, but it is generally more accurate…

KA: Yes, that’s true, but it can also meander.

NP: Sure, everything is bound by certain limitations (like time)  and that’s why you have to know when to intervene. One of the important things for a leader to have in this connection is negative capability – which is not “negative” in the usual sense of the word, but rather the ability to know how to be comfortable with ambiguity and be able to intervene in ambiguous situations in a way that gets some kind of useful outcome.

Of course, acting in such situations also means that one has to have good feedback mechanisms in place; one must know how things are actually working on the ground so that one can take corrective actions if needed.  But, in the end, the success of this way of working depends critically on having the right conditions in place.  If you don’t set up the right conditions, any intervention can have catastrophic consequences.

If I may talk politically for a minute – the current situation in the Middle East is a classic example of a planned intervention:  direct, frontal, dramatic, causal, linear and supposedly rational.  However, if the right conditions are not in place, such interventions can have unforeseen consequences that completely overshadow the alleged benefits. And that is exactly what we have seen.

In general I would say that emergent change is more likely to succeed than large-scale, direct, planned change. The example one hears all the time is that of continuous improvement – where small changes are put in place and then adjusted based on feedback on how they are working.

KA: This is a matter of some frustration for me: in general people will agree that collaboration and collective decision-making are good, but when the time comes, they revert to their old, top-down ways of working.

NP: Yes, well when I go into a consulting engagement on collaborative maturity, one of the first things I ask people is whether they want to use the collaborative process to inform people or to influence them.  Often I find that they only want to use it to inform people. There is a big difference between the two: influencing is emergent, informing isn’t.

KA: This begs a question: say you walk into an organization where people say that they want to use collaborative processes to influence rather than inform, but you see that the culture is all wrong and it isn’t going to work. Do you actually tell them, “hey, this is not going to work in your organization?”

NP: Well if people don’t feel safe to speak their truth then it isn’t going to work. That’s why I’m so interested in Hackman’s work on conditions over causes. Coming to your question I don’t necessarily tell people that it’s not going to work because I believe it is more productive to invite them to explore the implications of doing things in a certain way. That way, they get to see for themselves how some of the things they are doing might actually be improved. One doesn’t preach but one hands things back to them.

In psychology there are these terms, transference and countertransference. In this context transference would be where a consultant thinks, “I’m a consultant so I’m going to assume a consultant persona  by acting and behaving like I have all the answers”, and countertransference would be where the client reinforces this by saying something like, “you are the expert and you have all the answers.”  Handing back stops this transference-countertransference cycle. So what we do is to get people to explore the consequences of their actions and thus see things that might have been hidden from their view. It is not to say “I told you so,” but rather “what are the implications of going down this path.” The idea is to appeal to the ethical or good side in human beings…and I believe that human beings are fundamentally good rather than not.

KA: I like your use of the word “ethical” here. I think that is really important and is what is often missing. One hears a lot about ethics in business these days, but it is most often taught and talked about in a very superficial way. The reality, however, is that the resolution of most wicked problems involves ethical considerations rather than logic and rationality…and this is something that many people do not understand. It isn’t about doing things right, rather it is about doing the right things.

NP: Yes, and this is related to what I call “meaning over motivation” – the idea being is that instead of attempting to motivate people to do something, try providing them with meaning. When you do this you will often find that change comes for free.  And it is worth noting that meaning has both an emotional and rational component – or, put a little bit differently, an ethical and logical one. In one of his books, Daniel Pink makes the point that uncoupling ethics from profit can have catastrophic consequences…and we have good examples of that in recent history.

The broad lesson here is that if the conditions aren’t right then it is inevitable that unethical behavior will dominate.

KA: Yeah well human nature will ensure that won’t it?

NP: [laughs] Yeah, and you don’t need a psychologist to tell you that.

KA: [laughs] Indeed…and I think that would be a good note on which to bring this conversation to a close. Neil, thanks so much for your time and insights. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you  and I look forward to catching up with you again…hopefully in person, in the not too distant future.

NP: Yeah, Singapore and Perth are not that far apart…

Written by K

September 9, 2014 at 9:52 pm

Making sense of sensemaking – a conversation with Paul Culmsee

with 5 comments

Introduction

Welcome to the second post in my conversations series. This time around I chat with my friend and long-time collaborator Paul Culmsee who, among many other things, is a skilled facilitator and a master of the craft of dialogue mapping (more on that below).

In an hour-long conversation recorded a couple of weeks ago, Paul and I talked about the art of sensemaking.  (Editor’s note: the conversation has been lightly edited for clarity)

What is sensemaking?

KA: Hi Paul, in this conversation I wanted to focus on sensemaking. From our association over the years, I know that’s a specialty of yours.  Incidentally, I checked out your LinkedIn profile and saw that you announce yourself as an IT veteran of many years and a sensemaker. So, to begin with, could you tell us what sensemaking is?

PC: [Laughs] First up, thanks for stalking me on LinkedIn.  Well the “IT veteran” part is easy – it’s is what I’ve been doing ever since I left university in 1989. Sensemaking came a while later.

In a nutshell, sensemaking is about helping groups make sense of complex situations that might otherwise lead them into tense or adversarial conditions. A lot of projects exhibit such situations from time to time. Sensemaking seeks to help groups develop a shared understanding of these sorts of situations.

KA:  OK, so what I’m hearing is that it is about helping people get clarity on an ambiguous situation or may be, even define what the problem is.

PC: Yeah absolutely…and we alluded to this in our Heretic’s book.  It is staggering when one realizes how many teams and individuals (in teams and in organisations) spend a stack of money and time without being aligned on the problem that they’re solving. Often this lack of alignment becomes evident only in the wash, long after anything can be done. In some ways it beggars belief that that could happen; that a project or initiative could go on for long without alignment, but it does happen quite often. Sensemaking seeks to eliminate that up front.

There are various tools, techniques and collaborative approaches that one can use to bring people together to air and reconcile different viewpoints.  Of course, this assumes that people genuinely want to see things improve, and in my experience this is often the case. A lot of the time, therefore, sensemaking is simply about helping groups reach a shared understanding so that subsequent actions can be taken with full commitment from everybody concerned.

KA: All that sounds very reasonable, even obvious. Why do you think this has been neglected for so long? Why  have people overlooked this?

PC: Mate, I’m glad we’re having beers as we talk about this [takes a swig].

Look I think it is often seen as an excuse to have a talk-fest, and I think that criticism is actually quite fair.  I think organisations…or, rather, the people within them…tend to have a very strong drive to move to action. The idea of stopping and thinking is seen as not being a particularly productive use of time.

