Are your critical assumptions valid?

Project decisions are fueled by assumptions. But are they valid? One of the keys to project success is to make each critical assumption transparent and then to try to validate it or invalidate it as quickly as possible.

When you’re using a map and a compass to get from point A to point B, you also rely on assumptions. But the map and compass provide you with a way to confirm or deny those assumptions if you know how to use them. Am I really traveling on a 175-degree azimuth? The compass can show you. Is this the east-west trail I was seeking? The compass tells you that it’s going roughly east-west into the wood line on each side. The map tells you that if you go west, and you are where you think you are then the trail will curve to your right. The contour lines on the map tell you that it will begin to go up a gentle slope. And, if you travel a few hundred meters, you should see a small stream on your right going down the hill and at an angle away from the trail.

So you head out. You think you are going west. And you think you were starting from the right spot on the right trail. Your job at this point is to confirm or deny those assumptions as quickly as possible. If you go into the wood line and the trail begins to slope downhill and curve to the left then something is wrong. Continuing to go that way will not get you to the point you are trying to reach.

In orienteering, the sport of finding points in the woods with a map and compass, one of the problems competitors face is that they try to make the landscape around them fit the map. They might be completely turned around and going the wrong direction, but that’s sort of uphill with a right curve. Sure, it curved a little to the left but then came back, didn’t it? It’s a form of confirmation bias to try to conform what you are seeing with what you thought you would see. But it will get you lost.

Project teams can do this too. They look for the facts that support the narrative they thought they would see and miss the danger signs. This sort of confirmation bias can be dangerous to your project because it prolongs the effect of flawed decisions based on invalid assumptions. You keep going toward what you think is point B, but it is not. One of the ways to overcome this is to get an objective assessment of your project from somebody that knows how to identify and question your basic assumptions. And the sooner the better. The more time and money you spend going in the wrong direction, the less ability you have to change directions and salvage your project.


Recognizing dangerous patterns!

Putting the right shaped piece into the right hole of a children’s puzzle is a matter of recognizing patterns.  Project problems often come in patterns of their own that are recognizable to the trained eye across multiple project types and industries.  Are you able to recognize the problematic patterns in your project?  If so, do you know how to fix them?


7 Ways to kill the innovation light bulb!

Everybody pretends they want innovation in their team.  But they don’t act like they really do.  If you want to kill the light bulb in your organization, if you want to stifle creativity, slow down your project’s progress, and cripple your project team in the face of unexpected challenges, then here are seven simple steps to do so.

1.  Shoot the messenger!  Create a culture that punishes bad news and, voila, it will go away.  No more bad news!  But so will your project.  And it won’t be because you succeeded.

2.  But we’ve always done it this way!  This is a sure-fire way to shut down suggestions for new ways to do things.  Especially from new team members that might otherwise cross-pollinate your project team with new ideas and ways to improve.  Not every idea will be better than what you are already doing.  But if this is always the first answer then you will soon stop getting those ideas.  Even if your way is better, it’s NOT because you’ve always done it this way.  It’s because there are reasons why it is better.  So this answer is a cop out.

3.  Never fail!  Zero-tolerance, perfection-only, no-failure organizations ultimately fail at the big picture.  If you are never failing, then  you are not really trying to meet stretch goals.  It’s better to want to shorten your project duration by 40% and “fail” by doing it only 25% than it is to not shorten it at all.

4.  Spin everything!  Worse than a culture that shoots the messenger is a culture of lies. If you spin everything to be positive then you can never learn anything.  You also will never know how your project is really performing and whether or not any of your foundational assumptions were wrong.

5.  Always move right to the next thing!  Do not take the time to reflect and learn lessons from what you did before.  And start executing the project as soon as possible.  If you don’t spend time learning and you don’t spend time planning, then you are sure never to come up with innovative ideas and solutions.

