Category Archives: Timespan

Assessing Capability

“Your turn,” I said. “Step me through these four levels of work and tell me where you think Jason is struggling.”

Elisa started slowly.

  • Direct action – Jason began as a project manager. We started him on simple projects, things (variables) came at him slowly enough where he had the time to immediately respond, and in that, he was very effective.”
  • Diagnostic Accumulation – Jason did so well on a single project, that we gave him two simultaneous projects. The just reward for hard work is more hard work. With two projects, he did the second project the way he did the first project. He was able to effectively put things together, recognize similarities, connect the dots.
  • Serial Thinking – is where Jason begins to struggle. We asked him to work over the shoulder of junior project managers, up to twenty simultaneous projects. We thought the project management software would handle all the detail, but the sheer volume of decisions and problem solving required Jason to think ahead, anticipate. He had to play “What if?” He had to look at twenty projects and see all the things that were the same, simultaneously understanding the nuanced differences between each project. He had to put a system together and that’s where he struggled.
  • Interactive Systems Thinking – is way beyond Jason. Project management sits inside our organization next to estimating, procurement, logistics, workforce and finance. Most of that is outside of Jason’s scope.

“And, so, where would you peg Jason’s level of capability?” I asked.

“Now, it’s very easy,” Elisa nodded her head. “Jason is on the upper end of Diagnostic Accumulation, but struggles with Serial Thinking.”

“Understanding this framework, can you now, as Jason’s manager, more accurately determine what project assignments, how many, how complex that Jason can effectively handle?”

Four Levels of Work, Four Levels of Capability

“Okay, okay,” Elisa replied. “You are right, easy to see the number of variables in a single project multiplied by twenty projects.”

“This will help us understand the complexity of what we are asking Jason to do and Jason’s capability to actually do it. When we look at levels of work, identifying the level of work in a project, we have to look at the variables. More variables, the more complex the variables, the more difficult the task, more difficult problems, more difficult decisions,” I began to lay the groundwork.

“We understand projects and we understand variables,” I continued. “Let’s look at Jason’s capability* to effectively respond.

  • Direct Action – are variables we can deal with one at a time, that come at us at a pace where we can see it arriving and deal with it.
  • Cumulative Action – are variables that arrive together, where the pace of incoming is faster. We are required to diagnose things together (diagnostic accumulation). We can solve problems that look alike the same way, but only if we are able to see those similarities quickly enough.
  • Alternative Serial Thinking – are variables that arrive in groups, the pace of incoming groups is so fast that to effectively deal with the problems and decisions, we have to anticipate. That is why this level of work requires as much thinking (ahead) as it does action.
    We have to think of each group as a system, with internal cause-and-effect elements.
  • Mutually Interactive Groups – are groups of variables that, as they arrive, begin to impact other groups of variables. If we can see each group as a system, we have incoming systems that impact other systems, systems thinking.

“Our ability to think and act effectively is an accurate way to understand an individual’s capability. You can also see the progression in variables as we move from five simultaneous projects to twenty simultaneous projects.”
——-
*Four levels of mental processing. Elliott Jaques. Requisite Organization

Complexity of Similar Projects

“Jason is our best project manager,” Elisa described. “But, I gave him just a little bit more responsibility and he is failing. Not only that, it’s impacting the rest of our project management team.”

“How so?” I asked.

“When Jason started here, he did so well on his first project that I gave him another project at the same time, two projects. And, he did that so well, I gave him a third project.”

“And?”

“After a year and a half, I asked him to look over the shoulder of another junior project manager, who was struggling with two projects.”

“So, that’s three projects plus two projects,” I confirmed.

“By then, he already had two more projects himself, so that would be five projects plus two projects,” Elisa replied.

“I see where this is going. He is failing. How many projects does he have on his plate, now?”

“Well, we have five project managers on the team. Everyone is handling two to three projects. I just asked Jason to look over everyone’s shoulder and make sure all the projects are running smoothly.”

“I have ten fingers and ten toes, how many total projects?”

Elisa stopped to compute the number. “Okay, let’s use all your fingers and toes, let’s say twenty projects.”