Actually, if you delve into it, sensemaking has been around for years and years. In fact, pretty much anyone who is a facilitator is a sensemaker as well in that he or she seeks to help people [overcome an issue that they’re facing as a group].   The problem is that a lot of the techniques used in sensemaking are rooted in theories or philosophies that aren’t seen as being particularly practical. To a certain extent, the theories themselves are to blame. For example, the first time I heard about soft systems theory, I had no idea what the person was talking about. (Editor’s note: a theory that underlies many facilitation techniques)

KA: Yes, that’s absolutely right. Systems theory  itself has been around for a long time….since the 1950s I think.  It’s also been resurrected in various guises ever since, but has always had this reputation (perhaps unfair) of being somewhat impractical. So, I’m curious as to how you actually get around that. How do you sell what you do? (Editor’s note: Systems theory is the precursor of soft systems theory)

PC: By example. It’s really as simple as that. If you take the example of dialogue mapping, which is a practical facilitation approach involving the visual capture of rationale using a graphical notation.  Even that…which is a practical tool…is much easier to show by example than to explain conceptually.  If I were to try to explain what it is in words, I’d have to say something like “I sit in a room and get paid to draw maps. I map the conversations and facilitate at the same time.”  People might then say, “What’s that? Is it like mind mapping?” Then I have no choice but to say, “Well, yeah…but there’s a lot more to it than that.”

So I’ve long since given up on explaining it to people conceptually; it’s much easier to just show them. Moreover, in a lot of the situations where I do engagements for clients, I discourage the sponsor from making a big deal about the technique. I’d rather just let the technique “sell itself”.

KA: Yeah that rings true. You know, I was trying to write a blog post once on dialogue mapping, and realized it would be much better to tell it through a story (Editor’s note: …and the result was this post).

OK, so you’ve told us a bit about dialogue mapping, and I know it is a mainstay of your practice. Could you tell us a bit about how you came to it and what it has done for you?

PC: Oh, it’s changed my career.  In terms of what it’s done for me – well, where I am now is a direct result of my taking up that craft. And I call it a craft because it took a damn lot of practice. It is not something where you can read a book and go “Oh that makes sense,” and then expect to facilitate a group of twenty people or anything like that.

How I came to it was as follows: I had come off a large failed project and was asking myself what I could have done differently.  In hindsight, the problem was pretty obvious:  there were times when things were said by certain stakeholders and I should have gone, “Right, stop!” But I didn’t.  Of course, such mistakes are part of a learning journey.  I subsequently did some research on techniques that might have helped resolve such issues and came to dialogue mapping directly as a result of that research.

Then, through sheer luck I got to apply the technique in areas other than my discipline.  As I said earlier, I’m an IT guy and have been in IT for a long time, but I was lucky to get an early opportunity to use dialogue mapping in an area that was very different from IT (Urban planning to be precise).  I sucked at it completely in that first engagement, but did enough that the client got value out of it and asked me back.

That engagement was a sink or swim situation, and I managed to do just enough to stay afloat.  I should also say that the group I worked with really wanted to succeed: even though they were deadlocked, the group as a whole had a genuine intent to address the problem. Fortunately we were able to make a small breakthrough in the first session. We ended up doing six more sessions and had a really good outcome for the organisation.

Framing questions

KA: That’s interesting…but also a little bit scary.  A lot of people would find a situation like that quite daunting to facilitate.  In particular, when you walk into a situation where you know a group has been grappling with a problem for a long time, you first need to make sense of it yourself. How do you do that?

PC: Yeah, well as you do it more of it, you gain experience of different situations and domains – for example, not-for-profit organizations, executives of a business, public sector or what have you. You then begin to notice that the patterns behind complex problems are actually quite similar across different areas. Although I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly I do, I would say that it is largely about “listening to the situation” and “asking the right questions”.

When Jeff Conklin teaches dialogue mapping, he talks about the seven different question types (Editor’s note: Jeff Conklin is the inventor of dialogue mapping. See this post for more on his question types). He really gets you to think about the questions you’re going to ask. It took me a while to realize just how important that is: the power of asking questions in the right way or framing them appropriately. Indeed, the real learning for me began when I realized this, and it happened long after I had mastered the notation.

The fact is: each situation is unique. I approach strategic planning, team development or business analysis in completely different ways. I can’t give you a generic answer on the approach, but certainly nowadays when I’m presented with a scenario, I find that there is not much that is unfamiliar. I’ve seen most of the territory now, perhaps.

KA: So it’s almost like you’ve got a “library” of patterns which you can find a match to the situation you’re in

PC: Yes that’s right…and I should also mention that the guys I worked with in my early days of using the craft were also sensitive to this, even though they did not practice dialogue mapping.  One of my earliest gigs was to develop a procurement strategy for a major infrastructure project. We spent half a day – from 8:30 in the morning to 1:00 in the afternoon – just trying to figure out what the first question should be.  It’s conversations like that in the early days, followed by trial and error in actual facilitation scenarios that aided my learning.

KA: That’s interesting, and I’d like to pick up on what you said earlier about the power of asking the right questions. Jeff Conklin has his seven question types which he elaborates at length in his book (and we also talk about them in the Heretic’s Guide).  However, since then, I know that your thinking on this has advanced considerably. Could you tell us a bit more about this?

PC: Yeah, if we ever do a second edition of the Heretic’s Guide, I’ll definitely be covering this kind of stuff.   But, let me try to explain some of the ideas here in brief.

To set the context, I’ll start with one of Jeff’s question types. An important question type is the deontic question, which is a question that a lot of maps start with. A deontic question asks “What ought to be done?” – for example, “What should we do about X?” The aim of such a question is to open up a conversation.

However, deontic questions can be poorly framed. To take a concrete example, say if one were to ask, “What should we do about increasing  X?” – well such a question implicitly suggests a course of action – i.e. one that increases X. A well framed deontic question doesn’t do that.  It solicits information in a neutral or open way. (Editor’s Note: For example, a well-framed alternative to the foregoing question would be, “What should we do about X?”)

All that is well and good, and is something I teach in my dialogue mapping courses as does Jeff in his.  However, I once taught dialogue mapping to a bunch of business analysts, and of course told them about the importance of asking deontic questions.  Some of the guys told me that they intended to use it at work the following week.  Well, I saw them again a few weeks later and naturally asked, “So how did it go?” They said, “Hey that the deontic question just didn’t work!”

I kind of realized then, and in fact I had mentioned to them (but may be not stressed it enough), that questions need to be framed to suit the situation. You can ask an open deontic question in a really bad way… or even lead at the wrong time with the wrong question.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are patterns to [framing] questions. In other words, there are ways of asking questions that will lead to better outcomes. As an example, a deontic question might be, “What should our success indicators be on this project?” This is a perfectly valid open question (as per Conklin’s question types). However, in a workshop setting this is probably not a good question to ask because the conversation will go all over the place without reaching any consensus.  Moreover, people who don’t have tolerance for ambiguity would be uncomfortable with a question like that.

A better option would be  to reframe the question and ask something like, “If this initiative were highly successful and we look back on it after, say 2 years, how would things be different to now?” With that question what you’re saying to people is: let’s not even worry about problem definition, context, criteria and all that stuff that comes with a deontic question; instead you’re asking them to tell you about the difference between now and an aspirational future. This is easier to answer. A lot of people will say things like – we’ll have more of X and less of Y and so on.

