Cognitive Landscape & Cognitive Empathy

The word landscape usually refers to a visual context, the view before us. If we expand this to all our senses, including any entities of recent attention, we now have a cognitive landscape. If we have perceived it, it has become an object in our cognitive landscape.

Just as with a visual landscape, someone nearby looking at the same scene will have a different view, due to their location not being exactly the same as ours. This is further altered by their experience, knowledge and interests. An artist’s perception of a scene of woods and brush is likely to be significantly different than one of someone trained to fight forest fires.

Awareness of the perspective of others is useful personally and perhaps professionally. As a project manager, one aspect of that field is stakeholder management. It is often extremely beneficial to understand the various perspectives of different stakeholders.

One can consider the ability to comprehend the perspective of another as “cognitive empathy”. Traditional empathy is a grasp of another’s emotional state. Its cognitive sibling is based upon awareness of another’s mind space, their cognitive landscape.

Cognitive empathy can be a source for creativity and insight. The painter mentioned above, with their artist’s eye and skills, now contemplating that wooded scene with some of the firefighter’s perspective, might find something new, creative, original. The juxtaposition of differing perspectives with someone who has a cognitive landscape markedly different is to see with another’s mind. Creativity is more readily found at the intersection of disparate domains, at the joining of differing perspectives.

The concept of a cognitive landscape is also useful for understanding cognitive effects and biases, such as anchoring.

Anchoring is a cognitive distortion that is due to a lingering effect of having previously contemplated something, perhaps with a numeric value, that now affects our current perception and decision making, even of something entirely different. In terms of a cognitive landscape, one can think of an object of earlier attention continuing to glow, somewhat altering that landscape, even after one’s attention has shifted. Instead of a glow, it could be an echo of a sound, which still has a lingering effect on that perceptual landscape.

For self awareness, what does your cognitive landscape look like? How busy is it? Do you need to declutter it? (Techniques for mindfulness could be useful in reducing that clutter, sharpening one’s focus.)


Project Complexity – Often Overlooked

The project isn’t going as you expected. It’s no single obvious thing; project scope is not huge, but there’s that feeling of bits of rough going, just not flowing smoothly.

You might just be dealing with a project of greater complexity than you believed, if there even was an explicit estimate of complexity at project initiation. Seldom is an estimate of complexity included in a project charter, from my observations.

Projects of greater complexity are situations where one needs to bring out tools and techniques that most PM’s seldom utilize in their day to day work, unless mandated by a PMO. The specific tools needed depend upon what factors are causing that complexity.

First, that estimate: t-shirt sizing usually suffices, but in some project ecosystems and portfolios, quantitative metrics are used. They might even be part of the weighting of that project in the portfolio.

Far more likely is that there was no explicit estimate of complexity. Hardly surprising, with complexity barely mentioned in the latest PMBoK, and not at all in most older editions. But there’s a comforting number of articles in recent years on project complexity, contributing factors, models and templates. It’s up to you to read and determine which are most appropriate to your projects.

Just to get thought processes rolling, a few factors adding to complexity:
– Diverse stakeholders
– Conflicts between stakeholders
– Extended duration of the project, especially if multi-year
– Major impact on the enterprise
– Uncertainty in the overall environment, including economic factors
– Regulatory impact
– Social impact (which may imply political domain)
– Uncertain or very leading edge technology

Consider the overall environment and uncertainty: is it the general economic picture, or are there industry specific factors; or geographic specific elements. Evaluate how volatile the priorities are within the enterprise. What about the stability of the project team, over the life of the project.

One place to start if to review risk management. Go over the plan and the risk identification process. How comfortable are you with the completeness of identification? If there is large impact on the enterprise from some of those risks, take extra care in analyzing and managing them; review those regularly.

PM’s working on construction projects live in a sea of complexity: a challenging regulatory environment; social impact for the geographic area; uncertainty due to weather, etc. But mostly they are conscious of this and develop risk management strategies accordingly It is my sibling PM’s working on IT and business process projects or products are often surprised by the complexity of the effort that they are trying to shepherd home.

Projects with significant social or political impact increase complexity. Pay particular attention to stakeholder management and an explicit, carefully crafted communications plan. It may be necessary to include some feedback mechanism in it, to ensure that communications are working, in both directions.

