A DIFFERENT DRUMMER

Dispelling Fear: Something to Get Exorcised About

By Doug DeCarlo


Is your project spooked? Halloween is long gone, but that doesn't mean that the ghosts and goblins are not still lurking around your project, striking fear into the hearts of team members. Left unattended, fear can stalemate - if not kill - a project that otherwise might have been successful.

I learned this from Carla Ryan, a project management consultant and former colleague of mine. She opened my eyes to the power of getting people to express their fears, thereby creating a whole new mentality and reality for the project.

Carla's Revelation
Carla and I were facilitating a kickoff meeting for a project to manufacture and market a new cookie. The cookie was to have a sponge like base with a glop of marshmallow coated with chocolate. Our client had little experience in producing a cookie of this complexity.

It usually takes us about 45 minutes to an hour to get a team to agree on a succinct, two-sentence mission statement for a project. After 90 minutes, we couldn't get the team members to agree on where the bathroom was. Sensing that we were getting nowhere slowly, Carla stopped the meeting and departed from the agenda. She asked everyone to write down what they thought the probability was that this project would succeed.

The average came out to 25 percent, a very low vote of confidence. Would you want to be on this project? The next thing she did was ask the group to brainstorm every concern they had, and list every risk they could think of. We then prominently displayed this catharsis in all its gory glory on flip charts and said we'd take action on these points later in the day, once we had defined the project mission and the work breakdown structure. It was magic. The group became unblocked. They were exorcised. For the rest of the kickoff meeting, we moved ahead with clarity and speed.

Increasing Team Member Confidence in Their Ability to Succeed
The most amazing thing was, at the end of the day, Carla went around the room again and asked them to jot down what they now thought was the percent probability of their achieving success: 80 percent!

A wise man once said, "If you think you can, you can. If you think you can't, you can't. In either case you're right." Author and psychologist Wayne Dyer says, "What we don't face, we fear. And what we fear controls us." How then, do you dispel fear?

Becoming An Exorcist: Three Rituals That Work
Try these three approaches to rid your project of its demons.

Exorcise #1: Team meeting warm up activity
When project members sit down to meet, they often have a lot of things on their minds other than the team meeting that's about to begin. One person is upset at the phone call she just got form the dealership announcing that her transmission is shot; others may be enjoying a fleeting sexual fantasy.

That's why a front-end meeting activity is needed, one that will shift people's focus and energy to the project at hand. Although the pure touchie-feelie type warm-up has its place (such as "tell us about your most embarrassing moment") my preferred warm-up is one that yields information that directly advances the project.

A very simple yet effective warm-up that you can use over and over again is to ask meeting members (including yourself) to identify:
  • one thing that's going well on the project
  • one concern, major or minor
Tip: Post-it notes are your friend. Have attendees write down their answers on stickies and read them out loud. Plaster them on a flip chart, making a collage for all to see. Allow time at the end of the meeting to take action on the concerns. You'll be amazed at how people will become unblocked, freeing them up to plan the project.

Exorcise #2: A formal risk plan.
One of the main benefits of having the full team conduct the risk analysis and create the action plan is the pure psychological dividends that the process yields. Quite simply, it increases team confidence in the likelihood of being successful.

A four step R.I.S.K. model that's easy to remember looks like this:

R - Research potential causes of risk
I - Identify and quantify the impacts
S - Spell out solutions
K - Keep on top of it


Tip: Apply the model to the entire project as well as to each major project deliverable. (For a good cram course on risk assessment, refer to the articles by Jim Taylor that have appeared in the May-September 1999 issues of Successful Project Management.)

Exorcise #3: Around the water cooler
A sailor friend of mine told me that in going from point A to point B, you rarely get there by going in a straight line. That's because the prevailing winds have their own agenda. In fact, when sailing, you are nearly always off course, he said. To keep on target, sailors have to learn how to tack, which can be loosely defined as making constant course corrections by zigging and zagging your way to the target. The key word here is "constant." Having heard this, I thought to myself, "Imagine if a sailor on a two-week cruise waited for a week to go by before taking corrective action?"

How often should you assess how your project is going? Waiting for the next team meeting to come around might be too late. So, tack early and often. For example, when you're hanging around the water cooler discussing the latest episode of Frasier with a project team member, slip in these two questions before departing:

"Hey, by the way, what do you see that's going well on our project?"

"What do you think we should be doing differently?"

Unless you become an exorcist, you may not have a ghost of a chance.




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