The Quality of Your Objectives Makes or Breaks Your Project Success

Ryder Schmidt, a promising young civil engineer working on water resources projects, is involved in hydrologic and hydraulic studies that focus on floodplain and stormwater management.  He had proven himself able when it came to technical activities on assigned projects, and he had hopes of moving up in his company.  Then he got his chance.

Ryder Schmidt Hydraulic Engineer

But Rider was quickly overwhelmed by his new job position as team project manager. There is so much to take in and stay on top of when leading a team, ensuring effective communication and coordination between all the architects, engineers, developers, contractors, and clients.

His habits still focused primarily on the technical problems, but now he was having what seemed like the same people problems occurring over and over.  As with many people under pressure, his tendency was to blame the other team members, but his boss pointed out that he was responsible for the ultimate success of the project.

Ryder’s new job was stressing him out.  And he knew he needed to focus on people process in addition to the content of his project, but his old work and thought habits were difficult to change.

To better manage people, we coached Ryder to become aware of the process of his and his team’s behavioral habits, not just the content of his projects.  This can be a tricky distinction for engineers to see and understand because engineers are typically so good at visualizing future creations in their mind that they expect that everybody else should already do things exactly the they imagine they will happen.  This is a sort of “mind-reading” and “projection” onto other team members.  It is a hazard of being so good at manipulating images in your mind’s eye.

The poor results Ryder was getting came out of the way he habitually used his brain.  To choose to do things in a different way, Ryder first had to focus his awareness on how he was producing the consistently poor results. And he had to understand the habitual sequence his brain used to automatically produce those poor results.

Beginning to learn to recognize and express his own desired objectives in a clear, detailed, and positive fashion, his people were able to collaborate to make sure his vision was in line with their own.  This may seem obvious, but in 15 plus years coaching Engineers and Scientists, we’ve learned that it is not as easy as it sounds.

Ryder learned a set of well-formedness conditions for communicating his goals, which allowed him to test his peers and team members’ understanding against his own pictures for success — a sort of failure mode and effects analysis but on the human factors affecting his project.  This proved to be incredibly valuable both to him and his team.

Organizing around “well-formed objectives” helped him both communicate more clearly exactly what was expected of his team and check to make sure that all of the key stakeholders shared the same vision and consensus about the steps that the project would entail.  This brought out problems for discussion a lot earlier in his projects when they were less critical (and less costly) to deal with.

With a lot of practice Ryder became a master of bringing his projects in on time and within budget.  Of course that allowed him to progress in his career.  But Ryder said that the biggest advantage came from knowing he could calmly handle any project with minimal stress because everyone was on the same page and working together to make him and his projects a success.

If you think you may be having similar communication problems on your team, you may benefit from learning to apply the well-formedness conditions to the objectives your team has to discuss.  To find out more join us for one of our weekly work sessions.  We do practice exercises and learn practical skills that help make you a super project manager.  Call 512-507-5464 for an invitation to join us.  We’d love to help you accelerate your career forward to new levels of successful leadership.


Setting a Fire for Technical Leadership

Leadership is about making happen something that both yourself and others find important.  It is about getting from where you and your organization is right now to someplace better you both want to be.  To do that you have to get good at discovering where everyone is right now and where you all want to go together.


Leaderahip Cycle

You have to coordinate shared agreement about what you plan to achieve but also about exactly where you are right now and what is important about where you are going and how you will get there.  To be a good leader you need to learn to be great at evoking responses from yourself and other people. This is more than traditional communication skills, it is tracking everyone’s thinking and emotional reactions as well and being able to use those to get the responses you need.

Learn how to ask the types of questions that will help people discover the details of this process.  You need a procedure for determining exactly what success will look like and how you will recognize success when you achieve it.  You need skills to align people’s thinking and actions so that they work in a coordinated way rather than at cross purposes to one another.

You need the ability to ferret out what makes people think and act the way that they do so that you can predict how to best use them and work with them in a synergistic way that brings out their excitement and engages them in the collaborative work you need performed.

Leadership is about getting from where you are now to a better place by coordinating a like-minded group of specialists.  You can learn this.

The first skill set that must be mastered is the capability to define the current state of affairs and compare them to a description of a desired state.  And learning to make your goals a reality always starts with you proactively deciding on what you want for your team that will make a noticeable difference.

