We Got Spirit, Yes We Do: Project Spirit as a Tangible Thing

I used to think that it was just me.  Like I would go into new project environment and feel like ‘ugh’, the human emotional soup was all gross and thick.   People were so mean on one project that when I tried to bring two representatives of opposing groups together, as soon as the IT rep walked in the room, the business PM yelled ‘WHAT IS HE DOING HERE!?’.


Seriously?! I’m just supposed to have a thick skin?

Is it possible to really have a successful project when there’s nothing but human muck flying around?

I never thought so.  And now a new study suggests that yes indeed, there is such thing as a ‘feel’ to a project…they call it the Project Spirit.  And there’s some data to suggest that a good Project Spirit will result in Project Success.

This seems a little common sense….HOWEVER.  There are still people that believe that a) people have to do their jobs, and b) they have to bone up and have tough skins and not be so sensitive and c) none of this emotion stuff affects how the job gets done.

WRONG – the emotion stuff absolutely does affect the project.. absolutely does.

Here’s more on that…

Project Spirit and Project Success

I like this idea of Project Spirit.

Seems kind of hokey at first, but according the February 2013 PM Journal article “Managing the Intangible Aspects of a Project: The Affect of Vision, Artifacts and Leader PMJFeb2013Values on Project Spirit and Success in Technology-Driven Projects” by Aranson, Shehar, and Patanakul, Project Spirit is actually a thing that can be measured.

Basically Project Spirit is:

  • Emotions
  • Attitudes
  • Behavioral Norms

…0f the project participants.

The article suggests that certain activities, which they call Leader Building Activities, affect the Project Spirit.

These activities are defined as:

  • Vision, and the ability of the leader to articulate a vision that people want to follow
  • Values, and the ability of the leader to instill their positive values into the project team
  • Artifacts, the rituals and symbols of the project

The causal relationship is that the Vision, Values and Artifacts (Leader Building Activities) affect the Emotions, Attitudes, Behavioral Norms (Project Spirit).  FInally Project Spirit affects what the authors describe as ‘Contextual Performance Behavior.’

“Contextual performance behavior involves voluntarily assisting coworkers in various ways, taking on additional assignments, keeping a positive attitude and tolerating inconveniences  at work.  Contextual performance behavior generally has two common themes: It is representative of the employee’s extra efforts that contribute to productivity, and it is not directly enforceable, meaning its is not technically required as part of one’s job

And it’s this contextual performance behavior that can affect project success.

The authors set out to prove that “Project Spirit positively affects contextual performance behavior” by analyzing NASA Mars projects.


Yea! We did it! (I dig these happy mission control people)

Mars Pathfinder, a succesful project, was one where Project Spirit was managed through setting a clear vision, management that set an example through their own tone and behavior (values), short effective meetings, team happy hours, colocation (artifacts).  The vision, values and artifacts resulted in a team that had a certain sense of excitement (emotions), a commitment to the people on the project (attitudes), and high spirited group of people who valued honesty (behavioral norms).

Mars Climate Orbiter, a failed project, was one where Project Spirit was not managed. The vision was driven by cost savings,

yeaaahhh...ya don't want a failure report after your project

yeaaahhh…ya don’t want a failure report after your project

management “lacked a balance between confidence and arrogance”(values), a sense of the need to build a “protective shield to outside option..or expert involvement”, a leadership that lacked a ‘collegial relationship with team members’, and a team that was not co-located (artifacts).   Emotionally the team was very invested in success (emotions), resulting in an attitude to devote “lives, weekends, and time” (attitudes), and a “diminished culture of inclusion” (behavioral norms).  This resulted in an over taxed workforce who weren’t open to outside input that could guide the project (behavior outcomes).

Bottom line

The project that set a positive emotional tone through clear vision, people-affirming values, project rituals and symbols resulted in a place where people felt excited to do their jobs, and went above and beyond what they were supposed to do, was a clear success.

So yea…it’s not just you! There is a feel to that project, and as a PM there are things you can to do start to change that context and bring in a positive Project Spirit through setting clear vision, instilling positive values and setting up artifacts that build a sense of team.  Read the article for more ideas.

RoslinSide note: I’ve been on a Battlestar Galactica jaunt and if you want some good examples of how to do this, watch President Laura Roslin and Admiral Adama.  They do this really really well.  Adama is always instilling values, Roslin is always insting on rituals to build morale, and together they build a vision to get to Earth.  Somehow they build a positive Project Spirit in a really bad situation.


