Dance of Change

In the Dance of Change by Senge, et. al., the authors present five disciplines for individuals and teams to study and practice that enable organizational learning. The disciplines are Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision, Team Learning, and Systems Thinking. Today I thought it might be useful to explore one of these, Mental Models.

We all use Mental Models as we go about our lives. My understanding is that they help us quickly categorize much of the bulk of massive input we are processing every moment. They aid us in understanding what we are seeing, hearing and otherwise sensing as inputs in our world.

When I notice an event or have an interpretation that does not match my mental model, then a kind of disquiet happens in me. I do not know what to make of the event. Say my mental model is that my wife loves me. If she were to say to me that she hates me, I would likely find that event very disturbing. If does not kiss me in the morning, I might interpret that to mean that she does not love me and find that equally disturbing. If such disturbing events or interpretations continue, I would need to update my mental model.

Now, what might mental models have to do with project management? A lot. Our mental model is how we think and communicate about events and interpretations. So your mental model of projects and how things happen in projects directly and immediately affects how you think and communication about your project.

Let us explore one aspect of PM from the point of view of mental models. It has to do with one of my favorite areas of PM, dealing with change.

I worked for over 40 years in software projects and we have spent a good deal of that time trying to ‘manage’ and ‘contain’ change. Development was considered a discrete process with distinct steps such as requirements definition, design, implementation, testing, and deployment. Once each step was started any change was considered not so good. Change Boards were instituted with completely different and difficult processes to handle the changes that occurred.

But the real difficulty is that this mental model is incorrect. Real world software development rarely fits the discrete, sequential process model. Other value building activities such as manufacturing and construction have discovered the same thing. (See the Lean Construction Institute for some interesting papers.)

Agile development has embraced change as an important element to maximize the generation of business value. Change becomes a force for improvement rather than a disruptive element to be eliminated or contained. Kent Beck’s seminal book on extreme programming is subtitled, Embrace Change. You might want to really consider that phrase when considering projects.

But we all know that project managers know all about change. Masters at change in fact. But look at it a bit closer. What is your mental model about change? How are you affected by change? Perhaps change really does disturb you. Do changes upset your plans? Do they make more work for you?

It is important that you understand your relationship to change. How you look at change will be transmitted to your team. If you have difficulties with change your team will adopt that attitude. They will have difficulties. They will resist it. If you can embrace change then your team will have an easier time. They may come to embrace it as well.

Understanding my relationship to change has been a somewhat long and interesting adventure. At different times and in different situations my reaction has been and continues to be different. Early in my career I considered change as an enemy. I was often late in my work because of changes. As I have grown older my tolerance for change has improved.

Perhaps my change in attitude has to do with my experience. I noticed that change always happens. And I noticed that many changes were for the better. I also noticed that it was easier on me when I accepted the new information that change brought.

Lean development introduced us to the idea of making decisions at the last reasonable moment. This is a direct manner of embracing change. By making decisions at the last reasonable moment, we take the maximum available time for change to add to the information needed to make a more informed decision.

Understanding this view of change has changed my mental model of change – to the better in my opinion. Embracing change has made my professional live easier. Consider what it might do to yours.


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