Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Trust Curve as a tool to start relations

I have recently taken up an engagement that involves a project rescue intervention as the overall integration program manager responsible to bring in various technical teams and components represented from different business units (each with their own priorities & project deliverables), that when integrated together delivers greater business value as a whole (than each component servicing its own business process in isolation) - an awesome yet complicated system. The stakeholders have set high expectations, hoping to bring in some structure and alignment to the teams by setting up a program stream that would centrally command and control the deliveries - taking on the classic Steerco approach.

So I needed to setup a formal kick-off workshop, get everyone in a room together to flesh out as much as possible (review where each independent project stream is, what's to do, architecture, design, integration backlogs, etc.) thus culminating in a unified program plan. I had one problem though: I sensed a lot of tension and nervousness between the teams, there was quite a bit of history around expectations not being met, poor communications, etc. I just did not get the feeling that everyone trusted each other, there was a lot of suspicion going on. And now with this management intervention of having a lead integration program manager, people had their reservations. For me as this integration program manager, I needed to start the stream off on a good note, establishing a level of trust (that was apparently nonexistent), and get the core team leads gelling together to form the core delivery team. I anticipated a lot of tension that could surface in the main kickoff workshop, so I decided to run a retrospective prior to the official workshop, as a way to pre-empt the emotional discussions that, if left unchecked, would eventually derail the formal planning workshop.

In doing so, I started to look at retrospective tools that could help me approach the subject looking up (Getting Value Out of Agile Retrospectives - A Toolbox of Retrospective Exercises by Linders/Goncalves and Agile Retrospectives by Derby/Larsen). I also sought advice & counsel from a good friend, colleague and agile-coach-cum-mentor of mine: Farid@Crossbolt - explained my challenges, and in ten minutes, he provided excellent suggestions around team building activities as the first prize, second prize is address the elephant-in-the-room directly through a retro, where we could talk around a simple curve, call it the "Trust Curve". I settled on the latter suggestion (my original approach) of doing the retro since we just couldn't afford any time/money for the team building activity.

I have since then shown the Trust Curve to a few people, and have received some really good feedback, and hence this blog post. I want to share this simple, yet powerful picture that can be used as a starting point in setting the stage in building new relations, in an open & mature manner:
Trust Curve
The above picture tries to show the different positions of trust, that you could use to frame the conversation. Engineers understand pictures, especially a curve - that at first glance, appears so simple, yet profoundly powerful if you allow yourself to be open to critical reflection. The picture tries to show a journey of how trust will develop through a course of a relationship.

What you do is you start with the normal curve (A), that shows when entering a new relationship, trust establishes itself over a period of time. You start from a position of neutrality or indifference (zero), and over time, the trust increases with time, and then reaches a plateau that is maintained throughout the relationship. Sometimes this is the best approach, since you're starting from nothing, slowly building up confidence (whilst still keeping track of audit trails like emails, just in case you need to pull them out at some point should a disagreement or in the event of a missed delivery / commitment), and through the course of the interactions, the trust increases and levels out. If you have the luxury of time, this isn't a bad option. When projects have been running for some time, and interventions such as a rescue is introduced, one really cannot afford the time to play itself to establish trust levels.

Another option for starting, is actually at some level of trust, position (B). What this is saying is that your default stance is a position of trust, quite possibly a high trust level. You give the other person/team the benefit of the doubt, and also you start at a point of optimism, at the risk of making yourself a little vulnerable. You have a frank and open conversation with the other party and make your stance known, and ask the party for their input. If at that point in the conversation, the other party is nervous or is unwilling to show their position, you immediately have your answer, and you can size up then and there what kind of journey this relationship is going to take. In my short time with this experience, I've seen that it does put the person in a position in a spot, where you can't not give the other person the benefit of meeting half-way, at at least mutually agreeing to start off on the same note. If you sense hesitation in the other person's response, then instinctively you would know that the entity isn't entirely all that comfortable with making his/her position known, in which case you have to make a judgement call then and there.

