Psychology for Project Managers?

Should project managers be counsellors or hold psychology degrees?  This 2011 post on PM hut muses about this. I think one reason why I like the PM role is the variety. I can see an argument for psychology training but then I can also see an argument for a finance, legal or HR degree. There are many strands to the PM role and some awareness of psychology will surely help, but I think I would stop short of thinking a degree is required because many other skills are required and PMs can’t hold degrees in all of these areas.

A related older post, this time from 2012, takes a look at psychology for technical managers. I found a lot of interesting ideas there about skills acquisition and imposter theory. I mentioned other similar articles on this topic in a previous post. I think what I like about the psychology for technical managers article was the feeling that it was a similar endeavour to this blog. Finding ideas from psychology that can be applied to people’s working life (in my case to project management).


Team Talk

One of the more obvious areas to look for insights into what makes project teams tick would be the field of social psychology. While Freud wrote about groups in the twenties, and industrial psychologists have been looking at this for a long time, much of the impetus for the modern study of what happens to humans in groups seems to have come from people trying to understand the behaviour of the Nazis in the Second World War. The applications of social psychology are many. For example, educators I know are particularly interested in how social psychology can help them improve teaching and learning. So what can social psychology tell us about working in project teams?

One feature I like about agile teams is that everyone is equal and has a respected opinion. I find this so important that I try hard to ensure all my waterfall projects are like that too. I temper this with always trying to give clear direction and leadership. As Laura Markham has said, people want to know that a ship has a captain and that captain is taking care of the ship. If the ship hits an iceberg, they don’t want the captain to come to their table and ask their opinion in a democratic and caring way. They want the captain to take care of the iceberg situation. So, I try to work in a team of equals, each with a clear and equally valid role. In that team, part of my role is to take overall responsibility.

This sense of equality is crucial to how the team talks to each other. Neil Mercer is a psychologist who studied the different kinds of talk in the classroom. I’d like to repeat his work in project teams. In his paper on the subject Mercer says

In exploratory talk, then, a speaker ‘thinks aloud’, taking the risk that others can hear,
and comment on, partly-formed ideas. Engaging in exploratory talk is therefore rather
a brave thing to do, and tends not to happen unless there is a degree of trust within a
discussion group.

This reminds me of both the ethos of agile teams (everybody is equal) but also the structure of the rituals. In the sprint retrospective or daily stand-ups, everyone has a chance to speak. The rituals make room for everyone to have a say. This encourages trust that one will be listened to seriously and an atmosphere of open sharing. Also, the permission (implicit in agile) to try out ideas and fail means that the groups is more disposed to entertain partially formed ideas and examine possibilities together.

Ron Friedman has been questioning the wisdom of collaboration on partially formed ideas, suggesting that it is better to do most of the creative work solo and come together only to share already formed ideas. I find his article very interesting and I easily related most of his examples to my working life. I do think, however, that his ideas apply less of the time than his article suggests. Friedman is not looking at agile teams in particular. I can think of lots of cases where solo creation might be best in agile. Still, it is worth noting that some of my most fruitful experience of agile teams has involved formulating solutions in groups. I’d say that is one of the strengths of agile.

Mercer defines three kinds of talk. I am interested to know if you recognise these from project teams. Disputational, cumulative and exploratory. Disputational communication is competitive. I find a lot of technical discussion sites highly competitive and intolerant of mistakes. I don’t know why this is so commonly the case. Cumulative communication is something I have come across a lot in conflict averse environments like some parts of the public sector. Ideas are accepted and built upon but without much analysis or apparently deep understanding. There is a lack of engagement. I also find this can happen when there are experts in the mix. People will listen to legal advisers thinking “well, it’s her job to know this stuff so I’m not going to question it”.

