Category Archives: Project Management

Project Management – summer tips from project experts


By Elisabeth Goodman, 29th June 2019

I have been spending a pleasant few hours browsing through the APM’s summer issue (no.299) of their quarterly publication Project and have found it a rich mine of information for the subjects that RiverRhee covers in its courses for project and line managers.

Here then are some extracts from this summer’s issue of Project – with a focus on Project Management.

Waterfall and Agile techniques can be fruitfully combined for structure and creativity

Many of our clients work in small Life Science or Biotech companies.  Their projects can follow an established methodology, especially if they are providing CRO-style (Contract Research Organisation) services to external clients.  Often though, their projects are more exploratory.  They may be assessing whether a particular methodology might work, or may even be developing that methodology.  Or they may be finding out what kind of activity a specific chemical or biological entity might demonstrate.

Illustration from Emma De Vita’s article “Hybrid and Proud” in Project, Summer issue, 2019

Emma De Vita is editor of Project. Her article cites several examples of how project managers are combining the Waterfall methodology for the overall project structure, with the Agile methodology for the creative interactions within the team and with clients. This “hybrid” approach could also work very well for our Life Science clients.

These quotes from Jim Conroy of Project Objects are particularly apt:

“You can’t not do it [waterfall]. You…need to assess whether that [[project or idea] is a good strategic fit, whether you’ve got the cost for it and the right resources to make it happen. Then you do have to go through a process..[reviewing] deliverables, and tasks and workflows..that need to get done and validates.”

He says that Agile is about:

“waiting for the mess of creativity to manifest itself”.

Five top tips for brilliant projects

In another very helpful article, Emma de Vita shares her top tips for “getting your project to a flying start”.   Her tips resonate very well with what we tell our delegates:

Tip 1. Have the right people on your team and make the most of their ‘soft’ skills as well as their technical ones.

Project team members are often selected on the basis of their availability and, usually, on the basis of having the necessary technical skills.  Emma quotes Christine Unterhitzenberger (Lancaster University Management School’ who says: “It is important that you are not just given people because they are available, but get the people who can make the project a success.  They need to want to see it happen and speak up for it – get them on your side.”

Emma goes on to cite the importance of understanding the softer or behavioural skills that distinguishes each of your team members, so that you can really make the most of those skills, as well as their technical ones.  This is something that we help people explore through such personality tools as Belbin Team Roles and MBTI.

Tip 2. Build the team.

Emma quotes Nick Fewings (Ngagementworks): “as the project gets bigger, risks appear and stress occurs. If you get people who understand each other, they can mitigate that stress.”  Face-to-face kick off meetings, of fun-site meetings’ and electronic collaborative working spaces are all given as examples for how to do this.

Other approaches that we suggest include: encouraging people to work across the team in different combinations of twos and threes, and setting up regular one-to-one meetings to encourage open conversations about all aspects of the project, people- as well as task-related. However, as Nassar Majothi (WSP) suggests: “you only really become a team when you are in the thick of it”.

Tip 3. Clearly articulate your vision.

A clear vision is so important to get everyone on board, motivated, and working towards a common purpose.  It also helps people to get back on track when there is any change or uncertainty.  Emma’s quotes from Fewings and Unterhitzenberger corroborate this.  She also points out that you sometimes need external advice to help you clarify this vision – and, whilst our clients’ experiences are not necessarily the same as hers, they certainly often need constructive dialogue with their stakeholders to help them do that.

Tip 4. Set the (strong) culture and pace for the project.

Project leaders or managers should certainly take advantage of their role on a project to set the tone for what they want to achieve.  Emma quotes Majothi on this one:

“Invariably the team will take the personality of the leader.  Show that you are actually going to hold people to account from day one.  That sets the culture pretty quickly.”

There are so many ways that a leader can influence what happens on a team.  We put a lot of emphasis on these in our work with line and project managers. (See for example our blog on temperature checks or diagnostics for high performance teams.) Spending time clarifying expectations, roles and responsibilities, routes of communication, decision-making processes; all these things will help to set the culture and pace for the project.

Tip 5.  Build strong relationships with your stakeholders

Our Life Science and Biotech clients’ customers can be some of their most challenging stakeholders.  So it’s great to see stakeholders included in Emma de Vita’s top five tips.  Like us, she emphasizes the importance of putting in the time and the effort to understand things from their perspectives.

