When in Doubt, be Nice!

Last week, a good friend and mentor of mine overheard a conversation I was having with one of the team leads on my program.  I was not satisfied with the leader’s performance and I was not nice in my remarks about what I expected.  My friend observed the exchange between me and the team lead and she spoke up and said: “When in doubt, be nice”.

Her comment stung.  I pride myself on my political correctness and being nice to others.  Being called out for not being nice hurt.  And she was right.

Spinner2 The truth is that I have a hard time balancing being kind and getting the results that I want.  I am not suggesting that these two things are necessarily mutually exclusive, but I think that I have placed a higher premium on one than on the other.  I choose to be nice rather than to be satisfied, and this is a real problem for me.

I was recently in a weekend workshop on growing as a leader.  While the workshop helped me to spot several strengths of mine, it also revealed to me a couple of key weaknesses:

  1. I don’t go for my own personal satisfaction; I am OK with coming up short.
  2. I am not honest with myself about my lack of satisfaction.  I am ok with feeling like a victim, rather than getting what I really want.  I don’t tell the truth about what I really feel or mean.  (For more about telling the truth, see my previous post Tell the Truth).

Going for Your Own Personal Satisfaction

Let’s start with the idea of going for your own personal satisfaction.  The principle of responsibility says that I am responsible for my actions and my outcomes.  If I don’t get the results that I want, or if I am not satisfied, that is my responsibility and mine alone. That is all great but the problem for me is this – I am OK with being dissatisfied as it gives me something to complain about, a reason to blame someone else, a way to be a victim, or just a general ‘out’ about not giving it my all.

The better approach is to go for 100% satisfaction of what I want.  This requires being clear about what it is that I want and working with others to make sure it happens.  No excuses, no complaints, and no blaming others.  Just going for what I want and not being satisfied with less.

I like what I wrote about personal satisfaction in this post from January 2009:

“Instead of seeking comfort, we should seek our own satisfaction.  In every situation, we should be monitoring our own level of satisfaction and using that as an internal gauge for whether we are doing the right thing.  My mentor Rich Blue calls this going for our 100% satisfaction.  If you seek to get 100% satisfaction out of every meeting, presentation, project assignment, and workshop, you won’t have to worry about feeling comfortable.  Being satisfied is a higher value than being comfortable.”

Let me give you a real-life example.  If you are at a restaurant and you order a salad with the dressing on the side, what are the odds that the waiter will remember and bring your salad with the dressing on the side?  I do this often and I think the odds are about 90% – that is, the waiter will correctly put the dressing on the side about 9 out of 10 times.  What happens when they don’t, and they bring the salad with the dressing already on it?  What do you do when that happens?

I know what I do – I eat the salad.  I will sometimes mutter under my breath, or make idle threats about reducing the tip, but I rarely draw attention to the fact that I did not get what I ordered and I am not 100% satisfied.  You see, I have been conditioned from an early age to be OK with that, to even expect that I will be disappointed and to minimize the importance of it.  This is not a healthy response for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it builds resentment that can surface later in undesired ways.

I don’t tell the Truth about my Satisfaction

The second big idea here is that I don’t tell the truth about my level of satisfaction. Just like with the salad, I suck it up.  Quietly.  I tell myself it is not really important, or not worth fighting about.

I am increasingly aware that I do better or worse with certain people or in certain situations.  With some people and in some situations, I have this large blindspot that I have come to think of as a form of ‘corporate denial’.  It is as though with certain people or situations, I completely toss out my expectations the idea that I could be personally satisfied.  I am unable – no, unwilling – to clearly see the truth in what is happening and orient to my own satisfaction.  A good example of this is with authority figures.

I am learning that this corporate denial has become so ingrained in me that I think of it as normal.  It is like the water in the fish tank that the fish cannot see or appreciate.

Being Nice

How does all this relate to being nice?  Well, generally I am very nice.  I am often ‘nice’ at the expense of being effective, as I can be in the restaurant example.  The problem is that while I may be nice on the surface, underneath the surface I am hurt and angry.

Let’s be clear though – being hurt and angry is what I have co-created.  It is also what I expect to happen.  The shift that I need to make is to be crystal clear about what I want and determined to have things the way that I want them.  I need to go for 100% satisfaction for myself.  This needs to be a top priority.