Curve (B) shows that you started on a level of trust, and never leave that position, it remains mutually harmonious (which is also not a bad place to be in).

Curve (C) shows the possibility where you start at a high position of trust, and it just gets better from there. The relationship only improves going forward, a virtuous cycle, to a project manager, only good things can happen.

Curve (D) shows another view where you've extended your trust, it started to increase to new levels, and then through the course of time, a negative event happens that lowers your trust below your original threshold, then stabilises to a lower level, yet maintaining some level of trust - not all is lost.

Curve (D') however takes a departure point when the relationship takes a nose dive, passes the point of indifference and enters the realm of toxicity - a place where really no one will find pleasing. You're left with the choice of mending the trust, by maybe instigating a conflict resolution phase, or the option of just leaving.

Related to this trust relationship, is the topic of dealing with responsible confrontation. Farid again has shared his tool for confrontation, read all about it here: Responsible Confrontation

As with all curves, my picture shows only a few scenarios. It depends on the dynamics of the relationships & people / teams, as well as your own trust in your abilities to trust (if that makes sense).

My Own Journey
The Trust Curve is best left to a face-to-face discussion, I may have not done justice to its usefulness by way of writing about it in this blog post. What I found was that when I showed it to people, and at the team retrospective, the power was in the stories I shared. Once people hear the story, and you talk through the curve, the heads start nodding and the conversation becomes quite interesting.

In my own journey that I shared with this new project team, I told the story of how I started off as a classic PMBOK/PMP/PMI/PRINCE2 textbook project manager, on positions of little trust (where the project stakes were very high, knowing that most software projects are delivered late, and that engineers can't really be trusted until real progress is seen), as a project manager-status-monkey (are you on track, have you started as planned, why have you slipped?, Do you know now that the slip has caused all these delays? etc), on Curve A. Then over the years of working on projects, the art and
wisdom of management, especially leadership principles started to take shape, where I developed an appreciation that project management is really more about developing effective relationships built on trust and commitments, and less so on gantt-chart tracking activities and deliverables.

My change was further elevated as I got more involved with agile/scrum values & principles. So through the years I have indeed evolved and changed my approach to program & project management, though it wasn't easy, it required much effort on my part, and thus to I prefer to now start at position (B) for new projects/relations, and take it from there. I extend my trust to the team, and put myself out there.

I have probably experienced all those scenarios depicted in the picture. I was particularly fortunate to have once experienced Curve (C), when working with a high-performing, self-organising team, as a developer. It was great. As a Project Manager, I've been on B, A & D, and got close to a D' although before it got to toxic, had recovered from the situation...

Try it out, look at the curve...decide where you fit in!


  1. Trust curve is a simple and an awesome tool that has helped me in realizing and understanding my relationship with some people. It has lead me improve on a couple of strained relationships, not just at work but in personal life as well. I even educated some of my colleagues and friends outside of work, they seem to love it as much.
    I would like to recommend this tool to everyone.

    1. Thanks anonymous. Yes, it seems this curve does strike a chord with people... I plan to have a management retrospective on another project where I really need to show this, as again, it seems for a team, if trust and commitment aren't established, then we run into credibility issues...big problem on another project I'm running.

      Thanks again for your feedback...

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Not sure why the comment was deleted, see next comment...Thanks Santjie!

  3. Interesting article Muhammad. My experience has taught me that trust, ability and motivation are essential for the success of any project. Without those 3 elements it is unlikely that any tool or methodology can make the project a success. So this tool to facilitate discussions on trust issues is very interesting. A question: did the use of the curve in the discussion improve things on the project?

    1. Thanks Santjie. To answer your question whether the trust discussion improved matters...well, i would say that it's still a work in progress really. Certainly the teams are less emotional and accusatory since that workshop, and are listening more. I guess it was quite a revelation to them in being put-on-the-spot, and also for me as well, as I had to share some rather personal things about me... The subsequent planning workshop that followed went quite smoothly, so I think the trust session had the intended effect I had in mind (of having a productive planning session)...