Monday, June 25, 2007

Herding Cats at Work

I was reviewing Ram Charan's book titled Know-How, The 8 Skills That Separate People Who Perform from Those Who Don't, and came to the chapter titled Herding Cats - Getting People to Work Together by Managing the Social system of Your Business.

Pretty kitchy title, but it sure got my attention. As did the key concepts in it. If you get the chance to read it, you'll find it outlines a very practical approach to creating an environment that enables people to work together effectively in a business context.

He begins the chapter with the following:

"Perhaps the biggest untapped opportunity for your success as a leader is shaping the way people work together to deliver the numbers. Your own performance depends on your ability to get other people to commit to and deliver their common goals."

Charan defines a social system generally as the interaction between people, the information flows and how decisions are made, and advocates examining and engineering the business social system to maximize effectiveness and results.

As he mentions in the chapter, and I'm sure many of you have found, work environments are often filled with endless / pointless meetings with no real outcomes, conflicts are hidden below the surface and rarely resolved, information is disconnected from decision making, and decision making processes are often unclear and ineffective.

These conditions exist, according to Charam, because "... most companies' social systems are a mishmash of operational mechanisms (meetings etc.) that are poorly designed and disconnected from each other... and behaviour in them is left to chance.."

He advocates that leaders develop the capability and explicitly design the specific, critical points when people must come together to share information, resolve conflicts, solve problems and make decisions. He empahsizes acting along two perspectives; the process side and the people side.

On the process side, each get-together should be focused on the right issue, has clear purpose and focus, and the right information is avaible at the right time.

On the peope side, Charan talks about how people interactions are complex, that people influence each other, build relationships, develop perceptions and feelings (right or wrong) about each other, and share vital information for decision making in the context of those relationships, perceptions and feelings. He suggests that leaders repeatedly, and with courage and discipline, actively shape people's behavours to align with good social process, through effective dialog.

Charan breaks down the process of managing the social system into the following steps:

  1. determining when important decisions and trade-offs have to be made and by whom
  2. designing regularly scheduled meetings with the right people, the right information
  3. actively shape behaviours that are displayed in making those decisions (to minimize information hoarding, going off on tangents, not getting to root of issues, driving to individual agendas, not surfacing conflicts and not reaching clear resolutions etc.)
When I reflect on the fundamentals of what Charan proposes, I see a very strong case for facilitation as a core competency among managers and leaders, implementing facilitative leadership, and a case for the type of work that Farm Credit Canada did to define and cascade their cultural practices.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Acronyms are Better for Senders Than Receivers

Have you ever been in a meeting where a participant, conveying, or perhaps trying to "market", some business idea, excitedly tables a "cool" acronym that they have come up with?

Or how about meetings where the only thing more frequent that the use of acronyms is the question "Wait, before we go any further, what does THAT mean?

In The Neglected Receiver of Knowledge Sharing, which appeared in Ivy Business Journal March / April 2002, Nancy Dixon shares a very important but over looked notion of focusing on the receiver in knowledge sharing, not the sender.

One quote in particular stands out for me: "The sharing of ideas with others is one of the most profound and difficult things we do. We have only to look at our own missed understanding and misunderstandings that result from attempts to share our ideas."

No truer words have been said!

Acronyms are good efficient, short forms of communication in specific circumstances where a group of people share the same contexts and background, and where the acronym use has been well communicated and socialized. But in generally, they block or slow down communication, in particular when people stop asking for definitions in the interest of moving a meeting or conversation forward.

Want to improve knowledge sharing - stop depending on acronyms.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Facilitation - The Cornerstone of Successful Project Management ??

Two of the blogs I track are PM related - PMThink by Jerry Manas and a number of his colleagues, and Reforming Project Management by Hal Macomber. To pursue an idea I was considering for a blog entry (this one) I searched both blogs for for "facilitation" and, as I suspected, it's not a hugely popular word in the context of project management, but a couple of very interesting things popped out:

On PMthink, an entry titled Scheduling is Dead, Bring on Chaos; So Says A Foremost Scheduling Expert, which referenced an article on the PM Forum web site by Murray B. Woolf, PMP, Managing Director of the PMI College of Scheduling’s Scheduling Excellence Initiative, titled The Future of Scheduling? Scheduling Has No Future!

It contained a rather provocative quote .. " My prophecy is that the progeny of today’s schedulers will be called Project Facilitators and the broader discipline will be called Project Facilitation. The overall role will still be as it is now, to assist project management, but they will do so by providing products and services that facilitate project performance. Those products and services may well include planning, scheduling, analyzing, monitoring, reporting, forecasting, and -- facilitating itself."

On Reforming Project Management, back in 2005, Hal posted a very thoughtful What is Project Management, which contains the following:

"I've taken a look at other models of project management recently and am coming to the conclusion that the (mechanistic) models are generally flawed because they concentrate not on the project, but on 'project management' as though this activity of bringing projects to fruition has an independent importance. They also neglect the fact, in my view, that projects are humanistic endeavors: done by and for people, and thus are constrained primarily socially."

"Like general management, project management is facilitation of communities of productive intent to achieve desired outcomes. With 'projects' noted as being more customised than routinised, relying on a temporary community for their realisation rather than an established or semi-permanent one."

I think there are many project managers who intuitively understand this. As an example, I've had the pleasure of meeting Mike Bogan a number of times in a work setting. He writes a blog titled I Think, does. Most recently Mike was offering his thoughts and experience in Planning and Estimating, and spent a lot of time talking about bringing different perspectives and types of expertise to the table since one person does not have all the answers, creating an environment / process to surface and leverage the different perspectives, collaboratively creating plans and estimates etc.

I think it's pretty clear that facilitation (diagnosing and intervening to increase group effectiveness through improved problem identification, resolution and decision making) & facilitative leadership, are core elements or competencies of good project management in today's complex and complicated work environments.

Therefore, should not project managers, and organizations who employee project managers, strive to explicitly assess, validate, and improve facilitation skills and capabilities?