Spinner4 Initially, my need to go for 100% satisfaction may come at the expense of being nice.  Because I have been off balance for so long, the pendulum needs to swing the other way.  I need to have an extreme focus on my 100% satisfaction.

So for me to speak up that day and in an unkind way to challenge my team lead to do their job better, was actually a grow for me and a step in the right direction.  It wasn’t pretty, and I know that I can improve on that.  But I need to continue to get in there and be willing to be messy but insist that things be done the way that I want them done.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts and reactions, in particular, if you pride yourself on being a nice guy ora nice girl.






Emotional Intelligence and Projects – A Research Study (part 2)

A few weeks ago, I posted here about a relatively new research study that sought to determine the relationship between emotional intelligence and project management competencies and transformational leadership behaviors.  The study is documented in a 2010 book called, “Emotional Intelligence and Projects“.  Written by Nicholas Clarke and Ranse Howell, the book describes a research project they carried out on 67 project managers.

Emotional Intelligence and Projects Cover





The research project was seeking to answer two questions:

  1. To identify the relationships between emotional intelligence abilities and specific project manager competencies identified as critical within project contexts.
  2. To identify relationships between emotional intelligence and transformational leadership behaviors.

Summary of Results

Since this blog is all about emotional intelligence for project managers, it should come as no surprise to you that the results of this study did show a direct relationships between emotional intelligence and both PM competency and transformational leadership behaviors. More than that, it is just common sense!  Read on for some of the details about the results.

Question #1 – Emotional Intelligence Ability and PM Competencies

Let’s first take a look at their first question, which is the relationship between emotional intelligence abilities and specific project manager competencies. The table below show an X for a positive correlation.  For the specific competencies of teamwork and managing conflict, overall emotional intelligence was important, as were the abilities to use emotions to facilitate thinking and understand emotional meanings.


Teamwork – Teamwork was positively linked to the emotional competencies of using emotions to facilitate thinking, understanding emotional meanings, and total EI.  Teamwork was also positively correlated with the personality traits of emotional stability and openness.

Communications – No significant correlation was found between emotional intelligence abilities and communications.  This is rather surprising, frankly, and something I need to dig into a little.

Attentiveness – This competency was linked to the emotional competency of empathy. This was the only positive correlation to empathy.

Managing Conflict – This PM competency was linked to using the emotional competencies of using emotions to facilitate thought, understanding emotions, and total EI.  It was also positively correlated with the personality traits of extroversion, emotional stability, and openness,

Question #2 – Emotional Intelligence Ability and Transformational Leadership

For the second question about transformational leadership, similar linkages were seen as shown in the table below.  However, you can also quickly see from the table that the transformational leadership abilities were more highly correlated with the personality traits.


Idealized Influence (TL) – This was linked to the emotional intelligence measure of use of emotions to facilitate thinking; it was also linked to the personality measure of extraversion.

Inspirational Motivation (TL) – Inspirational motivation was not linked to the emotional intelligence measures but was linked to the personality measures of extraversion, agreeableness, and openness.

Intellectual Stimulation (TL) – This was linked to personality measures of extraversion and openness.

Individualized Consideration (TL) – Linked to the emotional measure of use of emotions to facilitate thinking, and the personality measures of agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness.

Overall Transformational Leadership – Linked to the personality measures of extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, and openness.

Overall Conclusion

Project managers interested in growing in their project management and leadership abilities should invest in emotional intelligence.  Specifically, they should develop their abiility to use emotions to facilitate thinking, understand emotional meanings, in empathy, and in their overall level of emotional intelligence.  These were shown to be linked to the PM competencies of teamwork and managing conflict, and attentiveness.  These were also impacted by the personality traits of emotional stability and openness.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.




How Happiness affects High Performing Teams

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune discussed the topic of happiness.  Based on research by Jack Bauer, associate professor at the University of Dayton, the article provided some interesting tips for those interested in happiness.  In this post, we look at those tips for pursuing happiness and we apply those to leading high-performing teams.

Happiness is an elusive emotion. How do we go about being happy?  Is that a choice, that is, can we simply choose to be happy instead of feeling sad or angry?  If so, the question for many of us is this “why can’t we just be happy?”.

