Push: Encouraging the growth and development of others

Push: Encouraging the growth and development of others

Sometimes the only thing missing is a little push.

Once upon a time, many years ago in a small rural town the time had come for the spring fair.

It was an annual event, a celebration of both the end of winter and the coming of the growing season, with its long days and heavy labor. The spring fair had everything that you typically associate with a spring fair; there were games, there was good food and cool drinks; iced tea, lemonade, and perhaps even an ice cold beer if you knew who to ask. The fair was held in a meadow on the bank of the large river that flowed by the town.

On the day of the fair people began arriving early. There were tables to set, tents to pitch and games to organize, but mostly there was time to renew old acquaintances and revel in the glory of the spring; a spring that seemed especially beautiful, as the winter had been long and cold.

The weather was perfect. It was a day not unlike those that we remember from our childhood – a warm breeze, a bright sun in a sky of robin-egg blue, a few wisps of clouds but none that threatened rain. The only reminder of the winter was the river.

Normally it was peaceful, but the winter’s snow had been heavy and spring was late. The run off was considerable that year, and the calm river was now full of currents and rapids. The river was angry, and mothers and fathers warned their children away from the river. But as the day wore on the watchful eyes of the parents were distracted, and the wonders of bluebells and frogs and turtles called to the children; for some the siren song was just too loud to ignore. It wasn’t long before a few of them were scrambling along the river bank in search of whatever treasures they could find when suddenly a young girl named Rebecca lost her footing and fell in. She was immediately swept away in the icy flow. Her mother (or maybe it was her sister, I can’t remember) screamed “Rebecca’s in the river!” and all the townspeople rushed towards the riverbank. It was chaos, yelling, screaming; only those right beside the riverbank were able to see. There was no doubt it was Rebecca – her long blond hair could be seen clearly in the dark, cold, swirling water. You would think someone would go in after her but that was not the case. Very few people in the town knew how to swim; it was a skill that wasn’t really required by a farming life. You could see the frustration, fear and impotence etched on their faces as they stood there, transfixed by what was happening.

Then there was another splash; a young man was swimming out into the river! A few people recognized him; his name was Tom, a farmhand who came to help with last fall’s harvest and stayed over the winter, doing odd jobs in the community. Not many knew him well, as he was quiet and reserved and generally kept to himself. But now he was the center of attention. He swam like an Olympian, cutting through the heavy current, reaching the girl in seconds. Grabbing her with one hand, he made his way back to the shore with the girl safely in tow. He reached the riverbank, passed Rebecca into the arms of the onlookers, and collapsed, exhausted. The crowd went crazy! What courage! What bravery! What selflessness! Had the townspeople held an election he would have been acclaimed mayor. Slowly the young man, shivering and covered with mud, raised himself up onto his knees and looked up into the crowd. They all went quiet in anticipation of what he was about to say. He cleared his throat and gasped, “All right, who in the hell pushed me!”

An excellent question. But here are two better ones: why did Tom need to be pushed, and why did the person who pushed chose Tom?

Why do people need a push? I’ve thought about this question for a long time; at first glance there seems to be a whole host of why reasons why individuals remain passive when what is required is decisive action, why they defer instead of deciding, why they procrastinate instead of moving forward. But when you start to separate the symptoms from the root cause if becomes clear that the reason people choose not to act is a simple one.

It’s fear.

And I think it’s fear at a very primal level. It’s not necessarily goal-related; it’s not just the failure of achieving the objective. It’s what our family and friends (and enemies) are going think when our failure becomes common knowledge. It’s what the failure will do to our self-image. It’s trying to figure out how we could possibly cope with the failure and deciding that that version future is too bleak to imagine.

