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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Pick Me! Pick Me! ...What is YOUR Essential Value Proposition?

[Also available as a podcast]

When my father graduated from university and got his first job as an Electrical Engineer, his manager told him the following on his first day:

"Congratulations on earning your degree. But I want you to know the only thing it shows me is that you know how to learn."

My father was stunned. He had worked hard to get his degree over several long years; surely all of what he had learned counted for something! Engineering was a hard degree to get and covered a lot of knowledge areas in depth...what was his manager talking about?

For the manager, my father's value proposition was the potential for a future of great contributions to the company, based on his educational focus and demonstrated ability to learn complex things (provided he continued to apply himself and work hard, of course). To be sure, the company must have seen value or they would not have hired my father in the first place - but it was still a shock for him to hear that message on his first day.

My father didn't tell me what he was thinking before he entered the office, but that first meeting with his manager had a profound effect on him. I even believe it was a defining moment for him. It forced him to look forward - to what he could do with and for the company, rather than dwell on his prior accomplishments.

What you have done is not as important as what you will do next. The past only shows what you were capable of then; it merely lays the groundwork for what you might become on your journey.

Image licensed from Fotolia #45593398

For many of us, our value proposition is often quite different than what we think it is. In fact, our value is always defined more by the other person (the receiver of your services) than by you (the giver of the service).

They want to know what YOU can do for them, and how you can help them solve their needs and problems. This is your Value to them.

But there is much, much more to it than that...  

Resetting Perspective

You may be a leader of many people, but at the grocery store you are just another customer with money to spend, that will help them pay their bills. You expect them to provide quality goods at a reasonable price.

You may be a brilliant world-renowned Particle Physicist or Nobel Prize Winner, but in the dentist's chair they only care if you have been flossing and brushing well. You, in turn, expect them to be competent at their chosen profession, so you don't leave the chair with more holes in your mouth than you had when you went in.

The fact is, your long list of accomplishments does not always matter. I am not saying what you have done or accomplished is irrelevant, far from it. However, you need to look at the specific situation to establish the proper perspective.

In the transactional model, your value proposition is about what can YOU do for THEM in a specific situation, and their value proposition is what THEY can do for YOU in turn.

If your perceived value is acceptable to them, and their perceived value is acceptable to you, then you are likely to strike a deal, make an exchange, purchase a product, sign a contract, hire the other party to perform a task or tasks - or join a company for the long term, in a partnership or employee-employer relationship.

It's simply not just about you and what you want. It never is.

Pick Me! Pick Me!

Nobody ever hired you just to give you a job.

Likewise, no company ever gave your company business just because you needed someone to buy your product or service in order to meet your quarterly targets.

These days, there are a lot of people looking for work - and companies looking for customers, retail and corporate.

Nothing new, really - markets are cyclical, boom and bust (guess which part of the cycle most people think we are in...!).

Regardless of the market conditions, the reality is that many people still get jobs, many companies still sell to customers - and some even grow and flourish despite market conditions. At the same time, others suffer, have difficulty finding a new job or getting that next customer.

Why do some do so well - while others continue to get frustrated as a company lays off people around them - or including them?

You may have comparable products, skills or self-perceived value to everyone else bidding on a contract or applying for a job, but one person or company is always singled out and gets the business, or the job.

So what is it that makes the biggest difference?

Well, before I tell you, there is one thing we have to do.

Knock that Chip off your Shoulder

I am not trying to be mean; what I mean by this is that if you have been doing something for a while, or maybe got a big promotion, it is common to have a decent sized sense of your own value and importance. Sometimes though, it gets a bit too big when we focus mainly on ourselves. Self-worth is fine; self-aggrandizement is not so good. Conversely it is quite unhealty to always put yourself down, so stay somewhere in the middle, okay?

The reason the expression is "chip on your shoulder" and not "bulge in your jacket pocket" or something else is that it reminds us that our vision gets partially obstructed when that "chip" is parked on your shoulder. Sometimes you can have them on both shoulders, and they can grow into blinders. You can lose sight of the bigger picture and the other people around you - especially your team.

Want a dose of humility? Try to fix your broken toilet, and then have to call the plumber in the middle of the night and explain how you broke it even more. He doesn't care about whether you work at Wendy's or are the CEO of WalMart. He just cares about fixing the gusher and getting that healthy overtime callout surcharge on top of his regular rate, because you disturbed his sleep. (No, this did not actually happen to me. It's just an example!...maybe)

So give your shoulders a good firm shake. Brush them off for good measure, make sure there are no chip fragments left. They can grow back all too quickly.

But don't shake too hard and drop all your skills, experience and aptitudes though...we will need those next.

Be Useful

"Find a need and fill it, and the world will come beating to your door."

Well, perhaps, if you are lucky that will happen. The more realistic approach is to figure out how you can be useful - or continue to be useful.

If you are staying in the same company or job, it is always a good idea to periodically ask yourself if you are still useful to others - especially before someone notices that you are not being useful. If they notice it first, you might be someone in the next paragraph.

If you are changing jobs (voluntarily or otherwise), the most important thing you can do is figure out where you will be useful. Notice that I did not say "where you will be great"...scrape off that bit of chip from your left shoulder.

When you look over an RFP, or job description, look at it closely. I want you to put aside your first thoughts if they are "can we sell our product?" or "I like the hourly rate". We can get back to that later.

Look at it again - and ask yourself first "can I help them?", or "will my product or service make a difference and satisfy what they need?"

Next, look at your assets - the product suite, your service offering, or, if you are applying for a job, your experience and areas of expertise and skills. What have you done or can you do, deliver or provide that will help them? How can you or your company be useful?

Ok, now you can look at the other stuff (sales, money, hourly rate). But only a quick peek, then tuck it away.

Next questions.
- "Do I want to help them?"
- If you help them, will it also help you? (Sales, salary, opportunity to grow, feeling good about doing it, etc).

If the answer is "no" to either one, go back up to "Be Useful" and pull another one from the pile. If the situation only helps one of you, it is not a good starting point and eventually one side will feel it is try for a near balance (win-win).

If the answer is "yes, I want to help them and it will help me in some way", read on...

Do it with ...

I hope most of you made it this far. Not everybody does. In fact, it took me a few weeks to make it back down this far the last time...but I digress.

So... you can help them, you want to help them, and you feel good about it - a win/win of some kind.


You just made it to the shortlist and are in the final round.

And the winner is....


Yup, Passion. Not the fruit, but the in-your-guts-oh-boy-I-really-like-doing-it kind.

Can do + Want to Do + Do it with Passion is the winning combination that makes the difference.

The thing to remember about Passion, though is that it sometimes sneaks away while you are busy "just working". Then one day, you find out it is missing, and you are not having as much fun any more.

If that happens, you need to find it again. Surprisingly though, the Passion you find may not even be the same one you thought you had lost. As people grow and change, what excites them can also change. Not always, but often. You may even find there is more than one of them running around your feet, waiting to be picked up.

If you have lost your Passion, I strongly suggest that you go find it (or another one). We all need Passion!


As my Father found out on his first day of work, the most basic factor of your Value Proposition is how you (or your comany) can be useful to others. If you can't be useful, well, try doing something else. Of course, it is not a one-way street; you have to get something out of the exchange as well - fiscally or emotionally, the relationship should be useful to you too.

