Category Archives: Project Management

Back to Basics

Back to Basics

Back to Basics – farther than you might think!

For some time now I’ve been suggesting that we re-examine the basics.

This has meant the basics of communication, the basics of project management, the basics of team dynamics, and the basic understanding of how a culture feeds into and affects the behaviors of teams.

I am in the midst of exploring Eric Weiner‘s The Geography of Genius. He offers an expansion of the definition of culture. That, and the resulting tweak of its impact on us as people, struck me.

According to Weiner,

“Culture is more than what the dictionary tells us: “a set of shared attitudes, values and goals”. Culture is the enormous yet invisible ocean in which we swim. Or, to put it in modern, digital terms, culture is a shared IT network. Yes, it’s temperamental and crashes too often for our liking, but without it, we can’t communicate with one another or accomplish much of anything.”

He also makes the point that within every culture are sub-cultures – a part of, but also apart from, the overarching culture.

Think of it as the difference between how a person from manufacturing might view a new product versus how a person from product development might view it.  Then throw in the folks from finance and the human resources department.

Each area of expertise has also generated its own sub-culture.  The finance department of a company, focused on manufacturing consumer products, will likely have a different sub-culture than one that focuses on services in a business to business perspective.  The sub-cultures of these two finance companies will have a great deal in common with each other.  They will also have significant differences due to the underlying culture of the organization where they work.

Project teams (and specifically new product development teams) are particularly vulnerable to this as each project team – temporary in its nature – will also develop a sub-culture of its own.  That sub-culture is still connected to the ambient culture of their organization. It also has the opportunity to become something more than the best parts of the larger culture – more productive, more focused, more profitable – by the simple fact of being separate, temporary, and often smaller than other groups that will form their sub-cultures.

These sub-cultures are a bit independent of, yet must align with, the higher level organizational cultures, an Organizational Breakdown Structure that focuses on culture, if you will, that focuses on the culture. The dominant culture may prize precision.  The new product development team has to be able to embrace a larger level of uncertainty. Each sub-organization, each team, must change their behaviors to embrace and align with the larger culture without losing their specific focus points. Additionally, how will you keep from accidently affecting beliefs and values, resulting in behaviors that are counterproductive or downright destructive?  

Weiner opens his book with this quote from Plato. I have long felt that it is one that would bring great benefit if more people would spend some time and give serious thought to it. It proves how far back you need to go, sometimes, when you go back to basics.

“What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.” – Plato

What is honored in the ‘country’ that is your team’s home and how is it manifested in their behaviors and productivity levels?

Key Actions for Higher Performance:

  • Gain clarity: what is the existing cultural norm? Do a project team's specific SWOT (Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats) analysis on the potential impact of the organization’s overall culture on your team.
  • Enlist and enroll key stakeholders in this exercise. Each member of an existing sub-culture that will participate in the project’s lifecycle and eventual success can give you valuable insight into the questions – and even answer some issues for your stakeholder analysis.
  • Prioritize! Choose the single area that you believe can either make the greatest difference, the fastest win, or the most visible win – and, based on what is most valued in the dominant culture of your organization, pick that one thing to work on first. The Key Success Parameters of any high performing project team are so beautifully intertwined that you will begin to affect other areas with a solid shift in one.

Contact me if you want to put our Team MRI to use in this effort. You can reach me at I’ll be glad to set up a link for your specific teams so that your results are immediate, discrete, and actionable. What will you do first with the results of this diagnostic tool?



Come to the Orlando Premier CIO Forum on Dec. 13 and hear me speak on “Defining Teams and Cultures That Deliver”. Join me and your peers for networking and hearing experts discuss IT topics and trends that are important to CIOs and IT Executives. Register now

Quick note: A tip for increasing Clear Definition

Category : Project Management

I hope you enjoy my first foray into podcasting – and if you have any other suggestions of how you’ve helped your teams improve the level of clarity in communications please leave ideas in comments!

The “Save” Icon

Category : Project Management

The "Save" Icon

The other day, after speaking on a panel for Chick-Tech, I realized that I was, by at least a decade, the oldest person in the room.  That meant it was also highly likely that I was also the only person in the room who had actively used a tool that every single person in that room sees every day.

A 3.5 inch floppy – or, as many will more likely recognize in graphic form, the ‘Save’ icon.

It reminded me of a time when my step-daughter asked me “what exactly does ‘cc’ mean?”

When I replied that it stood for “carbon copy”, she said that she had always wondered, did we really make carbon copies of things? How, exactly did that work?

