November 2 executive seminar

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Act First, Think Later



Making quick decisions is often based on a process of learning by action. The learning-by-action mode is adopted when uncertainty (missing information) is coupled with an increased demand for speed, which in turn brings about a greater degree of scarcity of attention.

The following hedge-clipping metaphor, often cited in the literature, illustrates how several cycles of learning by action are employed to cope satisfactorily with missing information, speed, and scarcity of attention.

“The example we shall take is that of a householder facing the ‘problem’ of an overgrown hedge. The central point of this example is that analytic solutions appear highly complex (and possibly only approximate), while a ‘nibbling’ or incremental solution is available, easy, and satisfactory. That is, we emphasize the fact that the final position of a cut branch is a rather complex function of the physical characteristics of the shrub, of the adjoining shrubs, and of the place at which the cut is made. An analytic solution of the problem of where to cut each branch thus requires both extensive well-developed theory (of the cantilever properties of cut branches and of interactions with adjacent cut branches) and extensive data collection (exact dimensions of each branch). In contrast, a strategy of repeated clipping and inspecting requires no such knowledge and rapidly converges on a solution which may be adjusted to any desired degree of fit to the intended solution -- a neatly clipped hedge. Hedge-clipping, then provides a clear example of a decision problem for which a highly reflective strategy is much less satisfactory than a highly active one.” [1] 

Thus, when speed is of the essence and time constraints are paramount, the continuous “nibbling” approach offers two advantages:

·         No demand either for deep problem understanding or extensive data collection and analysis.
·         Hugely reduced cognitive demands on the decision-maker.

The hedge-clipping strategy suggested is an example of the “act first, think later” approach. In this case, action is an uncertainty-reducing device as well as a solution to the problem.[2] Often, uncertainty can be reduced substantially after a few “nibbles.” Once those few iterations of small actions are carried out, uncertainty is reduced to the point where sufficient feedback is collected, allowing the rest of the task to continue with a “think first, act later” approach (that is, a return to the project plan). 

The hedge-clipper is relying heavily on his intuition. Gary Klein, who studied decision making for many years, opens his 2003 book on Intuition at Work with the following story: "Almost two decades ago, I conducted my first research project on decision making, studying firefighters to see how they could make high-risk decisions in just a few seconds despite all the confusion and uncertainty inherent in their work.  I knew that the firefighters wouldn’t make their decisions by systematically comparing all of the possible ways to put out a fire because there wasn’t enough time. I expected that they would only come up with two leading options and compare these to each other. I was wrong. The firefighters, especially the more experienced ones, some with over twenty years of experience, usually just considered a single option. In fact, to hear them describe it, they didn’t really consider anything; they just acted."[3]   

According to Klein, people can make decisions rapidly without conscious awareness or effort as an outcome of their experience. Thus, intuition can be seen as a natural and direct outgrowth of experience. Klein defines intuition as the way we translate our experience into action, as exemplified by the firefighters: “In our interviews with the firefighters, one of the most common statements my research team and I heard was, ‘We don’t make decisions.’ This amazed us because we watched them routinely making very challenging decisions, many with life-or-death implications—and yet they were unaware they were doing it… Our research led us to the conclusion that we are all intuitive decision makers.” [4]

In his article, How to Think with Your Gut, Thomas Stewart reported that: “Today the [U.S. Marine] Corps’s official doctrine reads, ‘The intuitive approach is more appropriate for the vast majority of…  decisions made in the fluid, rapidly changing conditions of war when time and uncertainty are critical factors, and creativity is a desirable trait.’ Conditions, in other words, not unlike those in which many business decisions are made today.” [5]

Back in 1984, when Daniel Isenberg studied managers and executives to see how they solved problems and made decisions, he concluded that executives do not make formal decisions using analytical methods: “Senior managers use intuition in at least five ways.
-          First, they intuitively sense when a problem exists
-          Second, managers rely on intuition to perform well-learned behavior patterns rapidly
-          The third function of intuition is to synthesize isolated bits of data and experience into an integrated picture
-          Fourth, some mangers use intuition as a check… on the results of more rational analysis
-          Fifth, managers can use intuition to bypass in-depth analysis and move rapidly to come up with a plausible solution

