by Andy Kaufman on February 21, 2017

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

You may have noticed that Adele dominated at the recent GRAMMY Awards. Sure, there’s some controversy over whether Beyoncé should have won more, but here’s why I even bring this up: Adele and Beyoncé were just two of many thousands of artists and producers who wanted to be on stage that night, lifting high their award for their big hit.

Yet few make it that far.

What makes a hit? And why should that even matter to project managers?

I recently sat down with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor at The Atlantic magazine. Thompson is the author of a new book entitled Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. Thompson chased down this idea of what makes hits and has put together an engaging read on the science of what makes something popular.

I’ll take a wild guess and suggest that you’re not necessarily trying to write the next GRAMMY-winning song. But if you lead teams and projects, you need to sell your ideas. Whether it’s for your project or your career, there are approaches or ideas that you’d like to see get some traction. Thompson’s book outlines some intriguing ideas for your consideration.

You can hear Thompson talk about the book in his own words at http://PeopleAndProjectsPodcast.com/166

Here’s an appetizer of ideas that project managers and leaders at all levels can sample from Thompson’s book.

Remember the MAYA Rule

First, when it comes to trying to sell an idea, Thompson suggests you follow the MAYA Rule. MAYA stands for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. You may not recognize the name Raymond Loewy, but you’ve been influenced by him more than you know. He’s the father of modern industrial design, and Cosmopolitan magazine wrote back in 1950 that Loewy “has probably affected the daily life of more Americans than any man of his time.”

Loewy’s philosophy? Stretch the boundaries of something to make it new, yet keep it just familiar enough to be acceptable. Too much innovation before its time and it won’t be accepted. Too familiar and it won’t get noticed or catch on.

MAYA was his answer. What’s the lesson for us? If the idea you’re trying to get approved is rather radical—perhaps edging towards Most Advanced and Barely Acceptable—try to anchor your message with the familiar. Seek to show how this new idea is similar to something they already know. If you’re trying to get approval for something more on the familiar side, do the opposite. Seek to highlight what’s new.

Sometimes we try to ask for too much, or strive to change too much, too quickly—it’s beyond the Yet Acceptable threshold. Keep MAYA and Thompson’s related advice in mind as you try to influence in the days ahead.

Fluency and Disfluency

When an idea is easy to assimilate, it’s fluent. Thompson finds “fluent ideas and products are processed faster and they make us feel better, not just about ideas and products we confront, but also about ourselves. Most people generally prefer ideas that we already agree with, images that are easy to discern, stories that are easy to relate to, and puzzles that are easy to solve.”

Disfluency is the opposite. It requires hard thinking. It’s dissonant. And it may keep our ideas from catching on.

There are countless applications for us as leaders of teams and projects. Take an email to our stakeholders, for example. How can we make it as fluent as possible, which is to say, how can we make it as easy as possible for them to understand what we’re trying to communicate?

I teach an MBA class on project management and one of the assignments is a 2-page paper. One of my students submitted a paper where the initial paragraph was a page and a half! One paragraph! Opening that document was like opening a door to find a brick wall instead of a doorway! It screamed “Don’t read me!” “I don’t know what I’m talking about!” It dripped with disfluency!

We can cause disfluency by using jargon or not appreciating cultural influences. In a rush to send a message, we leave out critical aspects of our idea that leave the receiver without the necessary context.

Before you send that next message, remember to seek fluency instead of disfluency.

Beware Homophily

Whether you recognize the term or not, you’ll recognize the effect. Homophily is our tendency to sort ourselves into tribes (or, as Thompson prefers, “mini cults”). Homophily is impacting how we get our news, with whom we go to lunch most days, and how we build our networks of relationships.

Especially in this time of increasing polarization, I encourage you to intentionally fight back by seeking out people who think differently from you, who have different perspectives or even worldviews than you. Homophily will try to get in your way. Push through.

The dirty little secret of business is that everything comes down to relationships. Thompson provides insights and examples of how the success of your ideas, your career, and your projects could depend far more than you realize on who’s in your Top 5 relationships.

