Arguing to Learn and to Win

PM Articles by Project Times. 

The recent INC. article, Stuck in a Heated Argument? Follow the ‘ATL Rule’ to Ensure Everyone Wins[1] set me to thinking about how best to approach the way we manage major conflicts and minor disagreements, how we argue.

In my book, Managing Conflict in Projects: Applying Mindfulness and Analysis for Optimal Results[2] the message is to approach managing differences with clarity, while accepting the reality that there may be emotions involved, not being driven by them. This is emotional intelligence, the ability to be aware of and manage emotions. It is a foundation for healthy relationships, and healthy relationships include the ability to manage disagreements, whether they are small arguments or major conflicts.

The word conflict needs definition. The general definition from Merriam-Webster is “an extended struggle : fight, battle. : a clashing or sharp disagreement (as between ideas, interests, or purposes) : mental struggle resulting from needs, drives, wishes, or demands that are in opposition or are not compatible. conflict.” From Cambridge dictionary, an active disagreement between people with opposing opinions or principles: There was a lot of conflict between him and his father. It was an unpopular policy and caused a number of conflicts within the party. His outspoken views would frequently bring him into conflict with the president.”

Here, the term conflict covers any kind of disagreement or struggle that starts off with opposing views. Managing conflict seeks to resolve the conflict.

The conflicts that make the news are beyond the scope of this article, though the same basic principles apply. Here the focus is on the kinds of conflicts that come up in organizations, projects and processes. The principles are:

  1. Step back to see the big picture and how your emotions, beliefs, biases, and mental models affect your perspective.
  2. Seek to understand your mindset, goals, needs, and wants and what influences them
  3. Seek to understand the other parties’ goals, needs, and wants and what influences them
  4. Be mindful of your words, behavior, and feelings, and their impact
  5. Assess the degree to which you can trust and collaborate with the others
  6. Promote a win-win attitude in which the parties jointly resolve the conflict
  7. Recognize that there are some disagreements that cannot be settled with a win for both parties
  8. Compile facts and opinions and examine and use them in decision making to resolve the conflict.

Arguing to Learn and to Win

The INC. article points out that scientific study shows we should “enter debates looking to learn rather than win.” Since it is very difficult for many people to give up winning, I think the right mindset for working on a disagreement is looking to learn and looking to win.

That opens the question of what it means to win. Does it mean getting your way? Or does it mean coming to the optimal solution to the problem at hand? For example, two designers in conflict about which design should be used in a project can collaborate to identify the objectively best design or they can battle one another to get their design accepted.

Researchers identify two primary mindsets that set a stage for the way arguments are addressed: arguing-to-learn (ATL) and arguing-to-win (ATW). In the ATL approach the parties cooperate to get a better understanding of the situation. It implies open mindedness to discover the resolution through research, dialog, and analysis.

In the ATW approach the tendency to believe in a single truth and to cut off or ignore debate in which conflicting opinions and facts are raised. Instead of discovering a resolution the ATW mindset often begins with the resolution, takes it as truth and argues for it with a closed mind.

Understanding the different mindsets and the benefit of using an ATL, the challenge is to work towards making an ATL mindset part of your conflict management process.



A Hybrid Approach

As with all complex social issues, there is no one right answer. Let’s not over-simplify and think that it’s either ATL or ATW. We can also argue to learn and win (ATLAW).

In projects meaningful arguments are about whether, why, how, who, and when things will be done. If the argument is not settled the project may be delayed or motivation and morale will be impacted. If the argument is not settled well, the outcome will be subpar.

Of course, there are other arguments about politics, religion, freedom vs. authoritarianism, the causes of global warming, etc. For these important issues, there may never be a resolution. But when it comes to deciding on a design to use, or a budget or schedule, there must be a winner.

We can take the position that the winner is not the person with the idea, it is the idea that wins. And if the best idea wins, then the people involved win, where winning means that their needs have been met. If the parties take an ATL approach they creatively discover a resolution that may blend elements of alternative solutions or pick one over another. The discovery results from the learning process. Then there is the perception of winning or losing



If everyone agrees as to what it means to win, and recognizes that learning improves the probability of winning, then the players will naturally take a collaborative approach facing the issue rather than facing one another.

