Why project managers act like a frog in boiling hot water

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Imagine a frog and then imagine a pan of boiling hot water. Now imagine that some crooked mind lifts the frog and puts it in the pan of boiling hot water. What do you think will happen? Yes, the frog will jump straight out of the pan within a faction of a second (if the lid of the pan is not closed).

Now imagine the same frog and a pan with room temperature water. Now imagine an even more crooked mind leaving the frog in that pan and putting that pan on a burner with a slow flame underneath it. What do you think will happen now? Yes, in this case the frog will not jump out but will feel at home in water.

Now, over time, the water in the pan will get warmer. What do you think frog will do? It will feel even more at home; feel happy at the warm water giving it a gentle massage to its skin & legs.

Now the crooked mind increases the flame and slowly the water starts getting warmer & warmer and then hot. What do you think the frog will do? As the water gets warmer, it will feel happier but it will not be able to realize when the water has become too uncomfortable for its own good. As the flame gets bigger underneath & water gets boiling hot, the frog will have lost all the energy in its legs to jump out. Its mind will tell to bail out but there won’t be any energy left in the frog and it will continue to be in the pan and face a slow death…

So, what has this got to do with project management & project managers?

Well, analyze carefully and you will realize that there is not much difference between a frog & the most project managers. There is also not much difference between the pan (with water) & the project environment. Most project managers, if asked to take over a project in between, would know how ‘hot or cold’ it is and then take appropriate action. This is just like the frog being put in hot water and it taking immediate action.

However, what most project managers don’t realize the 2nd scenario they land up in — where they start with water at room temperature & the water gets warmer at first and with the flame getting bigger over time the temperature under the collar gets soaring. At the start of the project, just like the water in the pan at room temperature, things look perfectly in control for the PM – a small team, key members staffed, not much confusion.
Things remain fine for some more time (till the water is warmer) but somewhere down the line things just implode and before the PM realizes things have gone out of hand (water is too hot, in the pan, for the frog to take any action). There are quality issues, builds are failing, customer is dis-satisfied, the team is unhappy & clueless, senior management is watching with eagle eyes, your family life is ruined and while driving to office you wonder how things came to be where they are today…
You wonder how & when that excellent Tech-Lead became a bottleneck & the go-to person for even small things – such as from where to setup the development environment or which version of IDE to be used with what plugins — you wonder why the leads are spending more time in answering routine questions & forwarding emails rather than doing their actual work. You wonder why the testing team doesn’t have access to the latest requirements in order to prepare the test cases. You wonder why the same question is being asked and answered a gzillion times. You wonder why customer wants you to resend the status update report of last month. You wonder when this project will end..!!!!

The fact is that we don’t realize or observe or are blind to the small changes happening around us and the long term impact of these small changes. Many downstream issues are caused by our inability  to react to significant changes that occur gradually. And in today’s era, nobody pays attention to anything ‘small’ unless it is on fire or priority#1. Everybody loves a hero – a person who turns around a losing situation into a winning one (organizations reward people who get troubled projects back on track but not necessarily those who avoid trouble and go unnoticed.) Because changes (from room temperature to warm to hot to boiling hot) happen so slowly that they go unnoticed and you are then left to wonder where and when things went wrong.

The irony is that it is not just first time PM’s who fall for this. Experienced PM’s also fall into this over & over again and then blame the ‘system’. Great PM’s foresee & preempt the ‘upcoming changes’ and plan accordingly. They plan like good chess players – several moves in advance and multiple scenarios. They manage the environment of the project accordingly to prevent the effects of ‘global warming’ within the project. Such PM’s ensure satisfied customers, happy people and predictable outcomes.

So, how can PM’s foresee & preempt the ‘upcoming small changes’ and prepare well? What can they do?  That’s for another post 🙂


What do you want? User adoption or compliance?

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I believe that successful KM initiatives & professionals pay a great deal of importance to the change management aspects. If, there is one place where “build it and they will come” doesn’t work, it is KM. After all, users are tuned to a way or working and majority of them would resist any kind of change. It’s a natural reaction and for various reasons a very tricky area to deal with.

