Leaning to People Positive Outliers

Thinking well enough of the other person

I remember when I had a role in a large corporate, years ago. I described a particular director to a colleague as difficult. They were surprised.

“Really? I know he is a bit gruff, but he really means well. Catch him in the right moment and he will listen to you.”

And so it was. I realised when I had thought about it later that I had made a case against this man on the basis of little or no evidence. And it hampered my ability to relate to him, as well as influence him.

There are opportunities to influence people that we may have closed down unwittingly because, in our own estimation, we have written them off. We have limited our expectancy of them in our own minds. “Oh, they are hopeless,” we think and say. 

And right there, we have created the real problem. 

In effect, we have projected onto that person (and this applies to a group as well) a stereotype that they are impervious to persuasion. In the process, we disempower ourselves. We make ourselves their victim. Our attitude is as if we have a mental map with a sign that says, “Change attempts do not work here.”

What if we were doing this differently? If we think the best of people first, then we are likely to see potential in them that they don’t even see in themselves. This approach positions us to inspire them and to lead them. Often leadership is first about calling out the best in people. 

We love leaders when they do that in us. 

In stakeholder engagement, we discuss the stakeholder engagement strategy. Yet, the most basic strategy stands or falls by the hope we bring to it. If we don’t expect a lot of the people involved, then it is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, if we think the best of them, we set ourselves up for surprising success. 

What could you do change your view of that person or group?

Leave your comment below.

Leaning to People Positive Outliers Self-Awareness

Rush Relationships?

I was talking with a friend the other day, about when we are under stress how we begin to express ourselves. During high levels of stress, adrenaline drives us to be task-focused and focused inward on our emotions. It’s harder for us to engage with others with empathy. And so it is harder for us to be patient with others when we are under high levels of stress.

It’s the nature of empathy is that it cannot be summoned urgently. It can be a slow horse, grown in quieter, more reflective moments.

This is where the fight or flight response works against us. Deadlines approach. We become increasingly anxious. Our patience with others around us erodes.

Urgency, and the stress it creates, and the effects of adrenaline, begin to erode valuable relationships around us. Maybe it is time to stop for a moment and take stock of what it is doing, not just to our bodies, but also to those important relationships in our lives.

So, take a moment to reflect upon where that has happened to you. What can you do to prevent this happening again?

And leave a comment below … It’s not urgent.

Leaning to People Positive Outliers

An end to engagement?

One of the gifts that a project manager brings to an organisation is a mindset of finiteness: that is, her work – the project – will end. There is a discipline to this thinking; she plans and works towards an end state, rather than in some kind of endless repeating cycle of the next job to do.

However, this gift can also become a curse when it comes to relationships. The project manager can think of relationships with her stakeholders as for a season, for the duration of the project, and perhaps shortly afterwards. 

My experience is otherwise, particularly where the project manager is employed within a client organisation, moving from one project to the next. Often they reunite with the same people, sometimes when these same people are in new roles, with new levels of power and influence. We need to continually be cultivating important relationships.

Are you ABLE?

The acronym ABLE is useful here: Always Be Leading Engagement. Are you ABLE?

Are you continuing to invest in relationships from project to project? Are you building on these relationships with trust and honour, or do you abandon people when they are no longer of use to your current project? At the end of your project, or shortly thereafter, do you drop them like a brick? To paraphrase Brutus, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

The good that men do dies shortly after their project ends;
their neglect comes to haunt them later. 

By evil, we can merely mean neglect of a relationship, of the interests of the other person when our transaction is done. 

Or, as Paul, the Apostle once wrote:

Whatever one sows, that will he also reap.

In a research study we conducted a few years ago, we observed that all high-performing project managers are high-performing influencers; they are always engaging, always depositing into the relational bank account of key relationships. They were fully ABLE.

For more about the research findings, in particular, the seven key behaviours that are relevant to us all, you can download a free eBook here.

The Seven Keys to Exceptional Work

The Seven Keys eBook

Discover & Practice the Seven Key Areas that All High Performers Share

Download my free eBook

Leaning to People

Searching for (Project) Success

What drives the success of a project? I’m having a lot of conversations with clients and partners about this at the moment.

There the old story of a drunk who is found looking for his house keys under a street lamp.

