Episode 90 – Facing Uncertainty – A Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog

Episode #90
Original Air Date: 10.01.2019

37 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Carole Osterweil

Are you at odds with the unknowns of your project? Are you feeling stuck, frustrated, and unable to put a finger on what is going wrong, or why - as if you’re in a “fog”? Carole Osterweil, the author of Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience: A Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog, offers some excellent advice for PM’s facing project uncertainty.

Carole is an adjunct at Ashridge Executive Education, a part of Hult International Business School just outside of London. She also runs Visible Dynamics, a boutique consulting and coaching practice. Carole’s current projects include work with Cranfield University and PA Consulting to increase the U.K. government’s senior project and program management capability.

If you are facing a project which seems unpredictable or the goalposts appear to be shifting, listen in for advice from Carole as she explains that a high level of understanding of how the brain works helps to deal with the successful delivery of complex projects. We talk about the “thinking brain” vs the “rational brain” and Carol explains how a PM can choose the right approach when facing uncertainty.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

“And if we can create a psychologically safe environment, then everyone’s thinking brains are online, and the team works really, really well together.”

- Carole Osterweil

“...when you start to recognize how you’re feeling, then you can begin to read how others are feeling. And then you can begin to see what emotions you evoke in other people.”

- Carole Osterweil

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The podcast for project managers by project managers. Many of our projects face uncertainty and complexity; we’re talking with Carole Osterweil about the importance of understanding how the brain works to clear the “fog”.

Table of Contents

02:10 … Meet Carole and Visible Dynamics
05:08 … Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience
08:08 … Walking in Fog
10:38 … Painting by Numbers
11:39 … Project 2020
12:53 … Understanding the Fog
13:41 … Understanding How the Brain Works
17:23 … Wiring of the Brain and Keeping track of Projects
21:29 … Creating a Circle of Safety
25:00 … Motivating Creativity and Collaboration
28:01 … Dealing with Fog in Your Team
30:13 … Bringing the Thinking Brain Online
32:36 … Facing Uncertainty
34:27 … Projects Where the Goalposts are Shifting
35:19 … Get in Touch with Carole
36:15 … Closing

CAROLE OSTERWEIL: And if we can create a psychologically safe environment, then everyone’s thinking brains are online, and the team works really, really well together.

NICK WALKER:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  We’ve set aside this time for you as a professional in the field of project management.  Our goal is to get to the heart of what you really need, providing ideas and encouragement.  We talk with some of the most creative and successful people in the field, finding out what has worked for them, and even sometimes learning from their mistakes.

I’m your host, Nick Walker.  We’ll get to our guest in just a moment, but let me just take this opportunity to thank you, our listeners, for your feedback on our podcasts.  We appreciate your comments on Google, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and many other podcast-listening apps.  If you have a suggestion or just want to tell us how the podcasts have worked for you, please don’t hesitate to comment.  You can also leave us a message on our website, Velociteach.com, or on social media.  It’s a great help, as we continue to bring what we think are helpful conversations your way.  We want to know what works for you and what can help us improve.

And what works for me is having our ever-present Bill Yates.  You’ve been involved in project management for, what, how many years?

BILL YATES:  We’re looking at decades.  There’s a list.  Let’s move on.

NICK WALKER:  Yeah, I guess we don’t have to, yeah; we don’t have to talk about it. 

BILL YATES:  Got a lot of gray hair here.  Let’s just leave it at that.

NICK WALKER: Let’s talk about this one.  But I’m sure that over the course of your career you’ve led projects that are unpredictable, with goal posts seeming to shift all the time.  And that’s what we want to talk about this time around.

BILL YATES:  Yes.  Carole, our guest, has written a book, and we’ll talk more about it.  But the book is so clarifying on this idea of uncertainty.  So many of our projects have uncertainty.  There’s complexity.  There are unknowns.  Could be an undefined scope.  Could be we’re using some kind of solution we’ve never used before.  There’s something in there that introduces our new favorite three-letter word, a “fog.”  So we’re going to talk about fog with Carole.