Now to counter this tricky area of change management, KM initiatives/professionals rely on approaches which could be counter-productive to what their intentions are. Once such approach, that is commonly adopted is the “top down” mandated approach. On the surface of it, this looks simple, obvious, fast, scalable, logical and the most powerful approach that one can envision. What could be better than the top most management sending out a ‘memo’ asking people to do things a certain way.

I have seen this approach and have observed that this works best when you need ‘compliance’. Areas such as ‘time sheet entry’, ‘filing expenses’ etc are best suited for this approach. Anything transactional can be rolled out on a mass scale using this approach.

The issue arises when you try & roll out KM initiatives with this compliance driven/top-down method. Chances are that more often than not this will not yield the desired results and one can get in a vicious cycle of asking for more ‘top down compliance support’. This can frustrate the hell out of people who are leading these change management initiatives as they can’t fathom why on earth the seemingly obvious method of top down/compliance driven approach is not working.

We all know the results of a top down approach that mandates submission of 2 documents to the knowledge repository every quarter by each employee. On the last week of the quarter you will have a deluge of submissions and most of them would be not worth the bytes contained in them.

On the other hand, KM initiatives/professionals that rely on the adoption approach have greater chances of success. On the surface of it, the adoption approach looks to be an insurmountable obstacle but with patience & a long view of time this can be achieved. Adoption happens when people ‘buy into’ things and not because they are being ‘told to do so’.  Adoption happens because people see that things actually help them, appeal to them on an emotive/cognitive wavelength. Adoption happens when people, who we trust, tell us that it is good, they are using it & it makes sense. Adoption happens ‘through’ people… (We adopted facebook, twitter etc using these principles of adoption.)

The key to adoption approach also lies in finding the right set of people, who you will work with initially. They are going to be your evangelist and believe me they will be like customers who “tell 1 more person, at best, if they satisfied and will tell 100 people if they are not satisfied”.  Starting the process of adoption is slow and takes time. However the growth over time can be exponential and usually has a more stable foundation which is not only dependent on ‘top down’ directives. Adoption approach is akin to trying to move a heavy flywheel… lots of effort & commitment is required initially to even move the flywheel but as the revolutions go by the speed increases and over time the flywheel literally moves on an auto-pilot mode.

I have also observed that a combination of adoption (at a macro level) & top-down (at a micro level) also works in several circumstances. The key is in knowing which one to use when and for what. And that’s comes from experience & losing your hair over the years 🙂

Compliance is best achieved through systems & adoption is best achieved through people. So, if you need compliance of initiatives then build systems that monitor themselves for the compliance automatically. However; if you need adoption then be prepared for the long haul & work with people

Social Memory | Conversations are as important as the content itself

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Traditional content systems focus only the ‘creation’ aspect of the content and this is achieved through individual contributions or through collaborative efforts.
With the advent of Social Software – like Blogs, Artifacts, Q&A, Bookmarks and any ‘knowledge object’, apart from building value through collaboration one can build value through leveraging the individual actions around those knowledge objects and build a long term social memory.

Such individual actions are of low engagement and, individually, on a standalone basis they have little vale but the aggregation of these add up to lot more value  — like the ‘long tail’ phenomenon.

Social Software gives people the ‘choice’ to move between low engagement to high engagement depending on their interest levels and time. For example for a particular artifact or a category of artifact person A may choose to be just content with reading, subscribing or adding tags but at a different time & for a different category of artifact the same person may choose to refactor, comment, collaborate and have high levels of engagement.

The power that social software brings about is ‘providing the choice’ to the people to do all this and in the process making the conversation around the content as important as the content itself.

Will Crew or Military Models(for team formation) work in Software Development Projects?

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Dave Snowden in his address on Social Computing & KM during the KM India summit brought about a point on how current organizational structures are not suited for creating social networks and hinder performance. Dave explained this with the Matrix Organizational Structure where people have multiple reporting relationships and no one is sure which way their loyalties should be.

Dave talked about the “Crew or Military Model” of team formation which he termed as more adaptive in nature based on the concepts of  “Role” & “Expectation of role”. He explained this with an example of how teams are formed in airlines or ships. People who may or may not have worked before come together to form a team and work as a team based on an understanding of what each persons role is and what to expect from that role.

