NASA on Knowledge, Mistakes, and . . . Loud Teams

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

I listened to Ed Hoffman, NASA’s Chief Knowledge Officer, speak at a PMI event last week.

Mr. Hoffman shared a slide called, “Shared Experience Poll.” Its a universal, if depressing, list.  Any sound familiar? The italics are mine – PMO remedies that really work!

  • Incompatible business strategies
  • Managers support policies aligning to their interests
  • Employeees only do what is necessary to keep the boss happy
  • Projects succeed but fail organisational expectations
    • Above all helped with portfolio management to objectively fund projects according to how they support strategies and way to keep this up to date, also easy visuals to show clear ties from each project to at least one strategy and vice versa.
    • At NASA they avoided linear lists of info, but created visuals to explain where to find knowledge, to appeal to their workforce and how they talk about things.
  • Organisational talent doesn’t know where to find critical knowledge
  • Information is everywhere but knowledge is scarce
    • Above two helped if all projects fit a known project type that then uses commonly named project steps.
  • Adminstratively burdensome processes and procedures
    • Above helped if project management is seen as a service offering, with a sales component that uses feedback to continually simplify project steps that bring a worthwhile return.
    • At NASA they called it knowledge services instead of knowledge management, to reflect intent to help and not control.

 I also loved his recommendation that success criteria go beyond the usual cost, time, budget types. If learning, for example, isn’t on the list, it’s no wonder people won’t capture the lessons learned. Yet we can mostly agree learning is one of the most important outcomes of any project! Consider knowledge sharing as another marker of success. Expressly stating this can go a long way to supporting the collaboration you need. Maybe discovery and innovation needs to make it’s way into your success criteria, or building up individual and team talent. Getting this right helps you get to true success, as well as line up the real expertise you’ll need.

He said its so important to speak the truth at the level of mistakes, as these are what can prevent larger failures. And that the team culture needs to support this. It’s hard because so many smart people are trained to bring solutions, and not problems. You need rules of thumb, heuristics, to convince smart people to bring a problem forward. NASA had “my best mistake” events to help people get in the rhythm of sharing mistakes.

He also talked about failure, the need for it. A benefit to failure is it gives time to learn, sometimes the ONLY time to learn, a chance to get people to talk to each other across their usual silos. He says if he hears, “I don’t have time,” this a show stopper; that you need to make time for this. An executive involved with the Challenger disaster was shown on video, saying, “I just can’t sit there anymore and watch people talk past each other.”

A good PM is at work, he said, if a team makes a lot of noise. Ask is there inclusion, is there respect, are people raising issues? Laughter, arguing, a team able to put up with disruptions . . . these are indicators for success.

New Knowledge gets created in the Spaces in Between

Saturday, December 3rd, 2016

Interdisciplinary studies in academia are pretty “hot” these days. Surrounded by specialists as we are, it is nevertheless true that in between the disciplines is where new knowledge is being created today. The spaces and cracks in between today’s silos are where innovation is taking place. Marshall McLuhan syas that amongst painters, physicists, poets, communicators and educators, today, there has been a shift away from “specialized segments of attention,” to the idea of the “total field . . . a sense of the whole pattern, of form and function as a unity.”

In the past it was true too, that the biggest discoveries arose when there was a synthesis across several professions. It was just easier to master a whole bunch of disciplines within one lifetime. Leonardo daVinci probably had coffee whenever he liked with the leading lights of his era, on any specialization at all, and was of course himself master of many professions.

Why do we need to constantly borrow ideas from other bodies of knowledge?

  • To fully understand our own areas of expertise
  • To innovate further
  • To be responsible within our professions

Here are some examples of ongoing interdisciplinary efforts:

  • Governments and citizens grappling with ethics around genetic technologies – a mix of scientists, computer scientists, ethicists, politicians, and regulators
  • Global account teams selling a variety of products and services to a variety of customer types in different cultures – a mix of product managers, salespeople, technologists just to start
  • Different government departments (eg a fisheries department and an environment department) with intersecting scope and different collections of similar professionals

We need ways to facilitate the conversations between experts that help uncover tacit knowledge and lead to the most responsible, complete, and innovative outcomes. We need space where different knowledge and expertise can be combined and translated into action. We need to stitch together the silos.

