Chaos & Creativity






If our lives were as simple as we often wish they would be
Black and white…yes and no…and complexity free.
Then the world would be easier to bear don’t you think?
Or would the boredom of simple, simply drive us to drink.

Don’t get me wrong, I like peaceful and calm
And some relief from the chaos and stress.
But there is beauty as well, when things go to hell
That’s when creativity flows at its best.

So be careful what you wish for when things are a mess,
Some solutions, though simpler, are not always the best.
Let the tempo and rhythms of the uncertainty ride
Bring the energy you need to see the box from outside.

Don McAlister
27 December 2016

Posted in Best Practices, Better Thinking, coaching, Leadership, Life, mentoring, Personal Development, poetry, Risk Management, teaching, That's Life | Leave a comment

Our Love/Hate Relationship with Uncertainty

dc56bd2b-398a-43e7-b3db-6f9b1757b979If uncertainty is the state of not knowing what we need or want to know, then we must hate it…right? After all, uncertainty that matters is what we define as risk. Risk is what keeps us up at night. Worrying about it impacts our mental and physical health. It causes us to spend time and resources that we could otherwise devote to the certainties in our lives. We are wired to be afraid of uncertainty, to see it as a threat, and to protect ourselves from its likelihood and consequences by converting “unknowns” to “knowns.”

But wait…we must also love uncertainty, or at least we love the process of its resolution. We love not knowing for sure what’s inside that wrapped gift. Our brains release pleasure-causing endorphins when we hear the unexpected punch line of a joke. We are naturally curious about, and seek to explore and understand the world around us and the world within us. Without the “itching” of uncertainty we would not experience the pleasure that comes with the “scratching” that learning and knowing provides.

So I guess the bottom line is this. Love it or hate it, uncertainty is a commodity of life, which we need for both survival and fulfillment. What are your thoughts?

Posted in Better Thinking, coaching, Life, Personal Development, teaching, That's Life, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Self-Inflicted Project Management Wounds

Proj FF1


Forensic assessments of failed and troubled projects often reveal that the direct causes of the problems, and/or the contributing factors, are self-inflicted. The damage caused by these project management “friendly-fire” incidents can be significant and long lasting.

Consider these real-life self-inflicted Project damage examples:
• You improve a local process within the project with insufficient consideration of the affects the changes may have on the rest of the project system. The overall project is sub-optimized at the expense of making one element look better.
• You fail to measure your project performance in the same way your customer does. The customer metrics may not be fair or right, but if you’re not looking at things they way they are, then trouble is just down the road.
• You shield your team from unfavorable news or feedback to keep them from being distracted. Transparency may be uncomfortable and sometimes even risky, but it builds trust, and engages everyone in early avoidance/resolution of the emerging problem.
• You provide quick recognition of problem solving heroics. Unfortunately, often the work of the most heroic goes unnoticed. You should focus on celebrating team accomplishments and let them identify their own heroes.
• You implemented a rigorous project earned value management system by breaking-down your work packages down to the lowest level, requiring a bi-monthly earned value review cycle, and setting minimum cost and schedule variation thresholds for action. Unfortunately you now spend so much time crunching the raw data through the financial systems and pressing the team leaders for analyses, reports and variance explanations, that you lose your real-time feel for the pulse of the project and emerging changes in context. Earned value metrics are important, but tailor your process rigor to meet the real needs and means of the project.
• You stoically maintain your project cost and schedule baselines in their original configuration, even though significant changes in project customer requirements and performance have occurred that have created variances which are unrecoverable and for the most part, irrelevant to current project conditions. You’ve done this because both you and your management believe you should “own” all variances and you want to show at least some progress in reducing these “original sins” them during the project life cycle. The problem is, that these large “artifact of the past” variances that your team are dutifully measuring, and repeatedly explaining, may be obscuring subtle, near-term adverse trends that could have a significant impact on the current and future performance of the project. It may be time to “bite the bullet” and discuss with your customer and management the implementation of a project re-baseline. For more on this, see my blog, “Knowing When to Re-Baseline Your Project.

These are all real examples of situations I’ve encountered while analyzing the cause network for troubled or failed projects. Projects are complex; people systems with lots of opportunities for human error. Good people, with good intentions will make errors that cause some damage. But, thoughtful review of shared examples like those listed above and others you may have experienced,  can go a long way to reducing the likelihood and consequences of the risk of self-inflicted project damage on your next project.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcomed.

Posted in Best Practices, Better Thinking, coaching, Knowledge Sharing, Leadership, Program & Knowledge Management, Project Baseline Management, Project Management, Risk Management | 2 Comments

Pull Me Leadership





“Push me towards your goals and I will resist, looking backwards at you as the source of my irritation. But, shine a light on your goal, extend your hand to pull me forward, and I will reach out with enthusiasm to join you on the journey.”
Don McAlister
19 January 2016

Are you a “Push Me” or “Pull Me” leader? I’m sure you’ve experienced both styles in your family and business lives, and I’m willing to bet that you have a preference for the “Pull Me” style. Why then do we continue to experience so much “Push Me” leadership in our businesses?