We do a risk versus reward calculation in our heads and the answer we get is that it’s too risky. The issue is that we misperceive the risk; we ask ourselves what could go wrong and we enumerate all the ways we can fail and tally up the consequences. This is not a bad thing to do; it would be foolish to proceed in virtually any venture without some assessment of the risk. Looking both ways before you cross the street a reasonable, pragmatic precaution to take. The problem arises with our assessment of the likelihood of the risk. We almost always overestimate the chances of the risk actually occurring; to paraphrase Winston Churchill, we become a hostage to the ‘sum of all our fears’. In the end, we let fear win and we chose not to act; we remain passive and let our future be decided by the vagaries of fate instead of by our own actions. When fear paralyzes us we become catatonic and unable to move. Like Tom, we stand on the riverbank knowing that we could be the difference but are unwilling to commit. And our opportunity flows downstream until it disappears from sight.

We need a push.

We need someone to help us overcome our fear, break our immobility and move us forward.

Look at the people with whom you work. Is there anybody in stuck in a rut? Anyone capable of more than they are delivering? Do you see anyone in need of a push?

And what is a push, exactly? It is this: It is giving someone the opportunity to be successful and then helping them succeed. It’s removing the fear that’s holding them back. It’s being their safety net. And it’s easier than you would imagine.

Four Prerequisites for an Effective Push

There are four simple prerequisites that need to be in place before you can give someone an effective push.


The first is aptitude. Make sure the individual has the innate skills and talents to do what is required. This isn’t a training concern; it’s a question of making sure that the opportunity matches their talents. It’s unfair to put someone in a position where they have no familiarity with the job at hand.


The second is attitude. The individual must want the opportunity, and they need to believe that with your help they can be successful. They don’t necessarily need to recognize that they need a push (but it helps). They need to acknowledge, or at least hope, that they are capable of bigger and better things. The recognition is key; they need to possess a desire for growth and achievement.

Availability (Them)

The third is availability. This is simple but it can be easily overlooked. They need to have time in their day to address the opportunity. If someone is already working 40 hours a week the chance that they’ll be enthused at the prospect of working another 30 or 40 hours on a special opportunity is pretty slim. Allow them to focus a significant portion of their time on the opportunity at hand – reassign some of their current tasks or put the tasks aside for the time being. Demonstrate that you consider them an asset and that you (and the organization) are willing to make an investment.

Availability (You)

The forth is also is availability: yours. For a push to work you need to be able to coach and mentor the individual. Sometimes it’s as simple as listening and giving advice. (Sometimes it’s as hard as listening and not giving advice!) This is where the ‘safety net’ aspect of the relationship comes into play. Give them as much independence as they can handle while continuing to hold them accountable for the outcome. It’s a lot like helping your child learn to ride a bicycle; knowing how fast they can progress is an art, not a science. It takes some trial and error but eventually you both get the hang of it. Soon they’ll be off riding on their own through the neighborhood (and you’ll have a whole new set of worries!).

With any luck they will succeed in the endeavor. Celebrate their success. If despite everyone’s best efforts the endeavor does not succeed, learn from the failure and recognize their efforts. And if the effort was not there, accept that your judgment was flawed and you picked the wrong person. Learn from it and move on.

Pushing works. Try it – show someone that you have faith in them and then give them the opportunity prove you right. Be prepared to be amazed at the results.

And what became of Tom, the reluctant hero who needed a push?

After reading a draft of this post a cynical friend of mine remarked that no good deed goes unpunished, and that Tom probably caught a chill from the cold water, developed pneumonia and died. I prefer to think that things worked out a little bit better than that.

Tom’s reluctant heroism caught the eye of a young lady whose father happened to own the local bank. Her name was Margaret. She was smart, pretty and determined; Margaret and Tom wed the following summer. Her father took his new son-in-law under his wing and taught him the banking business, giving him his lead most of the time and a gentle push when he need it. Tom started at the bottom and learned as he went, and after a number of years became the manager, and eventually the owner. He always treated his customers fairly and honestly, and in time was widely regarded as the best banker in both the town and all the surrounding counties.

No one ever owned up to pushing Tom. As for Rebecca, her ordeal was quickly forgotten and she grew up straight and strong and true.

And they all lived happily ever after.







Photo Credit: wizardhat via Compfight cc

Project Manager or Project Leader?

