If you’re leading a project or a team you will know first hand that some people are easily motivated and committed to the work they do, whilst others are much harder to get through to. They ask lots of critical questions and resist any kind of control. If you are to overcome this kind of challenge and influence even the rebels on your team, you may have to change your approach.
It turns out that there is a relatively simple way to analyse and categorise people, which helps us understand how we respond differently to assignments, rules, habits and expectations. According to Gretchen Rubin, the best selling author of the Happiness Project, people fall into one of four categories when it comes to motivating themselves to getting work done. The four different categories that she talks about are Obligers, Questioners, Upholders and Rebels. According to her experience, the majority of people are obligers and questioners.
Understanding the category that each of your team members fall into will help you to better motivate and influence them to contribute constructively to your project. At a personal level it’s also useful to know which type you are, as it will help you to follow through with your commitments to yourself and others.
The way that Rubin categorises us is by looking at how likely we are to respond to a rule. In her terminology a rule can either be external or internal. An example of an external rule would be a deadline or a request from your manager. An example of an internal rule would be a personal goal you’d like to achieve or a new year’s resolution. No one asked you to do it. It stems from your own internal desire.
1. Obliger An obliger is someone who responds well to external demands and rules set by others. They do however struggle to keep the rules they set themselves and carry through with private goals. In other words, they are motivated by structures, accountability and deadlines imposed by others. They hate letting other people down and are motivated by doing what’s expected of them. In a team they are super reliable because they like to please. On the flipside they are not good at self-starting because no one is checking on them. They can also be prone to burnout and have difficulties saying no.
If you have an obliger on your team you probably don’t need to do much more than create some outer accountability, for instance by giving them clear deadlines. But don’t put too much pressure on them, as it will cause them to overwork and get stressed. If they feel that you are exploiting them they may end up walking away.
If through reading this you realise that you are an obliger yourself, you’ll need to create some external accountability to help meet your inner goals. If you want to exercise more for instance, sign up with a personal trainer or work out with a friend who can serve as an accountability buddy. For other types of goals you can also work with a coach who will help you stay accountable to yourself.
2. Questioner The questioner is someone who queries everything. They will only follow a rule or a request if it makes sense to them. They are motivated by sound reasons and good arguments – not by random requests or policies. Their favourite question is why something needs to get done and what the purpose is. On the plus side they can be very healthy for an organisation or a project because of their no-nonsense approach. If they agree that something needs to get done, they’ll be highly engaged. If not they won’t deliver what you expect. The drawback is their constant need to question things, which can be exhausting to everyone around.
If you work with a questioner always come prepared. Give them as much information as you have and let them know why the work you are asking them to do is important. If they don’t speak up, ask them what questions and concerns they have. It’s best to get their worries out in the open so that you can address them and also explain what happens if the work isn’t done.
It could also be that you are a questioner and that you struggle to get the things done that are important to you. If so, do sufficient research and get clarity on why you’re pursuing a certain aim in a certain way. Reassure yourself that the approach you’re leaning towards makes the most sense. If you find that you’re holding yourself back because you’re waiting for perfect information, remember that not all information is required to take the first step. To get the benefit from something you do need to get started.
3. Upholder The upholder is someone who respects inner rules and expectations as well as outer rules. They are motivated by fulfilment and by that nice feeling of getting stuff done and achieving something. On the plus side they are self-starters, reliable and don’t need a lot of supervision or accountability. They typically wake up and thinking “what’s on my to-do list today?” On the negative side they need clear rules to be able to operate and avoid letting anyone down. They don’t like to deviate from rules and get frustrated – paralyzed even – when rules are ambiguous or lacking. To others they can come across as rigid or cold. At times they can even make others feel bad because of their high levels of productivity
If you work with an upholder on your project, always give clear directions. Brief them on what you expect and by when you expect it. Also discuss how often you will check in with each other so that you both have full clarity.
If you are personally an upholder (like I am) then it’s probably easy for you to get work done and to achieve the things you want. On the flipside, be aware of how rigid you might appear to others. Be able to let go of your strict rules, and when things change, don’t freak out. Take a deep breath!
4. Rebel The rebel is someone who resists all rules – outer as well as inner. They want to do as they please and are motivated by their present desire. If you ask them to do something, not only will they not do it, they are very likely to want to do the opposite. They resist all control, even self-control. They act from a sense of freedom and don’t give themselves rules. They begin their day by asking “What do I want to do today?” Rebels aren’t constrained by rules and love to not have any. On a positive note it means that they will sometimes be fine to do what others won’t do as they may not be bound by social etiquette or worry about how others see them. On the negative side they can be frustrating to work with because of their nonconforming manner.
If you work with a rebel the best thing you can do is probably to challenge them. They do like a good challenge as long as it comes with buckets of freedom. Like with a rebellious child, say that you bet they can’t do it, e.g. produce a winning slogan. They’ll likely think “I’ll show you!” Be playful and give them freedom to rise to the challenge. You can also get through to them by demonstrating what happens if they don’t show up and take part in an activity. But don't nudge them. Let them arrive at the conclusion themselves.
