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

On reorganisation and micromanagement temptations in times of crises (holding the steering wheel tight)

Note to the occasional reader: I had this post saved from long ago as a draft and I decided to let it go like it is, I’m in a different mindset now… see next post which is really today’s 🙂

In times of crises, and by this I mean, for instance, when you’re in the latests stages of a project and you spend a lot of time fire-fighting (where have I seen that?), it’s more important than ever to keep in mind the structure of your organisation and use it for good.

What do I mean with that? Well, there are two well know roads that tend to be followed in this kind of situations:

  • Forget about structure and just go straight-ahead-no-matter-what. We are all fighters and we can go down as much as it’s needs to be done. Many senior executives really love to envision themselves as being able to reach the ground level when necessary, even brick layering when they see fit.
  • Focusing on structure: reorganising again. And with this new focus, we forget the problems at hand and we think of organisational architecture. Some senior managers love to envision themselves (again) as not rushed by circumstances but able to keep a cold mind. And with that suspending the activity of the organisation for the sake of more effectiveness and efficiency.

Neither is effective at all.


The first kind thinks that setting an example is useful, which is not exactly true. You expect a captain able to know every detail about his boat, true, but his main purpose is to steer the wheel. When the conductor of an orchestra starts playing the piano, the rest of the orchestra, mesmerised, feel as if they were directors themselves, and look at the empty place in front of them with scepticism, and the senior manager playing along in disgust. Instead of leading the way, this senior manager is seen as exercising and hipocritical and unsustainable exercise.

Please, don’t micromanage us if you still want our initiative! Otherwise brick layering will turn into brick breaking.

The second group think that it’s trading off time for effectiveness. But in fact is wasting both. Crises are not the best occasions for organisations unless you want to make a crisis-prone organisation.

To change, there has to be the will to change, which will hopefully melt the existing structure and (a small) part of the culture, and a road to follow, a new vision, a new strategy to be implemented that will derive a new structure, that will have to be built and solidified. Does anyone really think that can be done in the rush-hour? I don’t.

What we risk is increasing the chaos, destroying the slowly established learning-by-doing that make the organisations increasingly efficient, is simply a waste of time and energy.

Then, what should we be doing? Structure is still important, yet it should be interpreted flexibly. That doesn’t mean it should be forgotten. Leaders must lead more than ever, inspire more than ever and, if they want managers to be entrepreneurial and problem solvers, they need to keep away from blame orientation at all times and be the first to adopt a problem-solving mindset.

In the moments of stress and crazyness, that’s when you need leader the mosts, to guide, to nurture, to worry about people, or at least to prevent them ending up throwing bricks at each other.

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, Barcelona, Blogging, Management, MBA, Personal, Project Management, Projects, Thoughts

Blogging from the Opera (blogging with Figaro)

Less than two weeks into an important milestone for the airport’s operational readiness and less than three weeks from my marketing and business environment exam, I find myself blogging from el Liceu, Barcelona’s opera house. Amidst this quagmire that my daily job has been turning into, I still could scape to enjoy Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. It really sounds strange in English instead of Italian’s: Le nozze di Figaro, ossia la folle giornata.


Yes, the second name for the opera is “the day of madness”. That’s how I live my days at work now. Trying to cope with unmatching requirements, trying to sync reality with political requirements. But, as I like to say, reality is too stubborn for that. And we always end up crashing with a concrete wall which we could have avoided. But that’s second nature to us, humans. Why is it that reality ends up resembling just another opera buffa?

Yet here I am. Everyone needs a place to hide. And that’s mine today. I even could open my computer in the bar in the basement, use my HSDPA connection and write this lines while sipping a coffee. Watch the old ladies ingest huge quantities of sugar and chocolate in different shapes and colours. Isn’t life nice after all?

The thing is that when I began the MBA I promised to reflect. And these latter days have been so amazing. So many different things happening from a global perspective, at work and even a personal perspective. And I don’t want to feel that the many things that flow around me just do that: flow. I need to capture some of them. I need to retain, absorb, think, grow.