Meet Carole and Visible Dynamics

NICK WALKER:  Well, let’s meet Carole.  Carole Osterweil is the author of “Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience:  A Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog.”  Carole is an adjunct at Ashridge, part of Hult International Business School just outside of London.  And she runs Visible Dynamics, a boutique consulting and coaching practice.  As a troubleshooter and coach to executives and project delivery teams, Carole’s current projects include work with Cranfield University and PA Consulting to increase the U.K. government’s senior project and program management capability.  So she knows firsthand what leading projects in the midst of turmoil is all about.  Did anyone say “Brexit”?

Carole, to start off, could you tell us a little bit about Visible Dynamics and the goals of your organization?

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Yeah, of course.  I set up Visible Dynamics about 10 years ago.  And I don’t know whether you’ve ever noticed this; but when it comes to working on projects, things seem to be going along really well, and then all of a sudden something goes wrong.  And almost invariably, not always, but almost invariably it’s around the people stuff.  My own view is that there’s an awful lot of kind of dynamics which go on under the surface which we don’t really know about, and we don’t certainly understand very well.  But that’s what it is that takes projects off track.  So what I wanted to do was to create an organization which made these dynamics more visible so that we could increase productivity, get better project outcomes, and also reduce stress.  And for me, that’s crucial.

BILL YATES:  That makes me feel better, yeah, knowing that the problems that we have with projects in the United States are the problems that you see in the U.K., as well.  Thank you for addressing those.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Yeah, I think they’re global.

BILL YATES:  Yes.

NICK WALKER:  How did you get into this line of work?

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  So how did I get into this line of work?  Let me think.  I started off as a project leader, running big international projects, and so for some reason it was always the people stuff was the stuff that I gravitated towards and that gravitated towards me.  I then went off to work at a business school at a place called Ashridge, which is now part of Hult.

And one of the first jobs that I had there was working with a team.  There was a big – in the U.K., the utilities companies used to be public sector, and so they were moving them all into the private sector. So one of my jobs was to help one of these big companies go from the public to the private sector.  And of course when we started looking at the project and project management, we realized that the processes that were there were really not fit for purpose because they ignored all the people stuff and all the leadership stuff.

And so working with my colleagues, we put something together which addressed those three things.  And since then I’ve been working in consulting, in running projects and programs, and also in coaching people, all the time putting those angles together, particularly around the field of change and transformation.

Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience

NICK WALKER:  Your book.  We want to talk about that. What really strikes me is, first of all, is the title:  “Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience:  A Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog.”  I know I walk in fog a lot.

BILL YATES:  I was going to talk to you about that, Nick.

NICK WALKER:  Yeah, yeah.

BILL YATES:  I’ve been having that sense.  We’ll take that offline, yeah.

NICK WALKER:  I know Bill, Bill’s got a copy of the book here that he’s just dog-eared and tabbed so many things that have jumped out.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  And I can tell, Carole, I was looking forward to the conversation because I’m sure these concepts didn’t just come out of thin air.  These are things that you – these are problems that you saw firsthand, or you saw with a colleague’s experience.  And you put some really good thought to it and came up with a construct or a model that makes sense to me.  And, you know, as we were talking about offline, when I saw “neuroscience” in the title, I thought, okay, I like where this is going to go.  This is going to be interesting to see the connection.  So what led you to finally say, okay, that’s enough, I’m going to write some of this down in a book.  What led you to go ahead and write the book?

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Oh, okay.  So I had been working with and around these concepts to varying degrees.  So some of the stuff around walking with fog I’ve been working with really since way back when I was doing this work with this public utility.  And that was a concept which was developed by one of my colleagues there, who is now Professor Eddie Obeng, so that’s been familiar terrain for me a long time.

More recently I’ve been coaching a lot of people, and it seemed really pertinent to be introducing the idea of neuroscience, as well.  And the more I was coaching them, and the more I’ve been using the three or four different concepts which I’ve put together in this book, they seemed to talk to people a lot.  So I had written a few blogs around it, and it seemed timely to be joining them all up into initially a chapter for a book.  And then I thought, I’m not giving it away, so I’ll publish it myself.

BILL YATES:  That’s great.  What do you hope for the book to achieve?  What would make you feel like, okay, this has been a success?  