That conversation happened years ago – possibly even decades ago.

And remembering that, coupled with the flash of realization the other night, caused me to ask myself an important question – one that we don’t always think to ask ourselves (me included!):

”Are you sure that everyone you are working with understands the same way that you do and why?”


“Why are you sure?”


“Why do you think they see the situation/issue/question the same way that you do?”

Which engenders the question,

“How did you confirm that understanding?”

The odd thing about a meritocracy: building one doesn’t guarantee that the team – or the company – will succeed.  The people who have the maddest technical skills may not be the best at working in a team environment.  The person with the best interpersonal skills may not be able to bridge the gap in a spot crisis when solid (possibly even amazing!) technical skills are needed.

We are not suggesting that implementing Clear Definition, combined with Ownership and Collaborative Spirit, will remove these problems.

We are suggesting  that these three Key Success Parameters will give you a stronger shot at addressing these problems with less stress on the leadership team, the project team, and lastly – but not least – you.

KSP Tip for High Performance: Model the behavior that shows that you do not take common context for granted.  Ask for paraphrased loop-back periodically during discussions with your team members. Encourage and support when they do the same. If you‘re asked, feel free to blame it on me (‘that darned consultant wants us to try this!’). Or, alternatively, you can tell them the story of the ‘Save’ icon and ask:

“How many of you have actually used one of these ‘floppy’ disks?”



Papyrus, White Boards, Glibness, and Cerebral Knowledge

Category : Project Management

Glibness (n): fluent but insincere or shallow.

I once consulted to a high-tech engineering company outside of Pittsburgh. The engineers had attended one of my project management seminars a short time prior, and asked that I come in and do a bit of coaching.

One of the best students in the class asked for some help with his project. He was about half-way through the project and looking for some guidance to help him finish. We met, exchanged pleasantries, and got to work. I went through my usual checklist and inevitably came to the precedence diagram (a diagram showing the sequence and flow of the project work). “Of course I have one”, he responded (as I had stressed this topic in the class).

“Excellent, let’s pull it out so I can see it”, I replied.

“Well… it’s in my head”, he responded.

It took a half-second for me to recover (I didn’t expect that response), put a smile back on my face, cleaned off his white-board and said, “Okay, let’s go through it.”

The next few minutes went exactly as I expected. He started confidently, telling me what activities were currently active and what followed them. It didn’t take long before the confusion started. “Oh, wait, I forgot about (some task)”. “Oh, yes, then there’s (some other task)”. This went on for a short while.

Tasks were missing in his head. He had thought about them at one time, but his mind relegated them to the background. He hadn’t thought through the sequence (we changed many sequences during the exercise, and had to add a few new tasks). But after we were done on the white board, we had a solid plan to finish his project. The entire exercise only took about 20 minutes.

We’ve become a cerebral society. If we need information, we just GTS (Google the S[tuff]) and move on. We tend not to study it, we don’t analyze it, we frequently don’t even challenge it (after all, it must be true… it’s on the internet). We get fast answers to quick questions and move on.

It’s a form of glibness, a shallow understanding of the topic. He is a bright engineer, caring, hard-working, and wants to do things right. He just kept everything in his head, never put it on paper or a white board, or even in electronic format. He never spent the time to really look at the sequence, challenge assumptions, and get it right.

The problem is the mind forgets, it automatically re-prioritizes what’s in short-term memory. Things go missing, they go to the background, and of course, the mind doesn’t bother telling us when it does this, it just does it.

Examples of this are so numerous I dare not mention them all. One of the techniques Kimi and I started doing some time ago in our speeches is asking senior managers if they ever laid out all their projects in front of them to see how resources were allocated. Their usual response… deer in headlights! That tells me that if they actually did that, they’d realize the difficulties they were placing on their staff.

I still love paper. I frequently sketch things out on white-boards, go over it many times (and usually with a second pair of eyes); then, once I truly understand it, it will end up in electronic format somewhere so I can pull it up any time. I write down my assumptions, decisions, and rationales. I can’t tell you how much time this saves me.

While I believe mankind is getting smarter, we still can’t just run things from our heads. We can’t run projects from our heads, we can’t manage strategic plans, business processes, or research cerebrally.

Try it. Spend the time and effort, lay it out, see it in the physical universe, and go over it several times. Peer review it… have another pair of eyes look at it. It’s amazing what you’ll discover and the mistakes you’ll avoid and the time you’ll save!

… not that I’m opinionated on this!


Michael B Bender

Upcoming Events

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