She also quotes Fewings’ suggestion that you find the people in your team who are really good at stakeholder management and make it one of their key roles.  It’s about keeping the communication lines constantly open so that stakeholders know what is happening on the project, and have the opportunity to influence it to make sure that it reflects their needs.  This approach brings us back to the opening item in this blog – adopting a hybrid approach to Project Management that will enable you to have a high level of interaction with your clients within the overall structure of your project.

conclusion

This summer issue of Project has been a particularly interesting read.  There are other articles with tips about productivity, and about addressing difficult relationships which I will be reflecting in one or two other blogs.

Notes

RiverRhee runs an Introduction to Project Management course (both in-house for clients, and as open courses).  Do get in touch if you would like to learn more about our approach.

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus. 

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

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Influencing skills for Project Management – lessons from the military


By Elisabeth Goodman, 27th April 2019

Photograph of Emma Dutton MBE by Louise Haywood-Schiefer for “How to win wars and influence people” in Project, Spring 2019 pp.22-27

Project is the APM’s (Association for Project Managment) regular publication for its members.  This spring’s issue carries a fascinating article by Ben Hargreaves, editor of Project, featuring Emma Dutton MBE.  The article describes how she has founded a consultancy, the Applied Influence Group, to apply what she has learnt from gathering intelligence for the British Armed forces in Afghanistan, to the world of Project Management.

Parallels between military influencing and influencing projects

The article highlights some of the points made by Emma Dutton in her talk to the APM’s recent National Conference for Women in Project Management.  The parallels between the two worlds of influence include:

Multiple, complex stakeholder relationships

Shifting loyalties and volatile environments

A [or some] very demanding client[s]

The first and last points are certainly ones that the Project Leaders / Managers in the Life Science companies that we work with at RiverRhee would echo:

  • They often have to work with a range of stakeholders within and outside their companies, with different cultural backgrounds and communication styles, and with high expectations of the project team.
  • Although the loyalties are perhaps more stable, and the environment not as volatile as those which Emma Dutton experienced, there is often a high degree of uncertainty as to the possible outcomes of the scientific work

Emotional intelligence at the heart of good influencing skills

Emma Dutton makes an interesting observation from her experience of working in Afghanistan that is quoted in the article:

Afghanistan is a country built on relationships.  Afghans’ interpersonal skills are much more developed than the average Western person’s.  That’s how they survive.

and:

The mission was to influence hearts and minds as much as it was to collect information.  You had to be genuinely empathetic.  We are all humans, and we know when people are being real.

Emotional intelligence is a strong component of RiverRhee’s training, workshops and coaching for project and operational leaders, managers and team members.  See www.riverrhee.com for details of our various courses, including those on influencing and communication skills.

This, together with what Emma Dutton describes as “emotional management” or regulation of ones emotions, is also described by Daniel Goleman* and others as emotional and social intelligence:

  • being aware of our own emotions, attitudes, behaviours and those of the people we are interacting with
  • making conscious choices about how we express or adapt these emotions, attitudes and behaviours in order to get positive outcomes for all parties

These are the qualities that will enable project managers and leaders to influence the diverse and challenging stakeholders that they interact with.

Emma Dutton’s advice seems very wise indeed:

[do] your work  before you get in the room. Understand the people you are talking to.

As Ben Hargreaves concludes in his article:

Understanding drivers, likes and dislikes, motivations, anxieties, interests, attitudes and beliefs is all-important for the influencer.

Notes

*Daniel Goleman et al are authors of a very helpful series of booklets “Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence” that Elisabeth Goodman has reviewed in earlier blogs as listed here:

About the author

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus. 

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

What to do about project overload?


By Elisabeth Goodman, 4th November 2018

Illustration from “Too Many Projects” by Rose Hollister and Michael Watkins, Harvard Business Review, Sept-Oct 2018 pp. 65-69

As many of the organisations that I work with are really struggling with this issue, Rose Hollister’s and Michael Watkins’ Harvard Business Review article on “Too many projects” (Sept-Oct 2018, pp 65-71) was very appropriate.

Why care about too many projects?