Dammit Jim, I’m a Project Manager not a Project Designer

“Great designs have conceptual integrity—unity, economy, clarity. They not only work, they delight”

Frederick Brooks, The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist

Permit me to wax artistic on a Saturday morning…

Wells Cathedral - so much thought, math, planning leading to such incredible beauty.

It’s interesting to think of a project as the realization of a design concept. We tend to think of a project as the organization of the work. Design is usually a phase of some sort within the project that produces some ‘thing’ at the end of the project.

But what if we started to think of the project itself as a designed entity?  What if we saw ourselves as builders of an organizational design of people and resources? And that like a design for a building, the project could take literally thousands of shapes, pay homage to stylistic types and even be classified as ‘art’, and maybe; a thing of beauty.

The project charter would then become the initial design concept, a result of intensive thought, creativity and review during project initiation. 

I’ve been reading The Design of Design, essays by Frederick Brooks of Mythical Man Month fame. You may not know that Brooks was not only a computer scientist, but created designs in architecture, houses, books, and organizations. And, in fact, he wrote Design of Design to discuss and explore common concepts he observed across these disciplines.

Thus the book begins with what Brooks calls the ‘shared invisible entity’ of the Design Concept. The Design Concept is really an idea, and the idea can be shared, and discussed even though it has no physical form.

A typical project design would include answers to questions like; what is the reason we are doing this work, what value will it bring, how will communications be structured, what tools will be used to communicate, how will processes develop and change, how will we measure success, how and when will we handle risk and change.

We have templates for this thinking in most organizations (project charters, business cases etc.) and when we are moving too fast because of market pressures, we tend to just fill out the template, send it to the PMO and add a ‘done’ check to our list.

Poor design is a sad sad thing. This building literally fell over.

If we were designers however, we might stop and consider the design as applied to the context. We might add elements of lessons learned from the context; we might tailor our communications structures to more closely align to the culture of the business units involved, or adjust the amount of process or documentation to the desired agility of the culture. We would envision not just the management of risks, but how the project organization itself will morph its risk processes in good and bad times.

We would invite challenge on the whole design concept, perhaps personally by taking the time to distill to a purity of concept, or through others using organizational mechanisms (a PMO review for example). We would want our design to have what Brooks calls ‘Conceptual Integrity’.

When I hear the word ‘integrity’ I always think of Star Trek battle scenes where the cool computer female voice calmly states ‘Structural Integrity at 10%. Hull breach in 20 seconds’ and the captain screams ‘ABANDON SHIP’.

Remnants of the last alien attack on Earth. Poor design strikes again.

Integrity is really about solidity, soundness, and absence of holes.   It’s about holding up under pressure, or being so finely built as to stay solid when used, and not fall apart.

In my mind, a good project Design Concept would mean that when the project faces threat, the design maintains its Conceptual Integrity. The goal doesn’t fizzle or dissolve, the envisioned value is still attainable even under incredibly tough circumstances.

A ‘beautiful’ project, then, will include elegant and flexible structures that protect the envisioned value such that at the end, we will sense that there was something different and ‘delightful’ about the project design.

I have done this at times, and it was usually when, while designing the project, I went into a super creative mode. I started off with the model, a project charter for example, and then added elements based on my observations and conversations. I allowed for customization to circumstances and invited analysis of the integrity of my concept from others.  The design concept would even heavily morph to respond to envisioned (not yet realize) conceptual holes.

Meanwhile, beautiful design inspires over the centuries.

This all implies a heavy devotion of time to Project Initiation proceses, and the addition of design reviews prior to project planning. Most importantly, this involves allowing ourselves to think creatively about  processes that are usually about control. It’s about allowing ourselves to be like architects who manage to create beauty within the confines of physics and gravity.

This involves allowing ourselves to think creatively about  processes that are usually about control. It’s about allowing ourselves to be like architects who manage to create beauty within the confines of physics and gravity

This is something to consider and in fact, a as potential paradigm shift, can help us PMs think of ourselves as designers, add a layer of delight, creativity and enjoyment to our work.

Making Fostering Connection A Primary Project Goal

Fostering good water may be just as, or more important than, swimming in the same direction towards a goal

“Fish discover water last…In a similar way, we… discover trust last.”