Project Manager or Project Leader?

I have a pet peeve that I need to vent about; it’s about the title ‘Project Manager’.

I just can’t stand it. It’s not really all that descriptive of all that you are being asked to do. I think it minimizes the scope and focus of the role. You are a Project Leader.

To me, the word ‘manager’ denotes something akin to an administrator or a bureaucrat. There’s nothing wrong with being a manager. I was a manager for a long time – it was a difficult role. Proper management of a project is critical, but on most projects you are doing far more than managing.

You are driving and implementing change. You are improving the customer’s condition. You are delivering value. You are leading.

Let me reiterate this – you are not merely managing. You are leading.

In order to be successful I personally believe that it is absolutely essential to understand what it means to be a leader of a project.

You are the CEO of the project. Or you are a general leading troops into battle. Or a great maestro conducting an orchestra. Or whatever. Regardless of the metaphor you chose, the salient fact is that you are in charge. You are personally responsible for the successful delivery of the project. You are accountable.

Project management isn’t just the management of tasks and activities on the project; it’s the leadership of the people who are working on the project.   Once you realize this the chance of you being successful rises by an order of magnitude or more.

You are a leader, as well as:

  • A manager
  • A mentor
  • A teacher
  • A student
  • A counsellor
  • An anthropologist
  • A task master
  • A choreographer
  • A facilitator
  • A problem solver
  • A negotiator
  • An envoy

You can never be a friend. You may have friends working with you on the project, but within the confines of the project they are not your friends. Remember that business is business.

There are other things you don’t want to be. A puppet. A marionette. A magician or fortune teller. And you don’t want to be a scapegoat. If you’re a truly a leader it’s unlikely that you will be any of these.

Leadership, Organization and Appreciation

The role of the project leader boils down to three separate and distinct responsibilities; the first is a leadership, the second is organization and the third is appreciation.


You can go into any bookstore and find literally hundreds of books that deal with the subject of leadership. It is up to you to decide how applicable they are to your particular situation.

From the project perspective my belief with regards to leadership is this: leadership is the ability to give direction in terms of what needs to be done to who needs to do it, as well as to provide guidance on how it should be done.

It is your responsibility as a project leader to drive out ambiguity and replace it with clarity; to replace uncertainty with certainty, supplant chaos and confusion with order and predictability.

You are responsible for the successful delivery of the project; you are responsible for that the methodology being followed on the project is sound and valid; you are responsible for ensuring that the development effort is complete.

One thing you are not responsible is the business outcome of the implementation – that is the responsibility of the project champion.


Organizing is also a core responsibility; it’s what people think of when you say ‘project management’. You have been hired to get things done. Getting things done is best accomplished by having a process or methodology to follow – this will help ensure that the journey as smooth as possible. This is more than a project plan; it’s ensuring that key stakeholders are available when required; that expectations are reasonable and that they are managed; that individuals’ vacations are taken into account; that documents are circulated and signed off in the appropriate timeframe as well as a myriad of other things. If you are making up the process as you go you are likely to fail.

People need to know the steps that the project is going to follow – the planned sequence of events. This is the document that everyone associates with project management – the project schedule.

Every project should have a set of agreed upon ground rules that all parties consent to – rules that define the general accountabilities of the group. Think of them as operating principles for the project. Things like turnaround time for document approvals, how much notice is required for a meeting, what responsibilities meeting attendees have – at a minimum it’s no more than a couple of pages worth but having these rules documented and agreed to at the start will eliminate a great deal of anguish later in the project. But it’s also needed to ensure that the eventual outcome to be reached at the end of the project (or phase, or task) is understood and agreed to by all the stakeholders.

It is important to never lose sight of the fact that you are really an intermediary who is representing the needs and desires of the project champion and the larger organization. You may be a general but the project champion is the commander in chief.