“Push Me” leadership is a throwback to our schooldays when parents, teachers and coaches used that style to motivate us, because we lacked the knowledge, experience and self-confidence required to respond to more sophisticated forms of leadership. I believe that those in businesses who continue to use the “Push Me” style are unknowingly adopting a kind of parental leadership role in their organizations. The parental leadership style may work for a limited segment of the work force, but for the rest it is uncomfortable and counter-productive.

As adults however, our education and experience has provided us a set of basic and specialized knowledge, personal and social skills, and a model for how we want our leaders to behave…”Pull Me” leadership. “Pull Me” style leaders paint a vision for a future state, set and communicate goals and milestones, establish boundaries, provide resources, set the tempo, eliminate barriers, and then empower the team and set them loose to execute using their best skills and judgment.

Take a hard look at your leadership style. Certainly an effective leader must adapt their style occasionally in response to a changing context. However, your predominant style should Pull rather the Push your teams.

I welcome your thoughts on this topic.

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Basics, Art & Heart

coachingAt a recent Rotary Club meeting, our speaker, Mike Sheppard, a retired college and professional football coach, remarked that, “the best coaches teach at three levels: basics, art and heart.”  This simple, but elegant phrase captures the essence of what our best teachers, coaches and mentors do to reveal and build, the talent and character of those in their charge.

Whether in it’s in our school classrooms, on our sports fields, or in our workplaces, there is no more important role, nor a higher calling, than that of teacher, coach or mentor. They inspire us to reach our potential, they generously share their knowledge and experience to help build our skills, they teach us how to trust and be trustworthy, and they show us how to be better leaders and followers.

For all those who teach, coach and mentor… who help us understand, perform, and learn how to treat others…THANK YOU!  This limerick is my gift to you.

Basics, Art & Heart
You coach the basics at the start
Then the subtleties and art
But the job’s not done
Until you teach someone
How to do it all with heart.

                     Don McAlister
16 September 2015

Posted in Better Thinking, coaching, Heroes, Knowledge Sharing, Leadership, Life, mentoring, Personal Development, poetry, Rotary Club, teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Work Lives & the Relevance Imperative

Relevance1I’ve spent a lot of time recently, thinking about our psychological need for relevance, and the huge impact it has on the way we live our lives. I’m speaking here about personal relevance, which I will define as the degree to which we feel connected to others in a meaningful and valued way.

The pursuit of relevance is a fundamental, albeit sub-conscious, driver in what we think and do in our personal and work lives. All of us have this relevance imperative wired in to our brains. It is a characteristic of human life, and perhaps all life. I claim no expertise in psychology or neurobiology, but it makes sense to me to think that our brains relevance imperative probably started as desire to belong to a group or tribe as a strategy for safety and survival. Over time, it has evolved, adapting to the demands of increasingly more complex social contexts. Today, the relevance imperative drives our behaviors and actions across the full range of human needs from safety and survival, through belongingness and love, to the achievement of self-actualization.

We pursue relevance in our social and work contexts by seeking, creating, and nurturing, meaningful connections with others who have the same goal. Those connections, built with, and lubricated by, trust, empathy, and generosity, become the pathways through which pass the critical commodities of every human system… information, knowledge, empathy, ideas, and inspiration. Our businesses and organizations rely on the effective and efficient movement of these commodities.

In the workplace, aberrant perceptions of personal relevance will dramatically impact the thinking processes and behaviors of an individual, and over time, negatively impact the organization as a whole. When people feel irrelevant, fear and low self-esteem dominate them, and degrade their situational awareness, focus and judgment. At the other extreme, if they somehow perceive themselves as “super-relevant” they will become dangerously over-confident, arrogant and narcissistic, producing equally negative impacts on the organization. While most of us operate, most of the time, within these two extremes, it’s not uncommon for people to experience at least temporary damage to their feelings of relevance as the result of a careless comment or action by a co-worker or manager. There is nothing more hurtful to an individual than to receive a direct or implied communication that they themselves, or the work they do, are irrelevant to the organization.

  • So…how can we use these insights to be better leaders, followers and teammates?
    • As individuals, recognition and acknowledgement of the importance of relevance in our lives and the lives of everyone around us can help us:
    – Develop greater insight into our own relevance driven behavior and decisions
    – Exercise greater mind/mouth control to avoid those occasional thoughtless     comments, made in a moment of anger or jest that impugns the relevance and value of others.
    • As leaders, a better understanding of the relevance imperative can help us be:
    – More understanding of our own relevance related feelings and behaviors and how they might affect others
    – More attentive to creating a work environment which fosters the realization of the relevance needs of those on our team
    – More observant for indications of damaged relevance
    – Better coaches and mentors as we help develop the leaders of tomorrow
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Knowledge Management Lessons from a Sci-Fi Movie


I recently watched the 2014 Science Fiction (SF) movie, “Edge of Tomorrow”. I like SF stories, and this was a good one, with lots of action and excellent visual effects. It wasn’t until after I’d watched it, that I realized that it was also a powerful allegory on Knowledge Management (KM), offering a several important lessons.

The following paragraphs summarize the plot of the movie; so if you want to see the movie first, STOP READING NOW!

For the rest of you… In the movie, an Alien force has invaded Earth and conquered mainland Europe and Asia. The combined forces of Earth are battling the aliens with no success. Now, however, armed with new technology combat suits, the forces of the Earth are confidently preparing to invade Europe from England and defeat the Alien force. But, unknown to the forces of Earth, the Aliens have a secret KM weapon. They’ve learned how to reverse time. Whenever an alien warrior dies, time for it is reversed and it returns to life, but now with the added knowledge of the circumstances of its prior demise. A central alien leader accumulates these lessons from thousands of these deaths and shares them with all of the other warriors. So, as time is re-lived, alien death by alien death, the invading force learns and adapts and overcomes, while the unaware humans, continue to use yesterday’s seemingly successful tactics, only to learn that they don’t work today.

The main character, Tom Cruise, is a Major in the Army Reserves, Public Relations Office. He is brought in to prepare morale-boosting stories. He has no combat experience, and no interest in gaining any. He refuses an order to go in to combat with the troops to obtain first hand material for his stories, angering the Commander of the Earth forces. The reluctant combatant is immediately arrested, drugged, and wakes up in a military staging area in England, surrounded by thousands of soldiers preparing for an invasion of the aliens stronghold in France. Cruise, now demoted to Private, finds that he’s been conscripted into an infantry platoon of misfits who are preparing to be dropped in to France the next day. As Invasion Day dawns, the untrained Cruise and his platoon are dropped on to the beach, and he is almost immediately, killed by an alien warrior. However in dying, through sheer luck, he also manages to kill the alien and in doing so, alien blood enters his body. This unintentional blood exchange infects Cruise with the alien ability to reverse time and retain the knowledge. So, he returns to life, only to re-live the invasion day, but with the added knowledge of what led to his death. This time he lives a few moments longer before being killed. Again and re-awakens with the knowledge of how and why he died this time. These cycles are repeated, literally hundreds of times. Each time he lives a little longer into the invasion day before being killed and learns a little more. During this process he meets a woman soldier (Emily Blunt) who had also been infected in the past with this fight>die>learn>repeat ability. She lost the ability, however, when in one cycle, she was wounded, rather than killed and given a blood transfusion. This saved her life, but also cleansed her of alien blood. The rest of the movie involves the two characters developing and implementing a strategy to defeat the aliens with their own knowledge weapon. So here are the KM lessons as I see them:

1. Knowledge is power and those with better, more current knowledge will out-perform those without. The Aliens perfected KM as a weapon of inter-stellar conquest and have used it successfully for a long time. The people of the Earth, stumble upon the KM weapon, try, fail, learn and repeat the process until they achieve a superior knowledge set and action plan that will defeat the Aliens.
2. Knowledge is gained through action and intelligent failure. The aliens perfected KM in to a powerful weapon. The hero gains access to this KM process, and by multiple trials, and failures (being killed) learns enough to succeed.
3. You can never have enough knowledge. The effectiveness of knowledge-based actions is dependent on context. Context is constantly changing, so our need for new context knowledge and adapted actions plans must also be constant. Learning bias. The Alien view of knowledge acquisition was not as a goal, but as a way of life.
4. Centralized knowledge databases create significant risk. Seeking to build central, “one stop shopping” knowledge repositories, that can be updated and controlled on the surface, appears to be worthy goal, but I believe that this goal is unrealistic, counter-productive and perhaps even dangerous. The goal should be the identification and integration (intelligent searching) of knowledge bases wherever they are. The aliens had powerful and well-protected central knowledge source, but it was also had single-point failure vulnerability which the humans ultimately exploited to defeat them.
5. Shared knowledge is more powerful than knowledge held. The aliens captured planets by using shared knowledge as a weapon. Each time Tom Cruise died, he shared knowledge with his co-star, Emily Blunt, and together they build a shared knowledge base that will defeat the enemy.
6. Be wary of what you think you know. Early in the battles with the forces of the Earth, the aliens “allow” them win a battle here and there in order to expose their tactics, learn from them and exploit weaknesses. The Earth forces assume that context and relevant knowledge are stable, and that their tactics are sound and their technologies are adequate. But, when they try to use yesterday’s successful tactics and technologies in todays battle context, they fail.

So here is my review of the “Edge of Tomorrow”. It can be viewed as a superficial, mindless flow of good action entertainment or it can be more thoughtfully viewed as a KM training film. I give it 3 stars out of 5 stars as an action flick and 5 stars out of 5 stars as a KM flick. Your experience may vary and I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Posted in Better Thinking, Knowledge Sharing, Leadership, Program & Knowledge Management, Science Fiction | Tagged | 2 Comments