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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Listen Up: Disengage Project Autopilot

     The guy had rehearsed his sales presentation thoroughly and was well into it when his prospect perked up and interrupted with a question.
     “Be patient,” the salesman said. “I’m only on my third point – I’ve got nine more to go.”
     Can you think of a better way to kill off a sale?
     A radically different example comes out of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
     It was in 1983, when the two bitter adversaries had enormous nuclear armaments trained on each other.  A software glitch mistakenly sent an alert to the Soviet duty officer, falsely warning that the U.S. had launched five missiles. There had been no such launch.
     The Soviet officer decided any real attack would be a lot more serious, so he withheld any counterattack. Had he acted, there could have been nuclear war.
     We project managers can relate to the student sales example; not so the missile one. But one factor in both illustrates a major point for us: the judgment of the decision-maker.

     The sales presentation actually was the final exam in a college course on personal selling skills, and the “salesman” was a star student.
     It was the culmination of a four-month student project, a personal one: starting from scratch to overcome shyness and reluctance in presenting a sales message.
     The student had carefully prepared the presentation, following the prescribed design. Then he practiced the skills of pitching it effectively. His final exam was this 15-minute meeting with the class instructor in which he was to demonstrate his new expertise.
     And he blew it.
     His disciplined, carefully memorized process came up short in the most important sales skill of all: Thoughtful listening. The prospect’s questions were a clear signal that a potentially favorable opportunity had unexpectedly opened up.
     The student, unlike the military officer, missed the important moment. He thought he was listening, but he really wasn’t. He was on autopilot.
    With listening, it isn’t just the ears.
     Sure, the ears do the mechanical job of capturing and channeling sounds. That’s important, but it’s not the whole story.

     Real listening is in the brain: It involves remaining alert, thoughtfully questioning what the sounds are telling you. The student missed the thoughtful questioning part, the awareness that should have accompanied his concentration on the plan.
     That failure not only caused him to miss an important opportunity; it also rebuffed a positive initiative that could have opened a fruitful new path for the conversation. It may have embarrassed and annoyed to the prospect – something most definitely not favorable to the purpose.
     The Soviet duty officer, despite the enormous responsibility he bore – and the lack of any reason to doubt the erroneous message – made a courageous decision.
     Whatever communication channel carried the erroneous information to him, the mental process he employed was the one the sales student failed to follow.
     It also is the one that confronts project managers, and is among the many reasons why projects are so difficult to manage. A true project is a mixture of processes and innovations.

     Processes require careful attention to repetitious detail, so the sequences hold together and the predetermined result is reliably achieved.
     The innovation elements in projects are entirely different, even though they often are closely intermixed with the processes. When you sail along too confidently in the familiar parts, you’re going to miss the warning signals.
     When you do that, you’ll see error, misunderstandings, sour relationships and project shortfalls.
     How can you protect your projects against autopilot?
     One important way is to build countermeasures into your risk management plan. Every work package should include specific requirements for evidence showing that planned actions were taken and measurable outcomes recorded.
     It should be standard practice for managers and supervisors to include such specifics in assignments, instructions and evaluations. They should be carefully revisited as each phase of the project is completed
     This should never be routine in the sense that it is checked off on the way to a quick conclusion.
     It’s also good to periodically brainstorm and speculate:
     “What could go wrong with this part of the project? What haven’t we thought of?”      
     Conversations like that should include various groups of people involved in the project, especially those who don’t get directly involved in planning and directing.

     In project management, the famous unknown unknowns should never become the unexpected unexpecteds.

A Question for You: When have you seen serious consequences from autopilot behavior?

SEE ALSO: Project Attitude

Monday, April 30, 2018

Ego, Confidence & the Manager

     The boss was a good-sized man, good-looking in a fleshy sort of way. Had an assertive way of looking at people around him, commanding his surroundings. A man to be paid attention to.

     But that manner exuded ego, not confidence. Here is a case in point:

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Management Power, Management Behavior

“You can’t run this place by committee.”
     That was the corporate president, responding to the manager of a division of the company.
     The manager, one month into his first job at this level, had just described how he had directed the department heads to prepare for him “blue sky” budget proposals. The idea was to include in early budget planning a look to the future – what the department manager envisioned as investments for growth over the succeeding few years.
     The president was not persuaded by the idea. The new division manager lost the job a few months later, returned to his previous position as a supervisor and soon left the company.
     A successor, more in the authoritative mold of the president, lasted a year before being flat-out fired. His peremptory style had resulted in unionization of every unit in the division.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Patience, Tolerance & Management

     Promotion to management can be tough – on everybody, but particularly on the person honored by the elevation.
     Exceptions are when the new manager had had actual management training before moving up, or has benefited from the gift of competent mentorship. If the mentoring continues after the promotion, the value is multiplied.
     The great majority of entrants into management aren’t so lucky. They arrive unprepared in this strange new place, and some of them never really recover. Look around you. How many of the managers you encounter actually perform the work well?

     In case your ability to evaluate managers has been dulled by years of exposure to the general run of the practice, let’s step back and freshen our perspective.
     To clarify: in most situations, the manager is NOT supposed to be the most accomplished worker bee in the place. Your widget-making days are over now.
     The responsibilities of managers vary limitlessly, so we’ll start with the universal basics: What is a manager supposed to do?

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


     “Do you believe you can support your family if this doesn’t work out?” she asked.
     “Of course!” he responded.
     So he left his secure job and moved his family hundreds of miles. His five-member group was preparing to launch a new business that they hoped would provide professional success and a good living for them all.
     A second member of the group also moved. The two of them were going to do the spadework for  the start-up.
    Within weeks, the whole project collapsed.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Measuring & Managing

   In our never-ending quest for assurance, we jump on anything that sounds simple and can pass for realistic. Here’s one such thing, a commandment for managers:
     “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
     True or False?
     You could almost say the famous statement is both. It’s true and it’s false. (Sort of like the good ol’ boys of The Great White North who liked to “both eat in and take out.”)
     It’s true that managers must have ways to determine the effectiveness of their efforts. They’re investing to make things happen, and they need to know how it’s going. Managers build processes, then tend and adjust them to achieve maximum benefit.
     They have to keep track along the way.
     But it’s not always mathematical. With the really important things, assessment of progress usually is too subtle for quantification alone. There may be evidence of progress or slippage. There may appear to be both.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Project: Risky Business

     Question during a Project Management workshop:
     “Will this course make me less risk-averse?”
     Answer: “It could. The workshop doesn’t make risk go away – It gives you tools to manage it.”

     Well, the workshop didn’t work.
     Same person, two days later:
     “Thank you very much for this course. Now I know I never want to get anywhere near Project Management.”

     That risk-averse person was unusual only in his candor. Most of us avoid risk, and even walk around or away from the possibility of facing it. Why endure pain if you can escape it?
     The very mention of risk often is enough to kill an idea or initiative:
     “That’s pretty risky, isn’t it?”
     “Yeah. I guess so. Let’s just forget it.”
     No, don’t forget it. Evaluate it. What is the likely payoff if it works? How does that match up vs. the potential damage if it doesn’t? And what’s the opportunity cost of not  trying?