If you are a rebel yourself, you might find your own resistance and lack of self-control difficult. Set yourself clear challenges and try out the rocking chair exercise. Imagine you are eighty years old and sitting on the porch in your rocking chair, looking into a peaceful garden. In that state imagine that you spent your entire life rebelling and didn’t achieve the things you really wanted. Take time to feel how awful that would feel. So challenge yourself to make your dreams come true!
As we enter 2018 many of us naturally consider what we would like the New Year to bring and what we would like to do and achieve. For me it will be no different. But for the first time in many years I will have more mind-set-related and behavioural goals than external achievement goals. In recent years my goals have been related to writing project leadership books, starting my business, attracting clients and travelling to new exotic locations. These types of goals are not about refining my behaviour, improving my thought patterns or cultivating personal attributes within myself. They are related to achieving things in the physical world. I sense that 2018 will be different as I’m trying to put less emphasis on external achievement goals. Instead I will trust that as long as I do the right things, I will attract the right experiences into my life.
It’s not that there is anything wrong with setting physical goals. We all have a need to feel that we are progressing and that we are moving forward in work and in life. We can feel a strong sense of accomplishment from obtaining a certain qualification, finishing a particular project or landing that dream job. Setting SMART goals and acting on them, definitely help us achieve our objectives. But we also need to allow ourselves to just be. We often put unnecessary pressure on ourselves by feeling that we need to be in a certain job position by a certain age or by constantly having to prove ourselves. We may feed our ego by accomplishing a lot, but we don’t necessarily feed our spirit.
I always tell my coaching clients that the real work is the internal work. If we spend time looking inwards, acquiring the right mind-set, then the rest will follow. I coach a lot of people who have low self-esteem and who tend to compensate by holding on to physical things, frameworks or achievements. But that will never create true fulfilment. The real work is to strengthen our self-belief and to challenge our perceptions until we feel a warm glow of self-love inside.
In a similar vein I often come across individuals who experience a high degree of conflict with people around them. There is always something wrong with their boss, their clients or team members. But instead of wanting to swap projects or organisations, the solution is to look inwards and review our attitudes and behaviours. If we acquire the belief that everyone has something valuable to contribute to every situation, then we will take a greater interest in others and give them more space. The result is better relationships in all areas of life. It is by looking at how we can think and act differently that we can create the greatest transformation in our personal and professional life.
I’m self-employed and at the back of my mind there is often a little fear that perhaps I won’t be as busy this year as I’ve been in the past. But I’ve always been fine, and each year has in fact been more rewarding than the last. I need to get my mind-set right and take my own medicine! As I go into 2018 I don’t want to be steered by this fear and I don’t want to numb it by setting lots of external goals to make my ego feel better. Instead, I will look inwards and concentrate on acquiring the right mind-set. I will appreciate each moment and the opportunities that it brings. When I find myself in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation I will try to take a step back and objectively evaluate it. From that vantage point it will be easier to consciously decide how I want to respond.
What kind of mind-set do you need to acquire in 2018 to become more fulfilled? And in which ways do you need to refine your behaviour? Perhaps you can find inspiration in the three P’s below: Purpose, Presence and Pause. They form the basis of my own goals for 2018.
PURPOSE – In order to attract the right things into your life, you need to start each day feeling connected with yourself and your purpose. With the right mind-set, every day can become a great day. It doesn’t matter what you choose to do, but you need some kind of morning ritual that connects you with the essence of who you are and what you want to bring to the day. Some people meditate whilst others go for a brisk walk. Personally I like to start the day with a few yoga exercises that wake up my body and my mind. In 2018 I will become even more mindful during my yoga practice and be reminded of my purpose, which is to use my talent to contribute to the world around me.
PRESENCE – One of the biggest gifts you can give someone is your time and your attention. But it’s also one of the biggest gifts you can give yourself because it has the potential to transform all of your relationships. When you are fully present with another person, listening to them and trying to walk in their shoes, they will feel that you understand them. I’m convinced that there will be far fewer conflicts and misunderstandings in our personal and professional life if we take the time to listen to and understand each other. In 2018 I aim to be more present in my interactions. I will fully listen to and engage people who I cross and make them feel understood.
PAUSE – On your project or in your private life you may at times snap at someone or disengage because of a challenging situation that triggers you. Whenever you feel uncomfortable, irritated or upset in the New Year, press your pause button and just breathe. Let the emotion wash over you without acting on it. These strong emotions can distort your sense of judgement and make you do and say things that don’t serve you. Instead, step outside of the situation for a couple of minutes and evaluate what is going on. What are your beliefs about the stressful events and why is it affecting you? When you’re able to you see the situation clearly you will be much better able to choose how to respond. This is something we can all get better at – including myself.
I hope you’ll have a wonderful 2018 full of purpose, presence and mindful pauses.
Many project managers work with me one-on-one because they would like to become better coaches. They don’t have aspirations to become an executive coach like myself, but would simply like to get better at coaching their team members. I’m thrilled about this interest as it's likely that coaching will also make them better people and leaders. That’s because as coaches we learn to engage others and to be more present during a conversation. We are better able to listen and empathise and to understand what’s important to the person we’re speaking with. I would say that coaching is a life skill, which helps us build better relationships in a working environment and life in general.