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  So my view, and I would say this, of course, is it kind of turns project management a bit on its head.  And we can talk about that separately or later on in this conversation.  But I am really struck by all this stuff around how it’s the people stuff that takes projects way off beam so often; and how for so many project managers in particular, although I think it appeals – and I know from speaking to people in lots of different leadership roles, it is as relevant for them.  But the people stuff is really, really daunting.  And if there’s something that can link it up in a way which makes it more accessible, and therefore less frightening, so that people can engage with it and do something with it that makes sense for them, then I would be really pleased.

Walking in Fog

NICK WALKER:  So let’s talk a little bit about the idea of walking in fog and what that means.  You’ve written, “The disconnect between how their organization or project is supposed to function and what happens in practice can leave them feeling stuck, frustrated, and unable to put a finger on what is going wrong or why.  It’s as if a thick fog has descended.”  Describe what you mean by this fog.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Ha ha.  Been there.  That’s what I mean by it.

BILL YATES:  Well, yeah.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Yeah, so I look at myself, and actually the book also talks about Project 2020, which is something that I was involved in running about almost 10 years ago.  So here I was, I had left working in a business school, I’d been educated with all these wonderful techniques and stuff which I had taught everyone else. I was a skilled coach and so knew how to influence people really well.

And yet, when the chips were really down, and I was trying to deliver this big program, all of a sudden everything – it was as if at times everything I knew had completely gone to pot.  And yet at the same time that’s not really part of the conversation that happens in organizations, is it.  So if you acknowledge to the world around you that what you think you’re going to do, like what they write in textbooks, is not happening, that is a big dangerous place to be.

BILL YATES:  Yes.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  And I think a lot of people therefore get very stuck and quite frustrated, but it’s hard for them to actually explore what’s going on here.

BILL YATES:  That’s good, and so I think sometimes the complexity of our projects lead to this fog state. Other times I can think about some fairly straightforward projects where I think I was the fog machine, so you know.  I introduced…

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Absolutely.

BILL YATES:  I made it so much more complicated, or I just – I added a level of complexity that did not need to be there.  So then suddenly our team finds that we’re in fog.  So I think it’s very relatable, you actually have a graph in the book on page 36 where you have “Walking in Fog,” and then on the other end of the spectrum is “Painting by Numbers.”  And, you know, your idea of, okay, trying to move from really the unknown to the known, okay, we’re in a state of discomfort. There’s fog here, so we don’t understand, there’s complexity that we can’t see through yet.  And then thinking of steps.  And we’ll talk through this further, but thinking of how do we move into that other area, I like that model a lot.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Now, as I said, that’s not mine, that comes from Eddie, Eddie Obeng.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.

Painting by Numbers

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  But, yeah, it’s really informed the work that I do an awful lot, and I think traditional, if we go back to the very traditional project management approaches, the assumption is that we are painting by numbers.

BILL YATES:  Right.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Yeah?  So when it’s, as I said, it’s not like the textbooks, is it, when you find yourself in fog, but you want to be painting by numbers, and everyone else is putting you under pressure to just go, let’s put a bit of red paint on that square there.

BILL YATES:  Right.  And it’s so much more complex.  There’s so much – there are intricate pieces that are in play, and it’s not paint by numbers in most cases.  We love it when it is, when we can fall into that sweet spot of, okay, great, now we know what to do.  We have a lot of experience in this area, great, but those can be – there can be big gaps in our project delivery where we’re not painting by numbers.  We’re doing things that we don’t fully understand yet.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Yeah, and I think the other thing I’d add is for one person what is painting by numbers for another person can be a complete fog.

Project 2020

NICK WALKER:  Carole, I’m just wondering, so what is Project 2020?

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  So Project 2020 was a project that I got involved in when I left Ashridge. And I left because I wanted to put my ideas about managing complexity and uncertainty into practice, and at the time there was a part – this is very U.K. specific, okay?  So part of the Department of Health was trying to transform part of the NHS.  And I was involved with, I think, I counted up earlier on today, 64 different stakeholder organizations, and I had to deliver this thing, and government policy was changing all of the time.  So it was around how do you deliver something when policy is changing, and you’ve got this number of stakeholders, external stakeholders you’re dealing with, and it was an absolute example of walking in fog.

