Some time ago, I was interviewed by Samir Penkar, who’s researching the future of project management. For this particular conversation, we discussed the Scrum Master role. Check the video below to see where it got us.
Setting aside the enormous power of our habits, several times each day, we still have a conscious choice to make. While we usually fail to notice that, each of them is inevitably influenced by complex set of biases. And there are literally hundreds of these. Just see this amazing infographic. Despite corporate pushes to always make the best choice possible, finding an optimal one is quite tricky. I even dare to say it’s impossible, given that there’s always a set of factors we’re not even aware of. If we care to be on the spot, usually we’ll just be close enough.
But what if we could do one simple thing to improve the process? Just a small tiny detail? Wouldn’t that be good?
A few years ago, the key employee of my client notified them of canceling his contract. Do you know what the CEO said upon hearing the news? “Damn, that’s bad.” Then he started figuring a way to handle the situation, as everyone would expect. Disbelief, anger, disappointment – all underlined with a notion of uncertain future. To ensure everyone else that things aren’t actually that bad, he called for an all employee meeting, sharing the optimistic operational data and mentioning several promising prospects. He’s never done that before.
As you can imagine, he clearly overdone it, prompting more employees to consider quitting.
A few months ago, a friend of mine – somewhat tired of her current employment – heard that competing business was to open nearby. Even more, they were fishing the job market for people just like her. All she could say was, clearly, “That’s good news!” With new optimism, she updated her resume and filed it instantly. You could see her eyes brightening up and cheering. With emotions and hopes storming within, she started to underperform at work. An ad-hoc feedback session, with HR member involved was, in her perception, just brutal.
The new business didn’t hire her.
A few weeks ago, as I was preparing to leave home in the morning, I checked the weather. It was to be foggy, moisty, and substantially colder than the day before. I distinctly recall saying to myself, “What a bad weather!” As I drove to a client, I kept thinking if any of my plans need updating due to unexpected conditions. As pessimism filled my heart and brain, the obstacles started piling up. I called my assistant and asked her to postpone important meeting to another day.
Then, out of nowhere, a viral thought manifested in my mind. It was strong enough to leave me missing one green light and pushing the envelope of everyone’s behind me tolerance to stupid drivers to their very limits. What if we all used wrong words?
As humans, we’re driven by emotions and gut feeling more than we would ever admit. It’s not really a bad thing. We’re perfect in our imperfection, that’s what makes us human.
The catch is that we can invoke these emotions with incredible ease. And they bias even more, for no valid reason whatsoever. Words like good, bad, great, fantastic – all impact our decision making. Which is sad, as they’re mere opinions, not facts.
What the CEO could’ve said instead? “Okay, that will impact our plans.” That’s a fact. “Damn, that’s bad” is an opinion. Ironically, business can actually benefit from departure of key employee – it sparks evolution, a change, an improvement of process to be more resilient in the future.
My friend? “So I have second career option.” It’s neither good, nor bad, just statement of a fact. And being happy of alternative option is likely to yield better results than being happy because, well, it’s good news.
Myself? “Okay, there’s fog outside”. As many of us, I was programmed in my childhood to automatically associate rainy days and fog with something bad. You know, “Don’t go outside, the weather is bad.” That’s beyond pointless. The weather just is. As are career options. As are events impacting businesses.
Now scroll up and read the last sentence of the second paragraph.
“Wouldn’t that be good?”
I think that stating it like “Wouldn’t that yield more benefits?” would’ve been more factual.
Just give it a shot. You’ll be surprised.
There’s a big project I’m working on in my life. While it’s too early to share more details, I can only say that hardly anything I did before was as exciting to me. I devote every available hour of my private life to this effort, which says a lot. There are no off days for me, not for a few months to come. Being myself, I even planned some time for planning and retrospective sessions. I started the execution just last Sunday, with specific actions roughly scheduled for the whole first week.
The very first day was, of course, planned with far greater precision. Four hours of scouting locations and setups for video-shooting, four hours editing texts, twelve kilometres run in the morning. I had all the data to make my estimates precise enough to have it done properly.
Halfway through the day, everything looked fine. I did my run, got proper lunch, did all the video related stuff. All that was left was writing.
Which is where you’d expect me to mention procrastination. Or bore you to death with writer’s block. Or be philosophical about how I realized my project was irrelevant to the existence of Universe.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
I procrastinated for quite a while in my life and, funnily enough, video to Massive Attack’s ‘Angel’ pushed me to deal with this kind of attitude once and for all. Writer’s block ended once I discovered that inspiration, somehow, usually found me working. And my project will make its ding on the Universe.
What happened then?
The amazing unpredictability of reality hit me with a hammer.
As I was driving back from the video scouting, I noticed a car in front of me changing two lanes at a time really fast. That wouldn’t be that surprising as, despite noticeable improvement over last decade, Eastern European driving culture still needs perfecting. Thing is, changing lanes ended on a side of another car, with loud bang and wild manoeuvring as the culprit fishtailed himself. Luckily, none of the vehicles was badly harmed and both remained fully driveable. Such minor collision would usually be just a nuisance and that’s what I was expecting. As I coasted to leave my contact details to the victim, the unthinkable happened.
Apparently, this was a hit and run situation. Culprit sped away from the scene. I’ve seen my fair share of car crashes, but never anything like it.
At this very moment, my precise project plan disappeared. Witnessing such an injustice, I forgot about it altogether, as yet another driver did.
