How filters and perceptions influence your thinking, behavior and success in project management
"mind dancing" as a way to success and leadership
Fred Mangelaars, Independent Consultant, ACS
What makes a great carpenter the great carpenter he is, are not his hammer and his saw, but his personal skills to use those tools to create what he has inside. To form his thoughts and fantasy to something tangible, so good, that it is wanted by others, too. People seldom ask themselves why they like a piece of furniture. Is it the materials, the shape, the colour, or is it something that reflects a personal emotion? What makes a carpenter even greater is his ability to understand not only his own emotion, but also the emotions of others so he can translate those into a beautiful craftsmanship for someone else. For some reason, carpenters who are able to create others thoughts are referred to as artists.
The foundation of the maturity of a project manager, or any manager for that matter, can be found in his growth as a person. Being a Project Manager resembles being an artist. Not only should they have the right skills to use the project management tools they know, but to be that greater Project Manager they should be able to understand their thoughts and emotions and the thoughts and emotions of others. Therefore, they should know how personal filters and perceptions not only influence emotions and thoughts, but most of the times, even lay at the foundation for those emotions and thoughts. This paper looks at the awareness of filters and perceptions starting at the project manager self. Once they accept that their views and behaviour are formed out of filters, they can start to accept and handle filters and perceptions of others.
The way a person looks at the world creates his reality. That same way of seeing the world is formed by mostly unknown filters. People learn and develop references and frameworks within which a world can exist. It is mostly assumed and expected that in a business environment everyone is able to learn and experience the same, thus is living in the same world. However, the world one lives in is not only determined by business experience, but far more by personal background. Unspoken personal influences like religion, culture, sexuality, family-circumstances, educational environment, hobbies and experience of life have a much stronger impact on filters and perceptions, thus on people's way of seeing the world. For the project managers, it means that they must discover what their filters and perceptions are, and what forms them.
Project Managers maturity
Since learning cycles are one of the most important pillars of Project Management methodologies, the profession is evolving by extending the instrumental boundaries to ‘other skills’. The maturity of a project manager can be seen as a growth path along used hard and soft skills. As in the beginning, project management methodologies were based solely on cognitive competences and task-oriented-skills: the first introduction of soft skills was based mostly on professional (read personal) behaviour such as self-presentation and problem solving. The seniority and maturity of a project manager became more clear when this person was able to use reflective and emotional coaching towards his customer and his project team to exercise power and control.
For the next level of a manager's maturity and seniority is an awareness of human filters, perceptions and assumptions needed, to enable interpretative and reframing management. This will especially be helpful in large organizational change projects, (where many stakeholders need to be understood and influenced), but is also very useful in team management and customer relationship management. The project manager today should enrich not only his instrumental competencies, but should enrich especially his ‘other skills’ to become the project manager of tomorrow.
Personal filters can be compared with physical filters. Like a very small hole in a plate only allows light with a certain wavelength to pass, so will a personal filter only allow certain messages that suit the filter to pass. The suitability of the message is depending on the references the receptor has. The interpretation of a message is based on a receptors experience. The receptor will first hold the content of the message against frameworks in the same area. If no match is found, he will hold it against experiences in other possible personal areas. When a match is found, the message is translated within that person's framework and he will acknowledge the reception of the message. Filters and perceptions are formed out of many different aspects of a person's life, such as biological growth, genetic information, culture, religion etc. (as shown in Exhibit 1 below)
It is not consciously known, that the acknowledgement, in fact, is a personal interpretation of the message. When one says: “I know what you mean”, he in fact says: “I know what I should have meant if I had given that message”. For example: if a person from Siberia and a person from Spain talk about the weather and would both say: “the temperature is quite comfortable”, they would probably mean –10°C and +25°C. Their interpretation is formed by their experience in their environmental circumstances. Because this example can be complemented with hard values, the interpretational differences can be clarified easily by mentioning the real temperatures. But, even in this case, temperature interpretation needs to be filled in with measurement units, because they could use Celsius or Fahrenheit. Thus the more descriptions are used, and the more feelings are involved, the bigger the interpretational difference can be.
