Managing in Complex Project Environments

How do you manage a project when it feels like walking through fog? When you don’t know what you don’t know, and the environment is shifting so much that it’s virtually impossible to keep track of all the moving parts?

You focus on what you can control. You look at the one or two small things you can do to influence the issues you’ve got now. And you go with it.

Carole Osterweil
Carole Osterweil

Carole Osterweil is a magician at making people feel like they own the fog and can navigate any path, however blocked it might seem. I caught up with her to get some more tips for managing in those tricky situations.

Click the video to watch below. There is also a transcript below the video if you would like to read it instead.

Book cover of Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience

Elizabeth:         Hello everyone. It’s Elizabeth here from Girl’s Gide to project management and I’m delighted to have with me today, Carole Osterweil whose book I came across recently is very, very long title called Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience: A Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog. And because a lot of what we talk about in our community is how do you get things done in the real world, which could also be quite messy, I thought Carol would be a fantastic person to talk to us more about how to navigate all of those complexities and what it’s like working in uncertain environments and things like that. So hello Carole, thank you for coming onto the video with us today.

Carole:             My absolute pleasure. I’m delighted to be here.

Elizabeth:         Thank you. We’ve spoken before, haven’t we? So we can take up some of the points that we’ve talked about previously, but I think probably it’s worth talking about some of the really basic stuff first because your book is aimed at people who are leading projects. How would you say…what do you think the difference is between the project management and the project leadership?

Carole:             I think the difference sometimes… I really disliked the two things being differentiated because I think most project managers want to be leading and many of them actually are but if we trying to get technical for a minute, there was a report that was done quite recently by the APM, which sat down really to explore this. I think there’s a lot of truth in what they were saying. Their view was that traditional project management is very process focused and we all know of course that the people are just as important. But there’s something about projects in the modern age having got far more complex, far more volatile and possibly far more ambiguous than they used to be. And there is something about as a project leader you have to be comfortable dealing with all of that. And then they’ve kind of took it a bit further. What they said in the report was that to be a project leader. It’s about being very fugitive, very future focused. It’s about second direction. It’s about the way you work with your team and also stakeholders and having an eye to the big picture as well. So you can’t just kind of bury yourself thinking I’m only here to deliver this project. One has to be really aware of the context one’s working in. Then I think they had another kind of two really important pieces with what they were saying in the report, which really resonates for me. There’s something about needing to be as comfortable inside the project that is with your plans, your risks and everything project managers do and do so well. It’s being able to step outside the project, looking at it as an outsider and then look for patterns about what’s going on in relation to the project and how is the project working within the environment and what is changed. You’re moving with the stakeholders as well.

Carole:             And about not only that, but what do I have to be doing to influence all of this? I can’t just be reacting and reporting on what’s happened historically. I’ve got to be being far more proactive. So does that help you think about it?

Elizabeth:         Yes, I do. And I liked the distinction. I like the lack of distinction. I like the fact that actually we might use project management as a term to describe the act of doing the processes. But what we all should aspire to be is the leader because otherwise you’re reduced to a project administrator, really. You’re reduced to somebody who tickes boxes, fills things in, checks in with people. Have you done your task? Good, I’ll tick a box to say it’s complete on my Gantt chart. That’s not adding value to our organizations.

Carole:             No. Or to the project.

Elizabeth:         No. So I can see that in the olden days, projects were perhaps a bit easier to do in some respects because the world was simpler and today we’ve got much more complex environments to work in. So the term you use in your book is unordered and an unordered environment. So how do you define that?

Carole:             Okay, so an unordered environment, it is a term I use. It’s not my term. It comes from some complexity theory. But let’s not make it unnecessarily complex. Having said that, I think the thing that’s really important is in an unordered environment, there is so much going on on so many different fronts that it often feels quite impossible to influence them. And the other thing about working on projects I think is so often what we think is if only we could put more resources in or somebody who doesn’t quite understand what’s going on or we haven’t got the skills, let’s walk back out, then we’ll be able to sort this all out and create order, make it order. So we can run our standard project management processes when you’re in a really unordered environment. But the one thing that you cannot do is expect the patterns that you’ve seen in the past. So the way we used to run every project I’ve ever worked on in this sphere to necessarily work going forward, because you can’t use past experience to predict the future. And so this is where the analogy of walking in fog comes in. There’s something about actually we have to be looking for small signals thinking where are the patterns emerging and what do we need to do to amplify the things that are going to help us do what we want and what do we need to do to dampen the unhelpful things?