Most of us love to give advice Many project managers – and especially those with a technical background – are experts in their field and tend to give advice more than they coach. When we give advice we go into problem-solving mode and come up with instructions and ideas for how the other person can move forward. It makes us feel great to pass on our knowledge and to help someone progress a task in an effective way.
But when we give advice we don’t empower people to grow and to find their own answers. We are effectively imposing our solution to their problem, which isn’t an effective way to get the other person to take ownership. Telling others what to do is appropriate when we’re talking about a straightforward task. For instance, if a team member asks you where the latest status report is, tell them! The same applies during a crisis. If the building is burning, tell people to get out! But if a team member is looking for guidance on how to conduct a meeting, how to approach a stakeholder or what their next career move should be, it’s an opportunity to enter into a coaching conversation.
Ask open questions If coaching isn’t about giving advice, then what is it? It’s about helping the person in front of you to see a given situation in a clearer light so that they feel empowered to take the next steps. This means that the person you’re coaching gains a better understanding of what the real problem is, what the options are for solving the problem and what action they can take to overcome it. The way in which you can help a team member gain this insight is to ask lots of open questions:
Could you tell me more about the issue? What do you feel is wrong? What would you like to achieve? What have you already tried? What else? What worked? What didn’t work? What steps can we take to change this? Which option would be fastest/easiest? What will you do right now?
As you can see you effectively switch mode from telling to asking and listening. The listening part is important, as it enables you to really grasp the situation and see it from the other person’s point of view.
Let’s imagine that your team member asks you how to run a working group meeting. Instead of telling him how you would do it, bounce back the question by asking: What would you like the outcome of this meeting to be? What was discussed at the last meeting? What ideas do you have? What else? The conversation may last a bit longer than if you had simply given the team member instructions, but the outcome is likely to be far more rewarding and effective for both of you.
Begin to practice every day The best way to become a better coach is to practice as often as you can. Coaching isn’t just a tool you should use for the big conversations. It’s a way of life – a leadership style, which you can use in most situations. When people ask you for advice see it as a coaching opportunity and resist the temptation of telling them what to do. Give people your full attention. Listen at the highest possible level and ask open questions that shed light on the topic. Can you explain the situation in more detail? What’s the real challenge for you here? How can I help? Ask “how” and “what” questions and avoid asking “why”. Why often makes people feel defensive, which defeats the purpose of a coaching conversation.
If you have a tendency to interrupt people, try to put your tongue “on pause”. You do this by drawing you tongue backwards so that it neither touches the upper part, nor the lower part of your mouth. Try it now! Let your tongue hover in the middle of your mouth. What you’ll find is that you’ll be less likely to speak as your tongue is now in a neutral position.
Years ago my mind and my body were full of stress. I was running a large business-critical programme and I was petrified of failing. I had never run a project with almost 50 people on it before and a project that had so much attention from senior management. Of course I was also acutely aware that the three project managers that had preceded me had all been fired!
After two years of hard work the programme was delivered successfully and luckily I didn’t get fired! On the contrary! I was proud of our achievements and happy that I’d made some good friends in the process too. But my determination to work hard and to deliver all the benefits to the business had taken its toll. I had difficulties sleeping and my body was infested with stress. It all became very real when I had to use a walking stick to ease the pressure on my left foot. I had put too much pressure on it during my dancing lessons and it was badly inflamed. I was forced to give up dancing and could barely walk. I was devastated and felt debilitated at an age of 35! I didn't like it and I didn't understand why it had happened. After all I was a good person trying to do good: delivering important projects and having some fun with my dancing.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized what a blessing in disguise this was. My inflamed foot forced me to slow down and make some very important changes to the way I lived my life. My journey back to full health and vitality didn’t happen overnight as it required more than simply changing a few habits. It was only by changing some of my underlying beliefs that I could make profound and long lasting changes. A decade later I can honestly say that I lead a much more rewarding and balanced life.
I started leaving the office at 6pm One of the beliefs that I had at the time was that in order to be a good project manager I had to work as hard as possible. When I worked late I achieved a lot and it made me feel good that I had given everything I could. But by giving so much of my energy to my project I slowly depleted my batteries. My new belief was that good project managers work smarter, not harder. They make good use of their team and don’t spend their evenings in the office. It was initially difficult for me to get up and leave at 6pm, but over time it became easier.
I got better at asking for help Before my near-burn-out I was proud of doing as much of the work as possible on my own. I felt I ought to. But on a large project there’s a lot to keep track of and it’s near impossible to do without assistance. I did eventually ask for help – initially reluctantly – and a brilliant project administrator got allocated to my project. What a difference that made! She helped keep track of the many work-streams and stayed on top of the financials. This freed me up to keep an eye on the bigger picture and build stronger relationships with the stakeholders. It also meant that it got easier to leave at 6pm.
I took a mini sabbatical Taking a sabbatical had a transformational effect on me. After the delivery of the business-critical project I decided to take three months off and travel through India. As my sabbatical came closer, the financial crisis of 2008 hit and I shortened my break to six weeks. I was afraid that I’d make myself redundant by being out of sight for too long. Luckily six weeks was still long enough that I could take a step back and give my body a chance to recover. I had a lot of fun in India travelling from south to the north in one epic train journey. I also spent time in an ashram where I met people who later became some of my closest friends. Going to India was something I did for myself – not something I felt I should do or was expected to. It was liberating and I came back feeling rejuvenated and determined to lead my life and my projects in a way that would give me energy rather than drain me.