On a related note, if you want to understand the long-term implications of “more of X” or “less of Y”, it is not helpful to ask a question like, “What do you think will happen in the long-term?” People won’t intuitively understand that, so you won’t get a useful answer. Instead it is better to ask a question like, “What behaviours do you think will change if we do all this sort of stuff?” Now, if you think about it, the immediate outcomes of projects are things like “increased awareness of something “or “better access to something”, but over time you’re looking for changes in behaviours because that’s when you know that the changes wrought by an initiative have really taken root.

Subtle reframings of this kind yield richer answers that are more meaningful to people. Moreover, when you solicit responses from a group in this manner, you’ll start to see common themes emerge. These are the sorts of subtleties I have come to understand and appreciate through my practice of sensemaking.

Obliquity

KA: That’s fascinating. So what you’re saying is that rather than asking a direct question it is better to ask an oblique one. Is that right?

PC: Yes, and I think that point is worth elaborating. You used the word “oblique” and I know you’re using it deliberately because we’ve talked about this in the past. Essentially I think the “law of asking questions” is that the more direct question, the less likely it is that you will get a useful answer.

Seriously, asking a question like “What should our vision be?” is a completely brainless way of getting to a vision. You’re more likely to get a useful answer from a question like “What would our organization look like three years from now, if we achieved all we are setting out to do?” The themes that come out of the answers to these kinds of question help in answering the direct question.

I’ve learnt that the question that everyone wants answered is never the one you start with. If you start with the direct question, the conversation will meander over all kinds of weird places.

I came across the notion of obliquity in an article (…and I think it was one of the rare times I sent you something instead of the other way around). In the article, the author (John Kay) made the observation that organisations that chased KPIs like earnings per share (for example) generally did not do as well as organisations that had a more holistic vision (Editor’s note: I also recommend Kay’s book on  obliquity). One example Kay gives is that of Microsoft whose objective in the 90s wanted “a PC on every desk in the world.” Microsoft achieved the earnings per share alright, but it was pursued via an oblique goal.

Organisations that chase earnings per share or other financial metrics tend to be like the folks who “seek happiness” directly instead of trying to find it by, say, immersing themselves in activities that they enjoy. I guess I observed that the principle of obliquity – that things are best achieved indirectly – also applies to the art of asking questions.

KA: That makes a lot of sense. Indeed, after we exchanged notes on the article and Kay’s book, I’ve noticed this idea of obliquity popping up in all different kinds of contexts. I’m not sure why this is, but I think it has something to do with the fact that we don’t really know how the future is going to unfold, and obliquity helps open our minds up to possibilities that we would overlook if we took a “straight line from A to B” kind of approach.

PC: Yep, and that brings up an interesting aspect to oblique questions as well. You know, some people – especially those trained in a standard business school curriculum will be surprised if you ask them an oblique question because it seemingly makes no sense. They might say, “Well, why would you ask that? What we really want to answer is this

Well, I’ve found a way to deal with this, and I learnt this from working with a facilitator who is a professor at one of the business schools here (in Perth).  This was in a strategic planning workshop that we co-facilitated.  Before starting, she walked up to the whiteboard and sketched out a very simple strategic planning model – literally a diagram that said here’s our vision, and the vision leads to a mission, which leads to areas of focus which, in turn, lead to processes…a simple causal diagram with a few boxes connected by arrows.

She spent only a minute or so explaining this model; she didn’t do it in any detail. Then she pointed to a particular box and said, “We’re going to talk about this particular one now.” And I don’t know why this is, but when you present a little model like that (which is familiar to the audience) and say that you’re going to focus on a particular aspect of it, people seem to become more receptive to ambiguity, and you can then get as oblique as you like. Perhaps this is because the narrative is then aligned with a mental model that is familiar to them.

What I’ve learnt, in effect, is that you can’t talk about the wonders of complex systems theory to a bunch of rational project managers. Conversely, when I’m dealing with a group of facilitators (who love all that systems theory stuff) I would never draw a management model going from vision to mission to execution. But when dealing with the corporate world, I will often use a model like that. Not to educate them – they already know the model – but purely to reduce their anxiety. After that I can ask them the questions I really want to ask. It’s a subtle trick: you put things in a familiar frame and then, once you have done that, you can get as oblique as you like.

Tying this back to a question you asked earlier about how I prepare for a facilitation session. Well, I usually try to figure out audience first. If I’m dealing with the public sector I might set the stage by talking about wicked problems, whereas with corporate clients I might start with a Strategic Planning 101 sort of presentation. Either way, I find a frame that is familiar to them and then – almost like a sleight of hand – I switch to the questions I really want to ask. Does that make sense?

KA: Yeah, so to summarise: you give them a security blanket and then scare the hell out of them [laughs]

PC:  That’s actually pretty well summarized [laughs]; I like where you’re going with that…but I’d put it slightly differently. It’s actually a bit like when you’re trying to get little kids to eat something they don’t want to eat – you go, “see here’s the choo-choo train” or something like that, and then get them to have a spoonful while their focusing on that. In a way it’s like creating a distraction. But the aim is really to couch things in such a ways as to get to a point where you can start to have a productive dialogue. And the dialogue itself is driven by powerful questions.

From obliquity to directness

KA: By powerful, I guess you mean oblique

PC: Yeah, the oblique aspect of questions is a common thread that runs through much of what I do now. Mind you, I don’t stay oblique all the way through a session. I start obliquely because I want to unpack a problem. Eventually, though, as people start to get insights and themes begin to emerge, I become more direct; I start to ask things such as who, when etc…putting names and dates down on the map.

KA: So you get more direct in your questioning as the group starts to reach a common understanding of a problem.

PC: That’s exactly right. But there’s the other side to it (and by the way, you should have a conversation with my colleague Neil on this kind of stuff):  you typically have a mixed audience, the “left-brainers” who are rational engineer types as well as the “hippies” (the so-called “right-brainers”) who want to stay out in conceptual-land. Both groups like to stay in their comfort zone: the engineers don’t like moving to conceptual-land because they see it as a waste of time; on the other hand conceptual people don’t like moving to action because the conceptual world feels safer to them. So I sort of trick the engineers into doing conceptual stuff while also pushing conceptual guys into answering more direct questions.

Other techniques and skills

KA: Interesting. Let’s talk a bit about techniques – I know dialogue mapping is a mainstay of much of what you do. What are some of the other techniques you use [to draw people out of their comfort zones]? You mentioned soft systems theory and a few others; you seem to have quite a tool-chest of techniques to draw upon.

PC: Yeah well, when I got into mapping, I also looked at other techniques. I was interested in what else you could do, so I looked at various gamestorming techniques, graphic facilitation and, of course, many methods based on the principles of soft systems and related theories.