Elizabeth:         Yes, the wheels are turning because I’m thinking of how that relates to the environment I work in and where we have a lot of things going on and a lot of things were happening at the same time and lack of lack of organizational clarity in terms of the…just because it’s so big, so difficult, so much, um, and a very changing environment. And to be able to amplify things that are working well, I can instantly see three or four things that would be removing bureaucracy, increasing autonomy for people who’ve got the skills to be able to do it and to basically get out people’s way, to let them lead the change that they need to know. So yes, that whole conversation about being in an unordered environment and not trying to regiment everything, but just go with the flow and pick the things that are going to make the biggest impact. You I think a really interesting concept, probably quite hard to sell to management though. Do you think?

Carole:             The key questions to be asking management is about out of all of this, what is concerning you most because management are just like us project managers that we’ve got all kinds of things which are keeping us awake at night. And maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but I think what happens is, and this is why I talk about neuroscience in the book without trying to get too heavy about it, one of the things that we know is when there’s an awful lot going on, it makes us anxious and we can’t see things too clearly. And when we can’t see things too clearly, we start to generalize. And so when we’re generalizing, suddenly instead of one or realizing one or two things are keeping us awake all night, everything is,

Elizabeth:         It becomes, ah, the world is terrible. My life is awful. Yes.

Carole:             And so if we can really focus ourselves all of the time on what’s, what are the few things today or this week that we can actually do something about, then we can begin to unravel it and find the things we need to work on.

Elizabeth:         No, that makes perfect sense. So that’s a really good tip for working in a volatile unstructured complicated environment. Have you any other nuggets of tips that you could share with us?

Carole:             In order to identify what are the things that are causing me most concerned today, the absolute key is to be able to create some space for yourself. How often do we go into work? And we’ve already got our list of everything we need to be doing and we’re feeling like we are on catch up mode before we start and then emails start piling in

Elizabeth:         Yes.

Carole:             And there’s something about actually not being sucked into that, but learning that you are adding value by – and this might sound really, really strange – by not responding to stuff immediately. But by making the space for yourself to think about how should I actually be responding here? And so coming back to that APM report that I spoke about when this about kind of being able to see the projects as an insider and as an outsider, there’s a lovely metaphor. It’s not mine, it doesn’t come from the APM, which talks about being able to not only be on the dance floor, but to be able to stand up on the balcony and see what’s going on.

Elizabeth:         Mm.

Carole:             Yeah. And there’s something about working in a VUCA world, which is, I hate that phrase, but this kind of unordered world, it’s something about really recognizing the value that comes from stepping back, getting on the balcony, looking down at your project and your project with your team, your team, and the stakeholders, and seeing what is playing out there and coming back to where do I need to be intervening. But also it’s about when you’re on the balcony, being able to then go in, Oh, and when I’m on the dance for five minutes ago and in 10 minutes time, what dance am I going to be doing? How am I going to be contributing to all of this? And usually kind of slightly different phrase, I would say yes, rather than using that balcony and dance floor analogy actually becoming more mindful. And again, there’s so much jargon around but you know, mindful awareness, will be another one. And there’s something about developing a mindful awareness muscles so that you can move from the dance floor to the balcony so you can know what’s going on for yourself. How am I feeling about all of this? Am I feeling anxious? Because if I am, I might be adding to the complexity and being aware also of how I behave, how I interact. If I lose my rag with a team member or agree without defending what we’ve claimed to do with a particular powerful stakeholder, it will have an impact on the project and on the way the whole thing moves forward.

Elizabeth:         Yes.

Carole:             So it’s all about knowing you want to be kind of containing this stuff, not pretending it doesn’t exist and to be making it as unstressful as possible in order to keep the complexity down as far as you can for a long answer for sure.

Elizabeth:         No, but that makes perfect sense and amplifies and takes on the metaphor I used in one of my books about being a helicopter where you can fly above and then you zoom in to the parts where you need to dive into the detail and then you pull back up again to see the bigger picture. But I like the idea of mindful awareness actually I liked the idea of conscious leadership where it’s not just about tasks, you’re not hovering to see the big picture of the task and then diving in. Oh, that person needs support with risk management. That person needs support with designing whatever bit of the system they’re designing. So we will bring in some buddy to pair program with them, but actually to think about behaviors as well and layering on that level of emotional intelligence will make such a difference because projects are done by people and the whole leadership management divide is divided between processes and people very, very simplistically and the more we spend on the people stuff and empowering people to do what they need to do more success we should have.