And I think for me it gave me a really visceral sense of, when the chips are really down, all the good people practice the organizations will chuck out of the window unless you’ve got a really compelling case to keep it there. So with retrospect, I think that it’s neuroscience and the link to how the brain works makes the compelling case.

Understanding the Fog

NICK WALKER:  Great. Thank you, thank you.

I want to jump in with a question kind of out of the blue.  I’m a meteorologist, and so I understand fog, I understand what causes it, I understand what dissipates it.  So how important is it in project management to understand what the cause is and how to get rid of it?

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  I don’t think you have to know that, I think you have to know when it’s foggy, and you have to be able to talk about what is foggy to you.  And then you have to compare your fog with other people’s.  And then you need to start thinking about, okay, what can we make clear here, and agree on where we need to be really learning very rapidly and discovering the way forward. So I don’t think we’re nearly explicit about that.

Understanding How the Brain Works

NICK WALKER:  And so that brings in this whole idea of neuroscience, you say in the book, “Successful delivery requires leaders who understand how social dynamics arise, and leaders who are skilled at influencing them.”  So how does a high level of understanding of how the brain works help to deal with the successful delivery of complex projects?

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Can I give you an example, then, of something?  I want to come back to this Project 2020; all right?  So at one point with Project 2020 I was sitting in a room with 10 heavyweight directors, and we were all under pressure for delivering this project whilst the world around was changing a lot, so it was like the goal posts were constantly moving.  And what I noticed in this conversation, in which I was the most junior person, was that we went round and round in circles as people were trying to put in more and more KPIs and measurements because each stakeholder wanted something different. So I noticed for myself that I was beginning to feel quite anxious about this.

And in the end I couldn’t hack it any longer because I was just convinced something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. That kind of sense of how am I feeling here and what do I think is going on in this room is something around social dynamics, so understanding, you know, you know when you walk into a room sometimes, and you see, oh, I can cut the atmosphere with a knife?

BILL YATES:  Yes.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  You’ve had that one?  So that would be an indication of dynamics at work.  But of course we don’t talk about it, people don’t necessarily know they exist.

But come back to Project 2020.  In the end I was moved to speak, despite thinking, gosh, I’m going to say something really out of order.  And my comment to them was, listen, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m beginning to feel really quite anxious about it because it seems as though more and more what you’re trying to do is the equivalent of kind of cast this project and all the measurements in stone. 

You’re trying to tie us down, and it’s like, we want more and more control through measurement, but in fact this is – and again, I don’t know where it came from. But a metaphor was something that I introduced, and I said, “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen anyone building in Hong Kong.  What you seem to be doing here is trying to cast foundations of stone so nothing can ever shift again.”

But we know the environment out there is shifting a lot, and if you’ve seen people building in Hong Kong, it might be unusual, but there’s a lot of them will use bamboo scaffolding.  And what we need here is something which is just enough to contain this project with to allow us to flex, will give us the support we need, but we’re not pretending that it’s all rigid and casting it in stone.  And you asked me about social dynamics and being able to influence them.

So I would say to you, that was an example of me seeing that, in this group, there was a little bit of anxiety going on, people really wanted to get a sense of control from something that was not controllable.  And my intervention at the time, which was before I understood how the brain worked, and only reflecting on it now, I kind of put the two and two together. It was about saying, okay, so let’s actually spot what’s going on and try to stop this dynamic of desperately seeking to control the uncontrollable.

BILL YATES:  Right.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  And that turned out actually to be a big influence in then calming down what people were trying to do.  And we didn’t get all those extra measurements which would have made it even more complicated to manage and distracted everyone from what they were meant to be doing.  And so I think we do a lot by accident, feeding these kind of things, when in fact if we really understood what was going on, we’d be able to calm people and make things, as you were saying, Bill, less complex.  So I hope – does that answer your question, Nick?

Wiring of the Brain and Keeping track of Projects

NICK WALKER:  Thank you.  Yeah, so I want to know a little bit more about this whole wiring of the brain.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Okay.

NICK WALKER:  You know?  So how does this play into projects and just those projects where the goal posts keep moving?  Why is that important?

