25 Ways Project People Can Train Their Mental Flexibility

25 Ways Project People Can Train Their Mental Flexibility


Projects are about humans. Deal with that! And when dealing, it’s a project manager’s flexibility that comes in most handy since not only does mental agility ensure you keep yourself actively thinking, using those grey cells, it means you have the resilience to adapt to the only constant in life… change. Jonah Lehrer, in his article; Aging Gracefully — It’s a Real Workout, refers to the studies conducted on the cognitive development of a ‘thinking’ mind.

“Not only does an active mind have more cortical matter to lose — scientists refer to this as “cognitive reserve,” since the extra tissue serves as a buffer against cell death — but it also seems better able to adjust its activity in response to the insults of age. “The brain operates on a use-it-or-lose-it principle,” says Merzenich. “And the ability to cope with change seems to really be something you either use or lose.””

So if your mum ever told you it would only gain you to use your brains for a change, it wasn’t far from what the scientists say today. Development of this essential flexibility for a good project manager demands a constant mental exercise, and sometimes just plain common sense. Let’s move on to the 25 ways to gain a flexible mind. Every item has a short link to an article on this blog, for if you want to explore that particular subject more in depth.

1. Ever wondered why the client needs a professional project manager? He can hire a team to do the job for him without paying you extra bucks but you still get the job of thrashing out ways to achieve a goal. You channel the scarce resources so they lead to one end aim that may actually be a moving target if the client decides on changes in the requirements. Similarly the coders themselves can be in a fix over something; maybe the big question would be ‘authority’ since projects are usually temporary set ups that move in different directions once the project is complete. It is your job to be able to communicate with all stakeholders and come out of a project with no losers. Work on your people skills and understand why they are needed. Soft skills make or break the aura of dependability around you, the very thing that lets the stakeholders trust you to get the job done for or from them. [more]

2. Self realization comes from self evaluation, if the process is never initiated a person can spend a lifetime in mediocrity and never really get to know himself. Watch for parts of your behavior that is there just to appear professional. Some people insist they cannot label humans, the assertion seems flawed when you consider how we put ourselves in boxes; conforming to notions, or expectations that become the group we wish to be in. Take for instance, your dressing for work. Managers wear suits. Period. Interestingly, while your suit may not have the brains to stitch itself, your professional appearance is important to your boss and for your team to be able to trust your professionalism. Flexibility does not demand that you try to stand out and refuse to wear the suits; it is conformation of the mind to plan-driven project management that means you compromise your flexibility for conformation, thus caging all resourcefulness. Never put your mind on autopilot just because you planned once in the distant past. [more]

3. Logic would say that if a certain number of individuals did something the way they did, it must have some thought behind it. That logic also dictates that to divert from those norms sets you out as a rebel but have you thought that the hoards of PMs before you could actually have been creating an aura for themselves? Doing things just to look important? To be an agile project manager, the challenge is to evaluate each norm and justify it to your best judge, yourself. Take time to explain your actions to yourself. Does that Gantt chart really help your planning? Is it really necessary for you to flaunt those precise two digit risk factors at the start of work when you know the project is based on variables? [more]

4. There is nothing more complex than managing a set of resources based on variables alone. For a project manager, there are no actual constants in the whole project situation. How many of us have been through projects that have even had the end goals changed when the client realized original aims were not viable? To stay on top of the game, a project manager has to realize he can never afford to stop learning since the only valuable experience is one you learn from, the rest is what you dragged through without any positives except the paycheck. Stay in active discussions with other PMs; you can even use their experiences to guide your own if you are smart. For the flexible mind, keep studying the complex cause and effect relationships because an otherwise simple 1+2 just never equals 3 in our field. [more]

5. Principles are important; we need those in life to be able to gain moral strength. But as a project manager, if your principles include never changing your mind and sticking with what you once planned, you are planning your own downfall. Meditate; see the project process as a flow. Your team is the resource you need to utilize to get to the aim, but there cannot be a trickier resource than people. Once a resource is not available, another has to be looked up. If a path is blocked, you can either remove the hurdle or you can take another route. The world moves on with or without us, so should your project. Being adamant and denying facts leads nowhere but the failed street. [more]

6. Flexibility in communication skills is a great asset for a PM. Realize that using technical jargon in front of a non technical person will result in nothing but wasted time with neither of you any wiser. The same applies for languages. You can only gain when you exercise your mind so the suggestion is to learn to speak the language your listener understands, especially if you are going to be in constant contact with the clients or offshore teams. While it has many benefits, including getting a perspective in the conversation you could never get otherwise, it is not always possible to learn the language of your clients. You can, however, strive to get off your platform and communicate with your audience in a language they understand or at least adapt and be comprehensible. [more]

7. Be a project shrink; be your own therapist. Self reflection is one of the best forms of mental exercise. And seriously, just to get to understand your own ideas, try writing. Use blogging as a sounding board to build your network and interact with other project managers who can share ideas and views with you. Unlike the spoken word which at times gets frivolous, written word has to be a lot clearer so the reader gets your purpose of writing. Suddenly your charismatic personality does not matter, the gestures cannot be seen; your words represent you and your opinions. This makes for a thorough exercise, and there will be times when you will realize a particular point felt complicated only in conversing, while writing you will be able to rationalize much better. [more]