Carole:             Absolutely, but then that’s not to diminish what’s important about the process side, but I think what happens is coming back to this notion of actually a lot of this has got lots of things which are not straightforward to be working with anymore when there is this kind of under underlying stress. I’m not saying everyone is stressed out and overwhelmed all the time. I don’t believe that’s the case either, but there is an emotional content to all of this and we have to be able to find that and manage it and work with it rather than pretending, as in the old world, oh no, that’s that emotional stuff that we don’t do that here. And it doesn’t exist because it leaks into everything. Anyway.

Elizabeth:         Yes. So talk to me more about this idea of psychological safety because that comes up in your book as well. And I’ve read about that elsewhere. Is that how people have to feel safe to be able to express their opinions at work?

Carole:             It is, and I think my starting point is to say we don’t talk about it a lot. And it wouldn’t surprise me if anyone listening to our exchange is kind of going, oh, we never discussed this. But actually I want you to think for a minute and think about moments when perhaps you wish you had said something. You could see it was going wrong, but I bit my tongue, it wasn’t the right time. Or maybe someone would have laughed at it. It’ll go, no, no, you’re not being supportive of the project or whatever it is. So there’s something about actually what is really going on here for me? Am I really feeling in support of it or am I nodding my head and complying in this meeting for example, because it feels a bit dangerous. And this notion of psychological safety is, it is saying if we want everyone to be able to speak in inverted commas, their truth, the truth as they see it without fear or being embarrassed or shut down or even ostracized at work, you know how we might be thrown out from the group, be, they might all laugh at me for the next six months because I said this thing, which to me was an enormous thing which everyone else might actually forget within 30 seconds because they weren’t paying any attention. And if the projects work really well, the leaders need to be actively fostering the group behaviors and norms which will encourage others to be contributing. And this thing about actively fostering it. So what am I doing here to make sure the quiet person or the expert who maybe hasn’t followed all of this conversation is able to contribute what they know? What am I going to do to make it safe for them? And as groups get used to contributing, and as we all discover, we’re not laughed at, it becomes safer and we get collaboration and better learning, but that doesn’t mean making it just a fun place to be because people have to be able to contribute something which might be quite controversial or actually, five out of six people might disagree with, but it might be the one insight which makes all the difference.

Elizabeth:         Yes. I wouldn’t say that’s unique to project teams. I see this good for all teams that are working together, but probably more of a challenge for project teams where you’ve got multidisciplinary groups coming together who don’t have a history of working together. It’s not the same environment as an operational team where you turn up, you see your colleagues every day, you’re all doing very similar job. There’s a level of trust that has perhaps come through that working relationship. Whereas on a project you all get thrown into a big team. I don’t expect it just to magically work together brilliantly and as a leader if we do what you’ve just said and try to create an environment where people do feel safe to speak up and when they do we actually listened to and act on what they say in a respectful way. Then we get better ideas because it celebrates the diversity of opinion within the team as well. And you don’t just get group of people who go yes Elizabeth of course Elizabeth, I’ll do that. Thinking that if we did the development this way or if I involve that person, it would just be faster, better, quicker, cheaper, whatever. Interesting.

Carole:             I think also though that the project teams, of course many people who are working virtually as well, which adds another dimension to it.

Elizabeth:         Yes. And you and I were talking before we hit record on this video about how difficult sometimes online communication can be because of challenges with Internet connections and just trying to find the right time zone for people in different countries and all of that. That stuff adds to the complexity and also being able to concentrate. I’ve been in lots of meetings where I think, are you really listening to me? Or have you just turned your video off so you can do your emails.

Carole:             Well I think that’s a really, really important thing. And I think also, so coming back to how one might foster that kind of psychological safety, I think there’s things that as a project leader, one can do, so for example, many people listening to this may already do this, but if you’re working virtually, if you take the time to do a check in at the start, what’s on everybody’s mind before we even start this meeting? How are you feeling about what’s going on in relation to this project? So there’s two things, you know, otherwise, you may have somebody who’s dialed in, and I certainly had this before now where, who actually is present in the meeting in one sense, but their head is somewhere entirely different. Whether it’s, I had someone the other week, you’ve got news that, um, there’d been a death in the bigger team at work. And if they hadn’t raised that at the beginning, I wouldn’t have known to say, well, let’s take, a bit of space for you or come and join us later, or whatever. And we could have gone on merrily assuming they were present, where in fact they’re dealing with something entirely left field. That’s just one example. A bit extreme. I know, but still.

