(This book excerpt is from “The People Stuff: 10 Sets of Challenges to Inspire Teams” in The Project Management Minimalist: Just Enough PM to Rock Your Projects!)
“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages… Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson in Self-Reliance
“… the best in every business do what they have learned to do without questioning their abilities — they flat out trust their skills, which is why we call this high-performance state of mind the ‘Trusting Mindset.’ Routine access to the Trusting Mindset is what separates great performers from the rest of the pack.”
— John Eliot in Overachievement
“Skill in any performance, whether it be in sports, in playing the piano, in conversation, or in selling merchandise, consists not in painfully and consciously thinking out each action as it is performed, but in relaxing, and letting the job do itself through you. Creative performance is spontaneous and ‘natural’ as opposed to self-conscious and studied.”
— Maxwell Maltz in Psycho-Cybernetics
“By banishing doubt and trusting your intuitive feelings, you clear a space for the power of intention to flow through.”
— Wayne Dyer in The Power of Intention
So, do you trust yourself — really trust yourself — to come up with that creative leap, that exactly appropriate solution, that powerful insight that maybe no one else can generate?
The message shared by all these great teachers… indeed, by many other great philosophers… is that to achieve anything great you must trust that voice which lies deep within you and is trying to be heard.
- If I could see you right now, I’m guessing some of you who are reading this are rolling your eyes and judging this all as a bit fluffy, cosmic, new agey, or “woo woo!” Still, I’m willing to bet that you (or some people you respect) have used one of these expressions:
- “I just had a hunch that…”
- “I had this strong intuition about…”
- “I had to go with my gut… I just did what seemed right.”
- “I had a strong feeling about this and I just decided to follow my heart.”
Whether you call it a “hunch,” an “intuition,” a “gut feeling” or simply the unspoken nudging of your heart, you’re talking about pretty much the same thing: that inner voice of wisdom that we all possess, but we all too often stifle. Sure, this inner voice we’re talking about can be intangible and elusive. But I bet that if you had to do so, you could logically trace the origins of its judgments and choices. And this logical audit trail would prove to you that this inner voice is really quite worthy of your trust and respect.
Here’s the deal: Your intuitions, “gut feelings,” and hunches are derived from and ultimately grounded in your unique life experiences, both good and bad. And because of this, they have behind them the solid proof of your reality. To illustrate how all these experiences come together to generate solid, trustworthy judgments, I present to you the analogy of the common kitchen strainer. (Now stick with me, here… this is actually a pretty cool analogy!)
A kitchen strainer is made up of a whole bunch of strands of wire, criss-crossed to form a grid or a screen. Now let’s say you don’t have one of those fancy juice machines, but you want to mash up a bunch of fruit and extract the juice. You begin by cutting the fruit into pieces, then dump these pieces into the strainer. You then place the strainer over a bowl and push down on the fruit and mash it up until the juice runs into the bowl. The wire grid or screen of the strainer prevents all the seeds, stems, strands of bitter fibers, and fruit skins from coming through. The only thing you get in your bowl is the juice essence that you wanted. All that other stuff can be thrown out (or added to you favorite fiber-dense muffin dough!).
Your Inner Wisdom Filter
Your inner voice (i.e., your judgment) operates pretty much like that kitchen strainer! Let’s say you have to make a difficult decision and don’t have time to think about it. All sorts of possibilities and pertinent facts and constraints and outcomes rattle around in your brain. Your “internal strainer” is activated to deal with this. The wires in your internal strainer are made up of a vast set of unique experiences that you’ve acquired over your lifetime. Successes, failures, joys, miseries, and all sorts of life events combine to form this internal screening mechanism. That horrible job you had, that successful project, that challenge on your high school sports team, that class or internship you took, that difficult relationship you finally worked out — all these events comprise the unique strainer that creates your special judgments. And when all the possible solutions and issues related to a problem are dumped into that strainer, the good stuff — a unique and powerful judgment — emerges. It’s a judgment that’s automatically informed by all of your life experiences. And, as such, it’s powerful and trustworthy!
