IPMA International Project Management Association
19 March 2020 / 9:00

Catch people doing something right

In my opinion, to secure project success, we have to focus on the culture of an organization at first. Once we are aware of the culture, we can adapt our project management approach.
As I described in my previous blog, the best strategy to understand the culture of an organization is an observation. The observation of people’s behaviours. Behaviours of people in their daily job activities. The observation of cooperation forms and relationships between colleagues and teammates: the way they solve problems, the way they take accountability for their job, etc.

Focus on success. Focus on behaviours.
I consulted many individuals and teams in companies within the service sector and industry to help them manage their projects. To improve their management skills. The fundamental assumption in the “world of improvement” is that you cannot improve what is not standardized. In other words, you need to have a baseline to which you refer to when evaluating your improvement. You have a baseline, and then you see the impact of your activity on the deviations towards the baseline. In many companies I visited, there was no standard for project management, or the standard was defined very poorly. One of the outcomes of poorly designed standards is enormous variation in the behaviour of individuals that follow the standard or even consistently lousy behaviour. In total, the variations in behaviour lead to variation in results. When different people manage projects differently within one organization, they achieve different results. If the results are wrong, the organization has a problem.
However, there is not always a defined standard in how to manage projects; one ever-existing thing, even without a written description, is the culture of an organization. As I wrote in my previous blog: it’s up to us whether we will shape the culture or the culture will shape us, which means that the culture also influences how we manage projects or how we manage at all. The first step towards developing how we manage aiming to improve is to be aware of how we lead. Management style, as well as the culture, is defined by behaviours. So what is then the behaviour?
According to the Cambridge dictionary: “behaviour (American English) or behaviour (Commonwealth English) is a particular way of acting.”
We already know that behaviour is a particular way of acting that can be observed. Generally, what we can observe, we can also describe and, in the end, record. So let us extend the definition of behaviour as a particular way of acting that can be described, observed, and recorded.
And guess what, everything that can be described, observed and recorded, can also be measured. And in the end, what can be measured can be improved. Although we might not have a standard for managing projects, we still may improve how we are managing our projects by focusing on the right behaviours.

Behaviour is observed
We may start by seeing how we behave in certain situations related to the project, such as planning, analyzing risks, reporting on status, closing of the project, and so on.
For example, team members report status frequently, and in pre-defined intervals; people communicate in a proper tone; people are attached to their mobile phones when in a meeting; project manager often negotiate with sponsors; the team prepares financial forecasts; people periodically come late to the meeting; people speak a lot what they are doing, but with no real evidence; team members are often on sick leave (when it is often happening it can be a sign of tension within a team)
The incremental parts of the project are processes. Although the project is unique, its processes are repetitive. Those processes are the right focus in our observation because, as they are repeated, they give us more samples of our inspection. Time matters; one observation is not statistically significant at all.

Behaviour is described
We can also define the desired behaviours we want to see in our organization. In the area of project management, it is quite simple to identify the right behaviours. Right processes should drive them in place. One might say that to put a process in place will solve the problem, I would challenge that because people don’t always follow processes, they are happy to find short cuts. Therefore the observation of whether people obey process gives us the answer to the question of whether we defined the right processes to manage our projects. Rather than describe the right behaviours for project management by processes is to have a look at what competent project managers should do.
For example, we make decisions with an appropriate analysis of good data and facts. We send the agenda before every meeting. Constructive feedback is an essential part of every project. We invest in everyone’s development and encourage them to realize their potential.

Behaviour is measured
As for observing so for describing the behaviours, we must set up the indicators to measure the progress. Those indicators are called Behavioral Indicators or Key Behavioral Indicators in the case we have selected the most important ones for us.
The most challenging part of setting the right Key Behavioral Indicators is to define what to measure. To choose behavioural indicators, that will reflect our progress is necessary to take into consideration two fundamentals aspects:

  1. The behavioural indicator is more an indicator then precise measurement. It is not crucial whether the value of the indicator is 0.6 or 1.2. More important is the trend of evolution of the indicator after a precisely defined time.
  2. Nothing becomes more critical just because you can measure it. It becomes more measurable. In other words, measuring something does not make it manageable it just makes it measurable.

The dark side of tracking a particular behaviour is that we become driven by the number rather than the purpose behind it. The BI show us whether our behaviour is stable or it varies within time, so we should not focus on precise number but more on the trend shown.
We are used to setting a goal or a target for our progress. In general, goals are about the results we want to achieve. The tracking the behaviours is more about the process that leads to those results. As goals are right for setting a direction, tracking of behaviours is suitable for making progress. We get what we repeat. When we choose the wrong measurement, we get the wrong behaviour.
For example, when managing a project, we want to achieve that team members meet regularly and inform each other about their current progress and obstacles, to be transparent in what is happening within the execution of the project. The first thing a PM can do is to schedule a regular status meeting. How will we know that our goal is fulfilled? How will we know that team members meet regularly and inform each other about their current progress and obstacles and are transparent in communication? Is tracking the number of occurrences of the meeting sufficient? The number of the occurred status meeting is a performance indicator; it tells us how many times a team performed the session. It says nothing about the quality of the meeting or whether the purpose of the meeting was fulfilled. The right indicator to measure would be how many people participate in the meeting over time and who exactly. This indicator may tell us that only forty per cent of all team members involve all the time to the meeting and that the people vary from meeting to meeting. The indicator expresses the behaviour of a team and therefore is a behavioural indicator. The performance indicator forces us to focus on performance. There is a meeting, and you need to participate, if not, you will not be informed, and it’s your problem. The problem is that it is not a problem of a team member when he does not participate in the meeting. It is a problem for a project manager because his team members don’t have all the necessary information. The behavioural indicator indicates to the project manager that there is a problem in the team and forces him to investigate what is happening. In such a situation, either the team members don’t participate in the meeting because they simply ignore it, or they find another way how to inform each other about the current progress that is even more efficient. As the performance indicator forces us to insist on scheduled meetings, the behavioural indicator tells us that we may select the wrong process according to what we want to achieve and forces us to know the team better.
When seen the processes we have in place through a behavioural lens, we know if they are routines that become habits and which behaviour they emphasize. If we force people to do something, they may be doing it just to please us and not for the original purpose. They may cheat the system. Systems drive the behaviour of people, or instead, they create the conditions that cause people to behave in a certain way. I will speak more about systems in my next blog.

We are what we repeat. In every organization, there are many good processes and behaviours in place that can support the successful management of projects. So when improving the management process in an organization, catch people doing something right. Observe behaviours, measure them, and be curious why people behave the way they behave.


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Marek Demcak

Author of this post

Marek works as a LEAN Coach at Vaillant. His main job is to coach and develop sustainable culture of continuous improvement industrial plants of the Vaillant Group in Slovakia and England. Besides his love in Process improvement, he is very enthusiastic about project management as well. Marek founded and developed IPMA Young Crew in Slovakia. Currently, he is the Management Board Member of IPMA Slovakia and since march 2019 also the Management Board Member of Young Crew Global, responsible for GYCWS and Coaches and Mentors program. His hobbies range from books to different kinds of sports such as Crossfit and climbing iron ways. Why is he so involved in IPMA? As he says: “Whatever we do in our lives has the impact on the world and other people, therefore we should do the right things, be more professionals but never forget to have fun” :)