Elizabeth:         I bet there’s something that happens to somebody regularly. It’s the small things. It’s the child being sent home from school sick as well as their perhaps more tragic situations that affects us because we’re just humans. So it must’ve been quite a challenge for you putting all of this into a book and your book is a guide so you’re giving practical tips to how to navigate all of this through using the neuroscience tools. Was it a fun book to write?

Carole:             It was and it wasn’t, let me explain what I mean by that. It’s the synthesis, the things that I’ve been doing I suppose after that, over the last 10 years. So I have practiced lots of it working in my coaching and working with clients on consulting. And it was a fun challenge to put it all together. And when I say it was and it wasn’t, the wasn’t bit of it is I’m dreadful at writing, so I tend to mess with words a lot and I probably take five times as long as I should and then I get very frustrated at myself.

Elizabeth:         Well the final book is a good read. So it’s turned out well.

Carole:             Yeah. And I was very pleased. I had somebody review it on Amazon. You said it was short, it was compact and not a word was wasted, which I thought was quite a compliment.

Elizabeth:         Yes. Brilliant. Okay. Well I know I’ve picked your brains about a few different things. Are there any other final tips or points that you wanted to share?

Carole:             I suppose the one thing I would say is the subtitle of the book is about walking in fog and there’s something for me about when we start being honest about what it feels like and I do emphasize that what it feels like to be working in this unordered environment actually it frees up things not only for yourself but for everybody else and if you can say if you feel you are at some point walking in fog and that sense of a bit frustrated or maybe that or not clear, being able to actually say it without it being a judgment about I don’t know what I’m doing here.

Elizabeth:         Yes

Carole:             So recognising quite calmly that this is just part and parcel of the way projects work at this particular time for the practice this week or these few days, then that can make a huge difference. And I have an example of that. I was working with a program director who was doing a very big complex projects and we were talking about actually this question of what’s concerning you most, and her observation to me was I’m fine ish for the next six months, but beyond that I’m in an absolute fog. And she hadn’t spoken to me about the notion of walking in folk before. So it was like, so I asked her to describe it to me and then I offered her this idea about walking in fog and contrasted it with the project management, the process based road is set out is that it should be more like painting by numbers. You know, you get the outline, you fill in the colours and low and behold, the lovely picture emerges. But what’s really interesting is what’s a fog to me might to somebody else be absolutely painting by numbers and this particular program directed took this idea away and went to speak to different members of her team and sure enough she found someone who was looking who went off about six months out we’re going, oh no, this is how are we going to do it and this is person in their team was able to paint sufficient of an outline for my program director to be able to almost be painting by numbers. But without the use of those two metaphors she would have been stuck for quite a long time. I think I really want to encourage people to name how they’re feeling.

Elizabeth:         No, that’s good advice.

Carole:             It lets us talk in a very confident way rather than feeling sheepish about it.

Elizabeth:         Yes. Yes. I think that that comes back to our honesty doesn’t it? Honesty and openness about how we feel at work and what we can do about it.

Carole:             Yeah. And knowing that when we label things in a way like that, actually it helps us and everybody else be clearer too because it reduces that kind of emotional temperature. This is manageable. Now I don’t have to feel embarrassed because we know when we’re feeling a bit embarrassed or a bit of shame when I say we know, we know the knowledge about how the brain works. We tried to talk about it in the book as well. We know that when we are feeling a bit on the spot then we cannot think so clearly, but actually naming the emotional content like that, using these methods for example, brings the temperature down and all of us can be thinking and working with greatly clarity.

Elizabeth:         That makes sense. Have you got a copy there? You can show us.

Carole:             Yes, I can wave it at you. If you look closely, it’s a woman on the cover.

Elizabeth:         Brilliant. All right. Well, thank you very much for joining us today and sharing all of that. It’s, it’s been really interesting, really helpful, and I’m sure people will appreciate your insights into how to just deal with project management in real world and all the complexities that we have to deal with. So thanks very much.

Carole:             My pleasure, and thanks for asking such good questions. Bye.

About Carole Osterweil

Carole is a trouble-shooter, consultant and coach working with directors and project delivery teams who want better outcomes, higher productivity and less stress.

She believes that project success cannot be separated from leadership – what we say, what we do and how we conduct ourselves on a daily basis.

Carole has led complex change and transformation programmes in the NHS, IT and other sectors. As an educator, consultant and coach she has worked at Ashridge, part of Hult International Business School for over 20 years. She now runs Visible Dynamics, a boutique consulting and coaching practice. 

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Managing projects in complex environments