Association for Project Management
Five spells to use against the dark arts that harm projects
Blog posted by: Edward Obeng, 25 Oct 2021.
So, there’s a tension you can’t quite put your finger on… The team laughter feels less intense and you know that’s not because you are virtual – you’ve been virtual for 18 months. There is a dull underlying sullenness. You know that with a project of this scale and duration, you can’t always be everywhere, so you rely on the team to challenge and support each other towards excellence. Team culture is crucial to success. It sets how we work together so the best things get done even though no orders are given. Openness means fixing issues early. Mutual respect means you can collide ideas to produce robust solutions.
Yesterday, my friend of 30 years, Bill, thanked me for being a true friend. I was taken aback. Playing tennis, he’d managed to tear his bicep. His doctor suggested he do nothing but I’d written him a stern email berating him and suggesting specialists. He’s 70 and may soon need a cane to walk. For that you need strong biceps. His doctor and friends were concerned but scared to offend him; they said nothing. Influenced by the current social climate, they’d been persuaded it was right not to challenge.
The dark arts at work in society
Recently, three powerful dark arts that began outside your project will by now be seeping into it. We humans are susceptible to delusions, and the dark arts prey on this human flaw. In the same way vaxxers and anti‑vaxxers are unable to have a constructive conversation (because conversation needs rationality linked to reality), increasingly you will have found your team not able to be open to understand issues, let alone solve them together.
The first of the three dark arts is the science of persuasion and influence – now boosted by AI and neuroscience – which shows that if you frame the situation first and bypass the logic circuits with emotional bias, people act without knowing why. Second, behavioural economics, which uses the set‑up of the system to control your choices and behaviours. And the third is intolerant minority politics. In the same way as one person with a nut allergy means no one on the entire plane can eat nuts, intransigent minorities always end up dominating everyone else.
Lessons in defence
The ‘Defence Against the Dark Arts’ class teaches young wizards how to prevent being subsumed by dark forces and losing personal will and positive leadership. Here are my five spells that ward off uninvited influences:
- Look out for framing, and reframe. Once a topic is framed, your confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance will keep you stuck down a deep well of delusion, unable to perceive reality. Steve Jobs used 19 words to fix Antennagate: “We’re not perfect. Phones aren’t perfect. We all know that. But we just want to make our users happy.” Find an alternative way to reframe so people say, “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
- Go down the well and push them out. Listen, empathise and start from where they are; establish you are both on the same side before showing leadership.
- Early in my Perfect Projects course, we run a project simulation. In an hour, participants make three months of tough decisions. The first review is brutal. They’re reluctant to acknowledge they did terribly. They blame everything, everyone. Then they sleep on it. By the second review, they now know ‘they don’t know’. We’ve disconfirmed their delusions and they become eager to learn. Find ways to let cold reality shine in.
- Trumpet your project culture over and above the infiltrating noise. Once you have shared ground rules, repeat them over and over. Point out reinforcing examples. Never punish good behaviour and never reward detractors.
- Be your own spirit guide. Don’t get a delusion cast on you: discard every remarkable story you’re dying to repeat. Ignore catchy slogans. When asked, never ‘imagine’. Flee your current delusions: be scientific. Compare with a control group. Extrapolate from your opinion to predict what should happen next – when it doesn’t, discard that delusion.
Now, regardless of the narratives and norms of the outside world, your project team can be cohesive, open, supportive and challenging. Visit my website to learn some spells of your own.
About the Author
Professor Eddie Obeng is an educator, TED speaker and author of nine books, including Perfect Projects, published by Pentacle Works, and All Change! The Project Leader’s Secret Handbook, published by the Financial Times.
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