I once did a rather annoying drama exercise as part of a rather annoying team building day. It was interesting, The annoying bit was feeling compelled to take part (i.e. “You will have fun”). The exercise involved finding a partner, then listening to them start a story. When they stopped, you would say, “Yes and…” and continue the story. The shared ownership of the story made one pay attention and feel a lot more invested in where the joint story went. I imagine this is what exploratory talk is like but I wont be suggesting that exercise to my team any time soon.

There is much written about the interesting practicalities of communication in agile. I am interested in analysing the nature of that communication and would be glad to hear about your experiences.

Clear Goals and Feedback

Clear goals and feedback is a phrase I was reading in Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (apparently pronounced Mi High Cheek Sent Me High). This phrase got me thinking about how agile sprints work. Csikszentmihalyi talks about the near instant feedback of the tennis player. They know when they have succeeded in hitting the ball over the fence to their opponent. Working with user stories, I know when I have reached my goal thanks to the definition of done.

Csikszentmihalyi goes on to talk about emerging clarity of goals, where they “…are invented on the spot”. He makes reference to kids trying to gross eachother out or making fun of a teacher. The end goal is evolving. This brings me to a lesson I have learnt in applying agile. One of the most common failings I have seen is the lack of availability of the product owner. This talk of emerging goals gets me thinking about why the product owner needs to be there, not just to provide clear goals at the start (users stories or requirements in waterfall) but to make constant decisions and clarifications about relative priorities of user stories, alternative ways of delivering user stories and what the user story is trying to achieve.


The water around Cosne Sur Loire

So, when we have clear goals (or support from a product owner to clarify as needed) and feedback, we have a good chance of being totally absorbed in our work and experiencing flow. More on flow here.

Take 2 Bottles Into the SCRUM? Conditioning in Project Teams

I’m not sure it makes sense to apply conditioning to management practice (Is that naive? I’d welcome your views). That said, I think an awareness of conditioning can be useful in understanding behaviour, including in a work context.

My understanding of conditioning comes from my study of the thinker J Krishnamurti. I think he uses the term to mean all the stuff you take in without knowing it that changes who you are and how you see the world. Psychologists use the term conditioning in a different way, to talk about learning (changing behavior, based on experience). Classical conditioning refers to the pairing of things you do anyway with new stimulae. There are some great info graphics on this here. In time animals learn that the two go together and will respond to just the new stimulae. Pavlov’s dog, who was conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell, is the most famous example of this. Operant conditioning is where an animal’s behaviour is rewarded, such that it learns to operate on the world in a particular way. Thorndike taught a cat to operate a lever to release it from a box. There have been tales of professors manipulated by their students via operant conditioning to leave the podium during lectures, while being unaware they were being “trained” to do this. One can imagine how these training methods could be extrapolated to apply to humans but that seems plain manipulative.

Ultimately, I think if you are trying to manipulate your colleagues without their knowing then you have a lot bigger problems than low productivity or whatever you are trying to improve. Is there a way to apply an understanding of conditioning to the workplace and projects in particular? Yes, I think there is. Project teams and agile teams in particular are great at shaking things up and trying something new. I learnt in my lecture that Pavlov said that “the laws of classical conditioning are the laws of emotional life”. So, one example of using an understanding of classical conditioning to improve a work environment might be tackling situations where classical conditioning has lead to a pairing of a certain room or meeting format with stressful meetings. You can’t stop meetings being stressful by changing the room but, once the root cause has been dealt with, team members may still associate rooms or meeting formats with stressful experiences. Making simple changes at that point may be beneficial in moving on from stressful situations.

This is the limited kind of role I see for the application of an understanding of conditioning in the workplace to fix problems. I do wonder if classical conditioning can help us understand the effectiveness of the rituals in agile. Do these rituals in part prime our minds to be in a certain state (e.g. alert and focussed on our colleagues at stand-ups)? Not much on the application of operant conditioning here. I’ll have to give that some more thought later but it may be that it is just too manipulative to be appropriate.