Projects of higher complexity may need more frequent checkpoints or milestones. Consider doing a Lessons Learned at some of those milestones, not just at project closeout, to permit adjustments during the life of the project. Depending upon the causes of complexity, extra attention may be needed for post delivery.

Go back to some past projects, reviewing ones that had some unexpected difficulty, Try estimating their complexity. For the ones of higher complexity (L or XL in t-shirt sizing), try to write down the factors contributing to it.

For your future, estimating project complexity should encourage a mindful use of PM tools.

Pre-Mortem: an Approach to Risk Identification

originally posted to the PMI NYC LinkedIn group, about March 2018

Among several other fascinating ideas in Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”, he cites Gary Klein’s idea of a pre-mortem as a means of compensating for possible overconfidence. As a tool, it goes further, enabling additional identification of possible risks and threats to a successful outcome of a proposed endeavor.

The basic concept is that before an organization is committed to a project, the team, or a group of knowledgeable experts projects one year into the future; from that future perspective, presume the project has been a disaster. Now, analyze the reasons for that negative outcome.

the next step is for the team to come up with some risk management approaches to deal with those, with traditional tactics of avoidance, mitigation or contingency.

Gary Klein’s article on this:

Challenges of Managing Projects Involving New Technology

Projects involving use of new technology present some distinct challenges for the project manager.

As part of project initiation, explicitly distinguish between technology that is only new to your enterprise versus that which is truly new technology, perhaps bleeding edge. As an example of truly new technology, consider Hadoop about 2009: high risk, limited knowledge base, unclear path to solution, lots of unknowns. Especially for those cases, one needs to evaluate up front the tolerance for risk and for failure in the organization.

If mainstream culture in the organization is not well suited for such endeavors, a possible approach is to isolate them, moving them to an entity with a more appropriate culture, that of a Lab or Skunkworks.

Be aware of cognitive biases, and impact on decisions, especially of those in the C-suite, such as hindsight bias:”I knew all along that….”. This may surface as the project progresses, particularly as it encounters significant obstacles.

The business value should be clear, both for complete success and for partial success. How does this effort fit within the company’s strategic direction, both overall and in terms of technology. Estimate what degree of expertise will be needed for this to bring value. What is the impact of failure, and if there is still some return of business value from that failure.

Determine what’s in scope, and where possible, explicitly note what is not in scope, while allowing for discoveries along the journey. Agile forms with their iterative approach may have an advantage over more traditional (waterfall) methods. Waterfall tries to capture all requirements up front, so may have difficulty when faced with lack of clear solution and high number of unknowns.

As features to be implemented emerge, acceptance criteria need to be defined, including definitions of partial success, or of minimum viable product (MVP).

In both project layout and architectural design, try for modularity. Consider use of prototypes where feasible; in software, consider approaches as Test Driven Development (TDD). Try to minimize external dependencies. New tech has enough risk built-in, without adding to it from external sources.

Risk management is always key to project success, but more so when new technology is involved. Include the people element in risk, e.g., staff turnover as well as burnout. Note that as subject is new, that the knowledge base will change during the life of the project.

Watch out for regulatory risk and environmental impact, depending upon the nature of the technology involved. E.g., wind farms and migrating birds.

Depending upon the criticality of the project, try using the pre-mortem technique to better identify potential obstacles.

Communications planning needs to include review of that plan when significant obstacles are encountered. Ensure that stakeholders are all identified, and that they receive appropriate levels of communication, Special documents may be needed for stakeholders, to deal with team turnover, and to ensure that what is being discussed is agreed upon Use FAQ’s, glossaries, visual representations. For example, clear and consistent vocabulary used in drone technology, or in cybersecurity work.

Part of the project plan needs to have a means of bringing this effort into the mainstream of the enterprise; not just ongoing support of this product, but of the potential use of the new technology.

There are many more areas to consider, but this should be a good starting point for project management of new technology.

Startups and Social Capital

At a recent evening meeting, a panel discussion under the #thinkleader program sponsored by IBM, the panelists represented different startups. They were smart, energetic and focused, aware of the murky waters in which they swam. It was clear that they had considered and planned for financial capital; likewise for the talents and skills needed. But a common thread of difficulties had to do with external support for their fledgling companies.

One panelist had been surprised at the drop-off from when he was a manager at a well-known brand, with many eager acquaintances, to the sudden vacuum now that he was co-founder of a startup. It wasn’t just the challenge itself posed by the need for external support, those willing to give referrals on their behalf, pass along useful ideas and the like, but the element of surprise of that drop-off.

