Posts Tagged With: team building

Once upon a project time…

Storytelling is a powerful tool to educate young and old alike. When it comes to project management, we can draw upon multiple sources for learning so let’s try to identify the lessons we can learn from the popular fables we heard as children.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

Aesop provides us this well-known fable of the mischievous shepherd boy who tricks his neighbours into coming to the aid of his flock on multiple occasions. When a real wolf arrives and starts to attack his sheep, he is ignored and his flock is devoured.

We expect our sponsor and other senior leaders to handle escalations. But if we simply pass the buck and don’t own those actions, issues or risks which we could have addressed ourselves, they are not likely to respond in a timely manner when we finally bring a legitimate concern to their attention.

The Scorpion and the Frog

This is the contemporary fable of the frog who is unwilling to transport a scorpion across a river. The scorpion attempts to allay the frog’s fears by saying that if he stings the frog while being carried they will both drown. Midway across the river the scorpion stings the frog and explains to the frog as they both sink below the surface that it was in its nature to do so.

Cost Performance Index (CPI) provides an objective assessment of financial health and is unlikely to substantially improve once a project is more than 20% complete: “DOD experience in more than 400 programs since 1977 indicates without exception that the cumulative CPI does not significantly improve during the period of 15% through 85% of the contract performance; in fact it tends to decline.

Project performance, like our scorpion, has difficulty changing its nature.

The Tortoise and the Hare

We’ve all heard this tale of the tortoise who challenges an arrogant hare to a long distance race. The hare starts the race with a comfortable lead over the tortoise but believing he can’t be beaten, takes a nap, during which time the tortoise catches up and passes him for the win.

Projects are usually more like a marathon than a sprint. If our team is working significant overtime to achieve early milestones, chances are they will burnout quickly and we’ll fall short of the finish line. Teams working a sustainable pace are able to do so indefinitely. In short, slow and steady wins the project race.

The Ant and the Grasshopper

In the summer, while the studious ants were busy foraging and hoarding food, the grasshopper was relaxing and enjoying himself. When winter finally came, the ants were well prepared and survived while the procrastinating grasshopper perished.

Student Syndrome often impacts project tasks when they have been excessively padded. Rather than use the excess time wisely, team members will get distracted with other work and when Murphy’s Law strikes, they have used up any buffer they had. Scheduling project tasks using aggressive estimates and consolidating buffers at a key milestone level provides one way to address the impacts of realized risks without becoming a starving grasshopper!

Willa Cather said “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.

Perhaps the same holds true for project managers!


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

Who is the Cassandra on YOUR project?

I’m currently reading Richard A. Clarke and R. P. Eddy’s book Warnings which analyzes a number of cases where a credible subject matter expert raised concerns proactively about a looming catastrophe but was ignored until it was too late to take preventative action.

The authors refer to these unfortunate prognosticators as “Cassandras” in reference to the Greek mythology tale of the princess of Troy, Cassandra, who was cursed by Apollo to see into the future but to be ridiculed by those she tried to warn of impending disaster. Through the analysis of past tragedies the authors have developed a four part assessment to identify potential Cassandras including the nature of their warnings, the characteristics of the decision makers who have the power to act on the warnings, attributes of the Cassandras themselves and those of their critics.

So while this might make for an interesting read, what relevance does this have to project management?

Donald Rumsfeld brought the phrase “unknown unknowns” into the mainstream with his February 2002 response to a question about the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “…We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

But are such risks really “unknown unknowns”? On any project involving a reasonable number of stakeholders, surely there was someone with the imagination and creativity to have been able to surface issues which were not identified through project risk management practices.

The failure to do so might be because of one of the following factors listed in the book:

  • Initial occurrence syndrome: if a given risk has never been realized within the collective awareness of the stakeholders participating in risk identification, the tendency is to believe that it will never occur.
  • Erroneous consensus: if the culture of the team is to value harmony over healthy dissent, while one team member might have the foresight to identify a radical risk, if the consensus of the remaining team members is that this is not a concern, the Cassandra will be unwilling to push their point.
  • Invisible obvious: a lack of diversity within a team can increase the potential for groupthink. If we think of individual experience and knowledge as sets in a Venn diagram, we would ideally want to cover as much area as possible while still having some areas of commonality. The lower the diversity in a team, the greater the alignment of the collective sets and hence the greater the area of no knowledge.

In last week’s article I provided one possible glimpse into the future of our profession. A benefit of computer assisted project management might be a vast reduction in unknown unknowns if we choose to follow our AI’s guidance. Until then it is our responsibility as project managers to build diverse teams and to actively listen for the Cassandras within them.

Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Help your team to fire it up!

Summer time in Canada gives us the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors without having to worry about frostbite! One of my favorite weekend pastimes is to light up some logs in my backyard fire pit, pull up a Muskoka chair and listen to the crackling sounds, smell the pleasant aroma of the burning wood and gaze at the stars. But starting and sustaining a wood fire outdoors does take some effort, not unlike nurturing a team.

Enjoying a good fire normally requires starting with some type of accelerant or fire starter, then some kindling and finally the logs. Just using fire starter or kindling doesn’t work well as you won’t get a long lasting burn. On the other hand, trying to start a fire with just a log is amusing to witness but not much fun to experience. If you have the benefit of picking your team members it might be tempting to only pick people who get along with you, but you are likely to lose out on the many benefits of diversity including a reduction in the likelihood of experiencing groupthink.

Beginners often have a tendency to constantly fuss with a fire. They get worried that it will either extinguish itself or that burning embers might land on nearby flammable materials. Whether it’s incessantly blowing on the fire, smothering it with excessive logs, waterboarding it with fire starter fluid or poking and prodding it frequently with a poker, their micro-management spoils the fire and irritates those of us around them who might be trying to enjoy it. Other people are too hands off as they don’t see the warning signs of a starving fire and end up having to restart the blaze multiple times in an evening due to neglect. Teams work much the same way. Micro-management is one of the quickest way to suck the life out of your team but neglecting them is also a recipe for disaster. As with Goldilocks, our job is to discover what’s “just right” for a particular team.

It’s easier to keep a healthy fire going than it is to start one from scratch. With a long running fire, just when you think the embers have died out, the addition of some kindling and some encouraging puffs of air can bring it roaring back to life. Nurturing a high performing team takes work, but it’s a lot less than the effort required to guide a new team through forming, storming and norming.

Once your fire is going strong, there’s not much to worry about from outside elements. A good fire can withstand light rain showers and will deter most insects from bothering those sitting around it. Strong teams usually possess higher levels of psychological safety which can help team members to face challenges knowing they will be supported by the rest of the team.

It’s getting cold in here so somebody fire it up – Thousand Foot Krutch

Categories: Project Management | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: