Be Honest With Your Project Team

“C’mon, just level with me. Be honest!”

Ever hear those words before and not quite know how to respond?

If you’re in a senior leadership position, there are times being honest isn’t an option.  For example, if there are layoffs, reorg, acquisition, and any other number of circumstances. Any mention, the rumor mill will take off and morale will go down. Not to mention, you may have signed a legal document (NDA) so you’re breaking the law!!

There are other times, especially when it comes to your projects and programs, where honesty is the best policy (I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase before!). These can be uncomfortable conversations. Nobody wants to hear about problems. But as a project leader, you can’t fix problems on your own and need the team to assist. If you do (and I’ve seen some PM’s try to fix all issues themselves), you may just make it worse!

Here are 3 key reasons to be honest and bring issues front & center:

  1. Builds Trust. Trust comes from communication. You’re not afraid to communicate both good news and the bad. Your team trusts you’ll tell them what’s going on. Without honest communication, trust breaks down.
  2. More Brains = Better Outcomes. Projects will always have issues arise. The more smart people you have working on tough problems, the better the results will be. Smart people can’t solve problems they don’t know about!
  3. Bad News, not Good News, Travels Fast and Gets Worse.  Have you ever heard the phrase “Good news travels fast?”  Well, it’s true, but bad news travels a LOT faster. Bad news also does not get better with age.  Sometimes that bad news is known well before it becomes an issue, but employees weren’t comfortable discussing them with leaders.  Build a culture that rewards, not punishes, getting problems out into the open where the team can solve them.  

Honesty is the best policy! We can’t come clean with all information all the time. But when it comes to our projects are program, be honest with your team! Honesty will build trust, result in better outcomes, and reduce the bad-news grape vine.

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Can John Cleese’s Advice Help Solve Those Tough Project Issues?

Let me start by saying, if you don’t know who John Cleese is, look him up. Watch a couple of his Monty Python skits. Then c’mon back to this article!

About six months ago I was talking about the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” with a couple coworkers. Someone mentioned John Cleese’s book on creativity. Given I’m not what I would define a creative person, didn’t give it a second thought.

However, at a high school swim meet a month ago, I was talking to another parent about a variety of topics between our kid’s events. She’s a super-smart data analyst in a healthcare actuary department. She loves data and the story it can tell.

As we talked, she said her department had been asked for more and more information. Some of the problems the department is trying to help solve have a big impact on the organization. That’s why when she said their VP asked everyone to read the book by John Cleese called “Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide”, I was intrigued. Because the department was full of analytical people who wanted to be “right” versus “close enough”, they never got things done or made decisions. The VP wanted more creative approaches to problem solving, and thought John Cleese could help.

Long story short, this conversation prompted me to buy the book and read it on vacation. The book was short and cheerful as the title says. But, I also found it informative. With the right team and some creativity, those really tough project management issues can be solved. Here are three take-aways I got from the book and how they could relate to project management.

Do Work Before Bed. Ever heard the term “sleep on it?” Basically, if you sleep on it, you delay making a decision or taking action until the next day. Some will call this procrastination. I think, however, if we do some work before bed, our minds put in work overnight.

John Cleese notes if he puts in some work before bed, he often has a little creative idea overnight, which contributes to a solution to the problem he’s trying to solve. For years I’ve kept a notebook on my nightstand for the same reason. If I have a problem and am thinking about it before bed, I’ve been known to wake up in the middle of the night or in the morning with an idea. If I don’t write it down immediately, I’ll forget. This doesn’t work for every problem I encounter, but I’d guess about 25% of the time something pops in my head at night! Maybe ask some of your team members to do the same. Who knows what people will dream up (literally)!

Avoid Paralysis. Paralysis comes from the worry of making a mistake.  If you think you’re wrong, stagnation happens because you’re afraid of being wrong.  But, if you’re trying to be creative, there is no such thing as a mistake.  You can’t know you’re going down the wrong path until you’re on it! 

How many times has a project issue come up where someone says, “Well, that might work, but it might not.”? Then there’s more discussion, followed by nothing happening. Instead, that “might work” scenario could in fact be wrong, but it could also open doors to other solutions. It’s a risk to start down the path, but it’s more risky to remain stagnant. Give it a try! As Einstein said, if we know what we’re doing when we’re investigating something, then it’s not research.  

Don’t Get Bogged by Process. When you’re trying to creatively solve a problem, don’t get bogged down in process. Think of your process as what’s done in normal (or at least near normal) circumstances. When it comes to creative problem solving, there’s not a lot of process to fall back on.  New things can be confusing and unfamiliar.  That’s OK.  It’s normal.  Instead, let time be your ally as you think through it.  Eventually, clarity will emerge!

I worked for a company that provided SaaS products. A potential new client liked our products, services, and ongoing support. However, they wanted to make one “small” change that would require a change to the overall architecture. Given this client would jump our revenue 70%, we had to dive in. The enterprise architect said NO WAY, can’t be done! It won’t fit in with our standard processes. So we drew our architecture on the board, and noted places it would change. He then went outside and had a couple smokes, came in, looked at his board, and some ideas came to light. He said it was a crazy idea, but ultimately it worked.

I never imaged I’d say John Cleese and Project Management in the same sentence, but hey, if the shoe fits!! Project issues come up all the time. Some are small and quickly resolved. Others require some creativity. Sometimes, you’ll need to sleep on a problem to see if your mind sorts it out overnight. Avoid analysis paralysis and start taking action. Finally, don’t get bogged down in process. Ultimately, with creativity and the right team, everything can be figure-outable!