There is another aspect of understanding that both you and your team need to keep in mind. You and your team are engaged in important work that is going deliver benefits to the organization that has hired you. The project is actually a secondary concern. It is a means to an end, and the end is the delivery of the expected benefits. It is very easy to get lost in the details and the day-to-day concerns of the project and lose sight of why the project is actually being undertaken. A well-conceived project will always have a clear line of sight to the value it will deliver, and that value should never become secondary to the execution of the project. If the value isn’t clearly apparent at all times then it’s an indication that there are some fundamental flaws in either the construction of the project or that the raison d’etre of the project has not been well thought out.


Appreciation is a word with multiple meanings. In this case we are using it to denote totally different connotations.

In the first sense, appreciation is used to mean ‘understanding or comprehension’. As the project leader, it is your responsibility to understand the status of the project at all times. The state of the budget and the schedule, who is assigned to what task, upcoming milestones, when the next major deliverable is due, and so on, and so on … there is a myriad of details that must be tracked and reported on. It’s up to you to ensure that it all gets done. It’s also up to you to ensure that everyone else appreciates just exactly what is required of them, as well as when it is required.

In the second sense, appreciation denotes gratitude and thanks. This is closely aligned with leadership; you should always recognize the efforts and contributions of your team. You will only succeed if your team delivers. It is very easy to take them for granted. Don’t.

At the end of the day the terminology might not matter all that much. What really matters is your attitude and actions; whether you call yourself a project manager or project leader is immaterial. Do you see yourself as someone who is executing a project, or someone who is delivering value through the execution of a project? It’s a small shift in perspective but sometimes a small change makes a big difference. Try taking the latter view; you may find that you’ve become a leader.

I’m through venting. Thanks for your indulgence.

PS. I don’t hold out much hope that these views about project leadership are going to catch on. After all, the term ‘project manager’ is entrenched in the business world. You can get an MBA in project management or become certified in project management, but in project leadership? Not so much. And in looking at my CV, in my list of previous roles you’ll see that I was a project manager, not a project leader.

PPS. But should I ever work on another project, I will do my best to not just manage, but to lead.

 photo credit: Sky Noir via photopin cc

Bridge to the Future – a stellar example of forward-thinking design

Bridge to the Future – a stellar example of forward-thinking design

Let’s talk about another bridge.

It’s about a mile and a half north of the Queen Street Bridge.  Its official title is “The Prince Edward Viaduct System”.  It was completed in 1918, and like many public works projects of that time it was named after a royal. Its namesake, Prince Edward, was the Prince of Wales at the time; he was destined to become King Edward VIII. He was also destined to abdicate the throne and lived most of the rest of his life in exile in France (where he was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer). Prince Edward and his story feel like ancient history; maybe this is why virtually all Torontonians know it as ‘The Viaduct’.  These facts by themselves do not make this bridge important.

The bridge was needed to connect central Toronto with its eastern boroughs. It took a while for the general populace to warm up to the idea; the most contentious issue was the cost.  There were multiple referendums before the construction was approved in 1913. The Viaduct spans the 600 yard wide Don River Valley. The valley is a product of the last age of glaciation. What used to be a ranging torrent is now really just a creek; the present day Don River is only about 20 yards wide, gently flowing south towards Lake Ontario before it vanishes into the Toronto docklands. Again, these are interesting facts but by themselves do not make this bridge important.

A recent addition to the bridge is a structure called ‘the Luminous Veil’.   Despite the ethereal sounding name it has a sobering purpose – it’s a suicide prevention barrier.  Over the years people intent on committing suicide seemed drawn to the Viaduct, so much so that it became the second most common location in North America to commit suicide (the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco has the dubious distinction of being the most common). The Veil has been very successful at preventing suicides at the bridge, but sadly the numbers across Toronto haven’t declined; studies have shown that people have found other bridges. The Luminous Veil is important for what it represents, but it’s not what makes the bridge important.