Startups need to include building of social capital as part of their business plan. It’s not just marketing or branding. The ability to count on someone for information, for referrals, for the myriad types of support that can face a startup is a form of wealth. In a prior post, focused on individuals, the concept of Cognitive Wealth was explored. Similarly for startups, social capital needs to be planned for and built, as an explicit part of the business plan.

And if you’re young in your career or going through a major change, try thinking of yourself as a startup.

Innovation and the Octopus

To create something innovative, one needs to look at things in a new way, going a quantum leap away from the well-trodden paths of the usual. To help stimulate creativity, try examining something unusual, something very different from our familiar world view.

Our way of viewing the world is that of an upright two legged, with two upper limbs and a hand at the end of each, having prehensile fingers.

Our companion animals usually are 4-legged, mostly with more acute sensory abilities than us, but overall, not too unlike ourselves and our view.

Our robotic creations tend to follow those structures and patterns, remaining close to the familiar.
For a very different perspective, consider the octopus and their marvelous abilities; a species millions of years older than our own.

Invertebrate: a large octopus can still squeeze through a 2 inch opening (or even smaller), presenting a challenge to keeping curious octopuses inside man-made containers or tanks. To date our robotic designs are vertebrate-centric; one might consider a soft robot, modeled after the octopus.

While almost all our cognitive neural capacity is centrally located in our brain, the octopus uses a more distributed model, with only about half centrally located, with the rest distributed to its limbs.

A user of tools and toys, one might contemplate what an octopus considers amusing or beautiful. What are the means and media of beauty and harmony for an octopus? How might that intersect with our own aesthetic concepts? Does the geometric pleasure of a Bach fugue resonate for an octopus?

Octopuses exhibit a wide range of behavioral patterns, perhaps falling into categories: are some more extroverted? How can one design a Meyers-Briggs type personality test for an octopus? For robots, how does one differentiate an introvert versus extrovert?

One might not readily associate the octopus with fashion and design, but some creative ideas might arise from contemplation of how a color-blind creature superbly camouflages more quickly than a chameleon. Could a chair be adaptive to the color or pattern of clothes worn by the person adorning it? Or have jewels adapt to nearby attire? (e.g., a modernized, Tiffany-class mood ring).

So much difference from our own way of being, our perceptions, should lead to some inspirations for innovation.

For those curious about the wonders of the octopus, try Sy Montgomery’s “Soul of an Octopus”. It’s a rich, clear and easy read, with the author’s tinge of wonder about the world.

Increasing Cognitive Wealth

Your cognitive wealth is the sum of what you know, your personal knowledge, that which you are able to perceive; plus knowledge readily accessible whether from a search engine on the internet or from one’s personal library; plus information easily obtained from others.

The part based on one’s personal knowledge is the easiest to control and have immediate impact. Develop an approach to learning; think about the processes you perform when trying to learn something new. Your strategy for learning should include some way of becoming aware of new things that might be of interest, continuing to broaden your horizons. For me, reading is a preferred way of increasing my personal knowledge, supplemented with online video tutorials, and face-to-face group meetings, especially for subjects of professional interest.

The part that is readily accessible knowledge is a bit trickier. One is now relying upon tools (a book is a tool). One of the challenges is to find the right tool at the right time; a large personal library without some organization is of diminished value.

To increase the wealth brought by the internet, learn about the parameters of search engines. One needs to supplement the general search with a more focused one. Valuable nuggets are often buried far down when using a general search. For example, use of the “site:” modifier might yield information closer to the top of your search list. Another is to try other search engines, perhaps specialized ones.

For some topics augment your search engine by directly searching in Twitter. The jewels there might take the form of links to useful articles that might not show near the top of results from a general search engine.

Enriching the quality of one’s relationships with others increases the ease of obtaining information from them. You need to be aware of not just who might have knowledge on a topic, but also of their willingness to share with you, and the ease you have in communicating your need to them.

One means of improving that is to make your own knowledge readily available to others. Carrying this further, if I know someone well enough, I’ll keep my eyes open for information of likely interest to them. A form of social arbitrage, not only connecting people with others, but with information that they’d appreciate. That connecting and sharing enriches not only you, but those around you.