Which is a great question.  Why can’t we just be happy?  The research by Jack Bauer and others indicates that happiness is not something that we seek directly, but that we achieve indirectly through other things.  Here are some of the key findings from the research:

  • Happiness flows from engaging in activities in which we are totally immersed; when we lose ourselves.
  • Happiness is rising to a challenge that we have the capacity to meet.  When we tackle something difficult and our skills are up to the challenge, happiness tends to flow.  It is when we are working toward personal mastery, rather than performance.
  • Happiness is more likely to to be experienced in community with others, rather then when we are alone and isolated.  This was an overarching theme of the research.
  • Happiness was more likely when people were doing things that were personally meaningful or for the greater human good, rather than for our own personal goals or for material goods.
  • The research also showed something that many have heard before, having more money doesn’t necessarily increase happiness.  Interestingly enough, the opposite is generally true.  Happy people tend to make more money for a variety of reasons including because of others like them and their work, they are more creative and optimistic. (There is actually a book that has been around for a while called, Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow, which is based on this premise.)

I looked at these lessons from a personal perspective at first, then began to think through the lens of a project manager or leader.  What can we apply from this research to help our teams perform at the highest possible level?  Here are my conclusions:

#1 Know the strengths and weaknesses of your individual team members and align them with it.

If we want to align people with the right work, we need to know them inside and out.  That will help us to get people into those positions where they are doing work they like and are good at and where they are stretching themselves to meet a challenge.  Likewise, we need to avoid placing people in roles where they feel overwhelmed or not up to the challenge.  We want to be pushing people to stretch themselves in roles where they feel challenged, but not necessarily overwhelmed.

This can be a bit tricky and may require taking some risks.  On a recent program, we put a junior PM into a role leading a large outsourcing effort.  She had little PM experience and no prior experience with outsourcing and she quickly began to feel like she was in over her head.  What she overlooked was that she was very familiar with the teams that were affected, and the tasks and specific products that were being outsourced.  It was because of her unique prior experience in these areas, and her good relationships with the impacted teams that made her capable of rising to the challenge.

#2 Challenge Team Members at their Growth Edge

When we know the strengths and weaknesses of our team members, we can also push them to perform at high levels.  We can challenge them in those areas where they are up to it but need to be supported to increase their performance.

This is something I have personally experienced and written about here and in my book.  I do some of my best work when I have a mentor or coach who is supporting me, challenging me, and yes sometimes pushing me beyond what I think I can do.  It has been one of the most important things that has fueled me, encouraged me, and has resulted in the most personal growth.  My mentor Rich will often say something like, “my vision for you Anthony is that you are…”.  He holds the bar high for me when I am not able to do it for myself.

#3 Prevent Individuals from working in Isolation. 

I recognize that it is a natural tendency for many people to want to isolate and work alone.  There is an attraction for many of us to think that if we were just left to work alone, we would be happy.  (Hey, that’s exactly why I became a writer!)  In fact, people are more happy and engaged when they are working as part of a team.  So while there is a tendency to isolate, and certainly there are some tasks that naturally need to be performed by a single person, we want to avoid this if possible.  We want people working together.  As leaders, we need to build a sense of community and help team members to stay connected to the greater team.

Building community can help with happiness and actually speed the progress toward the team’s goals.  I recently had a virtual team of developers working to create programs to convert material from one format to another.  This team had a consistent track record of missing every deadline and milestone. Working together with the leader of the team, we implemented twice weekly standup calls.  What we discovered during our standup calls was a little shocking – each developer was working in near perfect isolation; they didn’t talk to each other!  While there was some level of email between them, they were largely isolated in trying to solve the collective challenges.  Our standup calls quickly became their forum for communication and they started performing as a group and actually hit a few deadlines.

#4 Help people to connect their work to the goals of the larger organization or the company. 

This is something that is important but not done very often.  People don’t get inspired by working each week for a paycheck.  They might get inspired by being part of a team that is making an impact inside their organization or out.  It is important that team members understand the bigger picture of your team goals and how their task or activity contributes toward that.  When people see the connection, they see it as for the greater good and not something that they have to do for you.