Note: A Prima Donna with stellar skills is far less useful than someone who is "pretty good" but a stellar team player, unless maybe they are a brain surgeon.

Being useful, however, is just table stakes. If you want to stand out, and get a chance to be useful by winning the contract or getting that job, you need Passion.

Not only that - you need to be able to communicate that usefulness and passion, and show them, no, convince them that you "have it" - with no chips on any shoulders.

Don't believe me? I have had (and lost) different passions over many years as I have grown and changed; over the last decade or so I have developed several areas of Passion related to Project Management and serving customers - but my latest additional Passion took me completely by surprise (just this week, actually!)

What is it?

You'll find out soon...but it has something to do with writing. And it's new.

Hint: You can search, but not on search engines, and you will find it...but if you don't, you'll have to wait until early 2013.

If you find it, leave a comment on the blog or drop me an email. A couple of you will win something if you get it right!

Good luck with your projects, and make sure to find your Passion!

Friday, October 26, 2012

From the Playground to the Olympics: What NOT to do in Team Development

[Also available as a podcast]

"I got here first!"

"No, I did!"


"No, me!"

I just got back from a three day school camp with my youngest son. We  went to new and interesting places each day, and everywhere we went, walking or driving, the adults were constantly serenaded by the same chorus when we arrived at each destination.

"I got here first!"

Somehow, it seemed vitally important to be the first one to arrive wherever we went, or at least it was if you were under 10 years old.

The playground is a useful place to hone skills and promote competition, but it is equally important to learn to work and compete together as a team.

Often, when children compete in teams, you will have individuals claiming they were the fastest in the team, and therefore they are the reason the team won - so really "they" won and the rest of the team's efforts did not matter. 

Unfortunately, some people never outgrow this. They are in constant competition with everyone else, even though the others may not even know there is a race going on. They may not say it out loud, but they likely feel a small satisfaction in reaching the traffic light first, so they can be ready to launch off again - first - as soon as it turns green.

Even as adults, some people within teams will promote their personal contributions to the detriment of the team - just like back on the playground, they believe that they (and themselves alone) are the real reason the team succeeded.

It is true that one person can make a difference.

It is also true that one person can help to bring a team together - or destroy it.

Fortunately, most people do outgrow these playground behaviors, and become great team players. There is hope!

World-Class Teams

In July and August 2012, the Summer Olympics were held in London England. While there were many events that featured the best individual competitors in the world, there were also many team events. To me, the team events were the most challenging and very exciting to watch, as it required the whole team to work together flawlessly under pressure under very specific deadlines, particularly in races where 1/10th of a second can mean the difference between Gold and watching someone else receive Bronze. Very tight competition.

Photo licensed from Fotolia 1228781

One competition that demands very high levels of teamwork is rowing - requiring precise coordination of every stroke with your teammates to apply the maximum forward force at exactly the same time. If your timing is slightly off or the pressure is uneven, the boat will veer off in one direction and then another, causing drag and loss of forward momentum - and no medals.

Overall, Great Britain placed first in rowing with 9 medals (4 gold, 2 silver, 3 bronze). In second place was New Zealand, with 5 medals (3 gold, 2 bronze). In the Men's Double Sculls, the NZ team's lead over the silver winners was significant - NZ won by two boat-lengths. An exceptional show of teamwork and flawless execution. 

Every gold medal winning team performed to their utmost, an exhilarating mix of communication, trust, effort and coordination. However, there was one thing that was quite notably lacking around every medal winning team, gold, silver and bronze alike.

Nowhere did you hear "I got there first!"

When the team won - they all won together. The person in the front did not "win more" than the person in the back. Without every team member putting in their maximum coordinated effort for the common goal, they would not have achieved a world-class standing.

Your Project Team

You may not be competing on the world stage, or even going for "global project of the year", but it is just as important for your project team to work well together towards the common goal. True, you may have a number of shining stars on your project, the anchors that you can rely on to work a bit harder when needed, pull the long hours, and some that are exceptionally gifted or skilled. Certainly the Olympic teams were not filled with mediocre athletes - they were all of the highest calibre.

What makes them - and effective teams - different from the playgrounds of our youth is the maturity and strength to put the good of the team first. 

If we win - each team member can be proud to be part of the winning team, without "I's" popping up like seagulls. No one person or few people should take the credit. It is shared and enjoyed equally.

And if we lose, nobody points fingers at who did the worst, or who they think was the "weak link". There may indeed be a few who did not seem to contribute quite as much as the others, however they may have actually been doing their best. Teams need all kinds of people in order to get the job done, with the associated mix of abilities, skills and attitudes.

Leadership also makes a significant difference to overall performance of the team. If the team leader, manager, Project Manager or CEO takes all the credit for the work of their teams, it will demoralize the team. Similarly, if there are problems and the leader shunts the blame onto the team, the team will quickly dissolve into clusters of individuals and small groups steeped in resentment. The leader just destroyed the team.

I learned a valuable lesson from my first Manager and Effective Leader - if there was success, he did not claim credit but publicy bestowed praise on the entire team. If there were problems or failures, he accepted them as his own in public - and then convened the team to see what could be improved or what needed to be done to fix the problem - together.


Attitude, more than individual ability, makes the difference between a "good" team, an "Exceptional" team and a "poor performing" team. Where teams struggle from internal divisions and bickering, you will usually find a room full of egos, who are all clamoring "I was first!". While they bicker, the other teams sail on past to collect the medals.

Park your ego at the door.

You may have exceptional skills and experience - but you have been invited into the team to give your all and do your best so that we can succeed - together. Besides, your own exceptional skills may actually be middle of the pack in "our" high performing team, so don't crow too loud. Sit down, grab an oar, and help pull the boat forward.

Good luck with your projects, and remember it is the whole boat (or team) that wins or loses - not just the person at the front.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Project Pain Management: The Good, The Bad and the Useful

[Also available as a podcast]

Definition of PAIN

a : a state of physical, emotional, or mental lack of well-being or physical, emotional, or mental uneasiness that ranges from mild discomfort or dull distress to acute often unbearable agony, may be generalized or localized, and is the consequence of being injured or hurt physically or mentally or of some derangement of or lack of equilibrium in the physical or mental functions (as through disease), and that usually produces a reaction of wanting to avoid, escape, or destroy the causative factor and its effects <was in constant pain> 

b : a basic bodily sensation that is induced by a noxious stimulus, is received by naked nerve endings, is characterized by physical discomfort (as pricking, throbbing, or aching), and typically leads to evasive action

Source: Miriam-Webster (

Everyone has experienced pain of some kind. Most project managers have experienced pain on projects as well - and if you haven't yet, you must be just getting started in your career. Pain can come in many forms - physical pain, mental distress, concern and worry over things that you may (or may not) have any control over.  In fact, pain can be good for you, as it is principally designed as a protection mechanism. Brush your hand against a hot frying pan? Your body quickly tells you to get yourself away by triggering pain sensors. Step on a nail or cut yourself? Pain tells you to stop doing what you are doing and take care of your injury.

But not all pain is the same. Some pain says "Stop that!" and yet some pain you need to ignore, like runners pushing through to get their second wind.

In early 2005, I damaged my right knee - I tore my meniscus. The pain while walking right after the injury was quite bad - but of course, I still had to walk. Before I could start Physio, I had to take a flight back to the head office. Walking from the farthest gate to the main terminal was a very, very long and painful process. From there I caught one of those courtesy trams that go from gate to gate. The entire trip was measured in short walking distances and rest spots, and Naproxen was on the daily menu for a while.

