This is the fourth part in our series in which John Edmonds and I present our findings on this research over our two blogs. For the last post see: Mental Crib Sheet Part 3: A Bias Towards Relationships.
One pattern that Crowe identifies in his study of Alpha project managers is their tendency to triage unplanned issues - pre-assess them, qualify them - before committing them to a formal, collaborative process, one that usually involves some sort of Issue Log accessible by other members of the team.
We found this too. One programme manager in a logistics company told us:
"I don't put issues immediately onto the Log ... [this practice] evolved with experience. I found myself spending too much time administering controls and not actually managing ... It may not be what the books say, but it just works for me."
Now this troubles us as authors and trainers of best management approaches such as MSP and PRINCE2. For example, PRINCE2 makes it clear that the first point of control of an unplanned issue is to capture it (CS3), that is, to record it onto the Issues Log.
Our higher performers seem to be going against this. They talk about a 'cooling off period' and how many apparently serious issues just evaporate over a day or two; how the simple act of formally recording an issue seems sometimes to add quite unnecessary weight, emphasis or urgency to an issue; and how a burgeoning log ends up mastering the management team, demanding constant attention, to be regularly tilled over and reported upon.
To be quite candid, I think those of us in best practice community needs to reassess what it is advising people on this matter.
In fact, the higher performers, seemed to build into their working schedules what we have come to call personal float, that goes beyond the handling of Issues. Here's another quote from one of our volunteer subjects, a programme manager in a rail company:
"Unplanned events were manageable as I had allocated approximately 6 hours [this week] for various forms of unplanned activity - this was sufficient to cover what came along."
Now, on one level this is simple common sense. Yet why did the higher performers, the alpha-trait managers, have the discipline to do this and the others in our study didn't? The knowing -doing gap seems to involve some mental frame of self-awareness, confidence, and self-actualisation that seemed to be a constant grid against which they assess their working schedule and behaviours.
This appears to relate very closely to Daniel Goleman's constructs of emotional intelligence. We didn't set out to validate Goleman's model, but we seem to be drawn back to it.
So then, personal margin seems to be a priority in the modus operandi of all the higher performers we observed. No doubt there is a link here to their better performance, but undergirding this expression of personal margin is some kind of constant care in the minds of these managers to build in margin and a confidence to assert this in the pressured workplace.