Go with the Flow

By Geof Lory

Recently I was having lunch with a friend and fellow project manager and we talked about why people, ourselves included, don't do the things we know need to be done on projects to make them successful, and why we do things we know should not be done. Many a retrospective (I prefer this term to "postmortem") has revealed opportunities for improvement that we vow to do on the next project but somehow forget during the next project.

My friend speculated that the inevitable sense of urgency on almost all projects causes us to short-circuit the proven practices under the misconception that the time saved will get us closer to meeting the unmeetable schedule. While I believe that this false urgency and pressure to deliver something in unrealistic timeframes contributes to our irrational behavior, I also believe that our failure to behave as we know we should comes from two major internal areas of deficiency - Consciousness and Courage.

I put these two together because I believe it is difficult to behave courageously, as opposed to fearlessly, without some level of consciousness. Hence the proverb, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." In his seminal work, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey referred to the gap between stimulus and response as essential for choice and proactivity in one's life. Consciousness is merely the acknowledgement that the gap exists at the time it exists and that we have choices. Unfortunately, this acknowledgement of choice seems to be either non-existent or too onerous for us to accept when the heat gets turned up on our projects. It is so much easier to throw up our hands in despair and absolve ourselves of blame. Whether or not we are to blame is not the issue; we are still responsible. So what to do? CIA - Control, Influence and Accept.

As they get older, my teenage daughters Jenna and Erika become more involved with things outside the family and our immediate control. Learning to let go of the desire to Control, or delude ourselves that we are in control, is a discipline I am painfully developing. The girls are quickly becoming their own selves and it is a challenge for me to sit on the sidelines as they play their own game of life.

When I was young, I vividly remember asking my father what I should do regarding a certain situation (I believe it was when I was making the decision as to which college to attend). My father calmly looked at me and asked, "If I give you my opinion, it is just that. You own the consequences of your decision." He clearly sent the signal that he had moved from a position of Control to one of Influence in our relationship. Many years later, I moved from the Detroit area to Minneapolis, 600 miles away from family and friends. Again I talked with my father about this decision before I moved. While he knew it would mean I would visit my mom and him only once or twice a year, he encouraged my adventurous spirit and accepted my decision. He gave his opinion consciously and courageously.

My daughters are different from each other as well as from their stepmother and me. They sometimes choose to act differently than we would under the same circumstances. In this time of their transition to independence, remaining conscious about what we can still Control, what we can only Influence and what we need to Accept requires both Consciousness and Courage.

My sister has two children, now adults, who have already gone through the teen stages. My sister and I share ideas around parenting. One is that it is our job as parents to work ourselves out of a job and into more of a peer relationship with our children. Relationships based on control require way too much effort and dramatically limit our choices. The same is true for project teams. Managing teams is less about control and more about influencing and often just accepting.

Of course, the real test is when you can walk the talk. Here is where the Courage part comes in. It takes courage to give honest and compassionate feedback to team members. It takes courage to cancel projects that provide no reasonable return. It takes courage to give bad news to customers on the project status. If you are not going to be courageous don't bother being conscious because it will probably just create guilt... not one of my favorite motivators.

As Jenna and Erika enter their driving and dating years, my consciousness and courage will be tested. Some things I will continue to have control over, but the balance is increasingly shifting to more influence and sometimes acceptance. My hope is that, like most project teams I work with, my daughters are full of potential and will only need periodic doses of consciousness and courage to guide them through these challenging years. Letting go and trusting in them while also providing guidance requires continual consciousness followed by deliberate courage.

So the next time you know what you need to do to help your team (or your children) but you don't immediately do it, ask yourself these questions:
  • What is standing in the way of me doing this?
  • What am I afraid of?
  • Am I choosing my goals over those of the team or my children?
  • Am I choosing the path of least resistance or the path of greatest results?
If you can stop to ask these questions you will be demonstrating Consciousness. If you answer them honestly and act on them accordingly, you will be demonstrating Courage and your teams -- and you -- will be better for it. When you think about it, what do you have to lose?

[This article is fifth in a series. Members can review the previous articles - Just Do It!, A Man with a Plan, Conscious Parenting Mindset, and Are We There Yet? in our column archives. ]

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