Still skeptical? Consider some real-life examples:
- A badly battered and bleeding patient is wheeled into the emergency room at a hospital. The on-call physician takes charge and begins diagnosing and treating the patient at a whirlwind pace. A life is at stake… there’s no time to stop and think. Instead, the filter of the doctor’s unique experiences (med school classes, internships, time served in the military, previous years working in an ER) — this filter kicks in to quickly sort and choose among possible treatment strategies. Appropriate action is taken and a life is saved.
- A wise tribal elder is called on to mediate a dispute between neighbors. She doesn’t need to consult legal texts or put the matter to a vote. She simply considers the situation in light of her years and years of life experiences and knowledge of the tribe, then makes her recommendation. The unique situation and options are filtered through her experiences and a trustworthy recommendation emerges.
- Your grandpa has been making his prize winning chili for many years. Somewhere back in his dim past, he used a recipe. But over time he’s learned from making bad batches and good batches that a little more of this vegetable and a little of that spice added at just the right time in the cooking process results in chili that gets rave reviews. He’d be hard pressed to tell you exactly how he does it. The grid of his internal experiences simply produces high quality judgments automatically throughout the cooking process, while he’s busy cutting up vegetables and stirring.
- Then there’s those fine artists we all admire. They’ve been highly trained in brush selection and handling, paint mixing, composition, and so on. But when they start painting, they simply flow into the work. They allow the subject that inspires them to be strained through the grid of their training and unique sensibilities to create something that is beautiful and new. They trust their judgment.
- And finally, consider the simple act of parallel parking your car. As you align your tires to the curb and ease into the parking space, a thousand automatic muscle memories are activated to press the accelerator and the brake pedals at just the right times, turn the steering wheel just so, and scan your mirrors to get feedback on how you are doing. You don’t tell your brain how to integrate all this hand-eye movement. Your internal filter simply takes in all the possibilities, sorts through them to figure out what really matters, and provides you with the judgment to park quickly and allow the other cars who are waiting for you to finish parking to be on their way.
The bottom line: You already HAVE trustworthy judgment! It’s impossible to live your life without activating — and trusting — this judgment a thousand times a day! So why not really embrace it? Why not learn to trust your judgment whole-heartedly when you’re making all those difficult professional decisions? Remember, deep down, you already know what you need to know!
Now let’s apply all this to project management.
Reflect on these questions:
- What are some of the complex things you do without thinking? (Consider sports, brain games, coaching, sifting & sorting through things, inspecting, quality assurance?)
- If you had to do so, would you be able to dissect one of these complex abilities and show each skill and bit of knowledge and experience which makes you able to do this thing so well?
- When have you been under pressure to produce a fast decision on a complex issue? How did you fare? Was it a good decision? If you had to, could you defend it based on your experiences, skills, and training?
- What are some areas of your job or career where you might be overthinking things? Could you begin to relax and trust your judgment in these areas?
Ask your team:
- Think about the projects you have worked on. When was the last time you had a really powerful experience of “I told you so!”
- Could this “I told you so…” event have been avoided if you had “spoken up,” honoring that inner voice that knew better?
- Look back on your accumulated experiences and expertise. These are the sources of your judgment. How might we, as a project team, better leverage your judgment on our projects?
- What do you need from senior managers or project managers that would enable you to more confidently “trust yourself?”
Project Manager Challenges
- Take a few minutes to review each of your team members’ resumes, job histories, and project track records. Look for signs of untapped wisdom.
- What parts of our projects are in need of some of the wisdom and judgment that our people may already have, but aren’t using?
- Thinking about each team member and his or her experiences and expertise, ask yourself these questions:
- Are we really using this person’s judgment to the fullest extent?
- Do we create a safe environment in which this person can apply their judgment?
- Do I need to try to prove to this person that they can trust their judgment by pointing out their long history of successes and good decisions?
- What can I do to help this person develop the confidence to more fully trust his or her judgment?
- What obstacles can I remove that are impeding them from exercising their judgment or are making them overly cautious?