b-school, HRM, Project Management

Workers crave for attention (The Hawthorne effect)

It happened long ago, in 1924. Taylorism was in its apogee so it was only reasonable that there were studies going on at the Hawthorne Works. Testing different ways of doing things. Groups of workers, reduced time of work, output rate peaked, more reduced time of work, output rate soared again, total output decreased. Then back to normal, output rate had risen… wait a moment… risen?

What the Hawthorne experiments showed was that giving attention to a group of workers always paid off. According to Mayo, that was because they now considered themselves part of a team instead of isolated workers. According to other sources, even isolated workers raised productivity. They had been singled out, they were special, they were being monitored, they were being listened to.

The Hawthorne effect didn’t get its name till 1955, yet it’s interesting to see how they concluded that upward communication in an organisation raised morale. And with the morale rise came a productivity rise. The service-profit chain at its best, starting with employees, finishing at the bottom line.

They were not that different from us. We still crave for attention. Good managers are the one that, in the midst of the crazy hectic pace of work, can still provide it. It’s so tough to do so. Personally, when I don’t even have time to write this blog, how can I remember to talk to everyone?

Yet that’s vital. Especially in tough times, where employee morale is subject to the ups and downs of collective morale, so troubled. We need to find the time.

In crises, where layoffs are there, what message should we send to the ones that are staying? Unless we listen to them, unless we communicate with them, there will be one clear distinct message for them: that they are next in line. Unless we listen. Now more than ever, maybe we should use the Hawthorne effect to our advantage.

b-school, HRM, Management, MBA, Project Management, Projects, Thoughts

An unexpected impact of the crisis in project management (no, they are not lazy)

As the new terminal in Barcelona’s airport nears its completion and the trials are increasingly successful, we are increasingly dwelling into the depths of this recession / depression. No manager can have the luxury of forgetting the external environment, as it always impact us somehow, somewhere.

Sometimes project managers tend to think that they are insulated from the rest of the world. They have their budget, their plan, their milestones. Of course there’s a great deal of interaction with the customer and the stakeholders, but sensing the environment isn’t usually deemed necessary.

They are wrong.

I’m not talking here of budget cuts, or milestones changing. That could happen anywhere, anytime. I’m here referring back to an old post: Soft and hard human resource management (utilitarian instrumentalism versus developmental humanism) and the concept of the psychological contract.

There are many definitions of the psychological contract. For our purposes, let’s say that the psychological contract is the assumed relationship between employer and employee that includes a lot more than what’s included in the papers: what you’ll do for me, what you expect from me, including the promises I might have made, the way you expect to be treated, and the expectations you have for the future. Those small things you’ve talked with your boss about and the trust you have in him that they’ll be taken care of. If your boss lied to you, for instance, your psychological contract would be shattered, and your attitude with your job would dramatically change… for worse.


So, what’s in it for construction workers here? They are usually contracted through companies that have a working relationship with the companies that have been awarded the construction contract. There may be two, three, even four layers of agreements between them and the project. They may even work for several contracts, always ready to switch between one form of contract or another, everything transparent and irrelevant to the direction of the project, apparently.

But, what used to be the reality for them, that they went from one thing to another always having things to do and always earning money in one form or another, no longer holds true. Their expectations have dropped and, for many, next destination is unemployment. They won’t get bulky severance pays as many other layoffs. They will be simply be no longer required and no longer invited to participate in the next move. They will be have unemployment compensations, of course, but I bet they will be lower, for many reasons, than those of other kinds of workers.

So it’s no wonder they psychological contract has been shattered as well, as they expected to be able to keep living as they had been living. Not anymore.


And when is that going to happen?

The scary thing is that this is going to happen whenever they finish their job.

So, where is the motivation to finish as soon as possible? Do you think their intentions are aligned with the timeframe of the project’s direction? Obviously they are not. If they are not paid lump sums but depending on the days spent working, which is the usual contract as the lump sums are in higher layers, they will take as much time as they can. And with that they will also shatter part of the psychological contract.

I have been observing this effect. And this feeling is dangerously infectious as workers from one contract see workers from others procrastinating as much as they can. Moreover, this has no easy solution, as the usual ways of control are not responding effectively as they were never designed to overcome this threat or to better manage people, but to apportion and divide the value of the contract between several companies. 

Sometimes, when we are thinking of leading our team to peak performance, we are forgetting to look around and realise how things are changing. We can name them however we want, but we can’t forget that, layers below, there is not a collection of resources: they are people.

HRM, Management, MBA, Project Management, Projects, Thoughts

Listening (a reflection induced by a beacon)

Yesterday I took a few hours away off the hectic drumming of the new terminal to concentrate on a new project that I am leading: a new control system for the runways and taxiways lighting system for Barcelona’s airport, that happens to have the biggest beacon lighting system in Spain, bigger than Madrid’s.