6.  Compartmentalize information!  If nobody can see all the cards then they certainly can’t know when to bet.  So be sure to only share certain types of information with certain silos on your team.  This will ensure that there is absolutely no cross-pollination of ideas as nobody will have the ability to find common patterns between problems and point to solutions from a different silo.  Also, nobody will ask any of those pesky difficult questions that might challenge your assumptions and cause you to re-think your plan.

7.  Always make sure that you are the smartest person in the room!  And if you can’t be, then assert that you are and bully everyone to ensure nobody is willing to challenge that assertion.  Good leaders surround themselves with team players that are smarter than they are – especially in their own specialties.  So definitely do not do that if you want the innovation light bulb in your team to go dark!


Is homeostasis holding back your project?

In chapter six of my book, Projects On Purpose 2.0, I discussed five reasons why project team members do not share the same purpose.  Of course, there are probably many more than five.  In fact, homeostasis is often a sixth reason.  Homeostasis is a systemic resistance to change.  In the human body, it includes all of the systems that keep our internal workings going in a stable manner.  It’s not normally a bad thing in that context.  It’s what maintains 98.6 deg F as our core body temperature.  And it keeps us going on a day-to-day basis.

But homeostasis also resists other types of changes.  For example, have you ever tried to lose weight but plateau’d at a certain point?  Your body finds a new “normal” and homeostasis tries to keep it there.  It’s just doing what it always does but, in this case, it is resisting positive and beneficial change.

In case you haven’t noticed, humans and organizations also often prove resistant to change.  And this can be a problem for your project because nearly all projects, by definition, involve a change of some sort – whether in process, information systems, facilities, or even the possible success of new products.  They all involve change.  You should be on guard against this natural resistance to change in your organization and your projects.


Early project decisions create the biggest ripples!

Repeated studies have shown that the decisions made early in a project have more impact than those made later.  This makes sense.  Think about a professional football team.  The decision of what players to recruit, what type of offense and defense to run, the coaching staff composition, how to practice, and who to start makes a much greater impact on the overall season than that one play call even at a critical moment in a critical game.

Your early project decisions create the greatest ripples!  Because you don’t have a crystal ball, many of these decisions have to be based on unproven assumptions.  Unfortunately, some of those assumptions might not be readily apparent.  One way to focus on making the right kind of ripples is to clearly identify all the critical assumptions built into your decision and seek to validate or invalidate those assumptions as rapidly as possible.  You won’t be able to do this immediately in some cases.  But, by tracking them and having a plan, you can find out sooner, rather than later, whether you made the right decision.


Leaders overcoming project obstacles!

Project leadership is about helping your team to overcome obstacles.  A good project leader takes her responsibilities seriously and, as a result, is actually made better.  When I was an Army cadet I was assigned to a basic training company for five weeks to assist the drill sergeants in training the new recruits and to learn from them with their vastly greater Army experience.  Our unit was at the confidence obstacle course and one of the recruits froze up on the horizontal portion of an obstacle very much like the one pictured above.  He wouldn’t move.  On the horizontal portion you have to step from wooden beam to wooden beam and you can see the ground fifteen to twenty feet below you.  The Hollywood drill sergeant version of standing on the ground and yelling at him would have been an ineffective strategy (actually that’s almost always an ineffective strategy).  I said to the platoon drill sergeant, “I’ll go.”

I ran over, climbed up the first vertical segment and walked to the beam where the private was standing.  I looked him in the eyes and calmly spoke to him for a few seconds and said, “we can do this together.”  Then, side-by-side we proceeded one step at a time to the next segment of the obstacle and finished.

I’m not saying this to brag about my own prowess.  Truth be told, I tend to be afraid of heights.  But, up there, with somebody who depended on my leadership in that little matter on that one day, just being the leader made me better.  I felt no fear – only interest in getting this younger man to do what I knew he could do – overcome his own fear and complete the obstacle.

Your project team will face many obstacles.  A conscientious leader will be made better by the fact that the team depends on her leadership.  And your team will be better for it.