Knowledge, Truth and Power

JDPOWER“They say that knowledge is power,” I said, beginning my introduction of the guest speaker at a recent Rotary Club of Moorpark, California meeting. “And,” I continued, “ I think you will also learn today, that Power is Knowledge.” “Power, in this case, is of course our guest speaker today, J. D. Power III, founder of one of the most recognized company brands in the world, J. D. Power and Associates.” “Dave Power is a man who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge and truth as it relates to the interaction between the businesses who make and sell products and their customers who buy and use them.”

Mr. Power, or Dave, as he prefers, had graciously accepted our Rotary Club of Moorpark invitation to speak about how and why he started his company, back in 1968; the principles, and practices he put in place that provided its foundation for success; and the key events marking the rise of the company to its current globally influential stature. He sold his company to McGraw-Hill several years ago, but of course he still maintains great pride in its accomplishments, a heart-felt fondness for its people, and a strong interest in its future.

Dave Power_030714Dave Power, 83 years of age, as of this publication, is a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman, with a clear voice and a quick sense of humor. His presentation to our members was arranged as kind of a “coffee table conversation”, moderated by one of our Rotary members, who himself was a retired auto-industry executive. Dave spoke about his upbringing, education, military service, and early business career and how it shaped his character and led him to start his company. J. D. Power & Associates was a family business throughout its history and during the conversation Dave shared vignettes highlighting the sacrifices and contributions of his wife and children to the business. He also shared fascinating stories that marked both the challenges faced and breakthroughs achieved in building the credibility and customer base that the company now enjoys with the auto industry in particular, but in other industries as well. Those stories, and many more, are described in an excellent biography published in 2013, called “POWER – How J. D. Power III Became the Auto Industry’s Adviser, Confessor, and Eyewitness to History, ” written by Sarah Morgans and Bill Thorness (Fenwick Publishing Group Inc., 2013).

The business model he used, when he launched J. D. Power & Associates was that they would plan, fund and execute independent customer satisfaction surveys of auto industry products and services. He would analyze the survey response data, identify issues, create reports and then sell those reports to auto manufacturers, so that they could understand their own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of their competitors, and take action. Up to that point, auto manufacturers had been using their own “in-house” marketing organizations to do customer satisfaction research, and Dave was convinced that that process was not providing the unbiased knowledge that was needed. In the early days of the business, J. D. Power & Associates faced a lot of resistance, especially from Detroit automakers. But with good ideas, hard work, persistence and integrity they achieved both the attention and respect of the auto industry, and gave voice to its previously unheard or ignored customers.

I doubt whether Dave Power would describe himself as a leader in the pursuit of knowledge and truth, but as I read his biography and did other research in preparing my introductory remarks for his presentation, it occurred to me that he is, in fact, the epitome of a knowledge leader. Each of us, create our own subjective “truths” based on our knowledge, experiences, values, biases, beliefs and hopes. The same is true of our businesses. With these “truths” we build personal and business decision-making models, which we use to interpret what we see and hear and then make decisions on we will respond. The problem is that the “truths” that these models are based on, can be wrong, or at least insufficient. They create blind spots and a set of beliefs, assumptions, and biases disguised as truths that cause poor decisions. Over and over again, those false-truth based decisions have brought business to the brink and sometimes over the brink of disaster.

As Rotarians, we use our Four-Way Test to ask ourselves:
• Is it the Truth?
• Is it Fair to all concerned?
• Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

So, although J. D. “Dave” Power III is not a Rotarian, and may not even be aware of the existence of the Four-Way Test, has nevertheless epitomized its principles and objectives throughout his personal and business life.

Posted in Better Thinking, J. D. Power, Knowledge Sharing, Leadership, Life, Program & Knowledge Management, Rotary Club | Leave a comment

If Only We Knew What We Knew


If only we knew what we knew,
And it wasn’t locked up in the minds of so few.
If only we’d captured the knowledge and shared.
If only we’d done that, we might have been spared.
All of the time and all of the cost,
And all of the promise and opportunity lost.
Ah…if only we knew what we knew.

Don McAlister, 20 March 2014

Posted in Better Thinking, Knowledge Sharing, Life, poetry, Program & Knowledge Management | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Exploring Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge – Appreciation of a System

SoPK Diagram

For many years I’ve been interested in the work of W. Edwards Deming. In particular, I’ve been interested in Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge. For convenience, in the remainder of this post, I’ll refer to it as SoPK. While I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on SoPK, I think I get it, and I believe it lives up to its “profound” billing. I’m convinced of its relevance to the field of project management, and its value and promise as a framework for assessing and enhancing leadership skills in general. In this blog post and ones that will follow in later weeks, I’ll describe my exploration of SoPK and share my personal interpretations, insights, opinions and application recommendations in the context of project management.

SoPK has four intimately interdependent elements: Appreciation for a System, Understanding Variation, Theory of Knowledge, and Psychology. In this initial post, I’ll focus on the first element, Appreciation for a System.