It is our belief that a systems view of teams and relationships is an excellent approach for this undertaking.

There is a Problem with Expertise

Saturday, December 3rd, 2016

Accident prevention, crisis management, and innovation share some challenges: the need to connect across different disciplines and expertises, the need to understand different kinds of knowledge, and the need to hold differing perspectives simultaneously. There are some problems with expertise today which are preventing this.

Problem #1: Expertise has become deep and narrow

Expertise has become more highly specialized than ever. Consider that in the 17th century an educated person could likely understand and maybe even build every physical thing in their environment. Since then, countless professions have emerged, and we are all highly specialized. In academic circles today there is concern about how narrow our expertise and our professions have become, often favoured by the job market over a broad and wide view.

Different professions develop their own lingo and sometimes we are alienated by a lack of common ground in knowledge, or language. Specialized knowledge can get locked into individual specialists, and not be easily share-able.

Many accidents, in the aftermath, have been found to have at cause, this very misunderstanding. Oil spills, rocket ships – examples abound of situations where someone knew there was a problem, but someone who needed to know did not hear them.

Problem #2: Everyone is an expert

Many of us are experts in one way or another. Expertise is subjective, and very much depends on your vantage point.

Experts often disagree so it is no longer the case that once everyone is simply “informed” decisions will be easier to make. Knowledge is not binary, in that you do or do not have it. We can’t just “throw” knowledge over the wall.

Problem #3: We misunderstand the nature of knowledge

Sometimes knowledge is situated knowledge, i.e. “it depends on…”, for example, where you live. Local knowledge (or “Traditional knowledge”) in Northern Canada is incorporated into governmental decision-making processes. For example, the Inuit have knowledge about wildlife pathways which is considered along with other more “scientific” findings in order to make resource and transit decisions.

Sometimes a layperson’s knowledge contains information that science has not accepted yet. After Chernobyl, countless experts arrived in rural England to counsel the farmers about their livestock and produce. The farmers had already discovered that the sheep in valleys were much better off than those higher up but this was in no way part of the formal knowledge being presented to them. Eventually the scientists found a rational explanation for this and it was adapted into their communications.

Much knowledge is tacit, as opposed to codified, and very hard to capture. This is the kind of knowledge people share in person, or within relationships, but has typically been impossible to capture in expert systems, or via other knowledge management efforts. What Zen Master goes and writes a manual? Mostly they take on apprentices.

So what next?

We need to find ways to connect and communicate across all different expertises and kinds of knowledge. Innovation today occurs in the spaces in between: in between professions, in between traditional university disciplines, and in between organisational silos.

Deep Democracy

Sunday, November 13th, 2016

Expertise has expanded and become so specialized, that people from different professions or educational backgrounds are having increased difficulty communicating, let alone innovating together.

Most new knowledge today is created in “the spaces in between,” or in multi-disciplinary groups. Especially when organisational structures tend to align with functions or professions, there is risk that new knowledge can’t be created, or that new ideas don’t get to take hold. We need ways to bridge these gaps, uncover ideas, and provide a home in which to hone ideas into innovation and results.

In some cases, expertise lies in unexpected places, and we need ways to find it.

If you agree that teams can be seen as systems, then you can see why we need ‘deep democracy’. We need every voice on the team to be heard because each part of a system offers correct but limited solutions. Critical ‘know-how’ is often embedded in social networks within organisations.

The knowledge that would help discuss most issues can be both wide-ranging and specialized, simultaneously.

We might assume that there is ‘neutral’ knowledge on a topic, and that the experts’ job is to present this to us. But knowledge is not some ‘black box’ that you either do, or do not have. Expertise is narrowing and deepening, so there is rarely just one expert to consult; more like a plethora of them, and they often disagree with one another!

One could argue that all knowledge is ‘situated knowledge’ now, depending on the perspective of the beholder. When working with a team, the ‘situated knowledge’ for that group is a combination of everyone’s voices. ORSC* calls it the 2% rule, that “everyone is right, but only partially”.

We need ways to facilitate the conversations between experts that help uncover tacit knowledge and lead to the most responsible, complete, and innovative outcomes. We need space where different knowledge and expertise can be combined and translated into action. We need to stitch together the silos.

