Nudges might lead to better project governance

(From Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Eric Idle)

If a survey of teams was conducted to find out what they hated the most about working on projects, governance is likely to rank fairly high. Ask a group of project managers working for a large organization the same question and governance is likely to receive the most votes. This is because most governance approaches are or at least perceived as being onerous and viewed as barriers rather than enablers to getting work done.

Have a theoretical conversation with project managers about governance and they won’t argue about its importance unless they are anarchists. Governance keeps both individuals and the organization safe and ensures that resources get used in a responsible manner. The issue lies not with governance itself but with its implementation.

An approach I’ve supported in the past has been for governance leaders to effectively educate delivery teams on the control objectives which need to be satisfied but then leave it to teams to figure out how to meet those objectives. The challenge with this approach is that if teams feel under pressure to deliver (and tell me the last time you were on a team which didn’t feel such pressure!), without simultaneous emphasis on achieving control objectives, those might get ignored. The project manager can try to act as the conscience of the team, but by doing so they might lose the respect of their team, or worse, the full burden of satisfying governance requirements might fall on them.

A different approach might be to leverage nudge theory.

Wikipedia provides the following overview (I have highlighted in bold the two most common approaches for implementing project governance): “Nudge is a concept in behavioral economics, political theory, and behavioral sciences which proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions as ways to influence the behavior and decision making of groups or individuals. Nudging contrasts with other ways to achieve compliance, such as education, legislation or enforcement.“. Later in the same page the authors state “A nudge makes it more likely that an individual will make a particular choice, or behave in a particular way, by altering the environment so that automatic cognitive processes are triggered to favour the desired outcome.

One example which many travelers have probably experienced is how bed linens get changed in a multi-day hotel stay. A number of hotel chains have adopted the practice of using a card which the guest needs to place on the bed to signal the housekeeper to change the linens. In the absence of this card, the housekeeper’s default behavior is to make the bed with the existing linens, thus reducing the environmental impacts of unnecessary washing.

When introducing nudges there are a few principles to think about:

  1. Don’t hide the nudges as we want to ensure that delivery teams are fully aware that they are being introduced
  2. Involve delivery teams in the design, development and roll out of the nudges to avoid change resistance
  3. Focus nudges on helping teams do the “right” thing as opposed to preventing them from doing the “wrong” thing as there is more likely to be buy-in when the outcome is a positive one.

So what nudges can YOU come up with which might satisfy the governance requirements faced by your team?

Categories: Facilitating Organization Change, Process Peeves, Project Management | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Low psychological safety might be why planning assumptions remain unstated

 Reasonable Assumptions - Dilbert by Scott Adams

Scott Adams does a good job above of illustrating one of the many perils of low levels of psychological safety within a team. Dilbert is trying to raise reasonable doubts with his leader, the Pointy-Haired Boss, but his concerns are met with the threat of losing his job. How likely is it that Dilbert will raise such concerns in the future?

While this scenario has been dramatized for comedy purposes, it sometimes ends with tragic results. In those cases, lives are lost and the post-incident investigations often reveal systemic repression of raising any information which would refute established plans. The March 1977 collision of two Boeing 747 jumbo jets in the Canary Islands is a textbook case of what can happen when staff don’t feel safe challenging assumptions.

But most of us don’t find ourselves in situations where sticking with the wrong plan will result in loss of life or limb. However, there can still be negative impacts including:

  • Reduced benefits realization
  • Increased legal fees and other costs when we don’t deliver what we had promised
  • Reduced staff engagement and job satisfaction
  • Increased attrition and costs of retention or replacement
  • Reputational damage when former employees publish feedback about the toxic culture within their teams on job boards or on social media

Invalid assumptions are often a source of risk which is why assumptions analysis can be an effective method of identifying project risks.

If assumptions remain unstated because team members don’t feel comfortable sharing them, the team loses the opportunity to challenge those assumptions. When they don’t feel safe, team members will keep their concerns to themselves, valuing short-term security over long-term benefits. And if the risks are realized, they are likely to say something to the effect of “But they never listen to us” or “I was worried about losing my job“.

On the other hand, when the members of a team feel safe, they are less likely to worry about the short-term negative impacts of having made a mistake and will be comfortable proactively speaking up when they are making an assumption about something. That provides an opportunity for the rest of the team to assess the assumption and identify any risks associated with that assumption being invalid. Then, if the severity of the risk is sufficiently grave, they can define when that assumption should be verified and even have a contingency plan to implement if that assumption is proven to be invalid.

But sometimes the assumptions being made are not ours.

In the Dilbert cartoon, the invalid planning assumptions are those of the Pointy-Haired Boss’s. Another benefit of a team operating at a high level of psychological safety is that the team members are more likely to challenge their leaders when those leaders have made faulty assumptions. While that is helpful to the project, getting such feedback in an honest, timely fashion will also help the leaders’ decision-making to improve.

Silence doesn’t create project and organizational safety, it erodes it.






Categories: Facilitating Organization Change, Project Management | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Projects are like pizza!

Long time readers of this blog will know that I occasionally like to draw lessons from other domains to project management. I am a foodie and pizza is one of my long-standing favorite foods. So I thought it would be interesting to see if there were parallels which could be made between projects and pizza!

There’s more than one way to make it

If you like your pizzas to have more than just cheese as a topping do you prefer your toppings to be below the cheese or on top of the cheese? With the former method the cheese locks in the toppings so they are less likely to fall off when you eat a slice whereas with the latter you have a better opportunity to grab the slices you’d like if there are certain toppings you want more or less of.

With projects, sometimes a deterministic life cycle is appropriate whereas other times an adaptive life cycle would make sense. Push-based communication methods work in certain situations whereas pull-based approaches are suitable in others. Context counts.

It’s all about the crust

Those who view a pizza crust as merely a glorified plate for a bunch of toppings are missing the point – the crust makes the pizza. Yes, you can make your sauce from scratch and use the highest quality toppings but without a crust that is equally good, the pizza won’t be great.

When I teach project management fundamentals classes, I ask learners to identify some root causes for troubled projects and then ask them when those issues might have been prevented. In the majority of cases, they identify the beginning of the project as the best opportunity to do things right. Just as the crust is the foundation for a great pizza, how we kick off and initiate our projects will often determine how successful we are at the end.

There are pros and cons to outsourcing

Some people prefer to order their pizzas fully cooked from restaurants whereas others prefer to get them prepared externally but will cook them at home. Some like to buy the crust and sauce and then add their own toppings whereas others will make everything from scratch. Each of these methods has its advantages and disadvantages. If we like wood-fired pizza but don’t have a wood-fired oven or grill at home, getting our pizzas from restaurants might be our only option.

The same holds true for projects. If a company has the necessary skills and capacity, they can choose to do it all in-house. But if they have other higher priority work or must outsource some or all of the scope to a third-party it will cost more and they might not always get what they hoped for.

For those of us who see project management as our calling and not just a job, I’ll close with this quote from Bill Murray: “Unless you are a pizza, the answer is yes, I can live without you.

Categories: Project Management | Tags: | Leave a comment

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