But ego and closed mindedness get in the way. The emotional need to win, psychological tendencies to dominate and win, and not knowing of an alternative to win-lose confrontation make collaboration difficult, if not impossible. Getting past that barrier requires process awareness, self-reflection, coaching and training.

Look at your process.

  • Are the principles stated above realistic?
  • Do they naturally occur as part of a healthy flow that allows for differences and promotes win-win resolutions? If they do, be grateful and carry on.
  • If not, how can you subtly or overtly discuss the conflict management process to promote open-mindedness and rational thinking?
[1] Hobson, Nick, INC.
[2] Pitagorsky, George, PMI

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Disagreements, Decision Making and the Evaporating Cloud

PM Articles by Project Times. 

Is it too much to ask that decision makers make use of a collaborative goal and values-based conflict resolution approach to come to effective resolutions that satisfy needs?

Whether decisions are made in socio-political, organizational, and personal realms we all know that they are important. They direct action, resolve and cause disagreements. Decisions, if carried out, have physical, financial, emotional and relationship impacts.

Decisions are most likely to be “good” ones when disagreements or conflicts are well managed. The best decisions are made with clear objectivity and lead to achieving goals.

In my article Arguing to Learn and to Win I described a hybrid approach between arguing to learn (ATL) and arguing to win (ATW). This article focuses on ATL and how winning can emerge from learning through a collaborative approach like the Evaporating Cloud[1] (EC), one of the six thinking processes in Eliyahu Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints.

Fulfilling goals

The process is a technique designed to cut through disagreements by turning attention to fulfilling all parties’ goals rather than seeking only what each person wants.

In short, EC works on the premise that conflicts can be resolved when the parties get what they need. They satisfy their goals and values.

If the overarching goal is prosperity, peace, health, freedom, and happiness, decision makers must have an accurate sense of what each term means in concrete practical terms.

In the world of projects, goals like prosperity are expressed in terms of cost savings, revenue, and profit. Happiness is satisfying stakeholder expectations. Health is about the goal of sustaining the wellbeing of project performers to enable effective performance over time.

With an understanding of goals, we can identify relative weights. For example, are financial goals more important than employee health and wellbeing? Are the weights negotiable?

In projects it is much easier to attain consensus about goals than it is in social and political disagreements. Projects are objective focused and, assuming the project is a healthy one, the objectives align with organizational goals.

When there is no consensus on goals and values, we have a zero-sum game with winners and losers. Handling those is a subject for a future article on arguing to win.

The Evaporating Cloud (EC)

Now, back to the Evaporating Cloud (EC) technique and finding win-win resolution.

“If you really want to remove a cloud from your life, you do not make a big production out of it, you just relax and remove it from your thinking. That’s all there is to it.[6]


“The Evaporating Cloud tool is intended to similarly “vaporize” difficult problems by collaboratively resolving an underlying conflict. “[Goldratt teaches] that every problem is a conflict, and that conflicts arise because we create them by believing at least one erroneous assumption. Thus, simply by thinking about the assumptions that enforce the existence of a conflict, we should be able to resolve any conflict by evaporating it with the power of our thinking.[2]

Though the power of thinking has its limitations. To use a collaborative approach, at least one of the parties must step back to objectively perceive the cloud, and their place in it:

  • Emotions
  • Needs vs. Wants
  • Willingness to negotiate and collaborate to face the issues not the opponent.

Sharing Goals

In addition, the parties’ goals, values, and priorities must be compatible. For example, is getting elected or promoted more important than deciding on an optimal decision to serve the organization? Is your goal to have your design selected or to achieve project and organizational goals. Is one design demonstratively better than another? Is objectivity and telling the truth a shared value?

To answer these questions you must identify, understand, describe, and prioritize goals and values. What would happen if your goals weren’t met? Can you live with a negotiated compromise solution? Will the other parties agree to a solution that doesn’t give them everything they want?

Mutually exposing goals makes negotiation easier. Though, without open sharing it is still possible to use EC by subtly facilitating a discovery process. It is important to consider that sometimes openly sharing one’s goals may not be possible or desirable. There may be hidden agendas and motivations. Cultural norms may not support such openness. There are trust and personality issues.