 *ORSC is the Organisation and Relationships Systems Coaching offered by CRR Global

More on the relationship systems cornerstones

Saturday, November 12th, 2016

Here’s another take on the basis for the systems approach to coaching groups of people, from CRR Global.

We hold the relationship system as the client. This helps us to see each person as one part of the whole. Just as we would not judge the left hand or the right leg of an individual, we would not judge one part of the overall system.

We work with the whole relationship system, and we champion “deep democracy”.  Deep Democracy is a critical skill since it reveals the voices of the system.  Unless all the voices of the system are heard the reality of the system is not accurately represented.  The coach supports marginalized voices or feelings to be heard. Within each system are other nested systems; individuals, pairs, sub-groups, etc. These nested systems are voices of the whole system and the coach must be able to shift between them and the overall system. Each sub-system and each individual are critical though sometimes one may need special attention. There is no problem with this provided it is within the context of the overall system.

We hold the relationship as naturally intelligent & creative. Here, the coach holds the system as having its own wisdom and answers rather than seeing it as broken. As long as endings are viewed as failures we will not be able to engage with them to find a way to be more skillful with their natural life cycle. The coach supports the system to find its own answers.  Conflict, breakdown, and endings are viewed as part of the natural cycle of systems.  The coach does not hold back from addressing difficult issues and views conflict as a signal that change is trying to happen.

 We reveal the system to itself. Systems are self-regulating. Awareness is the ground condition for system change, the necessary, if not always sufficient foundation. This primary focus of the coach is to mirror the system to itself. Revealing helps the system to be conscious and intentional. By practicing transparency about what he/she sees, the coach holds up a mirror to the system so it can learn and grow.  Every tool and skill the coach uses is for the purpose of helping the system understand itself and support its natural tendency to self-regulate.  Thus teams are self-organizing, and can naturally self-correct.

Margaret Wheatley explains this all beautifully. “If a system is in trouble, it can be restored to health by connecting it to more of itself. To make a system stronger, we need to create stronger relationships. . . . If a system is suffering, this indicates that it lacks sufficient access to itself. It might be lacking information, it might have lost clarity about who it is, it might have troubled relationships, it might be ignoring those who have valuable insights.”


(Adapted and excerpted from CRR Global’s summary “The Model,” p 6, 7; and Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science, p 45)

Systems Coaching

Monday, September 19th, 2016

Several of us at Arbuckle Consulting are training in relationship systems coaching with CRR Global. (The program is called Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching, or ORSC.) This is going to be a really enriching experience and have a wonderful impact on how we manage our projects and help our clients get their strategies accomplished.

We are learning to work with the human system dynamics that emerge between and within people. In this approach we hold the teams we work with to be naturally creative, resourceful and whole. So, our role is to help reveal the system to itself so its members can come to their own solutions. Discord is reframed as symptoms of something ‘trying to happen’. Excellent and unique approaches for hearing all the voices in a system really lead to shifts and better solutions. Here are the four cornerstones of the approach in a bit more detail.

  • We hold the relationship system as the client. In Relationship systems work, the client is the relationship and not the individuals. We listen for the voice of the system, or the voice of the relationship: What is needed? Or, what is “trying to happen” for this partnership or team? We help to unfold that agenda.
  • We hold the relationship as naturally intelligent & creative. All relationships have an arc to their lifespan, and whether a team is together for weeks or decades, it has everything it needs to evolve and devolve.
  • We work with the whole relationship system, and we champion “deep democracy”. We keep an eye on the whole system regardless of which member demands attention, including all team members rather than just aspects or single events. Like a conductor who may cue in the violins one moment or work with the oboes next, we are always listening for the music of the entire orchestra. (One of the challenges here is to determine the system’s parameters. When considering the work that needs to be done, a critical decision is around who needs to be included in the team or nested systems within the organization.)
  • We reveal the system to itself. Our job is not to repair or ‘fix’ the system but rather to reveal its nature to its members and help the system learn about itself. Armed with new awareness and new tools the systems’ members can become “response-able” to better perform the tasks of the system. This mirroring process reveals the system to itself and empowers the self-regulating function of the system.

(Adapted and excerpted from CRR Global’s Organization & Relationship Systems at Work, p.10)

The ‘hard’ benefits of project management

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

Here are the benefits of project management that you can really quantify, and use to do an ROI for improving project management practices, or putting a PMO in place.

