By FRANK RYLE, PMP
The rate of change of the environmental landscape in the past 50 years calls our attention to a major problem for our children and our planet. In many ways, the rate of change of the project world has been just as dramatic and perhaps the knowledge, tools and thinking of the past 50 years need to be re-evaluated in the light of new scientific discoveries and a radically different project and overall international working landscape.
As project managers operating in this new world we need to take account of the latest scientific research and thinking in the areas of genetics, anthropology, brain chemistry and evolutionary theory.
But how often do we find ourselves trying to make decisions — particularly about persons on whom we depend for the success of our projects either directly or indirectly by “gut instinct” or poor tools? Simply judging based on the superficial signs a person transmits to us or even some out-of-date tests hardly supports the standards of project management professionalism to which we all aspire.
The New Challenge: Going Beyond Golf and Goats
As project managers many of us are operating far from our geographical and cultural ‘comfort zones’ of usual judgment. We may be from London, Detroit or New York and find ourselves working in or with colleagues from India, China or Germany. We may feel out of our depth, totally removed from “gut instinct” and far from the home regions where instinctual judgments may at least offer some chance of success. Suddenly, we are operating within cultures and norms that are, in fact, truly foreign to our internal barometers. We are faced with the challenge of increasing the productivity of our individuals — team members in a business world that is becoming ever more virtual, multicultural and outsourced.
In particular, we are faced with three main challenges. These are to continue to improve performance by:
- Selecting better individuals and teams, and needing to understand the individual’s personality and his or her potential team behaviour.
- Developing and maintaining individual and team performance and needing to understand the basic methods of motivation, conflict and trust.
- Better assessing both individual and team performance, and needing measurements and tools that can stand up to a reasonable query by a scientist.
Which brings me to goats and golf.
Each year I return to Ireland with 12 school friends on the last weekend in March to play four rounds of seaside links golf on the old course at Lahinch. Of course, the weather is always a topic of conversation but not a crucial matter. There is a story of a previous president of the club who got tired of fixing the barometer at the Clubhouse and one day he taped a note to it saying, “Watch the goats!” The theory being that if the weather was going to turn bad the goats would be hanging around the Clubhouse and if it was going to be good they would be out on the course. However, in our experience the goats are not always right.
How many of us in management today are using tools as sophisticated as ‘Watch the goats?’ How many of us in this new environment would be temped to say ‘Do you have any goats here? Or ‘Let’s fix this barometer’.
So the questions before us as project managers in this new world are direct. How should we:
- Choose your team members?
- Assess their performance?
- Develop them as a team?
Understanding Instinct and Fixing the Barometer
A recent paper “Darwinism, Behavior, Genetics, and Organizational Behavior” (by Ilies, Arvey and Brouchard – Journal of Organizational Behavior, 2006) stated ‘the partial heritability of job performance through the combination of intelligence and personality will likely surpass 30%.’
Many other references suggest that the heritability of personality alone could be as high as 50%. However as the former science writer for The Economist, Matt Ridley writes in his book “Nature via Nurture” — “100 years of anti-nature thinking has done much damage to behavioral thinking from which we are only now beginning to emerge.”
There are some who believe that our personality is a developed phenomenon. Often this thinking is referred to as a ‘blank slate’ approach. This argument does a disservice to our ancestors and to our children: did we inherit nothing from our forefathers?
Is this thinking a part of an ever-improving set of theories or is it a paradigm shift? In France they have a nice saying ‘It looks OK in practice but how does it look in theory?’ Can we rely on the old thinking and tools that have served us in the past? Or do we need to review the whole approach?
We used to believe the world was flat, or that the earth was the centre of the universe. Many of us still believe that we can measure personality by a questionnaire approach. Many tools have been developed and when anomalies occur in results, the tools are often recalibrated against a master version, in this case the ‘Big 5 personality model’ (see below). But what would happen if the ‘Big 5’ themselves were flawed? We would have a blunt tool assessing another blunt tool critically.
Perhaps there really is a paradigm shift in the people management arena. We need a more scientific approach using the latest findings on evolution, genetics, migration studies and brain chemistry. The new thinking would recognize that our nature, our innate behaviours do play a part in who we are and in how we will act in the future. We have gone beyond what we are in science and medicine and now we have turned the scientific torch on who we are and why we behave the way we do. To paraphrase the words of Steve Pinker about language in his book ‘The Language Instinct’ ‘it is time for people management to submit to science’.
One more quote from Matt Ridley is important here in the light of any confusion about predetermination. ‘None of our behavior is determined by our genes. However all of our behavior is influenced by our genes.’ It is the degree and timing of the influence that we as projects managers need to consider on our projects.
For project managers it means that we must expand our thinking horizons many times in distance and in time. We need to go beyond our towns, provinces and country boundaries to include the whole inhabited world. How far back in time is a different question. At present most of us only go back as far as our recent memory. The psychometric tools, based on Freud and Jung go back 60 years. But the question of where and when did we get our personalities may go back a lot further. We ask the simple question of others ‘What are they like?’ and ‘Why are they like that’? Do we need to go back to the middle ages, the Roman empire, the advent of farming, the cave dwelling painters of France, the hunter/ gather life, the savannah experience in Africa or even further still?
The Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson made a useful analogy to explain the vast timeline that may have had an effect on our current and future behaviors. He put forward the comparison between our human evolution and the life span of a 70-year-old man. The amount of time man has spent in savannah Africa is equivalent to 69 years and 8 months. The remaining 4 months accounts for all the movement after the migration, through the ice ages, farming, biblical times, middle ages, industrial revolution to the present day. How much of our latest behavior was developed in Africa and how much in the interim?