“Are you sure you lost them here?” says the helpful stranger after a while.

“No,” replies the drunk, “but the light is better here.”

Where are we looking for the keys to project success, I wonder? Are we looking in the same places because that is where the light appears to be better? Most of the time, we look at the project manager, the individual.

So we send project managers on training courses. We get them assessed against competence measures, and so on.

More recently people have focused on the organisation, the whole enterprise. ‘Why is it that some organisations appear to be more successful in project delivery,’ people ask. So the search moves to the organisation’s culture and maturity.  And they conclude that project success is largely determined by the wider environment within which they run they run their projects. So maturity models have been devised. You have the classic CMMI model. There is the P3M3 for portfolios, programmes and projects. Assess the maturity of the organisation to deliver projects, they say; it is too simplistic to look only at the project manager.

And they are, of course, partly right.

So we look for success in:

  • the competence of the project manager (or programme manager – the same applies)
  • the maturity of the host organisation

But what if we are looking in the wrong places? What if it is only partly individual competence, and only partly to do with organisational maturity. But we could still be missing an area, an area where there is now a growing body of evidence that this is where much high performance can be found?

What about the team?

Leaning to People

Surprised by their reaction?

So, you are leading a new project, a new initiative, a new change. Early on in your project, you begin to explain to someone affected how your project will make things better for everyone and you expect them to welcome your new future with open arms.

Instead, their reaction surprises you, and maybe even hurts a little. They are not as positive about your change as you had expected.

So, whilst you might be disappointed by hostile responses, you can be prepared by considering five main reasons why people might respond the way they do. I use the acronym TONIC.

The roots of an invididual’s response to change usually falls within five areas. I use the word TONIC as an acronym for these.


’T’ stands for the type of individual. We know we are all different. But there are patterns. One profiling tool I use is the AEM-Cube analysis. It is particularly helpful in showing how an individual might respond to a proposed change. One of the three dimensions in the AEM-Cube is the exploration scale. At one end of the scale are those who seek stability, as a natural proclivity in their personality. Whilst at the other end of the scale there are those stimulated by exploring the new. We need those who can provide stability through the change, but we also need the leaders, the innovators, who can dream and deliver new solutions. Generally, the person who is more stability-oriented will require rather more convincing and might even come over as resistant to our change at the beginning.

The ‘O’ stands for their organisational history, what they have experienced in that particular organisation in the past. Perhaps the record of change initiatives, particularly in the recent past, has not been very successful – a series of failures, maybe, where some were bigger flops than others. If so, it will be harder to convince people to come on board with your change. Whereas if there have been a series of changes that have been successful, then people will be more confident that your change will be successful, and regard such changes as just a normal part of that organisation’s life.

Next, there is the nature of the change, the ’N’ in TONIC. Is the change fairly simple, or is it complex? Is it something that will evolve or emerge? Or is it planned as a big bang implementation? Will people be invited to volunteer and serve in the change, or will it be something everyone’s forced to do? All these types of change will evoke different responses.

The ‘I’ is for the individual’s history. Perhaps an individual comes with some very negative associations with the type of change you are proposing, associations that might be from a change in another organisation they have worked in in the past. Maybe the recent history of that person has some big negatives, like a sick child, or a bereavement of a loved one, or a painful divorce. None of these circumstances are your fault, but when their private life is so turbulent, such an individual will be searching for some normality in their work, and they will naturally react to your change as a threat to that.

Finally, there are the consequences of the change, the ‘C’ in TONIC. Again, project managers often focus on explaining the features they are offering, and so they are unprepared for this kind of thinking. Some people might conclude that this change will mean they lose something, perhaps a loss of influence or a loss of visibility, status, or freedom, or even their job. Different people will be differently affected, but more than that, left to themselves they will imagine all kinds of negative consequences. So we need to research carefully, if we can, how it might impact them and to set their expectations very carefully. 

These are just five drivers of how people react to a change. There are others, but these are major ones.


Understanding is more than half the solution. Having some grid or map like this, some set of anticipated causes of negative reaction to my work helps me to be prepared. As I think through TONIC, I am more prepared both to better present my change, and also to handle any objections when they come.