Intuition is not the opposite of rationality, nor is it a random process of guessing. Rather, it is based on extensive experience, both in analysis and problem solving and in implementation, and to the extent that the lessons of experience are logical and well founded, then so is the intuition.”[6]

In order to make quick decisions, to Act with Agility, one must accumulate extensive experience.[7] Klein argues that: “There are ways of building a person’s experience base. Experience can be codified as stories and analogues.” Thus, being exposed to a large variety of stories (for example like those presented in this book) can partially compensate for lack of actual experience.[8]

To lead well requires a leader to synthesize lessons learned from experience, intuitive action, and reflection on stories, such as the ones we share in this blog. In addition to the stories shared on this blog, project leaders may be interested in reading the book, Breaking the Code of Project Management, by A. Laufer (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009).




[1] This hedge-clipping metaphor is from T. Connolly and G. Wolf.  1981.  Deciding on Decision Strategies: Towards an Enriched Contingency Model. Proceedings of the Academy of Management Annual Meeting. San Diego, CA: 181-85.   

[2]  H. Mintzberg argues that there are times when thought should precede action and guide it. Other times, however, especially during or immediately after a major unexpected shift in the environment, thought must be bound up with action in an interactive and continuous process. Thus, Mintzberg concludes that: “‘learning’ becomes a better label, and concept, for what happens then is ‘formulation-implementation.’” H. Mintzberg. 1990.  The Design School: Reconsidering the Basic Premises of Strategic Management. Strategic Management Journal 11: 171-95. Weick concluded that: “...we should pay more attention to simultaneity of thought and action and less attention to sequence;” K.E. Weick. 1983.  Managerial Thought in the Context of Action. In The Executive Mind, eds. S. Srivastba and Associates, 242.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

[3] G. Klein. 2003. Intuition at Work. New York, NY: Doubleday-Currency, xv.

[4] G. Klein. 2003. Intuition at Work. New York, NY: Doubleday-Currency, xv-xvi.

[5]  T. Stewart. 2002. How to Think with Your Gut. Business 2.0, (November):  98-104.

[6]  Daniel Isenberg says: “One implication of acting/thinking cycles is that action is often part of defining the problem, not just implementing the solution.”  See D.J. Isenberg. 1984. How Senior Managers Think. Harvard Business Review 62, (November-December): 80-90.

[7] Indeed, the experience level of the ten on-site construction project managers was high—the mean experience accumulated as project managers was 15 years, and the mean overall experience on the construction site was 21 years. Edward de Bono argues that: “An expert is someone who has succeeded in making decisions and judgments simpler through knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore.”  E. de Bono. 1998. Simplicity.  London, UK: Viking, 22.


[8]  G. Klein. 1998. Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 287. Stories were also recommended as a tool for improving the ad hoc mode of Act with Agility, that is, improvisation. Frank Barrett asks: “What practices and structures can we implement that might emulate what happens when jazz bands improvise?” His first suggestion is: “Boost the processing of information during and after actions are implemented…”  He concludes that diverse stories can improve improvisation capabilities. F.J. Barret. 1998. Creativity and Improvisation in Jazz and Organizations: Implications for Organizational Learning. Organization Science 9, 5 (September-October): 605-22




Friday, July 17, 2015

Conduct Learning-Based Reviews (part 2 of 2)



