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Clarity - The Cure for Muddy Thinking

by Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S.

Aloha! The ocean's roar fills my ears, and a beautiful Kona sunset paints the sky. But me, I'm thinking about mud. Muddy thinking, to be exact. Being educated as a physicist, as I was, has its drawbacks. For one, most people assume we have no marketable skills. Sometimes we are misunderstood. I once was contacted by somebody wanting help with their "aura". Apparently "psychic" and "physics" are pretty close in the dictionary. But the biggest challenge I'm facing these days—and I think it's a result of the extremely rigorous and self-consistent thinking I learned during those years—is a complete lack of tolerance for what I call muddy thinking. People work on low priority items while urgent issues languish. Teams fall apart because no one confronts behaviors that undermine trust. Organizations spend huge amounts of money on a project, then suddenly wonder how they will measure success. These bizarre behaviors may seem like examples of muddy behaviors, but to me they indicate either a brain that has flat-lined or a total lack of clarity about what really matters.

Muddy thinking is jeopardizing far too many people's success, and your project may be getting stuck in some of this mud. Here's my approach to thinking and acting with clarity in order to steer clear of the morass. Regardless of your title, position, or job, you need these three sharp instruments in your professional tool belt to stay out of the mud pit:

  1. Personal Values
  2. Written, Measurable Goals
  3. Priority Lists

Personal Values. Unless you want to be known as a leader who is blown about like a leaf in a hurricane, you need to anchor yourself to the rock of personal values. Personal values are the ideals and beliefs that we consider important to who we are. It's what matters to us more than our comfort or the approval of others. Every leader should know their values because they're directly related to what you stand for as a leader. Clear values guide behavior, focus attention, and speed certain decisions—in particular those where some options involve violating one or more personal values. A value is something that is non-negotiable, as opposed to a "nice to have" feature. Consider the analogy of buying a car. You might be willing settle for cloth seats instead of leather, but you're not going to buy a car without a steering wheel. Likewise, a personal value of integrity makes it easy to decide whether to take responsibility for a mistake on the project or blame someone else.

If you can't immediately list your top three values I highly recommend that you work through a values exercise like the list of 374 values by Steve Pavlina, author of Personal Development for Smart People,. A good way to do this is to print out the list, cut the words apart so you have 374 little pieces of paper in front of you, and then sort them into four piles according to those which are:

  • Always important to you
  • Usually important to you
  • Sometimes important to you
  • Never important to you

Now throw out all of the piles except the first one, the Always pile. (You might be thinking that you only needed two piles, Always and Not Always, but it is fascinating to go through this exercise with four piles.) Pick your top ten most important values from the remaining pile. Next choose the top three most important values out of your top ten, and put those in priority order. Now, if you really want to understand how these values translate into action, make a table with your top three values like the one below. List typical behaviors and language that represent you living within and outside of these values. Here's an example:

ValueBehavior and Language that is Aligned with this ValueBehavior and Language that is NOT Aligned with this Value
IntegrityBeing honest, fair, transparent, and open in my dealings with other people. Being willing to stand up for what I believe in. Doing the right thing, even if it is inconvenient. Admitting my mistakes.Lying, cheating, stealing, lack of follow through on commitments, abusing power, allowing other people to be abused by power. Avoiding responsibility. Publishing schedules that are patently ridiculous.
FreedomMaking choices based on my own sense of what's right or appropriate. Seeking supportive colleagues and environments. Living within my financial means so I can quit jobs that violate my values. Trading freedom for job security, money, status, or power. Making choices merely to please other people. Working in environments that actively discourage telling the truth about the project.
AbundanceHaving a mental frame of "There's plenty!" Appreciating the work of others. Sharing what I have. Sharing opportunity, power, decision-making. Taking turns. Helping others succeed.Having a scarcity mentality. Clutching greedily on to what I have. Always keeping the best opportunities for myself. Avoiding sharing power. Playing win-lose. Taking credit for the work of others.

If you are clear about your personal values, you can immediately rule out scads of choices and behaviors that might otherwise clog up your project leadership decision-making process. (This is a bit dangerous because sometimes long held beliefs about what's right and wrong can turn out to be flawed, and you may find yourself at the end of your life looking back on a mountain of regret. So do test your beliefs from time to time to see whether you, your beliefs, or the world has changed.)

Written, Measurable Goals. Most of my work is with multi-national Japanese companies committed to becoming truly global. Our project teams create transformational experiences that enable people to become truly global leaders, not just learn about global leadership. However, we frequently find ourselves having this kind of conversation with prospective clients:

Client: "We'd like your help. We need a program that will develop our people into global leaders."

Our Team: "Great! What is your definition of a global leader?"

Client: "We don't know."

