It is not enough to Visualize. You need to be willing to See!
A genuine fear lurks while putting final changes to this article a few weeks before the 45th President of the United States takes office. Becoming the most powerful man on the planet is a fine example of a huge and successful project and his phenomenal success flies in the face of some key takeaways in this article. So, reader’s discretion is advised!
As you may all be familiar by now, the few Kanban principles that are most commonly applied to software are Visualization, Map the Value Stream, Limiting WIP, Removing Impediments to flow and Regular Cadence & Measurements for continuous improvements.
Since I don’t come from a software background, I will give a different take on some of these concepts. Hope this thought experiment give you some beneficial and different insights.
So, imagine the extended project ecosystem has three discrete entities. One is the project itself, in its entirety. When we talk about managing the project, it is this entity that we talk about. The second is the manager of the project. It is clear that she/ he plays a very important role in the project. The third is the overall environment in which the project is being executed. The general body of knowledge around project management typically talks about the project in most cases. My idea is to look at the other two – the manager and the overall environment.
One of the many meanings of “Visualize” is “see”. I will use “see” and perhaps “mindful seeing” as the cornerstone to anchor my thoughts here. Instead of using “Visualization” just as a lens to “clearly see” tasks or cards on a board, what if we turn the lens to “clearly see” the presence or the lack thereof of other areas or things.
Enlightenment is ego’s ultimate disappointment.
– Chogyam Trungpa
As we look through the lens on the project manager, let us look at his/ her ego. Ego is a difficult word to describe and understand scientifically and accurately. However, for our purposes, we will loosely use it as we do in our everyday lives to describe a set of characters like selfishness, arrogance, etc. A common manifestation of this is the inability to “see” the other’s point of view or conversely to “see” only our own self’s point of view. Another typical result tends to be refusal (or inability) to listen openly without judgment or bias. It also has a corrosive effect of provoking the ego in the others involved as well. All this quickly leads to an endless downward spiral of clashing egos and the inability to hear in the ensuing cacophony.
Let me illustrate this with a simple example. In many projects, we observe this play out right in the beginning when project stakeholders try to choose the methodology to run and track the project. One party might like the project to be executed using agile principles or methodology while the other party has still not warmed up to the idea of agile. These stances gradually become hard and limiting. Instead of coming to a middle acceptable ground, both parties get stuck to their individual views. Ultimately, the attention and focus become the methodology instead of the project itself. This robs the project of the vast experience in constructively making this project work. The two parties also start to “see” deficiencies of the other and start creating a self-serving corroborating narrative which of course does not represent the entire truth.
Listening has a huge role to play and has serious ramifications in project management. Lack of listening leads to loss in fidelity in many stakeholder conversations, including with the customer and with the team members that he/ she manages. Critical and important information and feedback in the project never bubble up because the team members with such managers are discouraged from communicating their opinions and views. As writer Cyrill Connolly says, “Ego sucks us down like the law of gravity” and the project invariably starts the downward spiral.
According to Prof Carol Dweck, world-renowned Stanford psychologist, and author of the very successful book “Mindset”, there are two broad categories of mindsets – Fixed and Growth. True leaders have growth mindsets and conversely fixed mindsets are not helpful for leaders and managers. Talking of people with fixed mindset, she writes, “You’ll see they all start with the belief that some people are superior; they all have the need to prove and display their superiority; they all use subordinates to feed this need, and they all end up sacrificing their companies to this need. The fixed mindset helps us understand where gargantuan egos come from, how they operate, and how they become self-defeating.”
Why is it so difficult to see things as they are? Part of the problem is that seeing is always a subjective experience. It is well known to behavioral and cognitive scientists that two people can see and experience the exact same thing, and have two different and perhaps opposite interpretations. Cognitive scientists call this as confirmation bias. It is a widely pervasive bias. It is the human tendency to interpret new evidence as a confirmation of one’s existing theories and beliefs.
Interestingly, the solution to this problem is to “see” things as they are. This takes humility, rigor, and curiosity. Humility is one antidote of ego. When one is not always full of oneself, it allows him or her the chance to hear others. Rigor by definition is effort intensive and hard. The normal human tendency is to avoid it, much in the way Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman talks of “Lazy” brain system.
“A life without attachment and stress can give you the freedom to see things as they are and call them as you see them”, says writer and marketing guru Seth Godin in his book Linchpin, and adds, “Abandoning your worldview in order to try on someone else’s is the first step in being to see things as they are.”
In his best seller book, Good to Great, Jim Collins describes the highest level of leaders as Level 5 leaders. “They channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company”, he says.
Open Culture – the secret sauce of creativity?
In an open culture, all the team members and stakeholders can “see” what is going on in the project. The hallmark of an open culture is trust, collective responsibility, and collective creativity. Teams where the culture is not open, tend to hoard information and knowledge with a few select people. In a non-open culture, information and knowledge asymmetry gets created systematically to favor a few individuals.
Fear and its modern cousin insecurity are key reasons for not having an open culture. These teams resist any change or any challenges to the status quo.
Decision making is critical for teams and organizations to be more productive and effective. An open culture removes hierarchies and sign-offs, and allows and empowers teams to take decisions. In so doing this, it also helps develop people to grow professionally and take up larger responsibilities.
Conversely, teams that do not have an open culture tend to have central decision-making where leaders tend to micro-manage a fair bit. Fierce loyalty to the leader is expected and a refusal to “see” the real picture often emerges. It also becomes very difficult for others to help this team since very little real information is shared.
An open culture also encourages others to solve problems that you may be stuck with. This is made possible by allowing others to “see” into your problem. Often, our ego doesn’t allow us to be transparent about our problems since they reflect our own failings, inabilities, and limitations. It takes a lot of courage and self-assuredness to lay open your cards and share your problems.
Perceptiveness is more important than analysis
– Peter Drucker
Perception means the ability to “see”, hear or become aware of. People and teams with high perception have better gut instincts, high level of attention to detail that allows them to “see” the corners that most miss, and a general sense of inner GPS guidance system. Perception also recruits and drives many other human resources like emotions and sense of urgency and focus. As managers, it is crucial to have this sense and to enhance this.
We have routinely seen situations where senior project team members don’t exhibit the same degree of unease or sense of something being wrong as perhaps the customer or senior management exhibits. This gap in perception of the current project status between the two sides often leads to tremendous frustration.
On the other hand, we have seen some of our customers who allow the project team members to track how they “feel” about the project and going beyond the collection of hard metrics. More often than not, these sentiments illuminate the project status pretty accurately.
When precious mental resources are not engaged in ego related and other similar issues, they are free to pay the required attention and focus. They help us to perceive more and perceive better. They enable a heightened state of awareness. This is, in some sense, a paradox. And this distinction needs to be made. It is not the kind of tunnel vision that helps us solve problems. Neither is it the scatter-brained or no-control kind of thoughts. It is the zone in between these two states. This is more of the heightened awareness that “frees the brain to make serendipitous associations” according to author Daniel Goleman.
In conclusion, Visualizing is more than using stickies on the board. The real benefit of Visualizing comes when people who are the intended beneficiaries of it are ready to see! To do so, they must keep the ego in check, promote an open culture and thereby enhance their ability to perceive. This will lead to a dramatically higher chance of project success!
Sr. V.P. & Head of Business Development and CS