So, what’s the point? Simply this: the TONIC list helps me prepare before I present a change to someone. If I’m giving a formal presentation to a larger group, I might include some of these objections in my presentation, such as the organisation’s recent history and the type of change I’m proposing, and deal with those concerns as part of my presentation.

If I’m meeting a key individual, one-to-one, I might consider how they might react from what I already know about them, their role, their style of working and what I know they hold as their operating values. This helps me avoid causing unnecessary anxiety, offence or resistance.

Practical People Engagement online

I go into TONIC and other similar techniques further, including offering a nifty little checklist, on my new online course, Practical People Engagement, from my book of the same name, which is now open for enrollment.

Leaning to Action Leaning to People

Secrets of an Outstanding Project

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to interview a couple of my clients from the British Antarctic Survey: Linda Capper, who is the Head of Communications, and Andy Jeffries, the Programme Manager for the new polar research vessel, the RRS Sir David Attenborough. I was honoured to be invited to the launch of the new boat last month in Birkenhead.

Following that launch, Linda and Andy agreed to be interviewed by me about this intriguing project. You can watch the full interview here:

Since recording this interview two things stand out for me:

  1. This project is already very successful. At 30:35, Andy talks about how the project is not only successful but is one of the highest-rated in the UK Government’s top 200 major projects; and
  2. A lot of what was said is contrary to common thinking, both about our planet and about how to manage substantial marine engineering projects like this one. In fact, Linda and Andy knock a lot of conventional wisdom on its head.

Let’s look at some of the conventional beliefs that Linda and Andy take issue with, in the course of this interview.

“Antarctica is so remote that it has nothing much to do with us.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. As Linda explained [04:00], through the work of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and polar research by other nations, it became clear that we are more connected with the continent of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean than many of us realise. Sir David Attenborough himself said at the launch, “What happens down there, affects us up here. And what we do here, affects what happens down there.”

Working with the National Environment Research Council (NERC) and BAS over the last four years, I am convinced that this kind of research is critical for our own and future generations on this planet.

“Reducing your fleet by half is downsizing.”

[05:33] Linda explained this difficult decision. Currently, BAS operates two vessels, with one planned for decommissioning next year. BAS could have replaced like for like, but ultimately the preferred solution, a larger more powerful ship, which allows experiments on board among other things, leads to better science.

As Andy later pointed out, a reduction in the operational budget of running two ships, means more resources for important science. And, after all, science is the mission of BAS, isn’t it?

Sometimes we can be so focused on a part of the organisation’s problems – in this case, resilience – that we can overlook a simpler, more powerful solution.

The decision still means trade-offs for some stakeholders that they were unhappy about at first. But now everyone is much more aligned with making the new vessel an outstanding success.

Sometimes we can be so focused on part of the problem that we can overlook simpler, more powerful solutions.

“You can only have one customer on a project.”

I’ve heard this statement made in project management training courses. When it comes to decision-making on a project, people say, “Anything with two heads is a monster.” This statement is true when it comes to making a decision and giving clear direction. But governance – the organisation of roles and decision-making – while it should adequately represent the customer, is not the customer. Andy [09:20] began by saying he had two major customers, and later Linda argued there were several others.

Linda [15:20] described the communications strategy. The project developed it with the aim that every customer needed to gain something from the communications.  The customers, in her view, includes several government bodies as well as an ecosystem of private companies. This strategy helped her and others work through difficult issues for some stakeholders.

“You need a large core team for a £200 million project like this.”

Andy has a team of four [09:20]. Yes, four! He describes this team as spanning four decades – one person for each decade – which in itself is a strength for him. Team members are bound to see things from a different perspective.

It is the fashion to recruit and create generation-based cultures, particularly in the digital world, that claim better empathy with their own new breed of customer. Andy’s team does that as well as bring in the experience of different generations. The experience that comes with age has something to offer as well.

“It’s impossible to future-proof a vessel like this since the project is over several years; it will be obsolescent by the time it goes into service!”


“You can’t possibly consider an Agile approach to building such a huge ship.”

Andy explained [23:30] how they created a change budget so that obsolescence-on-delivery was less likely to happen. In fact, much of the thinking on this sizeable marine engineering project was more akin to Agile approaches than the traditional Specify-Design-Build (Waterfall) method we might expect from a substantial marine engineering project like this. As a result, much is impressive about the new vessel, where it has been able to take advantage of technologies that weren’t even in existence when the project began.