The authors assessment of the potential of too many projects mirrors the kinds of things we have been hearing from our RiverRhee clients in Life Science / Biotech SMEs:

  • increased (negative) stress
  • concerns about the negative impact on the quality of output
  • low morale
  • high turnover

Why organisations end up having too many projects?

It happens so easily…

1. Lack of awareness

As organisations get larger and more complex, they develop more silos so that it’s easy to lose sight of yet another addition to the portfolio and it’s impact on workload.

One department or function will add another project which will in turn impact on other departments or functions whose resources may not be equal to the additional workload.

Organisations will typically have no overall view of their portfolio, nor any mechanism to measure the number of projects within it.

2. Lack of judgement

One more project… according to the HBR authors this can happen through:

  • ‘Band aid’ initiatives: a supposedly quick fix which can end up being the wrong solution for a problem
  • ‘Cost myopia’: cut backs on resources without reassessing the project’s goal, scope, requirements.  (Or, in my clients’ experiences, expansion of scope without reassessing the resources.)
  • Political ‘logrolling’ (a term coined in 1835 by US congressman Davy Crocket) where a senior manager will take on another project just to help a colleague out – not wanting to break any promises
  • General under-funding or under-resourcing of projects

3. Lack of (or the wrong) action

Without a clear view of the portfolio or a way to measure it, and without any formal process for assessing or reviewing the status of projects it can be easy to…

Not have the means or will to stop existing projects..

Prioritise by function or department than by the organisation as a whole..

Add new projects without cutting others…

Make across the board cuts in resources that don’t take into account the impact on individual departments / functions and their projects..

Is project overload an issue for you?

The illustration from the HBR article at the top of this article is an extract of a diagnostic that organisations can use to assess whether project overload is an issue for them.  If the answer to any 4 of the question is ‘yes’ then you will need to find ways to better manage your portfolio..

Good practices for keeping your project portfolio in check

So… how to keep your project portfolio under control should by now be fairly self-evident:

  • Take a cross-organisation view of your portfolio.  Get a true count of the number of projects, and understand the impact of each project’s impact on other departments or functions.  Have leaders work together for this integrated view and approach.
  • Evaluate each initiative before you start.  The article includes examples of the questions to ask.
  • Have a review and sunset policy. Review projects and portfolios on a regular (monthly / quarterly / annual) basis.  You might even, as the authors suggest, expect project teams to reapply for resources in order to continue!  The sunset policy is a clause within the project’s brief describing when / how they will end the project.

And… create a mindset within the organisation that stopping a project does not equate to failure or a lack of merit.. but rather to strong decision making and objectivity.

NOTES

About the author. Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals). Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

Aligning expectations will help to reduce misunderstandings and conflict


By Elisabeth Goodman, 16th July 2018

If we don’t know what is expected of us, it can be hard to deliver it!

No matter how informal the management practices may be in your organisation, there will come a point when someone will query what it is that you are there to do and whether you have delivered it.  That someone might be you, in a conversation with your line or project manager, or your line or project manager in a conversation with you!

We work with fast-growing Biotechs, and also with more Library and Information groups in more established organisations.  The formality of their management practices varies enormously in both, but discussions invariably arise which reflect some lack of clarity about expected roles.

Such lack of clarity might result in:

  1. Expected tasks not being completed, or not being completed on time
  2. Unnecessary work being done on tasks that are not required
  3. Lack of recognition of work that exceeds what would otherwise be expected of someone
  4. Stress for and conflict amongst any of the parties involved

There are a number of tools available to help manage expectations

Tools for managing expectations

Aligning expectations will help to reduce misunderstandings and conflict. Slides from RiverRhee’s courses for those who are new to management.

Job descriptions define baseline expectations for roles and responsibilities

Job descriptions used to be a standard tool in organisations to define the expectations of someone’s role at work.  They are still generally used as the basis for recruitment, but are not always maintained as a reference point for ongoing roles.  So it’s not unusual for delegates on our courses not to have a job description, or for it to be out-of-date or not specific to their role.

Those with an HR role in small Biotechs often struggle with having the time or expertise to document all the roles in an organisation – so we often suggest that individuals and/or their managers have a go at drafting their job descriptions.   Those without job descriptions in larger organisations could also consider doing this.

Even a draft job description can act as a starting point for agreeing expectations.

