The more valuable part of projects… Discovery!

When do you know the least about something you’re working on? … At the beginning. When do you develop the plan for what you are about to work on? … At the beginning.

President Eisenhower’s quote may sound like great news for those who don’t like the tedious nature of writing a plan down. The thought behind this is deeper than that, and it certainly isn’t prescribing “wing it”. The process of planning allows for thought, expertise, intentions, and reflection to happen. Once the plan is written and put into play, the unforeseen elements start to unfold. With the planning fallacy driving overconfidence in our minds, you may find yourself spending all your effort proving why the plan was right and no longer working, rather than adjusting to the reality of what’s happening. No matter how hard you try, you cannot predict the future 100%. But don’t let this stop you from trying.

Every planning cycle allows you to reflect and learn about what you are trying to accomplish

Projects are great for discovering new things about the product, service, or process you are setting out to improve or create. Google defines discover as, “find (something or someone) unexpectedly or in the course of a search.” The discovery side of projects is often overlooked or left for some obscure “lessons learned” database that an organization has or one day aspires to hold. History has shown that more often than not:

There is more value in discovery over time than producing results in the moment

When is it least valuable to learn about something you’re working on? … At the end. When are “lessons learned” generally performed in a project? … At the end.

The trick is in figuring out how to increase the amount of times the planning process and lessons learned happens in an individual project. To accomplish this may require a mindset change on what the purpose of a project is. Look at projects as the primary means to discover, that just so happen to produce a result along the way…

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Why you aren’t getting the results you expect (part 3 of 3)

In part 1, we looked at the say-do gap, what we say and what we do aren’t always aligned. In part 2, a dive into confirmation bias, the quick definition is that we have a tendency to seek out and believe data that support our preconceived notions.

But the question is, so what? The reason to read on is that these two things are connected, and they are affecting your bottom line. Think of this, you say something, it’s fair to presume that you believe what you say. You then recall that corporate training that told you to “speak with data”, so you go out to collect information, low and behold you were right the whole time! Yet a view of the monthly figures keeps coming up empty, nothing is moving! Time for a re-org, or a new initiative, or fire some people, anything other than questioning the method in the first place.

Say-do gap applies to your customers as well, just because they say something is most important to them (like price) doesn’t mean that’s how they actually behave!

A side note, if you want to see a great display of confirmation bias treat yourself to College Humor “If Google Was A Guy (part 3)” (at 45 seconds you’ll see a textbook display of this bias).

What can we start with to combat the say-do gap?

Faster planning cycles. In part 1 I mentioned the planning fallacy, which is to say that we are poor estimators of how much time something will really take. This does not make planning a bad idea, but stop the weeks or months worth of getting the plan just right and mark some major milestone, an end point, and start moving!

Data, in a scientific manner. Don’t forget you have a confirmation bias to combat. Just having numbers doesn’t mean you are automatically better off. Data is there to answer a question, know what the question is, then go get the data. Here’s some tips on a way to collect:

Statistics call for TRUE randomization. Don’t call selecting your top 10 customers as “random”. There is a simple formula in excel “=RANDBETWEEN” that can generate a random number between any range. Anyone in your company can take a set of data in excel, assign a number from 1 to whatever in column A and use this to select a random set. The key here is that every piece of data has the proper and likely chance of being selected.

How about that pesky confirmation bias?

As you may recall in part 2,

No matter how many times you see it, the bottom line will always look longer than the top (although it truly isn’t). The fix to your bias isn’t in awareness, the fix is what you do about it. Question your gut instinct, it’s incorrect more often than you’d like

The null hypothesis (default in statistical analysis) says that there is no statistical significance between two variables. Don’t blink out yet! The importance of this is that statistical analysis is setup to start with believing the researcher or experimenter is WRONG! As most of what you will go out to prove or test, if you truly start with this in mind, the data you go to seek should disprove your theory, be your own devil’s advocate. When you can’t, the alternate must be true.