I trained as a coach Inspired by a personal coaching session that had a profound effect on me I decided to train as a coach myself. I studied whilst working as a project manager and I began to use my newfound skills in my working environment. At the time I had no ambition to work as a professional coach. I simply felt that coaching was a magical skill that I wanted to master. Through my studies I learnt a lot about human behaviour and the beliefs that control the things we do and say. I also learnt to truly listen and to ask questions that help people reframe their problems. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that all project managers should train as coaches. But I would say that understanding human behaviour is essential for anyone who would like to get better at building relationships at work and leading a team.
I started doing yoga Long before I had my first yoga class I intuitively knew that I would enjoy it. But for several years I listened to my friends' positive experiences without taking any action myself. When I finally attended a class I was hooked and didn’t have to force myself to go. Yoga helped me to be more mindful, to be more present in my body and to breathe properly. It’s the perfect antidote to stress. You simply cannot rush a yoga class. You have to focus on your breath and the poses. As soon as you think about to-do-lists or work you loose the ability to balance and follow the class.
I began to do more of what gives me energy Around the same time I came across a little book called Energize! by Jo Salter. One of Jo’s exercises had a particular big effect on me. I had to list all the activities that I did during a day or a week and indicate whether they gave me energy or drained me from energy. Through this simple exercise I learnt that my most draining activity was to read through all outstanding emails at the end of my working day. I also became more aware of what I needed to do to reenergize outside of work. Apart from yoga I began to nourish my soul, for instance by visiting art galleries, going for walks and visiting places that I found stimulating. All in all it meant that I would start work on a Monday morning feeling happy and energized.
I began to pay more attention to what I eat Although I was always mindful about what I ate, I wasn't as healthy as my body needed me to be. I would eat white bread, poor quality sandwiches, skip meals and have sugary snacks in the afternoon. Not to mention alcohol and the occasional cigarette. Today I give my body what it needs so that it can better withstand periods of intense activity. I have organic vegetables delivered from a farm, I have a healthy breakfast (oats, fruit and green tea), I no longer smoke or drink and I avoid coffee, sugary foods and excessive fat. Of course there’s no denying a good piece of dark chocolate! Our brain needs the good fats from nuts, seeds and oily fish, so that’s what I try to give it.
I learned to control my mental state I also began to focus intently on controlling my thoughts and my mental state. I decided that I would no longer think about work once I left the office. Boy did I fail! 30 seconds after I left the office I would think about work. I then gently reminded myself that I had decided to leave work behind. 30 seconds later I thought about work again – and so the battle continued! And we battled on for several weeks until my disciplined mind finally won this crucial victory. I further sharpened my mind by starting my day with a power meditation. During this meditation I would read out my vision and mission statement and focus on the mental state that I wanted to adopt for the day. Today, if I have a bad day I acknowledge it and then do my best to put it away. In other words, I choose what I want to focus on.
Pick up on the signals that your body gives you Like other jobs, project management can be a very stressful profession. I have felt it on my own body and I feel it through many of the people who I personally train and coach.
If you’re in a state of stress your body will show you signs of tension that you need to pick up on. If you overlook them and continue to deplete your batteries you could face burnout. That’s a serious condition. Fortunately it didn't happen to me, but it happened to one of my closest friends. She clearly saw the signs when her own brother went down with stress several years before she did, but she didn’t take her own symptoms seriously. She had a fever for several weeks but told herself that it would probably pass. It didn’t pass and she was signed off work with severe stress for several months. Don’t let that happen to you.
Be honest with yourself! Give your body and soul what it needs in order to be fit and healthy in the long term. Visiting India, getting into coaching and practicing yoga may not be your path. What’s important is that you do whatever feels right for you. Deep down you know what you need to do. You just need to take it seriously.
Giving accurate, constructive and regular feedback is essential if you want to build a well-functioning team. We all need to know what we’re doing well and what we could improve on in order to progress. But it’s not always easy to get it right. If you’re too blunt you discourage and demotivate the receiver. If, on the other hand, you’re too forgiving, nothing will change and the team member won’t get the opportunity to improve. Perhaps that’s why so many project managers and leaders are worried about giving feedback and end up not doing it. The trick is to say what needs to be said in a way that’s both constructive and well meaning – and to do it immediately.
Use self-directed feedback My first tip is to use self-directed feedback, which means that you ask the team member to first evaluate their own performance. You can for instance say: "Can we have a conversation about the client meeting we just had? I think it’s important that we’re aligned. What did you notice about your performance in the meeting? What did you like about what you did? If you could do it again, what would you do differently?" Asking these questions gives the team member a chance to reflect on their behaviour and it opens up the conversation. As most of us are our own worst critic, the team member is likely to highlight the very behaviour you wanted to address, which saves you from doing it. After the team member’s response, you will get the opportunity to express your own view at a time when the team member is ready to listen to it.
