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We ask people to deliver projects with big people impacts, without really understanding human behaviour – are we crazy?

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In some ways, I think we are!

“Imagine asking a doctor to be a doctor without a grasp of physiology, or a linguist to produce a translation without a knowledge of grammar. Yet we’ve been asking people to deliver huge projects, with big people impacts for years. And we haven’t given them a model which clearly explains ‘why people behave the way they do’ – it’s crazy!”

Neuroscience for Project Success: why people behave as they do - my new book for APM, opens by contrasting project management with other professions, it continues:

“...Many in the project world find the people stuff so difficult to get their heads around.

I’m not being critical; it’s not surprising. A robust model to explain why people behave as they do did not exist. But that’s no longer the case. Advances in neuroscience have filled that gap – we have a model. [The book's] existence offers new and helpful ways to think about the challenges of project and programme delivery.”

It goes on to say, this is relevant whether "you’re grappling with uncertainty, stress, and the complexity of human behaviour; your focus is on accurately weighing risks and making good decisions; or you want to prove yourself as a project professional.

"...[This book] has the potential to turn the world on its head – in a good way, because it will enable you to understand, possibly for the first time, why people behave as they do.”

Is that exaggerating?

Donna Unitt, Chair of the Enabling Change SIG, answers “Not at all. Most of us don’t appreciate how important neuroscience is, not only in projects, but in life. Once you begin to understand even a part of how the brain works and what makes you, and others, tick – life gets easier.”

Mark Sutherland, of the UK Government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority, offers his perspective: “We spend a lot of time learning about the technical aspects of projects and the various methodologies and we talk about leadership. We spend far less time on the behavioural aspects - how we behave as project professionals when dealing with teams and stakeholders in fast moving environments.

I’ve found some of the ideas in this book about how the brain works very powerful. One of my biggest takeaways was discovering I have a ‘mindful awareness muscle’ – which gives insight into what I am really thinking, how I am really feeling and how I might be contributing to the situation – and learning how to strengthen it.”

What is a strong mindful awareness muscle?

The easiest way to answer this question is to ask you some questions:

  • How much time do you spend going over things from the past? Perhaps you’re allocating blame, revisiting decisions, or wondering how you could have done it differently.
  • How much time is spent with your head in the future – creating numerous scenarios about what’s going to happen next and how you’ll respond if it does?
  • How much of the time are you present, but not as confident and assertive as you’d like to be?

I’m not suggesting that you should never look back to learn lessons or that you should never look forward and plan. But I am encouraging you to consider whether there are occasions when you spend too much time and energy ruminating and turning the same thoughts over again and again. Is it possible that sometimes you are caught up in a fantasy that fuels your stress levels, and may even keep you up at night?

The notion of the mindful awareness muscle comes from Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University, who explains “most of the time our attention is not where we intend it to be. It is hijacked by our thoughts and emotions, by our concerns, by our worries for the future, and our regrets and memories of the past.”

The benefits of a strong mindful awareness muscle

A strong mindful awareness muscle enables us to be present and to consciously choose where and how we invest our energy. It stops us slipping into autopilot and improves the quality of our decision making.

Mark Sutherland continues, “When I first heard the M word – mindful, I was dismissive. I thought it was a bit of academic mumbo jumbo, without really understanding how it could add value. But the link to neuroscience was interesting. I decided to experiment and see if I could build this muscle. The experiment has paid off.

"Like other project professionals, I’m very delivery focused. Reflection didn’t come naturally, but I’ve learned to step back while I’m doing the delivery to consider: Am I doing the right thing here? Am I involving the right stakeholders? Am I on track with what I'm trying to do?”

Building your mindful awareness muscle means seeing things from all perspectives. For Sutherland this means, “I no longer fall into the trap of being so milestone driven, that I forget to speak to an important stakeholder, for example.

"It’s also made me more confident. I’ve always thought a lot about others - the team and stakeholders, the wider team, and the end users, but previously, I didn’t know to consider myself and what I need. Now I realise, I'm as important as everyone else! This has given me the confidence to challenge more. If there’s an issue with a deadline I can say, ‘I'm not ready’, and because I've reflected on it, I can provide evidence: ‘the reason I'm not ready is...’

"I still work in the same highly pressured environment, but using the ideas and tools in this book, mean I don’t have the same struggle. They have changed how I think about myself and helped me build stronger relationships with my management chain. I no longer feel a sense of failure if I need to say, ‘this milestone is slipping’ or ‘I need help with this’. It’s become easier to ask for that support.

"The ideas and tools in this book have opened my eyes to things I had never considered before. They have turned my world on its head in a good way!”

Order your copy of Neuroscience for Project Success: why people behave as they do here


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