In the IT industry this model, in intent, is a model that most software development organizations ‘aspire’ to implement while creating teams for developing software. I believe that in theory this is a good concept but there are several questions that need to answered and various soft aspects thought.

  • “Crew” model would work for teams where the tasks are repeatable, tasks which have little room for variation and have to be done “the same as before way” on time. Tasks which have the procedures defined and the job of the person doing is to just follow the procedures and do it.   For example;  airline crew. pilot, co-pilot, air hostess, stewards, checkin counter assistants. The kind of tasks involved are routine, repeatable, well documented, and need to be performed with precision every time.
  • In the software industry, for example each development project is unique and the development life-cycle is ‘not predictable‘ to say the least.  To compound matters, skills required may not be available and training may have to done while on the job. This is not the case in crew model where almost all the times things are predictable and follow a predictable sequence.  For example, in an airplane you can predict what would happen from the time you take a boarding pass and go to your seat to the time you get down from the flight. It is all very very predictable, linear & sequential. There is no room for variation — unless it is a private chartered russian flight 🙂
  • Though one may say that even in software development we have roles like PM, Technical Leads, DBA’s etc etc and we know what is expected of that role. However, the reality is that software development is an iterative, some what chaotic, emergent process. There is a complex interplay between all stake holders to create the ‘intangible’ software that people want. Now by very nature of their business, airlines/ships can’t have an iterative, some what chaotic, emergent process to the nature of work that teams do there. Imagine a team of  air hostess emulating an iterative, some what chaotic, emergent process to serve the passengers.!!!
  • Another important element is the “customer engagement” in the whole development life-cycle itself where requirements are fluid and can keep changing. Now one could argue that even in a ship or a airplane there is engagement required with the customers, but that engagement and the choices available and hence the options that the crew can exercise are from a limited set that is almost well known in advance.  It would be only in an adverse situation of a ship capsizing or a plane mishap (e.g. hi-jack) that the engagement model between all the participants becomes fluid and relatively unknown.
  • The most important aspect I feel is the “nature of work” itself.  By very nature, software engineering calls for continuous learning & updation of skills while on the job. This is not necessarily true for airline or ship teams. Not to say that they don’t need to learn or improve their skills but that is within a very narrow band and at a slow pace than in software engineering. This aspect leads to totally different  behavioral, motivational, aspirational & emotional factors within individuals that then influence people, teams & how they work.
  • I also think that teams in crew models the teams need to “coordinate” with each other to perform the task whereas in software development teams need to “collaborate” with each other to perform the task. These two things may look similar but call for totally different actions, engagement models within teams.

The above are just some of the many questions out there. What do you think?

Would ‘Crew or Military’ models of team formation work effectively in software developments? What could be other challenges and opportunities?

Does Knowledge Management need the KM Function to be successful

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Does an organization need a dedicated and separate KM function in order for it to do KM?

If one looks at great organizations like Google, Apple Yahoo (who are considered to be great Knowledge led organizations), they don’t have dedicated KM functions. What’s important is that the basic tenets, ethos and culture of KM needs to be part of the organizations ‘being’, the way of life — akin to the breathing process, doing it continuously without even realizing it.

All the above organizations (and many more) are role models in the knowledge era. The great thing about these organizations create processes & structures that truly embody the spirit of the ‘needs’ of the knowledge worker and through that they are able to attract the best talent and provide them with an environment that goes to the core of what knowledge management espouses.  They don’t do KM for the sake of KM and saying ‘oh, we also do KM and realize the importance of it and hence we have dozens of knowledge managers supporting KM’…

I personally believe in the approach taken by the Google, Apple Yahoo type organizations as an effective way of doing KM.

For the ‘regular’ organizations I believe that creating a dedicated KM function is a good thing to bring ‘focus’ on KM and giving it legitimacy. This will send the right signals and help get going.

