Lean Foundations

The 3 Levels of Thinking on a Project

“Maximize the whole, not the piece.”

On any project – and in life – there are three levels of thinking. Understanding these and accounting for their impact on yourself and others, can raise your level of performance and keep your team operating at the highest level: Project First.

From the moment we are born, we operate at Level 1, Personal. Me, me, me. It’s not selfish; it’s human. Even as adults, psychologists tell us, we dip in and out of thinking about ourselves about every 25 seconds. And when we are threatened, as in a confrontation with others, we often retreat to this Level, because Level 1 is all about safety: personal and professional. It is important for us to feel safe in our work environment in order to create the opportunity to excel, contribute and take pride in a successful project. An attitude of “Respect for People” requires that the personal and professional needs of each of the people in any project have to be recognized, understood and accounted for. Only in a productive, safe Level One working environment, can a person move up to and work at Level Two.

Level 2 is Organizational thinking: our company or organization, the ones who write our paychecks. Level 2 thinking secures loyalty to the organization and fosters protection of the organization’s interests.

But let’s recognize that Level 2 communication tends to be siloed. And “my silo” becomes a kind of “fort”. And the boss says, “Guard the fort!” But there’s a problem with Guarding the Fort… it leads to a fort mentality… in which our interests are pitted against everyone else’s. So when decisions are considered on a project, for example, I’m likely to propose and argue in favor of a decision or solution that is best for “us” – my organization.

Level 3 is “Project First” thinking.
How do you know when you’re operating at Level 3? Here’s how: Every time a problem arises, the team gets together, defines and analyzes the problem and then asks … “What’s best for the PROJECT?” Not what’s best for me or my organization.

If the first question is “What’s best for the PROJECT?” … THAT is Level 3 thinking. That is maximizing the WHOLE project and not just my piece or your piece. And it applies to “everything we do collectively on the project.

So how do you get to level 3? You have to START at Level 3. You commit to Level 3 thinking. When we make a decision, we will choose what’s best for the whole project. … Sure we’ll have to run it around the room and make sure the other 2 levels can live with it: you know, that no organization is going to get hurt (at least without being compensated) and make sure each of us individuals can live with it at Level 1, that no individual’s career is going to get hurt and it doesn’t violate anyone’s personal sense of integrity or values.

Only Project First thinking allows for true team collaboration and trust, which are essential to delivering the best project. And for maximizing the whole, not the piece.

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