Give layered feedback My next tip is to give “sandwiched” feedback, so that any negative comments are mixed in with something positive. If you only focus on the negatives you can easily demotivate the team member. You have to build up people’s self esteem as it gives them energy and confidence to change. When you give sandwiched – or layered – feedback you first emphasize something the person is doing really well. Secondly you talk about an element they can improve on, and thirdly you finish off with a positive point. We all like to know what we’re doing well. But your praise must be honest and well deserved. If you just add a few superficial positive comments to tone down the negative feedback, they will have no effect at all. You can layer your message this way: "What I liked was... Can I suggest something you might do differently?.. You are always so good at ..."
Be specific and give examples When you give your feedback, be specific about what you think the team member is doing well and what you would like to see changed. If you’re too generic, for instance by saying, “That was great” or “That didn’t really work for me”, the team member won’t know how to improve. If they knew, they would have already done it. It would be more helpful if you said “Your report gives some good facts and figures on page three. I think it would benefit from being more succinct, especially in section one. Perhaps you could do that by adding a few graphs and charts.”
As you talk about specific situations, be as constructive as possible and emphasize what behaviours the recipient can change going forward. It can be unhelpful to say: “You have to stop saying yes to the client all the time." In its place say: "Can I suggest that instead of saying yes when the client asks for a change, you carry out an impact analysis and propose 3 options in your response.”
Create an open dialogue Another tip is that you should always give the team member the chance to express their views and react to your comments. In order for your feedback to be taken on board you have to manage the emotional side and create a safe space for them to speak their mind. Giving sandwiched feedback will help, but also ask them: “What do you feel about what I just said? What else are you thinking?” Remember that the purpose of your feedback should always be to help the team member improve rather than just criticizing them.
On that note, feedback doesn’t have to have a negative angle at all. You can keep your team members motivated by acknowledging all the things they are doing well. Give positive feedback as often as you can and immediately after you have observed something great. Remember that your comments must be well deserved as otherwise they will lose their importance.
Project kick offs are often talked about as a single event – or meeting – where the project manager introduces the team to the project, walks them through the project background and ensures that everyone is on the same page regarding expectations, deliverables and responsibilities. But that’s a very limited way of thinking about kick-offs.
Unless the project is very small, the kick off could consist of a series of one-2-one meetings and group workshops, which address the “harder” as well as the “softer” aspects of the project. The harder aspects – what we’re supposed to deliver and by when – are what most project managers focus on. Not many put emphasis on team building and on giving the team members an opportunity to define how they would like to work together.
Defining the project vs. defining the team When we define the project we look at the purpose of the project, its background and what it’s ultimately trying to achieve. We examine who the sponsors and clients are and what success looks like to them. We also seek to understand what the high level requirements and constraints are in terms of quality expectations, timeframes, budget and desired solutions. These aspects are normally captured in the project charter or the definition document and should involve the team as much as possible.
We all know that defining the project is an essential starting point for running a successful project. It's simply not possible to plan, manage and deliver something, which we don’t know enough about. We also know that the project definition should be created with the team members for maximum buy-in as opposed to just presenting it to them. But there is more to it. We need to bring in the softer aspects too. Individuals are complex beings who have different ways of approaching situations and different ways of dealing with problems. It takes time for team members to get to know each other and to build up the kind of trust that’s needed for them to gel and deliver a great project. When project members don't invest time in each other, there is a risk that they will act like individuals in a group more than a cohesive team. That can lead to dysfunction, missed deadlines, misunderstandings and poor quality.
To create the best possible kick off and the best conditions for the team to deliver, the project manager needs to assist the team in finding its feet and agreeing how its members will work together. That’s a process which will take time, and which needs to be initiated right at the beginning when the team is formed. The project manager can kick-start the process in a few different ways:
Icebreakers – Icebreakers are great for making team members loosen up and get to know each other better. E.g. tell us something surprising about yourself. What would you say is a hidden talent of yours? What would make you go to work even if you didn’t get a salary for it?
Share a story – Ask each team member to share a story of a good or bad team experience they have had, and why that was. On that basis you can get a conversation going about the kind of team experience they would like to have on this project and what it would take.
Ground rules – Bring a stack of post-it notes and ask each team member to write down anything that’s important to them - one item per post-it note. One person might write that it’s important for team members to show respect and listen to each other when a comment, concern or question is raised. Another person might write that team members should socialize outside of work at least once every month. All of these items (or post-its) are potential ground rules that the team agrees to work to. Ground rules should not be set by the project manager but collectively by the team.
Team charter – During a project, tough decisions will need to be made and difficult situations overcome. For that to happen the team must build the habit of speaking openly to each other and expressing their concerns, hopes and fears. A great way to practice that is to ask it to produce a team charter. The charter clarifies the make-up and direction of the team and establishes boundaries. It is developed with contributions from all team members and should answer the following questions:
What is our purpose? Why does the team exist?
Which decisions and activities are inside the scope of our team?
What are the measurable outcomes that we will be held accountable to?
How will we treat each other? Which ground rules are important to us?
How will we make decisions, resolve conflict and communicate?
Which strengths and skills do we have?
What are our weaknesses?
What is each team member’s role? How will they contribute?
How will we celebrate our successes?
How can we summarize our ethos and purpose in a sentence or phrase?