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Okay.  We’re all very familiar with the notion of a fight-and-flight response; yeah?

NICK WALKER:  Mm-hmm.

BILL YATES:  Yes.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  And we think of that particularly in connection with, I don’t know, physical threats, a car swerves towards us on the road, and we get in a panic. So we kind of, reflex reaction, we’ll step back a bit, we’re not used to thinking about in organizational contexts or in social contexts there are threats, too.  Humans are really social beasts.  In fact, so at that moment in Project 2020, when I intervened and said, “Hang on a minute,” I was really nervous about doing that.  And I was nervous about doing that because I could have been laughed out of the room.  Yeah?

BILL YATES:  Yeah.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  And that would have been based on my prior experience, and of course our brain’s number one function isn’t about thinking, it’s about ensuring our survival. So we’re kind of sniffing out the environment around us all of the time and wondering, is there anything here that might be a threat to me? And so if there is, that will inform the way we react.  And I think projects which are very stressful have us not thinking as clearly as we could be because we’re so stressed a lot of the time that our thinking – and we’ll probably talk about what I mean by our thinking brains – our rational brains are not as engaged as they could be.

BILL YATES:  Right.  Yeah, I think…

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Does that make sense?

NICK WALKER:  Sure.

BILL YATES:  Absolutely.  I think we’ve all experienced that where our feeling brain, our amygdala, our fight-or-flight response is shutting off our thinking brain.  And I think, you know, back to the example you gave with the Project 2020, when the KPI, you know, everybody just starts saying, well, no, this is what we need to track, no, I have to have this for my part of the team, or, I know the customer’s going to need this.

So I think those are examples in a project where people are, like with fight versus flight, they’re fighting, right, they’re not running away from it. They’re not shutting down, but it’s still a response of trying to protect, and they sense disorder. They sense this is not a stable environment, so they’re trying to force a KPI or a metric or here’s the action we need to take, when it’s not the appropriate thing to do. So you stepped in and said, okay, time out, let’s look at the environment we’re in.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Yeah.  And can I add something to that?

BILL YATES:  Absolutely.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  I think, not only that, but so when people are beginning to be a bit agitated, or argue for something really forcefully, it can also be – so if you’re a more junior person around, for example, that can be quite threatening. You’re the project manager, and you’re being called to account by your review board, and they’re kind of starting to quiz you rather deeply.  That’s, yes, quiz you rather deeply.

BILL YATES:  That’s threatening, for sure.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  And that doesn’t help you think very clearly, does it.

BILL YATES:  Correct.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Yeah, and so you may feel under attack.  And then maybe you do freeze.  You can’t find the right words and so on.  And so that kind of thing happens.  We sniff out – so the way the brain is wired, we sniff out other people’s stress levels.  And then, like I sometimes laughingly say, you know, when you see wildlife programs, and you’re in a jungle, and there’s some kind of, I don’t know, predator around, and the monkeys start talking, and they kind of go slightly crackers, and then everybody’s doing it.  And so the stress levels go up again.

BILL YATES:  Yes, yes, right.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  And so there’s not only an individual thing, but a kind of systemic thing that happens.  And what project leaders need to do is to start going, okay, so am I fanning these flames?  Am I making these monkeys chatter more?  And how can I stop that happening?

BILL YATES:  Yeah.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Let’s get, you know, let’s quieten down, so let’s focus on what really needs to happen, and I just don’t think this is part of what we’re taught at all.

Creating a Circle of Safety

BILL YATES:  Right, so Carole, as I was reading through the explanation you give on this idea of safety, the reality that our brain does react that way, whether it’s a physical or a psychological threat, again, we’re looking at fight or flight.  And I was thinking about the book by Simon Sinek on “Leaders Eat Last.”  And he describes this circle of safety and how for leaders, you know, our teams, we need to create a circle of safety.

And it’s right on the money with what we’re describing here for project teams. So it’s how do we create that safe place where people are willing to take risks, they’re willing to share, to be their true self, and not feel intimidated, not feel shut down by the situation.  And also he kind of gets into the neuroscience of that, talks about the negative effect of cortisol, the positive effects of other elements.  So how do we create that circle of safety?  What are some steps that we can take?

