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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Failure Is Optional

     Don was the very model of a salesman – the most thorough practitioner of positive thinking I have ever met. “Misery is optional,” he’d intone.
     When someone did something really mean, Don never criticized, really. He’d ascribe it to attitude. He’d shake his head and say, “Some people just don’t want to be happy.”
     Don wasn’t much into blaming, either. When he failed to make a sale, he sometimes apologized to the person who had turned him down: “I apologize for my failure to show you how this (product/service) would make your life so much better.” Or words to that effect.
     He was a true believer. Once, when he was doing the rounds with a new salesman, it came up to noon . . . and the guy wanted to interrupt for lunch. Don was dumbfounded.
     But the most important enduring memory I have of Don is about failure. He refused to believe in it. When someone turned Don down, however firmly, he never considered that the final word. In his mind, he just hadn’t succeeded yet. Had the rest of his life to get there.
     This doesn’t mean he would hound and harass people until they gave in and bought or agreed, or did whatever it was Don was after. It meant he would keep his eye, and his mind, open for opportunities to offer new incentives to the prospect.

     You may not even need to do the follow-up stuff. You can be patient, and sometimes there is a delayed-decision effect. If you did your homework well in preparing your presentation, you planted some thoughts in the person’s mind that may have taken some time to mature.
     Or you can follow up: encourage the blooming by gentle, well-crafted follow-ups from the salesperson, but it can occur naturally by itself.
     There’s lesson in this. You don’t have to buy Don’s whole approach to appreciate the benefits of optimism.
     John Elway is deservedly famous for having led the Denver Broncos to 35 comeback wins in National Football League games. That’s 35 times they fell behind, then clawed their way into the lead. Not easy, physically or mentally.
     Most recently, the New England Patriots are credited with the greatest NFL comeback in history – scoring repeatedly in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XI last month to rise to a win from the lower end of a 28-3 score.   
     Athletic competition at that level requires intense, continuous commitment of physical, mental and emotional energy. Repeated failures over several hours would, for most of us, drain all confidence. Not at all so with many professional athletes.
     They often show us that unreasonable optimism can produce one for the ages. Such people are somehow able to keep probing for opportunity, pushing vigorously as if all the indicators were positive.

     That’s the all-or-nothing way. Elway’s Denver Broncos and the Patriots demonstrated that you can ignore the odds and just keep punchin’. When it’s a black-and-white situation, you wind up with glory or humiliation. No gradations.
     For most of us most of the time, though, failure is an option. In any particular situation, there’s no substantial reward for success, and no really painful penalty for giving up. Many organizations accept low success rates for projects as a matter of course. Failure, or lack of real success, is OK.
     On the other hand, some organizations can’t abide that. Even a whiff of potential failure can convince them to avoid ever taking much of a chance. Risky activities have never worked out, so they aim low and don’t get hurt. This breeds a culture of mediocrity. It’s a copout, wasteful. And it’s unnecessary.
     In fact, failure – handled properly – can be deliberately chosen as a component of success. Good managers, especially competent project managers, often live by a conscious choice of failing in a controlled environment.
     You do this when you have no idea of how to proceed in a situation you’ve never experienced before. Actually it's that way in any real project. Some are so innovative that no one knows how to pull them off, and there is no useful information anywhere for the decision-maker to access.

     So you harness failure to build your own record.
     You plan and conduct a limited initiative that is almost certain to not work. You document the planning, the assumptions, the actual performance and the variances between the advance assumptions and the real-world outcomes.
     You calibrate how far you can push without causing unsustainable damage, and you give it a go.
     When you’ve concluded the experiment, you know, at least in that small arc, what works or what doesn’t. Armed with that small portion of hard fact, you plan again, add a little additional guesswork and trigger another cycle.
     The process continues until you’ve accumulated enough evidence to shoot for the final goal.