8. Meditate. No, I am not repeating myself. There is the relaxed reflective meditation and then there is the real process of meditation. Find your empty corner and at least start your breathing exercises. Once you are ready, you will know when to up the ante on the exercises. This approach to empty your mind and set it free from the constant chatter inside it will actually give you a new perspective to your job. And a freer mind that’s not being held back by needless bias always lead to better judgment and flexibility. [more]

9. Inspirations go a long way in life. Untamed ambition can be your worst enemy, but without ambition mastered by morals, there can be meaninglessness to life that sinks people like nothing else. Always look for things that inspire you, some sports provide great inspiration. While it can be anything that makes you want to be the best at what you can be, inspirations in your field can help more since you can directly relate with them. You Tube, for instance, can give you access to many inspirational speeches or interviews with people who have achieved goals they aimed for. [more]

10. Inspirations do not always come from real life successes. Situations can compare very favorably to television shows as well. Relate project scenes / scenarios to your favorite television shows. Mental flexibility granted through an active imagination will lead you to some unconventional yet implementable ideas, not to mention PM metaphors. The A-Team’s resourcefulness comes to mind and you start believing you do not need to be Superman, nor do you need super machines to get to your goals, it is all in the mind and how you adapt your environment to suit your project needs. [more]

11. Try to come up with three different metaphors for your project. This may sound odd to some, but there is hardly a better exercise for the mind than to look for similarities and think through the images you come up with. Interestingly enough, mental chess games of cause and effect relationships with your metaphors actually help you find creative solutions if your metaphors are truly applicable to your project. [more]

12. We need our metaphors and one of the best that cover the complexity of our situation is the fish pond with big fish as well as the little ones. The need for drainage and maintenance is the same as your need to keep your team’s environment free of toxic coworkers who just cannot help but pollute the team spirit. The survival metaphor applies, so does a lot else. Dwell on the idea and view your project or organization as a fish pond. Work out the similarities in your mind like the organizational structure of your organization and that of the pond, there is a lot you can learn from the little fellows. [more]

13. Half the challenge of adapting to a change is to understand the problem, and the rest is about implementation of plan B. To understand the hurdles in your way, the ability to empathize can be a huge plus for you. We have a natural tendency to be harsh in our evaluation when we are detached from a situation. Emotions just do not make sense until we experience them and therefore, I suggest practice putting yourself in another’s position when you are about to judge them because then you can actually be more fair in your evaluations. This, by the way, can also guide you in how to handle a team member in trouble because you can get a fair picture of the situation. [more]

14. As a project manager, you are a leader and your team looks up to you. To increase your resilience, as well as to enhance your team’s capabilities, think about your team. Work them out and try to understand their psyche as individuals and as a team. While they will work for the money, you can get more out of them cent per cent if they are motivated instead of when they are dragging their feet. Spend time with them; communicate in a manner that tells them you are a part of the team instead of someone there to pick out their mistakes alone. There are so many ways you can motivate your team, use them and in doing so, you will be motivating yourself as well. A motivated mind can think through anything. [more]

15. People are complex beings, you cannot hack slash through a project without coming out with bruises yourself and coworkers who would rather starve rather than work with you again. Instead, study the behavior of individual coworkers and deal with them according to their character dimensions [more]:

  • Process vs. Content: Usually it is the management that swoons over the planning of a project and the people actually implementing the plans want to focus on the content. Don’t generalize though, individuals differ.
  • Reference Group: Find out who aspires for what status; programmers will usually have role models in their field, managers in theirs The source of inspiration tells you how the person thinks.
  • Change versus Status Quo: Some people embrace change, and others hang on to the status quo as long as they can. You have to motivate both types, especially the latter because they will be the ones losing their beloved set ways when you need to adapt to a change.
  • Defined versus Creative: Know who likes to conform to the plans and who wants space to exercise creativity. Usually the status quo wants to conform; the creative ones look out for change.
  • Group versus Individual: Some people work best when left alone at their work, give them the objectives and they will come out tops, putting them in team conditions hampers their productivity, the opposite is valid for those who work best with others.

16. With foreign teams and outsourced jobs, the evaluation of personalities gets trickier than for your known culture since the basic values differ in so many ways. Evaluate the behavior of your foreign coworkers based upon these 6 largely cultural dimensions [more]:

  • Future “Present” Past Orientation: Some cultures dwell in their past, some think present is everything and then there is still another belief that the future can be honed to your desires through impeccable planning. Each stance grooms different personalities and it is up to the PM to recognize them.
  • Time-Plentiful vs. Time-Is-Money: There are two types of people; one that believe what is good today will be so tomorrow as well. That no fuss approach is a contrast to the view that time is money; each moment wasted is a loss.
  • Respect For The Man: Just being the boss in some cultures will get your respect, which may actually mean you never get ‘no’ for an answer, in other cultures you will have to earn the respect and in still others, you can earn your respect and still never be able to get things your way unless you happen to be able to convince your team.
  • Me vs. Us: Your project team’s capabilities depend on how they gel and think as a team. There is a world of difference between those that operate as individuals and those that work as a team.
  • Spelling Everything Out vs. Its Only Natural: Similarly qualified people can have different views to what is taken for granted and what needs explanation. One programmer might want you to go into each minute detail to know exactly what you want; another might take it as an offense that you are explaining the petty stuff.
  • Doing Everything At Once Or One Thing After The Other: Not everyone responds to multitasking well. Some work systematically while others may start everything and get different modules ready for compilation at the end.