I use techniques from both the right-brained and left-brained ends of the spectrum…and by the way, I apologize to any neuroscientists who might be reading/listening to this because I know they hate the term left/right brained. However, I do find it useful sometimes.

Anyway, a popular technique on   the right-brained end of the spectrum is Open Space, which operates almost entirely in conceptual-land. It relies on the wisdom of the crowd; there is no preset agenda, just a theme. People sit in a circle, there’s a Tibetan bell…an on the surface it all seems quite hippy. However, I’ve actually done it in construction projects where you have folks who have come off a building site, dressed in their safety gear – hard hats and all – and participated in such situations. And it does work, despite its touchy-feely, hippy image.

On the other hand, once you’ve conceptualized a project you need to get down to hard work of getting stuff done.  One of the first questions that comes up is, “How do we measure success?”  This usually boils down to defining KPIs. Now, I would never dialogue map or open space a conversation on KPIs. You might get a few themes from dialogue mapping, but definitely not enough detail. Instead, one of the things I often do is go to an online KPI library (like http://kpilibrary.com which has over 7000 KPIs) in which you can find KPIs relating to any area you can think of, ranging from project management to customer service to quality or sustainability. I’ll then print relevant ones on cards and then use a card-sorting technique in which I put people in different groups and ask them to look at specific focus areas [that emerged from the conceptualization phase], and figure out which KPIs are relevant to it.

Why do I do that? Not because I think they will find the KPI. They probably won’t. It’s more because such a process avoids those inevitable epic arguments on what a KPI actually is.

A very effective technique is to spend half a day unpacking a problem via dialogue mapping and get key themes to emerge. This “conceptualization phase” is done with the whole group. Then, when you want to drill down into detailed actions action, it helps to use a divide and conquer approach. This is why I split people up into smaller groups and get them to go off and work on themes that emerged from the conceptualization phase. The aim is to get them to come up with concrete KPIs or even actions. If I’m feeling really evil, when there’s only 10 minutes left, I’ll tell them that they can present only their top four actions or KPIs. This forces them to prioritise things according to value. It’s a bit like a Delphi technique really. Finally, the groups come back together and present all their findings, which I then dialogue map. Once that is done, the larger group (together) will turn to the map and synthesise the outputs of what the smaller groups have done. This example is quite typical of the kind of stuff that I do.

Another example: I did some strategic planning work for local government – this was in the area of urban planning. Now, we did not want them to just copy someone else’s community development plan and “cookie cutter” it. So the very first thing we did was a dialogue mapping session geared towards answering a couple of questions: 1) if the community development plan for this organization was highly successful, how would things be different from how they are now? And, 2) what is unique about this particular area (shire)?

Then, in the second workshop we got some of the best community development plans from around Australia and put each one at a different table. We split people up into groups and got them to spend time at each table. Their job was to note down, on flipcharts, the pros and cons of each plan. The first iteration took about half an hour – presumably because this was the first time many of them were reading a development plan. Once the first iteration was done, people moved to the next table and so on, in round robin fashion.

By the end of that exercise, everyone was a world expert in reading community development plans. By the time people got to their third plan, they were flicking through the pages pretty fast, noting down the things they agreed or disagreed with. Then they came back together and did a synthesis of the common themes were – what was good, what was bad and so on.

Finally, we dialogue mapped again, and this time the question was, “Given what we have seen in all of the other plans, what are we going to do differently to mitigate the issues we have seen with some of them?”  That pretty much nailed what they were going to do with their plan.

The need to improvise

KA: From what you’re saying it seems that almost every situation you walk into is different, and you almost have to design your approach as you go along.   I suppose you would make a guess or some tentative plans based on your knowledge of the make-up of the audience, but wouldn’t you also have to adjust a lot on-the-fly?

PC: Oh yeah, all the time. And in fact, that is more a help than a hindrance. I’ll tell you why…by example again.

Often groups will tell you what they aspire to do. They might say, “as a general principle, we will do this” or something along those lines.  For me that’s gold because I can use it on them [laughs].

In fact, I did this a couple days ago in a workshop. Earlier in the workshop they had said, “It’s OK to make mistakes as long as we are honest with each other and upfront about it.”  I totally used that on them towards the end of the workshop when I said, “Given that you guys are honest with each other, the question I’d like you to answer is – what keeps you up at night with this project?”

My colleague uses the phrase, “hang them by their own petard” when we do this kind of stuff [laughter]. I guess what we’re doing, though, is calling them out on what they espouse, and getting them to live it. If you can do that in a workshop, it is brilliant. So I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to improvise like that, particularly when it is a matter of (espoused) principle.

There are many times when I’ve been in workshops where the corporate values are hanging on a wall – in a boardroom, right –  and I’m witnessing them get completely trashed in the conversation that’s happening. So I like to hold people to account to what’s stated…and these are sneaky little subtle ways in which one can do that.

KA: I’m sure you come across situations where a certain approach doesn’t go down very well – may be people start to get defensive or even question the approach. Does that happen, and how do you deal with that?

PC: I’ve never had a situation where people question the approach I use. I guess that’s because we’re able to deal with that as it happens. For example, if I’m going a bit too “hippie” on a group and I see that they need more structure then I’ll change my approach to suit the group and then gently nudge them back to where I want them to be.

I also co-facilitate with other people…and sometimes they’re the ones who design the workshops, or I co-design it with them.  Often it is their tolerance for ambiguity that can be a roadblock. One facilitator I work with loves emergence. This is my crass generalization, but anyone who thinks complex systems theory is just it will be happy to let a group get mired in ambiguity. The group might be struggling, but as far as the facilitator is concerned that’s OK because he or she believes that ambiguity is necessary for an emergent outcome. What they forget is that not everyone has the same level of tolerance for ambiguity.

On the other hand, I also work with highly structured facilitators who follow a set path – “we’ll do this, then we’ll do that and so on”. This approach might not go so well with people who prefer more open-ended approaches.

These sorts of experiences have been handy. When designing my own workshops, I’m the ultimate bower bird: I cherry pick whatever I need and improvise on the fly. So I tend not to worry about the risks of people not finding the workshop of value. That probably comes from a level of confidence too: we’re reasonably confident that we know our craft and have enough experience to deal with unexpected situations.

Coda – capturing organisational knowledge

KA:  Thanks for the insights into sensemaking.  Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to switch tack and talk about something that your organization – Seven Sigma – is currently involved in. I know you guys started out as a SharePoint outfit, and you’ve been doing some interesting things in SharePoint relating to knowledge management. Could you tell us a bit about that before we wrap up?

PC: Sure. To begin with, dialogue maps are a pretty good knowledge artifact. Anyone who has used the Compendium software will know this (Editor’s note: Compendium is a free software tool that can be used for dialogue mapping). I’ve used it extensively for the last five years and have an “encyclopedia of conversations” that I have mapped. When I go and look at them, they’re as vivid to me as on the day I mapped them. So I’ve always been fascinated by the power of dialogue maps as a visceral way to capture the wisdom of a group at a point in time.

