Every project is a screwdriver – or the process inflexibility gorilla

[Thanks to Phillip Chen, for the inspiration for this blog. His discussion thread on “Do you tailor PMBOK or other PM methodologies for your projects?” in the PMP LinkedIn group, sparked a reply by myself that spawned this blog. ]

Things are really looking up. Just got transferred to the newly formed product incubation group. The company is finally putting innovation up as one of the top three business goals for the coming year and you’re on the bottom floor of the new team.

You were worried for a while there, market share was slipping and it just didn’t seem like anyone was willing to break the cycle. No one wanted to point out the Emperor had no clothes and winter was coming. But the board did. Now you’ve got a new CEO and he’s shaking things up. What could go wrong?

“That is not how we do it.”

“But this is totally new product line, it’s nothing like our existing products. If we follow the same process we won’t get to market for two years.”

“No exceptions, we have a process, it works and you will follow it.”

Welcome to the PIG:
And wham, you run right into the Process Inflexibility Gorilla. Hogarth and I have talked about his cousin, PIG, on many occasions. As Hogarth oft recalls “He makes the immoveable object look like a hockey puck in the Stanley Cup.”

PIG generally hangs out in larger, more established companies. He’s at home in long standing businesses that have managed to keep doing what they do, with the minimal amount of change. It seems that sometimes that success is in spite of themselves. As often happens, the process inflexibility gorilla is so firmly entrenched, that he is all but invisible to those around him. He is not just ignored but not even seen. It takes a business change, or a new set of eyes to see him. The challenge that then comes, is how to get those entrenched with him, to actually see him.

A company hired a Director of QA. They had previously practiced a developer QA model, with the philosophy that the best person to test code was the person who wrote it. This director, we’ll call him Saul (I just made it up on the spot folks), was given a broad charter, promises of support and let loose on the engineering organization. Now Saul was an effective executive. He knew he couldn’t just sweep in and “lay down the law” no matter how much air cover he might (or might not) have. Saul took his time, he asked lots of questions, observed, got to know people and laid out his plan. He made some minor wins and changes, but for the most part he spent the first few months collecting data. All in preparation for laying out a whole new QA methodology, just like the charter he’d been given said to do.

Only when it came time to roll it out he ran into a massive wall, one that made China’s Great Wall look like one of those Irish rock walls in a sheep pasture. So powerful was the institution, to the way things were ‘supposed’ to work, that even his powerful executive sponsors backed down. So entrenched was the “way its done”, that no one was willing to consider that the business had changed, or needed to change for it to continue to compete effectively. In the end Saul left the company, unwilling to spend the rest of his career trying to get people to see the invisible gorilla.

So, how do you deal with such a pervasive and hard to see gorilla? It’s not easy and it may not even be possible, but there are some things you can try.

Now one thing you may of noticed in my style, is I like analogies. I’ve found if you can break something out of the now and use something totally unrelated to explain it. When this topic came up in the PMP LinkedIn discussion forums I used the ‘screwdriver story’.

“Yeah sure, that screwdriver is absolutely perfect for that job. But not every job is identical.”

Of course many entrenched people will argue that everything is identical. Yeah that may be their point of view, but I just keep on with my analogy.

      “We both have a budget of $200. I’ll take the money and buy a nice , simple toolbox with all the normal tools in it, you know hammer, phillips, flat head, wrench, etc. You can use your $200 to buy a super whiz bang phillips head screw driver that is exactly perfect for the currently defined job.” “I’ll do this because when you get stuck in a room (project) that has nothing but lug bolts, your fancy screw driver is just a pointy stick.”

Something you have to go back to, in times like these, is the concept of innovation. If you have inflexible process you probably have one of two things. You have inflexible products, which will be unable to compete in the continuing market place. Or you have products that are not being managed efficiently because they are square pegs being shoved in round roles and shaving off parts to fit. If your company is not flexible, how long will it continue to survive?

All right, while a very satisfying conversation it won’t sway every listener. The people who are inflexible in process are often not going to want to consider there might be anything but phillips screws in their company. These kind of people are going to bristle when you imply the company might fail through lack of change. “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” So what do you do? Tough question and no easy answer.
One thing you can try, is to work around the road block. If you have good cross organization and seniority relationships, you might be able to push for change from another direction. You have to be careful though, as this steps into the touchy ‘going over/around someone’ politics.

When it comes down to addressing the Process Inflexibility Gorilla (PIG), we once again come back to relationship and influence. While Saul failed in his endeavor, more often than not a strong and broad set of relationships should allow you to get the value benefit of making process change across to people who can affect the change.

Don’t cry “The emperor has no clothes” or in this case “Look an invisible gorilla!” Instead steer people so they can’t help but run into the invisible gorilla. Once you run into an 800 pound gorilla it doesn’t really matter if you can’t see it, you know its there.