Personality profiling – If you’re working with team members who are relatively open minded and mature, you can make use of personality profiling tools to increase self-awareness and knowledge about the team’s strengths and weaknesses. There are several tools on the market, including StrengthsFinder, DISC and Insights. It’s best to get a qualified coach to help you run these tools and explain the outcomes. The awareness generated by these tools has the potential to take the team to a completely new level. But the results can also be a real eye opener to people, so it’s important that an experienced coach is available to help them clarify any doubts or uncertainties.
Conclusion Kicking off a project isn’t just a one-off meeting where the team is briefed about objectives, deliverables and timelines that have been set by the PM or Sponsor. Good kick-offs engage the team and draw it into the definition and planning process. Not least should team members be given the time and space to define their values and how they will approach decisions, communicate with each other and resolve conflict. The project manager can kick off this process by use of icebreakers, ground rules, team charters and personality profiling tools.
As a project leadership coach I often come across project managers who feel that they are not good enough at what they do. Feeling that they will be “found out”, that the project will fail and that they will be fired because of incompetence is – unfortunately – more common than you might think. There is nothing wrong with being aware of risks and being concerned about the delivery of the project. But it’s unhealthy to worry to the point where it affects our confidence.
More often than not the project manager’s feeling of inadequacy isn’t rooted in incompetence. It’s linked to an underlying lack of self-esteem. Of course, there will always be certain PM techniques that we can get better at, but without a strong self-belief project managers will have a tendency to doubt their professional abilities.
But how can you begin to strengthen your belief in yourself and your project?
Review your project At a practical level it’s important that your project is properly defined, that your team in motivated and that your project plans are adequate. Don’t feel that it’s your role to have all the answers. Your team members are there to support you. Discuss with them how you will be working together to deliver the project. Make reference to deliverables, procedures, roles and responsibilities and to team behaviours. Similarly, don’t set out to plan the project all on your own. I’ve talked and written about the benefits of collaborative planning for a long time. Collaboration creates buy-in and commitment from the team and produces a better plan than if you were to create it on your own. You should also run regular risk management workshops where the team shares their concerns and puts in place mitigating actions.
If you’re still worried that you have missed something out, ask one of your peers to review your artefacts and to sit in on some of your meetings. You might also benefit from regular conversations with a mentor. Choose someone who works in the same organisation, or industry, and who has more experience than you. A mentor should be calm and measured. She should be able to listen to your concerns and give you advice in areas where you are unsure how to progress.
Reality check As much as you can make improvements to the way you set up and run your project, the real work in improving your self-confidence is internal. Doubting in your abilities is rooted in the way you think and feel about yourself. In most cases, project managers are judging themselves unfairly.
I suggest that you ask a few of your managers, peers and team members for feedback about what they feel you are doing really well. Choose people whose opinion you respect. You can ask: “From your point of view what do you feel my strengths are?” Also ask them to highlight one thing they believe you could improve on. Asking these two questions should give you a good reality check. It will show you that although you aren’t perfect (none of us are!) you have real strengths in the area of project management.
Where the feedback highlights that there is something you need to improve on, take action to read books, go on a course or work with a coach to improve your skills. Many people are afraid to ask for feedback. They worry that it will reveal something terrible about them. But the doomsday scenario rarely happens. More often than not those who ask for feedback come away feeling uplifted and surprised about the positive feedback they have received.
Feel your strengths External feedback and validation is a good starting point for being reminded of what you are doing well, but you also need to do the internal work to improve your self-belief. I suggest that you brainstorm all the things that you feel you are good at. Write anything down that comes to mind, small items as well as big ones. Perhaps you are a really good listener, good at analysing data or good at building relationships with team members. Give yourself credit for it and capture it on paper. Also make a note of your past achievements. Don’t just think about them. Feel them in your body as you review all the projects you have delivered to date. Acknowledging your strengths and achievements is the first step in lighting up your internal sun.
You can further strengthen your self-esteem – and the glow inside you – by starting every single day by reminding yourself of your strengths. Create a morning ritual before you leave the house. You can either sit in stillness for a moment or read out some affirmations: “I’m a diligent project manager with a good team spirit. I know that my peers appreciate my work.” Choose the words that resonate with you and that make you feel strong in your body.
Final thought My final thought is that many project managers operate at the edge of their comfort zone. This can be a good thing because it means that we are learning. If we were totally comfortable in our roles, we would not be growing. No one will ever be in total control of a project, and that’s ok. As project managers our job is to strengthen the project, to strengthen our internal sun and thereafter to embrace uncertainty. So go on dear project manager: continue all the good work you are doing and don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t have all the answers.
I recently co-facilitated a leadership programme for a group of senior project and programme managers. During the programme we explored the participant’s personalities and leadership styles from various angles. One of the exercises we took them through – which was a real eye-opener to many – was to draw parallels between the events that had happened in their lives and the behaviors they displayed as leaders.
Understanding how the events of our lives have shaped our work is an important step in increasing our self-awareness. We don't show up as one person at home and another person at work. We have one integrated personality. Our core values and beliefs come from our life and education and we bring those beliefs to our work. If we want to change how we show up as project mangers and leaders we first have to understand what our values and beliefs are and where they come from.