Back in 2003, I was lucky enough to get involved with a large program that was implementing systems to support education reform in the country of Qatar.  It was fascinating to me how many people wanted to join the team to be part of that work.  We capitalized on it by providing lots of information about the country of Qatar, the state of education, and the people that would be impacted by the program.  People got it, and it helped to fuel their performance.  We had a very high-performing team because everyone understood, and bought into the larger goals of the organization. We worked some incredibly long hours and met some goals that at the time seemed unachievable.  We even adopted the team slogan ‘Inconceivable!’

I am sure there are other takeaways from a leadership perspective.  As always, I am interested in your thoughts.  Cheers!



The Wow Factor – How to Attract and Retain Resources to the Teams you Lead

Project and Program Managers need to attract resources to do the work; the quality of those resources determines the quality of the project outcomes.  This post is about attracting and retaining the best possible resources.

I was talking last week with one of my colleagues about the best way to recruit resources to work on our business re-engineering program.  We are entering a new phase and we need to bring on a large number of internal and external resources.  My colleague said we needed to determine the ‘Wow Factor’ and use that for recruiting and retaining program resources.

At the time, I didn’t think much of it.  “It’s a great program, who wouldn’t want to work on it?”, I thought to myself.  I learned later that one project manager that had previously worked on the team said that he thought we needed a new branding campaign because people would not want to be associated with our program.  Ouch!  That hurt.  And that comment came from someone who had actually worked on the program!

So I guess we do need a Wow Factor for our program.  We do need a marketing campaign to recruit and retain resources to work on our program. We need to figure out ways for people to get excited about the mission of the program and want to join and do their very best work.  The question is, how exactly do you do that?

The question is very important.  The resources on your teams determine the speed, quality, and ultimately the success of your program.  Project management is getting work done through others.  In my first book, I included this quote from Robb, one of my long-time project management mentors.

“As a project manager, you live or die by your resources.”

The topic of how to create a Wow Factor for our projects and programs is one I would like to explore over the next few posts.  I have some ideas about how to do this based on my own experience, but I am very interested in hearing thoughts from others.  What do you do to create Wow for your programs and projects?  How do you go about attracting and retaining the best resources?  Please let me know your thoughts.



Leading By Example – Part of the Team Wow?

This post continues the discussion on how Leaders can create the Wow Factor that helps to attract and retain the best possible resources for their teams.

I recently posted on the WOW Factor and how to attract and retain resources for our project teams.  The idea is that we need to be intentional about how we market our teams so that we get the best possible resources on them.  Since then, I’ve been thinking about the various ways that we as leaders can create that WOW that makes being on our teams attractive.

I was reminded of what I wrote in my first book about this under a section called “How PMs set the tone and direction for the project”.  There were some pretty good ideas that were explained in this section:

  1. Establish Team Values
  2. Enforce the Rules
  3. Stand up to Management
  4. Hold Others Accountable
  5. Recognize Individuals

Just this week I was reminded of another way that leaders create Wow and that is they lead by example.  My current team is made up of upwards of 100 people.  Many of them are from the US and Canada but there are others including offshore development teams in Eastern Europe and a shared services team in the Philippines.  The leader of the team lives in Paris.

We were moving quickly in the direction of adopting agile development techniques and we scheduled a training course in Chicago.  Initially, the team lead was not going to attend that training because he had been traveling to the US for 3 weeks in a row. So I was a little surprised on the first day of the training class to find that he turned up live and in person.

This was his way of leading by personal example.  This leader sacrificed to be with the team in the training because it was the right thing to do.  Not only was he leading by making the sacrifice, but he also led by showing that he was not above getting in and getting his hands dirty.  He will expect the rest of the leadership team to likewise go through this training course when the time is appropriate.  And because he has done it, they are more likely to follow his example.

Does this one occurrence of leading by example create Wow for the team?  I don’t know.  I do know that small examples like this over time create a sense of predictability and trust.  Based on instances like this, I have come to believe that I can count on this team lead to follow through even when it requires significant personal sacrifice.  And that makes me want to do the same and to be loyal to him and to the team.

Bottom line:  Leading by Example should be included in the list of ways that leaders create the Wow Factor for their teams.

As always, I welcome your comments.



Forget Proactivity, Try Using Reactivity Instead

My mentor Rich said something last week that really got me thinking.  He was talking about our own self-awareness and how that can serve us as leaders.  In particular, he spoke about monitoring our reactions to those around us.