Translation by filters
Filters can also lead to a translation of a message in, for example, the sense of receiving a positive message as something negative or vice versa. If a salesperson having a sales target of 1 mln Euro tells his sales manager he has closed deals for 100.000 Euro, it is translated as being bad news. If a sales person having a target of 10.000 Euro told the same, it would be translated as great news. If you have a good association with sales people and someone told you that you looked like a salesperson, you would see that as a compliment. If you, for whatever reason, hate sales people, you would probably see that same message as an insult.
Blocking by filters
If a long message is delivered, filters can cause only parts of the message to be received. The importance of several parts of the message are referenced within the personal framework and can cause these parts to be thrown away or neglected as being not relevant. A very businesslike person is likely to throw away emotional messages, as soon as it hinders the business objectives. Personal filters would block the emotional message, especially if the receptor is not very strong in handling emotions, so he can hide behind business content. An emotionally developed person would care less about the business content, but more on the person behind the emotions. A confronting emotional (negative) message could cause filters to close down for business content. A combination of both business and emotional intelligence would help to overcome blocking and receive the right proportions of the message in the most suitable way.
An example of a project manager's filter at a project with one of the largest insurance companies in Europe is described in a case below:
A project manager was appointed to a project that had a very problematic background. The project was already overtime and the budget was half spent (over 12 mln. Euro spent), while there was less than 10% of the work done. Nobody believed the project would still finish successfully. And the project manager tried his best to hide the actual cost spent.
The project manager started to replace team members in the project and made new plans and budgets. After a few weeks the Internal Audit Department wanted an appointment with him. The new project manager got scared and told his secretary to cancel the appointment. But as good auditors do, they did not let go! After a few weeks of cancellation attempts, he could not reject the appointment any longer. During the appointment they told the project manager that they had already done an audit on the project. When they informed him of their conclusions, the project manager started to recognize the same issues he already concluded himself! But since auditors are there to report on bad news, in this case to the board of directors of the company, (The former project manager was fired, following the conclusions of the audit report!) he decided “to push them aside” and tried to gain time before they started their next audit. From his project director, he heard that it was indeed well known that the Audit Department was “used” for these kind of exercises all the time.
At this time the project manager began to realise how his mindset was influenced during his past experiences. He was troubled by filters caused by experiences he had in a very hierarchical organisation where every “fault had to be punished”. He thought of a positive way of how to use his filtered view and thought of some projects, where he “survived” the audits. His thinking had actually been well in line with the way of thinking of the organisation!
The next day he called the auditors and told them about his worries. Together they defined an audit. He told the auditors he wanted to learn and wanted to incorporate the conclusions in redefining the project. That same message is what he told everybody who wanted to hear it, including his project director. He tried to make everyone clear that there was another way of looking at project audits. People, including the auditors themselves, began to make clear statements that this audit would be an audit to learn, to gain quality in this very complex project. In their conclusions of the audit report, the auditors even supported the new ideas of the project manager and told the board of directors that this approach was the only way to go. They even advised to raise the budget of the project.
One of the learning points was that hiding costs (for reasons of politics) does not fool everybody and could not rescue the project nor his project manager's job. The project manager did recognize his “pitfall” in time. During his career he had built up a filter when it came to “formal reporting to higher levels”. By recognising his filter and the similar culture in the organisation, he was able to develop an approach in “mind dancing” with individuals from the internal audit department and the rest of the organisation.
Types of filters and business behaviour
Filters are formed by all kinds of origins. Recognisable filters are filters caused by knowledge or information. If a person is not educated or trained in the right (technical) jargon, it is likely to interpret a message differently. Especially with acronyms or 3 letter abbreviations this is often the case. For example ATM is for a person in telecoms a method of data transfer over a network, while, for a person in banking, it is a machine in the wall to get money from. Learning about the jargon can be sufficient to overcome interpretational filters.