The reason it’s called a ‘viaduct’ is that the bridge is constructed of a series of concrete and steel arches that is reminiscent of a Roman aqueduct. The road surface manages 5 lanes of traffic; underneath the roadway is a dual rail line that is used by Toronto’s subway system.  The Bloor-Danforth subway line runs east-west across the city; it opened in 1966. The Toronto subway system is not as extensive as those found in other cities like New York, London or Paris, but it is absolutely essential in helping the city function. Over 1.5 million passengers are moved by Toronto transit every day and many of them travel on trains that cross the Viaduct.

It’s not until all the facts are tied together that the significance of what the bridge represents becomes evident. Just to summarize – construction of the bridge completed in 1918. The design of the bridge included a capability for rail traffic. The Toronto east-west subway line opens in 1966.  What is important is this: The designers of the bridge incorporated a feature into the design a full 50 years before it was required.

They accepted the additional cost in order to create something that had no current utility but had an incredible future value. When the subway line was constructed the Viaduct required next to no modification to accommodate the subway. (Let’s give them credit – their names were Edmund Burke and Thomas Taylor.) 

This is in stark contrast to what happens today on the average business project. The goal seems to be to minimize costs at the expense of functionality; it’s been my experience that most people, especially business leadership, are much more comfortable with removing features in the name of cost-savings than they are with adding features and adding to the expense.

The word ‘expense’ is at the root of the problem. Money spent on change can be viewed as an expense or as an investment. Unfortunately in today’s environment the former view is predominant, and like any expense the preference is to make it as small as possible, or eliminate it altogether. Investments, on the other hand, have the goal of generating value – you are paying now for a potential future return.  I think what we need are more leaders who can see beyond the cost of change, and instead look at the value that it will generate, even if that value is not realized until sometime in the future. Although 50 years is probably too long a wait!

The future is notoriously hard to predict. There are no guarantees when it comes to organizational change; it takes a degree of courage to invest your company’s money (not to mention your reputation) on a course of action where the outcome is not certain. But the risk can be managed. Do your research. Be reasonable in your assumptions. Temper expectations. Have contingency plans.  Assemble a good team. These are all prerequisites – ignore any of them and you are no longer investing, you are gambling.

And let’s be honest – sometimes the investment doesn’t pay off.  The Rosedale Valley Viaduct is the next bridge in the system, and if you stand underneath it and look up you will see the same rail lines but you won’t hear the rumbling of subways.  These lines aren’t used; use of the bridge required a turn in the line that was just too abrupt for modern subways. They would have worked for streetcars (which is probably what the designers had in mind). In this case their investment didn’t realize any value; a new bridge had to be constructed to accommodate the subway.

What about you? Are your change initiatives considered an expense or an investment? Have your investments paid off? Feel free to share.

One more thing. Suicide is not a topic that most people like to talk about but talking can help. If you are suffering emotional distress or are in crisis and want to talk call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The number works in both the USA and Canada.

photo credit: Toronto Public Library Special Collections via photopin cc

This River I Step In: Some thoughts on Change

This River I Step In: Some thoughts on Change

If you travel out of downtown Toronto along Queen Street East you will eventually reach the bridge that spans the Don River.  Atop the bridge is a line of text which reads:

“This river I step in is not the river I stand in”

The quote is paraphrased from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Sources seem to agree that what he wrote was actually something like “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.” (Which come to think of it sounds a bit like Yoda).

Heraclitus spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of change, and eventually concluded that permanence is an illusion and that change is the only true reality.  His entire philosophy on change can be summed up in two words – Panta rhei – “everything flows”.

We are a long way away from 500 BC.  Perhaps the passage of time makes simple truths seem archaic, or perhaps our harried lifestyles prevent us from considering the implications of something so fundamentally straightforward.

Here’s what I take away from it:  the longer your change initiative takes the less likely the outcome will match your expectations. Because everything is always changing.

You are aiming at a moving target. It might not feel that way, because you are caught up in the flow of change just like everything else is. But change is unpredictable; in a change initiative of a long duration there are just too many variables in play to be able to accurately predict what the future is going to look like. You have a vision of what you want the future to look like but there are no guarantees. It’s possible that you may get lucky and that the target may remain more or less where you expected to be, but it’s equally likely that the target will not be where you expected it to be, nor will it be what you expected it to be. This makes it likely that you will need a change initiative within your change initiative, costing more money and more time.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow, particularly if you have invested a lot of time and money in first place.