I returned from the trip to my project in the US and started Physio, which helped a lot, but I still had regular pain through the next year, if I overdid it or stood too long in one position. Once the inflammation settled down, walking was Ok - but standing was not, as it put pressure in mainly one spot. But I managed, and started to get better and much more mobile - once again measuring walks in miles/km instead of dozens of feet or minutes standing up.

In 2006 I twisted my left knee when I fell into a hole, damaging it as well. You think I would have been smarter and re-injured the bad knee, but no. The pain from this injury was quite different - and worse. Walking or standing was painful for any duration or distance. But I got along, by not walking too much and avoiding standing still for very long. I went to the doctor - and was put on a waiting list for an MRI in Vancouver. I waited for 14 months, and finally had the scan. Then I had to wait a few more months to see the specialist who went over the results. The whole time my knees (both of them acting up in sympathy for each other) limited my freedom of movement as a result of the annoying pain.

At one point I actually bought a folding cane to carry in my bag, and had to use it a few times.

When I finally met the specialist, he went over the results with me, discussed "pain management" as the only near-term option and then sent me to physio. He also gave a picture of the long-term prospects which I was not terribly happy about. I left the office feeling quite discouraged. Osteochondrital impaction? Big words for "can't fix it".

So I started physio. It made things hurt more, frankly - for a while. Then it hurt a bit less. But at the same time we were preparing to sell our house prior to moving - so I found myself up on the stepladder and tall ladder (generally, just plain upright for long periods), standing and moving as I repainted the entire inside of the house, including ceilings.

During the several weeks of prep and painting in the evenings and weekends my knees were on fire, but the job had to be done. However, after the third week I began to notice something interesting.

1) There were actually two types of pain, not just one.
2) I was hurting a bit less and less every day as I forced myself onto the ladders to paint.

By the time I went in for my followup visit with the specialist who had had little hope for me other than pain management, I was walking nearly pain-free, and not only that - I was able to stand in place for long periods as well.

Over two years of suffering, and nobody told me I just had to get off my butt and move!

Sometimes, pain is a sign to stop doing what you are doing or you will further damage things (pain #1), such as actual joint pain

Other times, it is simply a message that you need to persist, and things will get better if you push through and keep going (pain #2). This tricky type of pain was merely muscle fatigue - a sign that my knees were growing a little bit stronger again, and the next day would be a little bit better than today.

In the case of my knees, the odd bit I learned about joint mechanics is that when you exercise your muscles and tone them up, they actually pull your joints apart - reducing wear and pressure on the cartilage between the bones. If you let things go and rest because it hurts, you lose muscle tone and your joints experience more direct pressure from the weight of your body. Weird, but true.

On your projects, you will also experience two types of pain - good pain and bad pain. The key is learning to identify each type of pain and then respond to them appropriately.

Project Pain

Pain was originally designed as a simple survival mechanism. However, with higher cognitive abilities, humans brought pain into a whole new sphere. No longer would we have to simply stub our toe or hit a thumb with a hammer to feel pain, we can now suffer pain in many non-physical areas as well. We feel pain about thoughts and emotions too.

Pain is great for projects. Seriously, it is - the only reason that someone buys a product or starts a project is because they have a problem to solve. This is their "pain point". So in truth, you would not be managing a project at all if there was not a big pain somewhere that needed soothing, a substantial problem that needed solving. 

Bad Pain vs Good Pain

Bad pain we are all familiar with, most commonly in the form of injury or loss. Physical injury, financial distress, loss of a loved one, ending of a relationship, or being laid off. Bad pain is generally associated with a negative outcome. In general, we all want to avoid introducing or having  "bad" pain.

There is, however, such a thing as good pain. We are most definitely not talking about sado-masochism though - we are talking about good, old fashioned discomfort that is not associated with an injury or negative outcome. Good pain is associated with positive outcomes.

An athlete endures pain on a regular basis while running, swimming, biking or in any other sport. They know at which point they will begin to feel discomfort while they are exerting themselves, and they also know and learn to expect the signs of "good" pain compared to "bad" pain. If they start to feel bad pain, they know they need to stop, hit the benches, or let someone else win the race because if they continued, they would be seriously injured and perhaps miss the next few races or games. Good pain, on the other hand, is the wall they must pass through to reach the rewards on the other side - the second wind that lets them once again pick up the pace and win the race.

On your projects, you will come across many people who will not do something because they anticipate pain, or discomfort - they feel fine as-is and do not want to change where they are or what they are doing. It is important to remember that change of any kind can and will cause discomfort - it will cause some pain to those affected.

The problem is, people often look at all pain as being the same - "it will hurt, I will feel uncomfortable, so I don't want to do it, and I don't want to go there." I don't care what it is or what is on the other side - I just don't want to deal with the pain.

Whose Pain Is It?

On your projects, pain can be experienced by everyone at some point - the project team, the sponsor, the stakeholders, the end users or consumers - and yourself as well. The real trick is identifying the type of pain it is, who is having it - and what you can do about it. You cannot take on someone else's pain, of course - but in being aware that they are having it, you may be able to help either alleviate the "bad" pain, or help them push through "good pain" to the other side.

As all projects are change projects, most of the pain will be associated in some way with that change - and needs to be accommodated in the Change Management Plan.

(We have explored Change Management in several other articles, so we won't discuss all of the specifics again here. If you would like to read them, they are: Implementing Organizational Change? Learn How to Grow a Desert, Built to Last: Forget Waterfall, Forget Agile - Let's Talk Tectonic Project Methodologies, and Teams, People and Change: You Can't Push a String )

Pain affects different groups in different ways - and needs to be approached differently in each case.

Stakeholders and end users/consumers of the project may need to change and learn to use the new system or product. If it is entirely new, some of them may be excited, some may be neutral, and some may be unwilling to take the leap. If it is replacing something they are already using, it is likely you will have more people reluctant to change as they are comfortable just as they are, or heavily invested in the old way of doing things. If the end users/consumers have the choice of staying with the old product or moving to the new product, then you have a marketing challenge. 

However, if the directive is that they need to switch because the old product is being phased out, this needs to be included in the Change Management Plan. You need to look at the change from a pain perspective. If you know it is a "good" pain on the way to migration to a new and better solution, you will want to paint encouraging words. You may also want to point out pain of not adapting - the old solution may be decommissioned, or they may no longer be skilled or employable (the "bad" pain of not changing).

Note that "good" and "bad" pain are dependent on your perspective - some may see all pain as bad, and you will need to work with them to help distinguish the two. You cannot assume that just because you can see both sides of the pain that they will as well. You may need to do a lot of communication with different stakeholder groups to get your message across and convince them that it is "good" pain, and they can and should push through it.

Of course, you may also have cases where what is "good" for the company or the project may be seen as "bad" for an individual - for example if their job is being made redundant. If the company approach is to re-assign people to other roles rather than lay them off, you may still be able to turn a "bad" pain into a "good" pain. 

However, sometimes you will have people that will continue to see the change as "bad" pain, and you may never be able to convince them otherwise. They may solve that for themselves by leaving, or they may stay on and heckle from the sidelines. You just have to be prepared for each possibility.

