Allowing Time and Space for Innovation

Luis Seabra Coelho asked me to contribute a guest post on his blog Ah-Ha Moments

Eureka! People are not robots!

Here’s an excerpt from my Ah-Ha moment in Project Management.

“..the client’s deadlines were fast approaching, the quality of our work was ok, not great. And after about a month, I started to become the momma on the team, not in a good way, but in a “I’m going to tell on you to momma” kind of way. It was nuts. Some people quit.

Around that time I was reading a blog about Google, and how Google allows their folks to have one day a week to work on an independent project and I thought… A-HA… That’s it. At Google, employees are trusted to do great work and to manage their time. The company realizes that smart people do better when they can be the masters of their own destinies and therefore builds in the time for that during the week.

Instead of a full day, I set up working groups that would meet for one hour. The groups were built around software disciplines; systems engineering, business architecture, testing, training, and QA and change management. When I introduced the groups, I emphasized freedom. They were free to attend or not attend. They were free to go to any group meeting. They were free to discuss what they wanted to as long as it pertained to the discipline, even if that meant they weren’t necessarily discussing client deliverables. They were free to ask me not to attend, if they didn’t want the “boss lady” there.

And our productivity….toook offf!!! ”

Read about our great results  here.


The Slippery Slope of Titanic Projects

So my team and I were sitting around talking about previous disaster projects we’ve worked and started thinking about the trajectory of defeat for the average IT professional on the Titanic project.

We named it …‘The Team Spiral of Death’ and it starts off with all the best of intentions and ends up at the Hotel California. For those of you don’t know the Hotel California, please listen to this soundtrack as you read this post…it will create just the right mood.

So The

Team Spiral of Death (TSD)

starts off with:


(Yea!!!) This is when you first come onto the Titanic project and it’s so freekin awesome! The PM is really nice and the project intent seems so clear. Enthusiasm usually sounds like this (overheard at new hire orientation): “Wow – this is such a great project.” Or, “I really love the thought process behind this.” Or, “Nobody’s ever done this before!”  On Titanic projects (you know, the ones that start out with great intention and fanfare, but crash spectacularly because the details were overlooked, somewhere. Details like screws that don’t hold up to iceburgs, or O-rings failure reports that someone ignored) enthusiasm lasts until the first instance of …


This is when you find something that doesn’t make sense and you can’t really believe something so egregious is a part of this glorious project.

Disbelief sounds like this “I showed the PM this 3 year old report two weeks ago that I found on the Z drive that says that the bolts won’t hold up if we hit an iceburg….And he was like ‘oh yeah’, and he hasn’t done anything about it.  Can you BELIEVE THAT?”  Disbelief looks like the wikileaks guy (He’s on the ‘project to destroy the world’ and he can’t believe that nobody is doing anything about all the stuff he’s put out….REALLY???)    Duration: This is probably the shortest phase because it quickly devolves into…



This is when you are absolutely, positively just through (but not completely done because you still think something can be done about it). You’ve been through the discovery phase (disbelief) and are now sort of trying to get things to work, but just grossed out in the process. Sort of like, ‘wow, so the toilet WAS leaking….guess I have to clean up now.’

Disgust sounds like this “I am so through with this project.” “We really need to get a real, functional change control board and have people talk about real issues and stop being so damn political all the time.”  Duration? Well… you can conceivably go back to enthusiasm from here if something changes for the better. Pivotal point…because if nothing changes (and PMs you must pay attention here because if your team has hit the next phase, arrivaderchi’s super hard to recover) the average human being just….releases.

Let the Sunshine in!


Release is when you just don’t give a flying rat’s behind. In Release, everything is compared to the price of beans in China. “I care about the CCB about as much as I care about the price of beans in China.” Or, “I care about commenting my code about as much as I care about the prince of beans in China.” You get it. In order to continue to survive in a non-optimized environment, you, as an IT professional, have to HAVE to, or you risk going insane. Eventually, you’ll release the project and leave all together.

If you’ve hit release, you might NEED to leave because the longer you stay, the more you’ll want to….

Albert Haynesworth


So…this is REALLY bad. This is when, for whatever reason, folks who really hate everything about the project are still on the project and the only way they can get back at the project is sabotage.  Sabotage sounds like this:  “Sure, I’ll have it done by Tuesday” they say out loud, “next year” they think to themselves. Or,  “I hate this project, wonder what happened to my neighbor’s cat…I’ll check Facebook.” Or,  “I could tell the captain that we’re about to hit an iceburg…but what’s the freekin use, the bolts won’t hold up anyway. Let the ship sink.”