This project has a very important difference to many other things I’m doing. It’s not focused on the big opening day but the completion date is one year later, in 2010. That means we can focus on understanding the problem, building a team, applying a methodology, generating buy-in with the final customer, expliciting the acquired knowledge and incorporating the best practices into the organisation.

We are also going to standardise the application. Coming from a bespoke application, it won’t be easy but my intention is to be able to build an standard that the organisation will be able to use in its 40-something airports. Closed applications are a thing of the past, we all know it but, instead of paying lip-service to it, this time we’re going to do it.


But, what was important is the personal reflection that arose after our working session. Just forgetting fire fighting for a while and listening to somebody that knew a great deal about the system and discussing various proposals of what we could be doing for our initial project viability analysis.

It felt so good. Listening, learning. I’ve been getting these kind of sensations thanks to my Henley MBA, but it was great to have the same sensation coming from an engineer’s discourse. Focusing in the input instead of the output as I’ve grown accustomed to be lately.

We all need to be able to take long perspectives into a project. Be able to plan, and consider alternatives. To flex our creative muscles and deploy our energies into constructing something new, more effective, something built constructively not on the unstable foundations of pressure.

We all need to sit back an listen, as humble as the boy (or girl) we all still carry inside, and learn something from people that know more than us. Be able to capture that elusive gist that will enrich each and everyone of us. Coming humble from humus, or ground in Latin, and humilis from lowly, every manager needs to be humilis habitu humilis et actu,  that means humble in dressing (or garments) and in its way of behaving to be able to trascend the manager-administrator role into leading the project’s team to success.

b-school, Business, HRM, Management, MBA, Personal, Thoughts

Back from India (and from a cultural impact)

I’ve just arrived from Delhi. In fact it has been 24 hours but, in the meantime, my mind kept wandering inbetween all kinds of different landscapes, smells and tastes until it settled back again. So many different faces, so many different paces: our hectic effort of preparing a presentation on the club lounge of a five-star hotel, the five-year-old child making his frenzied small monkey shout and dance to attract our attention and a few coins, the slow-moving cow trying to take a nap in the middle of the street and the agitated drivers trying to pass as close as possible. Definitely distances are measured differently in this huge place.

The billion cattle estimated to be alive today are more less one sixth of the estimated human population on Earth. The lucky ones live here, where they are revered and spoiled, where they can live tranquil and blissful lives, where they can thrive and be loved. It’s a wonder that there is no cow immigration process to this beautifully colored lands. If the other cows knew!

Humanity. This word takes new meaning here. So many people. We Europeans have tended to grow aseptic, almost inhumans. We hide within huge buildings of concrete, glass and steel, like the new terminal I’ve nurtured along with my peers, and we become insignificant below our not-so-functional monuments. We want them to serve as a rule to measure our cities and civilisation, instead of ourselves, our little selves.

In India you see so many people, so many happy -and not so happy- faces. The wonder is that it’s not easy to infer which faces will be happy and which won’t. Usually you won’t see that in the colours -or cost- of the robes. Humans… sometimes so happy owning nothing but conceiving nice thoughts… you never know.

This column, blog, page -whatever this is- wouldn’t be complete without the management reflection. And today it comes from Professor Geert Hofstede, of Maastricht University: “Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.”

Are they? I’m personally a cock-eyed optimist and I tend to see the positive side to it. If we kept narrow mindedly to our own culture and background, the learning process would surely be impaired. Nonetheless cultural divergences must be managed.

As a reference, it is very interesting to examine Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, built from a handful of parameters:

  • Power distance or the degree of acceptance of the less favoured members of one society of the inequalities they are subjected to.
  • Individualism versus collectivism, or the degree to which the members of a society are integrated into groups.
  • Masculinity versus femininity, or the degree of distribution of roles between genders.
  • Uncertainty avoidance or degree of tolerance to uncertainty or ambiguity.
  • Long-term orientation versus short-termism.

As an example, the former dimensions applied to the Indian, Spanish and British cultural dimensions, according to the available data by Hofstede. Of course generalisations are unfair, and the Spanish profile was never actually completed, but the exercise is still interesting.

Business, HRM, Management, MBA, Project Management, Projects, Thoughts

From Madrid to Barcelona’s olympic port (and a captain)

Some weeks are so hectic that you simply don’t have time to write. And if you do, it’s not because you’ve had the chance to sit back and reflect about something, but because you have some free time in-between things to be done. That’s the case for today: a few free minutes.

The day began in Madrid, in the Indian embassy, queuing for such a simple and stupid thing as a visa. It’s incredible how certain processes are still done as the last century, or even the previous one. The fact is that if you want to travel to India from Barcelona, first you must go to Madrid to get your visa. The alternative is waiting around three or four weeks to have it.