Round up of interesting posts on psychology of the workplace

I have been consulting since 1998 and in that time have visited a large number of organisations, in so many industries.  I came across a few articles this week that either struck me as familiar from companies I have visited or things that colleagues have spoken to me about in the past. I remember a company where the employees fought to be allowed to work unpaid at weekends. I was reminded of this when I read this article on Corporate Stockholm Syndrome by James Ullrich.

Another syndrome was examined by  in her piece including imposter syndrome. This is something that I suspect is rife among consultants and project managers, as well as coders. I sometimes find what I call a “culture of assumed knowledge”, where asking basic questions can seem uncool. It feels to me that people clam up and hope that nobody spots gaps in their capabilities under these circumstances. It wouldn’t surprise me if this cultural layer exacerbated personal feelings of “not quite being the full package”.

Finally, I have been reading How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric this week. A great summary of the literature and full of super quotes. I think my favourite is Goeth

“Then indecision brings it’s own delays,

and days are lost o’er lost days.

Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute.

What you can do, or dream you can, begin it.

Boldness has genius power and magic in it.”

Reminds me of the AGILE approach to trying something out and reflecting. The author took me by surprise by being scathing of psychometric testing and I made a note to look into that more. Still on the subject of “What shall I do with my life?”, this article by Sam McNerney, who spoke with charity founder Adam Braun complemented my reading with a view into the life of someone who had found their calling.

This weeks links that caught my eye seem to have been syndromes and callings.

Who kept the dogs in? – Continuous Improvement Part 2 of 2

In part 1 of this post I was talking about how, when continuous improvement does work, it always strikes me as a much less stressful way to work and I was wondering why that is.

Although there may be conceptual parallels between Thorndike and AGILE, I don’t feel I have yet gotten to why continuous improvement feels like a more forgiving and easy environment. I was thinking maybe the work of Martin Seligman can shed some light on this.  Seligman (and Steve Maier) put dogs into situations where there was nothing they could do to avoid painful electric shocks. They found the dogs behaved in much the same way as depressed people. Other dogs could stop the shocks by pressing a lever. Still other dogs were not shocked at all. After this, Seligman and Maier put the same dogs in boxes (there they go again with their animals and boxes) and experimented with making them shuttle from one side of the box to the other. He motivated them to move using electric shocks. If they jumped over a small partition they escaped the electric shocks. I find this pretty grim stuff and am not at all clear this was worth it. Still, it is interesting to note that the dogs who had not been shocked and the dogs who had been able to do something about it were able to escape by jumping over the partition. The dogs who had been helpless sadly laid down and were shocked. They did not try to escape.

I am wondering if learned helplessness goes some way to explaining why continuous improvement environments are less stressful. We always feel we can try something new.

There is an interesting take on learned helplessness in people here

Who let the cats out? – Continuous Improvement Part 1 of 2

Sometimes I work in agile environments where work goes in cycles (sprints or timeboxes) and at the end of each cycle we ask “what can we do better next time?”. This is hard to get going in highly political environments or teams that are a mixture of client and supplier staff (people don’t like to rock the boat or accept liability) but where it has worked well, I was struck by how less stressful work became. We weren’t counting on things being right, only better than before.

It brought to mind the work of Edward Thorndike. From what I understand he spent much of his time shutting cats in boxes. You might be thinking he should get out more and funnily enough, that is exactly what he wanted the cats to do. Thorndike’s cats tried any number of motions, at random before triggering a lever that operated the door to open. Having stumbled upon how to operate the door, the cats would be put back in the box (doesn’t seem right somehow) and then take progressively less time to operate the lever to open the door. The mental mechanism he identified is called operant conditioning.  He contributed greatly to the behavioural branch of psychology with his systematic studies on learning. I really like the graph that shows what must have been one of the first “learning curves”. Reminds me of a burndown chart. Likewise, Thorndike’s operant conditioning makes me think of an agile environment with it’s “try things out to see if you hit on the answer” style of continuous improvement.