We chased the hitting car for a few minutes, until we managed to block him at the intersection. As we got to the driver yelling to let him drive off, we noticed he was heavily drunk. We managed to get his keys and called the police.
The whole process, from the collision to the moment when we were done with all the formalities took well over three hours. My schedule for the Sunday was no longer an option. My project, however realistically I attempted to plan it, scored a serious delay on the very first day.
And I’m incredibly grateful for it.
Plans, even for a very near future, are always based on our expectations of how the reality would unveil. Most of the time it gets close enough to be correct, maybe with some minimal margin for error factored in. In some other cases, though, it gets far off.
With a project lasting a hundred days and several deliverables expected – I may assume it would happen a lot. So, how can I prepare? Here’s what I did later that Sunday:
- I made a visible indicator of my deliverables, their progress, and the timeline.
- Used many yellow post-it notes to write down the actions needed to complete first deliverable.
- Used quite a few blue post-it notes to write down deliverables further down the road.
- Created a to-do list for just the nearest future, think day or two.
Every morning, I run a simple Kanban-style exercise:
- Review and update ‘the big picture’ stats.
- Move completed action items (post-it notes) to done column. Those struck by reality get back to the pool, with specific comment.
- Tackle the to-do items one by one along the day.
- Rinse, repeat.
Benefits to this approach, as I can see them, are:
- I constantly remind myself of the big picture and adapt my daily plans accordingly.
- I am not over-planning – only the nearest future is properly broken down to items.
- I have all the flexibility I could ever wish for.
- I don’t need to use my resilience, as failure to meet the daily schedule doesn’t jeopardize the plan as a whole.
- The best thing is, my progress is actually faster than expected. Long-term planning makes one cautious – which is unnecessary for daily bursts of action.
All courtesy of one idiot driver tormenting the streets on just another Sunday. Guess I should thank him. I don’t think I’d like visiting prison, though.
Change is constant, omnipotent and unavoidable. Don’t fool yourself thinking you can plan for everything. Accept reality and adapt your approach to it first, conquest the world later.
At one point or another, every organization turns to hiring some truly experienced staff. People possessing skills unavailable in-house. Those that not only deliver more than the rookies – their performance can be seen as shocking. Their insights reach well beyond what’s visible to the naked eye.
Sometimes they turn whole business around and put it back in black. Sometimes they can foster growth of others, for the greater good. Sometimes their leadership (social, technological, actual…) can massively contribute to historic successes.
Most often though, they’re just a waste of money. Given their expertise and limited marketplace, a substantial waste of money. It’s not like it’s their intent.
It’s just that they’re misused.
How is it even possible? How can you understand the need for expert support, find the right person, pay them a ton of money – and somehow spoil it all?
It’s remarkably easy. You misuse expert by telling them what to do. Don’t ever do that.
Tell them what to achieve. They’ll tell you what to do. Then they’ll do what’s necessary.
There are several rules that decide the origin, highlight, and the ultimate fate of every society. There’s the commonality of values, however temporary that may be, deciding it’s appearance. A set of people brought together for whatever the reason, though deciding to stay together far enough the needs of survival, defined in myriad of ways. Then there’s the bright spot – a society rises, grows, and ultimately outshines every other around, attracting all kinds of decent folks, along with freeloaders and some plankton.
Then, as it inevitably fades, it reaches state of stability. Low enough not to become a spot on a radar for big sharks, big enough to thrive. Hey, have you thought about the people around you? Your closest circle of friends.
What are they like?
Seriously, sit there for a while and figure out what it is that defines your inner circle.
What are they like? What is it that defines them? What are the core beliefs that hold them together?
Really, write it down.
Got that? Now it’s going to get harder.
Look at the things you figured out. If you average them out, they will quite accurately describe the actual reality of one person.
That person is you.
There’s a reason for that. Being a ultrasocial species, we seek acceptance above everything else. Whatever role we currently play in the society – father, mother, single at particular age range – there are things our inner circle expects us to do. Everyone outside it expects everybody within to adhere to adequate set of rules.
The system scales up indefinitely, to encompass whole mankind, though that’s irrelevant.
Thing is, subconsciously, you will attempt to comply to rules of your inner circle. Ever heard of all those idiot kids doing the dumbest things imaginable? They do it for the very same reason for which you’re buying a flat on a 40-year mortgage, an enormous size TV set, and get a new car every four years. Odds are, you need neither of these.
Though everyone around has them. Darn it!
And as you might thing I just made my point, I’m not even close.
Career-wise, how far up do you think all these people in your inner circle might get? Executive status? Start-up owner? Just a regular Joe?
Whatever your circle is, you will attempt to keep up with them.
- Hang out with the winners, winners you shall be.
- Hang out with the average Joe, average Joe you shall be.
- Hang out with losers bringing you down, a loser bringing others down you shall be.
There’s the old saying:
“If you hang around with five idiots, you will be the sixth.”
Now, let me state the obvious. It is cruel. Some people just aren’t cut for big wins, epic achievements, and coming victorious out of the greatest of risks. And that’s perfectly okay. There’s nothing wrong with this.
As long as you make a conscious choice.
Now, look around you again. Do you think these people will help you go up, or bring you down to the level of their acceptable mediocrity?
Just don’t be cruel when making cuts. It’s not their fault they feel complacent. It’s not your fault you don’t. It’s just the fact of life.
Look around, make your choice, cut mercilessly.
Don’t be a sixth idiot. Unless, obviously, you want to. That’s your choice.