Addressing the Wants

Knowing the goals, attention goes from Needs to Wants. Wants are about the way to achieve the goals and get what you need. For example, in projects a key goal is to satisfy stakeholders’ expectations. There are several ways to do that and there are often conflicting views on which is best.

If one way is as good as another, what does it matter which you choose? Flip a coin. Decision made. Can you and the others give up getting what you want if you get what you need? If one way is best, what makes it so? What are the criteria for deciding? Who will decide and how and when will they do it? Will they rely on emotional rhetoric, hierarchy, or analysis?


A collaborative approach makes resolving conflicts a game that you can both learn from and enjoy while you find an optimal resolution and promote healthy ongoing relationships.

Relationship health is an often-overlooked benefit of collaborative decision making. “Don’t burn bridges” is good advice. Winning is great but if you are not playing the long game, you are likely to have a Pyrrhic victory. You win but at a price that is so costly that victory is tantamount to defeat.

For example, you or your team win an argument by undermining and alienating another team that you must work with to implement the decision or collaborate on future projects. How will that affect the organization’s goals? You may think you will never see your opponents again, but you never know if you will encounter one of them in an interview for a job you have applied for.

Less likely to be overlooked is the benefit of finding an optimal solution, whether it is a blend of elements from alternatives or choosing a demonstrably more effective outcome. Of course, there is no guarantee. But if people commit to an analytical process, collective intelligence and multiple perspectives should result in higher quality decisions.

Taking It Home

Assess your personal approach to conflict resolution, disagreements, and decision making? Assess your team’s and organization’s approach? Is there room for improvement?

Share this article to start a conversation as the first step in adopting a collaborative approach and adapting it to your situation.

[1]There are many references for EC, Wikipedia is a good place to start for further information.
[2] Scheinkopf, Lisa J. Thinking for a change: Putting the TOC thinking processes to use. CRC Press, 2002.

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Practical Perfectionism and Continuous Improvement

PM Articles by Project Times. 

“One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist…..Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist” ― Stephen Hawking

“Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” Mark Twain

Practical perfectionists use the urge for perfection as fuel for achieving it, accepting that while things could be better, they may never be perfect.

Practical perfectionism is at the root of quality improvement. We set standards and try to meet them with the goal of optimal performance – performing as best we can. We recognize that optimal performance is perfection even though there may be flaws, errors, and omissions.


Sometimes things are perfect as they are:

  • People are happy, effective, accepting, flexible and resilient
  • Change and problems are well managed
  • Communication and relationships are healthy
  • Performance quality is high, and
  • There is a continuous improvement process that asks “How can we do better?”

In that ideal scenario the stakeholders are aware that everything is in motion, continuously changing. They know that expecting to sustain a static perfect state is a pipe dream – an unattainable hope. They know that perfection is in the process and not the outcome.  They strive for the perfect outcome even though they know it may not be attainable.

The word perfect is an adjective and verb. We perfect our process to make it perfect. According to Merriam-Webster the meaning of perfect is:

“Being entirely without fault or defect flawless. a perfect diamond. : satisfying all requirements : accurate. : corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept. a perfect gentleman.”



Perfectionism is a character trait that can be healthy, positive, and functional or unhealthy negative, and dysfunctional. It is a need to have oneself, others, or things in general to be perfect. There is an uncomfortable felt sense, a pressure from within, when things are not perfect. There is a belief that perfection is possible and necessary.

Perfectionists set standards that they use to judge their own behavior, and the behavior of others. They assume that others expect them to meet those self-set standards.

When perfectionism operates unconsciously it gets in the way of optimal performance. For example, it can manifest as procrastination because things are not perfectly ready. “I can’t get started until I am absolutely sure that I won’t be interrupted.” Some perfectionists procrastinate or avoid acting because they fear that their work will not be perfect.

Perfectionism may emerge as a negative self-image or image of others because they are not perfect.

For example, a project sponsor keeps putting off the funding of a project because the design team cannot find the perfect solution or the selection of a key product or system is held up because there are  no perfect options.

The expectation that a team’s or individual’s performance be perfect can motivate high performance or, if the expectations are impossible to meet, over-stress and demotivate.