Appreciation for a System. Dr. Deming viewed an organization, whether it’s a business, or a project within the business, as a system. Every person in the Project network is connected to, and in some way dependent on, every other person in the network. The goal of the system will be achieved, he argued, with healthy, effective, and efficient interactions between the interdependent elements of the system.

After a career in Project Management, one of the many things I’ve learned, is that understanding the project context is critical. More often than not, the real scale and complexity of the system in which my Project had to execute, was larger than my original expectations. There are always connections, influences, constraints, agendas and risks beyond the originally conceived boundaries of the project. Literally, everything in this world is connected to everything else, and you must look beyond the original boundaries to find the others that are always there and likely to impact your success. The better you understand this concept, and learn to make decisions based on it, the better you will be able to lead your project team.

How do you get started on this? I suggest you work with your team as well as a couple smart, independent colleagues to map the external supplier and customer connections as well as the internal connections within the business that are essential for successful execution. When you think you’ve got them all identified, then re-look at it by thinking about your supplier’s suppliers and your customer’s customers. They too can have a powerful impact and must be considered in your planning, communication, control and risk management activities. Failure to properly understand the system environment surrounding the project is often the source of later problems related to requirements definition, resource availability and adequacy, and communications.

As I have discussed in other blog posts, I have come to view a Project as a knowledge transformation system. This system takes the knowledge of the customer wants and needs, applies the knowledge that is the expertise of the business and it’s employees, and creates a new knowledge set that becomes the product and/or services delivered to the customer. The delivered products and services may take a physical form, but essentially they are artifacts of a knowledge transformation project system. I believe that Project Managers who think about their projects as knowledge transformation systems, will make better decisions on marshaling resources in their project plans; on measuring what’s important to assess real project execution performance; and on finding and mitigating risks that could threaten the success of the project.

The first job of the Project Manager, in working with this knowledge transformation project system is to be aware of all of its parts, and by that I mean its people, but even more importantly to focus on the relationships between them. My greatest insight into the art of project management and leadership, was that more than anything else, it was about managing relationships. So, although the people are the heart of the project, the real job of a project manager is to focus on the connections between the people to strive for better alignment, tempo, effectiveness and efficiency.

One other thought I’d like to offer about a project system is that it because it’s dependent on people and their relationships, it should be understood as an organism and not a mechanism. Organisms have feelings, values, biases, distractions, good days and bad days. Leaders will not be successful over the long term by using the logic, rules and science of a mechanism to inspire, direct and control the behavior of an organism.

My next blog-post on mapping SoPK to project management will address Understanding Variation. I’ll share my thoughts on the nature and influence of natural or common cause variation as well as induced, or special cause variation and how we can use that knowledge to be better project managers.

Posted in Better Thinking, Deming's System of Profound knowledge, Leadership, Personal Development, Program & Knowledge Management, Project Management | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Pursuing Discontentment in 2014

2014_At the beginning of the year, it’s probably cliché to write about our goals and hopes for the coming year, but I’m going to do it anyway.

I’ve just completed my second year of retirement. The conventional wisdom is that this should be the phase of my life in which I relax, sit back and harvest the time now freed from raising a family, pursuing a career, and building the financial resources that retirement affordable. In other words, the traditional view is that retirement should be the time to live a life of earned contentment. My brother, Rod, also retired, has suggested to me that the best we can hope for at this, or any stage of our lives, is contentment with our life state and the resilience to adjust that contentment for whatever comes along. However, the more I thought about contentment as a life goal, and what that would mean for me, the more I became convinced that instead, my goal should be to pursue at least some discontentment.

We can approach contentment by setting our expectations to match current reality, and by increasing our tolerance (resilience?) for whatever pain, discomfort, uncertainty, stupidity and chaos that life then brings along. Having said that, it seems to me that discontentment is, in fact, evidence of life. We need it. We need it so much that we’ll create it when it’s not present. Discontentment leads us to live richer, more fulfilling lives, and I believe our goal should be to feel nothing less than at least mild discontent until our last breath.
Discontentment drives us to:
• Re-build our relationships when we make mistakes or don’t nurture them
• Create hope for the future and its possibilities even when it seems like we’re going to be totally screwed
• Be unsatisfied and curious about the things we don’t know, and skeptical about the things we think we do know, so that we pursue continuous learning and understanding.

So my hope for all of us in 2014 and beyond, is health, happiness and enough discontentment to make our lives and the lives of those around us, more fulfilling.

Posted in Better Thinking, Life, Personal Development, That's Life | Tagged | 3 Comments

Tips for Managing Your Assumption Risks

Risks and Issues

A major element of project management is the identification, analysis, and handling of risks. There are many types of risks that Project Managers must consider, but there is one type, that in my opinion, is not given the attention it deserves, and that is assumptions. This post explores that concern and offers some suggestions on how we might improve.