Now SharePoint is a collaborative platform that’s often used for intranets, project portals, knowledge management portal and so forth. It’s a fairly versatile platform. The Compendium software on the other hand, is not a multi-user, collaborative platform. It’s more like Photoshop or Word in that you use it to create an artefact – a map – but if someone else wants to see the map then he or she has to install Compendium.  And it can be a bit of a pain in the butt to install Compendium as it is a freebie, open source product that doesn’t really fit in an enterprise environment.   We’ve therefore always wanted to have the ability to import maps into SharePoint and my colleague Chris [Tomich] had already started writing some code to do that around the time we first got into dialogue mapping.

However, my own Aha moment came later; and come to think of it, the fact that we’re having beers in this conversation is relevant to this story…

I was dialogue mapping a group of executives about 4-5 years ago; it was a team-building exercise built around a lessons learned workshop. The purpose of the workshop was to improve the collaborative and team maturity of this group. [As a part of this exercise] the group was reviewing some old projects, doing a sort of retrospective lessons learned. We got to this one project, and someone complained about an organisational policy that had caused an issue on the project.  Now as it happened, there was this guy in the group who knew how this policy had come about (I knew this guy, by the way, and I also knew that he was about to retire). He said, “Oh yeah, well that happened about 30 years ago, and it was on so-and-so project.” He then proceeded to elaborate on it.

Well, I knew this guy was about to retire. I also knew that the organization does this “phased retirement” thing, where people who are about to retire write documentation about what they do, mentor their successors etc. before they leave. I remember thinking to myself, “there’s no way in hell that he would have written that down in his documentation.”  I just knew it: he had to be in that particular conversation for him to have remembered this.

Then my next thought…and as I’m mapping, I’m having this thought … “man, someone just ought to give him a beer, sit him down, and ask him about these kinds of old projects. I could map that video…how hard could that be? If one can map live conversations then surely one can map videos.”  In fact, videos should be simpler because you can pause them, which is something you can’t do with live conversations.

So that was literally the little spark. It started with me thinking about how great it would be if this guy could spend even half his time recording his reflections…and this could take different forms, may be it could be a grad asking him questions in a mentoring scenario, or it could be another person he has worked with for years and they could reminisce over various projects. The possibilities were endless. But the basic idea was simple: it was to try to capture those sorts of water cooler or pub conversations, or those that you have in conferences. That’s where we get many of our insights – it’s the stories, the war stories through which we learn. That kind of stuff never gets into the manuals or knowledge-base articles.

Indeed, stories are the key to those unwritten insights about, say, when it is OK to break the rules. That kind of stuff can never be captured in the processes, manuals or procedures. One of your pieces highlights this beautifully – it’s one of the parables you’ve written I think, where an experienced project manager suggested to the novice that he should be listening to the stories rather than focusing on the body of knowledge he was studying.  And that is completely true.

So that was, to coin a pun, the “glimmer of an idea” – because the product is called Glyma. The idea was to capture expert knowledge by mapping it and storing the map in SharePoint. SharePoint has a great search engine and we already knew that dialogue maps are a great way to capture conversations in a way that makes it easy to understand and navigate rationale (or the logic of a conversation).  If we could do dialogue maps live, then we sure as hell could map videos. Moreover SharePoint also offers the possibility of tagging, adding feeds etc. – the kinds of things that portals these days are good at. It occurred to us that no one had really done that before.

Sure, there are plenty of story captures, say where people capture reflections on video. But because the resulting videos tend to be quite big, they are usually edited down to 15 minute “elevator pitch” type presentation. But then all the good stuff is gone; indeed, you and I have had many of these brief conversations where you’re summarising something terrific you’ve read and I’ll go, “Yeah well, that doesn’t sound so interesting to me.” The point is: you can’t compress insight into a convenient 10 minute video with nice music. So our idea was – well, don’t do that; take the video as it is and map it. Then, if you click on a node – say an idea node or a question node –Glyma will play the video from the point in time where the idea or question came up. You don’t have to sit through the entire thing. Moreover, when you do a search and get a series of results, you can click on a result and it plays that bit straight away.

So that was really the inspiration for Glyma…and it will see the light of day very soon.

Actually we’ll be putting a beta site out early next week (Editor’s note: the site has since gone live; I urge you to check it out). By the way, Glyma has been four years in the making. One of last things on our bucket list of things to do while running a consultancy was to put an innovative new product out and to see if people like it. So that’s where we are going with that.

KA: That’s sounds very interesting.  The timing should work out well because this conversation will be posted out in a week or two as well.  I wish you luck with Glyma; I’ve seen some early versions of it and it looks really good.  I look forward to seeing how it does in the market place and what sort of reception it receives.  I certainly hope it gets the reception it deserves because it is a tremendous idea.

PC: Well thank you; I appreciate your saying that…and we’ll see if you still say that once you’ve mapped this video because that might be your homework. [laughs]

KA: [laughs] Alright, great mate.  Well, thanks for your time. I think that’s been a really interesting conversation. We’ll chat about Glyma further after it’s been out for a while.

PC: Yeah absolutely.

KA: Cheers mate.

PC: See ya.

Written by K

June 18, 2014 at 7:31 am

Making sense of project management – a conversation with Jon Whitty

with 6 comments

I’ve long been thinking about initiating an ongoing series of conversations with sensemakers – a term I define, very broadly, as people who help us make sense of the things we do at work.  So I’m absolutely delighted to kick-off the series with Dr. Jon Whitty, who teaches project management at the University of Southern Queensland.

In an hour-long conversation, Jon shared his unique perspective on project management, seasoning his insights with anecdotes ranging from the Simpsons to medieval rituals and fairs.

Intrigued?  Then read on…

KA: Good morning, Jon! It’s great to have you as the first guest on my sensemakers series.  To get things going, please tell us a bit about yourself.

JW:  Thanks for that – I’m always glad to be a guinea pig [laughs]

Actually, I see myself as being a little selfish because much of what I do is about explaining stuff to myself. Then I realise that if I write it down,  other people might find it useful too. But largely it’s about me trying to solve problems and explain stuff to myself.

Specifically, one of the things I find myself doing is looking at topics like project or program management  using an evolutionary approach, which is a Darwinian framework in which one looks at things through the lens of competition, adaptation and selection, and see how they play out in the real world.

KA:  Your paper on the memetic paradigm of project management  exemplifies this approach. Incidentally, that was the first work of yours that I read and it completely blew me away. Among other things, one of the things that struck me when I read it is that a project should be treated as a system – you can’t treat parts of it in isolation. (Editor’s note: see this article for a summary of Jon’s paper)

JW:   Yeah, that’s very much in my way of thinking. One of the things about taking an evolutionary view is that you can’t “half swallow the pill” – you’ve got to swallow the whole thing. And when you look at the whole thing, what strikes you is that it is actually rather meaningless; meaning is something we impose on it.