Here’s the decision tree and whiteboard:

See that little red spot between enthusiasm and disbelief – this is the PM’s ‘Save the Project’ spot. Meaning, if people come to you in disbelief do two things to move them back to enthusiasm:



Peace out.

The Issue List of Death OR You Too Can Instantly Assess your Project

I’ve been riding the rough waters of various projects for the past few months.   And while there’s a wealth of things to blog about, the one thing that I’m starting to get is that there is a definite feel to a project that’s healthy.  Like healthy families and dysfunctional families, you know where you are as soon as you walk in the door.

One trait that’s starting to pop up as a symptom of dysfunctional projects is the dead issues list.

Boy does this PM have....issues!

Boy does this PM have....issues!

On live healthy projects, issues lists are like wipe boards.  They are active, usually worked on in collaborative, online spaces -like Sharepoint.  They become a thing that is always changing, never perfect, never spell checked.  They have numbers or indicators that are alive and have meaning. And you overhear things like ‘Hey – where are we with issue 123?’ or ‘Let’s pull up that issue again, I need to see what the user wrote.’  They usually are accessible to all team members, including users.  Active issues lists are kind of like immediate usable reference boards, like flight information at the airport, or a TV guide listing.

On dysfunctional projects, issues lists become the death knoll of doom…the dreaded list of infamy where people are blamed over and over.  These issue lists are usually silo’d; as in one person keeps the list and it only surfaces 10 minutes before a meeting.  Chances are you’re going to be asked to speak (and get attacked) over the issue that’s been on the list for 10 weeks.  And the issues are never ever resolved.  They just persist.

Live healthy projects are like healthy families – they talk through issues, they work them out, maybe fight a little, but ultimately, based on a foundation of good will, a resolution is reached.  Therefore the issues list becomes the thing that you work on to maintain health.  Health is the goal, because healthy projects and teams produce healthy results and products.

Dysfunctional projects are like unhealthy families – they never want to deal with the real issue, which is a certain history of unaddressed actions that have eroded good will.  So the issues list is just the tip of the iceburg of hurt feelings, blame and shame.  And it’s a heavy, burdensome task to go through it.  Because going through means touching on the real issue, which is the lack of good will, but always skirting around it skillfully, and politically.

So next time you get thrown on a project…observe the issue list process. It’s the immediate first indicator of the life and health of the project, in the PM diagnostic kit, it’s your thermometer and stethoscope all rolled into one.

Org Dynamics Series: Be Gibbs in 83, not Zorn in 09 OR Culture Building Skillzz

I’ve just read Umair Haque’s inspired post the Builder’s Manifesto and my brain is doing that excited connection thing it does.  And I’m excited becuase I think there’s a correlation between Dave Logan’s  work on Tribal Leadership and Umair Haque’s theory that the world needs Builder’s, not just leaders.

Same Team, but.....

Same Team, but.....

See, I think that Haque is descrbing the kind of leader that builds Stage 4 and 5 cultures.

Why should you care about Building Stage 4 or 5 cultures, PM?  Because Stage 4 and 5 cultures produce more good stuff, more efficiently, effectively, quickly and with less cost than Stage 2 and 3 cultures.  There’s a lot of Whats In It For Me (WIIM) but honestly – if you are still thinking WIIM, you might not be a Builder. You got to do some Ego recalibration to get these results.

A Stage 2 tribal culture is where:

“People talk as though they are disconnected from organizational concerns, seeming to not care about what’s going on. They do the minimum to get by, showing almost no initiative or passion. They cluter together in groups that encourage passive-aggresive behavior.”

A Stage 3 tribal culture is where:

“People engage in anything that’s going on, with energy and commitment, but when you listen closely, they talk mostly about themselves and ofcus on appearing smarter and better than others.  They rarely bring people together, they resist sharing information except when it’s necessary, and they pride themselves on being better informed than others.”

A Stage 4 tribal culture is where:

“Teams are the norm, focused around shared values and a common purpose.  Information moves freely throughout the group. People’s relationships are built on shared values.  They tend to ask, “whats the next right thing to do.”  Their language focuses on “we” not “me”

A Stage 5 tribal culture is where:

“The theme of communication is limitless potential, bounded only by imagination and group commitment.  People in this culture can find a way to work with almost anyone, provided their commitment to values is at the same intensity as their own.”