Our reactions to others help inform us about ourselves and areas we need to grow. Our reactions may be positive, but more frequently they are negative.  By that I mean that we find ourselves feeling ticked off or angry.  A common example of that for me is when someone tells me to do something.  I was recently asked to send a reminder about a meeting that occurs every two weeks.  My first reaction was annoyance – I don’t like to be told what to do, it feels controlling.  And if I think about it, these are the types of things that happen to me all the time.  I probably would not even notice this particular annoyance if I hadn’t been looking for it.

When I reflected on it, I realized that I was annoyed by this request for two reasons. First, I don’t like to be controlled. I also realized that in this case, I was not clear with this particular individual who asked me to send the reminder.  There was a previous issue between us.  They had not done something else that I had expected and I was feeling hurt about it.  So the question about the meeting bugged me, because it was a painful reminder of the state of our relationship.

What else can our reactivity tell us?  It can help us to reveal our faulty thought processes.  After tracking my reactivity for over a week, I found that many or most of my reactions are about being a victim. I feel that people are out to hurt me, or that I am not responsible for what happens to me. Ouch!

Our awareness of our reactivity can move us to action, help us to get clear, and it can also show us ways to improve our relationships. Or our reactivity may reveal a desire, a need, or a hunger in us that is not being met.  An area that I am very reactive around is when people act entitled or when they ask to have things their way.  This happened to me just yesterday.  I was in a meeting of about 30 people – some that I knew and some that I did not.  A man that I did not know entered the conference room and walked over to the thermostat and set it on 70 degrees. He did not consult anyone, poll the room, or make any sort of announcement.  He just decided to set the thermometer at 70 because HE wanted it at 70. I was outraged, but only because I wouldn’t take care of myself this way.  I don’t (yet) feel entitled enough to have things the way I want them.

So my challenge for you is this – begin to track your reactivity. Do it for a week and see what you learn about yourself.  It may sound easy or dumb but I want to encourage you to simply try it for a week or so.  It is really simple to do – just record the person and event that made you reactive. I started this about a week ago and I have 28 items already. It is easy when you are as reactive as I am!  Let’s compare notes at the end of the week.



What is the Worst that Could Happen?

This is a post about the importance of optimism. I recently came to appreciate the role that optimism, or lack of it, plays in my life.

My outlook on life is largely shaped by the last few things that have happened to me.  I tend to take my most recent experience, and extrapolate a continuation of that into the future.  If a couple of good things have happened to me in that last day or two, I tend to think that trend will continue and I am very positive about the future. And that is great because when I feel positive and optimistic, I also tend to be more confident, I assert myself more clearly, and I take more risks.  These traits help me to perform better at work and at home.


The opposite of this also occurs.  When I have a couple of negative things happen in a row, I tend to extrapolate that and feel very negative and pessimistic about the future.  I find that I am in a ‘bad mood’ and I tend to do things which are unproductive.  I take fewer risks, I act more cautiously, and I tend to try to be more politically correct.  I also project negative feelings and intent on others and I isolate from them.


Most of the things that influence my mood are external to me, and that is a problem.  For example, I have noticed lately how much the ups and downs of the US stock market affect my mood and outlook.  The market has wild swings of 3-4 % in a day and +/- 10% in a week.  When the market goes up, I feel positive about the future.  When it goes down, I feel pessimistic about the future.  The irony is that while the change in the stock market may affect my meager retirement savings, it has absolutely no impact on my life today.  Right now, it makes no difference if it goes up or down.

The real challenge for me is that I tend to put more emphasis on the negative than the positive.  This is especially acute when there are a couple of negative events in combination.  For example, consider the hat trick when the stock market goes down, I get into an argument with someone, and I learn that my job may be at risk.  This is when I cannot see anything but negativity far into the future.  I see myself as isolated, out of work, unable to meet my financial commitments, and ultimately going bankrupt.  And though the consequences are improbable and far into the future, I feel them today in the here and now.


The irony is, my feelings of pessimism in the here and now cause me to act in ways that are not only counter-productive, they also have the potential to be self-fulfilling prophecies. That is, my negative thought patterns cause me to behave in ways that ensure the negative things that I fear actually happen in the future.  If I think negative, I make negative things happen.