“Twenty projects is different from his original five projects,” I started. “Let’s talk about the complexity of twenty projects, Jason’s natural capability, and where the mismatch may be. Looking at your project management software, how many variables on a single project? Are the projects all the same, with the same variables? How are the variables grouped into phases, related to time? Can some variables be accomplished simultaneously, while other variables depend on each other and have to be done is a specific sequence? Now, multiply all that by twenty. Handling five projects is one level of work. Handling twenty projects is a different level of work.”

Moving From a Level of Competence

“If James sees the world in a whole new way, not as a set of unbending rules, but rules in the context of reality, how competent is James at this new approach?” I asked.

Marie was quick to answer, “He’s terrible at it. He appears unsure, he questions, so the people around him question. I agree that it is a better idea to check the project status before we show up, but now what? His crew becomes disorganized, they don’t know what to do.”

“Do you think, with more experience, that James will get better at anticipating project delays and get better at deploying his crew in a different direction?”

“Of course,” Marie replied. “It’s just, that it’s a mess now.”

“When James showed up on schedule without regard for the project status, how far did he have to think in the future?” I asked.

“Not very far,” Marie observed. “It was easy, plan for the project schedule, whatever the schedule says, is what he planned for. He didn’t have to think that far into the future.”

“And, now that James checks project status before he shows up, how far does he have to think into the future?”

“It’s much different,” Marie replied. “He has to think ahead and create contingency plans so his team knows what to do in the event of a schedule change.”

“So, he is getting better at detecting a schedule change, AND, he is in learning mode in creating contingency plans. You’re his coach, you now have some direction on where he needs your help. What questions can you ask James, where he focuses a few more days in the future and confidently directs his team in a different direction? What you are observing in James is a maturation in timespan. Maturation doesn’t move from one level of competence to another level of competence. It moves from a level of competence (always abiding by the rules) to a level of awareness (the rules don’t always fit reality) that creates confusion and a bit of struggle. Help James through that struggle, he will become more competent, in due time.”

A Shift in Coaching Strategy

“When you talk to James about his new way of checking project status the day before his crew is supposed to work, what does he say?” I asked.

Marie had to think back to her last conversation. “James is right. There is no sense showing up if the project isn’t ready, even if our contract says we are supposed to show up according to the project schedule. He still documents the delay, but says he looks for a more productive use for his crew, rather than having them stand idle waiting for the project to catch up to us. He used to look only at the project schedule, but now, he says, he looks for buffers in the schedule where another team might take longer than expected. He used to be a stickler with the schedule, now he says, why get so upset, go with the flow, plan for the schedule, but execute for reality.”

“And?”

“I guess I do the same thing,” Marie said. “It’s just such a change for James.”

“Are our projects different, now? Are the other project teams different? Are we using different materials? Are we using different equipment? Are our project schedules any different? What has changed?”

“You’re right,” Marie concluded. “The thing that is different is James.”

“My guess, as James’ manager, you didn’t have to coach James very much because he was always predictable, by the book. But, James woke up one morning and saw, sometimes, the book was wrong. The schedule was not right. He began to see the schedule, not as black and white, but something variable, you used the word buffers. And, you admit, you do the same thing in your role.”

Marie nodded, so I continued. “James is maturing. It’s not just that he is gaining more experience, he is maturing in the way that he sees the world. He used to see the world as a set of unbending rules. He now sees the rules as a set of intentions embedded in reality. You observed this new way has created some problems with his crew, not knowing, for sure, what they are supposed to do. Your job, as James’ coach is also shifting.”

Timespan of Uncertainty

“You know, that’s really the most difficult part,” Taylor explained. “I have to make decisions today that might not come into play for another year. I have to make decisions. I have to make commitments. Sometimes, I even have to gamble.”

“What makes it so difficult?” I asked.

“It’s the uncertainty of what might happen. It’s the uncertainty of the future. Our projects are complex, you know, detail complex. But the real complexity comes from the uncertainty.”

Timespan of Discretion

“Your goal is to make it all happen according to your schedule?” I continued. “Sounds easy. Can’t you just make up a schedule and tell everyone they have to follow it?”

Taylor chuckled and shook his head. “I wish. No, my schedule has to meet the Contractor’s schedule and it has to mesh with all the sub-trades on the job. And most importantly, my schedule has to be tight enough to match the budget and man-hours in our original estimate. There are a thousand things that have to go right. By the way, we have 30 other projects that will happen during this same twenty two months.”