And I love that because you go into that in the book. You talk about, okay, the brain, the thinking brain can be turned off or on, so as a leader, how can we impact that?  Talk a bit about that.  You’ve described a situation where you saw the thinking brain being shut off by the stress that was raised up. So what are some steps for turning that back on?

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Okay, so the very first thing that I would say every leader and every project leader needs to do is to understand themselves better.

BILL YATES:  Yes.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  So there’s something about knowing, learning to ask yourself, so what’s going on for me right now?  How am I feeling about this?  Am I feeling a bit anxious or stressed or angry?  Or am I actually feeling as though I’ve got the measure of it right now and have access to all of the resources around me?  And so I think sometimes it’s helpful to think of that as having a very well-developed mindful awareness muscle.  So this kind of brings us into the world of mindfulness, which then sounds very New Age, and I want to go, don’t believe it’s New Age.  It’s not meditation.  It’s all about actually how do I manage myself?

BILL YATES:  Yes.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  And when you start to recognize how you’re feeling, then you can begin to read how others are feeling, and then you can begin to see what emotions you evoke in other people. That sounds – so it’s an odd word to use, isn’t it – what am I evoking in you? But whether we like it or not, that’s what happens, and again, I can give you an example.  When I talk about evoking things, so we don’t often talk about it, but when we’re forced to respond in some way, that fight-or-flight thing comes in. 

That is often, or typically, because our brain is making a shortcut and kind of going, based on my prior experience, this person is scary, or this situation is scary.  And your brain takes in information through your five senses.  So if, for example, you walk into a room, and someone is wearing an aftershave that used to be worn by a teacher that bullied you at school, chances are you’ll make the connection, and that person will be scary, even if they’re really your best friend.

BILL YATES:  Yes.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Yeah?  It doesn’t have to be rational, but we do need to therefore know what’s going on for ourselves right now, and then think about what do I need to do to make sure I’m not evoking a fight-and-flight response in other people.

Motivating Creativity and Collaboration

NICK WALKER:  You know, sometimes we do peg this person as scary, or another person as disorganized, and we sort of have these faces, we sort of have maybe a preconceived notion about who these people are. But in your book you say who is on the team matters far less than how team members interact.  So what motivates the optimal creativity and collaboration, even with people that maybe you think are scary?

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Okay.  So when I say that, what I’m referring to is to some research that was done by Google.  So Google launched, probably five years ago, something called Project Aristotle, and Project Aristotle set out to find what made its most effective teams effective. And Google being Google, I think, looked at about 180 teams and 250 variables, and so the thing that they concluded had the biggest impact was what is called “psychological safety.”  Now, psychological safety is all about the norms of behavior in a team.  So does it feel safe for everybody in the team to speak their truth about a situation without fear of being ejected from the team or embarrassed or ostracized or tormented or anything else.  And if we can create a psychologically safe environment, then everyone’s thinking brains are online, and the team works really, really well together.

BILL YATES:  There’s a quote that comes to mind.  Just last week I was at a leadership conference, and I heard Todd Henry make this statement, that “Trust is the currency of creative teams.”  Trust is the currency of creative teams.  It just echoes what you’re saying. So as leaders we need to sniff out those areas of disharmony or where people are not aligned properly, and I think one of the best ways to do that is just to speak from the heart and be our true self.

Heard another speaker, Bozoma Saint John.  She was at Apple and was asked to come over to Uber.  And she was the one responsible for rebooting their brand after Uber had run into all the difficulties that they did. So she inherited a toxic culture, and she talked about the responsibilities of leaders and all those at the very lowest level at Uber.  And so how do we take this on, and how do we create a safe place?  Again, back to that safe environment where we can turn on our thinking brains and do our best and contribute best.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Yeah.  And I think this is really interesting. So it seems that the most important thing is for the people in the most powerful positions to be able to acknowledge some degree of vulnerability, actually.

BILL YATES:  Yes.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  And not knowing, so that uncertainty, which kind of takes us back to the fog.

