You, the leader of the habit-builders

By Marius Cloete and Tania Melnyczuk

Becoming better at Project Management: The solution isn’t obvious

Many people think that the solutions to Project Management problems lie in learning Project Management processes, methods, tools and techniques, and becoming skilled in them. Now, those things are important. But there are other things that must be addressed before the knowledge of such things will make a significant difference.

Domains of Project Management improvement

To keep things simple, we’ve divided the realm of Project Management problems into three domains:

TOP: This domain represents the highest organisational level, where the top dogs (CEO, board, owner) have the say. Problems which stem from the organisation’s goals, incentives and authority structure can be addressed at this level. Changes in this domain can make the biggest difference to the way in which projects are managed.

MIDDLE: This is the actual domain of Project Management. This domain is constrained by the decisions taken at the top, and by the habits practiced at the bottom.

Organisational strategies are implemented by means of projects. If the organisation’s goals and strategies are fuzzy, badly communicated or non-existent, Project Management will be messy. If the lines of command don’t provide each roleplayer with the appropriate balance of responsibility, authority, and accountability, projects will run badly. If the performance management system rewards individual efficiency rather than collaborative effort, people will compete with each other to the detriment of the whole.

BOTTOM: This is the domain of personal change and individual efficiency. It’s the domain where it’s helpful to understand each other’s neurotypes, personalities and culture. It’s here that individual changes, such as moving one’s desk to a less noisy part of the office, can be helpful.

It’s also the domain of personal habits.

Why it’s so difficult to improve Project Management

A system is a union of interdependent parts. Projects are complex systems.  Addressing complexity is never straightforward. But if we focus on the right thing in the right domain, we can move in a better direction, and eventually get to the point where our Project Management problems become simpler.

The main difficulty does not lie in managing complexity itself. With sufficient knowledge, authority, resources and insight, we can deal with complexity. The big problem is, how do we bring about the changes that would make that possible?

The model above makes it clear why the changes would have to be driven from the top. Changes at the top can remove constraints in the middle, the domain of Project Management.

The challenge is that the people at the top are also people. They are also subject to ‘personal optimisation requirements’, just like the people of the bottom. If the leaders don’t have good thinking habits, good risk-reporting habits, or good learning habits, they won’t be able to drive the changes needed to make projects run better.

In his seminal book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey addresses this challenge in a practical way. He provides guidance to leaders to identify what matters most to them, and to work towards change by forming new habits. And if you’re not in a position of authority, Covey provides the understanding needed to enlarge your circle of influence, also by means of habit.

The rhythm of projects and the role of habit

Group habits, such as weekly team meetings or daily scrums, are a regular feature of formal Project Management. Habits provide rhythm, and create the predictability needed to track progress and to identify deviations in the pattern, so that corrective action can be taken. Group habits can be enforced by those in control of the system.

Unfortunately, group habits do not automatically translate to the ability of team members to establish additional individual personal habits. Think of how many successful school-leavers drop out of university. Having previously relied on parents and teachers to enforce their routine, they have no habit-building skills of their own to help them establish a good study regime.

Incentives and warnings, motivational talks, skills training and new processes, no matter how well targeted, will be of limited value if people don’t establish habits.

Sincere promises are often broken because of poor habits.

You, the leader of the habit-builders

If you play a leading role in projects, it’s up to you to establish and enforce group habits. If you remain with the same team, though, that may not be enough. If you’re expecting your team members to learn more about Project Management, to think independently, to take initiative and to become leaders in their own right, then you will also have to lead your team members to become good habit-builders.

Consider individual differences

Some team activities require that everyone should do things in the same way to ensure predictability and collective output.

But individual, personal habits that work for you may not work for others. For example, you may work well with headphones on; another person may work better in complete silence. You may find that 30 minutes of studying in the morning works well for you; another person may focus better during the lunch hour.

Do not assume that people who are intelligent will know how to establish habits that work best for them (and don’t assume that you know either!). Some very bright people have such poor executive functioning, that they may even be considered disabled. Although brilliant at creating engineering designs or schedules in Microsoft Project, they may need help in structuring their workload. They may have difficulty in establishing routines that allow them to do things which other people regard as ‘the basics’, such as getting to work on time wearing a clean, ironed shirt.

What things help you build habits? What do others find helpful? As you begin to discover what all these things have in common, so you can also begin to guide others to become habit-builders in ways that work for them.

Dissolving problems through habit

In our training for organisations, we usually don’t try to solve complex problems. Rather, we focus on dissolving them, starving the conditions that feed them as better systems are gradually introduced.

New, targeted habits go a long way towards building routines which avail the time and energy to work with the complexity inherent to projects.

Tania Melnyczuk

Director of Programme Design at ProjectManagement.co.za and the Collaboration Director of the Autistic Strategies Network.

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