However, a personal filter or a person's personality is formed out of personal aspects like culture, religion, family circumstances and experiences of life. It is common knowledge that different interpretations of religion can lead to war. So why can't it be that religion forms a ground for a business filter. It can, but it is rarely discussed. Cultural differences are commonly known and often ground for jokes and laughter. More in depth cultural differences like hierarchical behaviour however, is often a far less discussed topic in difficult international business relations. Family or environmental circumstances will often influence professional behaviour, wanted or not. It unconsciously also determines many personal filters. If a person has had a bad weekend at home, he or she can react aggressively towards any confrontation, as a visible influence. A critical healthcare situation with a child at home can, and will, change the attitude towards the importance of work decisions, as an invisible influence. Experiences of life per definition form filters and perceptions. Any experienced situation will form your behaviour and reaction towards a similar situation. A traumatic experience can form or even deform filters towards life in general.
As it is probably known, that, for instance, personal circumstances influence business behaviour of people on the other side of the table, it is time to reflect on the reader, on how they really influence the reader's behaviour. It is easy to judge someone else. It is hard to accept that your view is filtered and therefore limited and that your behaviour is influenced, too. Have you ever asked yourself why you drive a particular (company-) car? Is it because of your own preference only or is your choice influenced by what others think of your car too?
Project manager's behaviour
Who decides how project managers should behave? Is it an unwritten etiquette, a formal code or just a monkey-copies-monkey conduct? Is it, that if you use an untypical approach that your project will fail? Is it, that if you do everything by the book that your project will succeed?
The answer can be found in knowledge of filters and perceptions of yourself and of the party on the other side of the table. It is not the method, approach or result that satisfies you the best that will grant you success. It is the expected method, approach or result by the other side of the table that eases the way to success. To be able to understand what is expected, an understanding of the other side's filters is essential.
Forced and natural behaviour
As it is hard, on a first level of project manager's maturity, to work with the known hard skills and competences, it is even harder to use a next levels presentation and problem solving skills, because a situation sensing capability is needed. Usage of new knowledge, tips and tricks often seems to be forced and will not always work. The more a manager grows and the more a manager accepts criticisms and reflection, the more the sensing capability will develop, even though it is sometimes purely experience based. The first and second maturity level behaviour will nevertheless look more and more natural. A manager can learn or adapt this behaviour by experience.
To reach the next level of maturity, a manager needs to already have some empathic capacity. First, the person needs to accept the fact that his or her own views of reality are filtered. Secondly, the person needs to empathically sense the possible filters and perceptions of the person on the other side of the table. The evolving manager needs to have passed all previous levels of managerial growth and have the necessary personal maturity to place previous level experiences in the right perspective. The next level manager must reflect on his own career and business cases with a personal touch. He must no longer ask what was done by whom, but why he himself or someone else has done something and why in that particular way.
When reflecting on past experience and behaviours, the reader will find a combination of filters and perceptions that led to a certain behaviour or outcome. That is a right conclusion. People's behaviour is formed by a combination of filters, after all, as an example a person cannot exclude his educational experience or his family life, or his cultural background etc. They all form a person's filters and perceptions. The stronger filters are, the more conflicting they can be. (as shown in Exhibit 2 below)
He will also encounter two different categories of filters more easily described as positive and negative filters. A positive filter or positive drive can be a natural enthusiasm for, for example a software solution. This positive filter can become so strong it becomes a market vision so that the person decides to start his own company. A positive filter can often been found with visionairs. A negative filter, on the contrary, can be caused by bad experiences with, for example, a software solution, which a person has to implement anyway. This negative filter can become so strong, that it can frustrate or fail an entire project. Different people apparently can see the same subject through a positive or negative filter. A person will likewise always have positive and negative filters, however, with different intensities, forming one's personality.
An example of rescuing a project by detecting an organisational culture filter at a project with one of the largest breweries in the world is described in a case below:
A project manager ran a multi million Euro project for a large company with about 30.000 employees worldwide. The project concerned a standardisation of the IT infrastructure to reduce costs. The project manager reported to the CIO. Several business units were involved as well as, of course, the ICT department. This department was spread around the world and not organised in a standard way. So the project manager had to deal with a lot of stakeholders, with a problem (standardisation) that did not really meet enthusiasm in the business units. They would rather be involved with worldwide marketing campaigns etc.