The best way to minimize this risk is to make the change cycle shorter. Your target has less time to shift if the duration is shorter and you will be able make any required course corrections prior to the start of the next change cycle. It will cost less and take less time than the alternative – executing a long duration change initiative and having to stop and restart several times for rework and realignment.

There are added benefits to this approach. Investment is deferred. Benefits are delivered earlier. Change is more gradual, making it easier for the business and individuals to digest.  And the initiative is far easier to manage.

As well as having a much greater probability of success.

More about the artist Eldon Garnet and the art installation (Time and a Clock) of which the bridge is part.

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Management by Wishful Thinking

Management by Wishful Thinking

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” — Aldous Huxley

It started at an off-site meeting.

The President of ACME Inc. and his executive team were off at a three day strategic planning session. They had just finished lunch and the participants were starting to leave the table, checking their emails and making last minute phone calls before the afternoon session started.

As the President pushed back his chair he said to no one in particular, “I wonder if overhauling inventory control could save us any money. I’ve been president 10 years now and I don’t remember ever looking at inventory control.” Something had caused him to recall an article about advancements in inventory control that he had read in an airline magazine during a trip to a recent sales conference. He stood up and started to walk back to the conference room.

Mr. James Keener, the COO, was sitting across from the President and overheard the comment.  Jim had been with the company for about seven months. He was looking for an initiative that he could hitch his wagon to and demonstrate that he was someone who knew how to get things done.  The President wasn’t going to be around forever and when the time came Jim wanted to be his successor.

In the space of the next five minutes the following text conversation took place.

chg phone txt

Jim pocketed his phone and strode purposefully back towards the meeting room; he was on a mission.

At the next break Jim took the President aside.

“I heard what you said about inventory control – it’s something I’ve been looking at. I think we could completely overhaul the process in about eight months.”

The President paused for a second. He was thinking about the presentation that the SVP of Sales had just given on the five year sales outlook; the growth projections were less than he had expected. “What’s the cost and what’s the benefit?”

Jim was ready with the answer, “I’d be surprised if it was more than $1M.  We haven’t calculated the savings yet but I think we’ll break even in less than 18 months.” Jim knew that 18 was the magic number; any initiative with a breakeven of greater than 18 months would be rejected. After a brief pause, he added, “I personally guarantee this will work.”

The President was still distracted by the sales projections.  “If you can do it without any additional staff then go ahead.”

The next day Jim called his staff together for an emergency meeting.

Once everyone was in the room, Jim began speaking, “The President has given us a critical task – we’re going to revamp inventory control. We’ve got six months and $750K to make this a reality.  I realize that this is a lot of work and everyone’s got their day jobs but he made it clear that this the most important task we have.”

There was a rustling of paper somewhere in the back of the room and a voice spoke up. “I don’t see it on the project list anywhere.”

Jim was a go-getter; he was ready for this. “It’s not on the list because it’s not a project.  I’ve told the President we can do it operationally. I know most of you aren’t used to working like this but I am; it’s going to work because I’m running the show. Anybody who doesn’t agree … well, there’s the door.”

And so it began, another initiative born of MBWT – Management by Wishful Thinking.

Why are people so willing to ignore reality and to make commitments and plans based on what they want to happen rather than what is likely to happen? There are many reasons but two of the biggest are rampant optimism and overconfidence.

Rampant Optimism

Some people have a brighter outlook on life than the average person.  They tend to be less risk adverse than average because they have an inherent belief that everything will work out for the best. Optimism is not a bad thing; in fact, a strong argument can be made that optimists are disproportionally responsible for making progress as they are able to persevere through risks and setbacks that would cause an average person to change their course.  But a successful optimist maintains a close contact with reality; they have a positive outlook but aren’t willfully blind to negative scenarios. Rampant optimism is a different matter. When an optimist starts disregarding reality and replaces it with an unrealistic outlook they have stopped being an optimist and have become a dreamer; and in the land of dreams anything is possible.