Risks result from a lack of, or uncertainty surrounding, an element of needed project knowledge. That knowledge deficit, or uncertainty, means that we can’t “know” all the things that we need to know to effectively plan and execute our projects. The more complex the project, the more “un-knowables” there are to challenge our future success. Our brains prefer the “simple things” to complex things. Our brains and our bodies become stressed when what we’re sensing doesn’t match the mental models we’ve formed. So, when we face project-planning uncertainties, we naturally want to simplify things, by making assumptions. Assumptions are decisions that we make, consciously or unconsciously, to artificially eliminate uncertainty for our convenience. Most of the time these assumptions work out pretty well, but when they turn out to be wrong, they can create difficult, even disastrous results. Assumptions are risks and must be managed as such.

So what can Project Managers do to improve the way we manage our assumption risks? Here are a few of my thoughts. I welcome your comments and ideas.

1. Think of yourself as a knowledge manager. Try to visualize your project as a knowledge transformation system that takes what you know and adds to it to create new knowledge solutions for your customer. When you see the project through the eyes of a knowledge manager you will make better decisions about your conscious assumptions and be more aware of the subconscious ones. Using the knowledge domain as a thinking framework can help:
• Make sure you really know what you think you know. Good assumptions… low risk assumptions, are they really “Known-Knowns”. On a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being best, how confident are you in your assumption? Is it really true or do you just want it to be true?
• Be diligent and honest in deciding what you know you don’t know or “Known-UnKnowns.” If you have some confidence, but not enough, your assumptions are in this part of the knowledge domain. Handle them as you would handle at least a low to moderate risk.

2. Challenge your assumptions. When you identify an assumption, challenge it with critical thinking.
• Is the assumption logical, credible and supported by objective evidence?
• Has the assumption been vetted by a knowledgeable, non-advocate process?
• Are there biases (yours or others) that might have influenced the assumption?
• Have you looked for the unintended consequences of a bad assumption?
• Even if the assumption is good now, what things could change to make it a bad one?
• What can you do now to protect against a failed assumption?

3. Manage your assumptions as a part of your normal risk management process.
• If assumptions are risks, then they ought to be listed in your risk register.
• As risks, the likelihood and consequences of bad assumptions must be assessed
• Prepare and deploy mitigation actions and contingency plans for your assumption risks.
• Regularly monitor your assumption risks along with all your other Project risks

4. Raise your level of assumption situational awareness. If you’re really going to protect yourself from bad assumptions, then you must be hyper-aware of things that could turn them from good to bad.
• What are the characteristics of your assumption that should be watched?
• Use trusted and non-advocate advisors to help you watch and assess assumption.

Posted in Best Practices, Better Thinking, Program & Knowledge Management, Risk Management | 3 Comments

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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When Risks Must Be Treated As Issues

Risks and Issues

Conventional Project Management wisdom is that risks are unfavorable things that could happen, but have not yet happened, whereas issues are unfavorable things that have occurred. Yet, in the real world of managing complex projects, thinking that there is a binary distinction between risks and issues is shortsighted and potentially dangerous. By thinking of them separately we tend to focus on, and manage them separately. When we do that, we compartmentalize the information and constrain the thinking about potentially better, more holistic actions that should be taken. Thus limited in our thinking, we are positioned to be surprised and unprepared, and that is a dangerous place to be in a business critical, fast moving project.

It is my belief that project risks with sufficiently high likelihood and consequence are indistinguishable from issues, and must be treated as such. Here are a few ideas to help Project Managers handle the risk-to-issue transition process.

• Be a Project and Knowledge Manager. Projects are about the creation and transformation of knowledge in to products and services that satisfy customer wants and needs. The Project Manager provides the planning, sequencing, direction, monitoring and control of that knowledge transformation process. Risks represent a lack of, or uncertainty in, the knowledge required to execute a project. A significant part then, of the Project Managers job must be to close those knowledge gaps. Sometimes closing the knowledge gap means deciding that a risk is so high, and presents such a threat to the Project, that it’s more effective to assume it is an issue.
• Develop an early and complete understanding of your Customers and Sponsors risk tolerance threshold. Even if a risk hasn’t officially been realized, there is probably a likelihood/consequence level at which Customer and Sponsor “worries” turn in to pain, demanding the transition from aggressive mitigation action to aggressive corrective action.
• Use a common management system to assess and track risks, and issues. Managing them in the same tool will provide better visibility and integrated decision-making. I might add here that opportunities should also be included in this common tool. Just as with risks, as opportunity levels grow in probability and value, there is an optimal point at which an exploitation decision should be made.
• High risks must have both mitigation and contingency plans. Plan and work effectively to mitigate risks that threaten the project, but also build and maintain a Contingency plans that can be put into effect when that threat exceeds the tolerance threshold.

These ideas may seem obvious to many of you, but it’s been my experience that there are at least some Project Managers out there who are still caught in the trap of binary state risk and issue thinking. I hope this blog provides some additional insight for them.

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