The Project Team may also experience some of the same pain as end users, as they may also be users of the old and new system. However the team will also have different pain points than the end users or stakeholders. They will be dealing with a lot of change, but they will also be doing a lot of learning so that they can train and support the end users. Learning something new (and having to become an expert in it) can be a daunting challenge full of uncertainty. They also will not know what they do not know - so there can be confusion and anxiety. It is important to provide support and regular checkpoints and/or assessments to make sure that they are progressing and are understanding how to use the new tools and the system. 

Or you may simply have someone taking on a new role, and they are experiencing the pain and discomfort of uncertainty and self-doubt in the role. They may just need some mentoring and encouragement.

If any of the team are struggling, make sure to spend the extra time to figure out the gaps and support them - help alleviate their pain.

Remember - most of the pain on projects will come as a result of dealing with change. And sometimes using "bad" pain as the stick to help them get through the "good" pain to the carrot is just what the doctor ordered - it can be a "useful" pain.


My knees still have good and bad days - but mostly very good days where they don't trouble me at all - they feel like they did before either injury. I am still careful to avoid certain movements under pressure, such as a sudden twist around corners with a loaded grocery cart. But that is simply a matter of planning - today I can navigate the entire store with a full cart without undue aggravation of my knees. I am also out and walking almost every day, which keeps the muscle tone up. I definitely notice it though, if I skip walks for a number of days in a row when things are busy on a project. 

On your projects it is important to discern which type of pain it is that is confronting you. Is it a "bad" pain warning you to stop, before you cause damage or a negative outcome? Or is it the "good" type of pain, the one that tries to trick you into not moving forward, but once you do, things get better, or you grow and improve? Either way, pain can be useful teacher.

Good luck with your projects, keep that Aspirin handy, and remember to push through the "good" pain to project success.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Would you know an Unacceptable Risk if it jumped up and bit you?

[Also available as a podcast]

When I was younger, I was quite risk-averse. I said "no" to a lot of things that some might consider a "safe-ish" activity - like Bungee Jumping or riding a motorcycle. (Dirt bikes were OK though, because I never got going that fast).

So why did I find myself backing away from a snake charmer who was walking towards me with a fully loaded Cobra held out in front of him?

More to the point, why did I let him put it around my neck in the first place?

Most would say that this definitely falls under the category of unacceptable risk. Some might say it was the adventures of youth. I would simply call it stupid.

February 1993 - my first day in New Delhi, India for a 2-week trade show. On the ride in from the airport in the middle of the night, I had passed a man riding an elephant down the street. An amazing country. I was solo for the first two days before the rest of the team showed up, and I was looking for something to do after I had checked out the booth at the fairgrounds. We had organized for cars with drivers, because it takes a whole different set of skills to drive there.

My driver had pulled over to the side of the road so that I could experience some of the local culture and tourist attractions, which apparently involved getting your photo taken with a poisonous snake draped over your shoulders. 

It must have been the smog affecting my brain, because I agreed to do it.

As you might expect, I was a bit nervous so I asked the charmer if it was safe - if the snake had been de-venomed. He nodded. So we proceeded, and the driver snapped a couple pictures of me with the charmer holding the snake across my shoulders.

It was only after he had removed the snake and I paid him that I realized my mistake. The charmer decided he wanted more money as I was walking back towards the car.  So he started to follow me. I turned to see the charmer pointing the "apparently de-venomed" Cobra directly at me like a weapon. Oops.

The driver stood between me and the charmer and signalled me to hand him some money. I did, and he passed it to the charmer, who seemed satisfied, un-cocked his Cobra and walked back to the basket.

I afterward learned that nodding meant "No" and wobbling your head side to side meant "Yes".

I  guess I should have read up on the cultural signals before I left on the trip.

Do you know an unacceptable risk when you see it?  Or does it literally have to (almost) bite you before you know it is "unacceptable"?

Defining Risk

In a previous article, we discussed the basic components of risk, the principles of pre-and post-event risk mitigation, and some basic risk assessment strategies. There is a continuum of risk - and where a specific risk falls will depend on the impact of the risk if it occurs, but also your personal or corporate risk tolerance. In the basic model, we looked at "High/Low impact" and "High/Low probability" in relation to anticipating risk events. But there is another aspect to risk management that is very important to consider, that may sometimes be less tangible and hard to quantify in numerical terms.

Is a risk "acceptable" or not? In order to determine this, we need to take a deeper look at managing risks.

Assessing Risk

In order to assess risk, you need accurate information, experience, and a solid dose of common sense (which apparently I was lacking at the time). If you don't know enough about the potential risk area, ask an expert, or at least a colleague who knows more about it than you. As a Project Manager, your job is to make sure that the team delivers - but it is not your job to know everything. Having an awareness of the big picture and the moving parts, yes - but you are not generally the detail expert. That is why you have teams with people who know each area much better than you do.
So employ their experience and skills when you do your planning and your risk assessments. More heads are better than one, especially when it comes to gauging risk. If you don't have anyone on your team who is experienced in that risk area, bring someone in from elsewhere in the organization, or bring in a consultant. If it is potentially a major concern, it may well be worth the investment of a few hours or days of someone with a keen eye and battle scars taking a closer look.

You also need to keep in mind the bigger picture beyond your corporate walls to fully consider the level of risk involved, and the true impact of what might happen. You might end up changing your project plan, scope and vision significantly if you determine that a high impact negative risk event is not only likely to occur if you continued along the current path - but would be completely unacceptable if it did. 

One thing to consider in your planning is that what may be "acceptable" to you may be completely unacceptable to others. So you need to be prepared to walk a mile in the others' shoes so you don't have a one-sided perspective.

Acceptable vs Unacceptable Risk

Acceptable risks are ones that you can generally live with if they occur. (Ideally, that everyone can live with.) You may have a delay in your schedule and/or additional costs, and perhaps disgruntled users or stakeholders. But at the end of the day, there is no real harm done. What you deem "acceptable" is relative based on your context, and may be very different for another person, project or business. 

An unacceptable risk might be defined as one that would do harm, fiscally or physically to person(s), a business or the environment. However, it is also fair to say that an "unacceptable risk" for one person might be quite acceptable to another.

Financial Risks
Your company might invest 10 million dollars on the "Next Big Thing" in the anticipation that if you are successful in the market, your product would be poised to bring in hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars in sales. That's a calculated risk by the stakeholders before they even start the project - and if they have deep enough pockets, it may be an acceptable risk. 

If, however you were a small company with an idea and very little funding and very little awareness of the potential market for your product, investing the last $10,000 you had might not be an acceptable risk. You might even lose your house, and have nowhere to go. 

For financial risks, deciding whether it is "acceptable" or not is generally dependent upon whether your business would survive, or the project could still be completed (or worth completing) if the risk event occurred.

Material or Bodily Risk
If you are a skilled mountaineer, climbing Everest or a sheer rock face may be seen as an acceptable risk because you are well prepared for the activity. Yes, you might fall to your death or suffer hypothermia, but the chances may be very low due to your level of experience, conditioning and confidence in your abilities and those of those going with you, and the quantity and quality of your gear.

If, however you were new to the outdoors, the same activity would not pose an acceptable risk, as you would likely be completely unprepared and much more likely to suffer a mishap, or even die.