This might sound somewhat radical so let me elaborate by drawing on the great philosopher Homer…I mean Homer Simpson, of course…

I think it’s in the episode in which he donates blood for Mr. Burns. Towards the end of the show Mr. Burns gives him a gift, and it’s this big carved stone head (something like an Easter Island statue).  So you have this head is sitting in the Simpsons’ lounge, and they’re all trying to make sense out of it. Marge goes through all the possible morals that one can get out of the episode – may be it is this and may be it’s that and so on.  So, there is much debate but no consensus. Finally, Homer interrupts and says, “Marge, there is no purpose to any of this…it’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.”

(Editor’s note: The Simpson episode is The Blood Feud)

That really goes to the heart of the evolutionary framework – which is, to see things as they actually happen, without any presumption of purpose. As soon as you start putting purpose in there, you start clouding your perception of what is going on. What you have to look at instead is the notion of selection. Some people criticize the evolutionary framework because they see it as randomness. Although there is an element of randomness to it, it is selection that is the key.

So you have this system, as you put it, and there are all these people caught up in it – project managers, teams, sponsors etc. –interacting with each other and also with various artefacts (Gantt charts, status reports, plans etc.). The point is, stakeholders and artefacts all have different purposes: artefacts aren’t there because they work, and neither are people there because they are committed to the objective. Purposes and meanings differ. The utility of the evolutionary framework is that it exposes the system for what it really is, without being clouded by the meanings that are imposed upon projects by standards and frameworks.

(Editor’s note: for example, a project manager may craft a status report in such a way as to reassure a sponsor (actual purpose) rather than reveal the real status of a project (espoused purpose). As another, a team member may be in a project because she wants to improve his skills (actual purpose), not because she’s interested in the objective of the project (espoused purpose)).

As another example, take the iron triangle – you know, the time, cost, quality triple constraint. It’s been around for a long time, so people say, “if it didn’t work, it wouldn’t still be around, would it?”

The answer to that is, “That depends on what you mean by, ‘it works’!”

In reality, the triple constraint is a good answer to a very specific question, which is: “what are the major variables or drivers of a project?” As an answer, you can even draw a really simple diagram to explain what it’s about. It survives because of its simplicity, rather than its correctness or utility.

KA:  This challenges basic, taken-for-granted concepts in project management, and I think it is why your work resonates with practitioners. However, I’m curious about the kind of reaction you get from standards bodies and institutions when you talk about things such as these.

JW:  Hate mail…no, not that [laughs].  Look, they have trouble inviting me to events. I’m not on their list of mainstream invitees. However, I still manage to get invited to PMI-run conferences because people I know often coordinate these events and invite me to them.

Going back to what you said– that some of what I said resonates with practitioners. I think it resonates because some people find it hard to figure out how something that they are reading in a textbook or learning in the classroom can be relevant in real projects.

KA: That’s true…it’s the issue of the practical utility of concepts. For example, what use is the iron triangle, apart from being a pat answer to a question?  Many of the things found in texts are formulaic concepts that are trotted out in class or in training courses, but are not so useful in the day-to-day running of projects.

In my experience, the day-to-day work of a project manager is largely about reacting to stuff that happens on the ground. It’s about improvisation rather than planning. I see it all the time in real-life projects – all this stuff you do at the start, scoping planning etc. is useful, but when you are thrust into the nitty-gritty of a project, you have to make decisions on the fly, react to things that you hadn’t anticipated and so on. To me, that’s an equally real, and perhaps more fascinating part of project management…but nobody ever talks about it. No textbook does at any rate. Philosophers do delve into this kind of stuff, but definitely not project management academics or professionals!

JW: Well, this is where books like yours, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, help. They help people look behind the façade – the false shells of ideas about things. You know, people really beat themselves up about this kind of stuff.

One of the things I do is I run postgrad workshops where I bring in high flier PMs from industry – the kind of people who build big hospitals, infrastructure etc. Many of them are from the construction industry, but not all.   So these people come in and tell us their war stories, and often I notice that they say things like, “We got a quality control system in place” or “We have a change management system in place” and so on. Then they add, almost apologetically, “It’s not like it is in the books, but we are trying…” And I’m always thinking to myself, “Why do they feel like they have to apologize for that?”

What they do not understand is that the things described in the PMBOK and other guides are “stick man-like” idealisations.  Someone probably looked at 20 different ways to do something, found a common theme and then made up a model. The problem is that the model is just a high-level abstraction; you won’t actually find it anywhere because it doesn’t exist. So all these poor guys are working towards something that doesn’t exist and probably doesn’t work!

KA:  Yes, that is definitely the case. I like to use the map versus territory metaphor when talking about this with practicing PMs.  Textbook knowledge of PM is a bit like the knowledge that a map conveys. When you’re working on a project, however, you’re actually in the territory. When I explain it to people in this way, they often go, “Yeah, that makes sense: so the PMBOK is actually a map.” Then I warn them, “It is, but beware for it may not be as accurate as you think, so you’ve got to be careful”

JW: Yeah, that’s the point:  you’re helping people I suppose. Most project managers simply do not have the time to think about these kinds of things. What they end up doing instead, is joining some kind of PM institution – the APM or PMI or whatever. They then keep getting this information that is pushed out to them through these bodies, and the hidden theme running through all of it is that they (the PMs) somehow aren’t “doing it right.”

I wrote a paper on this a while ago, talking about the almost Puritan influence that these institutions have on their members. There is this Jeremiad type story telling that goes on in professional PM circles. The message is:  you shouldn’t do this and you shouldn’t do that; and if you strive, one day you may be as good as us. This sort of talk doesn’t make people feel good about themselves at all.

I see this in another context, when people talk to me as an academic, they sometimes feel like they have to apologize for not doing things “by the book.”   As if I’ve got this Golden Book that has all the “right answers”…

KA: I’d like to change tack here a bit, if I may. Over the last few years, PMI and other standards bodies have sort of embraced Agile methodologies and have attempted to bring them into their fold. What are your thoughts on this?

JW: Well, I like to think of it as domestication – they’ve domesticated Agile.  Indeed, the PMI and other bodies have no choice; they have to embrace Agile. The Agile community is big and is more cooperative and will continue to adapt and change with the times. They frankly couldn’t care less about the PMI and what it thinks.  The standards bodies can’t just stand by and do nothing, they have to grab on to this movement somehow, and that’s what they’ve done.  And I say, watch out; as the Agile folks move up the PMI hierarchy, there could be further disruptions on the way.

KA:  So, the institutes have to adapt too, in order to survive…

JW: Indeed, and they do it in many ways. Let me tell you about something else that is going on: the lead project management body in UK, the APM, is trying to get chartered status. If that happens, it would mean that a PM could work towards a Chartered Project Manager qualification.  In my opinion that would be a dangerous development because it would, in effect, force people to go for the APM qualification. Any freedom for a practitioner to get any other certification would be lost.