Striving and Concerns

Perfectionists strive to achieve personal standards that they set themselves and are concerned that they won’t measure up. The striving may be focused on both themselves and others.

They worry and fear that they will be punished or rejected if they fail to be perfect in the eyes of others – their boss, client, peers, etc. They tend to promote the impression of their own perfection and work to prevent others having a negative impression.

The striving and concerns, when they are unconsciously driven, waste energy and create stress, the enemies of optimal performance.


Non-perfectionists tend not to have pre-stated standards or expectations about themselves or others. Non-perfectionists are OK with whatever happens. While this leaves them with less stress and may even be a sign of enlightenment, it does not promote continuous performance improvement.

Acceptance is a positive trait, but it can also lead to stagnation and the degradation of performance. Healthy acceptance accepts things are as they are in the moment, that they will change, and that with effort they can be made better into the future.

Practical Perfectionists

Practical perfectionism involves setting rational performance standards and expectations and generating the motivation to achieve them. It is an example of how we can use a character trait to its best advantage.

It begins with the acknowledgement that perfectionism is at work. This is an aspect of self-awareness, the sense of what is happening internally and how it is influencing behavior.

With that awareness, perfectionism can be used as a powerful force in optimizing performance and promoting personal growth, emotional intelligence, and wellness. Perfectionism is accepted and managed.

Practical perfectionists have ambitious standards and bring rational thinking to bear. They assess why they think their standards and expectations are realistic. They look at the costs and benefits of improvement and decide whether to improve radically or incrementally, or to leave well enough alone, making the best of the situation.

Perfectionism is a positive trait if it is moderated by acceptance of things as they are, self-awareness, rational thinking, and realistic understanding of

  • what ‘perfect’ means,
  • whether and how it can be achieved,
  • how much it costs,
  • how long it takes to achieve it, and
  • whether achieving it is worth the time and effort.

Practical perfectionism drives continuous improvement and optimal performance.

Overcoming Obstacles to Perfect Performance

It is hard to imagine why anyone would not embrace a practical perfectionist mindset. But the reality is that there is resistance to self-awareness and rational thinking.

Overcoming obstacles to applying practical perfectionism to continuous improvement begins with self-awareness and understanding among team members and leadership at all levels..

When individuals realize that they are being overly stressed by their own perfectionism or are overly stressing others by expecting the impossible, they can act to change.

In projects the change comes about when perfectionist managers or clients realize that their expectations are irrational and counterproductive. Then the process of defining goals, acceptance standards, value, costs, risks, and benefits will lead to expectations that can be met.

Practical perfectionism combines emotional intelligence and analytical process thinking to promote a perfect process.

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Practical PM for Everyone

PM Articles by Project Times. 

Project management is a process that, when done well, enables optimal performance. Why wouldn’t everyone want to know how to manage projects?

Everyone Has Projects

A project is an effort to create a result in a finite time. According to PMI, “a project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.”

Everyone is part of projects. Some projects are long, large, and complex, like a lunar expedition or the implementation of a new system in an organization. Others are moderate and more personal – planning a party, buying a car, moving, painting your house. Others are quite simple, for example getting up and out of the house, packing for a vacation, grocery shopping, doing the dishes, cooking a meal. Even the individual activities of regular operations like answering emails or working to close a sale fit the definition of projects. we can consider them as mini-projects.

Therefore, everyone would do well to know the basic principles of project management and adapt them to the size and complexity of the projects at hand.

Professional PMs would add value by promoting wide-spread appreciation and knowledge of project management for all.

Agile Adaptability

Applying a complex project management process with forms, protocols, and reports to manage your at home cooking dinner project or a small project that is repeated many times is not skillful.

You might like to be formal and explicit because it makes you feel good but if there are others involved you might drive them crazy and waste lots of time and effort.

At the same time, doing any project without a plan, without writing things down (for example a shopping list), with ambiguous or inadequate communication, and without looking back to learn from the experience is equally unskillful. It is likely to lead to extra trips to the store to get missing ingredients, too much or too little food, misunderstandings of who will do what, and when.

Planning, performing, monitoring, controlling, and closing happen in every project, the way we do them varies widely depending on the situation. It was the intention of the earlier founders of the agile approach to point this out and promote the idea that the project team does best to adapt practices to the needs of their project, stakeholders, and setting, while being aware of the need for a degree of structure and discipline.