Whose love did you crave the most growing up? I would like you to take a deep breath and consider a very personal question for a moment: “Whose love did you crave the most growing up? Your mum’s or your dad’s?” Take a little time to reflect on it before moving on. Did you crave your mum’s or you dad’s attention the most? Now consider the next question: “Who did you have to be for your mum or dad?” I.e. what did you have to do to gain that person’s love and affection?
The patterns we develop as children follow us long into adult life. Some people are pleasers. They have difficulties setting boundaries, saying no, and expressing their needs. They are good at accommodating and serving others. This is normally a pattern that was developed in childhood. It’s likely that this person had to be unselfish in order to obtain the love and acceptance of a parent. If this pattern is descriptive of you, begin to set small boundaries at work where the implications aren’t too big – for instance regarding which meetings you can and cannot attend. Then it will be easier for you to say no when you really have to.
Another example is someone who is a perfectionist in everything that they do and who expect others to work to the same high standards. Again, it’s likely that this behaviour stems from their upbringing. Perhaps they had to be the A-student and do their homework exceptionally well in order to be accepted by their parent.
Some of the belies from my own life that I have carried into my work is that laziness is a bad thing. As a child I always had to help out at home and not take it too easy. In my work today I’m very productive and almost feel guilty when I take a break. I need to get better at allowing myself – and people who work with me – to chill out a bit.
Draw your personal and professional timeline If you would like to go a bit further with this, I suggest you find a quiet moment to work through the below questions. Go to a place where you won’t be interrupted. Bring a large piece of paper and some crayons.
With words and pictures draw your personal and professional timeline on your large piece of paper. Then answer the below question by adding words and illustrations to your paper:
What are the major personal and professional events that have shaped you? How did you feel? How do you feel about it now? (Draw them on your timeline.)
Complete the following sentences:
The best measure of personal success is …
The main driving force in my life is…
I know that I will be successful when …
I am happiest and most satisfied when …
If I could magically chose any career, I would become a … because …
When I’m under pressure, I …
What gets me into trouble is …
I tend to hold myself back in situations where …
I get angry when …
My hidden talent is …
Reflect on the questions and how they have shaped your leadership style. What are the beliefs and behaviours you adopted in your childhood and in which ways are they influencing you today? Perhaps some of them are no longer useful and it’s time for you to leave them behind.
The first step in making a positive change is to create awareness about the things you would like to change. The second step is to identify a small area where you can begin to take some new action. It would be beneficial if you could share your actions with someone. When you share your intentions with a buddy or a coach they can help you stay accountable and keep you on track.
I recently heard Stephen Carver speak about complexity. He captured my attention and taught me something about the different types of complexity and how it relates to project management maturity levels.
Stephen Carver is a university lecturer at Cranfield School of Management and also spends much of his time consulting directly with corporations. Because of his ability to bridge the gap between academia and the world of project management practitioners, his insights are well worth listening to.
Stephen Carver explained that Cranfield got interested in complexity because of a demand from their clients. Their clients were increasingly saying that they needed new ways of looking at projects because their projects could no longer be delivered successfully using conventional project management tools.
The three types of complexity When Cranfield began to research the topic they identified over 40 different types of complexity. These types were reduced down to three major buckets, which made it easier for ordinary people to use and relate to.
1. Blue bucket – structural complexity. This type of complexity is related to traditional ways of assessing a project in terms of size and scope: I.e. how technically complex is the project, how much work needs to get done, how many people are involved, how many sub-contractors need to be engaged and across how many locations? In other words, structural complexity is a measure of how many moving parts there are on your project.
A good example of structurally complex projects would be construction projects. They have a high level of technical complexity and many moving parts that make them challenging to manage, not least logistically. To reduce structural complexity we can use traditional project management tools such as breakdown structures, critical path analysis and risk management.
2. Green bucket – emergent complexity. This type of complexity is all about change. How much is your project and its surroundings changing as you are trying to manage it? Are world events or the price of oil or exchange rates impacting your project? Is the client or the team constantly changing or new stakeholders emerging? We already know that change is inevitable on projects, but some projects are more subjected to change than others. If you’re working on a highly innovative project or a project that is dependent on external world events, the emergent complexity will be high.
The trick in dealing with this type of complexity is to see change as an opportunity rather than a treat. On most projects we tend to see change as a bad thing. We want to control it and mitigate all risks up front with our risk registers. But that approach doesn’t fully work with this type of complexity. The rate of change is simply too high for us to effectively be able to control it. Instead we have to change our mind-set and see change as an opportunity rather than a threat. Change can be good if we open our minds to it and become more agile in our approaches.
3. Red bucket – socio political complexity. This type of complexity is about soft skills, relationships, personalities and behaviours that arise under stress. It’s the touchy feely stuff as Steven Carver calls it. And it’s this “soft” stuff that’s really the hard part and the area that most project managers and engineers struggle with. It’s not obvious how to manage a bunch of clients and stakeholders who change their minds and who behave in infinitely complex ways, especially under pressure.
Carver uses the example of an office move. Structurally it’s an easy project to deliver without too many moving parts, but it scores highly on the socio political spectrum. People will fight over who gets the corner office and the nice view. They will act irrationally because they feel uncertain and fearful about the move at a psychological level. To effectively handle the situation project managers need to be trained in how to build trust and deepen personal relationships. They need to learn to listen and empathise and to use different styles of communication.