The better you are at envisioning and articulating a future that appeals to the values you and your bosses hold the more people will want to align with you and follow your lead.


These are the Leadership Skills I am thinking about this week.  If you feel ready to take the leading role, let’s talk about sharpening your skills in these areas.  Drop me a comment, or give me a ring: 512-512-5464




Engineering People Can Be Tricky

Designing a solution takes time, mental power, and effort.  To engineers and tech people this is obvious when talking about physical reality.  Building a new product or solution you start by analyzing what you are trying to accomplish.  Then you you research and design the new product to meet those specifications.  Finally you convert those designs into a set of processes that build and deliver the needed solution in an efficient manner.

Checking system tolerance

People engineering uses feedforward and feedback to maintain system control and stability.

Scientists, engineers, and tech people are good at this sort of work.  Unfortunately, it is not just THINGS that need to be created.

In fact, I don’t know about you but on the technical projects I work on, problems are about people as much as about things.  Human solutions are generally necessary before engineering solutions will actually work.

Think about the people issues you have to deal with every day.

  • Bosses that never listen to your good ideas, or
  • executives who randomly change the goal or interrupt the project or
  • make promises to customers with deadlines that no one could keep.
  • Subordinates that want to “fix” things without understanding why you’ve done it this way for the past 6 years.  Or
  • bosses who don’t know how to let go, who hover over you or nit-pic constantly so that you don’t have a chance to do your job.  Or on the other hand
  • bosses that you only hear from when things go wrong.

Individual contributing engineers and techies tend to be passive responders.  But leading technical teams means looking around at what needs to be done and taking a proactive action to move the team and the organization forward through solutions to these problems, toward the goals that it doesn’t even know it has yet.  And that means selling those ideas to others.

Do you know how to do people engineering?  Can you elaborate the technical specifications (values) of your top team members?  Do you recognize their process tolerances?  How often do you need to run quality assurance samples on your best colleagues, and the least experienced?

People are not really machines.  But they are systems with consistent patterns of inputs and outputs.  You can learn to engineer people systems, but you have to adopt variation control procedures and feedforward mechanisms.  Otherwise people systems go chaotic.

Making the change from individual technical contributor to team leader starts with upgrading yourself.  Take a hard look at what you do and do not understand about leadership.  Now is the time.  There are skills, behaviors, distinctions, and ways of measuring performance in dealing with people just as there are in engineering and technical individual contributor roles.  Be honest with yourself.  You went to school to get the basic ideas and vocabulary of engineering, science, and technology.  But you have learned your profession on the job.  Self study can take you a long way when you are ready to learn how to lead others.


A Call For Honest Conversation

I would like to hear from you what differences you have noticed between engineering systems and engineering people.  What is similar?  What is different and difficult?

If you want to learn then you are going to have to be honest and admit what works and what doesn’t yet work for you.  Let me hear your thoughts.




Happiness Doesn’t Come From Getting What You Want


Most of you know that I am an expert on motivation and leadership, and the communication skills that leaders use in leading teams and helping gain alignment, commitment, and motivation in team situations.  With this background my friend Russ Taylor asked me to comment on Dan Gilbert’s work and its relation to the NLP idea of “Well Formed Desired Outcomes.”   He asks,

What would you say is the significance of this data for outcome-based change processes, or even on the ultimate value of change as a goal?

And points to Gilbert’s TED talk:



Hey Russ,

Thanks for the note.  Great TED talk.  I have been thinking a lot about happiness and NLP’s concepts of “Well Formed Desired Outcomes” recently in relation to the “well lived life.”  Here is a summary of my thoughts:

First of all, the word “happiness” is a bit confusing because we have only one word for three different underlying concepts.

The first is immediate pleasure, which we call happiness.  For example, “Yum, that is a good ice-cream cone.”

The second is the experience of being fully engaged in a challenging and interesting experience that we feel is meaningful.  As Csikszentmihalyi‘s research shows, we experience these as “flow” states where we get so involved that time seems to fly by and our sense of self seems to merge with the activity we are involved in.  These states are very rewarding, and we think of them as happiness or sometimes bliss, but when we are in them, we are too busy to think about the pleasure we are deriving.

The third experience we call happiness is the pleasure we derive when we look back on some experience or period of our lives and consider how we were living according to our personal values.  This “narrative happiness” describes past experiences in terms of a coherent story.  If we feel we met our values, we feel we were happy.