Objectives document and facilitate discussions about more transient responsibilities

Again, the organisations that we work with have variable practices around objective setting.  Done well, they can be used for managing shifting expectations during the course of a year.

Whereas job descriptions define broad areas of responsibility for an individual, objectives reflect new areas of activity, opportunities for improvement, and more transient responsibilities that may come and go.

So, for example, a scientist with responsibilities in a particular therapeutic area, or for particular types of assays, may have an objective to investigate the feasibility of moving into a new therapeutic area, to develop new or improved assays or to develop relationships with a new client

Similarly, an information scientist with responsibility for supporting a particular customer group may have an objective to identify good practices for extension to another customer group, or to develop a new type or product or service.

How objectives are defined will vary from one organisation to another, but some form of the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) acronym is commonly adopted.

Whilst setting objectives can be challenging, as they generally evolve over the year, not documenting them will create even more challenges in terms of meaningful discussions about expectations and what has been achieved.

Project charters ensure that individuals, their line managers and project managers are all aligned on expectations

This RiverRhee newsletter (A second look at Project Management), also referenced the use of project charters.  Such charters can take a variety of forms, but the key is to include unambiguous details of who is expected to do what, and by when.

Again, these details are likely to change over the course of the project, but they act as an agreed starting point to facilitate conversations amongst all those involved.

Notes

This is the second blog in a series that will be covering all the different modules of RiverRhee’s management courses, in the run down to our next courses in September 2018. (You can read the first blog – Management is about more than just getting the job done! here…)

Keep an eye on RiverRhee’s website for details of our upcoming courses for managers and teams.

About the author

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals). Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

Addressing the challenges of “multi-teaming” in project management


By Elisabeth Goodman, 9th September 2017

The nature of “multi-teaming” in project management

Many of the organisations that I work with manage projects as the essence of their way of working.  The complexity of this approach is compounded in two ways:

  1. Operating a matrix model of management – where individuals have a line manager who is not necessarily their project manager
  2. Assigning team members and leaders to multiple teams – so that they dip in and out of projects according to when their time and expertise is most needed.

Benefits

There are tremendous benefits to this way of working – such as:

  • ensuring that team members’ expertise is used to the full across the organisation
  • sharing knowledge and good practices between teams
  • fostering learning and development
  • providing opportunities for continuous improvement
  • minimising downtime and associated costs.

Risks and costs

There are also risks and costs – such as:

  • increased employee stress
  • reduced quality of team interactions (or group identity / cohesion)
  • knock-on effects from issues in one project impacting on resource availability for others.

Facts and data

The overcommitted organization_HBR Sept Oct 2017

Mark Mortensen and Heidi K. Gardner.  The overcommitted organization.  HBR Sept-Oct 2017, pp. 58-65

Mark Mortensen and Heidi Gardner’s article “The overcommitted organization” in the September – October issue of Harvard Business Review (pages 58-65) has some facts and data about the extent of “multi-teaming” in organisations.

 

They have studied hundreds of teams in a range of sectors (including professional services, oil and gas, high tech, consumer goods) over a period of 15 years.

Apparently at least 81% of more than 500 managers in global companies reported “multi-teaming” as a way of life, with people involved in as many as 6 to 15 projects in a week.

My own empirical observation in working with teams in the Life Sciences, and in Library and Information Management, is that “multi-teaming” is also a way of life, although the number of projects that people are juggling is generally not quite as high!

Tips for addressing the challenges of “multi-teaming”

Mortensen and Gardner provide some very useful tips on how to address the associated challenges of “multi-tasking”, which also reinforce the points we share in RiverRhee’s training on team and project management.

Building the team

We know that the most effective teams are those that not only have a clear idea of their purpose and individual members’ roles, but have spent time developing the relationships with the team.

Our experience that the most effective way to set the team on the right path is to have a kick-off meeting or launch, and ideally face-to-face.  This enables people to start to get to know each other, and from there, as emphasize Mortensen and Gardner, comes trust and accountability.

In fact, they maintain that having a team launch can improve performance by up to 30%.

An emphasis on building the team also helps people to feel that they “belong” to each team that they are working on – something that we know can be a very strong motivator for many people.   For team leaders, understanding what motivates each person will help them to boost and maintain motivation.