Dealing with Fog in Your Team

BILL YATES:  Yeah; right?  It all comes back to the fog. One of the things I want to ask you, Carole, is when we are in those moments of fog, or when we detect it, or if we’re feeling like, okay, as leader of this project I don’t really see fog, but obviously there are a few on my team who do so it’s a reality that we need to deal with, what are some steps for dealing with that?

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  I as a leader don’t, and there’s others who might, I think, so we can’t always be sure that they do.  That’s the first thing I’d say, and then one of the things that I’ve done very successfully in the past is, with a colleague working at an outfit in the U.K. called Assentire, we’ve developed a survey, which has got a number of questions, which allows you to get people anonymously to answer it.  And then you can plot the results from lots of different cross-sections of groups and think, actually, how foggy is it for different people, and what kind of things are causing the difficulty?  So that can be one way through it.

Others, if there is already a level of openness, is actually just to be asking.  Or to be asking, you know, so what are the areas which are causing you concern?  Because I think often what happens is somebody has a hunch, and they don’t voice it, and so the hunch never gets voiced.  And then all of a sudden that’s the thing that can take everything off track.  But sometimes our hunches of course can be completely misplaced and wrong.  So it’s about checking those out and thinking, who might we check those out with, and wanting to access diverse groups, I think, and diversity of individuals through all that because we don’t want everyone who thinks the same.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  And Carole, your point about one of the pieces of advice you give to leaders is to go back and say, okay, where can we stake a flag, or what are truths that we do know at this point?  We have team members that are experiencing this sense of anxiety or stress because there’s uncertainty.  So your first advice is just call it what it is, it is uncertainty, we all see that, there is fog.  And then, okay, what do we know?  What are some truths?  Boom, and putting those flags down.  So it’s almost like going back to ground zero and saying, okay, these are things that we know, let’s move forward with this.

Bringing the Thinking Brain Online

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Yeah, and I think what’s even more interesting on that is what we also know is that typically, when people begin to feel anxious or uncertain, they begin to generalize.

BILL YATES:  Oh, yes, they do.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  And so as a leader, actually going in and saying, okay, which little bit in this really is the stuff that’s really worrying you?  Out of all of it, what keeps you awake?  What specifically?  And that can take a lot of the generalization away.  And then we also know that, as people get more specific, and as they begin to talk about how they’re feeling, so if my thinking brain is going offline a bit, if I am then invited to talk about how I’m feeling. So I’m feeling anxious now, the act of naming how I’m feeling helps to bring the thinking brain back online.

BILL YATES:  Yes.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Which is really counterintuitive again, isn’t it, like I’m in an organization, so I can’t own up to that.

BILL YATES:  Right, right, right.  These are such truths.  I mean, I can recall, one of the quotes that I still have ringing in my head was – this was years ago with a client, and they were using our software.  And the client would sometimes get frustrated, as clients do, when software that I was responsible for, or others, didn’t do as it was supposed to do.  So she would call, and she would say, “Everything is broken,” those three words.  “Everything is broken.”  And, you know, and as a leader of the team and knowing the software and all that, you know, my first response was – and certainly I grew out of this.  But I wanted to say, “No, it’s not.”  You know, “This isn’t even reasonable, what do you mean?”

But, you know, the more mature response, as you said, was okay, you know, be specific.  Can you tell me what is broken?  So what area were you in?  What screen?  What report?  Give me more detail so we can go solve this together.  And so your response and approach is a lot more appropriate and professional than I think my first reactions were.  But you are absolutely right.  People tend to generalize when they’re in that state of fog.  Then, okay, everything’s broken, nothing is what I thought it would be.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Yeah, and then of course when we hear that, if we don’t know we need to contain it, we then leap off and address all of it and add to the complexity again.

BILL YATES:  Yes, yeah.  Make matters even worse, yeah.

Facing Uncertainty

NICK WALKER:  It seems like, you know, project managers deal with uncertainty all the time, and so instead of fearing it or just, you know, maybe not dealing with it and saying this is not the way it’s supposed to be, we need to anticipate it and actually expect it.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  We need to do that, but we need to laugh at our organizations in some sense because I think we’ve been sold a big pup. So most textbooks tell you that it should be very straightforward, don’t they.

