Project Leadership In Uncertain Environments with Carole Osterweil

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It seems like more and more of the projects we’re working on as project managers are tricky in non-conventional ways. The environment is shifting as we’re trying to do the work. Or the political situation changes. Suddenly what you thought you were delivering is actually not that after all.

Carole Osterweil
Carole Osterweil

It’s not just me feeling like this. In my mentoring group we often talk about how projects don’t quite work the way the textbooks make you think they should. And Carole Osterweil has written a book about it.

Recently I spoke to Carole about what it takes to lead projects when the context is shifting all the time. Amongst her other consulting commitments, she is one of a handful of Project Academy coaches working with Cranfield University and PA Consulting to support the UK Government’s drive to increase senior project and programme management capability across government. So she knows first hand what leading projects in the midst of turmoil is all about (Brexit, anyone?).

Her book, Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience: A Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog, was published in early in 2019.

Carole, let’s start at the beginning. What’s the difference between project management and project leadership?

A recent APM report, Project Leadership; skills, behaviours, knowledge and values, explored this question.

The authors concluded project leadership is future-focused. It’s about setting direction, dealing with people and working outside the project with stakeholders. Project management tends to be focused backwards on progress that has been made, and inwards on the project organisation.

The authors also noted that project managers can find it difficult to make the transition to project leader, not least because being a project leader requires you to let go of many of the activities which make you a successful project manager. A key aspect of this is learning to step back to work strategically on the project, rather than staying with the detail and working in the project.

What’s more, project leaders typically operate with greater autonomy in more unstable and volatile environments. Environments that demand fast judgement calls in ambiguous situations.

You talk about ‘unordered’ environments. Can you give an example?

In an unordered environment so much is changing on so many fronts that it seems impossible to keep up, let alone influence the way forward. 

Brexit provides great examples. I work with many people in the public and private sectors who are working their socks off on Brexit-related projects. Every time they think they know what they are working towards, something happens, and the goalposts shift in unpredictable ways.

In an unordered environment you cannot rely on patterns of how things have worked in the past to predict how they will work in the future. Staying with Brexit, who could have known that Theresa May would call a snap election and lose her parliamentary majority?

Or that an individual, Gina Miller, would take the UK Government to court over its plans for driving through Brexit legislation? Or that this challenge would succeed — with the result that the UK Government had to put its plans to Parliament for a ‘meaningful vote’.

In unordered environments things are in a constant state of flux, emotions run high and reputations are at stake, adding to the complexity. In the case of Brexit, we see groupings of MP’s gather around one agenda only to abandon it a few days later. It’s important to know that this lack of order signals a complex system at work. Eventually a dominant agenda will emerge — but as Theresa May discovered there is no forcing it.

Project Leadership in Uncertain Environments

What is your top tip for working in a VUCA environment?

VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous)environments can be stressful and anxiety provoking, and we know from neuroscience that when we’re stressed and anxious we lose the ability to see or think clearly.

Instead, we tend to misread situations and shoot from the hip, at times displaying behaviours and emotions that raise the stakes and add to the complexity.

My tip? Acquire a basic understanding of how the human brain works and make time to step out of the project detail, so you can take a strategic view of how things are going, often.

Invest in developing your mindful awareness muscle so you can regulate your emotions and use this time well. If that sounds abstract or new age let me explain.

Read next: How VUCA environments are changing the way marketing teams manage projects.

A strong ‘mindful awareness muscle’ gives you great clarity about what’s driving your behaviour and what’s going on in the external world of team and stakeholders. It stops your thoughts and emotions, worries for the future and echoes of the past hijacking your attention and provoking knee-jerk reactions. It allows you to make truly informed decisions about how to respond and react to the situation at hand.

How do you separate the aspects of a project that are ordered from those that are unordered?

Use your mindful awareness muscle to take a long hard look at what’s really going on. Consider how your emotions, behaviours and aspirations might be contributing to your view of the world.

Take a view on what is fact and what may not be. Check out your intuition with others who see the world differently.

Work with them to agree what is known and what is still in flux. Repeat the exercise often and review your project management approach accordingly.

In the book I introduce two metaphors ‘Painting by Numbers’ and ‘Walking in Fog’ to enable you to choose the right approach. Painting by Numbers is akin to traditional project management — it’s very well suited to ordered environments. However, you require something quite different to walk in the fog of an unordered environment.

In your book you talk about psychological safety. What is that?

Do you remember being at school and waiting, with others in the class, for the sports team captain to call out the names of those she wanted on her side? Typically those moments evoked a desperate longing to hear my name. That longing reflects the innate human need to belong. A need that has a huge impact on behaviours.

In team and group situations we are acutely sensitive to any indication, real or imagined, that we will be left out or ejected. This fear, albeit unconscious, drives our interactions with others.

And why does that make a difference on projects?

Psychological safety exists when we believe we can voice our hopes, fears and concerns (no matter what they are), without fear of being embarrassed, punished or rejected for speaking up.

Conversely, when we feel psychologically unsafe, we become preoccupied with survival and go to great lengths to conform — even if it means being silent or going along with irrational decisions that we know are not in the best interests of project delivery.

Research by Google has found that psychological safety is the key factor in determining how successful a project team will be. And most project professionals don’t know it exists!  

What led you to write a book about all this?

I’ve been on mission to broaden understanding of what it takes to deliver a successful project since joining the faculty at Ashridge Business School years ago.

There, one of my first jobs was to equip the senior team of a nationalised industry with the knowhow to take their organisation into the private sector. It was clear that this had never been done before. Standard project management training was not up to the job, so working with Eddie Obeng and others I developed an approach that ensured equal emphasis on leadership, people and process.

These innovations gave us unprecedented access to global clients handling all manner of change and transformation and the opportunity to integrate ideas from multiple disciplines into our work.

I left Ashridge to put my ideas about leading projects in a VUCA environment to the test in the real world. Talk about a baptism of fire! 

As an executive coach I had numerous techniques for working through complex people issues. I was skilled at developing others to do the same. However, this experience gave me a new appreciation of what it takes to lead projects in unordered environments.

I acquired a visceral sense of how hard it is to build ‘good people practice’ into project plans, and when the chips are down how hard you have to fight to keep it there.

Learning about how the human brain works gave me a way to challenge the conventional way of doing things. Suddenly I had sound scientific evidence to support good practice. Just as important, I’d found a way to:

  1. make it safe for the most hardened project professional to acknowledge and work with emotions in the workplace; and
  2. make abstract concepts such as complexity understandable and relevant.

Encouraged by clients who were amazed at what they could achieve with this new understanding of the world, I decided to write the book.

What do you hope for the book?

Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience book cover

My aspiration is that the book becomes the text that everyone involved in projects uses to get to grips with the messy and emergent people stuff that undermines delivery again and again.

It shouldn’t matter whether you are new projects — perhaps coming to them as a director/ sponsor or a technical apprentice, or whether you’ve worked on projects for years and want to become a project leader — the contents will be just as relevant.

Thanks, Carole!

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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An interview with Carole Osterweil on how to lead projects