By the way, there is actually a name for this behavior and it is called catastrophizing.  Catastrophizing a form of cognitive disorder, also called stinking thinking, defined in Wikipedia as:

Catastrophizing – Inability to foresee anything other than the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or experiencing a situation as unbearable or impossible when it is just uncomfortable.


So what do I need to do to overcome catastrophizing?  Here are some of the things that I need to do that you might also find helpful.


  1. Get in touch.  One of the most important emotional intelligence skills is to be aware of our feelings.  This catastrophizing behavior is one way for me to dodge my feelings.  Some feelings are painful and on some subconscious level, I want to protect myself from feeling them.  By focusing on the stock market or other external events, I can avoid feeling scared or hurt or angry right now.
  2. Recognize what I get out of the behavior.  By focusing on external events and potential negative events in the future, I get to avoid feeling my feelings in the here and now.  On some level, I am also lowering my expectations.  When I think that failure is imminent, I give myself permission to stop trying.  I give up on my goals and on myself.
  3. Cut it out!  My mentor will often say to me, “stop indulging yourself”.  He’s right – sometimes I need to just recognize what I am doing and stop it right then and there.  I need to give myself a shake and get over it.
  4. Laugh at myself.  I find that laughter tends to help me feel better pretty much any time.  It is especially helpful when I can look at myself and see how ridiculous I am.
  5. Orient to the truth of my life and feel grateful.  For me, this is about reminding myself of the successes I have had over the years and feeling grateful for them.  Some people use a gratitude list for this.  I have never experienced any of the various negative or catastrophic events that I fear up to this point.  In fact, I have actually had many successes and positive experiences.  When I stop and focus on the positive things that I am grateful for, it is easy to ignore or push the negative events out of my mind.
  6. Learn from everything.  One of the great lessons for me from the Mindset book by Carol Dweck is that we can continually learn and grow, even from negative events in our lives.  When I see life as an extended learning process, I let go of success and failure and tend to be more grounded in the here and now.

As always, I am interested in your reactions and comments.  If you are interested in learning more about stinking thinking, I’ve written about the following cognitive disorders in my book:

  • All or nothing thinking
  • Always and Never
  • Being Negative
  • Filling in the Blanks
  • Should Statements
  • Personalization and Blame



Committing to a Year of Risk-Taking and Failure

I am committed to changing my relationship with failure.  Failure was something I was deathly afraid for most of my early life.  I think I was 30 years old before I took any serious risks at all and that included leaving a secure job at IBM, moving to Chicago, and getting divorced.  That year of risk-taking was one of the most important and formative years of my entire life.  But before we go further into failure and risk-taking, I have a small confession.

I think that I love Seth Godin.  Yes, it is true.  I don’t mean that I am in love with Seth Godin, just that I love what he writes and find myself inspired by it.  Every day I find myself excited to find something from his blog in my inbox.

Lately, I’ve been struck how often Seth writes about failing.  Maybe I even love him more when he talks about failing.  It may be that I have been thinking about failure more or that my mentor Rich Blue has been talking more about failure, and all of a sudden I am seeing it everywhere.  In any case, I noticed what seemed like a trend so I went back through Seth’s blog posts to see what he had actually written about failure.  Here is a somewhat random dozen of my favorites snippets from his blogs on failure:

1/17/2008: Is it worthy?
Our birthright is to fail and to fail often but to fail in search of something bigger than we can imagine. To do anything else is to waste it all.

1/18/2010: Unrealized projects
[writing about director Tim Burton] One key element of a successful artist: ship. Get it out the door. Make things happen…The other: fail. Fail often. Dream big and don’t make it. Not every time, anyway. 2/27/2010: Genius is misunderstood as a bolt of lightning
Genius is actually the eventual public recognition of dozens (or hundreds) of failed attempts at solving a problem. Sometimes we fail in public, often we fail in private, but people who are doing creative work are constantly failing.

7/16/2010: A hierarchy of failure worth following
Not all failures are the same. Here are five kinds, from frequency = good all the way to please-don’t!