KA: That’s true, but someone might counter that by saying, “We have Chartered Engineers and Chartered Accountants, so why not Chartered Project Managers?” I think I know the answer to that, but I’d like to hear your view on it [laughs]

JW: [laughs]…and I think my answer would be the same as yours. The engineering and accountancy “body of knowledge,” if one can call it that, is evidence-based. The same is true of medicine. In comparison, project management (and management in general) is stuck in the medieval era.

For instance, I could claim that a success factor for a project is this bag of lavender – you know, you sort twirl it around three times, lay it on the floor and jump over it. It’s almost at the level that people were at when they cooked up rituals to stave off the Black Death. If the project succeeds, I attribute success to the bag of lavender ritual, if it fails, well… I can always attribute the failure to something else.

KA: [laughs] I’ve got to use that bag of lavender for my next kickoff meeting…

JW: Seriously, this is where we are…all those things that are in various bodies of knowledge are like that.  One person actually said to me, “Ah well, wait a minute Jon, the APM’s body of knowledge isn’t a body of knowledge at all – it is a glossary of terms.”

So I said, “Why on earth didn’t you call it that!”

Well, I suppose they couldn’t because you can’t well ask people to get a certification on a glossary of terms now, can you? For crying out loud, this is ridiculous isn’t it?? I guess my point is that these are all good reasons why the profession shouldn’t be chartered.

What we really need to do is start looking at how projects are managed across different domains instead of looking for a lowest common denominator.  This is far more than research based on a survey of a small bunch of people, written up for publication in an academic journal.

Most academic articles are written in impenetrable academic language for a small bunch of people to read. And to be honest, most people don’t even read them.  In most cases, if you read them carefully and take them apart, however, you realize that they are based on not very much at all.

KA:  Yes, I’ve noticed…

JW: …and you know, it is actually worse than that. I started teaching a good number of years ago, and I started out as an electronics instructor. It’s a very practical domain where physics and maths come together in a physical device.

One of the things I used to teach was TV repair – in the days when you could actually repair TVs yourself.  The thing about TV repair is that you can’t sit around and discuss whether a TV’s been repaired, it isn’t a matter of opinion; you simply switch it on and see if it works. You can see where I’m going with this…

You were talking about how the map’s an abstraction of the territory. The dangerous thing is that one can get caught up in abstractions that never make contact with reality.  This happens in maths quite a bit: mathematicians invent new concepts – multidimensional spaces etc. – and spend their entire working lives in these abstractions. That may be OK for maths, but it’s not OK for management.

The problem is, many management academics are actually specialists in abstractions. Moreover, this is what they teach in their courses because it is all they know. So now you have all these senior managers who’ve been through an MBA; they have a wealth of abstract knowledge, but they can’t actually do anything.  They have no practical skills at all. This is why there is a gap between strategy development and strategy implementation.

KA: Yeah, I’ve read some interesting work by William Starbuck on the gap between strategy formulation and implementation (Editor’s note: see this paper for example). So I think this issue is recognized in academia.  The problem is that strategy is usually in terms of causal models: if we do this, then that will happen.   The real world is complicated and isn’t straightforward to figure out what causes what.  Instead, managers need to develop certain sensibilities – like being attuned to what’s actually happening in their organisations.  To use a term I’ve used before, it is about developing a systemic view. But how do you teach that?

JW: I could actually think of some practical ways in which one could teach that.  Every university ought to have a couple of corner shops or even blacksmithing shops, say. Students should be asked to run these. If you reckon you can run a multi-million dollar business then surely you can run a corner shop, right? We don’t do that because it costs and it’s difficult to do. But more important, you can’t sell an MBA based on corner shops, although I think students would learn a lot more from it.

As a result people walk out with MBAs they can’t use. And academia becomes more and more detached. We’ve made a commodity out of education, particularly in management because we can get away with it. You can’t get away with this kind of thing in engineering schools.

KA: I think you’re absolutely right. There’s this big con trick pulled by business schools over the last so many years about selling model-based learning.

I think a lot of influential management academics have lamented this over the last decade or so – Warren Bennis, for example – but nothing seems to have changed.

JW:  Changing this would destroy the business model of all these schools, so nobody’s going to volunteer to be the first to do this. They’d be wiped out.

Let me give you an example. The PMI accredits universities. Effectively, this amounts to you paying them to advertise your courses in their literature. They’re not really accrediting you; all they check is whether you’re using their name and materials in your courses. Once they are satisfied that you are doing that, you pay the fee and you are accredited. Schools have to go along because if they don’t, their competitors will, and they’ll get all the students.

So we all end up playing this ridiculous education “arms” race. You can’t opt out even if you want to.

KA:  Yes, you can’t opt out. However, the one thing I’ve realized is that the best way to challenge the system is from within…and you certainly do that through your writing.

JW:  Yeah, and I’m sure you must’ve got some feedback on your work as well. I think your book would have resonated well with practitioners because it speaks to the kinds of things that people actually do. There is a sort of “self-help” aspect to it.

KA:  It’s interesting you put it that way, because that’s exactly what a few people have said to me after reading it…although I should add that I don’t particularly like the term “self- help” [laughs]

Seriously, though, the feedback has been the most gratifying part of the whole thing. We really had no idea what kind of reception we’d get so it’s been absolutely fantastic to hear from some folks that the book has made a difference to the way they look at things.

JW: I don’t know if there’s anything more in the pipeline, but I would suggest that a continuation in that sort of light would be useful. That is what I mean by self-help – in that it is helpful. Even if it is not helpful in actual practice, it might be helpful in the way they think and feel about their practice.

KA:  Yes, well it’s been a couple of years now. Over the last year or so Paul and I have been talking and thinking about what comes next. The ideas and material are there, and there’s at least a couple of directions in which we can take them. Paul has developed a bunch of practical techniques through his consultancy work, and I’ve gained some insights through experience and my somewhat random reading on topics from management to philosophy. It’s really a question of finding the time to put it all together in a book that people will find interesting and useful.

JW:  That reminds me of what you said before:  that many of these things aren’t dealt with in management texts, but philosophers do have something useful to say about them. That is why I spend some of my time looking back to those works, because they are incredibly insightful about human practice. I also get some of my postgrads to read these works, so as to challenge the way they look at things.

There’s a book chapter I wrote entitled, “Thinking in slow motion about project management.” It deals with thinking about thinking about project management. That is, to question the way we actually think about the discipline. It is about questioning the the [tacit] assumptions we make when we think about projects.

Here’s an example: one of my students wrote to me the other day saying that he’d sketched out a couple of papers on thinking critically (see note below) about project management – the kind of work done by Damian Hodgson and others. One of the major themes underlying critical work in project management is project failure – you know, why projects fail etc.  If one “thinks about this thinking” one realizes that there is a tacit assumption here that failure is a bad thing. However, from an evolutionary point of view, failure occurs more often than success does!

