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
Posted in Best Practices, Better Thinking, Leadership, Life, Personal Development | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

A Simple Approach to Building Better Project Plans


WhyWhatWho5Often, new Project Managers, and even some experienced Project Managers, facing the challenge of planning a large, complex project, are overwhelmed by how to get started. I’d like to offer a simplified approach to this daunting task. There is clearly some risk in using simplistic models to perform complex tasks, but I adhere to the philosophy of the much quoted, Mr. George E. P. Box, when he said, “essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful”.  So, keeping in mind, that the devil is in the details, I offer the following thoughts on a simplified approach to project planning.

Good project plans are the result of good decisions. Good decisions are the result of understanding context and marshaling, applying, sequencing and controlling the relevant knowledge resources that will execute the project. Understanding context, and bringing to bear relevant knowledge, starts by asking and progressively elaborating the answers to six simple questions.

Why? > What? > Who? > Where? > When? > How?

The following is a list of the five basic project context building question categories. I’ve also included some typical; but by no means exhaustive, sub-tier questions that should be asked and answered within each category.

Why? – Answers to these questions provide necessary market, business and personal strategic context for the project and help define the MISSION.
– Why does the customer what to do this?
– Why does the business want to do this?
– Why do I want to lead this project?
What? – Answers to these questions define scope and limits context of the project and establish the SCOPE.
– What are the customers project requirements?
– What else does the customer want?
– What don’t the customers want?
– What knowledge resources can the business bring to bear and what is lacking?
– What are the critical interim project decisions that must be made?
– What project baselines will be formally established and controlled.
– What performance metrics does the customer use to determine success?
Who? – Answers to these questions provide the needed knowledge and capability context of the project and define the PEOPLE RESOURCES.
– Who within the organization/business has the needed knowledge and capability?
– Who outside the organization/business has the missing knowledge and capability?
– Who makes project decisions, communications, and customer contacts?
Where? – Answers to these questions provide the location context for the project and define the PHYSICAL RESOURCES.
– Where are critical project execution and Supplier facilities located?
– Where are project deliveries to be made?
– Where is the project team going to be located?
When? – Answers to these questions provide the timing and sequencing context for the project and define the SCHEDULE.
– When must the project be completed?
– When must the critical interim project decisions be made?
– When are project resources available and unavailable?
How? – Answers to these questions provide the execution process context for the project and define the Execution, Monitoring and Control Processes.
– How will customer, business, and team communications be performed?
– How will decisions be made?
– How will project performance be measured?
– How will risks be identified and mitigated
– How will project baselines be controlled and changed.
– How will problems and conflicts be resolved?

The iterative elaboration of the answers to these, and other questions that may be relevant to your project, form the Project Plan. If your answer to any of these questions starts with “it depends…”, then you need more context.

A thorough and thoughtful plan is a necessary, insufficient, ingredient for a successful project. I’ll offer my thoughts on other critical project success ingredients in future blog-posts.

Posted in Best Practices, Better Thinking, Leadership, Program & Knowledge Management, Project Management, Project Planning | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Profound Knowledge & the Art of Project Management


SoPK_PM Art Logo

Successful Project Management is accomplished through the thoughtfully balanced application of leadership art and science. There are many excellent resources available for those seeking to improve their leadership science competencies. However, few experienced-based resources are available for those seeking to improve their project leadership art competencies. For some time now, I’ve been exploring the idea of using W. Edward Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK) as a thinking framework to provide such a resource for Project Managers (PM’s). In this blog-post I’ll share an overview of the results of that exploration to date.