FAIL OFTEN: Ideas that challenge the status quo. Proposals. Brainstorms. Concepts that open doors.
FAIL FREQUENTLY: Prototypes. Spreadsheets. Sample ads and copy.
FAIL OCCASIONALLY: Working mockups. Playtesting sessions. Board meetings.
FAIL RARELY: Interactions with small groups of actual users and customers.
FAIL NEVER: Keeping promises to your constituents.
1/17/2011: Cashing the check
The opportunity to step up and to fail (and then to fail again, and to fail again) and to continue failing until we succeed is greater now than it has ever been.

4/14/2011: How to fail
All of us fail. Successful people fail often, and, worth noting, learn more from that failure than everyone else.

5/3/2011: Hard work vs. Long work
Hard work is frightening. We shy away from hard work because inherent in hard work is a risk. Hard work is hard because you might fail. You can’t fail at long work, you merely show up. You fail at hard work when you don’t make an emotional connection, or when you don’t solve the problem or when you hesitate.

10/5/2011: Failures and the dip
In the Dip, I’m arguing that big successes happen when people with good taste see the failures, evolve and keep pushing anyway. The good taste comes when you know the difference between failures that are better off forgotten and failures that are merely successes that haven’t grow up yet.

12/18/2011: The difference between a failure and a mistake
A failure is a project that doesn’t work, an initiative that teaches you something at the same time the outcome doesn’t move you directly closer to your goal. A mistake is either a failure repeated, doing something for the second time when you should have known better, or a misguided attempt (because of carelessness, selfishness or hubris) that hindsight reminds you is worth avoiding. We need a lot more failures, I think. Failures that don’t kill us make us bolder, and teach us one more way that won’t work, while opening the door to things that might. School confuses us, so do bosses and families. Go ahead, fail. Try to avoid mistakes, though.

1/9/2012: Out on a limb
That’s where artists do their work. Not in the safe places, but out there, in a place where they might fail, where it might end badly, where connections might be lost, sensibilities might be offended, jokes might not be gotten.

1/29/2012: Prepared to fail
“We’re hoping to succeed; we’re okay with failure. We just don’t want to land in between.”
–David Chang
He’s serious. Lots of people say this, but few are willing to put themselves at risk, which destroys the likelihood of success and dramatically increases the chance of in between.

Which brings me back to my mentor Rich Blue and his recent failure kick.  He keeps encouraging me to live a big life by saying, “if you aren’t failing then you are not taking enough risks”.  (I would also mention that I love Rich Blue but I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me!)  It was Rich that introduced me to the Mindset book by Carol Dweck.

In this book, Dr. Dweck thoroughly explores our beliefs about our abilities, our growth, and about learning new things.   These beliefs form the ‘mindset’ that we carry about ourselves and others.  There is a fixed mindset that says that people are born with certain traits and abilities and that defines the full extent of their capabilities.  Then there is a growth mindset which believes that people will continue to grow and develop through their own efforts.

Individuals with a fixed mindset tend to avoid failure at all costs.  To fail means to define yourself as a failure.  So as you can imagine, taking risks or trying something new isn’t practiced by those with a fixed mindset.  I think this pretty well describes the first 30 years of my life.

Individuals with a growth mindset tend to value taking risks and being willing to fail.  They see failure as an opportunity to learn about what is not working or to adjust their approach.

The concept of failure is also pretty big in agile development, an area that I have been exploring a lot lately.  In fact, a key saying from agile is “fail fast”.  This is often used to justify pulling the plug on risky projects sooner rather than before a major investment has been sunk.  (Note:  I think we have to be cautious about this application because it could also lead to pulling the plug too early, or not fully throwing yourself into a project or initiative, just because it is risky.)  I think the description from James Shore in the Art of Agile Development is the one that I like the best:

Failing fast applies to all aspects of your work, to examples as small as buying a bag of a new type of coffee bean rather than a crate. It frees you from worrying excessively about whether a decision is good or bad. If you’re not sure, structure your work so that you expose errors as soon as they occur. If it fails, let it fail quickly, rather than lingering in limbo. Either way, invest only as much time and as many resources as you need to be sure of your results.

With these principles guiding your decisions, you’ll fear failure less. If failure doesn’t hurt, then it’s OK to fail. You’ll be free to experiment and take risks. Capitalize on this freedom: if you have an idea, don’t speculate about whether it’s a good idea—try it! Create an experiment that will fail fast, and see what happens.