The Agile Manifesto:

“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.

Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions     over     processes and tools

Working software                     over     comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration            over     contract negotiation

Responding to change              over     following a plan.

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

Communication and Collaboration

To enable an adaptive and agile approach make sure that all stakeholders have a sense of  the basic principles of project management.

The basics are what everyone should know about managing a project, even if they are not managing one. Knowing the process and principles stakeholders can assess how well the project is being managed. They will be able to connect a sense of the project’s health  accomplishment and progress.

The basics are:

  1. Plan, to create a clear sense of what is to be accomplished, how, where, by when, by whom, and for how much it will cost. Remember that plans are always subject to change. Planning is not over until the project is over.
  2. Let go into execution, the performance. It’s like dance or a play. You learn the steps and your role and surrender into performing them.
  3. Mindfully monitor and control to assess progress against the plan and to adjust. Make it part of the performance so it doesn’t get in the way.
  4. Close. Take a step back to assess performance. Tie up loose ends. Learn from the experience. Turn over the results.

So simple, if there is understanding, adaptability, effective communication and collaboration.

Without these the project management process becomes a burden. With them the probability of project success goes way up.

What gets in the Way?

You’d think that everyone would be eager to apply the basics and to understand, adapt, communicate, and collaborate. But it is not the case.  The principle things that get in the way are:

  • Lack of process thinking – Thinking all that is needed is to put heads down and do the work instead of recognizing that objectives are met by skillfully applying effort to perform a set of definable steps or tasks.
  • Too much process thinking – over formalizing project management, creating unnecessary bureaucracy and overhead.
  • Not recognizing the value – thinking that the effort to manage the project is not worthwhile.
  • Thinking that it is too hard to engage others in the work required – believing that changing stakeholder mindsets about project management is impossible.
  • Personality traits – for example, closed-mindedness, impatience, fear of being criticized and controlled, and over confidence block attempts to implement some degree of planning and control.

What to Do About It

Removing the obstacles to implementing the right kind of project management (PM) requires a learning process in which PM champions convince stakeholders that PM is a practical process that adds value by upgrading performance and promoting project success.

Breaking through resistance to PM requires mindset change and changing people’s minds is no easy task.

It is not just about getting people to take a PM course, though an appropriate one, with a skilled facilitator, is a good place to start. It is committing to a dialog that addresses resistance to applying PM principles coupled with a commitment to the agility to adapt the principles to fit the projects being performed and the people who manage and perform them.

It takes time and patience with an understanding that much of the resistance is reasonable given experience with dysfunctional PM and rigid project management professionals who don’t adapt the process to the situation at hand.

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Psychology at Work to Improve Performance

PM Articles by Project Times. 

Most of what gets in the way of optimal performance is rooted in psychological or emotional issues. That is why the most valued traits for a manager are communication, emotional and social intelligence, empathy, and adaptability.


Psychology is the study of the way the mind functions and influences behavior. Individual psychology influences relationships and relationships are the key to effective performance, wellness, and optimal living. It follows that attention to psychology is a pillar of performance management.

Though, in many organizations, psychology has gotten a bad name.  It falls into the mental health realm. Attention to it is often avoided unless behavior gets so severe that it undeniably gets in the way of living and performing well.

Take for example a steering group of peers charged with making important decisions. One member is designated as chairperson. The chairperson takes the title to heart, does a lot of good work, but attempts to silence anyone who raises issues regarding the team’s process and performance.

One team member confronts the chairperson by raising uncomfortable issues. Over time the relationship between the two deteriorated. The chairperson has left the team member out of important meetings, does not respond to emails and has ignored  a direct outreach by the team member to meet and discuss their relationship in any way the chairperson chooses – one on one, mediated, in person, virtual, etc.

The refusal to engage in a dialog effects the degree to which the group can make effective decisions because it blocks the social interaction that is critical to team performance. The rest of the team “feels” the subtle disturbance. Hearts and minds close down. The free flow of discussion is blocked. Life goes on, but it is not pleasant.