17. Give your team feedback. It is usually not our favorite way to exercise out mental capabilities but it has to be done. There are pros and cons of every method of feedback; be it verbal, written or in shapes of graphs and power point sheets. If you do well, the problems can be sorted out by the motivated minds; if you do not there just might be trouble around the corner. The question you have to deal with is choosing the medium of your feedback. You can do it verbally but there are problems with cross referencing later if no records are kept, so the best way is to back that up with written feedback. It is not a bad idea to mentally prepare what you are going to say because a wrong word, or an accusatory tone, can ruin your team’s morale. Be kind but honest in evaluation. [more]

18. The ‘agile’ management theory takes on the oft asserted statement that change is constant. The preplanned management style, on the other hand, defines all the minute details before starting out; often needing to change plans when things do not go right. There will be times when either system fits a project perfectly but that won’t be often. True flexibility comes from not being fixed on one theory. It is the combination of both methods that ensures you salvage some periods during the project where you can relax the mind and avoid working it too hard, it makes for more stable working conditions as well. [more]

19. Deliberate every process element of your plan and mull over what it is supposed achieve. Waste of time is always a loss of a scarce resource to a PM. Instead of working out exact plans for development, figure out why you need each element of the process in the first place. Once you answer why a process exists, you can be flexible in how you implement the elements of the plan and you will be able to skip an element of the plan when it is actually redundant. [more]

20. Analogies go a long way in thinking things through and the comparisons make you appreciate the complexity of life itself. Think about a big city, and try to associate different parts of town with your organization. Your client views your work from a distance, a detached figure just concerned with the output of the city, the numbers and digits. The project manager, on the other hand, has to zoom in and out to know what is happening. As you zoom in, the complexity of each task and the teams performing the task at a personal and at a team level becomes clear. You have to keep zooming out from time to time as well, just to make sure that one area you were looking at fits the whole picture perfectly. It is the whole that makes the city produce what it does, that’s what the client is interested in, but disruption in one area might affect the whole situation. [more]

21. Play with Google Earth, another interesting tool you can use to enhance your vision. You can zoom in or out like you would in your project’s overview, just to see if everything works together or not and you can focus on different fields of your project as well. The tool basically carries the analogies forward. [more]

22. Observation is a key to knowledge and for a project manager the toughest resource to figure out is the people he is working with. You cannot experiment with people’s emotions (that would be a bit drastic) but you can find models in simulation that follow essentially the same principles. Play The Sims to see how people react in different circumstances. Since the game is based on living conditions, social, personal and economic needs you can get a good overview to base further observations on. Don’t take this too literally though, most humans do not keep swimming till they run out of energy when you delete the ladder from the swimming pool! [more]

23. “Quite frankly, in today’s highly competitive marketplace we have to touch base often to manage expectations and meet industry standards… so when rubber hits the road we can make it a plus for all stake holders and reinvent ourselves. If we have the courage of our convictions we can make this into a win-win situation for all stakeholders.” What did I just say? A lot, but basically nothing other than ‘hey, we can probably do it but we are not doing so well just now’. Clichés are a great way to hide the truth, or to obscure it, or present it in a manner that makes it vague enough to not be as glaring as the truth would be. Or sometimes it is used simply to avoid answering the question. Create a large list of your (or your colleagues) project management clichés, check when you resort to one. [more]

24. Mull over why your project / company or industry is located around the world the way it is. I know it is going into the basics but while you can, mull over the trends in the world. Why is your company outsourcing to the developing countries? Why are the jobs going elsewhere? Consider the effects of globalization and how it is affecting the environment around the world. [more]

25. We create our own categories; they are logical conceptions that a variety of individuals may agree on and base a system upon. When taught in management classes they become pseudo realities for project managers. We can subscribe to either view and stick to our guns all the way, or we can ponder the artificiality of ‘agile’ as well as ‘plan-driven’ management. Consider why we let these artificially imposed images dictate to us. This of course gets you back to your project goals; if there are no ‘agile’ or plan-driven projects, the job is as easy as getting the work done with the most effective method possible. [more]

Bas de Baar, blogging as “The Project Shrink“, is taking his message to the International Project Management community with a vengeance: “Projects Are About Humans, Now Deal With That!” With over a decade spent in the trenches as Software Project Manager within the publishing industry, running multi-national teams, he has a lot to talk about.

Bas is the editor of SoftwareProjects.org, a website dedicated to all those people who make up IT projects. He holds a masters degree in Business Informatics and currently lives with his wife in the coastal town of Zandvoort, The Netherlands. His latest book, “Surprise! Now You’re a Software Project Manager“, was published in September 2006.


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