Preparedness and experience are key contributors in assessing risk - and not just for yourself, but for the entire team, project and stakeholders. A seasoned mountaineer would refuse to take a new, untested person on the hard climbs with them. They would need to ensure that they had been prepared, conditioned and practiced on the smaller climbs first, with lower elements of risk. Eventually they would gain enough experience to join you on the difficult slopes.

If you were constructing a bridge or a building that thousands of people used every day, it would be unacceptable for it to fail or collapse, so all planning and quality control efforts should be utilized to ensure that will not happen - as the injuries and loss of life would be unacceptable.

Similarly, if your project may cause environmental damage should something go wrong, you need to assess the risks and take active pre-event risk mitigation strategies in order to avoid an occurrence.

Some of it is just common sense (which can sometimes be hard to find during hectic times on a project).

When I sat down with the snake charmer, I thought I had good information but I misunderstood him, and also failed to use common sense. Things might have turned out badly for me, due to being naive (and stupid). I had based my assessment on the skills of the snake charmer being able to safely handle the snake, and my understanding it was no longer poisonous. The act of him later posing the snake as a weapon caused me to swiftly reassess the situation, and therefore the level and nature of the risk. Definitely "unacceptable" in hindsight, based on my normal aversion to risk.

The Sleep Test

If you are sill not sure about the acceptability of a risk, there is one way to get a gut feel for"acceptable" vs "unacceptable".

Would you be able to sleep at night if it happened? If you cared about someone else affected by the event, would you still be able to sleep with it?

Well, perhaps you always sleep like a baby. But let's take it up another notch. Could you live with yourself, should the risk event occur?

Balancing Risk

The partner company hired us a car and driver, so that we would not face the perils of driving on the New Delhi roads. It was an acceptable risk to have the car and driver get us from place to place, as they were local and familiar with the city and road rules. Every day while at home, we determine that driving our own car to the shopping mall, to work or to the kids' music recital is an acceptable risk - even though we could end up in a fiery crash. We judge that based on the condition of the vehicle, the condition of the roads and our own skills, we think will be able to navigate the streets to the destination and back again safely. That was the premise of hiring local drivers - that their skills and competence would significantly reduce the risk of any traffic mishaps. Well, that was the theory anyway.

We actually had two cars and two drivers due to the number of people at the trade show. One was very responsible and relatively risk-averse, and then there was the one who ended up driving me most of the time. He incidentally was also the guy who introduced me to the snake charmer. I should have seen it coming.

Having a driver was definitely a good idea, as the road rules are quite different in India (well, at least they were in 1993).There you could turn a good two-lane-each way marked road into four or more threads of traffic going each way, with cars, trucks, motorcycles and three-wheelers weaving along together at different speeds. They had foot-high curbs on the side of the road, and the only reasonable explanation I could think of was that they were trying to keep the vehicles off the sidewalk - they drove everywhere else!

It was when our driver pulled straight out into oncoming traffic for the first time that I realized that in the end, there was only one practical rule of the road. "If I am bigger than you, get out of my way!" There we were, across the center line, ploughing on ahead with the oncoming motorcycles and three-wheelers diving for safety on the other side of the road. Until a delivery truck came roaring straight at us that is, whereupon our driver promptly forced his way back into the traffic on our side of the road. He may have saved me from the snake, but I was convinced he had other plans to finish me off using his car.

I will admit, he was not all bad - he did employ active pre-event risk mitigation strategies while driving. Every time we overtook a bus going in the same direction, he was constantly beeping the horn, indicating to the bus "I am here! Don't swerve into my lane and crush me." I then began to notice the continual honking everywhere we went, by all sorts of vehicles - all announcing they were there and not to swerve into them. Apparently nobody does a shoulder check before changing lanes. But nobody was angry - if you heard that much honking in North America, it would indicate a lot of swearing and frustration.

As much as his driving unnerved me, he did keep us safe - and did a much better job of it than any of us foreigners could have managed. This was because he knew the conditions, how other people drove, and what to expect. All in all it was an "acceptable" risk, if a bit frightening for the passengers.

He did make me wonder one further time though - after leaving the reception at the Canadian embassy, he drove us back to the hotel. The road was not busy, and there was no oncoming traffic - but he was impatient with the drivers in front of him. So naturally, he pulled into the empty oncoming traffic lane. He was speeding along at nearly 100kph/60mph as we came up to a very large traffic circle, which had large concrete barriers running along the side of the entry and exit roads, merging into a solid point - a point which was rapidly getting closer. He just managed to pull back into our lane a few feet in front of the barrier before zooming around the circle to the exit on the far side.

A stiff drink was definitely in order when we got back to the hotel. Only 10 more days of this until we were to finish the trade show and get to go home.


Determining whether a risk is "acceptable" is not a simple matter, and it is certainly a situation where you need the team's input. Determining the acceptability of a risk should never rest with just one person. Sure, there may be a final decision-maker, but only after due consideration of the perspectives and opinions of the team are taken into account.

What may be acceptable to you may not be acceptable to the sponsor, the stakeholders, the company or the public at large. If you lack experience, you are more likely to underestimate the impact of a risk, and therefore judge it "acceptable" when a more seasoned person would not.

Conversely, a seasoned consultant may deem a risk as acceptable, but you as the new Project Manager may feel quite nervous about it. In the end - after listening to the counsel of others, you have to go with your gut - could you live with the risk event should it happen on your current path? If not, then you might override it and say it is not "acceptable" - or at least put more efforts into mitigating the risk to prevent it from happening.

As for me? I am not quite as risk-averse as I was when I was younger. Perhaps more "risk-mature" would be a better word. I still will not do a bungee jump, and although I have since considered riding a motorcycle, my wife has assured me it is not a good idea. But I do take some calculated risks, with open eyes and some common sense.

The good news is that I have already crossed off "put a poisonous snake on your neck" from my bucket list. Been there, done that - and got the photo. I don't ever need to do that again.

Good luck with your projects, and carefully consider what risks are "acceptable" on your projects by tapping the experience of your team.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Leadership: On Developing Teams - Are you alone on the Ice?

[Also available as a podcast]

Alone on the ice, surrounded by mountains and snow in the darkness. The faintest sliver of moon is barely brighter than the thousands of stars overhead. A cold, clear sky on a windless night, -16C/3F outside. I am dressed warmly but a small shiver escapes me.

Feeling very, very small indeed.

I am standing in the middle of Lightning Lake, British Columbia, Canada. The light of the stars is bright enough for me to easily see the contrast of light and dark - brighter, actually than I thought it would be. An igloo stands a ways back, off to my left. 

I check my watch. Time to go in.

I turn and walk in silence, a hundred paces back the way I came - where I join the rest of the scout troop I am leading. They have retraced their own steps back to the circle.

Technically I was not really alone - however with everyone separated and facing away from each other, looking only at the sky, the lake and the mountains, it was very easy to imagine you were indeed alone out there.  

In absolute stillness.

We waited for the last few to join the circle and then we quietly shared observations of the experience. Most felt small, insignificant, alone in the vastness - but also not alone, either. They were not talking about the other members of the troop hundreds of feet from them - they were feeling small, but also part of their surroundings.  Maybe the start of a sense of belonging to nature, and a few did not feel as cold standing there as they did on the walk out onto the lake.

The interesting part of the whole exercise was that from being and feeling quite alone out on the ice, we walked back to camp with a deeper connection from the shared experience of being alone in the universe - together. And I am quite sure that each of them will remember the experience as long as they live.