Talking with gorillas, I’m Joel BC

The Conflict Gorilla

“Absolutely not! That would be a complete waste of resources and I won’t sanction it.”
Around the table feet shuffle, eyes find fascinating patterns in carpets and ceiling tiles and not a person responds to the declarative outburst. Deeply intent on your nearly empty page of notes, you try and ignore the looming form of Hogarth the gorilla.
“I thought the product manager owned the product?” he asks, munching noisily on a banana.
I direct a jail house whisper at Hogarth “She’s the VP of release engineering, she out ranks everyone in the room.”
“Mmh.., , but she’s not on the project team, is she?”
“She doesn’t have to be, she can make any of our lives miserable.”
Hogarth picks a flea from his fur and flicks it into the garbage can. “So she can use her role power to cow you all into place, cause no one wants to disagree with her?”
“Shut up Hogarth.”
The Conflict gorilla: A more frightening and unapproachable gorilla you will likely never find. Most people inherently shun conflict. Those that do not, often tackle it head on and get swatted down for their temerity, with the same end result. The above example is a radical one. The fear of a high-ranking person’s power has cowed many a bright manager to inaction. But it is not the only time we avoid conflict. How many times has someone complained about quality of another peers work, unmet deliverables or more direct negative behaviors (She’s always interrupting me, I can never finish a sentence).
Yet when you ask that person (or yourself, let’s be honest here) what they(you) did about it, invariably the answer is in the range of ‘nothing’, ‘I sent an email’, ‘You’re my boss, what can you do?’?
It’s amazing in a world, so filled with global conflict, that we tend to avoid any semblance of it in our professional and personal lives. Someone, somewhere, is probably earning their PhD, studying how conflict-avoiding seeking people can have spent so many centuries in global scale wars. Well let me be the first to step up and say “Hi, my name is Joel and I’m an anti-conflicter.”
As I look back on my years in Silicon Valley I cannot count the number of times I ran headlong into a conflict situation and let fear, desire to not rock the boat, not become a target, rule my actions. And to what cost? Would I have gotten that promotion, would that million dollar bug have been fixed, would the team been more productive, and so on?
This gorilla has long been the bane of my existence. I knew it was an issue, I knew it was a roadblock, but I could never get past it. Then I heard a wonderful quote. Mark Hortsman, management consultant and podcaster said “My uncle always used to say, conflict is any two people in the same county”. Wow… so I can’t avoid conflict. In fact conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Are you saying, that just as Risk Management says a risk can be a good or bad event, so is it with conflict?
There you have it folks, like it or not we are stuck with conflict. The question is, will we have good conflict or bad conflict?
Now before I give some of my own personal tips, let me advise you against what NOT to do:
Some people like to confront conflict head on. In the above example, let’s say the Product Manager had gone head on with the VP, saying some thing like “That’s my decision and between myself and the developers.”
Now the Product Manager is technically correct, but even as nicely worded as that was, it is a slam right in the face of the VP. The entire rest of the meeting just became ringside seats to the conflict. Just because you have the will to face the conflict, doesn’t mean you should charge in guns blazing. Look what it did for the Charge of the Light Brigade.
So how would I approach the situation?:
Well in the above situation, imagine if you as the Project or Product Manager has just said, “Okay”, or “Okay, thanks for your input” ?
One of the first things to diffusing conflict is to not rise to it. Think of good forum posting etiquette. If you are in a hot thread, the rule is thirty minutes. After you write your post, wait thirty minutes, read it again and ask if you really need to send it.
At the highest level, dealing with conflict has to do with making a safe environment for both sides to talk freely.
Which brings us back to a theme I sense developing in this blog, relationships. If you have a good working relationship with not only your team, but your stakeholders and the extended team, then you will have less negative conflict. Get out of your cube and talk to that VP, get to know more about them than the color of their Blackberry.
Here are some resources I’ve found that are helpful to dealing with conflict:
  • Dialogue Smarts: Skills for Mastering Crucial Conversations : Find someplace that conducts the training. One of my old companies offered it and I still have the Dialogue flip cards on my desk.
  • Crucial Conversations: This is the book by the creators of the course. If you can’t take the course, buy the book (or both).
  • Management-Tools.com: No I don’t get paid to endorse them. I just have found they really work. I recommend the podcasts on Feedback (Especially the Feedback for Project Managers and Peer Feedback), the “Feel, Felt, Found” podcast, the Resolving Conflict podcast and their series on communicating to the DISC profile system.

    In the end, we can’t avoid conflict. As long as we are not monks on a mountain top we will encounter conflict. The question is how we will deal with it. As a reminder hint, hiding in the turtle shell is not the solution.

    I’m Joel BC, Gorilla Talker