Steven Covey, the Speed of Trust

My church is starting an effort to improve the way we use technology to communicate our story. I volunteered as the PM for the effort and we had our first meeting last week. Now, typically in a project visioning session, the idea is to gather as much information as you can from the project sponsor, and then plan out how to analyze the current state, molding the future work towards the sponsors vision. So that was my expectation going into the meeting.

I started it off by asking the Pastor to give his vision, and then, as I am used to, we started working through ideas to bring that vision to reality. One team member suggested a brainstorming session to gather more data about what church go-ers wanted, which I thought was the right and proper next step.

“Great idea!” I said. “I wonder what we should do to make that…”

“Well,” my Pastor interrupted. “An effort like that may be a bit of a ways off, you may want to hold on for a few months to allow the team to gel before you take on such an endeavor.”

My head cocked to one side, like Data from Next Generation, pondering new information that I hadn’t considered before.

Interesting, I thought to myself. Usually, and you the PM reader will appreciate this, we want to show progress on a project pretty much as soon as possible. So here was a project sponsor elevating a previously unstated goal – good team dynamics – higher than progress on project deliverables.

Then I realized that for him, and for churches in general, fostering connection is the goal. Creating connection that lasts so people feel part of a healthy, enjoyable group is primary, the problem to which we apply that connected team focus, is secondary.

This is a major mind shift for me.

In the business world, the project goal is always primary, and good team dynamics are a method, a means to an end, not a goal.  Now here was a suggestion to flip that; the project goal is good team dynamics, and  the problem to be solved is the method.

But now that I think about it, the only thing that really lasts from job to job, are the residual good feelings and warm connection to people with whom I’ve had great team dynamics, where I’ve fostered connections that I value, and that make me feel less alone in the world.

Fun, connection..a necessary goal on any project

These are the people with whom if we teamed together again, I’m absolutely sure that anything we work on would be successful.

Conversely, with those people who I haven’t been able to foster a good connection, I can tell you that if we had to work on a team again, whatever we had to build would come out slower, and probably not be as fruitful.

So what if we made foster connection the primary goal of any project we work on?

In a project charter we would go from this kind of success statement…

This project will be a success if web visitors immediately understand the purpose and mission of the church

to this kind of statement…

This project will be a success if team members develop a great working relationship and collaboratively build a site where web visitors immediately understand the purpose and mission of the church

How would we act differently? What would we do at the beginning of projects that we wouldn’t normally do if building great working relationships was a stated goal?

And most importantly what impact would this have on our success?

So interestingly enough, the church team walked away with a group decision to analyze what currently exists, which is what I would have suggested and pushed for from the beginning of the meeting.

But because my Pastor got me thinking early in the meeting about team, I pulled back on my directiveness, and relaxed any expectation for actually walking out of the meeting with any ‘real’ work done.

The ‘real’ work, I figured, was to allow team members to build relationships through dialogue and sharing of ideas. So my facilitation focused on that.

And paradoxically enough, we wound up with the same end result that I would’ve pushed for, without it being just my idea, without me telling people what to do and with a sense that this was our decision, which has quickly moved us forward towards feeling like a cohesive unit.

For me, a PM used to pushing forward with plans, it seemed almost too easy. And as people walked away buoyed by the interactions, expressing “good meeting” to each other, I almost felt like I had done nothing but fostered connection.

And yet, everything else is getting done.


I see Forest AND Trees – ya’ll still want that?

I don’t know, maybe it’s me, but I’ve been sort of wondering where the PM fits in anymore in a self-organized team world. I’ve silently wondered if I was walking around with dinosaur skills. So who cares that I can manage stakeholders when the product owner is on the team? Yeah, I can see start to start relationships a mile away, but we don’t use Microsoft Project anymore, so who cares?

I mean, a lot of what we do as PMs is administrative.  Taking notes, setting up schedules, updating tickets, writing status reports, calculating spend. 

And a lot of it is communicating; ferrying information between groups, making sure everyone is on the same page, making sure people understand their roles.

And a lot if is solitary strategic thinking.  It’s looking at the next sprint and thinking about resources, or sitting with a project plan and figuring out what benefit will come to the stakeholders, or anticipating costs and risks before they hit. 

Communicating, Administration, Strategic thinking – these things don’t produce product; something hard and tangible, like code, or Amazon instances, or user documentation.

But here’s my a-ha moment. Seeing forest AND trees is STILL a great skill…and it’s kind of rare. And we shouldn’t downplay it.

