A hero culture might be a sign of low psychological safety

(Homelander image is from the Amazon Prime series. The character was created by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson.)

When we think of mythical heroes, they possess such traits as:

  • Showing confidence in the face of overwhelming challenges
  • Demonstrating a lack of vulnerability even though most heroes have their own “Achilles’ heels”
  • Being able to inspire others based on what they were able to achieve but not always how they achieved it

I wrote an article a few years ago about the issues with an organizational hero culture including:

  • A lack of recognition for the teams and individuals who deliver results without needing to resort to heroics
  • The potential for so-called heroes to create crises when none exist to maintain their hero status or to stroke their egos
  • The increased likelihood that luck will run out when a hero fails as other countermeasures might not have been instituted to guard against risk realization

Fear of failure or ridicule isn’t a concern for those lucky few who are anointed as heroes. When they fail, the goodwill they have built up based on their past heroics is usually more than enough to protect their social status.

You might think that this would encourage their followers to also take calculated risks. But if an “average Joe” tries something and it fails, would they receive the same support or benefit of doubt as a hero? If not, the hero culture might cause other staff to feel less safe to experiment.

A hero might also inspire their followers to blindly trust them.

While this trust might be needed in exceptional crises, it might also cause others to be less likely to confront the heroes if they witness them doing something wrong. Combine that reluctance with the backlash that whistleblowers could receive from other followers for challenging their heroes and it increases the likelihood that a hero could get away with bad behavior.

A hero’s (apparent) lack of vulnerability is also a cause for concern.

If they are unwilling to say when they don’t know or are afraid of something, those who look up to them may be tempted to behave in the same manner. And that can cause issues to arise which wouldn’t have if assumptions and knowledge gaps had been surfaced in a more open, timely manner.

Finally, a hero culture can be divisive as it naturally generates an “us and them” state. Dr. Timothy R. Clark identifies Inclusion Safety as the foundation of his four stage model on psychological safety as without inclusiveness you can’t unleash the power of diversity. It is hard to be fully inclusive when a subset of the organization is placed on a pedestal.

Leaders are expected to be force multipliers. If a hero can help others to behave and be treated like they are, that’s wonderful. But that won’t happen by itself.

What if you could have that power… now? In every generation, one Slayer is born… because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power… should be our power.” – Buffy the Vampire Slayer

(If you liked this article, why not pick up my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on Amazon.com and on Amazon.ca as well as a number of other online book stores)

Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The allure of #NoEstimates

A project manager asked me a question which I’ve frequently been posed over my career.

How should I deal with a stakeholder who, when I provide a rough order of magnitude ranged estimate early in the life of a project, insists on holding me accountable to the lower end of that range later on even when sufficient evidence has emerged to contradict that value?

The question clearly states that a range of values was provided and no commitment was made. And yet, the behavior of the stakeholder was the same as if a single point, firm fixed estimate had been given.

Anchoring and confirmation biases can partially explain why this happens, but this provides little assistance to a project manager who is asked to provide an estimate at the beginning of a project.

But even if more than 50% of the project scope has been delivered, we might still be unable to provide an accurate estimate.

We learn that a simple way of calculating Estimate At Completion for a project is to base it on past performance but how often is that the case in reality? To provide an accurate forecast, we would need a delivery process which is in control, and yet, most of the time we may have limited influence over factors which could cause a predictive model to break down.

If we don’t have reliable availability of people, regardless of which delivery approach we use, we won’t be able to predict when we will be finished until all scope has been delivered. Metrics such as velocity, throughput or average work item age are as helpful as a magic eight ball under such conditions. Ensuring that everyone is available when needed is not impossible, but it is difficult to achieve when delivery commitments are made without taking an organization’s ability to deliver into consideration.

But even with dedicated staffing, unless the level of uncertainty associated with the remaining work is less than or equal to what the team has experienced to date, past history won’t be indicative of future performance. Risk management helps by encouraging a team to address high severity threats as early as possible, but that assumes that they are able to identify key threats. The more complex a project, the greater the difficulty in doing so. All it takes is the realization of one particularly nasty unknown-unknown to invalidate a high confidence estimate. Contingency and management reserves provide a degree of shock absorption but on extremely complex projects, the tail of the poor outcomes is long indeed.

A container ship got stuck sideways in the Suez Canal this Tuesday. It is not the first time such a shipping issue has occurred yet four days later no one is able to provide an accurate estimate as to how quickly the the canal will be unblocked.

If you are managing a project which is unlike any other, why would you expect to be able to do any better at forecasting when you will be done? #NoEstimates might not be acceptable to many stakeholders, but it might be the most responsible answer in some circumstances.

(If you liked this article, why not pick up my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on Amazon.com and on Amazon.ca as well as a number of other online book stores)

Categories: Agile, Project Management | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Beware false accuracy with quantitative risk assessment

This article represents the confluence of three separate concepts I read about this week.

The first came when I read Michael Küsters’s article Why WSJF is Nonsense which details the downside of blindly ranking work packages based on the Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF) formula. WSJF uses the ratio of the cost of delay to the relative effort required to complete a work package. It has become a popular method for prioritization as it avoids some of the problems associated with using a single metric such as business value. Michael’s concern is:

We turn haphazard guesswork into a science, and think we’re making sound business decisions because we “have done the numbers”, when in reality, we are the victim of an error that is explicitly built into our process. We make entirely pointless prioritization decisions, thinking them to be economically sound. WSJF is merely a process to start a conversation about what we think should be priority, when our main problem is indecision.

The second came from my re-reading of the chapter on the affect heuristic and availability cascades in Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

The affect heuristic is the idea that people make unconscious judgments based on their emotions related to the focus of the decision. If you view an advertisement touting multiple benefits of a product with which you’ve had no previous personal experience and are later asked about the risks associated with its use, you are likely to state that it is less risky even though there is no connection between its benefits and risks.

An availability cascade refers to the snowball effect which occurs when a relatively minor or infrequent event is blown out of proportion based on the emotional reactions experienced by those who are informed of it. The infamous Summer of the Shark in 2001 is a good example. Increased media hype occurred in spite of the fact that there were 76 shark attacks that year which was lower than the 85 attacks the previous year, and similarly, fewer shark attack-related deaths in 2001 compared to 2000.

Finally, I read a discussion thread on projectmanagement.com related to quantifying risk information. In the thread, Expected Monetary Value (EMV) was discussed and the proverbial lightbulb went off.

While EMV can be a useful way to quantify the expected impacts of the realization of a risk, it as susceptible to the same flaws which Michael and Daniel had written about. Unless there is a high degree of similarity in the contexts between the current project and past projects, quantification of a risk’s probability and impact is likely to be skewed first by normal estimation errors and further by our emotional responses to the risk itself.

If we have recently been on a project which was delayed because of the loss of a key team member, we are likely to give a much higher weighting to the probability and/or impact of a similar risk on our next project, even though these are entirely independent events.

Does this mean that we can’t use quantitative risk analysis tools? Of course not, but we should ensure we have some checks and balances when we use them to reduce the risk (pun absolutely intended!) of making a poor decision.

(If you liked this article, why not pick up my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on Amazon.com and on Amazon.ca as well as a number of other online book stores)

Categories: Agile, Project Management | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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