Posts From January, 2015

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.

Innovation on Every Project

innovation on every project

Everyone wants innovation, because innovation has been paying pretty big dividends.

Are you the leader that can make it happen? First, recognize that innovation opportunities are all around you. Then add these three core practices to your leadership tool kit and lead your team 'out of the box.'

Innovation All Around Us

Faced with the steady stream of gadgets, it’s easy to think that innovation always means ‘breakthrough’ or ‘game changing.’  But innovation does not always equal iPad.  It could be laundry soap.

Laundry soap?  That’s right.  In June 2011, Harvard Business Review profiled Tide laundry detergent as an example of the ‘innovation factory’ at Proctor & Gamble.  Once a mere box or bottle with stagnant market share, Tide is now penetrating new markets around the world and gaining market share in the U.S.  One interesting example: Realizing that 80% of consumers in India wash clothes by hand, the Tide team produced Tide Naturals, designed to clean but also be easy on the skin.

It seems pretty obvious in retrospect, but that’s often the case with innovative ideas.  They are common sense and easy to understand but not always so easy to create. The Tide example is simple and provides an insight into a core practice that applies to every project.  We’ll take a look at three such core practices that every project leader would benefit from understanding, plus offer you some references for further learning.

1. Stakeholders judge success.  ‘Stakeholder’ is the catch-all project management tag for the people who count most on projects.  For Tide in India, it was the consumer who actually washed their clothes.  Could it be any more obvious?  It’s the same for Information Technology projects, isn’t it? Easy to say, but when we look at the woeful results of IT project surveys, failures related to requirements top the list. What’s the lesson? Project leaders cannot over-emphasize engagement with the people that will live the results of their project.  It's a classic distinction between listening to your customer and listening to your users.

2. Structure the problem analysis.  Projects are about solving problems.  Coming up with the best solutions to problems is a skill.  Morgan Jones, a former CIA Analyst, made a career of structuring the analysis of problems, and then he wrote a book about it: The Thinker's Toolkit. He claims that our brains often mislead us, with false understandings of events that subsequently lead us into false conclusions. His book includes 14 tools to make up for our natural inclination to make analytical errors. (He begins with a classic: make sure you are solving the real problem.)

Jones’ book is for everyone who is solving a problem, but it is particularly important for project leaders.  That’s because when we assemble our teams to solve a problem, we may have a dozen brains all making different observations and drawing separate conclusions simultaneously. Harnessing that brain power is why we have agendas for meetings.  Take it a step further, use some of Jones’ tools to restate a problem, organize facts, separate assumptions, and determine the relationships between causes and effects.  Any individual will think more clearly when using these tools, but multiply that by the number of brains on your team and the number of decisions made on the project and the potential for improvement is staggering.

3. Structure creativity.  It may sound like a contradiction, but there are rules that can be applied to creativity, and without creativity there really is no innovation. 

The first rule of creativity for project leaders is to make room for it.  Provide enough time in the schedule for generating a bunch of ideas. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but teams sweating it out under a tight timeline are more likely to stick to the tried and true.

The second rule of creativity is to actively pursue it. The classic book here is Roger von Oech’s, A Whack on the Side of the Head.  It’s time for project leaders to rediscover this book: it was originally published in the early 1990’s but nothing like it has come along since.  Von Oech helps project leaders by showing us the typical obstacles we erect to prevent creativity, then he offers specific techniques that get our teams thinking in new ways. 


The project leader sets the tone.

The leader encourages the focus on stakeholders, leverages techniques to structure the problem analysis, and actively seeks out creativity. 

Do you want to be known as a leader that fosters creativity and innovation? Start today. Put these core practices to work on your current project.