With this background, let’s look at the three key areas for successful people and team management in a truly global world.
|“Point of View” —
An Abstract of the Article Suggests …
- That the project environment has changed dramatically in the past 50 years.
- That the current thinking in people management is out of date.
- That existing methods and tools need to be updated due to advances in science.
- That existing methods and tools do not work in a multi cultural, multi discipline, and global environment.
- That ‘nature’ plays a greater role in our behavior than ‘nurture.’
- That 100% productivity in knowledge workers is possible by a combination of selection, assessment and development.
- That hundreds of thousands of employee training hours could be more effectively utilized.
- That genetic testing will become the norm by 2020 as semi-private information.
- That individual development and career path choices can be improved.
How do you select individuals for a project? The challenge of getting the right individuals has never been more critical. Despite the recent plethora of communication enhancements (fax, answering machine, email, IM, Mobile phones, blackberry) we are challenged by the distance, culture, time zones and attention of those individuals who make up our teams.
If we could get the selection right we would have less need for assessment and development. In effect performance assurance should take precedence over performance control or to paraphrase W. Edwards Deming, the quality guru referred to in the PMBOK® guide, 85% of our improvement may come from this area. In many ways Jim Collins, the management guru of “Built To Last” fame has got this right when he asks of an organization not ‘where is this bus going?’ but ‘who is on this bus?’ Get the right people on the team and you reduce the need for assessment and development.
Even one bad individual in a team can lead to lack of trust, conflict, miscommunication and ultimately poor performance. I have seen it on a large construction project near St. Petersburg, Russia where one team member with a strong personality but was not a proponent of the project goals. He managed to seriously disrupt the performance of an otherwise united team.
Project managers operate in both functional and projectized environments. Currently around the world we use many informal selection methods (prior knowledge, peer reference, meeting, intuition) as well as more formal selection methods including Team styles (Belbin), Myers Briggs Type Indicator, Taylor Hartman’s Color Code and DISC. However, in Germany many companies still use handwriting analysis (graphology).
In “Blink” Malcolm Gladwell talks of people making decisions on an individual based on intuition or ‘gut feel’ and lists the problems of thick and thin slicing. I recently interviewed the owner of a large company about her strategy for hiring key employees and she confirms Gladwell’s thin slicing concept by saying that she makes up her mind about an individual within the first two minutes of a person-to-person interview. However, she confirmed that she was finding this more difficult with her expansion plans into Asia and South America.
Bill Sand, allPM co-publisher, recalls an ex-Navy commander at a global professional services firm who hired hundreds of senior consultants in Washington, D.C. He performed many, many tests on the candidates before deciding. And he finally concluded: “The only way to really know how good someone is going to be is to get them in the cockpit and see how they perform.”
Can we as project managers afford the expense of flying team members together and the risks of failure ‘in the cockpit?’ How will we manage when our team members come from another culture, another country and another way of thinking? What could be wrong with the tools and tests used in selection?
How accurate is this ‘Gut Instinct’, where does it come from? I can imagine a Punch or New Yorker cartoon of a bubble coming from a pensive interviewer’s brain and a second bubble coming from his or her gut. There is a new book coming out soon called “The Second Brain” which should throw some light on how our gut feeling is derived from how we use the neurons in our stomach for decision-making.
In order to make a decision about a person we seek to understand their personality. The commercially available tools use an interview method and try to understand and identify variety in personality and work styles through questionnaires, databases and role models — e.g. sculptor, curator, specialist, completer finisher, plant etc. Many of these have been developed from and must fit back into a ‘model’. Many of these models are based on the ‘Big 5 personality dimensions’ model of Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability and Openness to New Experiences.
However, these five dimensions are based originally on Freudian/Jungian psychology and may need to be updated or replaced based on recent advances in science. A thermometer works as well on an Irish banker in China as on an Indian developer in Argentina. A stethoscope works as well in Dubai as Dallas. Can we improve these ‘selection’ methods and tools to work in all cultures and times?
In practice these methods are open to the obvious false-positive effect of incorrect answers to the questions. However, they are also open to a cold-reading effect, our desire to make sense out of an experience, as explained by psychologist Bertram R. Forer. The ‘Forer effect’ refers to the tendency of people to rate sets of statements as highly accurate for them personally even though the statements could apply to many people. In a study carried out in 1948, executives scored the personality assessment of themselves as 84% accurate even though they had all received a copy of exactly the same analysis.
Recently Derren Brown, a famous UK based illusionist demonstrated the same effect in three countries on a BBC show. He created the illusion of a scientific study by asking for a hand drawing and a personal item from each student. He achieved the same assessment score with students in London, Barcelona and Los Angeles. Many of the students were in tears as they read the ‘accurate’ assessment of themselves and rated the assessment as 80% to 90% accurate.
Brown then demonstrated that they had each received an exact copy of a well-written assessment. The assessment contains what is called the ‘Barnum effect’ in that there is ‘something for everybody’ and the rest is left up to your brain to misinterpret in our favour. You have been warned to beware of snake-oil salesmen in white coats with long questionnaires.
Have you ever completed a psychometric test? How comfortable did you feel with the methodology? Could you have been deceived by the ‘Forer effect?’
Is that why we reserve judgment to a gut feel or intuition? — How will we choose? How will we discriminate between individuals? We have entered a much more sophisticated era in the 21st century. However, the tools that we currently use for selection in organizations still feel like stone tools in a clean room environment.
- check back shortly for Part II -