Deming’s SoPK is a leadership competency framework consisting of four interdependent and synergistic elements: Appreciation for a System, Understanding Variation, A Theory of Knowledge, and Psychology. I’ve used these SoPK elements, in a project management context to develop what I believe are some powerful leadership art competency insights, project managers can use to enhance their success. The graphic used at the beginning of this post depicts the SoPK elements and my visualization of their interdependencies. Although no model is perfect, I’ve found this one to be useful as a guide for my thinking exploration and as a framework for documenting my observations and ideas.
Appreciation for a System, in the context of project management, is about the PM’s responsibility to define, and fully understand, the nature, scale, connections, complexity, constraints and cultures of the project, and take appropriate actions. Certainly, it’s no surprise that a PM must understand the scope and dimensions of their project, and it seems at first glance that that is leadership science and not art. The leadership art comes in when it comes to being able to see, and act on, some of the less obvious, but equally important characteristics of the project system. These considerations include:
• Projects are systems of people connected to other people for the purpose of achieving a singular objective. You can’t use mechanical thinking to lead an organic system. This means that the PM’s job is as much, or maybe even more about managing the relationships between the people in the project than managing the “stuff” of the project.
• Project system connections always extend beyond what you typically initially consider in your planning, communication and control thinking.
– Your customers have customers who have agendas, demands and pain thresholds you    must know about.
– Your Suppliers have Suppliers, who also have Suppliers whose performance are critical to your project
– If your project is in a business managed using a matrix organization, you have critical matrix connection obligations and risks to consider.
– Conventional project leadership science approaches cal for PM’s to keep their heads down and focus on their projects. Leadership art demand demands that you keep your head up and on a swivel to be aware of everything going on around you.

Understanding Variation, in a project management context is about the PM’s responsibility to define and detect, the rhythms and dynamic patterns inherent in the project and to take appropriate action on the differences from the program plan that matter. In this area, project leadership science will apply things like predictive metrics, schedule buffers, design margins, second sources, and management reserves to accommodate potential variations from plan. However, in applying the art of project leadership, PM’s should consider:
• The feelings, mood and morale of the project team as a predictor of human error
• Focusing on special cause versus common cause, or “natural” variability.
• Team thinking and style diversity as a deterrent to “group-think”

A Theory of Knowledge, in the context of project management is about the PM’s responsibility to marshal the relevant knowledge of the business, and to sequence and flow the knowledge through the projects people connections so that it is transformed into the desired deliverables. Not much leadership art science is directed at this effort, because most PM’s don’t understand that knowledge is the life-fluid of the project system. So those practicing the art of project leadership should consider things like:
• The PM’s role is a Knowledge Manager who executes the project across the knowledge domain. From the “Known-Knowns”, which form the foundation of the Project Plan, to the “Known-Unknowns” which are the project risks, to the Unknown-Knowns which are accommodated by buffers and reserves.
• Encouraging and fostering a “learning environment” for the project team that may find and avoid “Unknown-Unknowns” and reveal and exploit opportunities.

Psychology, in a project management context is about the PMs responsibility to develop and appropriately use the skills and behaviors necessary to successfully manage the relationships landscape and create a project environment that enables and nurtures the connections between people, and the flow of knowledge. For the most part, the tools that support the science of project leadership ignore this aspect of the job. A practitioner of the art of project leadership however would consider the following:
• The most important competency for a leader is social/emotional intelligence. The ability to sense the mood and motivation of individuals and groups and respond appropriately is critical to project success.
• Politics are inherent in any human system, including projects. As distasteful as it may feel for leaders, they must become politically savvy to navigate their project through this environment.
• In order to earn the trust and really be able to communicate with those whom you lead, you must be willing share your inner thoughts and feelings. As a project leader, your position alone can enable you to demand the minds and muscle of your team. But if you want them to put their hearts into the project, you must have the courage to make yourself vulnerable.

The following graphic is an attempt to bring all of these ideas together.  I welcome your comments and ideas for future exploration of this topic.

SoPK_PM Summary

Posted in Better Thinking, Deming's System of Profound knowledge, Leadership, Personal Development, Program & Knowledge Management, Project Management, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Building a More Robust Team Working Environment

Robust Team Env



Successful execution requires effective and efficient interactions between the people that make up complex organizational systems such as Project Teams. Project Teams perform work that is difficult, complex, often without precedent or examples to follow. They do it under the pressures of quality, cost and schedule constraints, for customers and sponsors who often have ambiguous requirements, high expectations, and a low risk tolerance. On top of all of these work related demands, each Project Team member must deal with their personal challenges of career, family and life in general. These pressures and distractions pose significant risks for human error of omission and commission.