Don’t underestimate the combination of the say-do gap and confirmation bias being root cause to lacking results at your firm. All of us are affected by these to some degree, knowing their out there and staying curious about change can make all the difference.

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Raise your hand if you use data to confirm your ideas!

Ok, put your hand down, people may find it strange that you’re swearing an oath with your phone or PC anyway… As good a practice as it sounds to confirm your ideas/concepts with data, let’s understand a little something about bias and how our minds work first.

Look at the lines below. Not very interesting, a couple of horizontal lines of different lengths, with some arrows pointing in or point out. The bottom line is clearly longer than the top one. Or is it?

Take out a ruler and you will find the long horizontal lines are, in fact, identical in length (this is the famous Muller-Lyer illusion). So what does this have to do with business? Although this is just an optical illusion, it’s reminder that our gut feel isn’t always so accurate. We need data (a ruler in this case) to find out the correct answer.

Confirmation bias is our desire to seek out, believe, and recall data that supports what we already believed.

Have you ever bought a new car and all of a sudden noticed that car popping up everywhere you drive? These people must want to be like you! Let me tell you though, the population of vehicles in the US is about 260 million and they’ve been on the road for over 11 years on average, you buying a car didn’t change the vehicle population overnight, your mind did. You started noticing that car because you were now seeking out what you wanted to see.

Using data to confirm your ideas or concepts isn’t a bad thing by itself. If we want to bring real results and have an impact, data is required. Without a measurement tool one could not find the real answer to the Muller-Lyer illusion. The premise of this article is not that data is bad, the premise is how we seek and interpret data can be dangerous and our minds can circumvent an otherwise noble cause (speaking with data).

So what do I do about this? Is awareness all I need to avoid the biases? In part 1 of this series, I wrote about the say-do gap (another cognitive failure we are saddled with), and although knowledge of these things are paramount to our personal growth, it does not eliminate the bias from our minds. Go back up to the top of the article, look at the lines, I bet that the bottom one still appears longer to you as it does to me.

In the 3rd part of this series, I’ll bring these two things together, Say-do gap and confirmation bias, with some suggestions on how to improve on them. One of the best ways to start improving is reflection. What stood out to you the most as you read the article? Write it down, tell a friend, or leave a comment!

Robert Darrow, MBA

Experienced Project Management Executive

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Are you a habitual liar? The answer is always no… (part 1 of 3)

If you really think about it, it would always be no. But that’s not the purpose of this article. The purpose is to share and understand what is natural to all of us, saying one thing and doing another.

Let’s define the say-do gap.

Quite simply, the say-do gap is the term given by behavioral economics to describe that what we say and what we do are often different things. By traditional economic theories, we are rational beings that are in full control and make unbiased judgement by effortlessly implementing rational decisions. Ever heard of “supply and demand”? Thought so, now take that theory into consideration, we apparently pay for things based on our expert and intimate knowledge of exactly how many widgets are in the entire world and how many of the 7 billion people may want those widgets. Bad news, we aren’t that good.

So what causes us to be this way?

A number of things, let’s look at the basics:

The planning fallacy, which basically states the one-two punch that sets us up for the say-do gap most directly. Daniel Kahneman, a world-renowned physicologist, put forward this theory that, in layman’s terms, states that we are lousy when it comes to estimating how much time something will take. To add insult to injury, we stack on an overestimation of our own abilities with a touch of underestimating just how badly we overestimate that ability.

Saying yes to everything is just a very slow no… Funny thing, the easiest people to say no to are those that are closest to us (our family and close friends) and those furthest from us (ever felt obligated to buy that long distance service from your friendly telemarketer?… thought not). Everyone in the middle becomes a challenge, just so happens everyone you work with, unless you have a family business or are in fact a telemarketer, fits the mold of saying you will but doing something else.

