Three Moments of Clarity
How do you explore these issues that we've been talking about - all of the issues around being late and over-budget? One was is to explore them though games and improvisation. I feel a bit weird saying this - it's in some way so contrary to the notion that "project management is just common sense." It sounds like I'm saying that you should explore the challenges of project management through interpretative dance. Well maybe, one day.
For now, I've been really interested in reading the work of improvisation pioneer Keith Johnstone. One of the first topics that he covers in his book "Impro" is status. And I really wanted to explore these issues, so I hired an actor to work through with me all the exercises that Johnstone discusses in his book. We did things like play a scene several times - one of us starting the scene high status, and one of us starting the scene low-status and over the course of the scene having our status swap. We also messed around with the physical cues for status - playing scenes where one of us touched their head a lot during the scene (try it, it's impossible not to feel low status when you're tugging your forelock). Also we played scenes where one of us talked quickly and says "erm" a lot.
And we're starting to get the hang of this now. [Pause] For instance. [Pause] I have found [Pause] that taking [Pause] long pauses [Pause] between the things that I say. [Pause] Even if [Pause] the pauses [Pause] aren't [Pause] at the beginning of sentences, seems to give me a certain extra authority.
But now it was time to put some of this drilling into a more realistic situation - into a "Late And Over-Budget" business setting. We ran a scene four or five times where I played a project manager and B played the client.
The first couple of scenes, when we were playing just status, B demolished me. I came into the scene and tried, in a high status to say that the project was late. There were a few interesting things about these scenes. The first thing was that, even if you knew nothing about project management and software development, you could come out with exactly the same words and phrases that customers, clients and senior managers say every day.
- Simply denying that the project will be late - saying something like "It has to be on time, there's no alternative."
- Attacking competency, pretending that the task is simple "I don't know why you can't simply plan what you're going to do and then do it. M 12-year-old son can do that - he manages to plan all his lessons and activities and do his homework - what can't you?" (what's spooky about this is almost WORD FOR WORD what a senior manage said to me after I'd explained that it was impossible to predict how long a several million pound project would take)
There are also a couple of other really interesting learnings from this seemingly simple exercise.
- The commitment and consistency principle, which is behind the conflict in the exercise doesn't ever have to be made explicit. In fact it's possible that if it isn't made explicit, it's more powerful.
- If you're the project manager delivering the "bad news", trying to defend yourself by elevating your status is a disaster (I've started to call this "rearing up" - if you do this, all that happens is that you get smacked down)
- Similarly, trying to drop your status as a way of getting out of the situation is disastrous because it simply stores up trouble for later e.g. agreeing that because a project has to be done for a certain date, it can be, without any discussion of what is going to change to make this possible.
I seems that the best thing to do in situations like this is keep your status just slightly below that of the person you're talking to.
If I'm being honest, just using status manipulations wasn't paying off in quite the way that I'd hoped. Then B suggested that I try an approach which is often known as "the shit sandwich."
Now, I was loathe in one way to try this. Which is hilarious isn't it? This is just improv in a safe place, the whole point of it is that you should be able to try anything. But it a way it goes to show the value of improv. The way I explain it to myself is that you only have one neurology - it's the same one for real life and pretent. The down side of this is that we're loathe to take "risks" even in the safe space of improvisation. The upside is that the way we behave in pretend situations is very similar to the way we would behave in real situations.
Anyway? Why was a I loathe to try this. It seems ridiculous now, writing it down, but it was - because I know that there's a whole bunch of stuff out there on the internet condemning this approach. I think the negotiation people would call this "easing in", not talking directly about the thing that you're talking about.
Anyway, in the end we tried the scene. And I tried to make it "Good news/Bad news/Good news" but curiously at the same time, what came out was a scene where there was "Clarity/Clarity/Clarity." And this made it very difficult for B to be as difficult as he had been in previous scenes.
Here's what I said:
The good news is that we've made it this far through the project. The project is 80 percent finished. The bad news is that it's taken twice the time that we thought it would to get where we are. And what this tells us, really clearly is that we're not going to make the deadline that we've been discussing.
Then I went on to try to finish off the sandwich with a bit of good news:
But although, we both agree this isn't great, even this isn't all bad news, because it makes it clear that if we set the deadline to be X, that would be an achievable deadline that we could all sign up to.
That last bit was hard, even to write it just now was hard (see - only one neurology). But the amazing thing was - IT WORKED.
As B said "You gave me nowhere to go."
And the more I think about it, the more I think that this isn't really the "shit sandwich" of folk legend. I think this is really more of a "clarity shield." (a bit like the ones that police use to corner crazy people when they're going crazy in their cells - why would this image spring to mind I wonder). This is how it works: 1. Clarity: You lead with something clear and undeniable: how about "the project's late"? (You can dress this up as "good news" about knowing where we are - but if you do too much of that you'll be in trouble). 2. Clarity: You follow that with some more clear reasoning: if it's taken us this long to get to here, it will take is this much longer to get to here. 3. Clarity: This means that this a reasonable deadline and (good news) one that we could all sign up to confidently.
I think in the end, this is a clarity shield rather than a shit sandwich. But it's very telling for me that we got there by being willing to try out something, rather than just going with what it says in the books. But also, I think I have to mess around with this now by trying to add in various things that are unclear. It strikes me that in points 2 and 3, there may be things that are unclear - and if there are, you need to be very clear about what's unclear. The other thing is that it reminds me of a scene in "The Wire" (another example from The Wire) where some academic who's researching juvenile delinquency gets the police to provide him with some interviewees. He thinks he'll start gently with some 16-year-olds - and the first one that he interviews throws a desk at him. Then he thinks maybe he'll interview some 12-year-olds.
Some of the people that I've been going to with the kind of bad news we're talking about here have been with the same company for over 20 years. They are seasoned and they've got where they are by being good at being sociopathic bosses. I'm not saying that a "clarity, clarity, clarity" response is going to be 100 percent successful. What I am thinking though is that by hiring myself an actor and exploring these ideas using improv, I've found a way of generating new ideas that I can try out in a safe environment, and then try out with seasoned professionals.