Thursday, May 28, 2009

What Can Darwin Teach You About Project Management?

The other day, I read about a profoundly insightful study: the best way to understand human behavior is to imagine that somebody is trying to steal your bananas.

Seriously. Every last banana. Somebody wants to steal them.

More seriously, the point of the article was that, deep down, we're all following some simple genetic programming designed to keep primates alive long enough to reproduce. And when we're threatened -- when someone's edging in on our territory, when it feels like losing a job might lead to losing a home, or when life is just plain stressful -- those primate emotions rush to the surface.

This is not the time to shake your head and wish things were different, or to marvel at the wonderful diversity and weirdness of humanity. No, this is your chance to shine! How will you keep your monkey colony happy and productive, even when they're acting like monkeys?

The study offers a simple trick:

  • Maintain eye contact: if you're the boss, other people will look up to you -- literally. Look back. Make sure they know you care.

And here are a few more:

  • Don't give anyone life-or-death projects, unless you want sloppy, life-or-death work: when your employees are in maximum fight-or-flight mode, they'll be willing to take huge gambles. If you're relying on a large, coordinated team, that's the last thing you want.

  • Use short-term rewards to keep people interested in long-term tasks: you may not know for a year whether or not your latest project will turn out well -- but you can see day to day whether people are doing their best. In the short term, reward effort to keep up interest. In the long term, reward success. Monkeys have a short time preference, so give an immediate payoff whenever possible.

  • Remember that you're a monkey, too: probably the most important tool. Instead of using evolutionary psychology to muck around in someone else's subconscious, ask yourself what primitive primate mind-games you're playing with yourself.

If you're ready to dive in to evolutionary psychology, there's one thing you absolutely must do first: read The Selfish Gene. For anyone intellectually curious person, it's a fun romp through evolution from a fairly interesting perspective. For anyone who deals with people on a daily basis, though, it's a peek at our collective source code -- what really makes us tick. Understand that, and you understand how to lead.