“So, let’s talk about the decisions that go along with your goal. Every role has decisions that must be made. That’s the work that must be done. Your effectiveness in managing this schedule depends on the decisions that you make. When I look at the Timespan of your goals, I also look at the Timespan of your decisions, your Timespan of Discretion.”

Longest Project

“Tell me, what is your longest Timespan goal?” I asked.

Taylor sat across the conference table. He was in charge of project scheduling. At any given time, his company has 30-35 projects in play. Some of the projects only last 4-5 weeks. Others last 12-15 months. Yet, every project is important. No details can be dropped, no matter how small.

“What do you mean?” Taylor asked. “I work with a Project Management software. I spend time meeting with all the Project Managers, looking at their contracts, their change orders, the deadlines in their project segments.”

“What is your longest project?”

“The longest one, is the Phoenix project. We got the contract last week. I have already been looking at it for a couple of months though, ever since it came through our estimating department. It’s a big project and we had to see if we could even mobilize to do it. Twenty two months is the schedule.”

“And what is the goal, what is your goal?” I asked.

“At the end of the project, all of the materials showed at the job site, all the crews showed up to do the production. The equipment required, whether we own it, or rented it, was on-site. All the trades that we had to coordinate, everything happened according to my schedule. That’s my goal.”

Cognitive Power

“Here’s a question for you,” Sam smiled. “We talk about potential, that is something we want in every candidate. You have also asked me to be specific in my language. You chided me about using analogies like – potential for growth, higher level thinking, more bandwidth, mental horsepower. Just exactly what are we talking about? And, why is this so important?”

My turn to smile. “Let me introduce a term – cognitive power. Cognitive power relates to the maximum number of variables a person can simultaneously deal with, in a given period of time. A manual task generally has a limited number of variables. Moving a pallet of ceramic tile in a warehouse requires a forklift, knowing which pallet, where is it located, where does it go, what’s in the way? There are a limited number of variables. And, those variables are physical and fixed.”

Sam nodded, so I continued. “Constructing a building is more complex. There are site considerations, zoning, platting, ingress, physical constraints, functional use, building codes, material availability, coordination of trades, availability of labor, influence of unions, finance logistics, even the weather. And some of the complexity arrives, not from the variables we know about, but, based on the timespan of the project (objective, goal), there will be variables we do not know about. The longer the project, the more uncertain the variables. Yet, to be effective, all the variables must be accounted for, including the ones we do not know about.”

“And so, a more complicated project will require more cognitive power,” Sam chimed in.

“We might try to count the number of variables to understand the complexity in a project, but the longer the project, the more some of those variable are unknowable. A better metric of complexity is to simply calculate the timespan of the project. We have to account for that uncertainty, ambiguity, in the decisions we have to make today.”

Context of Decision Making

“What is the difference between you and your team members, related to the role you play as their manager?” I asked.

“Well, I’m their boss. I provide direction, guidance, coaching. I delegate task activities,” Joan replied.

“Why you? Why doesn’t the team provide its own direction?”

“Well, they weren’t invited to the monthly meeting where the company sets that direction,” Joan smartly observed.

“But, this is the age of Zoom, why weren’t they invited to attend that meeting?” I pressed.

“But, it’s a highly interactive meeting. We can’t have ten more people asking questions. We would never get anything done in the meeting. Believe me, I know my team.”

“And, doesn’t the content of the meeting concern them? Are decisions made that will impact what they do day to day?”

“Yes, it impacts what they do, day to day, but in that company meeting we make adjustments to the overall goals and objectives for the year. It’s important to be flexible, agile. My team may have specific ideas (and questions) about technical issues day to day, but in that meeting, it’s not about technical issues, it’s about a new competitor that’s eating our market share, a new office across the state we are thinking about, a new product that our customers have been asking about.”

“So, the context discussion in that meeting is different than the context your team works in?”

“Yes, that’s it,” Joan agreed.

“So the difference between you and your team members, related to the role you play as their manager, is the context in which you work, meaning the context in which you make decisions and solve problems?” I prodded. “Your decisions impact their decisions, but the difference is the timespan of your decisions vs the timespan of their decisions.”

Joan continued to nod her head. “And, the difference between me and my manager is the same,” she replied. “My manager makes decisions that impact me, but the timespan of my manager’s context is even further in the future than mine.”

“And, so, we begin to see the structure of layers in an organization,” I said, “based on distinct levels of decision making, measured in timespan.”