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Changing Your Perspective

It was hot.  The kids were hungry.  The crowds were huge.  My feet were tired from a full day of walking and standing.  My patience was all but gone.  Is this how I wanted to spend my vacation?

We were standing in front of Hogwart’s Castle at the Universal Orlando Harry Potter experience.  We had been there all day, visited all the Harry Potter shops, and ridden the Harry Potter rides. I’ve never even seen one of the movies, so a lot of this was foreign to me (wife and one of my kids are huge fans). All that was left was to see the light show they display on the castle after dark. After the light show was a long walk through the park, through the parking ramp, and a traffic-filled drive back to the hotel. Can this be over?

As I stood there stewing in my little pity party, I looked over and saw a group standing next to a small child in a wheelchair.  The child was hooked up to oxygen and a number of monitors, all attached to the wheelchair. Everyone was smiling, laughing and holding hands. They were completely entranced by the light show.  Then I noticed their shirts; Make A Wish. My perspective changed.

Perspective can be defined as an attitude toward or way of seeing something. It’s your point of view. Life’s many challenges can give us a negative outlook, especially on those tougher days (let’s be honest, there’s a lot of negativity out there right now!). I’ve had my struggles with this, and when opening up about them, find others have very similar situations.

In project management, we deal with a lot of issues and problems getting thrown at us daily (sometimes hourly). Constant negative input can create struggles and put us in a tough spot mentally. Here are some things I’ve been doing to help change my perspective. Maybe one of them will work for you!

Look At It From Someone Else’s Point of View. Everyone’s perspectives are different. Early in my project management career, I would get anxious about the smallest issues. Looking at issues through someone else’s point of view taught me to take a step back, get input from those smarter than me, resolve and move on. My anxiety was self-induced.

In the instance of the Harry Potter light show, seeing a family having an awesome time changed my perspective. Trying to see it through their eyes, my attitude changed. I found myself looking at my two healthy children and realizing I had nothing to bitch about. After that, my night was awesome.

What’s the Impact? I ask myself, if shit goes really bad, what’s the worst that can happen? My imagination can make it WAY worse than reality. A couple years ago I was talking to a graphic designer about this topic and I mentioned a quote by Jordan Peterson, which she created below. Sums up this point nicely!

Narrow Your Focus on the Top Priority. This is one I’m not sure we can ever master, but have under relative control. Our lives are busy. We have TONS of priorities. Whether work, home, kids, or combo of the three (or more), there’s a lot thrown at us daily. Our projects can have a lot of priorities, too. Therefore, when things arise, which they do often, prioritize! If you try to focus on everything at once, you can feel overwhelmed and stressed. Focusing on the top priority will help change your perspective and go after what’s most important.

As far as the Make a Wish family, I don’t know their situation but pray everything is good with them. Their happiness definitely impacted me and changed my perspective that night, and in future situations. With all the negativity that can easily creep into our heads and projects, it’s easy to realize stress and anxiety. Do your best to change your perspective but looking at situations through others point of view, assessing impacts, and prioritizing what needs to get done.

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How Does Your Team Treat Failure

Like so many parents, I spent the weekend sitting, watching, and cheering for my child’s team. Swimming consists of being in hot pool areas, watching races for sometimes hours, only to see your kiddo swim for a minute or less. It can be long and boring followed by short bursts of energy, but well worth it!

This weekend I spent three full days watching swim meets, starting mid-afternoon Friday and going through Sunday. There were teams of varying sizes from around the region. It was fun to see kids of all ages and abilities compete. It also feels like I was at a rock concert from the ringing in my ears!

This weekend’s swim meets also brought a couple things into focus as it relates to teams and how they deal with failure. Two incidents happened to two teams, with two different reactions. Both happened during relays.

The first was a swimmer jumped into the water and must have turned funny on the dive because he popped up in the wrong lane! I’ve never seen that before, nor had others around me. On his turn at the wall, he was surprised to see another swimmer coming at him. Realizing his mistake, and changed lanes. Needless to say, they were disqualified. The second was a swimmer jumped in during the Individual Medley (all four strokes by four different people) and immediately started doing the wrong stroke! Four strokes in, he realized the mistake and corrected. Stroke violation. Disqualified.

Both of these incidents resulted in DQ’s, no points for their teams, and disappointment. The team’s reaction to the failures, though, were very different. The person who popped up in the wrong lane was yelled at by some of his team members. I mean it was bad enough where an official needed to tell them to stop or there would be team consequences. He felt bad enough already. Rock, meet bottom. He eventually sat on the bench and only got up to swim one more race, then back down again.

The person who did the wrong stroke went back to his bench and put his head down. The entire team huddled around him, put their arms together, and let him know it was OK, no one was mad, and let’s pick ourselves up and move forward. He came back to take 2nd place in an individual event and 3rd in another relay. With the help of his team, he recovered and went on to swim great races.

No one is infallible. We all make mistakes. I don’t know anyone who wakes up in the morning and says “I really hope I f* up bigtime today!!” Instead, we work hard and try our best.

When the inevitable happens, how will your team react to failure? Will there be yelling and blaming? Or, will the team rally together and move forward? This weekend’s events were a good reminder that when a team comes together after a failure, they can still recover and do great things!

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