PMTips: Carole Osterweil works as a Project Troubleshooter and Executive Coach at Visible Dynamics, where she addresses diverse issues relating to the workings of the human brain, and change and transformation within organizations. She has long years of experience in leading complex change and transformation projects in the NHS, Oil & Gas, and other sectors.
Carole is also one of the Project Academy coaches that work in partnership with Cranfield University and PA Consulting to build the UK Government’s senior change, project and program management capability. Furthermore, she is an educator and coach at Ashridge – Hult, one of Europe’s leading business schools.
Carole is the author of Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience, a guide for leaders that walk in fog. In the first part of the book, she explores the workings of the human brain when building an understanding of people’s behavior within an organization, while in the second she provides tools that can help project managers take the stress out of delivery, reduce complexity, and improve business and personal outcomes.
Carole, welcome and thank you for making the time for this interview with PMtips. We are honored that you have accepted our invitation.
Carole Osterweil: It's my absolute pleasure to be here, Ana, and speaking to you and your audience.
PMTips: Wonderful. Can you tell us about your experience, your professional development and some of the challenges you faced in your career?
Carole Osterweil: Yes, perhaps if I start out by telling you I was originally an international project leader working in the pharma and IT businesses. I suppose I was always a bit of a maverick, because the bit that really interested me was all the people and the stakeholder stuff, that nobody else seemed to want to address. After working these roles for about five years, I went off and did an MBA, and got interested in personal development.
From that I turned to teaching project management, at Ashridge. Here one of my first clients was a big national utility, and the challenge was supporting them as they moved from being nationalized to becoming a privatized company, which was something that nobody had ever done before. As it happened, I worked with a fantastic team, including Eddie Obeng, who many of your listeners, may have heard of. The three of us in the team, me, Eddie and a chap called Jim Durcan, concluded that we needed to be teaching them not only about process, we also needed to be teaching them about people. But even that wasn't going to be enough. We also needed to help them think about their own leadership.
This is where the ideas about working on (and it was very, very ground-breaking at the time), working on emergent projects, and the notion of Walking in Fog, which comes into the book’s title, were first formed.
I went on working as an educator at Ashridge for many years. I realized that we can work and teach people all kinds of things, but if we want them to be addressing the leadership stuff too, we really have to help them with what they're doing when they're back in the workplace. This is how I got involved in coaching.
I worked with all kinds of clients over many, many years, as a consultant as well as an educator. My interest was about how we deal with ambiguity, as much as anything else. Eventually, I decided it was time to move out of the academic sphere and to start putting into practice what I had learned.
So I went to a role as a transformation director in the healthcare sector here in the UK and that’s where I learned a lot, first-hand. It sounds daft, doesn’t it - I might have been teaching people about Walking in Fog for many years, but actually this was the first time I was having to live it and breathe it.
I was charged with delivering this project, and every single time we thought we’d got absolutely crystal clear on what it was we were trying to do, government policy would shift again and the goal posts were moved. What I discovered then - you asked me about the challenges - what I discovered was that it didn't help to become the really ‘can-do Carole’ - that had made me such a good project manager.
Sometimes stuff happens that is nothing to do with you. You've got to learn how to step back and see the bigger picture. Learn how to make sense of it all. And this is the experience which led me to writing the book.
PMTips: What inspired you to bring your experiences of leading complex project change and transformation and your knowledge of neuroscience and psychotherapy together and combine it into the book?
Carole Osterweil: Okay, so the idea came from my experience with the Project 2020 which I talk about in the book, (the project I just alluded to when I was working as a transformation director in healthcare).
What I found was that more and more of the people I was meeting and coaching, were having to grapple with exactly the same questions: what do I do when my project isn't behaving the way I think it should? I feel really quite stuck and at times quite confused; and the world seems very, very foggy.
I began blogging about it. I had also trained in psychotherapy where I’d learned about the human brain. What I discovered was that these things, when brought together, had a huge impact on success rates with people that I was coaching.
And I wanted to be able to share it with a larger audience - because the project world and project work is so challenging, and here was something that seemed to make a huge difference. So that's what inspired me, wanting to make that difference.
PMTips: Your book has been described as a short, yet exceptionally powerful and informative piece of work. Can you tell us why you decided to start the book with ‘Brain Basics’ and why is this important in the project world?