Making the most of everyone’s skills

Mortensen and Gardner also say that it is worth doing a team launch even with team members who are already familiar with each other as every new project is likely to bring new requirements and skills into play.

They advocate mapping everyone’s skills – both technical and soft, along with wider areas of knowledge.  This ensures that everyone is aware of who can bring what skills to bear, that they consult each other accordingly, and also hold each other accountable for quality.

This also builds on what we know from using personality tools such as MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and Belbin Team Roles to understand and optimise the interactions between team members.

Managing time and priorities

This is probably the most important issue for many team members and leaders.  We often hear of people’s frustration as the time they thought they had for one project gets squeezed by demands from another.

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.33.50

In a RiverRhee newsletter on Project Management, we shared our advice for using explicit project charters for agreeing the time that each person would spend on each project.  This is very much a starting point but it opens up the conversation, and many organisations then use portfolio review meetings to further address changes in priorities and requirements on people’s time.

Mortensen and Gardner have some other great suggestions:

  • schedule mandatory full team meetings at key milestones – making these dates clear with other teams
  • use sub-team meetings at other times to reduce the number of commitments on the rest of the team members – and supplement these with brief check-ins with other individuals
  • use electronic tools to share updates on project status, and consider using short videos as alternative to long memos
  • visual tools such as the video on Skype or Facetime for individual one-to-one check-ins can help to pick up body language cues for instance around stress, motivation, understanding etc.

Fostering learning

We put a big emphasis on the importance and benefits of sharing learning and how to do it for creating excellence in project management, so it was good to see the HBR authors highlight this too.

As they say, learning is something that can suffer when people are pushed for time.  It is also an important motivator for many people.

We stress the importance of scheduling a close-out meeting as part of the project plan to ensure that learnings are reflected upon and actions agreed for sharing and addressing them.

Mortensen and Gardner also suggest that team leaders:

  • give and encourage feedback
  • designate co-leaders for different aspects of the project to enhance the amount of contact between team members
  • pair people up (perhaps with different levels of expertise) so that they can learn from each other
  • pose “what if” questions and re-direct questions to team members to also foster cross-tutoring

What can be done to reduce risk and boost innovation at an organisational level

The HBR authors have some additional, perhaps less commonly identified, organisational strategies for addressing the challenges of “multi-teaming”, and so decrease risk, and increase innovation.

These strategies focus on ensuring a good understanding of and actively managing the spread of people across teams.

Many organisations use some form of FTE or resource management system to understand who is working on what project, and how much time they are devoting to each.  They mainly use this for accounting purposes – for example so that costs to clients can be more accurately calculated.

Mortensen and Gardner suggest that this mapping of resources should also be used to understand and manage the associated risks and opportunities from “multi-teaming”.

Anticipating shock-waves between projects

So for instance if the overlap of members between teams is large, there is a greater risk of knock-on shocks from one project to another.  With an accurate mapping of team membership, project or senior managers could anticipate these risks and develop mitigation plans.

Optimising knowledge sharing and learning

If the overlap between members of projects is small, and the organisation values knowledge sharing between projects, then the expectation (or culture) and approaches for the transfer of learnings and good practices could be made more explicit.

Enhancing team building

The authors also suggest that, if the nature of the tasks or the culture between different project teams is very different, it will be harder for members to transition from one to the other.  Understanding the overall map of resources to teams would therefore alert project, line and senior managers in these situations to put a greater emphasis on the on-boarding and team building activities.

Using dedicated resources

Organisations who have designated portfolio managers, or project management offices (PMOs) could take on many of the recommendations listed above.  However, many of the smaller Life Science organisations, and Library and Information Management services that we deal with do not have this luxury.

The HBR authors’ recommendations could be an alternative to these.  So for example there could be:

  • designated “fire-fighters” to watch-out for any of the risks identified above
  • spare resources that could be moved between teams
  • “protected” or designated resources whose role and time on specific teams could not be jeopardised

Individuals in HR or IT could also have designated roles to monitor the various aspects of “multi-teaming”.

About the author

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.) Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  

RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals).

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. 

