Hope?

hope As I write this, the US is in a presidential transition.  President-Elect Obama won, at least in part, on a platform of hope and the rallying cry, “Yes We Can.”

Hope?  In the face of all the obvious difficulties?  Yes we can?  Really?  Aren’t they just fuzzy words?

As a project manager, part of me is a hard-headed, pragmatic realist — in fact, bordering on (if not full on) cynicism.  I’ve had my time railing against pollyanna optimism in schedules and making snarky jokes about  managers who won’t see a risk until it bites them in the butt (sometimes it takes a more critical part of the anatomy before registering).

On the other hand…

As much as I promote and admire fact-based decision processes, our business is about  more than objective reality.  As one of my colleagues (and one of our lead bloggers) Kimberly Wiefling says, “Managing projects is not rocket science… it’s much harder — it involves people.”

I have come to believe that people are emotional.   I don’t mean it in the pejorative sense of having emotional behavior overwhelming our logical processes.  I view it as a balance.  There is some brain research to back this up.  Dr. Richard Davidson (PhD Harvard, Director Wisconsin Center for Affective Science   — http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/author/default.asp?aid=4776) cites brain imaging studies suggesting that neural circuitry underlying emotion and cognition are not separable.

I love this kind of science.

I love working on great projects… and a lot of my colleagues do, too.

“You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”  — Steve Jobs

Of course, this doesn’t mean we’re supposed to be happy all the time, nor does it mean we won’t experience setbacks.  I do suggest that we have a responsibility for our workplace that includes the physical, logical, and emotional health of our teams.
A lot of us come from an analytical background.  We have been trained and nurtured in an environment encouraging the finding of problems (and fixing them, too, to be sure).  I do not suggest that this is a bad thing.  I do suggest that as project managers and leaders, we need to be aware that our words and tone can have a profound impact on our teams.

So, getting back to hope.  When we are being smart and realistic about our project problems, we should also be offering hope on how we can deal with (if not overcome) those problems.  For me, it’s perhaps the difference between “I can think of 24 reasons why that won’t work…” versus “I can see that if we can find ways around these 24 obstacles, we might have a winner… shall we get started?”

Ok, you might say, but what about reality?  What about when things don’t work out?  Perhaps that is an even bigger challenge for hope… dashed hopes can be difficult to revive.  But, is that a reason to abandon hope?  I’d like you to think back on a time where a setback was, in fact, a catalyst for great achievement.  What was going on?

It is less about the fact of a setback and more about how we “see” it.  If we talk about a setback as part of an inevitable string of setbacks, we are likely to make that happen.  If we, instead, frame it as an opportunity to learn and do better (i.e., really learn, don’t punish, focus on the next steps, etc.), we might find ourselves with a better team and better results.

Hope is not just optimism.  It is a kind of discipline about accepting the challenges and engaging our team to persevere intelligently in the face of setbacks.  It is a process of appealing to both the “mind” and the “heart” in order to get the full measure of ourselves involved in our projects.

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