However, for KM to be truly effective in those organizations, over a period of time, the KM function should strive for  enabling the different parts of the organizations to do KM themselves and not rely on the KM function. This is where KM needs to be part of the organizations ‘being’, the way of life. This should be the role and end goal of CKO’s and they should also be measured on this aspect. Once the above has started to happen (and this should happen in a measurable/definite time frame) then the KM function should be considered for  dissolution and the charter of the KM function should become to just oversee it’s disbanding

The above may look good in theory but there are practical challenges like (just some of the many…):

  • Over a period of  time the person leading the KM function can get attached to it and can find it difficult to let go.
  • KM has overlap with almost all functions and in the beginning there is less conflict and at a conceptual level people agree for KM to work on the areas of overlap and make progress. As clarity emerges and overlap areas gain traction, the different functions start voicing or thinking about what do these overlaps mean and start questioning this.
  • This creates ground for small battles in bigger organizational ‘turf wars’ and results in various functions/departments further entrenching in their beliefs/positions and the organization opting for ‘status quo’ approach to please all.

It’s sad but a true mirage and we continue to rely on “Knowledge Management needing the KM Function to be successful” approach…

After Action Reviews[AAR] in software development

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AAR’s is a process used by the US Army where after each action [in army’s parlance] the team meets to capture the learning’s and lessons, what went well and what could be done better. The advantage of such AAR’s is that the activity performed is fresh in the teams mindspace and they can reflect better on the activity performed and learn from it.

Variations of AAR have been used in the software industry(and in other industries also) in form of Post Harvests, Sunset Reviews, Post Mortem Report etc where the team meets at the end of the project, to look back and reflect on what went well, what could be improved and how to gain from the experience.

While all such practices are fine in theory, there are some fundamental issues in their execution. Few of the limitations are:

  • Projects, programs etc get executed over a long span of time – maybe months, years. If a post harvest, sunset review etc is conducted at the end of several months, then it is practically impossible for teams to remember what went well and what could have been better. These meetings then usually will turn into blame game, finger pointing, or of things at a very superficial level. The real learning’s may not surface in such scenarios.
  • The importance if learning’s, lessons may become trivial. When the team of individual is facing an issue, or trying to solve a problem, then the lessons they learn while solving the issue/problem the first time is the most important. The next time they face the same situation/problem, then they will see little value in the lessons. They already know how to do it and over a period of time, by the time the post harvest, sunset review happens, the very important lesson that the team had while solving the problem could have become trivial to even mention it.
  • Team members join and exit the projects/programs throughout the life cycle of the projects/programs (This is especially true of software development projects). This is compounded by the fact that people leave or join a project not in one shot but in a staggered manner over a period of time. Post harvest, sunset review do not account for tapping into the lessons learnt by people leaving the project, nor do they try to tap into the lessons that people joining a project/program midway bring with them.
  • Many times during Post harvests, sunset reviews etc, the team members who had left the project and are now part of other teams are asked to join for such meeting. The intent is very noble — to also tap into the learning’s that these people had and benefit from it. However, the problem is that these team members who had left the project are mentally NOT associated with their previous project anymore, they are mentally switched off from their previous project and are very unlikely to contribute any meaningful learning’s or lessons, and even if they do, it will be very superficial. NOTE: It is not that they have noting to contribute, but the very fact they are mentally, emotionally and physically removed and no longer part of the project, make it difficult from these people to contribute anything meaningful.

There is no doubt that learning’s from Post harvests, sunset reviews can be applied to new projects, but the very fact that lessons/learning’s of AAR’s can be applied right away in the next activity of the current project make it very powerful.

It’s about time that the software industry looks real hard at the value it derives from Post Harvest processes.

10 Tips for DIY corporate unconference

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Yes, it sounds like an oxymoron: a ‘CORPORATE UNCONFERENCE‘.

An unconference is diametrically opposite to what ‘corporates’ stands for. Unconferences are unstructured, self organized, non hierarchical, user driven, sense of chaos, loose controls, speaking your mind out, no formality etc. A corporate is all about control, hierarchy, structure, predictability, organizational thoroughness, formality etc. It’s like echoing Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.. It’s like Eric Raymonds “The Cathedral & the Bazaar” — the ‘cathedral’ standing for the formal organization and the ‘bazaar’ for the unconference…

However; the reality is that unconferences gaining traction and being widely adopted in the techie circles, and this provides an opportunity for corporates to try out unconferences as a mode of sharing & learning, conversations within their setups.So, how do organizations go about adopting, adapting, experimenting with this social, participative & emergent concept of an unconference?