And if you went there without a warning, you’d be astonished to know that they only issue a limited number of visas, clearly outnumbered by the people that need them. So the queue starts around two hours before they open. By the time they unlock the doors, there’s enough people waiting to fill the entire waiting room. If you arrive at ten, just forget the visa. Come back tomorrow (in Spanish “vuelva usted mañana” although the Indians speak more English than Spanish). And that’s the only way for the 46 million inhabitants of Spain to visit the 1,100-million-people country.

Well. I finally made it. I was sixth on the line. Then, to the airport to take a plane back to Barcelona. And from the airport to one of Barcelona’s marinas: the Olympic port, built for Barcelona’s Olympics 15 years ago.

From air planes to boats: time to sail. That’s why I am here for. I am to renew my sailing licenses and, following legal requirements, I need several navigation hours with a captain instructor. A good way to ensure that people actually know about boats before granting them the right to sail them. That’s what I am here for.

Time for the final comment. Where is management in all this? Well. Ask it to Captain Marcos Rivera. In a ship, there’s only one captain. Such affirmation is something that we tend to forget. Authority is not a very popular value these days. It is still necessary nonetheless. Someone has to decide. There must be someone in charge, asessing the risks, analysing and drawing conclusions, and then, finally, deciding.

That doesn’t mean that he (or she) is the only one to think. That would be a great loss of value, rationality, thinking capacity, a loss of options. Empowerment is still essential (and compatible), as it is dissent. But there’s a limit to it. And when the captain decides, the others must follow.

Have you ever felt that, in a project or a workgroup, the problem was that the decisions were not actually being made? Or being enforced? Have you ever felt that authority was missing? That indecision and ambiguity was undermining the whole execution? That’s when a good methodology for making decisions is needed.

There’s a time when every task becomes critical: just give it enough wandering time and you’ll see. IT comes a time when further procrastination is no longer possible. That’s when a chieftain is needed.

b-school, Henley, HRM, MBA, Personal, Thoughts

After the final exam (aka after the storm)

The exam was really stressful. More than three hours writing like crazy. At the end I was rather confused, not really sure of what to expect. Fortunately, it was over.

I sat the exam at Barcelona’s British Council. I thought it would be a better experience than taking a plane and driving to Henley. It was a good idea. The place is just ten minutes from home.

On the other hand it was rather weird to be the only one taking the exam. The invigilator was there only for me. At least he was nice and had a thick book to read so he didn’t spend three hours glancing at me in suspicion. That would have been awkward.

Half full or half empty, who knows. I hope I pass. In the meantime I just need some time to relax. And that’s what I did on the weekend. The garden needed my attention so I just focused on trimming the bushes and getting tired. Oh my, my arms got so bruised!

The view from home is rather relaxing. The weather wasn’t perfect. It was the fourth rainy weekend after the most severe draught that I can recall. From scarcity to the most rainy May in 25 years. Our water reserves have tripled and reservoirs have reached 60% capacity. It looks like we’ll have enough water for the time being.

I like it when the beach is almost empty, and the showers scare the tourists. The calm seems to envelope everything, the air is fresher, the plants greener. This spring the plants are blooming like never before. Let’s forget about the price of oil, the high interest rates, the lack of liquidity and the forthcoming stagflation. It’s time to enjoy… at least for a while…

The garden this year is full of Mediterranean roses. The plants grow by the hour. A good omen? I hope so.

Aviation, b-school, Blogging, Henley, HRM, Management, Project Management, Projects, Thoughts

Living with the Terminal 5 syndrome

As the average reader of this blog knows, and wordpress knows such individuals exist to my amazement (THANK-YOU), I do several things in my job, one of them is the integration of the baggagge system in the Terminal South (or Terminal D) in Barcelona’s airport.

Well, it used to be one of them… but it has been growing and growing, absorbing my time and effort, sometimes with complex things, of course, but very often with little and silly things, sometimes simply to overcome the lack of communications between parts in a huge project, sometimes just repeating the same things again and again.

Organisations prepare themselves to manage projects. They start shyly with one and, if they are able to envisage an strategy, they include project management into their capabilities. There are models to describe how project management competencies are integrated into organisational capabilities. Different organisations are at different levels, and thus are able not only to manage projects but also to increasingly learn from them.

But, at the end of the day, panic happens. That’s when they forget everything and start to triple-check everything based on the gut feelings of people, high enough in the ladder, that don’t really know about the systems to be implemented. Trivial things get inflated and strategic things suddenly obviated.

That’s what has happened to me with the Terminal 5 syndrome (to know more about Heathrow’s Terminal 5 click here). It will take some time to settle. In the meantime some issues have been enshrined as the most relevant by the organisation and are draining a lot of resources. Yes, organisations are able to learn a lot about project management but, when panic starts, they sort of regress to a previous state, top level managers want to micromanage what they still don’t know anything about, and reality gets distorted to adapt to the top management expectations.

A hard critique? Fortunately the tide is just a tide and we will be able to focus the existing energies on the real issues… having top management’s attention is very helpful as long you can manage it in the right direction, and to help you instead of interfering.