Go deeper into the organization, beyond your particular domain or area—even outside your industry. If you’re a project manager, take advantage of joining your local PMI chapter and take the time to get to know people who are leaders there.

Building a strong Top 5 is not brown-nosing or simply self-seeking. It’s just a great way to build your ability to make a difference, for you, your team, your organization and your career.

Quality is Not Destiny

We have this bias sometimes that the best idea wins. The smartest person gets promoted. The best approach gets approved. Our work should stand on its merits.

The best song or most talented artist should be on the GRAMMY stage, right?

No offense to Adele or Beyoncé: that’s not what the research finds. But if you’d like to learn more about how ideas take off, including some scenarios specifically relevant to project managers and other leaders, check out this discussion with Derek Thompson about his book Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.

http://PeopleAndProjectsPodcast.com/166

P.S. If you listen closely, you’ll even hear my duet with Beyoncé.

So what’s your take? What questions or concerns do you have? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below. I look forward to discussing this with you!

 

Andy Kaufman is a keynote speaker who helps organizations around the world improve their ability to deliver projects and lead teams. He is the host of the People and Projects Podcast which provides interviews and insights to help you lead and deliver.

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by Andy Kaufman on February 15, 2017

Hate is a strong word. But when you manage projects and lead teams, it’s easy to hate constraints. “If only we had more time. Or money. Or people. Or __________. Then we could deliver.”

Constraints limit our options, and by limiting us, they hold us back from getting better results.

Or do they?

Scott Sonenshein is the author of Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less—and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined. His book just hit the shelves this month and it’s filled with lessons that challenge us all to reframe how we look at constraints. Sonenshein provides a compelling case for why constraints—having less—may actually be a good thing, or at least provide benefits that are not offered when we have excess.

In this post, I share three ideas from Stretch that you can apply to your day-to-day leading of people and projects.

Constraints Are… Good?

I can accept that constraints are capable of fostering new ways of thinking. That’s not a new thought and seems reasonable, in theory. Yet it can cause headaches, in practice. I’m more apt to whine about the limits of constraints than I am to see them as catalysts for creativity.

But here’s a practical application of the idea that I use with my executive coaching clients. Too often, when faced with a constraint, we can easily become the No person. Here’s what I mean….

A CEO of a mid-sized company was walking me through her facility, introducing me people along the way. When we eventually got back to her office, she asked if I remembered one of her project managers. I did. She confided, “He’s the No guy.”

“What do you mean?”

Shaking her head, the CEO shared, “It doesn’t seem to matter what the question is, his answer is ‘No’. If I ask him if we’re going to hit the project due date, he’s likely to respond ‘No, we have issues.’ If I ask if we can add functionality to a project, his response? ‘Nope. Not in scope.’ Can he make it to a meeting? ‘Sorry—I’m busy.’ He’s the No guy!”

I decided to ask the Dr. Phil question: “How’s that working for him?” Without hesitation, the CEO said, “He’s about to get fired.”

I want to be clear: sometimes the best answer is ‘No’. If it’s an ethical, safety, or quality issue at stake, the best response is likely a direct, emphatic ‘No’. But that’s not what was going on here. This guy, when faced with constraints, only saw reasons why something wasn’t doable, so that’s what he communicated. I’m guessing he isn’t lazy or unwilling. He just tended to see why things weren’t possible.

Being the ‘No’ person is not generally good for your career. Yet being the ‘Yes’ person can set you up for failure as well. So what’s a constrained project manager to do?

When faced with a constraint—let’s say a time constraint—instead of being the ‘No’ person, try to reframe the problem. Instead of “No, it can’t be done!”, or “Sure! No problem, Chief!”, how about this…. Consider what can be done in that timeframe.

Surely you’ve learned to not bring problems but solutions, right? Think of solutions in this context as options. What options can you bring to your sponsor or stakeholders that acknowledge the constraints yet strive to best meet the needs of the business?

Bringing options shows you’re trying to help—you’re trying to be part of the solution. It can depend on context, but I’ve found offering three choices is better than just one and certainly better than twenty. Bring options to your sponsor and work with them to see which one best serves the organization. This approach is far more beneficial than just saying No or Yes.

