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Focus on the positives

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Have you ever made a mistake in your professional life? If your answer is ‘no’, then I don’t know whether to be impressed, astonished or disbelieving – or perhaps surprised a one-year-old is capable of reading Project journal!

For those of you who have made mistakes, I’m prepared to bet you learnt from the experience. Because we tend to learn more from the mistakes we make. As a manager, therefore, your job is not to stop your team members making mistakes; rather, it’s to stop them making the wrong ones.

We learn from mistakes because our project learning process all too often focuses on the mistakes we made. We look for the sources of failure so we can avoid them. And that’s reflected in books available. A cursory search of an online bookshop quickly reveals a dozen or more books about project failures, errors and disasters. Add to that another dozen – my own included – books on project risk. Indeed, I recently launched a video training course called How to Avoid Project Failure.

But despite the horrendous statistics in the CHAOS Report – an annual snapshot of performance in the software industry – I suspect more projects succeed than fail. If you go looking for failure, it’s easy to find, and the CHAOS Report does so. But the myriad projects ongoing every day in every organisation predominantly deliver success. This journal is full of great examples every quarter.

So maybe that’s what we should focus our learning on.

You don’t build a discipline on what not to do. There is far more that we can learn from success. And this is the thesis of ‘positive organisational scholarship’. It’s a discipline that owes much of its foundation to a successful project.

Yet how many project managers have even heard the term? More familiar perhaps, is ‘positive psychology’. This is a part of psychology that became more formal under Martin Seligman’s leadership of the American Psychological Association. The principle is that most people function well, so why does most psychology focus on what goes wrong? Instead, perhaps we should study the people who are happiest and most fulfilled. Could that yield valuable insights into how many more of us can become happier and more fulfilled?

Positive organisational scholarship extends this to organisational functioning. A leading figure in this discipline is Kim Cameron. His book, Positive Leadership: Strategies for extraordinary performance, focuses on ‘positively deviant performance’. This is a level of performance that is noticeably higher than average.

One aspect of Cameron’s prescription is startlingly simple. If you want to raise poor performance to a reasonable level, you need to focus on correcting mistakes. But if your goal is to raise good performance to extraordinary levels, this won’t work.

Instead, what you need to do is identify ‘positive deviance’. This means looking for examples of exceptional performance. Then, from these experiences, find ways to learn how you can embed new approaches into your process.

Doing this means refocusing our lessons learned processes. Instead of an attitude of ‘mistakes were made; lessons were learned’, aim for an approach that says: ‘We did well; how can we do it more often?’

This approach is more motivating, more developmental for your team members and more effective in delivering better projects.

And it isn’t new to project managers. The ancient Egyptians built pyramids generation after generation. They learnt as they went, correcting early mistakes. And then they started tweaking and incorporating improvements. The acme of their achievements, the Giza pyramid complex, was the result – and the foundation of positive organisational scholarship. Cameron followed up his 2004 book on the subject with an extended case study. In 2006, he and Marc Lavine published Making the Impossible Possible. It’s a study of a mega-project that went seriously right. And while such studies are less enticing than stories of failure, I think what we can learn from them is all the more valuable.


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