It is this third type of happiness that is the subject of narrative rewriting, reevaluation, and the “synthesis of happiness” that Dan Gilbert is talking about.

Gilbert and Wilson’s research is important and sheds light on the exaggeration of choice and the illusion that if you get what you want you are going to feel happy.  I don’t think it is surprising anymore that this is not the case.  In fact, setting desired outcomes, like any other expectations, is a surefire way to create suffering.  Think of what the Buddha said.  If you could live totally in the now with acceptance for all that is as it is, then you cease suffering.

This does not mean that all choices are equal, or that freedom of choices is of itself, bad.  Only that if you think that happiness comes from what you get, you are likely to be disappointed.  Some quote I once read seems right to me, “In the end we are about as happy as we set our minds to be.”  (Abraham Lincoln?)

Nevertheless, we are still outcome driven creatures at all levels of experience, from the micro, “I think I will adjust the temperature by opening the window,” to the macro, “I want to be a doctor when I finish school.”  Achieving goals has little to do with happiness, and lots to do with effectiveness, which has something to do with the first two types of happiness but little to do with the third.

The couch potato might not be happy, but that is not because he or she doesn’t produce results, but because when he looks back on his life, he has neither a narrative that satisfies his values, nor the experience of flow states that come when we are fully engaged in an activity that we find interesting.  Doing nothing, and having no goals, however, may lead to the immediate satisfaction when we feel the relief of stress that comes from relaxing, and the immediate pleasure that comes from programmed entertainment, but it doesn’t lead to feelings of long-term fulfillment.

Now if your choices are constrained by circumstances, you may later synthesize happiness by coming to the conclusion that you did what you could with what you had, and in that sense you did your best and lived the best life you could.

But if you perceive that you have choice and don’t make use of it, that is a prescription for regret and lack of happiness.  Though sometimes this regret and happiness is ameliorated by addiction to mind-numbing alternatives like TV or drugs.  Many people have given up hope for any good life.  They try to “get by” with diversions, distractions, and dissociation from life.  But surly this “coping” does not constitute the good life.

On the other hand, setting goals and going after them doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness either.

Perhaps a better approach is to set goals for effectiveness sake, rather than with some expectation that we are somehow going to be happy when we achieve them.  For example, “well-formed desired outcomes” are more useful as communication tools for coming to a shared understanding and a consensual set of agreements between people than they are for generating happiness.

On the other hand, recent research about goal setting has suggested that if you want to be happy AND effective, concentrate your immediate attention on the process rather than the end goal.  (This idea is not new to Buddhists however)   The attitude that comes from taking up the challenge to continually improve your performance at the tasks we are doing leads not only to Flow States (Intermediate happiness) but to long-term happiness based upon narrative review.

When I teach about goals these days, I still teach the Well Formed Desired Outcome Frame questions as a way to build a shared goal between two or more people.  I think it is important, for example, to be able to think in sensory grounded terms about how you will know if you achieve a goal.  And stating goals in the positive so that you are moving toward some target rather than away from some fear is still a useful distinction.  As are ecology and timeframes and all the rest of the well-formed outcome criteria.

But I also teach about the difference between “Ends Goals” and “Means Goals.”  Well-formed Means Goals provide the distinctions for determining whether your performance is improving or not.  When you pay attention and challenge yourself to improve, and when you have a sensory-based measurement that provides feedback about whether you are or are not improving, you are very likely to go into one of those blissful “Flow States.”

By concentrating on the process you are doing and its improvement, rather than the end goal, you find yourself enjoying your task, and you are likely to improve in ways that are meaningful to you and meet your personal values, and so you feel the bliss of being “in the flow.”  Later when you look back on your improvements, you feel that you were meeting your values and so you experience long-term narrative happiness.

Oh, by the way, this is also the path toward excellence of performance and expertise.  Do it for 10,000 hours and you will become one of the more skilled in your field.  But that can’t really be your motivation if you also want to be happy.  But by focusing on the path, the happiness takes care of itself.

That is what I am thinking.  What are you thinking about goals, happiness, and effectiveness?



If you would like to learn more about using Goals to structure success and effectiveness or Mindfulness practices to connect with deep happiness check out my Course Offerings Page or consider the possibility of treating yourself to one-on-one Coaching.