She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) where she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

Appreciative Inquiry – a tool and philosophy for positive change


The Appreciative Inquiry five-step model

The Appreciative Inquiry five-step model

By Elisabeth Goodman, 5th November 2016

Asking questions sets the tone for what will follow – start from what’s working well

It seemed obvious from the moment that our facilitator, Andy Smith (Coaching Leaders), mentioned it at the start of the two day course on Appreciative Inquiry (AI) that I attended this week. The minute you ask someone, or a group of people a question, you have influenced their mindset. Ask them what they like about something, or what is going well, and the chances are they will relax, open up and be in the mood to be creative. Ask them what’s not working and they may get defensive, close up and descend into despondency.

That’s a simplification of course as people may want to air their problems before they can open up to explore solutions, and they may automatically rise to the challenge rather than wait to be asked the right question. But the general premise of AI is to focus on what’s working well, on what people do best and on everyone’s potential to do so much more and better. Asking the right, open, positive questions will enable this to happen.

There are implications for coaching and personal development, for team building, for problem solving, decision making, innovation, knowledge and project management and for managing change! This blog just highlights a few of the ways to do this. There’s obviously a lot more about this that I will weave into RiverRhee‘s work and that you can find out about from some of the references below.

A new five-step model

The illustration at the start of this blog is of the five-step model. (Andy calls this ‘the 5 Ds’ but I already have a different 5D model that I refer to for time or productivity management so I will keep these distinct.)

Define the topic to be explored in an affirmative way: so it is stated in terms of what you want to move towards, rather than the problem to be moved away from. Focus on the vision and your mind and body will be already working out creative ways to achieve it.

Discover all the things that you are already doing well towards achieving that vision. This is where the affirmative questioning really starts to kick in.

Dream what it would be like when you achieve that vision: what will you hear, feel, see, think? What would it be like if a miracle happened overnight? This step engages the emotions: the heart as well as the mind and creates a really compelling vision.

Design all the possible alternatives (without evaluating at this stage) for achieving the dream. Build on what’s going well and stretch beyond that.

Deliver – this is the point at which you evaluate the alternatives and decide on the next steps to achieve your vision.

Applying Appreciative Inquiry to coaching

People familiar with the GROW and T-GROW models of coaching will have spotted that define equates with setting the topic (T) or goal (G). Discover equates to reality (R) but with a focus on what’s working well rather than on what’s generally happening. Dream is an enhanced version of the goal. Design equates to options (O) but holding back on evaluating those options. Deliver equates to will ( W ).

The slightly different order of the AI five-step process means that the aspirational vision or dream can build on the positive mood generated and so be more creative than the early definition of the goal permits in the GROW model. Although, in practice, either model can be iterative in a coaching situation.

Appreciative Inquiry and team building

The five-step model could also be used with a group of people in a team situation, to explore how a team can become more effective and attain, or sustain high performance. It could be used ‘live’ within a workshop, as an alternative to using pre-workshop diagnostics or temperature checks as described in some of my previous blogs for team development.

So the team can define in real time what it wants to achieve, discover all the things it is currently doing well, dream of what it could do, brainstorm how it could get there (design), and then agree the actions to take forward (deliver). The team could use rating scales (1 to 5, 1 to 10 etc) at any point in this discussion to make their assessments and goals more tangible.

Appreciative Inquiry and problem solving, decision making, innovation, knowledge and project management

As the previous sections demonstrate, the five-step model has built in approaches to aid with problem solving, decision making and innovation. Focusing on what has gone well and using the dream steps arguably allow people to go beyond just fixing the problem into new realms of creativity.

Apparently others have already explored how to apply AI in Lean and Six Sigma, and I shall look into this more. Certainly, exploring what has gone well and why, in the Measure and Analyse phases of the DMAIC are possibilities that I do already touch upon in my RiverRhee courses. We also sometimes use ‘blue sky’ thinking to imagine a ‘to be’ way of working in the Improve phase.

De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, and the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis also encourage equivalents to the Discover step (yellow hat, and Strengths respectively), the Dream step (green and Opportunities), and Design (green again, and the actions arising out of the SWOT analysis).

Andy also mentioned SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results) as an affirmative alternative to SWOT and which should give more scope for the Dream step!

Finally, knowledge management techniques will obviously benefit from AI, especially as having a productive conversation is at the heart of sharing knowledge between people. After Action Reviews, Learning Reviews or Retrospects (or Lessons Learned exercises in Project Management) already explore what went well. So AI techniques and philosophies would enhance the outcomes in these areas too.