All quotes from Tribal Leadership

...WAAAAYYYYY different culture (and results)

...WAAAAYYYYY different culture (and results)

Want another example?  Think of the NFL.  The only difference between the teams, and the only thing that gets some to win and others to lose, is culture and leadership.  They all have the same goal (in project terms, the same scope) , the same timeline to get it done (the golden triangle’s time), the same number of players and type of equipement (resources).  So the only thing that’s different…is leadership and culture.  Take it from me, I’m a Redskins fan, I’ve seen this happen in real life.  As the leadership has devolved from a Stage 4 (“We’re great and you’re not”) down to a Stage 2 (“My life sucks”) we’ve seen the language of the leaders get more downtrodden, and the mood of the players, more violent (witness fights in the lockeroom, public insubordination).  It’s all summed up in this apathetic, the world sucks statement about our worst season ever from Jason Campbell, “”You know, it’s always been something.

And poor Jim Zorn – out as of yesterday. Maybe he would’ve done better had he read Haque’s Builder’s Manifesto

“1. The boss drives group members; the leader coaches them. The Builder learns from them.

2. The boss depends upon authority; the leader on good will. The Builder depends on good.

3. The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm. The Builder is inspired — by changing the world.

4.The boss says “I”; the leader says “we”. The Builder says “all” — people, communities, and society.

5. The boss assigns the task, the leader sets the pace. The Builder sees the outcome.

6. The boss says, “Get there on time;” the leader gets there ahead of time. The Builder makes sure “getting there” matters.

7. The boss fixes the blame for the breakdown; the leader fixes the breakdown. The Builder prevents the breakdown.

8. The boss knows how; the leader shows how. The Builder shows why.

9. The boss makes work a drudgery; the leader makes work a game. The Builder organizes love, not work.

10. The boss says, “Go;” the leader says, “Let’s go.” The Builder says: “come.””

From Umair Haque’s Blog

The connection As I see it:

  • Haque’s “Boss” is a Stage 3 Tribal Leader.
  • Haque’s “Leader” is a Stage 4 Tribal Leader
  • Haque’s “Builder” is a Stage 5 Tribal Leader

These are some powerful tools for figuring out how to succeed.  Its not just about your resources, scope, or cost – its about your building skills. Use the Tribal Leadership stages as a blueprint for building your culture and the Builder’s Manifesto as a gentle reminder of how you need to be to get there.

Organizational Dynamics Series: Project Manager, Know Thy Tribe

The Project Manager is by definition a leader and a change agent. We lead temporary endeavours created to ‘make things better’ in some way. In some environments we encounter little resistance but in most, we encounter a lot of resistance. We’ve got a lot of tools and methods for dealing with the resistance.

But for years now, I’ve felt that these tools encourage a micro-focus, when we really need to ask the question – what is it in our organization that causes us to have to take such a defensive posture in the first place?

To address those intangibles in the culture, the PMBoK advises us to assess a laundry list of ‘Enterprise Environmental Factors’ and gives us very few tools and methods to do so.

As a result, it’s like we PMP trained Project Managers are focusing on individual trees instead of the full eco-system. We’re well tool’d for tree and forest management, but don’t even have detectors for the eco-system. Sure, there’s Organizational Development (OD) and Conflict Resolution (CR) theory, but it seems like you have to really understand OD and CR theory first before you can analyze a culture. And no one has time for that.

I need an easy way to identify organizational culture, becuase it is constantly affecting my ability to conduct successful projects, in subtle and intangible ways. That’s been the case until now, thanks to the book Tribal Leadership.

The Tribal Leadership authors say that human beings like to belong to tribes. Here’s the key piece: tribes are identifiable by the language used by the tribe, which creates the overall tribal mood. The theory is that language reflects the prevailing belief system of the tribe; ie it is a very good indicator of tribal attitudes.

The authors suggest that there are five recognizable Tribal stages, along with thier subsequent mantra:

Stage 1 runs the show in criminal clusters, like gangs and prisons, where the theme is “life stinks,” and people act out in despairingly hostile ways. This stage shows up in 2 percent of corporate tribes, but leaders need to be on guard, as this is the zone of criminal behavior and workplace violence. The best way for a leader to intervene is to get individual members out of the group and into another.

