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Acting Under Pressure - Free Thinking or Conditioning

I've been having some pretty restless nights since I came back from Switzerland and last night was no exception. I woke up at 04:45 clutching at some snippets of a rather bizarre dream, but sadly wasn't conscious enough to jot them down. The gist of it was that I was in a war zone with some close friends from both work and personal life and I was questioning some of the decisions that were being taken, both tactical and strategic.

In those immediate moments after waking I realised that I had been thinking about was the difference between doing the right things and doing things right (regardless of whether they were the right things to do). As I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, my mind started darting around all over the place. I started thinking about Verification and Validation process areas in CMMI (as you do!); I thought about jobs I had left because I had had tried to do what I thought was the right thing whilst all around me people were doing what they'd always done and still failing; and I thought about all the projects I've been involved in which might have succeeded if leaders had focused on doing the right things rather than doing the wrong things righter. It's sad to say that far too many of us have worked in organisations and projects that have resembled war zones and how much of our office language reflects conflict, with our war rooms, death marches, and battle plans.

Finally I started wondering how much of our behaviour changes when we're under pressure and we start to behave according to our genetic ancestry (fight and flight) or our social or workplace conditioning (command and control in most cases). I even wondered whether there is a genetic disposition that make some people behave like leaders and others act like sheep, particularly when the going gets tough.

Many of you will have seen coverage of the terrible events in Italy this week involving the cruse ship Costa Concordia. We'd all like to think that if we ever found ourselves in such a situation that we'd behave with dignity and calmness and make sure that we did the right thing in that context. The tragedy is that when we're faced with the reality of such a disaster, very few people live up to their ideals. It's much easier to do what you're told (rightly or wrongly) and to follow the majority. To do something that goes against the grain, to think differently, to take a different course of action that might go against all common sense is much harder.

But in an organisational context or a project context the pressures that we are up against are not life threatening. We not only have the opportunity to think or react differently to everyone else - we have an obligation to do so. And managers and leaders have an equal obligation to listen and make decisions accordingly based on analysis of what is being said and not against received wisdom or ingrained ideals of what is right.

Projects and organisations fail most often because they allow themselves to be persuaded by convention without thinking about the real consequences. Far too many decisions drive the types of behaviour which lead to people focusing on doing the wrong things, and trying to get better at doing them rather than simply doing the right thing because it's different.

UPDATE : Just before I went to post this entry I discovered someone else thinking similar thoughts today as I saw this on my Twitter feed...
flowchainsenseiAlways, always the toughest decision I have to make as a coach; whether to behave as management expects OR to coach teams effectively.

I fully empathise with this dilemma. In the end my heart usually rules my head and after towing the line for a while I'll edge towards trying to do what's right. Sometimes I'll end up paying the price, but at least my conscience is clear, and there are always some folk around who thank me for trying!
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