Confidence is not a bad thing. Look at Jim for example. He’s a COO of a major company; he didn’t get there by accident.  He’s almost certainly got a MBA, and he’s had a series of jobs where he has learned, gained experience and been successful enough to warrant being hired by ACME. He has been successful and has earned the right to be confident in his judgment and his abilities. In fact, Jim has to be confident (or at least perceived as confident); who wants a COO that appears apprehensive or uncertain? The trouble begins when confidence and hubris mix. Problems will ensue when Jim starts believing that he can generate positive outcomes using his sheer force of will. He will ignore or minimize risks, he won’t see potential negative outcomes, and will set overly aggressive plans with little or no contingency.  The result is a failure just waiting to happen.

Management by Wishful Thinking is difficult to counter.  For one thing, it’s contagious. It takes a strong individual to continually play the devil’s advocate in these situations; it’s much easier (and likely less of a career risk) to go with the flow. The best advice I can offer is to make sure that the standard processes and procedures are followed.  Go by the book – there will be pressure to make exceptions and to take shortcuts, particularly once issues arise and the timeline begins to be impacted.  When exceptions are made make sure the particulars are well documented. It’s sad, but once your organization has decided to execute a MBWT initiated there isn’t really much you can do other than to fulfill your responsibilities as completely as possible and to protect yourself by documenting everything.

And how did everything at ACME work out? Revamping inventory control cost ACME $2.3M and it took 19 months. Three people quit and another is off on stress leave. No one is really looking at the payback right now because everyone is just so relieved that it’s over, but when they eventually crunch the numbers they will find the payback period is 33 months. Jim has struck a committee to find out why the development process is so badly broken. He’s promised the President that he’ll get to the bottom of this and make the appropriate changes.

He gave his personal guarantee.

Have you been on an MBWT initiative? Have you ever been on one that’s successful?

Feel free to comment.

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Nightfall – a story about change and consequences

Nightfall – a story about change and consequences

In 1941 Isaac Asimov (who was a prolific writer – he wrote or edited over 500 books as well as hundreds of short stories) published a short story entitled Nightfall.  Set on a distant planet, it’s a classic science fiction tale. The theme of the story is cultural and societal in nature; it’s about the consequences of change and our unpreparedness for it. Even after 70 years its message (and the conclusions we can reach from it) are relevant.

The action takes place on the planet Lagash. It seems to be a planet much like earth but the solar system that Lagash belongs to is unusual; there is one primary sun but there are also five secondary suns. It is never night on Lagash; the inhabitants live in a state of perpetual sunshine because of the number of suns and the complexity of their orbits. Since night never falls on Lagash they are not aware of the larger universe; for them the entire universe consists of six stars and one planet.

The story reveals that scientists have recently made several discoveries. Archeologists have uncovered evidence that the Lagash civilization collapses every 2,000 years. They have proof that there have been nine previous cycles. Astronomers have discovered aberrations in the orbits of the suns, leading them to hypothesize that there is another unseen object in their solar system, which in turn leads them to a theory about the potential of eclipses, one of which is predicted to be imminent. There are also religious nuances to the story.  A group, called The Cult, possess ancient texts that speak about the Night and the Stars, two topics that are dismissed by many of the scientists as mere mythology. But to their credit some of the scientists try to anticipate what will happen if night does fall. One speculates that the universe might be bigger that they had ever considered; maybe one or two dozen suns. Some even build a chamber to simulate how stars might appear (and to see if their appearance drives them mad).

The eclipse begins as predicted and panic builds across Lagash. When totality is achieved and night finally falls to everyone’s horror they find that the issue isn’t the darkness. It’s the stars.

“With the slow fascination of fear, he lifted himself on one arm and turned his eyes toward the blood-curdling blackness of the window. Through it shone the Stars! Not Earth’s feeble thirty-six hundred Stars visible to the eye; Lagash was in the center of a giant cluster. Thirty thousand mighty suns shone down in a soul-searing splendor that was more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the cold, horribly bleak world.”