The change budget was their guard against obsolescence. I suggested it might be called an opportunity budget. With such rapid advances in technology, I’m sure these approaches will be needed by more and more projects, in all kinds of sectors.

“Expertise in the particular technical field of the project is everything when managing a project like this.”

When people recruit for a project manager in, for example, server systems projects, they are likely to look for a candidate with experience of server system projects; and when they recruit for a project in building construction, they look for managers who have had the experience of such projects. This practice seems to make sense. It is called domain experience. Employers place a high premium on recruiting project managers with domain experience.

And yet, Andy not only claims to have minimal previous ship-building experience [34:15] but argues that domain experience can be a disadvantage.

Maybe domain experience in leading and managing isn’t quite as important as some say it is.

“People need to talk about Benefits Management.”

Andy says, no they don’t. In fact, he argues [36:00] that this is management jargon and it gets in the way of thinking about the rationale for the project.

We do need to be careful with our language, particularly in areas we care about. It can marginalise people without our realising it.

“There is no way back from negative press that goes viral (i.e. when the British public wanted to call the vessel Boaty McBoatface)”

As you can probably tell by now, I’m a great fan of Linda Capper. In this segment of the interview [39:05], Linda talked me through the highs and lows of the initiative to put the naming of the boat to the public. Communications in the public domain can be a two-edged sword. Here, though, there was skilful use of the media that capitalised on an otherwise-embarrassing episode.

Calling out the gold in each other

Finally, I got Linda and Andy each to call the gold out in each other [52:40]. It’s interesting what each of my guests said about each other, but also how ready they were to do this.

We could do with more appreciative, honouring work environments like that, couldn’t we?

Leaning to People

The Old Project Management Mindset

Some years ago we conducted some research into high performers in project management, and one of the outstanding differences between them and the control group was a significant behaviour we called Leaning to People. The high performers seemed to get their results because they gave time to the critical relationships around themselves. 

This behaviour was an important discovery. We began to practise this ourselves, prioritising our time with others and found we got much better results in our work.

However, this was not emphasised enough – and still isn’t – on most project management curricula, training and bodies of knowledge. This lack of stress on relationships is understandable but is harmful. Project management as a discipline has a heritage in construction and engineering. However, the overarching worldview of these disciplines tends to reduce people to either resources or obstacles. It’s quite dehumanising.

So I wrote Practical People Engagement: Leading Change through the Power of Relationships. That was nearly five years ago, and it is still my best-selling book. Shortly after it was published, APMG-International adopted it as the core reference for their qualification in Stakeholder Engagement

Again, old project management mindsets can creep in here by referring to people and groups as stakeholders. Worse still, project managers still use the term stakeholder management. Who among us likes to be managed and controlled, especially if that person is not our boss? Often, efforts to influence and achieve positive outcomes can often fail right there.

Developing the skill of Leaning to People, is not primarily an issue of learning a technique, a process, acquiring management tools or models, although these are all useful resources. No, a high-order Leaning to People skill is beyond that. It starts with a mindset. This video illustrates this:

I’ve been working on a new approach to what I have been calling Exploring People Engagement (EPE), an online workshop. This new approach will be an online seminar that I will be launching soon. The new seminar is about leading people through change.  In the seminar we explore a superior mindset, and how we work that out in better ways on our own changes, leading people to better outcomes.

What would happen if we all developed this skill? What if we were able to lead people to change more easily and realise better outcomes? What if we were able to develop that Leaning to People skill set to high order in our daily lives? That would begin to shift things for the better, wouldn’t it?

I want to equip people to lead their change better, to become world-changers.

I have a friend, Rachel, who is a world-changer. She does this in small groups of people at a time. She takes broken women, broken through loss, grief, through domestic abuse, and gently leads them to wholeness of self-identity and hope. What she does is truly transformational. She is a world-changer, one group at a time.

Leaning to People

The Power of Engaging with a Visual Narrative

Yesterday, I dropped by one of pearcemayfield’s courses to see Richard Rose, the CEO, and trainer on this event. The course was on AgilePM©. And I saw the diagram above drawn on a flipchart. I’ve seen this before and I’ve noted the way Richard does it. He tells a story as he draws what is a key diagram for AgilePM.