They say that experience is everything, that you actually learn by doing. And that is a blatant lie. Well, you learn, true, but only in a mechanical way. As Figaro doesn’t actually learn about Almaviva until he actually sees him fishing in his waters, or Almaviva doesn’t learn about behaving until his infidelity is publicly exposed. The aristocracy depicted, ridiculised here didn’t learn on time to change. Until it was too late. Pierre Beaumarchais saw his play censored in France, only to be played in 1778, with the French Revolution almost at the doors…

You learn when you think about what you live. When you think of improving what you’ve already learnt to do mechanically. When you make it grow inside of you. When you go one step further to accepting what is already established, what is already known. When you apply something more than common sense. When you’re not scared of rethinking something that is already working (apparently).

When I give project management classes, I always stress how important is the “post-mortem” analysis at the end of the project to clarify not only what we have done well but also what we could have done better and what we have learnt from the experience. Now I feel that the end is too far, too late. It must be done now and again, in a continuous process of taking a step back, getting perspective, digesting, and then going in again with regained strengths that will not hold us back from stepping out of the comfort zone. Every manager should take some time to learn now and then.

And now, let’s enjoy this opera 🙂

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.

Management, MBA, Project Management, Projects

Mirror, mirror… (Project shadow management)

The average project manager is affected by all sorts of diseases. One of the worst, that could be labelled as project manager’s myopia, in line with other sectoral diseases like manager’s myopia (that is related to perfectly managing something that should not be done at all) or marketeers’ myopia (when we further seek perfection to our product, to an extent that our customers do not demand neither understand or value).

Project manager’s myopia is something similar to paranoia, albeit in a much lesser way. There are some symptoms to be aware of:

  • Reality denial, we still are working as if things were like they used to be,
  • Reality avoidance, skipping focus on the symptoms of change,
  • Deflection, blaming change on others or seeking scapegoats that temporally justify mismatches,
  • Projection, attributing one’s feelings to other people, we have this disconnection because of someone else,
  • Splitting and radicalism, there are final groupings into good and bad things, good and bad people, good and bad customers… greys tend to converge into black and white only
  • Somatisation, in late stages people can even become ill to avoid facing reality

Ok, those are extremes, but what is it that usually happens?

Sometimes we simply focus so much on a project’s completion and success that we tend to forget that projects are not isolated realities but that they are inserted into organisations. With time our big project is able to evolve and change. This is something that we can naturally accept and live with. In fact we need a big dose of flexibility when driving our project through execution, when risks are being faced and decisions being made.

But the project is not the only thing that is about to change through its lifetime. The organisational reality in which it must fit is going to change also. A change that can even be induced or catalysed by means of the project that we are taking care of.

And what do we do in the face of change? First we still keep the serious intention of managing the match, usually following a stakeholder model like this one:

This stakeholder matrix represents the main groups of stakeholders, or people that have a say, that we have to manage. They are divided in four groups related to the power and influence they have and their importance (or stake):

Stakeholder Management
Low Importance High Importance
High Influence Keep Satisfied Manage Closely
Low Influence Monitor (minimal effort) Keep Informed

Those are reasonable and wise words but, in the end, when the project has overcome the frustration and hysteria phases, we are so focused on the final deliveries that we tend to forget about stakeholders at all. And then the mismatch occurs and blows up on our faces. That’s when the aforementioned symptoms start to occur.

There’s another model that I especially like. Made by Holland and Skarke, projects the need for change with an additional dimension: time.

The model is taken from an article focused on IT and organisational alignment, but it’s also applicable in many other contexts. It says clearly that we must be manage two projects at the same time:

  • Getting the system ready for the users, our main goal or the project that we are struggling to manage to completion
  • Getting the users ready for the system, the often overlooked part.

Getting the users ready for the system will entail much more than the simple stakeholder engagement described with the classical approach. In information systems will be related to the user acceptance processes that we know should be analysed and managed, but in many other contexts, user acceptance must not be taken for granted. The users must be ready for the new infrastructure, and that means that they must not only know about it, but about the benefits it entails for their work processes, the alignment with their own personal and organisational objectives and the motivation to learn to use, and effectively use them.

Only this way we will be able to quickly climb the productivity drop in the adaptation curve, and only this way we will be able to adapt the deliverables to what the organisation expect: actively managing both ends of the final acceptance bargain.