There is no one prescribed way to build a team, but the common thread in all successful methods is in doing things together. Whether you are leading and developing the youth who will be the leaders of tomorrow, or working with already-grown-ups, the principle is the same.

Teams grow and bond (and sometimes break apart) through challenges and the shared experience of building or accomplishing things - together.

Developing a Team

I was a Scout Leader for almost 11 years. I started as a youth member as a Cub and then continued on through Scouts and Venturers to Rovers, when each of us assisted other groups as adult leaders. My first few years as a leader with the Scout troop were learning years; I made a lot of mistakes and learned from them. The troop was a pretty steady size through the years as youth entered from Cubs and then moved on to Venturers (if they continued with it). We did the camps, skills training, all of that - and it was rewarding to see the kids learning and gaining self-confidence.

Around half-way through my years as a Scout Leader, we gained new kids and their parents as leaders, which is usually how it works. However, that year, we gained an exceptional Leader in one of the parents, who had moved with his kids up from Cubs. The leadership team flourished under his guidance; we felt supported and energized and together we were able to put on an exceptional programme that year. The following year he surprised me. He refused to be the head leader again. He insisted that I should do it - me, the youngest of them all, in my early 20's. All of the other leaders were in their thirties or more, some with other kids older than the scouts. Worst of all, they all supported his endorsement.

What were they thinking?

No Going Back

I was terrified.

What if I screwed up? What if I embarrassed myself in front of the other, much more experienced adults? Would people take me seriously? I suddenly felt a lot younger than 20-something. I felt like a kid. I wasn't ready for this!

However, there was no going back. They would not take "no" for an answer. My sentence was to be carried out, starting the first week of September that year.

Building by Stepping Back

I did not know it yet, but the other Leaders were following the adage "It's better to build a boy than mend a man." I was not a boy any more, though I suddenly felt like one in the face of this challenge. But the principle is one that I have tried to use myself on a regular basis over the years, because it works - and it is the only way that society moves forward.

You need to build up your replacements - the next generation who will take over from you, who will (in theory) in turn help raise up the generation after that.

I made a lot of mistakes that year. Far more than I had made in all the prior years as a leader. Of course any of the other leaders could have done the job, or even stepped in to clean up after me, or even taken back the reins. But they never did, even though a few times in the first few months I secretly wished they would.

The mistakes I made were not really "big" in the scale of things; nobody was ever at risk and the evenings and camps went off fairly smoothly with the leadership team working together. But to me - as my first time as the "Main Leader" (or "Skip"), every mistake seemed big to me, with all eyes watching.

I kept waiting for the shoe to drop. But it never did. The other leaders supported me, coached me, mentored me - but did not embarrass or chastise me. It was an amazing year - I learned an incredible amount, and even more in the years that followed as we worked together. I grew in confidence and ability all the while - and I also wanted to prove them right in putting their faith in me. I still made mistakes here and there in later years - but they always helped me out.

They wouldn't let me be anything other than "Skip" for several years. In time, l left the group when I finally had my own baby at home and time pressures and priorities changed.

It was a humbling first-hand lesson in "Building by Stepping Back" - seeing potential in another person, putting them into a position where they have no choice but to grow and develop - all the while encouraging them, building them up and not letting them quit.

They were, without question, all Exceptional Leaders, for which I am grateful.

Don't Give Up - And Don't Touch the Reins

When you are working with people on your team - youth, adults, it does not matter - you need to have extreme patience as they gain experience. They, as I did, will make mistakes. Probably a lot of them at first, and fewer as time goes on. Most people want to do well, to prove to themselves and others that they can do the task, and be good at it. Few people plan to be screw-ups.

In fact, if someone feels that they are continually a screw-up, it is often not their fault - the fault most likely rests soundly with their leadership. Here are some key ingredients to ensuring that your new team member can flourish in whatever role they are assigned:
  • Give them the full Job Description
  • Give them the Tools
  • Give them time to Learn
  • Encourage Questions
  • Let them make Mistakes
  • Support / Coach them
  • Don't Step In
  • Give them latitude to Grow

Give them the full Job Description
Most people will be frustrated if they are given a task without a good description of what it is they are supposed to do. If you have not clearly told them the goals or objectives, you can't expect them to deliver. Some will quit and move on, others will stay and struggle noisily or slide backward in silence. So tell them clearly what it is you want them to do from the outset.

Give them the Tools
There is nothing more frustrating than being assigned to do something, and then not be given the tools, resources or authority to do so. The "tools" will vary, but whatever it is they need to get the task done, you should provide for them. The trick is if you know at least some of the tools they will need, to have them available at the beginning - and when they recognize what else they need, be willing and able to provide those as well. This might include training, so be prepared to invest the time and expense for them to take it.

Give them time to Learn
Learning something new takes time. The time will vary from person to person based on their skills, aptitude and background - but they will take some time to ramp up before they can start performing well on the task. Of course, they can't take forever to get up to speed; if they are having trouble doing so, it might be a skills gap, or they might not be a good fit. So be reasonable in your expectations - but if they seem to be struggling, make sure they are clear on the description and have the tools available to them before you pounce.

Encourage Questions
"There are no dumb questions" is an approach that will get you better results than persecuting those who seem to ask "dumb" obvious questions. The answers may be obvious to you, but give the team members the benefit of the doubt that their questions are sincere, and they are not just mucking about. If you put down or dismiss the "dumb" questions, this will more than likely cause them to shut down and not ask the next questions - the really important ones that may make a difference to the outcome of your project.
Let them make Mistakes
Let them know that making a mistake is not a punishable offence. (Well, unless it is a reaaally big one, or if they intentionally screw things up, maybe). We all make mistakes as we learn and grow and try new things. But making a lot of small mistakes and learning from them early on can prevent some biggies later on. I know I have learned a lot more from my mistakes than my successes. Learning from your mistakes makes for a stronger team - and if you encourage an open, sharing environment, others in the team can learn from each other's mistakes rather than them all having to make the same mistake on their own schedule. 

If you look to some of the great inventions of history, those often came out of a "mistake" - a side effect of an experiment that did not quite work out, or "happy accidents". So encourage mistakes - it could even lead to the Next Big Idea for your company.

Support / Coach them
This one is important, and is a delicate balancing act for the leader. Early on, you will need to be around more, checking on them for progress and to see if they need anything, any clarifications on the task, tools or resources. Also make yourself available, ad-hoc or scheduled times, whichever works for each team member. However, don't smother them. The art of coaching and mentoring deserves volumes on its own, but let's sum up by saying you will benefit from knowing when you need to be there close by - and when you need to step back. As the team matures and becomes more self-motivating and more self-sustaining, you will often be best to step back further out of the works, but keep track of things and make sure they know you are available when they need you.

It also goes without saying that coaching does not equal chastising; sometimes you might want to yell at the team member for something "really stupid" that they did - but unless it is a very serious concern, try to avoid criticizing as much as you can. It takes months or years to build up a team - and seconds to destroy it. If you do need to correct a team member's behaviour or work approach, look at less confrontational ways to go about it, and start with something positive.

Don't Step In
It is very tempting to step in and "help" the team member do something they have not quite gotten the hang of yet - especially if you used to do it yourself. Resist the temptation. Let them try and work it out themselves - and if they ask for help, give them specific help and then step back. No baby ever learned to walk by having their parents do it for them.