Stage 2, the dominant culture in 25 percent of workplace tribes, says, in effect, “my life stinks,” and the mood is a cluster of apathetic victims. People in this stage are passively antagonistic, crossing their arms in judgment yet never getting interested enough to spark any passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic, resigned. Tribal leaders intervene in Stage 2 by finding those individuals who want things to be different, and mentor them—one at a time. Tell them that you think they have potential. Over time, some will start to talk the Stage 3 language. At that point, invite them to mentor another member of the tribe.

In Stage 3, the dominant culture in half of U.S. workplace tribes, the theme is “I’m great” or, more fully, “I’m great, and you’re not.” In this culture, knowledge is power, and so people hoard it, from client contacts to gossip People at this stage have to win, and winning is personal. They’ll out-work, think, and maneuver their competitors. The mood that results is a collection of “lone warriors,” wanting help and support and being disappointed that others don’t have their ambition or skill. What holds people at Stage 3 is the “hit” they get from winning, besting others, being the smartest and most successful. Tribal leaders intervene in Stage 3 by identifying people’s individual values and then seeing which cut across the tribe. Point out the values that unite people, and then construct initiatives that bring these values to life.

Stage 4 represents 22 percent of tribal cultures, where the theme is “we’re great,” and another group isn’t. Stage four is the zone of Tribal Leadership where the leader upgrades the tribe as the tribe embraces the leader. The leader transforms tribes of individuals into Stage 4 groups, and the tribal leaders in these groups focus people on their aspirations, and define measurable ways to make a worldwide impact. As the tribal attention shifts from “we’re better” to “we can make a global impact,” their culture shifts to Stage 5.

Stage 5 is the culture of 2 percent of the workforce tribes, where the theme is “life is great” and focuses on realizing potential by making history. Teams at Stage 5 have produced miraculous innovations. The team that produced the first Macintosh was Stage 5, and we’ve seen this mood at Amgen. This stage is pure leadership, vision, and inspiration. Identify which of these five cultures dominates your tribe, and start bumping your tribe to the next stage by noticing the social groups that exist in your company.”

From the book Tribal Leadership ©Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright

This breakdown is easy for me to grasp, and easy to explain. More importantly, I think it’ll help me get an accurate gauge, because I’m looking at language as an indicator of attitude. This is something anyone can do.

This table sourced from the book summarizes the stages.  I’ve added the reference to representative sample cultures.

Tribal State Collaboration Communication Sample Words Mood Sample Representative Culture
5 Team “Life is great” Innocent Wonderment Na’Vi in Avatar
4 Partnership “We’re great” we, our, team, do, them, have, did it, commit, value Tribal Pride Apollo 11
3 Personal “I’m great and you’re not” I, me, my, job, did, do, have, went Lone Warrior Ugly Betty
2 Separate “My life sucks” boss, life, try, can’t, give up, quite, sucks Apathetic Victim Office Space
1 Alienated “Life sucks” life, sucks, F—, break, can’t, cut , whatever Despairing Hostility The Wire

Using the Stages

First, figure out where you are. Then figure out where your team is. Then figure out where your organization is. Then, think about the conflicts you’ve had on your projects; like resistance from stakeholders, or apathy to change. How would you have adjusted if you understood the tribal culture from the beginning?

More importantly, does your team or organization need to shift forward? For example, if your organization is predominantly Stage 2, are you really going to be able to implement change without first addressing the attitudes? If attitudes are unchangeable, should you come to the conclusion that some projects are not feasible?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to just throw your hands in the air and give up once you’ve identified tribal attitudes. I’m saying, think about it, understand it, and then figure out a way to lead up higher stages. As change agents and leaders, I don’t think the tools we use should match the organizational stage. Rather, we should push the envelope by using tools that force people into the behavior of higher stages. So for example, I’ve just come from a DoD environment; decidedly stage 2. But, as contractors, our tribe was situated at stage 3/4. So our tools, like change control boards, stakeholder identification and inclusion, collaborative team sites, forced our clients out of stage 2-like information hording, silo behaviors to engage in collaboration, discussion and team building. Which, incidentally, they quite liked.

At a minimum, using the Tribal System is a tool for analyzing the elusive Enterprise Environmental Factors, giving you a more complete understanding of all the challenges in your environment. For the maximum advantage, read the book. I’m only scratching the surface here. There’s a gold mine of information on moving through stages, and becoming a Tribal Leader.