Tapping Into the Wisdom of Outsiders

In Stretch, Sonenshein shares that one way to think differently about our constraints is to get beyond ourselves by tapping into people with fresh eyes who are perhaps not as emotionally invested in our project. There are remarkable examples of how the further a problem is from a person’s expertise, the more likely he or she is to solve it. Sonenshein tells of biologists who solved more chemistry problems compared to chemists. Scientists outside a specific field had different, and ultimately better, ways of approaching problems than the experts.

The lesson for us? If you have a problem to solve or constraint to deal with, consider bringing some outsiders into the discussion. Maybe it’s someone new to the company or group. Maybe it’s someone who has solved a similar problem in a different domain. Perhaps it’s asking a millennial for their thoughts despite their limited experience.

The point is that expertise has its benefits, but sometimes it’s a curse. Outsiders can connect dots or bring ideas to the discussion that would not otherwise have been considered. Give that a try in the coming weeks and let me know how it goes!

You Get What You Expect

Sonenshein suggests You get what you expect. He’s speaking to the biases we have when faced with constraints. If we’re convinced there’s no way to do something, we’ll find the data to support that bias.

As I’ve studied cognitive biases and talked with experts on the topic, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is not just that these biases exist. That’s indisputable. The greater threat is we’re more blind to them than we realize.

When you are soon faced with another constraint, try to intentionally start with your expectations. Even if it’s suspending disbelief, try to force yourself to say, “Hey, there’s a way around this! We can solve this!” Changing the mindset to expect a solution is a great place to start.

A Fresh Look at Constraints

Constraints can drive us crazy when we’re faced with delivering projects. The easy answer seems to be that fewer constraints—or more resources—is the answer to our problem. Sonenshein provides compelling evidence that Having More ResourcesGetting Better Results.

You can listen to Scott talk about this in his own words at http://PeopleAndProjectsPodcast.com/165. You’ll hear him talk about additional ideas, such as how to increase the psychological ownership of your team members. And Sonenshein will challenge you to take an honest look at whether you’re a Chaser or Stretcher.

So what’s your take? What questions or concerns do you have? How have you seen excess hurt a team or company? Or how have you seen constraints help? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below. I look forward to discussing this with you!

Andy Kaufman is a keynote speaker who helps organizations around the world improve their ability to deliver projects and lead teams. He is the host of the People and Projects Podcast which provides interviews and insights to help you lead and deliver. Learn how to earn free PDUs at http://PeopleAndProjectsPodcast.com/FreePDUs

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What Have You Learned About Conflict?

by Andy Kaufman on January 11, 2017

Most of us don’t wake up and say, “Ah, I love the smell of napalm in the morning! I can’t wait to get into some conflict today!”

Yet the PMBOK® Guide reminds us that “conflict is inevitable in a project environment.” (p 282). That’s no surprise to anyone who has led project and teams nuchsyu. We know it’s part of the game, and often have many war stories to prove it.

Your Perspective On Conflict

We each bring our own views about conflict with us when we’re leading teams and projects. Let me ask: what comes to mind when you hear the term conflict?

When I ask that to clients and audiences around the world, I most often hear replies such as “arguments”, “stress”, or “avoid!” The PMBOK® Guide acknowledges that conflict can get disruptive. It can spiral out of control. But the PMBOK® Guide also tells us that “when managed properly, differences of opinion can lead to increased creativity and better decision making.” (p 283)

Love. Hate.

So we know there’s benefit to conflict but we tend to hate it. We don’t actually need to love conflict, but learning how to deal with it is critical to our ability to lead and deliver.

Here’s a brief video of one of the most important lessons I’ve learned about conflict:

What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned? Please help our project community by sharing your insights in the comments below. Thanks!

 

In the video, I mention Michael Roberto and his book Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer. To hear Michael talk about this topic, see http://PeopleAndProjectsPodcast.com/99.

References to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) refer to the Fifth Edition published by the Project Management Institute in 2013.  “PMI”, “PMP”, “Project Management Professional”, “CAPM”, and “PMBOK” are registered marks of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

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