One way can be to learn from other organizations that have tried unconferences within their organizational setup and factor those learning’s, inputs into their planned corporate unconference. Needless to say that each organization is different and the organizations culture, structure etc will for sure have a bearing on how the corporate unconference is rolled out.

Here are some tips that can be adopted/adapted according to your needs while planning a corporate unconference.

Tip #1: Don’t make it MANDATORY: In my opinion, making participation mandatory for all employees can be the biggest in a corporate unconference. An organization, in all its best intentions, may decide that ‘everyone’ needs to attend the unconference. However; this goes against the spirit of an unconference and is a sure fire way making the unconference unsuccessful. Organizations need to understand that an attendance of 4000 does not guarantee participation from 4000. However only 1000 out of 4000 people participate in the unconference, it is absolutely great.
At MindTree, we did the unconference on a Saturday and did not make it compulsory for people to attend. There were more than 1000 people who turned up out of their own choice – and EACH one of them enjoyed the 30+ sessions during the unconference.

Tip #2: Don’t do a PoC. Yes…!!! In my view, this can be the biggest deciding factor in the overall success of the corporate unconference. At MindTree, we made unconference to the grand finale of a quarter long Osmosis event. One of the fundamental aspects of an unconference is to bring in people with diverse backgrounds, interests together and then have discussions, sessions. If an organization tries to do a PoC for an unconference, it would most probably be limited to a function, technology group of limited set of people – essentially people with SAME background interests etc… This in my opinion could be a foolproof way of ensuring a conclusion that unconferences don’t work in an organization. We did not do a PoC – though there were suggestions to try out a PoC. So, just do it… LARGE!

Tip #3: Get involved in organizing unconferences: If you have never been part of organizing unconferences in the outside world, then DO SO. There are plenty or barcamps happening in most of the cities and all of them need volunteers. Get involved as a volunteer – from the planning stages itself to get a first hand feel on what it takes to organize an unconference. Get down to the nitty-gritty details. This will come in handy when you organize your corporate unconference and is your insurance for NOT doing a PoC internally.

Tip #4: Educate the masses: The moment you announce that your organization will be doing an unconference, people will have all sorts of questions. What is this, why? How? When? Etc. Plan for educating people on the concept of barcamps/unconferences from the moment you announce the unconference. Dig out the appropriate barcamp/unconference videos from youtube and reach out to their authors for permission to use them for evangelizing the concept of unconference/barcamp in your organization. Most authors will be happy to allow their video’s being used for the promotion of unconference concept. We at MindTree did this and this helped a lot in educating people and answering their questions.

While the videos will help in general education, you need to prepare a FAQ/Mailer on what exactly will happen in the unconference in your organization. This will bring in a sense of reality for the people, within the context of your organization, and also help you in your planning of the unconference.

If possible, take awareness sessions around unconference. We did such in MindTree and more than the corporate unconference, we asked them to get involved in barcamp/unconference movement outside of the organization. That’s more important in my view.
We even created a cheat sheet around unconference concepts and made it as part of the unconference email campaign within the organization.

Tip #5: Ensure content ahead of time: Let’s face it. 99.99% of people in an organization would have no clue to what an unconference is. In a typical unconference, the content [sessions] are decided impromptu by the participants on the morning of the unconference. However; in a corporate setup, where almost no one has an idea of what an unconference is, hoping that content [sessions] will spring up on the morning of the unconference is wishing for 100 mm/day of rain in the Sahara. You need to put up a wiki, web page to solicit unconference topics well in advance. This serves multiple purposes.
– You build content for the unconference. After all the ‘meat’ of the unconference are the sessions.
– The fence sitters can decide to take part in the unconference depending on the sessions suggested.
– It helps in breaking the ice. More people are likely to come up and take sessions if they see few sessions already listed.
– You get inputs for your logistics planning

Tip #6: Educate the facilitators: Once you get the content ahead of time, you need to educate the session facilitators. For most of the participants, the sessions would be the barometer, their yardstick for measuring how the unconference went. In this scenario the role of the session facilitators becomes very important in a corporate unconference. Most of the facilitators would never have taken an unconference session before and you need to ensure that the facilitators understand how unconference sessions happen and how they are different from regular sessions. They need to know things like people can interrupt any time, people can walk in/out any time, sessions should be conversational, bi-directional, discussion oriented and not necessarily training/tutorial, and most importantly facilitators need to be comfortable with the session scheduling happening on the morning of the unconference.