(Editor’s note: Jon uses the word critical in a technical sense here. As per my understanding, critical studies are aimed at critiquing a practice (project management, in this case) with the aim of changing it in such a way that it benefits the largest number of people possible. See this paper review for an example of a critical study in project management.)

KA: Yes, that’s true. However, one can also see the rationale for focusing on failure. There is an economic driver here; one can’t go to a project sponsor and say, “this project failed because of evolution.”  I can’t see that going down too well [laughs]

JW: True, but then again it’s about selecting the stories we tell. When you look at the personal development literature, it’s not put together to describe success stories, but to describe strategies that people have used to overcome failure. So, if we were to try and put together a set of stories about how failures or potential failures were overcome by evidence based means – that is, not by using rituals such as bags of lavender [laughs] – then people would be more comfortable about talking about failure.

Indeed, if you look at the great stories of management, they are all about how adversity was overcome or how innovations arose from failures.  People say, “Yes we failed, but we learnt something from it. We now know how to do it better.” And that’s a lesson that won’t be forgotten.

KA: That’s absolutely right, and it brings to mind a related point. The fortunate thing for those who work in information technology is that it is relatively easy to fail quickly and learn something from it. Indeed that’s what Agile is largely about – flushing out the difficulties early in the game. And even if one does not use the full machinery of an Agile methodology, it is easy enough to work in an incremental way: you know, do a quick prototype and run it past the business to flush out hidden requirements.

JW: Yes,  but it’s not just in IT; one can do it in customer service or even construction – things like role-playing, building a façade, these kinds of things are in fact agile approaches relevant to those domains. One doesn’t have to wait for feedback from real customers or commission an architect to do these kinds of things. So the idea of mistaking-making and overcoming mistakes is actually a process of building new knowledge about how things work in that domain. These are the sorts of stories we should be sharing more and telling more.

KA: Yes, you’re right…and one could even get people to think about what could go wrong by asking questions like, “what could come back to bite us if we did this?” The advantage is that this can be done by simply thinking through scenarios with a group of people, prior to problems actually occurring.

JW: Yes, but the trouble is that it is difficult capture any intellectual property around this kind of thinking. If you want to build a critical mass around these sorts of ideas, you have to be able write them down and market them. The problem is, they change from domain to domain and they are difficult to write down into something like a BOK.  The PMI, on the other hand, have a well-defined product which they can build branding around. . They have the stories to tell as to why you should become a member-  all the great benefits you would enjoy and so forth.

It’s a bit like the atheists versus the church: one side has the full machinery of religion the other has nothing. You know, I’m an atheist, but I could go into Notre Dame cathedral on a late afternoon when the sun is shining through that massive window, and lighting up all those dust particles in that spectacular way, with the guy playing the organ the background.  I take all that in and think to myself, “You know, there might be something in this.”

KA: [laughs] Yes, that’s an excellent point.

JW: Yeah, the whole structure around you can make you feel as though, “Hey, I can for a moment entertain the thought of being a part of this.” Now, when you’re at a PMI meeting, with all those people in suits and ties and those badges with their names and titles on, you could well think that there is something in it.   But when I’m in a supermarket, pushing a trolley around, I simply can’t entertain such a thought.

KA: You know, I think it is more of a security blanket than anything else. One thinks that by joining a professional organization and getting a certification, one somehow becomes more professional. There is this myth (or idea) floating around that certifications are good because employers like them. I don’t know how true that is, I haven’t really tested that;  but right now, in this tight job market, people will do whatever they think will give them an edge.

JW:  Yes, and the evolutionary framework would see this as a device to get selected – to keep your job (or get a new one)…and also to feel good about yourself.

There is this wonderful medieval fete that takes place in Queensland every year. It’s an event that takes place in this huge field. People come from all over; they descend for a week and set up this medieval camp.  It’s like a scene out of a Harry Potter film or a camp in King Alfred’s time – and with all those tents, smoky ambience from fires, people walking around in armour and costumes etc, one can really get immersed in the scene and feel that one is actually there.

Now, just towards the end of the camp there’s a set of stalls – trading stalls – there’s the blacksmith, for example and others. Then there is a stall that sells replica medieval weapons and costumes.  When I was there, I was thinking to myself that if I were really in a medieval setting, I would actually have to buy a weapon to protect myself. And then I realized that this is precisely what the exhibition hall in the PMI Global Congress is like, right?

KA: [laughs]

JW: Seriously, that’s exactly what is going on. On the one side you have people selling certifications, university degrees or books like “55 Ways to get Certified in 35 Seconds”, and on the other you have practitioners who feel they must choose a certification, university or a book.  All the vendors and universities claim that their “weapons” are better than the other ones on the market.

However, these vendors will never show you how to actually use their “weapons.”  If they were to show you how to use them, you’d probably find out that they don’t work… and that won’t do at all, would it? Nevertheless, you are made to feel that you must have these “weapons” because you know you will be up against others who have them.

KA: [laughs] That’s brilliant!

JW:  When I go to these chapter and branch meetings, I’m always amazed at how oblivious some project managers are about what’s going on here (and I don’t mean this in an unkind way at all).  They see themselves as active participants in this group that they have joined, whereas really what they are is simply a market for the standards and the institutions. They are somebody to sell to.

KA: Yes, they’re somebody to sell to, and somebody to propagate the message.

JW: You know what I would really like to do? Well, one of the ways of undermining what the standards bodies are doing is through humour. One way to do this is through cartooning scenarios that highlight some of the ludicrous things that happen in the project management workplace. Dilbert is an excellent example.   I’d really like to explore this way of getting people to look at project management through an evolutionary lens because I think it would be much more effective and useful than writing for an academic audience.

KA: Yes, a “Dilbert for PM.” I like that!

JW:  I think this would help engage project managers. Actually, in some ways it is a bit like what you’re doing with your blog.

KA: Yes, but humour and satire are so much better; there’s no better way to undermine over-seriousness and pompousness.

JW:  Yeah, there’s a long history to that kind of stuff – Voltaire for instance. But you’ve written a bit along those lines, haven’t you?

KA:  Yes, I’ve written a few satirical pieces  (Editor’s note: see this piece, for example). Unfortunately, that kind of writing doesn’t come naturally to me.  It is a surprise even for me when I come up with something like that.

JW:   One of the things I’m going to try and do is to push this “bag of lavender” metaphor further; I haven’t exercised it fully as yet. I think I’ll do a short blog post on it soon. (Editor’s note: This conversation was recorded a few days before Jon published his brilliant post on medieval management balms. Don’t miss it!)

KA: Ah, that idea’s got great potential. I look forward to reading it, Jon.

Well, I think I’d better let you go back to your work now…we’ve been talking for over an hour. Thanks so much Jon, it’s been wonderful talking to you.

JW: It was good, and I hope there’s something useful in there.

KA: There’s plenty, all I have to do now is transcribe it! I look forward to chatting with you again sometime in the near future. Thanks again.

JW:  No worries; always good to chat.

Written by K

May 19, 2014 at 8:42 pm

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