Posts Tagged With: personal development

Are you working down your knowledge debt?

The term “technical debt” is familiar to many in the delivery world, especially those working on technology initiatives.

Ward Cunningham had originally used the well known concept of financial debt as a metaphor for the consequences of decisions made with imperfect or partial information. The term has been mistakenly used by some to refer to poor product quality resulting from teams cutting corners but that was not its original intent. For those of you who would like to hear Ward’s explanation of how he came up with it, you might want to view this YouTube video.

A few days back, when responding to a LinkedIn post about fixed and growth mindsets, and what are the prerequisites for someone to possess a growth mindset, I felt the same metaphor could be used to describe the mental models and preconceived notions which we build up over time. Purposefully restricting where we get information shouldn’t be considered “debt” so I’m focusing on misconceptions or blind spots which arise naturally.

Unlike financial debt, it is impossible to avoid knowledge debt. The human mind seeks to fill gaps in our understanding and our biases, past experience and anecdotal evidence are all leveraged to do this. What is important is whether we choose to pay down this debt.

To do so requires us to accept that we shouldn’t be certain about anything. Once we have the humility to accept that, we are likely to be more curious about views which differ from ours and more open about learning from sources outside our echo chambers.

Here’s one example from my past.

In my early childhood, I had decided that I did not like eggplant and that all dishes made from it were slimy and inedible. As such, till my twenties, I went out of my way to avoid eggplant. After I got married, my wife wanted to make an eggplant-based meal one day and I wasn’t thrilled. Knowing that she generally had good culinary tastes, I was curious as to how she could eat eggplant without gagging and decided to humor her by trying some. Sure enough, I enjoyed it. Looking back, I can regret all the missed opportunities to enjoy eggplant parmesan, grilled eggplant, eggplant lasagna and other dishes, but at least I was able to do so from that time forward.

So how are you going about working down your knowledge debt?

(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 and on as well as a number of other online book stores)

Categories: Project Management | Tags: | Leave a comment

Are you giving your team members “breakfast”?

In a project-oriented structure where the project manager has people management responsibilities for their team members, it is expected that an individual’s performance on project work is the primary basis for their formal (HR) evaluation. But in a matrix structure, formal evaluations get carried out by the functional managers to whom the team members report to.

This can generate a number of risks, especially when the team members are spending the majority of their time doing project work including:

  • Team members perceiving that their evaluations are based on a fraction of their actual work
  • Team members prioritizing their functional work higher than their project work
  • Functional managers “flying blind” when completing the team members’ formal evaluations

When HR policies require functional managers to seek input from the project managers whom their team members worked with, and project managers are required to provide objective feedback into the formal evaluation process, it mostly eliminates these risks.

But this is not something I’ve run across frequently.

Alternately, it is possible to address the risks by having proactive functional and project managers who will respectively request and provide feedback without being mandated to do so.

And even if the functional managers are disinterested in hearing what the project managers have to say about their team members, some project managers will provide the feedback unsolicited to the functional managers, or at worst, only to the team members, leaving it to the team members to bring that feedback to the table during formal evaluations.

The common thread across these choices is the demonstration of a proactive leadership stance by the project managers. However, if a project manager isn’t interested or they’ve had their wrist slapped for doing so in the past, team members receive no feedback which increases the likelihood and impact of the risks being realized.

While I’ve witnessed project and functional managers engaging in all of these approaches, I wanted to bring this to a broader audience and did so by conducting a poll within PMI’s LinkedIn Project, Program and Portfolio Management discussion group as well as the community. The poll question was simple: “Do you provide feedback to managers about their team members’ performance as an input into formal evaluations?”

The poll received 95 responses, with the following breakdown of responses:

  1. Yes, and it is requested by the functional manager: 38%
  2. Yes, but it was not requested by the functional manager: 29%
  3. No, I provide it to neither the team member nor their functional manager: 19%
  4. No, I just provide it to the team member: 14%

While I do find it encouraging that the vast majority of project managers see the value of providing formal feedback on their team member’s performance, it is unfortunate that almost one out of five project managers doesn’t.

While this is bad for the team members, it can also hurt the project managers, especially if other project managers working with the same team members do provide such feedback. In such cases, when a team member has to juggle multiple, competing projects, which project manager is likely to be given a higher priority?

Ken Blanchard said “Feedback is the breakfast of champions” so do you want to deprive your team members of the most important meal of the day?

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

Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

“You must unlearn what you have learned”

Earlier this week, Amy Edmondson posted a quote on LinkedIn which really made me think. “A crucial misconception is that psychological safety will naturally occur in any reasonably healthy workplace. In fact, psychologically safe work environments are rare. They require deliberate, consistent actions.

Until this point, I had felt that most people would willingly choose to behave in a safe manner if they felt they had the freedom to do so, but her assertion that psychological safety is not a natural outcome for teams made me reconsider this assumption.

As I was considering the implications of the statement, it dawned on me that one of the contributing factors for this might be how we were educated and the impacts which our family, friends and other strong influencers had on us during our formative years.

As we were growing up if we were encouraged to speak up when we saw something wrong, to experiment, to challenge groupthink or the status quo, that might cause us to feel safer than someone who had a different experience.

Was healthy debate and constructive dissent tolerated at your dinner table when you were a teenager? How about in your high school or even college classrooms?

This is not always the case. Complying because of who demands it rather than the merit of what is being requested might be a lesson reinforced through repeated enforcement.

Such influences could affect not only how safe we feel when joining a new team but also the extent to which we create safe environments for others.

If we were encouraged to welcome and to respect differing perspectives, to avoid embarrassing or needlessly criticizing those who had made a mistake, to help those who were seeking to learn and to give a voice to those who felt they had none, then we’d be more likely to create safety.

But if our formative influences modeled Sensei Kreese’s doctrine of “We do not train to be merciful here. Mercy is for the weak.” from The Karate Kid, we might have been conditioned to do the same. And that lesson might have been reinforced through the jobs we held early in our careers. Sales teams sometimes have deeply rooted “dog eat dog” culture. Work in that environment for any length of time and it will be hard to remain unaffected.

And this brings me to Master Yoda’s titular quote for this article. The muscle memory you have built up might be limiting your ability to feel safe and to create safety for others. Evolving won’t happen by accident, yet the costs of not doing so are significant.

New blood joins this Earth
And quickly he’s subdued
Through constant pained disgrace
The young boy learns their rules
” – Metallica, The Unforgiven

(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 and on as well as a number of other online book stores)

Categories: Facilitating Organization Change, Psychological Safety | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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