Appreciative Inquiry and managing change

Last but not least, AI has something to offer those leading or dealing with change and so support one of my missions which is to create ‘navigators‘ as opposed to ‘victims’ of change! We can aim to understand and look for ways to maintain, enhance, or at a minimum, compensate for the best of what people previously had in creating whatever the new situation might be. And we can ensure that that new situation is as compelling a vision or ‘dream’ as possible.

In conclusion

There are lots of opportunities to apply Appreciative Inquiry tools and ways of thinking in our working and home lives.  I am using some of these applications already, and looking forward to exploring more with with clients, colleagues, friends and family!

I’ll try not to be a “rose-tinted evangelist” though: we still need to acknowledge the very real problems and challenges that people experience and how they feel about them.

How might you apply AI?

further references

ABOUT THE author

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We use training, facilitation, coaching, mentoring and consulting in our work with our clients.)

Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  

RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus, a quality assured training provider with Cogent Skills and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals).

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner.  

She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) where she leads on Membership, Communications and Events for the Enabling Change SIG committee.

Personal knowledge mapping – applied to project management


By Elisabeth Goodman, 27th March 2016

Our mental maps

I’ve noticed lately that my brain is not as sharp as it usually is.  For example, when setting off in my car I have to think carefully about where I’m going, and then re-create my mental map of how to get there. Trying to remember the name of an actor, I see his face, his expressions, other things that he’s acted in before his name eventually comes back to me.  Hopefully this lack of sharpness is just a temporary result of how busy my work and life have been, and this Easter break will act as a restorative!  Meanwhile, it’s a useful context for this blog…

Isn’t a lot of what we remember dependent on the mental maps that we’ve created?  How we’ve slotted together various pieces of information?  Like the game we used to play with the children: here’s a person, a place and an object – let’s create a story from them.

MBTI judging

Creating and using maps of what we know..

Personal knowledge maps as analogies of organisational knowledge maps

In organisations, knowledge maps are described as an inventory of their internal and external sources of information and knowledge.  I quite like the idea of considering our mental maps as personal knowledge maps.

Creating personal knowledge maps about Project Management

Teaching people about Project Management recently has acted as a reminder and an illustration of how I pass on my own mental knowledge map to others.  My one-slide overview that I shared in  “A second look at project management, RiverRhee Consulting November – December, 2015” is a useful artefact to act as a starting point, or framework , for sharing my map and to help delegates build their own.

We go on from there to explore all the different aspects of managing a project such as: clarifying the goals, scope, anticipated benefits and building a strong relationship with the sponsor; understanding the constraints the project is under; identifying key milestones, and interdependencies and developing a project plan; managing risks, issues, decisions and actions; managing stakeholders and the associated change; building a strong project team.  We explore each of these topics: my experience and theirs, tools and approaches.  They reflect upon, practise and apply their existing and new knowledge to specific challenges they have been tackling.

As we talk we discover that the delegates have some useful resources and artefacts that they can slot into their new maps for managing projects:

  • Other people with expertise that they can draw upon
  • Formal meetings that are part of their organisation’s mechanisms for making key decisions about projects
  • Documents that describe procedures or act as templates for managing projects
  • Databases that hold key information about projects and which they are expected to add to

Each time I teach a course like this, my delegates’ experiences, resources and artefacts become woven into my mental map too so that, next time I share it, with a new set of delegates, they too benefit from the new knowledge that I’ve gained.

On a more personal note

This idea of personal knowledge maps and what might happen to them was made especially poignant to me recently as I read “Still Alice” by Lisa Genova, and about the main character’s experience of Alzheimer’s.  As her disease progressed it eroded so many of her memories and of the connections or mental maps she had made.  Distressing as the story was, it was also heartwarming in the account of how Alice and her family dealt with it.  How for example they created videos to remind her of their shared memories. And how feelings could still be communicated.  It was a reminder to me too of how much I value this dynamic sharing and development of our individual maps as I interact with others.

About the author

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that helps business teams and their managers to enhance their effectiveness for greater productivity and improved team morale. (We use coaching, training, facilitation, mentoring and consulting in our work with our clients.)

Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis. 

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner.  

She is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) and of APM (Association for Project Management) where she leads the Internal Collaboration theme of the Enabling Change SIG committee.