BILL YATES:  If we follow the 49 processes as put in the PMBOK Guide, we’ll be fine.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  And so it must be me that’s got it wrong.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, right, right, yeah.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  And that’s even more panic-inducing; isn’t it.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, exactly, right, right, right.  Yeah, and it so does, it takes a maturity and a level of comfort with yourself, you know, okay, I have to be comfortable with who I am, kind of goes back to that transparency. Again, I’m thinking of Saint John, that speaker that I heard, so she talked about the value and just being her true self to her team.  You know, she went into Uber and looked at the mess that was there from a PR perspective of, you know, for a while she took one approach; but then she said, you know, I need to show them I’m human, too.  I make mistakes, too.  I cry, I bleed, et cetera.  We all have made mistakes.  Let’s work on this together, in their case to repair the culture.

But in our case many times with projects it’s simply, I don’t know the next move. So help me, as a team, let’s all think what is the next move that we need to make in order to get some clarity and to be able to move through this fog together.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Yeah, and I think there’s something about understanding that organizations now, with the complexity we have now, are just more foggy than perhaps they used to be.

BILL YATES:  Right.

Projects Where the Goalposts are Shifting

NICK WALKER:  Before we wrap things up, I wonder if we could just kind of – we’ve talked about a lot of these things, but maybe some final words of advice that you would give to project managers who are working in a project where the goalposts are just constantly shifting. So maybe just a few final words of advice, some points that we could remember?

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Okay.  I think the first one I would say is that sometimes, when the goalposts are constantly shifting, it’s nothing to do with you or what you’re doing, and in the book I talk about an unordered environment.  And sometimes, you know, no matter what you throw at things, it’s nobody’s fault, and endless resources will not sort it out because we live in far more complex systems.

Get in Touch with Carole

NICK WALKER:  How can people get in touch with you?  I’m sure there are also a lot of listeners who would like to know more on this subject and more about how to get your book.  So let’s start there, how do we get your book?

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  It’s up on Amazon so you can find it very easily there, either with my name or just, if you put in “project” and “uncertainty,” I think that brings it up straightaway.  You might need to type “neuroscience,” too.

NICK WALKER:  And then to get in touch with you.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:   So you can catch me via LinkedIn, anybody can, it’s Carole Osterweil; or at my website, which is Visible Dynamics, so carole@visibledynamics.co.uk.

NICK WALKER:  We just want to say thank you for taking this time with us, sharing your insight and experience, Carole, all the way from the U.K., just the miracle of technology.  It’s wonderful to talk with you.

CAROLE OSTERWEIL:  Well, it’s been delightful for me, too, so I thank you for the invitation.

Closing

NICK WALKER:  Carole, thank you for giving us a look into your world and sharing your experience with us.  So a special word to our listeners now, hopefully by now you’ve discovered the double benefit from listening to these podcasts.  You just earned some PDUs, Professional Development Units, toward your recertifications.  To claim them, go to Velociteach.com and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs, and click through the steps.

That’s it for this episode of Manage This.  We hope you’ll tune back in again for our next edition.  So until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

5 responses to “Episode 90 – Facing Uncertainty – A Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog”

  1. Avatar Andrea Williams says:

    This was a VERY good episode. I am currently experiencing issues with my team dynamics and this episode gave me some direction on how I can become a stronger leader.

    I really appreciate all of the podcasts you provide over all types of topics.

    Thanks for your help and support of the PM community.

  2. I’m so pleased you found it helpful Andrea.
    I’d love to know more about what you took from the podcast.
    And here’s a link to some other resources you might useful https://www.visibledynamics.co.uk/resources/

  3. Avatar Chelsea says:

    This is one of my favorite Manage This podcast episodes! We hear a lot about ‘vulnerability’ and Carole does a great job of showing how it can be put into action based on science and human complexity. I instantly was able to take the lessons I learned from this episode and apply them to my work. Experimenting with stating my feelings and acknowledging the complexity. Thank you, Manage This, for sharing this topic!

  4. It’s lovely to hear that Chelsea – thanks for letting us know. And good to hear you’re experimenting with some of the ideas we discussed – I’m guessing that it’s paying off in some situations at least?
    If you are after some other resources for you or your colleagues check out this link https://www.visibledynamics.co.uk/resources/

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