Projects that are challenged – and the Standish Chaos Report said that over half of IT projects are – are challenged in all three areas of Scope, Time, and Cost. Challenged projects cost over twice their original estimate, or take over twice the time planned, or accomplish less than 2/3 of the scope planned.

So one really quick way to measure this in your organisation currently, is to survey your experienced project managers. You can ask  – anonymously – for their estimate of what their stakeholders’ satisfaction has been, how much functionality has been dropped, how much rework has been required, and what the deadline slippage has been like.

You can compare this against industry averages, and decide upon a goal for yourselves.

With a few assumptions about headcount cost and project size, you can then cost out the impact of moving from the current situation to the goal.

Here’s a worksheet to get you going! – a template in Excel

(This one is for a sales support organization.)

The Real Success Factors

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

The Standish Chaos report about why projects succeed and fail contains a real nugget. You might be surprised by this breakdown of opinions about why a project succeeds.

Half of the respondents chose one of these three reasons: User involvement, Executive management support, or Clear statement of requirements.

A quarter of the respondents chose from this set of good project management practices: Realistic expectations, Smaller project milestones, Ownership, or Clear vision & objectives.

Only a small portion – a tenth – of the respondents felt that ‘Proper Planning; was the reason projects succeed. About another tenth felt that ‘hard working, focused staff’ and ‘competent staff’  are the keys to success.

Isn’t that interesting?! What does this say about the ‘hero’ culture wherein we hope that one amazing project manager can rescue a project, or bring it to a successful conclusion. And our project management abilities to plan things out is not the key either. Instead, success derives from the whole network of people involved, and how clear the goals are to everyone.

Risk as Opportunity

Thursday, September 17th, 2015

Though I don’t mind calling a risk planning session a ‘worry session’, I wish we could change the tone we use when talking about risk. And I wish we had more opportunities on the risk list. (For example, ‘what if 200 register for our training instead of 50?”)

Don’t we all know of the risk log opened at the beginning of a project, rarely to be glanced at again?  But since the flip side of risk is opportunity, and an occurred Risk is an Issue, and a closed Issue is a Decision – couldn’t all of this ‘stuff’ be in one place, open to the whole team, and so much more useful?

Imagine a ‘This Stuff’ list for a project. Like my inbox for my task manager – you can put anything into it, and then when you have time to process it, you can identify it as a Risk, or an Issue, or a Decision, or even a Task.  Or maybe what gets on the ‘stuff’ list is an innovative idea, or a suggested ‘kudos’ for someone on the team.

Here’s an template we use that includes a Risks Log, an Issues Log, and a ActionsDecisions Log. Next, I’m going to try changing this so that anyone on the team, even if in a hurry, can add something in a first column (called “Stuff”). Then the  leader of the project can own this one log, and process these into categories, and prioritize them, and parse out the tasks related to them. We’d all look at it more often, more people would input to it, and it would really empower us to create better plans and more successful projects.

Risk etc log – a template in Excel

Being BOTH Creative and Analytical

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

I always find it frustrating to be asked questions about myself by someone obviously trying to determine if I am a creative type. I know that the minute I admit to loving spreadsheets, and lists, I will be labeled. There seems to be a binary either/or related to the words creative and analytical.

It is no more true that a scientist must be absent-minded, or a painter unable to do math, than it is that physics is not creative, or beautiful; or that there is no logic to an artists’ process. Creativity can be learned, and so can analytical skills, and they co-exist all the time.

In project management, we are presented with many tools, and methods, and a very complete set of steps to follow. The more well-versed we are in these tools and techniques the better. Once into the fray of a project environment, the deeper our knowledge of models and past situations, the better. But it is an extremely creative and dynamic undertaking to customize what’s needed for a given project, at a given time.

The challenge is to apply the level of detail as appropriate, and the amount of method that will garner the most results with the smallest overhead.

I find the start of projects, where you are really brainstorming with people about the extent and the nature and the purpose of a project, to be an exciting time.  The use of color in the latest version of MSProject is helpful, but working out the high level gantt with other tools, like Powerpoint or mindmapping software can be more effective initially. Some plans never garner the eyes of the whole team, but the ones that use color, simple naming, and are built originally with input from the whole team, have a better chance.