Most project issues stem from socio political complexity At Cranfield School of Management the academics asked about 250 project management practitioners which of the three types of complexity caused them most trouble on live projects. 70% of respondents said that it was the socio political factors that caused them the most problems. 20% answered that their issues predominantly stemmed from emergent complexity. Only 10% said their issues were due to structural complexity.
The researches then asked people which of the three categories of complexity had received the most attention during their formal training. It turned out that 80% of the training and certification was focused on structural complexity, 10% on emergent and 10% on socio political complexity. In other words, although most project issues stem from socio political complexity, project managers and engineers are predominantly trained to tackle structural complexity.
Process isn’t the answer When we look at the five levels of competency for project management in an organisation, it turns out that implementing a structured approach to managing projects will help an organisation progress to level three out of five. Beyond this level however, the organisation needs more than structure and processes. It needs to master socio political and emergent complexity to get to level four and beyond.
Level 1 – At the lowest level of maturity – level 1 – the organisation tends to work in a chaotic environment with no structure. At this level they’re just surviving from one crisis to the other without any focus on strategy.
Level 2 – At the 2nd level of maturity, a small part of the organisation understands change management – typically the IT department. As a result organisational-wide projects are executed far from smoothly and the vast majority of projects are failing. They may have invested in some really good IT systems, but they are not fully integrated or adopted across the organisation.
Level 3 – At this level the CEO understands that everyone needs a common methodology. PRINCE2 or a similar framework is rolled out across the organisation, which gives teams a common language. Many projects still go wrong, but at least the organisation has an audit trail and will carry out post mortems.
Level 4 – At this level people across the organisation buy into project management methodologies and the majority of projects are executed successfully. Getting to level four however isn’t as a result of implementing more process. On the contrary! More process can make the organisation go backwards. At this level it’s about mastering the socio political aspects and the soft stuff. The same is true for level five.
Level 5 – At the highest level of maturity, project change is the order of the day. The organisation gets it and running projects is an integrated part of their strategy. Not only is structural complexity addressed, they are also on top of socio political and emergent complexity. The organisation is agile and sees change as an opportunity.
Conclusion Steven Carver stresses that the researches have now proven what we already knew intuitively. Process is necessary, but it certainly isn’t sufficient to master project delivery. The message isn’t to throw away our processes, but to enrich our approach with an ability to effectively deal with irrational behaviours and large amounts of change in relation to our projects.
I recently read The Coaching Habit – a great little book about how we can get better at asking questions rather than simply offering up advice. The book makes a case for seven essential questions and it made me reconsider what my own preferred questions are.
Managers and leaders need to become better coaches I fully buy into the philosophy that managers and leaders need to become better coaches (and not use a megaphone as the above picture suggests). Many managers still fall into the trap of telling others what to do rather than asking simple questions. I experience this all the time. One example is when a project manager needs to give direction about work that has to get done. In most cases the PM will tell the team what to do and give them detailed instructions. Rarely does the project manager enter a conversation where they predominantly ask questions to validate assumptions, engage the team and understand their ideas or points of view. Such questions could be: How would you resolve this task? What do you believe a good outcome looks like? What questions do you have? How often should we check in with each other? What do you need from me?
As time is short, we believe that telling others what to do is the most effective approach. Giving others the answer boosts the ego and makes us feel that we’re contributing with our knowledge. If we’re simply asking questions, are we then doing any real work? Leadership, of course, is about inspiring and empowering people to find their own way. Not just giving instructions. When we ask great questions, not only do we open up the conversation, we make people feel that their contributions and ideas matter. That’s the starting point for creating engagement and high performance.
Another example from my coaching, which illustrates how poor we are at asking questions, is when a person describes a situation they are trying to figure out. This could be how to communicate better with a stakeholder, motivate a team member or delegate to them. But when I ask my coachee if they have had a conversation with the other person – and asked them directly – the answer is often that they haven’t. What is it that makes it so hard for us to ask: how would you like me to communicate with you? What would you like more of/less of in your job? How much direction do you need from me? What does a good question look like? If you ask your team: do you agree with what I just said? Or, why did you not complete the assignment I gave you? These questions wouldn't quality as good ones because they’re closed yes/no questions and because they come across as accusational. Good questions are open and often begin with what or how. They open up a conversation, make the other person reflect and reframe a situation.
In The Coaching Habit, the author writes about seven questions that he feels are essential:
What’s on your mind? And what else? What’s the real challenge for you here? What do you want? How can I help? If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to? What was most useful for you?
Out of those questions, my preferred one is the third: What’s the real challenge for you here? This question cuts to the bone and helps make sure that we’re talking about the real problem, not just the one presented at the surface. People often get into lengthy explanations, and you’re not sure where to start. When you ask the focus question they will pause and think, and almost always be able to answer what the real challenge is for them.
One of my own favourites questions is: How are you feeling? In the right situation, this question has the potential to transform a conversation and a relationship. In a professional context we mostly talk about what we think, not how we feel. But as we’re all driven by emotions, being able to tap into how someone is feeling will help you build trust and have more meaningful conversations.