Carole Osterweil: Okay, so I mentioned just now that I trained in therapy and learned a lot about how the human brain works.
The more that I worked with other people I realized that I might have an instinct - I always ‘got the people stuff’! But to many other people, what seemed perfectly ‘good people – practice’ to me appeared absolutely random to them.
And the more I explained about how the brain worked, the more often I was told “Oh, so all that stuff, which I always used to find difficult to get my head around, now makes sense.”
And now as I step back and look at the project world, I think this world is nuts.
You know, you wouldn't ask an engineer to be an engineer without the basic understanding of the law of physics, the same with a scientist. Can you imagine being a scientist without understanding basic molecular structure? And yet here we are, asking people to deliver huge projects, with big people impacts, and we haven't given them a model with the first principles. If you like, a model that explains ‘why people behave the way they do’. And I felt that I could give such an explanation.
PMTips: In your professional opinion, what do project managers need to know about the brain?
Carole Osterweil: Okay, so I think there's a handful of things really.
The very first thing to say (and I know that this sounds very strange, but I didn’t know it until I started studying the brain) the human brain is wired to ensure our survival. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that we are all very familiar with the notion of fight-or-flight if there is a big threat. Typically we think in terms of physical threats. Maybe we’re in a bushfire in Australia or there’s a car speeding towards us - we know that our fight/flight response kicks in.
What I think is far newer to us, is the notion that the brain does not distinguish between physical and social threat. If we detect a threat, whatever its source, the threat has an immediate impact on our emotions, and it's our emotions that drive our behavior.
Now, when we’re delivering projects we want everyone to be behaving rationally all of the time. And if we want people to be behaving rationally, it means we don't want them to be being excessively stressed. We don’t want them to be getting defensive and we don’t want them to sometimes be going on the attack.
So we need to learn how to manage and contain emotions, and that means understanding how the brain works. If we understand how the brain works, we can understand what’s driving our own behavior. Then we can begin to: have some idea about what's going on for other people; we can know what we need to do in order to manage the emotions and to keep everyone thinking well (in my terminology, to keep our Thinking brains online). These are the absolutely key things for project managers.
PMTips: Project managers can feel a lot of stress when dealing with their everyday responsibilities. That considered, what is your top tip for busy, stressed out project managers?
Carole Osterweil: Yes, stress and project managers.
The first thing I want to say is that a bit of stress is really helpful. But as you've said in the question, it's the busy, stressed-out project managers that we need to be attending to. That’s possibly most of them, most of the time these days.
We know that stress is helpful until we get too much of it. But as soon as there is too much stress, it actually has a negative impact on our performance. It takes our Thinking brain offline.
Too much stress means that we cannot be the rational people we're meant to be at work. So my starting point for project managers is: you need to know what's going on with yourselves. If you are feeling stressed, then you need to be able to stop and to do something about it. Because that's the only way you'll be able to recalibrate. And by recalibrating you'll be able to take informed actions which actually help rather than hinder the situation.
PMTips: How can project managers accomplish that?
Carole Osterweil: Okay, so project managers need to recognize they have what I would describe as a ‘mindful-awareness muscle’.
The more stressed out they are feeling, the more they need to stop and press the pause button. And then take themselves away from the things which are causing them stress. So, in the daily world there might be things like - receiving an email which has wound you up for example. Rather than responding to it immediately, give yourself a break. Walk away from your PC. Perhaps go outside or go to the water cooler. Take a walk around the block - anything to shift the stress you are feeling as a direct response from reading the email.
Or, you might be in a meeting and somebody asks you a difficult question. Take time to take a breath, really inhale, and exhale deeply. We know, because there’s a lot of evidence, using the breath helps bring your Thinking brain online. It’s really important, you learn to start thinking ‘How can I calm myself?’ before you actually respond.
And yes, it's a big ask. And the more you do it, the easier it gets.
PMTips: Carole, thank you for making the time to speak with us today. It was a great pleasure.
Carole Osterweil: My pleasure too, and I'm really looking forward to hearing from some of the people that have heard this interview. Because this world is just in its infancy, and I'm always really excited to find out how people are using the things that I’ve got to say. So thank you, Ana, too.
PMTips: Yes, that would be wonderful. Thank you, Carol.
Interview conducted by Ana Mitevska