One doesn’t need a PhD in psychology to know that there is a psychological process at work in this relationship, that effects performance. Causes may be fear of competition, over-aggressive perfectionism, aversion to conflict, or over-controlling. These are all related to the participants’ mindsets.

This is just one example. Performance is effected by issues that stem from anxiety, depression, need for excessive control, excessive competitiveness, obsessive and compulsive urges, and addiction expressed as anger, withdrawal, and the kind of behavior that disturbs relationships – angry outbursts, abuse, withdrawal, unnecessary and poorly managed conflict, discrimination, gossiping, absenteeism, and more.

But there is avoidance. Handling psychological or emotional issues remains difficult. Some people believe that personal psychology is  “too personal” to be addressed in “public”.  They want to separate the personal world from their work world, as if that was possible.

Some are not introspective and don’t acknowledge the internal processes that lead to external behavior or, if they do, they may not think they can influence the process with self-management.

Some just don’t care how their behavior affects others, thinking and saying “This is who I am, live with it.”

Changing the Narrative

Interest in emotional intelligence with a focus on performance has  changed the narrative  by changing the terminology – people want to be more intelligent, they do not want to be lumped into a mental health category. However, to become more emotionally intelligent one must

  • Acknowledge that behavior results from internal psychological processes, the individual’s mindset, and setting.
  • Recognize the effect on others of their speech, actions, and even their “vibe.”
  • Care.
  • Accept that mindful self-awareness enables self-management.
  • Manage emotions to optimally perform.

It becomes obvious that the person who expresses anger overtly or as passive aggressive behavior impacts the team’s performance. One who views any criticism as an attack gets in the way of performance improvement. One who is afraid of speaking up robs the group of valuable insights and information.

Look to the Process

Promoting process thinking is the key to being able to manage psychological issues. Process thinking recognizes that everything is caused by something – a process.

In general, a group will operate more effectively if the members acknowledge and skillfully address both the visible processes and the processes operating below the line of consciousness, as needed, to optimize performance.

For example, to overcome aversion to criticism, cultivate awareness of both the process improvement process and the presence of internal psychological processes that lead individuals to be overly and unskillfully critical or unable to accept and value criticism.

Participants can work together when they realize that the problem of aversion to criticism gets in the way of effective performance. It involves a conflict between the idea that constructive criticism makes a positive contribution vs. the need to protect oneself or one’s position.

Overcome Resistance

Cognitively knowing that behavior is the result of a process is an important starting point for cultivating the capacity to avoid unskillful behavior. However intellectually knowing that mental habits like aggression or avoidance are not effective does not immediately translate into behavioral change.

Rational thought is lost to the emotions and to unhealthy beliefs and mental habits. Psychological issues are often deep and painful. Habits are hard to change.

So how do we get people who are stuck in neurotic patterns like resistance to criticism, shutting down communication, and yelling, to change their behavior?

There is no simple formula. The complexities include the degree to which organizations can require people to be self-aware and overcome the resistance to psychotherapy.

With the knowledge that organizational performance is the sum of team and individual performance, effectiveness becomes the measure of how well teams functions. Organizations are motivated to create a culture in which addressing emotional and psychological issues is part of performance management.

At the same time the workplace is not the forum for psychotherapy. At work, addressing these issues is about changing behavior. It is up to each individual to assess the causes of the their own disruptive behavior and adapt it to benefit the health of the team.

Stop focusing on labels like depression and anxiety. Instead, focus on the symptoms and their impact on performance, where performance includes the happiness and wellbeing of the people involved.

Going Forward

There is a simple, though not easy, process: raise consciousness, apply it, and adjust so that it there is neither too much nor too little attention to psychology and its effect.

Cultural change is set in motion by training to acknowledge the need for self-management, process-awareness, and self-awareness and how to apply them in teams.

Regularly (not too often) dialogue about the symptoms and impact of psychological issues on performance and what to do about them. When issues arise address them in the context of what the team has learned. Over time, assess your process and adjust.

With the right mindset, behavior that downgrades performance automatically motivates action. That mindset needs the team to be willing and able to cut through the psychological issues that get in the way.

Depending on the culture and individuals involved, readiness for this kind of change can be quick and self-supported, or can take months or even years with expert coaching and consulting.

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