This is the second of a two-part story. (Read part 1 here.)
Changing one’s mindset to consider reviews as a vital learning opportunity is not easy. While the reviewing organization often refuses to abandon the “review as control” perspective, the subject of the review may be equally resistant to changing its approach, due to overconfidence or skepticism. In the following two examples, winning or losing a project was largely determined by the contractors’ willingness (or lack thereof) to learn from project reviews.
The first example comes from Jenny Baer-Riedhart, a NASA program manager. In 1994, NASA initiated the Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) program, which focused on converting high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into research platforms. Because of the difficulty in controlling the risks involved, UAV industry development lagged behind the interest in and knowledge of how to improve the technology.
To mitigate the risks and stimulate the industry, NASA adopted a radically different approach and formed a joint sponsored research program with four of the main players in the industry. For the ERAST reviews, NASA brought in people with experience in a particular area of aircraft development and testing. The companies not open to NASA’s advice did not fare well. Although one of these companies was superb on paper, with genius employees, it crashed its UAV twice. Reflecting on the case, Jenny concluded that had the company been open to NASA’s advice during reviews, it might have prevented the crashes.1
Similarly, Terry Little the U.S. Air Force’s project manager of Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) concluded that learning-based reviews played a major role in distinguishing between the two finalists. Although the losing company had good engineers and disciplined processes, it failed to listen to feedback, which led to its downfall.2
Learning-based reviews are also highly regarded in industries that engage in more traditional projects, such as the design and construction of manufacturing facilities. One approach that naturally facilitates a learning rather than a control focus in the review is to establish review panels composed of peers, rather than senior managers or experts, who are expected to report to senior managers following the review. In praise of the peer review practice employed at Proctor and Gamble, Scott Cameron, Global Project Management Technology Process Owner at P&G, asserts: “The most successful method we have found to improve project performance is to conduct anywhere between 1-5 peer reviews throughout the life of a project.” 3
Peer Review Practice
Purpose of the Peer Review
To gain the most valuable input in the shortest amount of time to improve the chances for a successful project and avoid disasters.
Whom to Invite
Just peers, no hierarchy. A diverse group of ten to twenty people consisting of technical engineers, project managers, construction managers, purchasing managers, finance managers, research and development personnel, and contractors. 
What Protocol to Use
The project team and the project manager concisely communicate their technical and execution strategies. They then invite peers to comment, critique, and ask clarifying questions. Pre-work can be sent out to the peers to review prior to the meeting. Peers should be open, honest, and engaged, or should not bother to attend.
How Long Should It Be?
A maximum of 6-8 hours, including lunch and breaks.
How to Summarize the Discussion
Take copious notes and display them on the wall. In the last peer review I attended, there must have been 30-40 pages of flip-chart paper capturing the ideas on a $50MM project. These were then typed and distributed to all the participants with a note thanking them for helping improve the success of the project.
What to Expect of a Peer Review
Out of the notes, there were only 5-10 “nuggets” that the project team used to improve the project. Implementing these nuggets more than made up for the cost of the peer review. As we have conducted more peer reviews, we’ve noted that the invited peers are taking “nuggets” they had not considered back to their projects and programs.4

1.    Laufer, A., Hoffman  E., and Cohen, D. (2012). “Flying Solar-Powered Airplanes: Soaring High on Spirit and Systems,” Chapter 3 in Laufer, A., Mastering the Leadership Role in Project Management: Practices that Deliver Remarkable Results. NJ: FT Press.
2.    Laufer, A., Ward, D., and Cockburn, A. (2012). “Developing a Missile: The Power of Autonomy and Learning,”  Chapter 1 in Laufer, A., Mastering the Leadership Role in Project Management: Practices that Deliver Remarkable Results. NJ: FT Press.
3.    The Hour Glass and the Project Manager,” W. Scott Cameron, Procter & Gamble. 2001. Ask Magazine 4 (July): 27-8.  http://appel.nasa.gov/ask/about/overview/index.html
4.    ibid.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Conduct Learning-Based Reviews (part 1 of 2)