First of all the project manager thought that keeping all those stakeholders in line would be his biggest problem. He assumed that using his knowledge of instrumental project management methodologies he could get stakeholder buy-in.
So he started by the book to organise his project with clear responsibilities, working groups, soundboard groups, steering committees etc. He made work breakdowns, work packages etc. He created a reporting system etc. But week after week he got the uncomfortable feeling that he wasn't making progress. His issue list got longer and longer. He wondered why? When he asked something within his project teams, he saw that long e-mail chains were born to discuss the problem. When he asked a decision in a steering group he was asked whether he consulted “mister X, Y, Z”, and asked if he possibly did not oversee the whole problem? Or when he asked the manager of an ICT department something to arrange, the one pointed out that there was a special committee for these problems. How could he ever get any project in this organisation to a successful end?
Since the by-the-book approach did not seem to work, the project manager decided to talk personally to every manager and management team member within the company. Even though this would take a lot of time he didn't really have because the project was already behind schedule.
Once he talked to a high ranked manager and asked him if he was not worried by the progress of the project. The manager looked him in the eye and told him that “he should know” that the best way of managing was empowering people. This was a successful company with lifetime employment. Employees were well known with all the ins and outs of the company. All the problems needed to be addressed before taking a decision. You empower people by getting consensus for decisions. Better to have all problems addressed then a fast decision!
After thinking over this message, the project manager recognised the organisational culture and with that the organisational filter against IT-projects. After all it was a commercial, marketing organisation. Thus he started the “TIP campaign”. His slogan was “Thinking In Possibilities” might succeed above “Thinking In Problems”.
So he “invited” every member in the project teams in every email, in every meeting, in any personal conversation to give three possibilities when one problem was raised. In the beginning it was very silent, but after a while team members began to talk to each other with the credo “I want a TIP, not a problem!” In all meetings and conferences the project manager did not talk about ICT infrastructure, or project progress but about “TIP's”. Managers and employees were given a mirror on the problems they raised and everyone was challenged to give three possible solutions for the problems they raised. The project manager was nearly fired by his director, but the project made tremendous progress in a very short time. Even the business units, as customers of the ICT department(s) pushed the director to go on in this way.
The project manager turned the project into a success, not by using a project management method, tool or skill, but by managing the project stakeholders by managing the organisational filters.
Success by “mind dancing”
Managing filters and perceptions help project managers to manage their projects by managing their stakeholders and stakeholders' expectations. That this path to managerial maturity helps to be successful as a project manager can not only be measured from project results, but even more from customers satisfaction. Managing expectations through “mind dancing across personal filters” creates the opportunity to have satisfied and happy customers, even when the business wise project scope is not fully met. After all, the real key to project success is satisfaction of the stakeholders. Success typically is a word with a relative meaning.
Recognition of filters can be used to help a project manager through resistance in projects and find the right ambassadors to help support and run the project. With the knowledge and the ability of using filters, a project manager can form strong project teams. He can compensate recognised negative filters with positive filters by finding a personal drive. The mostly used way of lowering filters is to find a shared interest. If, for example, your customer plays the piano and likes Chopin, it could come in handy that you play the piano, too, and at least know Chopin. Because you have something in common, a natural start of building of trust, thus a lowering of negative filters will occur. From that point you can explore each other's interests, besides work, to break down walls and open other filters one by one, to understand each other's action and real personal and project interests. With that knowledge and capabilities the road is open to many forms of success.
Projects are filled and formed by filters and perceptions, so is life. To be able to become that greater project manager you must be able to recognise those filters, and play them like an artist. Then, like the great carpenter you will be able to form your projects as the finest piece of craftsmanship, shaped by the emotions of the surrounding stakeholders, granting your success.
© Benno Belling, Fred Mangelaars
Originally published as part of 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings - Prague