Posts From January, 2012

I Love This Book! The Culture Code

Build Your Project Team Culture

The Culture Code Reveals the Power of Safety

“When we talk about courage, we think it’s going against an enemy with a machine gun. The real courage is seeing the truth and speaking the truth to each other.”
         –Dave Cooper, Retired, Commander Master Chief, SEAL Team Six (From The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle)

Why is it so hard to see the truth and speak the truth to each other? Why does that demand courage? And, can any team reach their potential without this ability?

Safety: The Foundation of High Performance

Daniel Coyle, in his new book, The Culture Code, offers three necessary cultural elements of what he calls “highly successful groups.” These elements are safety, vulnerability, and purpose. After reading the first few chapters, I became convinced that safety should be the primary focus for every leader, especially project leaders

I’ve always thought of safety at the office and in my work group as physical safety. Coyle refocused my attention to that of emotional safety. Frankly, I am surprised I haven’t seen it before. I’ve been reading and writing about project team performance for about twenty years. I’ve always known that trust is crucial to creativity and innovation, but Coyle’s angle brought a fresh light on the foundational role of safety. His theme is that for teams to reach their potential, each member must feel safe enough emotionally to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is critical to giving and receiving authentic feedback, which is the only way a group will improve its performance. Feedback within the group is directed toward serving the purpose. Purpose becomes the North Star. That logic is tough to dispute.

Project teams are temporary, formed to accomplish something unique. These teams solve problems and make decisions every day. Versatile’s high-performance team checklist lists nine characteristics that enable a team to survive the “give and take” of creativity and problem solving while maintaining trust and keeping relationships intact. But I have to admit that emotional safety has always been assumed, rather than explicitly called out.

Coyle’s logic, that safety precedes trust and trust precedes authentic feedback and team learning, lays bare the importance of establishing emotional safety within our teams. The quote at the beginning of this article comes from a key story in the SEAL Team Commander’s evolution as a leader. In Cooper’s early career he advised a superior that a particular course of action was dangerous and should be avoided. That superior ignored his  advice and the result was exactly what Cooper had feared. Cooper took away from that experience a desire to be the kind of leader that invited opposing points of view and encouraged criticism from every member of his team.

The Primary Focus of Every Project Leader

Do you want your team to “see the truth and speak the truth to each other”? What could be more important? From creation of a business case and charter, through risk identification, scheduling, and daily problem-solving, your team is making decisions and working through conflicts.  Every day of every project is affected by team culture. Pick up Daniel Coyle’s Culture Code. He illustrates his theme with stories from a wide range of teams and follows up with specific actions for the reader. I predict his lessons will stick with you and reignite your focus on team culture.

Project Leaders Handle Conflict

project leaders

Project leaders handle conflict

"How do I tell my sponsor that I don't think he is the RIGHT sponsor for my project? He has so many other duties I can't realistically expect his involvement, but I really need it."

Project leaders handle conflict regularly, facing tough situations that demand skill, confidence, and courage. Choosing to confront disagreement and deliver bad news is part of the job description. "But how do I explain this to my sponsor?" With tact, or more precisely, with skill.

Like many communication skills, the tough conversations get easier when you know and practice the skills. In this case, you can follow the advice found in Crucial Conversations, a best-selling book sub-titled "Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High."The authors claim that the ability to effectively discuss difficult topics is a major predictor of your influence and your project's success. One particular approach they describe would apply to this difficult discussion for a project manager with a potentially wrong sponsor:

Share your facts. Start with observable facts and behaviors. These shouldn't be debatable.

Tell your story. This is your interpretation of the situation. Own it with "I" language, and don't apologize.

Ask for others' paths. Ask for the other person's interpretation, their intent, their conclusions. Then listen hard. Listen to understand, not debate.*

Talk tentatively. This is not time to make demands. Humility and confidence combine to create a tone of respect, a quest for shared understanding for mutual gain.

Encourage testing. Asking for others' interpretation or their point of view needs to express a sincere intent to explore other paths. Your boss may not need a lot of encouragement, but if you are inviting team members or peers to contribute to a controversial conversation they need to feel safe.

So how would this approach help our project manager who might benefit from a different sponsor?Let's listen in.

PM: I'd like to talk with you about a potentially sensitive topic: how we interact in our roles as project manager and project sponsor. (Respectful, non-accusatory tone.) My understanding of the role of sponsor is to be regularly involved in discussing the project. In fact, I've got an article here that lays out the typical activities of a project sponsor. (The article is objective. It may not be a fact, but it is more than the PM's opinion.) My concern is that we rarely get to talk more than fifteen minutes a month. (Now the PMI is telling her story.) I really believe that the project would benefit from the level of engagement described in the article. As much as I would value your active sponsorship, I wonder if Chris [another executive] would have more time to devote to this project. (Ask for the sponsor's point of view, and genuinely listen.) What do you think about the practicality of this level of engagement for a sponsor? (Focus on the issue: the duties of a sponsor.)

Did you tense up a little just reading this? It is definitely a tough conversation. But our PM has laid out her concerns and a recommendation, demonstrating courage and respect. We don't know how the sponsor will react, but he has not been accused and he doesn't need to be defensive.

If you don't think you could pull off this kind of conversation, then make a point of building this skill. If you don't have these skills, life is full of obstacles. Skills build confidence, and with regular use these skills become part of your natural response to difficult situations.

*Listening is another topic unto itself, but it makes a powerful complement to being able to speak about difficult topics.