And for the tenth time, all across Lagash the cities burn.

I read a lot of science fiction when I was in my teens and I vividly recall reading Nightfall. In re-reading it now I am a bit disappointed when I realize that I kind of missed the point. I originally believed it to be just a good astronomy story (I thought my 14 year old self was brighter than that!) but now I realize that it’s about change, and I see three lessons.

What you see is all there is

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize-winning author Daniel Kahneman discusses the concept of ‘What You See Is All There Is’ – WYSIATS for short. Kahneman asserts (and he has the research to back it up) that because of the way our brain operates we jump to conclusions based on the consistency of information available. In short, we take the information available and create a coherent story out of it.  It’s not the quality or the quantity of information, it’s the consistency of it. Sometimes we think it’s intuition or a hunch, and to quote Kahneman, “Much of the time, the coherent story we put together is close enough to reality to support reasonable action.”

But sometimes it isn’t. The more complex the situation the less lightly that the intuitive answer is correct. In Nightfall, the scientists have their story and the cultists have theirs. Both are reasonable based on the facts that they have gathered, but neither group sees the entire picture.  They only see parts of the whole; yet both groups are confident that they are taking the correct actions.

How can we combat this tendency? Unless you are in a life-threatening situation taking the time for a period of sober second thought is a good idea. Take some time and expand your frame of reference by obtaining extra data or by taking a closer examination of the data you already have. It’s ok to have a hunch, just make sure that you find concrete facts to back up your intuition.

Ignorance is not bliss

The behavior of the characters on Lagesh is different depending on how well they understand what is happening.  The scientists have their calculations, hypotheses and predictions. The cultists have their faith and their scriptures. The general population has neither facts nor faith; they just have their ignorance, uncertainty and fear.

Change initiatives in organizations are no different. It’s my experience that all too often we make the mistake of assuming that because we (the leaders, or designers, or implementers) understand the change initiative everyone else does too. That’s a dangerous assumption.  I think in general organizations do a poor job of helping individuals understand the change that is occurring.  Communication is a good start but it’s on its own it is not enough. In the past I have used an informal tool that I call ‘the Knowledge Continuum’ to measure how well a change initiative is understood.  It looks like this:

Data –> Information –> Knowledge –> Understanding –> Insight

Based on what I have observed the communications for most change initiatives provide a great deal of information, some knowledge and virtually no understanding. (If your organization is an exception, then please accept my congratulations – you should package your methodology and sell it). I believe that the challenge is one of time and cost. It takes an effort (and it could be significant) to move along the continuum, regardless of whether it’s an entire organization or a single individual that is being moved. In my opinion, in virtually every case it is worth making the effort. Your change initiative needs more than a communication plan – it needs an understanding plan. I view this as an investment and the justification for it falls under the realm of risk management. Compare the cost of the understanding plan versus the potential productivity loss you risk from a disengaged workforce. Do the math and see what makes sense.

Prepare to be surprised

Sometimes we are the initiators of change and sometimes we have change thrust upon us.  Regardless of how well prepared you are for change you will face surprises and uncertainties that will need to be resolved. They may not be as big as the one at the end of Nightfall, but even the smallest surprise can result in major setbacks. I remember when my first child was born; I had read dozens of books on baby care and parenting, but reading is different that experiencing.  I was prepared as I could be but in retrospect nowhere near as prepared as I would have liked to be. I remember the first month of  fatherhood as being a very intensive learning experience! But I muddled through and eventually became reasonably competent in the art and science of parenthood.

It can take time prepare yourself for change and to work through the intended (and unintended) consequences of change once it occurs. Temper your expectations and give yourself and your organization sufficient time to prepare for what might happen, to internalize what has happened and to address what still needs to happen.

Interested in reading Nightfall? Check it out here.

photo credit: Skiwalker79 via photopin cc

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