PM Articles > Geof Lory > Packaged for Consumption

Packaged for Consumption

One of the challenges I face as an educator, coach and change agent is to convey complex and highly interdependent ideas and disciplines in a way that will affect changes in behavior, not just knowledge. In this work I am often asked questions where people are looking for the right and absolute answer so they can be ensured of the guaranteed right outcome. Unfortunately, for most of the work I do, simple and absolute answers are few and far between, and I find myself couching my answer in a multitude of caveats, leaving the asker frustrated or confused and not really any better off.

Many years ago I decided that it would be a good idea for me to learn how to make my grandmother's delicious red spaghetti sauce. I hadn't gone through a holiday in my life without enjoying it. After moving out of state, I was determined to keep that tradition going if travel home was not an option. I needed the recipe. I would have asked her to email it to me or post it on her blog, but unfortunately you-know-who had not invented the Internet yet, so I had to settle for the phone.

"Hi Grandma, this is Geof calling from Minnesota. I was wondering if I could get your recipe for spaghetti sauce."

"Well Geof, I don't have it written down, but it is really pretty easy. Do you have a paper and pencil? I can give it to you."

"Go ahead Grandma, I'm ready." I could feel success was imminent.

"Well, you start with some left over beef roast or a few pounds of hamburger, even chicken will do if you don't have any meat, and you put it in a good size pot with some onion and garlic. You simmer it until it smells right and is a nice color brown. While it is cooking you can shake some salt in. When it tastes done, skim off any unnecessary grease and add—"

"Wait, wait, wait a second Grandma, how big should the pot be? How much beef, or hamburger or chicken do you start with? How much onion and garlic? Is a tablespoon of salt enough? How brown?"

"Well, I don't know dear, I work with what I have and what I need. You know, I've been making spaghetti sauce for years, so I never really thought about measuring anything. I'm sure you will do just fine. It's really simple."

Simple for her maybe, but not so much for me. It looked like I would be making a trip back to Michigan for the holidays, at least this year.

Anyone who has every tried to explain or teach a complex subject they understand very well to someone who doesn't have their level of experience knows what I'm talking about. The student is looking for the recipe, but you know they need to understand all the variables and nuances because there is no recipe. To you, it really isn't that difficult once you understand how all the pieces fit together. But the reality is the student can't grasp the totality of the varying parameters or the nuances of their interaction, because they have little context in which to frame these new ideas. What they need and want are some basic rules to provide a framework for learning the skill.

I help many companies develop best practices for project management. When I say best practices, I mean the best practices for their projects in their environment with their teams, notthe best practices. There are many variables that determine whether something is a best practice, so usually I would be doing them a disservice to present absolute best practices as a recipe for success.

When working with teams or organizations that want to create new processes and dynamic team interactions, and especially when I conduct training, I am repeatedly asked for the "recipe" for how things "should" be done. In complex, unique environments with many interdependent moving parts to consider, it is difficult if not misleading to provide a concrete answer. However, the pat answer of "it depends" is of equally useless value. People want something more. They want the safety of rules.

I find this particularly true when helping organizations integrate agile practices into their existing predictive project methodologies. The amount of unsatisfying "it depends" translates into chaotic ambiguity, because there is no personal experience in which to root the new behaviors and account for all the potential nuances. The feeling is that only someone with extensive experience in numerous environments can make the spaghetti sauce right. Therein lies the conundrum. You need the experience to get the experience: a classic Catch-22.

An alternative is to be prescriptive and provide detailed "shoulds" that codify the inherently uncodifiable, so that the masses can consume it. While this may be distasteful and overly simplistic to the seasoned practitioner, even to the point of being wrong or demeaning, it is ultimately consumable for the novice. And when people are learning something that is new and foreign to them, if it can't be consumed you can bet it won't be used.

Implementing agile practices, and its most notable methodology Scrum, is an excellent example of how applying a modest amount of rules can encourage adoption of new behaviors. Adopting agile methods will challenge people and organizations. These methods are based on complex adaptive systems that intrinsically suggest things are in a state of continual change and adaptation based on the variables of the environment. This means that, by definition, rigid and persistent rules or prescriptive processes are useful only until something changes. As soon as learning occurs, the landscape is altered, and adaptation is necessary. This cycle will repeat over and over again. Nothing stays static.

However, it is good to acknowledge that people need rules to anchor their learning of a new concept or discipline. They don't have the contextual experience to understand the importance of all the variables, and therefore the adaptive nuances based on those variables. Expecting them to understand and appropriately adjust without that experience is as foolish as thinking that the complex adaptive systems can be codified. It's a fool's game.

As trainers, coaches and mentors, we can help people and organizations understand complicated concepts and develop new behaviors if we package our message for consumption. This may mean that we start by providing some basic guidelines, even if they are perceived as rules. However, they need to be clearly presented as a starting point, not a perpetual rule. This will give the learner something to ground their practice in and work from without the frustration of trying to find that starting point themselves. Finding this reference point is how our experience adds value; it saves them a lot of time and jump starts their learning.

From that starting point, I encourage them to continually challenge the rule and improve it if it isn't working, because what we are after is not the safety of doing what is right, but rather what works. If we focus on doing what works, we can avoid calcifying the guideline into an unquestionable rule.

When developing competencies I try to keep this in mind: When there is insufficient context or experience, lead with the How and then follow it with the Why—prescription followed by purpose. It worked for me and the spaghetti sauce. You know, I can't remember the last time I followed a recipe. My grandmother would be proud.

Related Links
Cinda Voegtli recently reminded experienced PMs not to be stingy with the secret ingredients. If you're coaching a group of project managers, keep track of it all with this check-in calendar and worksheet. Help newer project managers understand the evolution of the role with this table relating project leadership and phases.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

This is a great article, Geof. As part of the many years of Project Management that I have been involved with, I can see the analogies that you have provided regarding your grandma's spaghetti sauce recipe...This is good stuff. Thank you for sharing.

Good stuff, as usual. I'll have to try some of that sauce if you ever get it "right" (smile).

As a trainer for Scrum (and practitioner, coach, and whatever-else-you'd-like-to-call-me) this is something I struggle to maintain for each group I work with.

Each group is different.

And within the groups, so are the individuals.

This is also something we all need to keep in mind.

Keep up the great work my friend.

- mike vizdos

Very insightful, as usual, Geof. An obvious and huge challenge during change of any kind is that there are people at different levels of preparedness for the change. Some are ready to iterate on the recipe, others are wondering what the basic ingredients are. Training up the group is usually the response, and the more "ready" folks become insulted an impatient. It's the classic conundrum of teaching-- not everyone in the room is at the same point of aptitude and readiness. Further, the velocity of deadlines and so on force organizations to then make bad decisions to address the dilemma. I'd love to hear more from you in this regard.

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