Chances are that if you look around you, especially in IT shops, most people aren’t doing administration, coordination, strategic thinking. They’re building code, or infrastructures. They’re focused on one or two immediate deadlines, not what’s gonna happen in a month. Or two.

Somebody’s got to do that, cause if it doesn’t get done, disaster ensues.

Observing self-organizing kanban teams this past year, sort of enabled me to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of knowing where the PM fits.  

What’s been pulled away from project management in scrum/agile worlds is task sequencing, team ‘leadership’, and the need to define roles and responsibilities. Self organizing teams manage this on their own, so in general, task scheduling and sequencing is not needed.

But understanding the whole roadmap is.  Seeing how tasks bubble up to what’s gonna happen next week and next month is. Managing pushy stakeholders around requirements changes so the dev team doesn’t all quit, is.

Somebody's got to see it all working togehter

In other words, communication, coordination, administration and strategic thinking are the skills you should start to emphasize on your resume because these are the skills that development teams aren’t thinking about when they’re building stuff.

Project Managers who have these skills fill in that necessary middle layer, greasing the skids, keeping the machine well oiled, acting as diplomatic courier – you get the idea. 

So, we aren’t dinosaurs! We just have to realize what’s needed now, and that the need to have people who see the big and the little, the short and the long term, is probably not going to go away, no matter what development methodology we use.

Things to Think About on Saturday Morning: Transformative Ideas and Change

No system ever implements an idea as it was purely meant to be, the idea will be transformed in some way.

Change is Hard

Today I came across a model that gave a little insight as to why.

The 14 Principles blog referred to the Satir Change Model while discussing Agile Anti-Patterns, which are basically patterns of resistance to change in organizations.

Digging deeper I found this picture:

Satir Change Model copyright http://www.creativityatwork.com/blog/

Which I like because it shows that change benefits are not realized until after some type of chaos.

Moving from one status quo to another involves these features:

  • A foreign element or idea is introduced
  • Chaos ensues
  • A Transforming idea is created
  • The idea is practiced and integrated into the group
  • The next status quo stage starts

This is interesting to me because the Transforming idea comes only after the system has got all shook up and added it’s input into that idea. In other words,

the transforming idea was not the original idea that caused the chaos; the transforming idea is the evolution of the original idea as it synthesizes and morphs through the system.

This model suggests that no system ever implements an idea as it was purely meant to be, the idea will be transformed in some way.

Further suggestion:

strict implementation of an idea, without allowing the system to transform it to get to what it can handle, will in itself continue the chaos.

Change agents had better be flexible!

I think these ideas are also reflected in the Forming -Storming-Norming -Performing model of team formation. Many people are familiar with the cycle:

Tuckman Team Formation Cycle

  • Forming – new people are thrown together
  • Storming – they fight about how to do things
  • Norming – Out of the fight they develop processes about how to collaboratively do things
  • Performing – They get really good at those processes

Marrying that up with the Satir model you get

  • Forming (introduction of new element)
  • storming (chaos)
  • norming (integration)
  • performing (new status quo)

Things Slow Down/Get Worse before they get better

One other takeway, both models indicate that things will slow down, or get worse before they get better. I’ve found this to be true.

Saynisch’s PM 2 model also indicates that instability is to be expected at key transaction points in a project cycle. At these transition points – like for example, moving from user acceptance test to production – rapid evolutionary jumps can occur that can lead to success of disaster. Maybe this is another way of describing that chaotic period between the Satir’s late status quo and the Transformational Idea.

The You Tube Version

As an aside, for those of you who like classical music, I find that Beethoven’s Symphony 7, Allegretto from Movement 2 is a musical representation of this concept.  A foreign idea is introduced, causes chaos and then the system subsumes it, transforms it into a mix of itself and the new idea – ending in a new status quo which is a merging of both.  You can see that visually represented here.

Go to the start of the vid, see the bars, at the end, there are the same bars with the introduction of three little bars at the top – that’s the new idea transformed int the new system.

Change Can Be Made Easier

BJ Fogg from Stanford is a visible leader in the field of Behavioral Change. I’ve written about his 10 good ways to change behavior.  And here’s a useful tool: need to analyze a change you’re thinking about making?  Use the highly interactive and fun Behavior Wizard  for great advice on how to successfully make that change.

Just some things to think about on Saturday Morning.