I just spent the previous 3.5 years doing so-so consulting work for a great client. Unfortunately, I became quite complacent during this time and I took very few risks. I wrote less than previously, spoke less, and read less. I CREATED LESS!  I was not challenging myself, I was not taking risks, and I was not failing fast. When a colleague mentioned to me last year that he was reading one business book a week, I was incredulous. “It can’t be done,” I thought as I silently reflected on my own 1-book-every-2-months pace. (Since the beginning of this year, I have put myself to the task and found I could actually complete 2 or even 3 books in a week when I applied myself.)

I am committed to changing my relationship with failure.  2012 is going to be a year of ramping up the risks and the failure rate.  I am going to live like it is 1993 again (sans the painful divorce!).  I am going to fail fast.  I started last month with a new certification and partnering with two different consulting firms.  I am reading, and writing.  (If you are an agile enthusiast, please note that I have launched a new website specifically about agile and program management at www.vitalitychicago.com. )

Stay tuned here for more.  And do please let me know what risks you are taking this year.  I hope they are big ones!


Emotional Intelligence for Agile Project Managers, Scrum Masters, Leaders and Coaches

I am working on the second edition of my emotional intelligence book and one of the things I am excited about is adding a whole new chapter on how emotional intelligence (EQ) is applied in Agile teams.  This includes all those soft skills that Agile team leaders, scrum masters, project managers, and other stakeholders need.  This is going to be a combination of the two things I am very passionate about so I am excited to dig in.  Also, with the growth of Agile methods in organizations, I think the second edition would be incomplete if it did not address leading Agile projects.

Interpersonal skills are critical to leading Agile teams. I saw the connection between emotional intelligence and Agile teams very clearly when reading Alyssa Adkin’s book, Coaching Agile Teams.  Alyssa reminds us of many things that we probably already know but that we may be too busy or distracted to put into regular practice.  Her entire book is a gem and a must-read for anyone who is leading or coaching an Agile team.  I will be focusing on the parallels between emotional mastery and the skills required to effectively lead Agile teams.

Here is a laundry list of some of the ideas and themes that I plan to explore over the next month or two.

  • Command and control leadership in Agile Teams is a non-starter.  The key to success with Agile Teams is Servant Leadership.  We will explore both what servant leadership looks like, as well as explore some ideas for those of us who have relied heavily on the commanding style of leadership in the past.
  • The Agile team leader/scrum master needs to practice being in the moment with their teams.  That means focusing on the here and now, and being fully present and engaged.
  • Using our own emotional self-awareness is a great source of information about what is going on.  How we feel, is a reflection of the emotional mix within the team.
  • Agile leaders need to be willing to quietly leave space for other members of self-organizing teams.  In other words, Agile leaders often need to be less, so that others can step forward and be more.  This will be hard for some of us who are accustomed to speaking, or feel it is our job to step into the void, or that we know more than others know.
  • With self-organizing teams, it is the leader or coach’s job to help the team figure out for themselves what to do next, rather than solving it for them.  Adkins often uses the expression ‘Take it to the Team“.  This reminds me a lot of what my mentor Rich used to say, which I considered one of those Jedi mind tricks – “What do you think you should do?”  He would sometimes take it to the next level with me when I responded with, “I don’t know”.  He would say, “Well if you did know, what do you think the answer would be?”
  • Taking it to the team is closely related to the concept of positive regard.  Positive regard is assuming that the individual is whole and complete and that they have the ability to figure things out for themselves.  It is based on the field called humanistic psychology which was pioneered by Carl Rogers.  Rogers believed that all people are inherently good and that they have all the internal resources required to grow as individuals.
  • My book already has a number of ideas for how to be self-aware and manage our own emotions.  Adkins recommends making this a daily practice and provides several additional techniques for staying grounded that Agile leaders can put to use.
  • How our choice of words influences the conversation.  Adkins calls this the level of violence in our communications and provides a lot of tips for how to understand and adapt.

There will be more topics that surface as we dive into this.  One that I know is relevant is about the proper functioning of other key stakeholders in the Agile ecosystem; program managers, functional managers, the PMO, and executive leaders.

I welcome your comments and feedback and look forward to digging into the topics over the next few weeks.