Earlier this year I attended an interesting talk by Tony Parrottino on Applied Behavior Analysis Science and posted a short write up. Recently I have had a couple of follow-on meetings with Tony and have become fascinated by the science of behaviour. I think it is a powerful, but under utilized resource for project managers, yet I am still trying to reconcile it with some other theories. Fortunately, Tony agreed to help outline some of the key concepts and clear up some issues.
1) Mike: Q: As a project manager I spend lots of time managing budgets and schedules, but in you say that in reality we can only hope to manage behaviour. Can you explain this?
1) Tony: A: Sure. Simply put, the “means” to all business results is “behavior” or what people do. That’s why we hire them – to produce these results. Money (budgets) for example is usually a “measure” of a result (selling value for example) or a behavior (labor cost for example). It’s not a result – we don’t actually make it, unless you’re a Counterfeiter? So if you think about it more precisely you really are “managing behavior” and the budget is really one “measure” of how well you are doing that. The same can be said about “schedules” or time in terms of managing a person’s behavior. If you’re doing that well the measure of “time” or what we call one dimension of productivity in business should improve. This is not a question of semantics either. This is a question about scientific precision and understanding what variables you have control over as a Project Manager – like behavior. Behavior Analysis Science helps managers understand how to “control” performer’s behaviors to positively enhance things like productivity and budgets.
2) Q: Following an agile methodology approach, our team meets daily to briefly review work and issues. Everyone answers three questions: 1) What have you done since yesterday? What do you plan on working on today? What blockers or impediments do you have to progress? I recall you thought this was a sub-optimal set of questions; can you explain why, and suggest a better set?
2) A: Well Mike I apologize if I said these questions were “sub-optimal” – I didn’t mean to be so critical. This is another great question but requires an extremely lengthily answer to be complete, as it has several elements related to performance. So I will be general and brief in my answer and hope to make just a few points here. My first comment may sound strange but here it goes: “managers” tend to “over-emphasize” “asking questions of their performers” and also focusing on “removing” impediments. At the heart of performance management is the focus on not what people typically have to say, but what we want people to accomplish precisely and what we want people to do precisely. When we start there the data provided gives us objective information about how well any individual or team is performing or progressing. Also, when we focus on what we want and reinforce it we simply get it. If managers are finding they are spending a lot of time managing what they don’t want (like impediments, blockers, etc.) this is a strong sign of managing what we call “a deviation of performance”. This may not be obvious to most but I’m sure that every project manager has experienced a lot of spent time trying to manage what he doesn’t want? Just remember trying to remove what you don’t want will not ensure you will get what you do want! I would suggest if you feel there is value in asking daily questions to start with what precisely you want from your performers (results data preferably) and have clear objective measurable data on that performance. Then, here is one of my favorite questions I like to ask, after reviewing the data for progress; “How did you do that?” In this way you can reinforce the behaviors to accelerate the performance further. This may seem somewhat strange to most managers as most are constantly in problem solving mode and want to “remove” obstacles. If you find yourself doing this often I would recommend a review of your pinpoints and make sure they focus on what you want.