Give them latitude to Grow
Odds are, the team member is going to approach the task in a different way than you would. Unless it would negatively affect the work result, it is usually best to let them figure out a method that works for them. They might hit a wall and have to go back to the way that it is normally accepted to do the task - but sometimes their fresh approach with new eyes will reveal a much better way of doing things. So don't stifle creativity unnecessarily - unless it does seem to be putting the deliverable at risk.  (Some people just like to figure out new ways to do things just because they can).

Note: In some countries, if you hire a contractor to do a job and then you proceed to tell them in detail HOW to do the job, you can be sued for Breach of Contract. The reason being is that you hired them, as an expert, to do a specific job. How they do it is up to them - as long as they produce the result (within safety and legal limits and regulations as applicable). They are the expert in doing that task, after all.

Not exactly the same situation when you are dealing with a team member, but you get the idea.

If you support your team members, provide them the tools and give them clear direction - they will often out-perform your expectations. They may even go on to become a High-Performing team.

If your team can accomplish that, it's a sign of good leadership. The credit does not all belong to you though - yes, the team achieved that level with your guidance. However you could just have easily prevented them from accomplishing what they had by making poor leadership decisions. So don't get cocky! There are no guarantees on what will happen with the next team.

Your High-Performing Team Gets Stale

Eventually, after your team has been working together for some time, you may reach a very high-performing level (Not all teams do). When you do, you will be able to accomplish some pretty amazing things - and the team could be a key differentiator for your company in the market.

But there is a risk with High-Performing Teams. If they are not presented with new challenges to work on, they could get stale if they are a long-standing team. If the tasks become repetitive, your team will lose interest, and lose their edge. Eventually, the team will dissolve as one after another they move on to new challenges.

This might be an inevitability - you might have a team that reached a high performing level during the project, but then the need for the team is removed. You can't keep them together on this project, so you have two choices:

  • Try to get them involved in the next project together, where they will have a big head start on working together effectively, or
  • Seed them throughout the organization. When you have people that have been part of a high-performing team, they will want to try to replicate what worked for them in their next team. You might end up with multiple new High-Performing teams as a result. Not all of them will pan out, but if you are able to expose more people to what it is like to be part of a High-Performing team, you have a better chance of spreading it to the reaches of your organization - and that may truly differentiate you in your market segment.


A quite different Troop walked back to camp from the center of the lake. Much more subdued and contemplative than the noisy bunch of kids that were chatting away as we walked out onto the ice earlier in the evening. In some small way they had changed that night - matured, or at least become more aware of the world around them. A small step towards leadership - you cannot lead others by only looking at yourself. Unfortunately, all too many of the activities that our children participate in these days are the exact opposite - self-absorbing video games, texting, online chats and social media that insulate them from direct personal contact with others. There is no substitute for the real thing - human interaction and learning to observe others. I look around me sometimes and wonder where the next generation of leaders will come from - and how they will manage.

That was my last year as Skip with the Scout Troop, and the last year working on a regular basis with that particular leadership team. A wonderful shared experience through all of those years - both working with the leadership team and the support they provided, and witnessing the accomplishments of the youth in the Troop as they outperformed our expectations within their smaller Patrol teams. Anyone who has low expectations of the capabilities and skills of a 10-13 year old never met any of our Scouts.

Note: The igloo was a real one - someone had carved the blocks out of the firm snow earlier in the day. We all took turns going inside it - and it definitely was warmer inside than out. The whole camping weekend was a great experience - and it stayed cold enough so that we did not have a problem with thawing and slushy snow. Nothing worse than trying to dry your gear outside when the temperature is around 0C/32F. Wet gear is not only inconvenient, but dangerous in those temperatures and below.

Good luck with your projects, and my advice today is not "Go jump in a lake" but "Go for a long walk on a lake" - just make sure it is winter, and check the ice thickness before you go.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Teams, People and Change: You Can't Push a String

[Also available as a podcast]

When I was younger and preparing to go to University, I received some strange but sage advice. I was told that if you wanted to go into Engineering, the two main things you needed to remember was "E=MC squared, and You can't push a string".

Image licensed from  

Then a lateral thinker I know said "if you wet it and freeze it, you can push the string". Needless to say, he went on into Engineering on a path that eventually led to Project Management, while I completed a degree in Computing and came into Project Management from a slightly different direction. 

Of course, the person who provided the sage advice was merely describing the physical limitations of the string and its behavior when force was applied "in the wrong direction". As we  all know, it is much more effective to pull a string in order to move whatever it is attached to.

Unless, apparently, you wet it and freeze it.

Then it would be definitely easier to push it. It might even be harder to pull it, with it being all wet, cold and slippery. You probably would need gloves or some pliers to grab it so you could pull it.

It has been many years since I was told that message, but often the strange or different sticks with you. This advice came back to me most recently when I was contemplating a new project, and refreshing my thoughts about team development, and preparing for change within organizations.

In fact, it is a perfect description of what is NOT part of a successful approach to building a team or managing change. (The string part, not the E-MC squared part. And real string, not any quantum mechanical string theory stuff).

Because when it comes right down to the bare bones of it, People are like strings. Pushing them is rarely effective - but ah, if you can lead them (and pull them along in the same direction), there is no limit to what can be accomplished.

String Theory

Yes, you are a string.  Complex, multi-threaded, multi-faceted, different from everyone else in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, but yes - a string. And not the quantum mechanical variety, though apparently if they are right we are all made up of a lot of those too, billions, trillions of them, who's counting?

But where it counts, people behave an awful lot like string in certain situations.

Don't Push That String

If you push a string, what does it do? It collapses into a muddle of overlapping loops - and whatever it was attached to has not budged an inch. Of course, if you keep pushing until the string is all wadded up against the object, you can push against the object with the mashed-up string, but that is not really the point, is it? If that was all you wanted to do you did not need the string in the first place.

If the string is near a corner or another obstruction, there is a tendency for the string to collapse back into a corner and pile up there. It is also likely to form a knot, making it more difficult to sort out once you stop pushing and go in the "right" direction.

String was not designed to be pushed - and neither are people. And when you push people, they tend to behave like string - they slide to the side, push back into a corner, and generally go in any other direction than the one you are pushing. (Incidentally, this is why I don't like backing up with a trailer). And just like the string, you don't get a very satisfactory result from all of your pushing.

Don't believe me? Just try to push a Teenager into doing something they don't want to do.

So how do we get an object, a person, a team, or an entire organization moving with you in the desired direction, and even working together?

We pull.


You are right in thinking that you will be more effective in pulling than in pushing the string, but there are a number of other things to consider.
  • How much resistance is there?
  • How big is the object we need to move? 
  • How much effort do you need to pull?
  • Where do we want it to go? In what direction? 
  • Do we pull straight ahead, or start at a bit of an angle? 
  • Is it on wheels, skids, or what?
And in our case - it is a person who is attached to the string - maybe the "string" could be their tie, or a string wrapped around their waist. Or perhaps it is tied to a wagon, sled, or pallet. But be nice on where and how you fasten than string, it will likely be your turn to be pulled for something else later on.

Ok, so you are all hitched up, and raring to go. But first let's check on one more thing:
  • Are they ready to be pulled?
There is a psychiatrist version of the light bulb joke that goes like this: "How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?" Answer: "Only one, but it has to really want to change."