And he must have done this the day before. The Roles Diagram relates to so much of the AgilePM method that he deliberately does this early on in the course and leaves it on display for the delegates to muse on it as they consider later topics.

A Visual Narrative

I’ve discussed this with Richard and our other trainers. One of the most powerful ways of understanding complex content is through a visual narrative. It seems that people can recall far more of what is being said if they can see it drawn at the same time. And quirky hand-drawn cartoons appear to be even more memorable than if something is homogenized into a PowerPoint presentation. It’s the quirky-ness and the joking in class that sticks in people’s brains as hooks.

All I could do at school was paint and draw and that was the only time I ever passed any exam. It was the only thing I ever got right at school.

David Bailey, Artist

I’ve tried various online techniques, from recording my Prezi-based presentations and using Whiteboard animation software. (See my YouTube channel for examples of both.)

Yet nothing seems to stimulate people’s engagement, aid recall, and help integration with other aspects of a subject as seeing a live discussion drawn. Even more so, nothing seems to help me develop my understanding of a new subject better than if I can sketch it out as I explain it back to someone else.

What was the best live illustration you saw drawn that has stayed with you?

Leaning to People

Think well of those you want to influence

“The customer community is very unreasonable,” my client told me. “They won’t listen to my ideas, and seem to reject them before I have finished explaining.”

I’ve heard similar such statements from different clients more than once. There is pain in this. And also a little pride. Maybe it has a subtext of, “My customer doesn’t appreciate me. They don’t know how lucky they are to have me.”

In such situations, as tactfully as I can, I get my client to think about how they present themselves to their customers.

We communicate much more than we realise.

What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I think that we sometimes close down opportunities to influence people unwittingly because we have written them off in our estimation. We have limited their potential in our own eyes. There are those little signals we give off, so-called micro-tells that give our true feelings away.

When it comes to matters of trust, people aren’t as stupid as we might think. #influence

Generally, when it comes to matters of trust, people are not as stupid as we perhaps like to think.

Consider how this plays out in teaching a child. Which teacher is likely to get more out of a child: the one who has a high estimation of the child’s potential or the one who thinks poorly of their student?

I recall a case study where researchers split a cohort of young students at random into two groups, each given a different year tutor. One tutor was told that they had been given a class of outstanding performers and the other that they had a problem class. The children began to behave to expectations. At the end of the year, the first group obtained outstanding results, while the other performed below average.

Are those we seek to influence on our projects that different from these students?

Leaning to People

The Relationship Bank Account in Action

One of my projects right now is helping the opening of a new local school for 5 to 11-year-olds. Since the government likes the idea, much of this will be publicly-funded, which means we need to evidence demand for the school by getting parents to sign up before it opens.

So, I was with another volunteer, who is also a friend of mine, visit a manager of a pre-school nursery recently. We left leaflets and asked this manager to make parents aware of this new school. 

I found the manager to be a helpful, experienced woman, who was willing but overwhelmed by all the demands and constraints placed upon her. I began to see before me not so much merely a gatekeeper, or manager, or even merely a channel to market.

Rather, I saw something of the real person. This woman clearly had a great passion for her kids. It kept her going

Burdened by bureaucracy, imposed by this same government, she nevertheless was willing to extend us the courtesy of her precious time in the middle of the day.

I was impressed.

My friend and I began to empathise, asking how we might help her. My friend also began to ‘call out the gold’ in her; that is, telling this woman what she recognised in her that was good and worthy.

If we get the chance, my friend and I will help her as best we can. We will, where possible, deposit something into our relationship with her.

The relational bank account technique is a simple and powerful way of building relationships.

This is the relational bank account in action. It’s a simple concept: never make a withdrawal from a relationship without depositing something in first. 

We could have just tried to make a withdrawal without depositing anything into her account. We could have asked her to hand out our leaflets to parents, and then left her.

Instead, we came away committed to seeking ways to make that manager’s burden a little lighter, ways of helping her express her passion and vision for her children more possible. We did come away with a new friend and, I think, ally.

The relational bank account is a concept we explore more in EPE. You can download a paper about 10 ways of making such relational deposits here.: