Better Project Initiation with Mutual Learning

Mutual Learning

Project Initiation (PI) is a critical step in the project management process. An inadequate PI effort can put the project in a hole from which it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to escape. Poor PI leads to poor planning and poor planning leads to poor execution and failure. The Project Management standards, including the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK) provide an excellent set of guidelines for managing the mechanics of the “things” of PI. By “things” I mean the project management process products like the building of the project team, the marshaling of the needed knowledge for the project, the definition of the preliminary scope, the identification of the necessary and available resources, the establishment of the timeline and the approval of the project charter. These “things” are of course necessary, but they are not, by themselves, sufficient to ensure success. What’s missing are the “people strategies” that the Project Manager must employ during PI to ensure that the “things” are completed effectively and that they set the stage for success in the subsequent phases of the project. The objective of the PM’s “people strategies” is to ensure that there is an informed, aligned, empowered, collaborative and effective team to execute the project. A PI approach that uses a PMBoK driven process, in combination with a set of good “people strategies” provides a powerful tool for getting the Project started on the right footing. Many PM’s, including me, have struggled to find an effective and consistent set of “people strategies”. This blog will explore an idea that I recently came across, which I think can help significantly.

In June of this year I attended the eleventh annual In2:InThinking Network Forum, organized by the network leader, Dr. William Bellows, and held at California State University, Northridge. While there, I connected with leadership and learning thought leaders Jon Bergstrom and Steve Byers in a Forum session called “Learning Together in Complex Environments.” During that session, they introduced me to the Mutual Learning Model (MLM), which grew out of the work of Chris Argyris, and Donald Schon on Organizational Learning in the 1970’s. Once we began discussing the key features of MLM, I immediately sensed that it could be a perfect way for PM’s to guide formulation and deployment “people strategies” needed during PI, and for that matter through all of the project phases.

The following summarizes my understanding of the principles and features of the MLM:
• Core Values in a Mutual Learning Environment

  • Valid Information. Sharing accurate and relevant information and feelings about that information. Sharing conclusions and the reasoning behind them. Ensuring that others understand shared information and conclusions and are encouraged to offer alternative conclusions and reasoning.
  • Free and Informed Decisions. Decisions made are those best for the group and the individuals in the group, free from manipulation.
  • Internal Commitment to the Decision. Personally owning the decisions coming out of the agreed upon process.
  • Compassion. Non-judgmental, understanding, empathy and help for others. Caring about each-others success.

• Core Assumptions in a Mutual Learning Environment

  • Everyone May Have Relevant Information. Assume that other have relevant information to understand and act on an issue. No one person knows all that must be known. Information includes your point of view and feelings and the reasoning behind them.
  • Each of Us Sees Different Things. In a mutual learning environment people understand and leverage the idea that others will see things that you miss. You are part of a system and your knowledge and perspective is limited, therefore collaboration with others in the system is the best way to solve problems and make decisions.
  • Differences are an Opportunity for Learning. People believe that considering multiple viewpoints enriches and informs problem solving and decision-making. Curiosity and eagerness to explore differences in viewpoint and opinion.
  • People Act with Integrity In the Situation as They Understand It. Assume others motives are pure even if you don’t understand them or agree with them. Really understand the reasons for others actions rather than assume you know them and make judgments accordingly.

• Core Strategies for a Mutual Learning Environment

  • Challenge Assumptions. Challenging and testing assumptions by engaging others, informs action and decisions and supports the common interests.
  • Share All Relevant Information. Finding and sharing relevant information by engaging with others with diverse experience and skills.
  • Use Specific Examples and Agree on the Meaning of Important Words. Examples provide detailed context to illustrate ideas, and issues. Having a common understanding of the meaning of words is critical for communication.
  • Explain Reasoning and Intent. Sharing your reasoning and feelings about a subject provides context for others to understand you and provide informed responses.
  • Focus on Common Interests Not Positions. There are many ways to pursue common interests, but focusing on your position ignores opportunities and alienates others.
  • Combine Advocacy with Inquiry. Invite others about their points of view on your point of view. This enables the exchange of ideas, the building of trust and the convergence on a common approach.
  • Work Together to Determine the Way Forward and Test Conflicts. Discussion and consensus on next steps produce better results. Discussions that test conflicting points of view provide a rational path to understanding and consensus.
  • Discuss the Un-discussable. All topics relevant to the common interests of the group must be discussable.
  • Make Decisions with Those That Must Be Committed to Their Implementation. Effective implementation of a decision is a direct function of the involvement of those who must implement it.

• Consequences of Using Mutual Learning

  • Better understanding and few conflicts
  • Better trust and communication
  • Better learning
  • Greater effectiveness

So, with this view on the MLM the table below shows how I believe it can help with some of the critical activities of Project Initiation.

Project Initiation Key Activities

How Mutual Learning Can Help

Building, Informing, Aligning, a Collaborative and Effective Project Team
  • Selection of people with relevant technical experience and skills, as well as: good interpersonal skills, a desire to share and collaborate, bias for learning, social intelligence.
  • Encouraging open and honest communication.
  • Sharing information, points of view and reasoning.
  • Encourage the surfacing and discussion of conflicts and a forum for expressing dissenting opinions without harm
  • Maximize engagement of team members in key decisions
Identifying the Project Stakeholders and Their Wants, Needs, and Concerns
  • Leverage the diversity of the knowledge, experience, connections and points of view of the project team members to thoroughly understand and engage with the Stakeholders
Marshaling the Needed Knowledge
  • Encourage the active engagement of the project team what knowledge is needed, what relevant knowledge is available, what knowledge gaps exist.
  • Encourage continuous learning to close knowledge gaps.
  • Identify and challenge assumptions that are being made on the project and evaluate them as risks
Establishing Team Expectations and Rules
  • Clear communication of what PM expects of the Team and what the Team should expect of the PM
  • Clear understanding that the Project is a system and a system is successful through the successful interactions of its parts.
  • Everyone must care about, and be committed to, the success of every other member helping the members of the Team.
  • Collaborative decision-making
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About donmcalister

I retired at the end of 2011, after a 39 year career in the Aerospace industry as an Propulsion Engineer, Engineering Manager and Program Manager. My professional interests and expertise is in the areas of Program, Risk and Knowledge Management. I'm passionate about life-long learning involving a wide variety of topics and I'm committed to sharing my knowledge and ideas with those who are interested. My primary hobby is performing jazz music. I'm a jazz keyboard player, and vocalist, and I'm on the Board of Directors of the non-profit Simi Valley Jazz Club, which is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of jazz music from the '20's through the 60's.
This entry was posted in Best Practices, Better Thinking, Leadership, Personal Development, Program & Knowledge Management, Project Management, Risk Management and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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