A majority of the time, we are on autopilot. We make thousands of decisions everyday, from as simple as where we go to as complex as many business situations present. Without habits we would completely lock up and be unable to make it through the day. So the upside of forming habits is that we can do things without putting any energy into the thought. Now take this to your desk, the day-to-day that you have made into habits in all your years of experience, now someone asks you how you do something or how long it will take. You now put thought into something you normally don’t spend any thought on (it’s a habit). What you say may not be what you actually do.

Time for some reflection.

Something I’ve run into in all the companies, departments, functional areas, or where ever I’ve throughout my career has been a frustration with why “the other guys” can’t deliver what they say! Often we forget we are all subject to these behaviors from time-to-time.

Funny story, I told a good friend of mine I was going to finish this article last week, turns out I didn’t… What’s your favorite “say-do gap story”? Share it in the comments, bonus points, make it about a failure of yours to connect!

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Put an End to Relentless Beatings and Remove the False Sense of Security!

The P&L commands attention. The general mood of an organization is in tight correlation with the year-to-date, month-to-date or even daily numbers. When those are up, everyone’s happy, money flows, meetings seem to have an added bit of fun. If they shift in the other direction, it seems we can’t escape the comments along the lines of, “that’s nice in all, BUT…”

There is a good time to make some changes. When the business results are poor and the team’s collective actions (project execution) are also poor. The tough thing is truly knowing when project execution is poor. Just after the Great Recession, Alan Mulally spoke to graduate students at Stanford about his turnaround of Ford, at the time he came in Ford was projecting a $17 billion dollar loss on it’s P&L. After weeks with his leadership team showing chart after chart (300+ if I recall correctly) of the actions and projects in their area as green, Alan asks, “Guys, we’re going to lose $17 billion dollars, is there anything that’s not going well?” Although this gave the group a chuckle, it reminds me how often I’ve seen project reporting as all green when most everyone knows it’s not.

The relentless beatings come from the healthy scepticism Mr. Mulally describes. Since it’s common for ‘all green’ to be reported, when the business results are down, it’s natural to fire back at every project team that they must be hiding something. Maybe they are executing poorly, maybe they’re working on the wrong things, or maybe the project’s success is being evaluated on the wrong goals.

On the other side of this fault, is when that warm blanket of security takes a turn for the worse. Your business results are riding the wave of pure luck and the winds change. All of a sudden you’re going down and you don’t know why (titanic anyone!).

How do we fix this? Bring project execution into clear view, like the P&L is:

  1. Clear project goals – We all know SMART goals, and don’t stop reading, I’m not going to reiterate them! In my experience, the ‘R’ is misunderstood. It even changes names (Google “SMART goal images”, ironic if you think about it). Relevant is the key. Anyone can make something specific and measureable, just throw out an ROI and you’re done. In comes the relentless beatings or false sense of security. If all projects are tied to the P&L, then the P&L going up or down determines if the project execution is up or down. But that may not be the case. Take for instance brand awareness. You want to invest in your brand, so you set a project out for some ad spend and creative ideas. You decide counting impressions doesn’t have the oomph you’re looking for, so you tie it to sales. Busted! Who can prove where those sales came from? Was it the billboard? The Facebook campaign? The promo? Or that all-star salesperson? Relevant needs to mean both from the business perspective (it makes money) and the project perspective (it’s tied to the planned actions). Clear project goals are ones that have a tight correlation to the planned activity and are important enough to care about.
  2. Evaluate projects on their merit – Once you’ve done a good job of #1, hold project teams to that goal regardless of the outside business results. This may seem uncomfortable, but if you’ve done the upfront work of setting your projects to move the business properly, then there is no reason to compare back to outside influences.
  3. Look at the project portfolio for completeness – If #1 & #2 are done well and you’re still finding your business results lacking, then you may not have a complete perspective of what it takes to move the needle. Take a step back, and determine key projects to add in or take out.

Rob Darrow | Director of Change Management, Nivel Parts & Manufacturing Co., LLC.

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