Beliefs That Drive Projects …Crazy

Blind leading the blind


Frustrated by her inability to get the cooperation she needed to meet her project schedules a project manager complained, “I can’t get people in other departments to deliver as promised. My projects are just not a priority for them.”

“I understand your frustration,” a more seasoned project manager in the class responded. “When I go to ask people in other groups to help on my projects I often bring them a box of cookies. It’s amazing what a difference that can make.”

“Other people have also told me that trick works for them, but to be honest having to bring cookies to coax people to do what they’re already being paid for really pisses me off. I don’t feel like I should have to bribe people to do their jobs.”

”I used to feel that way myself,” the veteran PM said, “but now I think of it more as a way of expressing my appreciation for their help.”

Breakthrough is not just about what you do, but how you think about what you do. One person brings a box of cookies, and the recipients feel appreciated and want to help. Another person performs exactly the same action, but subtle nonverbal cues leave the receipts feeling like this person is trying to bribe them with a crappy box of cookies. The same behavior driven by different beliefs can produce dramatically different outcomes.

When I demonstrate the actions of the pissed off PM in the classroom I take an object representing the box of cookies, hold it a couple of inches above a desktop, and then drop it. Chuckles ripple across the room. That two-inch drop is all it takes. Everybody gets it, except the PM who tried and failed with the box of cookies at the actual time of the event.

From her point of view she did everything that her seasoned counterpart prescribed, yet still failed to get the cooperation she needed. Unable to see how her own actions “poisoned the well,” she will conclude that this is further evidence of how lazy and uncooperative the people in this other group really are.

This is why training that focuses strictly on the implementation of better tools and processes will often fail to produce lasting results outside the classroom. Ineffective or counter-productive project strategies are driven by beliefs, which often operate below the actor’s level of awareness. We can teach people better technique all day long, but if the beliefs that drive the old behavior remain unaddressed the minute those folks return to work the old beliefs will activate the old behavior patterns. That’s why, when the breakdown behavior surfaces, before suggesting a more effective alternative it’s essential to ask the person involved, “Why did you make that choice? What did you believe was happening? How did you think you actions would successfully solve the problem?”

As long as the PM in our story continues to believe the problem is other people that are lazy and uncooperative teaching her to bring cookies will just make matters worse.


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