To be fair, there is a great deal of disagreement about the definition of a global leader, so I'm not saying it's easy to define. I'm just surprised that people have budgeted a good chunk of $1M without coming up with something a bit more meaty about the outcomes they'd like to produce by spending that money. Not one to play the victim, naturally I developed my own definition of global leadership consisting of seven characteristics in five key areas. No doubt experts around the world would disagree heartily with my definition, but at least I am sailing with a rudder in my boat and a clear destination.

It's also amazing how little thought some people give to their goals until after they have spent lots of time and money pursuing them. One company that I've been working with for over three years recently asked me how we should measure the success of the program I've been leading. "Gosh," I thought, "is this a trick question?" Smirking only slightly, I suggested that they measure the success against the goals that they had outlined for the program when the contract was signed (somewhere in the executive stratosphere, where nary a Scrappy PM roams). I've been using my own scorecard of success for this program, but only recently has the client shown any interest whatsoever in it.

You never have to settle for unclear goals in your own project, work, or life. What you make up might be the wrong goals, but at least they will be clear! And having them in writing and measurable will make it easier to argue about what's wrong with them so that you can get agreement with your colleagues about which are the right ones.

Priority Lists. Because there is never enough time to do everything, project leaders live and die by their priorities. Every project needs clear priorities to drive decision making and resource allocation, as does every major piece of every project. And if you are working on more than one thing at a time, which covers pretty much everyone except taxi drivers and my dad, the whole wad of projects must be prioritized relative to each other.

I've been doing a prioritization experiment with my biggest client in Japan. At the beginning of 2009 I caught wind of various rumors that several people who were not directly part of our program were a bit annoyed because they didn't know what was going on in our exciting part of the business. No, I didn't stomp into the president's office demanding increased transparency (. . . but if I had it would have been in Japanese, of course, with a bit of bowing thrown in, and a few sumimasens . . . ) and I didn't launch a campaign for improved organization-wide communication.

Instead I took an immediate and very low-tech approach and hung two giant pieces of flip chart paper in what has come to be known as "Kimberly's Korner." One lists our overall priorities for this program, which is how I decide how to spend my time and how to match up resources with needs. Number one is delighting the current playing client—something no businessperson can afford to lose sight of ever, but especially this year. The second is getting more paying clients. (If you want to know priorities # 3 and #4, you'll just have to visit Tokyo.) The other flip chart lists the current projects within the program, in priority order. The name of each project is on a separate post note, and I re-order them and update the chart every time I'm in town. There's also a big note inviting comments and questions, but I've received none. Now I'm not naive enough to take this absence of comments as a sign that the priorities are now clear, but at least people who can read are no longer complaining. And, to my delight, one of the executives has used my own lists against me to get me to put aside something I was working on to work on something that was important to them. Wahoo! Sometimes success comes in baby steps.

Values, goals, priorities. What could be simpler? Well, as usual, it's simple, but not easy. We all fall short of our own ideals from time to time. That's no reason to lower our standards. We all miss our targets now and then. That's no reason to aim lower. And we all clean off our desk, check email, or go to Hawaii, when we should be working on the article that's due to Project Connections by July 15. But having these to steer by helps us avoid permanently spinning our wheels in the mud pit of projects, or our life.

Looking forward to hearing your stories of how you beat muddy thinking!

- Kimberly

Related Items
Kimberly's Priorities, Goals and Actions Alignment worksheet can help you sort out whether your actions are moving you toward your goals. Keep track of your project's priorities by recording a clear vision statement and sharing it with everyone.

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

For the past decade I have taught graduate students in project management. These are the rules I built for myslef to keep focused. I challenge my students with them, to build their own. I freely admit stealing them from others. My motto: Indoles rapio. (Genius steals).

Dr. Rogers Rules for Project Management

Rule No. 1 If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.

Rule No. 2 Failure to plan, is a plan for failure.

Rule No. 3 Focus on product over process.

Rule No. 4 Effective Work is doing the right things. Efficient Work is doing the right things well.

Rule No. 5 Project Communication is an active, two-way process, not a one way street.

Rule No. 6 If it hasn't been done before, that's reason enough to consider trying it.

Rule No. 7 When all else fails, read the directions.

Rule No. 8 Have fun!

PS Is this your only blog? Couldn't find a scrappy pm website either. have and read your book. Loved the YouTube clip.

My blog for my students and alumni:

Hats off to he lazy project manager Peter Taylor

Thanks for your comments, Tom! I'm eons behind in replying. Sounds like you have a lot of wisdom to contribute to the world of project leadership and management. If you're interested in writing for a blog I co-founded with UCSC Silicon Valley Extension please let me know.

More Kimberly scrappiness can be found there.

Glad you liked the book!

Wahoo! - Kimberly

It was a pleasure to read this article - my first introduction to you.

I get so irritated being surrounded by muddy thinking. It's like they all drank some sort of Kool-Aid. I try to pick my battles wisely and get people to act where it's most productive.

I look forward to reading more of your writing to learn how to succeed with often contrary views on priorities and values.

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