You can communicate the same to all facilitators either though emails, meetings, sessions etc. This way you can ensure that sessions happen in the true spirit of an unconference.

Tip #7: Do some prior scheduling & have 10-15 minute gaps between sessions: Even after all the education, personal sessions & awareness campaigns; most people will still not get the unconference concept until they experience it. This means that you need to set the ball rolling by scheduling few unconference sessions from the session list you would have solicited earlier. This would require you to prepare your ‘paper wiki’, your session notice board, and scheduling/populating some sessions in advance. The key is that on the morning of the unconference, there should be no vacuum with people just standing there and no one knowing what to do – in a corporate setup, considering that most people would be new to the unconference concept, this could be a dampener, a false start (in a regular barcamp, this is something that people are used to but things are different in a corporate setup). Once you ‘seed’ some sessions, things will flow smoothly. This will also address the request from some facilitators who will continue to ping you for knowing when, where their session is.

Also, try to have a uniform duration for each session (ideally between 30-45 minutes) and keep 10-15 minute break between each session. This will help you in couple of ways:
– Provide a buffer if some sessions overshoot their allocated time.
– Participants can again flock to the notice board after the session is over in a relaxed manner to choose which session they would like to attend next, take refreshments breaks in a relaxed manner.

A large, vibrant & humming crowd around the notice board creates the necessary energy in the atmosphere making it contagious.

Tip #8: Get Volunteers: You will need an army of volunteers to run the unconference. In my opinion the best volunteers for the corporate unconference would be the ‘fresh campus graduates’. They have unbridled enthusiasm, energy and are always full of ideas. The best people you can wish for as volunteers and to be honest, they make the corporate unconference vibrant and colorful.
Many things that happen on it’s own in a regular unconference – such as the paper wiki/notice board update, would need volunteers. You will need volunteers for announcements, food, registration desk etc.
Most importantly, these volunteers help infuse energy and joy into the whole unconference.

Tip #9: Have all venues close by: One of the beauties of an unconference is several sessions running in parallel and participants having the freedom to choose which session to attend. This would mean people having to walk from one session to another quickly, in between sessions or after sessions and having all rooms/venues close by helps a great deal. Ideally all the rooms/venue should be on the same floor so that mobility between rooms is easy for the participants. In choosing the rooms/venue for the unconference sessions, don’t worry about the chairs, tables etc. participants will stand in the aisle, sit on the floor, squat around as long as the session is interesting.

Tip #10: Fun/Cultural activities around the unconference: This may seem trivial, but has a lot of value in creating the necessary energy. Every organization will have its share of artists – leverage their talent to create a platform for people to have fun.
This will also serve the purpose of allowing participants, who are not present but not attending sessions to bond together, socialize and meet up with each other in a relaxed atmosphere.

In MindTree we arranged for a rock band, instruments etc and we had enough people within the organization who were more than happy to perform. In the true spirit of an unconference, there were impromptu songs, dance and jamming sessions going on.

We also had ‘Mob the Leader’ sessions, where a group of 20-30 participants would ‘mob’ a person from the senior management and have them talk on topics of the ‘mobs’ choice. This was a way of encouraging unstructured conversations, discussions in a very relaxed atmosphere

Additional Tip:

Tip #11: Create an easy to use virtual platform: For people to share their experiences, pictures, blogs about the unconference and even the unconference sessions. If your organization has the culture of Corporate Wiki’s and corporate blogging, then  leverage those platforms. This way, the conversations can start well before the sessions and even carry on after the unconference sessions.
At MindTree, we used the concept of ‘Citizen Journalists’ to encourage participants to cover and share the unconference proceedings as they see it. We encouraged participants to bring their cameras video recorders or even use their mobile phones to cover the Osmosis unconference.
We even created the equivalent of Flickr, Blogger etc within the organization, making it easy and intuitive for people to share their experiences with each other.

Here are some blogs that have a review of how the MindTree Osmosis – A Corporate Unconference went.