The 5 most common misunderstandings (Part 2)

In a survey of communication problems across 34 Engineering and IT projects the following five categories accounted for practically all of the communication breakdowns and confusions that affected project delivery schedules or costs.   Do any of these sound familiar from your experience?

  • Assurances Problems
  • Meanings of Goals Poorly Defined
  • Hidden Information
  • Micro Management / Under Feedback
  • Why don’t they care like I do?

In the last post we looked at the importance of getting clear about over promises up front.  It is so important to get in the habit of delivering on what you say you will deliver.

In this post we will look more deeply into Goals and the meanings people make up about them when they are poorly defined.  In each future post we will take on another of these five types of mistakes that create so much havoc.

Although they may sound common sense, mastering each of these will solve the majority of misconceptions, miscommunications, and costly problems that Engineering, Science and Technical Leaders must deal with.  There is no substitute for quality communication and shared understanding to accomplish and succeed where others fail.

Number 4:  Goal Definition Misperceived

Team members (customers and development, suppliers and production) don’t have a shared understanding for goal they are trying to accomplish or create.  It causes a lot of stress if you have rugby players on a soccer field and the customer thinks they paid for an American football game.

Recommended Solution:  The effectiveness of communication is proportional to how “grounded” in tangible, shared reality you can make it.  Models, mock ups, and prototypes help customers to visualize whether you have understood what they are requiring.   But many times the problem is created by talking abstractly about the future goal.

Listening for abstract and intangible descriptions and asking the questions to specify any fuzzy details can make a huge difference.  Try asking,

  • How specifically do we see that going?”  and
  • What specifically do you mean by…?

These two questions, and variants similar to them, are the ones that superior Engineers and their leaders seem to use a lot to drive down to the important details.

Practice intentionally over-using these for a week and you will begin to see the advantages in tangible clarity.


Next time we will look at how and why hidden agenda and people’s ability to fool themselves gets in the way of success, along with what you can do to deal with it.  Until then figure out how you are going to practice these seemingly simple questions each day.



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Where to Start When Your Leadership Stumbles

To Get Where You Want to Go, We Always Begin by Recognizing Where You Currently Are


One marketing division of an international pharmaceutical company that I worked with, “off-shored” the development and maintenance of their marketing relationship database to India.  The requirements were shared, but they were not tied to specific test plans.

When the multimillion dollar system was delivered, independent verification from the company’s distributors, who would be the users in the field, indicated that the system “worked as designed” but that the design was not practical or useable in their day-to-day operations.   The project was mothballed without final implementation.

Have you seen a project that turned into a learning opportunity  like this before?

Poor leadership is the most common reason for major business mistakes like this.  There is always a specific individual who is responsible for the Leadership of the team, so even little communication breakdowns point back to poor leadership skills.

Leadership comes down to standards, values, negotiation rituals, goals, and human beings.


Your purpose as a leader is to coordinate the interactions and efforts of a group of people to achieve valuable results that the individual persons who make up that team could not achieve by themselves.

Each individual offers their unique skills.  But to create a synergistic effect that generates valuable results in an efficient manner requires your serious coordination.

You put the goals and standards you negotiate or dictate to your team in place to constrain team behaviors so that results are measurable and therefore manageable.

The rituals you establish with your team will determine your effectiveness as a unit in the larger organization.

The way you treat your people will determine whether your team will find their work meaningful, useful, and fulfilling, so that they will become delightfully engaged and give you more of their best.  Or whether they will obligingly provide only the minimum necessary to get by and reserve their best ideas and effort for after work.


Consider taking five minutes right now to write down what you consider to be your team’s:

  • members
  • values
  • goals
  • standards of practice
  • key processes
  • key measurements

When you put these down on paper (or the computer), you will find that more details will come to you than if you only did this exercise mentally.   These emergent details are the “little devils” that you will want exorcise or negotiate with to resolve the issues you’re facing.

That is why a leader needs to take a step back and clarify his or her thinking on a regular basis.  It is the leader’s job to understand the overall  team scope, boundaries, and interfaces within the larger system that is your parent organization.  But your range of influence is primarily within the details of your teams specific processes and procedures.  As Marshal McLuhan said, Leaders must learn to

think globally, and act locally.”

Let me know what you are thinking in the comments discussion (see the green tag), or to engage me directly, give me a call.

Keith W Fail