     Progress and success are owned by people who are willing to fail . . . and who know how to do it well. When failure is an option, the possibilities are limitless.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Creativity: Outsmarting Geometry

     Phil used to drive Sister Joachim nuts in sophomore geometry class. There we were, the rest of us, straining our brains – and patience – to do the QED thing. Not Phil.
     Phil would almost instantly come up with the correct answer, totally without the correct process. Some kind of genius was Phil, and utterly lacking in any ability to explain how he did it.
     Sister would get quite annoyed, but the great thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome would have been pleased. Phil was proving them right. They dismissed the possibility that humans could work out solutions to puzzles.
     People simply were God’s conduit, they believed, so people did not create art or anything else. They discovered.
     I never explored the concept of divine inspiration with Phil. He became a cop, and I marveled one time at the stark simplicity and effectiveness of a police maneuver he described. It was how to gain control over an unruly citizen, however big and mean the person might be.
     While no witness to the move would be able to detect what the officer was doing, there would be instant submission by the troublemaker.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Listen Up

     If you think you’re not a good listener, you’re probably wrong.
     Listening researcher Kevin Murphy asserted that in his book “Effective Listening: Hearing What People Say and Making It Work for You.”
     Murphy questioned a sample of 20 top managers, “all business leaders whom I had known to be truly tuned to their employees’ needs and goals“.
     “Are you a good listener?” was Murphy’s question. What was the result?
     “More than 75 percent of the good listeners I surveyed answered no. Why? Because the better you listen, the more you learn about how little you know.”
     So the good listeners were harder on themselves than the independent experts were. Unhappily, the opposite also is true. In general, studies show that most people think they’re good listeners – and most people are wrong.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Team Is Work

     “What is a team, and why do we need to know what it is?”
     That’s a standard discussion point for any meaningful consideration of basic Project Management. After all, Project Management is all about people working together to accomplish something new. The “working together” part is teamwork.
     Actually, the basic question often doesn’t come up at all, because we believe everyone knows what a team is, and how it is vital to the effective management of projects. So we launch our projects assuming we’ll be a team and it will work.
     Well, do we really know what a team is or how it should work? Or what it could accomplish? Or how short most of our group activity falls from gaining the benefits of this invaluable concept?
     Most of all, we don’t realize how studiously we avoid developing teamwork and how seriously that mistake damages our potential for project success.
     We may not connect project shortfalls with inadequate teamwork. We sort of assume projects, by their nature, never get close to 100 percent – that’s just the way it is.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Assumptions, Risks & Selective Routine

     You can’t leave the house without assuming that your neighbors won’t attack you, that your car will start without blowing up and that you can safely travel across town.
     Those are pretty safe assumptions for most of us in the United States and around the world, but not so everywhere. There are places where you can’t assume safety, and where deadly risk is ever-present.
     Conclusion: Assumptions and risks are situational.
     We can apply that to life: We assume the car will start . . . and then one day it doesn’t. We can assume the front steps are safe, until the day an invisible sheet of ice makes them life-changingly not. Maybe the usual is in place. Maybe not. It’s situational.
     When we’re project managers, we herd uncertainty for a living. We can pay a high price for mismanaging the job.
     The devilish thing about project management is its lurking unpredictability. There’s the nine-times-out-of-ten factor. So much of any project is composed of procedures we have tried and found to be true countless times. We can’t justify meticulously examining each of them each time we employ it.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Love That Failure

 Most information we see about project success and failure falls into one of two major topic areas.
     Numerous studies have revealed the bad decisions that led to famous historical disasters such as Robert Scott’s 1911 expedition, in which everybody died after reaching the South Pole (while Roald Amundsen had led a flawless round trip to the Pole a few weeks prior).
     And we’ve read about the project management mistakes that sank the mighty Titanic of the White Star Line in 1912. And why the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (“Galloping Gertie”) destroyed itself in 1940.
     Big-time and big-budget, all of them.
     And then there are statistics that tell us what percentage of present-day projects actually make their numbers on cost, schedule and requirements. Results vary, but not many are outstandingly good. 
     In either category, there isn’t much of use to us small-timers with nontechnical challenges in unsophisticated environments. So innumerable project managers wrestle alone with issues of limited resources, demanding sponsors, resistant stakeholders, shaky budgets, distracted team members -- often with utter lack of precedent.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

When All Else Fails, Read the Directions

     “When all else fails, read the directions.”
     The landlord was a rough-hewn sort, a small-town developer and semi-retired owner of a construction business, constantly battling with the authorities over his penchant for doing things his own way, regardless.
     His wry counsel about the directions, though, was spot on. In the midst of some routine difficulty, he made that remark as he went back to Square One.
     After a quick chuckle, we stop to appreciate the implications of such a crack. It reminds us how often we entangle ourselves in ever-widening, totally unnecessary complexity.
     Until comes the revelation: Oh! It wasn’t plugged in. No wonder it didn’t work. Why didn’t we check that to start with?