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People and the feng shui of teams

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Ancient ideas, modern problems
Feng shui is an ancient Chinese belief that the way we organise our physical environment can have an impact on our well being and life prospects. By carefully positioning the things we possess and the buildings that we live and work in we can bring our life balance, health and luck. In an idle moment it struck me that this underlying principle is one that we project managers would do well to pay attention to. Particularly when thinking about the people that we work with.

The project problem...
Being brought in to sort out a project that isn’t performing is something that has happened quite often in my life. Generally there are two causes: poorly understood scope, and a crazy team structure with little or no thought having been given to individuals roles and how they interact with others in the team.

I won’t bore you with a rant about scope. If you are involved in the world of projects you will have your own horror stories to tell and scars to show! Why would you want to listen to mine?

Let me focus instead on team shape. Generally if you get the shape of the team wrong, you end up with people doing the wrong things - their actual talents being wasted- with bumps and scrapes along the way where roles overlap. Conflict within the team always results in delay and to be blunt this is a tremendous waste of everyones time, not to mention being very stressful for everyone involved.

… And what about when it gets bigger?
I used to work for a company that was constantly restructuring. Indeed I had a boss who could never stop tinkering with the organisation structure. The trouble was that he would forget which version of the structure he had just rolled out and behave as if the previous one, or a mixture of earlier ones, was still in place!

This could be quite stressful and sometimes resulted in very strange conversations. I can recall being collared by him in the corridor and asked to sort out some resourcing issue that he had only a month before given to the newly appointed resourcing manager. The resourcing manager was a colleague of mine who was regularly, and genuinely, ill until this boss ceased to be his boss at which point he enjoyed a miraculous recovery!

When change is poorly thought through or delivered too quickly its business impact is subverted by the force of its own inadequacy and it can begin to feel like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

People are flesh and blood
Restructuring can seem easy on paper, “just redraw the structure, share out the roles and get rid of the chaff.” And yes I have heard it described in broadly similar terms. It just gets more difficult when we actually try to make it happen. People are flesh and blood. They are not pawns on a chessboard or, even worse, some sort of mechanical work machine!

Maybe we should take the harder road and attempt to actually understand the impact that the change will have. At the very least we should have the good grace to keep in mind that those affected are likely to be feeling pretty bruised by the process. It is also good manners to remember what their new roles are and not expect them to do their old jobs as well!

It’s all very well drawing up a change-pain curve and being all “consultanty” about it, but if we then do nothing about the rollercoaster that the staff are on then we might just as well let people know by text message!


Top 12 reasons why people resist change 

The feng shui of teams
Which brings me to the feng shui of team organisation. I have to confess that I am not at all sure that rearranging my furniture will change the amount of luck or success in my life. I am sure however that paying proper attention to the needs and talents of the people in the team and making sure that the structures we implement are clear and effective can make a real difference to the success of any undertaking.

I am equally sure that time taken getting to know the people we are responsible for, understanding their strengths, weaknesses and pressure points is never time wasted. Projects rely entirely upon people, let’s “rearrange the furniture” so that they are freed to deliver.


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  1. Andrew Gray
    Andrew Gray 22 November 2014, 09:18 PM

    Merv - Whilst the attention to detail you mention is reminiscent of David Brailsford at his best, it may be more appropriate to focus some of that available energy on addressing core competences and recognising your value chain.If the home dressing room has no corners, where is a decent defence hiding then? :-) Joking aside, Colins point on the reliance on people is valid.  Always consider the three-way balance on the activity, the team and the individual, even if short term pressures are on getting the job done.  

  2. Merv Wyeth
    Merv Wyeth 19 November 2014, 01:08 PM

    Hi Colin, This is an excellent thought piece and it immediately brought to mind the changing rooms at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium that I had the pleasure of visiting yesterday. This was in the context of the Project Controls Expo event organised at that venue by Anil Godwhale. It was brilliant - Anil take a bow!I emphasise that Feng Shui thinking is central to the layout of both changing rooms. Home Team: Each player has their own place and sits on a padded cushion to aid circulation and reduce the liklihood of cramp. The room is curved so that that all players can see eachother, and perhaps morely importantly, Mr Wenger. There is nowhere to hide!The acoustics of the room are perfect. According to our guide, the legendary Perry Groves, the story goes that during construction a change 'request' went in to remove a pillar that threatened to interfere with the sight lines and all important communication - such as the half time team talk. The pillar was moved - never mind the cost it was quality that really mattered here. Everything is done to provide home team advantage.Opposition Team: changing room is somewhat smaller, with energy-sapping and demoralising corners and minus the heated cushioned non-slip floor. Surely this is an example of Feng Shui in practice ... but how does this convert to team performance on the pitch? Well Feng Shui doesn't automatically guarantee results. However, after a few lean years, maybe just maybe, it will contribute to success on the pitch!Merv