Stories from an APM member: Trust/ conflict & leadership

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Posted by APM on 15th Jul 2013

Some weeks ago I received the regular flyer of APM events. This normally, in a busy schedule gets a quick glance as I am sure is the case with many members. What stood out was the section from the People SIG on trust and conflict. We all live in interesting times where the pressures on project delivery are often relentless. As project and programme managers we have to manage the people responses to the many challenges in our projects and often our teams lives outside of the work environment.

In fact what project manager has not wondered why a known capable colleague is behaving out of character and needed to poor some oil on a troubled situation or asked the question is everything alright and is there anything I can do to help.

These situations do not come with the same tools for process and control as with normal project methodology. But perhaps above all it is these project people and their perfectly human issues that make a project succeed.
I had promised myself I would make more effort to attend a SIG event or two this year so I marked it in the calendar. Having juggled my diary around the APM board meeting the previous day I found myself on the 10th July up at five am again and sat on the London bound train at six.

What leaders need to know about establishing trust and defusing conflict: best practices in project management the snappy title! got me thinking on the train about why it stood out as an event.
For me the words'leader' - 'trust' and 'conflict' stood out as key. It is project leaders that would likely be conscious of and looking to create trust, resolve conflict. Once again this brought me to reflect on the real differences between project managers project leaders a topic I have been pondering on for some time as there are so many definitions of this but with little in the way of definitive answers or evidence. Of course one trip to London is not likely to answer that question!

Train journeys to London need a job to pass the time so I settled down with a highlighter pen and coffee to start commenting on a text book I had agreed to provide feedback on following a training course the week before. Working my mark-up of the 200 page book into sensible suggestions was proving more difficult than I first thought.

Walking up the street towards the venue, from the Metropolitan line I bumpedinto Paul Girling, a well known APM event speaker who was heading the same way as me. We exchanged thoughts on the agenda for the day and the presenters Tercon. These events are, for those of us that have been around projects for a while are about exchange of ideas and new tools rather than basic knowledge, theyoffer the opportunity to share some of your own experience with those newer to the topic. You always learn something new or different and meet new and interesting people. I also get chance to see the APM community in action, as a director I find it very satisfying when events like this attract such a large and enthusiastic audience.

Coffee and introductions over we settled down to the day. Whoever designed a presentation room with a large pillar in the middle needs to think about usability a bit more. Im sure its holding the building up BUT?
There was a good breadth of sector and project experience in the room and we soon got working together on the first exercise, a card game with a twist. This helped us to feel the emotions of trust, or lack of it as we competed for the championship! It warned us about the assumptions that we make about the rules by which we work and naturally ascribe to others without checking that they are the same set of rules. The morning moved on to discuss the rules for trust, the symptoms of low/ high levels of trust and the flipping points of betrayal. We discussed the behaviours we need to avoid to keep trust and those we need to nurture to build trust.

Following lunch we moved on to the conflict questionnaire which created a considerable amount of discussion around the groups sat at the tables. We defined conflict as an unmet need.

A conflict occurs when a fundamental need is threatened or unmet

We agreed that some conflict is useful but that it is unresolved conflict that is damaging. Perhaps it is healthy when it causes the parties to explore new ideas, test their position and beliefs, and stretch their imagination. The concepts of destructive and constructive conflict were introduced. We discussed the task-system causes and the interpersonal causes of conflict and how these can combine. It is safe to say we all recognised some of these causes in our own projects. We reviewed the first, second and third order impacts of this unresolved conflict on project costs and time.

We work out our fundamental personality needs and discovered the power of the pause.

The key points for a pause being: suspend activity, take a breath, listen, notice feelings, identify cause, take charge of emotions, accept temporary discomfort, accept responsibility.

We mapped the process over time to resolution.

The final exercise of the day was using the collaborative conflict resolution process a six step model for resolving conflict. We each used a real life example of a project situation and played out the resolution process allowing us to explore alternative options for moving forwards. Using observers to provide feedback we gathered new ideas for improving performance.

Feedback throughout the day was robust and informative as you would expect from a room full of project managers.

Delivery of this sort of event to a large mixed audience is always challenging in terms of choosing the right content and balance to meet everyones needs. I am always impressed in our competitive world with the many APM corporate members and others, often consulting companies that so professionally give their time to share experience and information on their specialist subject areas without any guarantee of return or reward. I know its good networking and all that but to give a day or more of corporate time to a room full of project managers you dont know, has something about giving back to society and the wider need to share professional thinking. I understand this particular opportunity came via one of our large corporate APM members who will remain nameless but who demonstrate the networking power and value of the wider project community we are building at APM.

From my perspective I would like to say thank you to Jeanette and Steve from Tercon and all those others who contribute in the same way working within the project community. You allowed us to create the opportunity to get together, be facilitated, receive some knowledge, experience from you and the rest of the room. That has allowed us to make the time to reflect on some of our softer project management.project leadership behaviours. The slides from the event can be viewed below;

If just one person goes away, implements a tool to the benefit of the project and their team members today we have moved forwards towards a vision of all projects succeeding.

I think we will all take something new back to the workplace and our teams.

After all it is people that make projects.

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