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Projects as the Firm’s Emotional and Social Working Memory

Posted March 12, 2020 in Business Agility & Software Engineering Excellence
Projects as the Firm’s Emotional and Social Working Memory

Based on the descriptions of mentalizing, emotional working memory, and social problem solving, could a metaphorically similar social and emotional processing subsystem for projects be needed? The most relevant candidate structure for this today lies in the domain of change management. However, in practice, change management has an almost exclusive focus on the rational, mechanical, and communicative aspects of change, not these difficult and political aspects of change. Projects may require a more explicit structure and staff with the ability to monitor and manage the affective and social dimension. In practice, firms might find it more expedient to extend their change management practices to address the social and emotional dynamics within projects.

Research on projects has repeatedly, but not conclusively, found that larger projects tend to fail more than smaller projects. While people have varied limits on how much information they can process based on working memory limits, the research discussed here shows that people differ significantly in their ability to process social and emotional information, too. Could the bounded rationality limitations in human working memory, mentalizing, emotional working memory, social network size (Dunbar limit), and social problem solving also help explain the limit on project size? Are some projects just too big for a team’s “social mind”? Could the disparate arrangements and use of social and emotional skills, normally not addressed by leaders during project activation or control, explain variations in project performance?

Project leaders can help solve problems linked to social and emotional cognition in the following ways:

  • Educate project governance about the social and emotional problem-solving aspects of projects.

  • Seek diverse designs and viewpoints. Useful techniques can include the use of devil’s advocacy to argue against a design or the generation of two or more alternate design approaches within projects. Set the expectation that difficult political conversations that may result are just as open for inspection as any technical aspect of a project and are to be encouraged.

  • Ensure teams are staffed with sufficient emotional and social working memory capacity, skills, and background. Leaders should be skilled in when and how to engage appropriate emotional and social interventions and through which individuals.

  • Periodically review project teams and project governance for problems with project decision differentiation and consolidation processes. Keep a vigilant eye on biases and defensive reasoning processes, both during and after projects.

  • Provide project managers with training in these areas of organizational and individual psychology.

  • Establish a role for an individual to monitor and help manage these social and emotional processes within projects.

Human working memory not only solves abstract problems, it also plays a role in mentalizing social rela­tionships, ensuring emotional regulation, and providing social cognition. Working memory interacts with affective and personality dimensions in ways that can bias judgments and decisions. Thinking of projects as a firm’s working memory opens up avenues of inquiry related to social and emotional cognition. The project management woes of suboptimal designs, biased decisions, and failure to converge on an appro­priate solution often appear as mild symptoms toward the beginning of a project. If left unchecked, their disastrously negative impact will be felt later in the project and perhaps too late to intervene effectively. Post-decision consolidation processes can often create a kind of “self-sealing” and motivated reasoning process that incorrectly recruits reasons to justify decisions. In turn, this can prevent the firm from adequately probing the project for weaknesses of any kind, much less for weaknesses in emotional and social cognitive problem solving. Finding systemic solutions to emotional regulation and social problem solving should significantly improve project performance.

[For more from the author on this topic, see “Statistical Project Management, Part VIII: Social and Emotional Cognition in Projects.”]

About The Author
Vince Kellen
Vince Kellen is a Fellow of Cutter's Business Technology & Digital Transformation Strategies and Data Analytics & Digital Technologies practices, a member of the Cutter Business Technology Council, and a Summit speaker. He is currently CIO at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), a member of UCSD’s Chancellor's Cabinet, and Vice Chancellor and CFO of the UCSD senior management team. Dr. Kellen brings a rare combination of… Read More