A previous story at this blog, Saving Lives: Expecting Problems or Burying Them (June 2014), highlights learning during the life of a project through a metaphor from the operating room. In this, the first of a two-part article, we will demonstrate how successful project managers ensure that learning plays a central role during project review. This month we focus on practices employed at NASA, while next month we will discuss examples from Procter & Gamble and other organizations.
Project reviews are seen primarily as a means of control by the client and upper management. Brian Muirhead from NASA, who led the design, development and launch of the flight system for the Pathfinder mission to Mars, describes the prevailing atmosphere during the review process:
“The routine is daunting. Members of the board sit at a horseshoe-shaped table, the chairman in the middle. A team member stands in front of them and launches his presentation. It usually isn’t long before one of the review board members interrupts the presenter with a question—rather like an attorney presenting oral arguments before the supreme court. The skeptical expressions, the intense looks, the scowls and smiles, are giveaways. And just as at the supreme court, the questions are generally polite, occasionally harsh, but all with a clear aim of probing for the truth. 1
Because project reviews are perceived as serving the needs of upper management, insufficient attention is paid to the overall needs of the project team, and in particular to the negative implications of the preparations required for the review. Brian Muirhead discusses the time leading up to a project review during the Pathfinder mission:
“Formal project reviews come with a clear, but unavoidable, downside. Done well, the preparations can take an enormous amount of time for the team. Preparations for a formal board review can take too many of us—me and the project’s top managers plus a number of key managers and engineers at the next level down—off the line for as much as six weeks. Necessary to the overall process, but a significant distraction; and even worse, a significant loss in momentum.”2
At NASA, two other project managers, dissatisfied with the perceived role vs. actual practice of project reviews, took steps to radically change the situation.
With his project up for another review, Marty Davis, a project manager at Goddard Space Flight Center, developed ways through which project reviews could benefit the person being reviewed more than the reviewer. Marty pushed for the creation of a review team, composed of internal technical staff and external specialists, who could provide feedback and joint problem-solving. In addition, Marty requested that, in order to provide consistency and eliminate the need to revisit issues, these same individuals participate in review milestones throughout the project lifecycle.
Marty was assigned an internal co-chair and recommended an external co-chair. He told both co-chairs that they could have seven members, and neither could duplicate the same technical specialties. Incorporating his approach into the review process, Marty’s next review lasted two days, with one day of presentation and one day of one-on-one sessions, followed by a caucus with the review team. The independent experts identified areas of concern, many of which, after one-on-one meetings with the specialized project staff and the review team’s technical specialists, were resolved. The issues that remained open were assigned a Request for Action (RFA). Eventually, Marty was left with just five RFAs.3
Susan Motil, another project manager from NASA, used Marty Davis's model after a bad experience with Concept Review. Desiring involvement in the review board selection, Susan wasn’t trying to take the panel’s independence or hide a problem, but rather look for particular expertise. She did just that, and acquired a panel with handpicked expertise and management approval. Her two sets of reviews – one for each subsystem, and one for the entire system – would have a dialogue with the engineers, who would show them the hardware and test data, and be open for reviewers’ questions.
Susan compared the direct outcomes of the initial, unsuccessful Concept Review, and the second review based on Davis’s model. Davis’s model allowed the team to spend significantly less time and effort on the RFAs, and it cost the project about $200,000, as compared to the $700,000 price tag for the initial review.4
Both Marty and Susan concluded that learning-based reviews are a must. They can help you identify problems in your project, which may make the difference between mission failure and mission success, and if implemented effectively, they can be accomplished without excessive interruption to project progress and with limited extra cost.
NEXT MONTH:  In part 2 of this two-part article we will look further at the role of learning in projects with examples from Procter & Gamble and others, concluding with a suggested practice for peer review.
IN THE MEANTIME:  Read more on integrating planning and review with learning in the recent article, “What Successful Project Managers Do,” published in the MIT Sloan Management Review.5

1.      B.K. Muirhead & W.L. Simon (1999). High Velocity Leadership: The Mars Pathfinder Approach to Faster, Better, Cheaper. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 23-4, 86-7.
2.      ibid.
3.      Davis, M. (2001). “Tangled Up in Reviews.” Goddard Space Flight Center. Ask Magazine 4 (July): 8-11.  http://appel.nasa.gov/ask/about/overview/index.html
4.      Motil, S. (2003).  “So This Is Knowledge Sharing.” Glenn Research Center. Ask Magazine 10 (January): 6-9.  http://appel.nasa.gov/ask/about/overview/index.html
5.      Laufer, A., Hoffman, E. J., Russell, J.S., & Cameron, W. S. (2015). “What Successful Project Managers Do.” MIT Sloan Management Review, 56(3), 42-51. http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/what-successful-project-managers-do