While it is unrealistic to believe that Project Managers can eliminate these trying conditions, there are ways that they can build more robust team operating environments that make errors a little less likely and lower consequence. Here are a few ideas:

Create a Mutual Expectations Agreement (MEA) with your Team. Discuss, agree, document and sign an MEA with your team that clearly defines your expectations of them and their expectations of you. This should address communications, respectful behaviors, recognition, conflict resolution practices, risk tolerance, and making it safe to ask for help.
Project focus with peripheral situation awareness. Too frequently Project Managers and team members are told to keep their heads down and focused exclusively on the project objectives. I my experience, this is a bad, perhaps even dangerous practice. Projects are executed through productive interactions between people across a family of organizations, which also have their own mission, priorities and objectives. Certainly you and your team must understand and prioritize your efforts so that you will meet project objectives, but in doing so, care must be taken to be aware of, and empathetic to, the missions and objectives of other organization elements that are part of the collaborative effort. As the Project Manager, you must care, and be seen to care about other organizational element’s objectives. This will build critical relationships and social capital that you will need to use at some point to resolve issues and advance your projects interests.
Encourage and facilitate social interaction across the Project family. Building relationships through non-work social interaction, builds trust that will enable and lubricate the interactions they must have later in a work context. These social interactions don’t need to be elaborate or costly, but they do need to take place early so that the relationships are built before they are challenged in more trying circumstances later.
Walk, talk and listen to how people feel. Some used to refer to this as Management By Walking Around (MBWA), but I think its more than that. Project Manager walk-abouts, must also be talk-abouts in which casual conversation can be used to identify team environment issues, before they manifest human error. Move around and talk to people, not just about the work, but how they feel about the work and they way it’s being led. Ask open questions that start discussions. If you as the project manager don’t think you’re adept at talking about feelings, you’re at a disadvantage and you should take steps to enhance your skills in this area. You may be able to find someone within the team with those skills or bring in someone who has the skills and reputation to help you facilitate real communication within the team.
Be willing to be more approachable and perhaps even more vulnerable. To be trusted and get insight peoples real feelings and attitudes and the state of the work environment, you must be seen as safe to talk to. Let your team know how you feel, and be empathetic to their situations and feelings.

Human errors of omission and commission in a complex, dynamic, organic system, like a project, are unavoidable. The thinking activities related to life and work are intimately intertwined, interdependent and often distracting. Distracted thinking can lead to disrupted behavior and errors in judgment. It is unrealistic to expect that your team members, or even you, can leave the activities and issues of life at the door when you come in to work. But by implementing these suggestions, as well as ideas from your won experience, you may be able to build a more robust project organizational culture that will make it less likely for the ever-present work and life stress to manifest as human errors that impact your project.

Posted in Better Thinking, Leadership, Personal Development, Program & Knowledge Management, Project Management, Risk Management | 1 Comment

The Thinking Time Traveler

timetravelLast week I attended the 13th annual In2:InThinking Conference, “Succeeding with Inquiry – Insights, Knowledge, Action,” held on the campus of California State University, Northridge near Los Angeles, California. This conference is a gathering of people from around the country, and around the world, who are interested in, and dedicated to, the pursuit of better thinking in our work and personal lives. I’ve supported and attended the last ten of these conferences now, and each time I come away with more knowledge, inspiration and friendships. In reflecting on my experiences at the conference, it occurred to me that achieving better focused and creative thinking is a bit like traveling in time. Using the learning of the past, the possibilities of the future, and yet remaining mindful and engaged in the present. My reflection led me to write the following poem.

The Thinking Time Traveler

To think is to travel in time.
On a journey within our mind.
Wiser from lessons past.
Inspired by a future vast.
We explore, yet we must somehow,
Remain here and engaged in the now.

Don McAlister
24 June 2014

Posted in Better Thinking, Life, poetry | 3 Comments