The Cognitive Awareness of a Project Manager

Best planning aside, projects have a habit of not ending up where and when they are originally planned to end up, changes occur, at times by stealth. Costs, schedules and objectives shift and change. People come and go. Impacts on other projects and operational activities may be underestimated. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are facts of life for many, maybe most, project managers.

As project managers to ability for Cognitive readiness is the capacity to apply knowledge and behavioral skills in the context of teams, organizations and their environments to perform in complex and unpredictable situations. It is being prepared mentally with the right skills, abilities, knowledge, motivations, understandings and personal dispositions so that one is ready for anything.

There are five factors that contribute to being ready for anything, they are

  • Technical and interpersonal skills and business acumen to enable initiating, planning, controlling, monitoring and closing projects
  • A realistic view of the way things are — Interacting systems and processes, the reality of not always getting what you want, and the inevitability of change — to have a solid foundation for planning and managing expectations and conflict
  • Emotional and Social intelligence to enable effective relationships
  • The courage and insight to confront and overcome barriers like bias, anger, fear, frustration, confusion, clinging to untenable beliefs and to impossible expectations, etc.
  • Mindful awareness to bring inner workings to light with the courage and candor to objectively assess performance and improve it as needed. Mindfulness enables a realistic perspective and the application of knowledge and experience. It is the basis for emotional and social intelligence. It enhances performance.

Delving deeper in Mindful awareness, the experience of objectively observing everything occurring within (thoughts, feelings, physical sensations) and without (sounds, environmental conditions, relationships, communication and behavior).

Objectively observing means stepping back from whatever is happening and seeing it as a scientist sees the subject of their experiment – suspending judgement in the face of biases, values and beliefs, and becoming responsive rather than reactive.

When in action, deep within the project, maybe about 5% of mental activity is expended on mindful awareness. It is a background task that joins with the thinking, talking, writing, planning, decision making and doing. It does not get in the way. It enhances performance.

Mindful awareness means being increasingly conscious of emotions, conditioning, beliefs, biases and all the things that drive speech and action. It is about using that consciousness to moderate behavior. For example, to not freak out when a vendor goes out of business in the middle of a project, or a key player leaves, or a client insists on an impossible schedule.

Living above the line enables responsive as opposed to reactive behavior. It is the key to being ready for anything.

Mindfulness meditation practice is a method for cultivating the concentration (the ability to focus on a chosen object or activity) and mindful awareness (the ability to objectively observe whatever comes up internally or externally) required to live above the line.

There are two kinds of mindfulness practice: formal (requiring time and effort) and informal/moment-to-moment (requiring effort but no time). The formal practice supports the moment to moment practice. Formal practice is a great stress reliever, a rest and relaxation aid. The informal practice brings mindfulness into everyday life under practical conditions. It is as simple as taking a moment when the phone rings or pings to take a conscious breath and become relaxed and grounded in the present, objectively observing.

Mindfulness meditation is often referred to as Insight meditation. It is called insight meditation because the practice leads to insight into the nature of mind and the life process we are all a part of. Insight leads to wisdom. Wisdom is experimentally knowing how things are.

Insight is “an accurate and deep intuitive understanding of a person or thing.” The insight mindfulness brings is experiential as opposed to intellectual. It boils down to these realities:

  • Everything is impermanent – Change is a natural part of life
  • Not everything is pleasant – there will be some pain and suffering
  • Everything, including yourself, is continuously being created by ever changing causes and conditions – you are a work in process – nothing exists by itself.
  • What one thinks, says and does matters – your actions create a ripple effect
  • There is uncertainty. You never really know how it will turn out in the end
  • Awareness is the basic ground for everything that we sense, feel, think or do.

As these insights are experienced the most profound kind of stress relief is felt. There is no longer the same kind of attachment to things being in a certain way. Expectations become realistic. Choices become easier to make. Decisions and creativity emerge without unnecessary doubts. Stressful conditions become more manageable as one becomes capable of working through unpleasant feelings. There is a letting go into skillful flow.

Knowing that change is a given, that nothing is permanent, feeds resilience. One learns to go with the flow and influence it to the degree one can. One learns to trust in one’s own skills and knowledge to navigate the situation without expectations.

All there is, is a continuously changing process. One cannot stop the flow. One door closes, others open. Every change becomes an opportunity to practice and to cultivate increasing cognitive readiness – the ability to live happily and successfully amidst volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – ready for anything.

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