It's an old joke, but it does help us out in looking at our problem - of trying to get a person (or object) moving in the direction we want them to. They have to be open to the idea of change, and moving - or at the very least, not anchored firmly in place. The worst case would be if they were actively pulling against us, going the opposite direction. And you also have to remember that you are usually trying to get more than one person moving in your direction and working together - in other words, you almost always start out the process outnumbered.


Ok, so you are gung-ho, convinced of the need for everyone to go in a new direction, certain everyone will come along easily with you, because you have a great idea, right? So you pull. Perhaps gently at first, then a bit harder, but nothing is happening. So you pull even harder. Still nothing. So you get impatient, and you jerk the the string quick and hard - surely that will get them moving!

And then - snap! - you have broken the string and you land on your rear end with a surprised look on your face. What happened?

You just exceeded the tensile strength of the string in one impulsive action. Actually it is interesting to note that in physics, impulse is the name of a calculation that combines force with the time interval it is applied over. When force is applied to an object (and the object moves), the momentum of the object changes. If you apply a smaller force for a long period of time, the momentum of the object will eventually reach (X). If, however you apply a stronger force over a short period (like jerking on the string), the momentum of the object will reach (X) more quickly, unless of course you break the string with the effort.The second action has a higher impulse value.

If a string is designed to withstand a steady pulling force of, say, 100 pounds (448 Newtons), you can pull with almost 100 pounds of force applied in a slow and steady motion for an extended period of time. However if you suddenly applied a minute's worth of pulling into one swift motion, the impulsive force applied to the string will vastly exceed the 100 pound threshold limit of allowable steady force, snapping the string.

The same thing happens in reverse with whiplash in car accidents, when the momentum swiftly changes from (X) to zero. If you gradually slow to a stop from 60 mph/100kph over 4-5 seconds, your body slows gradually with the car, and you come to a comfortable stop at the traffic light. If, however, the same net braking force that was needed to stop the vehicle was applied in 1/10 of a second, i.e. during a crash, the vehicle and its contents (including you) undergo extreme impulsive force. And if you survive, you will have a nasty case of whiplash and sore or injured neck.

Ok, so I didn't do the whole Engineering bit. I did enjoy Physics though.

So there you are, flat on your rear with a broken string, and not a little bit embarrassed. Actually most likely a lot embarrassed, with the whole crowd you are trying to pull watching you. A stellar beginning.

Time to regroup and change tactics.

Reduce the Friction

Ok, so we have to take it slow and steady. But the last time we tried, they did not budge an inch. So what do we do? We can get a thicker string, but we can only pull so hard, being just one person.

When you are trying to move a heavy object, there are two main ways to increase the chances of making it move.
  • Increase the force applied
  • Reduce the friction
We already know we are currently limited on the first part - so what can we do to reduce the friction? If it was a large block, you could try pulling it over logs, put it on wheels, or put a lubricant, like water, graphite powder or oil on the surface underneath and in front of it, depending on the material the surface and the object are made from.

But that is assuming the object is just sitting there - what if it is something with roots, like a tree, or an object embedded in the ground? If this is the case, there will need to be some excavating going on, or at least some loosening of the soil around the base. 

We had a very wet winter here, and the ground was quite soggy. We wanted to transplant a couple of small bushes to another spot in the yard, but when we went to dig them up the ground was so soft and muddy, we merely had to pull them out by hand. Ok, probably not a good practice and any gardeners out there are probably shaking their heads - but so far, the bushes are doing ok. 

[Oct 7, 2012 Update: The bushes both died. Maybe they were too big to be transplanted, or they took extreme offense at being uprooted like that. So use a shovel and be careful to keep more roots!]

I am not saying you need to yank anyone out by the roots, just that it is easier to move something that is rooted or stuck in the ground when the ground has been prepared (loosened up) before you start pulling. This is just another form of reducing friction.

When we are dealing with people in a team, or a group of users/stakeholders in the context of a change management plan, we need to look at the current state of affairs - who is entrenched, who is open at least a little bit to the change you want to make. You then need to think about what will help loosen them up and be more open to the idea of change. Even better, if you can identify a few people who support you among their peers (advocates), they can help convince the others to give it a try. The advocates can also help to reduce friction between the project team and those you are trying to move/change, by spreading a positive message. Because in all likelihood, the advocates are trusted by their peers, but the masses may not trust you - yet.

So, with things loosened up a bit and friction gradually reducing, you can again start to pull. It will be slow at first, but you at least have them moving.


And suddenly, you stop. Even worse, the string is pulling you backward. Somebody is playing tug-of-war, and you are outnumbered. You are not on your rear because you bought a stronger string - but you are now moving in the wrong direction.

You need more people at your end of the string, and to possibly bring their own strings. You need the advocates to help pull with you, all the while working to reduce friction and pass along the positive message. If there are only a few people pulling against you, you will still be able to make progress once the advocates are helping you pull. Of course, ideally you will want those digging in or pulling against you to see reason and just "get with the program", but as we well know, often that simply does not happen - and you will have lingering resistance, even when most of the people have accepted the change.

So, you pull together, you and your advocates - and, here and there, others come to the front to join you. And the great thing about that is if they are pulling with you, they are not being dragged, so it is suddenly just that bit easier to pull because you gained a puller, but you also removed a resistor (source of friction), so it is a 2-for-1 bonus.

Pulling your Wagon down the Hill

When my oldest son was only 2 years old, we bought an old Radio Flyer metal wagon at a garage sale. The wheels were plastic and brittle, but the rest of the wagon was still solid - rusty in spots, but I stripped it back to bare metal and painted it up shiny red, with black for the handle and axles (of course). But I replaced the worn out plastic wheels with four good quality steel and rubber wheelbarrow wheels, with exposed ball bearings. I bought a tube of lithium grease and thoroughly lubed the bearings. When it was all finished, we had to chock the wheels because the slightest slope caused it to roll. Today, three kids and many years later, the wagon is still going strong - and although a bit dented from lots of use, it still rolls fairly smoothly.

If you are successful in your efforts to bring people along with you (i.e. leading them), you will reach a point where it no longer feels like you are dragging a heavy block. It will feel like you are pulling a wagon - much easier, with greased wheels and less friction. Which is good, because a lot of your journey has been an uphill climb. But soon enough, the crest of the hill will be in sight, and you will have a significant number of people helping you pull it to the top before jumping back on the wagon for the rest of the ride.

And then - you are over the crest, and what happens next? Do you remember trying to pull your wagon downhill as a child? Once it gets moving, there is a point where you cannot run fast enough and you have to make a choice.
  • Let go and let the wagon race on ahead, and probably crash.
  • Jump onto the wagon, grab the handle and steer to a triumphant finish.
 But you are the Project Manager, so really there is only one choice. Watch for the right moment, and then jump on and grab that handle. Steer that wagon, with all of the team riding with you and cheering you on, all the way to the finish line. Just watch for that bump on the left.


Project String Theory applies not only to organizational change, but to building teams as well.The expected results will be a bit different, of course.  But the mechanics are quite similar.

When you are building a team, trust is paramount, and you won't get very far by pushing. But if you can be an effective leader and work with your team, set the vision and goals and have the team buy into them, you won't be pulling them for very long - they will be blazing the trail in the direction you have set, with you bringing up the rear. They might even call you a slowpoke.

Good luck with your projects, and watch out for knots in your string. If you get any, you probably just forgot the lesson for a moment and did a push instead of a pull.