jim@millikenproject.com

jim@millikenproject.com 207-808-8878 Our book "Life is a Project: How are you managing?" is now available!


Thursday, December 30, 2010

How to Save Your Organization

It’s the unlovely little secret of most organizations. It’s the universal challenge facing those responsible for the work of others. It’s the sand in the gears of group productivity.
What is it? Delegating, that’s what. Poor or nonexistent delegating.
Delegating is the reason we have managers. The managers’ job is to clarify and specify what is to be done, then subdivide the workload and assign suitable portions of it to the various people who are under the managers’ direction. Sometimes it works. When it does, it produces results whose quantity and quality rise well above the possible accumulation of individual outcomes from the same workforce.
When delegating doesn’t work, which is often, it is because the managers haven’t successfully set the goals, identified the work and transferred the responsibility. Alternatively, it doesn’t work because the delegatees haven’t done their part. They haven’t gotten it done correctly, or on time. And sometimes it doesn’t get done because it never really was assigned at all.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Modern Project Manager

The PMBOK Guide describes 42 processes necessary to manage a project, and organizes them into five process groups and nine knowledge areas.
It takes nothing away from the Project Management Institute formulation to state the basic truth that not a single process, not a shred of knowledge is worth anything without one factor that is the ultimate essential. It is, in the fine old Latin phrase, “sine qua non – without which nothing.”
This prime-moving element is no mystery, no mystery at all, but its universal absence from Project Management talk suggests that it’s too delicate a concept for its name to be uttered in polite company.
Commitment.
I rewind and rerun in my imagination the project meetings of my life, especially the famous opening act: the initial organizational session.
I see once more the veiled eyes, the crossed arms, the sagging body language, the disguised yawns and smirks. Hear the doubts and obstacles and competing priorities. Workloads. I feel the palpable rejection and get that old familiar lost, gone feeling, sliding down that slippery slope once again. All alone.
Then I fast forward to today’s older-wiser mental video of the project manager behavior that reflects a deep understanding of why those long-ago days were the way they were, and a complete grasp of what it is that was missing then.
Commitment.
Not only does this modern project manager understand the situation and grasp its implications, he/she also knows what to do about it. This project manager will not become immersed in planning details that result in nothing. Or get entangled in excuses, squabbles and slippages. This project manager will pay attention to business, and will do so in an order of priorities that recognizes the sine qua non of commitment.
The project manager constructively engages the very deep-down human infrastructure that guarantees successful project performance and full satisfaction of the project intent. This project manager has, in fact, done what needs to be done about it before this first project meeting, and will now proceed to do it again.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Winning without Power

The Emperor Nero ordered his Roman subjects to worship his horse as a god, basically as an idle demonstration of his power. He did it because he could, and there was no way to stop him. You could wind up dead if you didn’t comply.
That is authority without responsibility.
The modern project manager, on the other hand, often is the one who must meet quality standards within cost and time limits set by someone else – and do it through the work of people he/she doesn’t control. Amid plentiful risk and multiple complexities.
That is responsibility without authority.
The project manager swings in the breeze between those two poles. He/she is at the mercy of people who own all the marbles and can yank them back at any time. Simultaneously that project manager must somehow get tough stuff done predictably and consistently by “team members” who have no obligation to comply while they have lots of other things to do.
Too many project managers respond to this by working like dogs, scrambling in pursuit of busy people and filling in the gaps through their own efforts.
In the world of management, among the worst things you can do is to substitute personal labor for management direction. When you, the manager, pick up your shovel and go to the mine, you often are the best digger down there. While you’re demonstrating that, the actual designated diggers are leaning on their tools to watch admiringly, if they’re not off on some other dig.
As this sort of thing is going on, management is not happening. When you, the leader, become overbusy, a lot of really important stuff goes by the boards. Leadership very significantly depends upon observation and analysis, paying attention, understanding. It demands persuasion, the ability to convince people to do what they otherwise wouldn’t do.
You can’t determine what’s happening or convince anybody if you don’t have time to conduct adequate observation and effective communication. You anticipate/solve problems and build productive mutual relationships through attention to events and people, watching and listening, responding to variances, needs and ideas, showing people they can look to you for solutions, assistance, ideas and inspiration.
A workload overload robs the project manager of the time and mental/emotional balance required to do that sort of thing. And, truth be told, many project managers secretly long to have these folks get out the way so they can have at the work themselves.
In sum, the project situation is set up to leave the project manager all alone out there with the responsibility, facing at best a major set of challenges. At worst, the view is a solid wall of people’s backs. What to do?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Don't Just Do It! Do It Right

Just do it!
What a great slogan! It clears away a lot of the fuzz and distraction. Just do it. Act. Get things done. Results. We love it. The phrase emits a shiny, glowing simplicity that feels really good.
It would be great if only it worked. It doesn’t. For the athletes (and wannabes) the Nike slogan is aimed at, there is an implication of a simple need to unleash intense action based on high-level preparation. As a slogan, it may even have value for the couch potato who needs a boot into motion, any motion.
For general purposes of life for the rest of us, the “just do it” concept is dangerous nonsense. Think about it in the context of managing projects. Reasonable expectations about human behavior say “no way just do it.” You can’t lead project teams that way.
“Just do it!” says “impulse.” Don’t take time to think it over – your determination might drain away. Jump before you think about it too much.
What do you think it does to the team you’re trying to lead if people never know when you’re going to lurch into unexpected, unexplained action in response to some unpredictable impulse? That’s not leadership; it’s solo hyperactivity.
This is not to dismiss the project manager’s need for motivation. Leaders are by no means exempt from the fundamental and very human reality that we need a recharge on occasion. In fact, a project manager’s emotional battery must have extra capacity. It has to supply the energy for the leader’s own demanding role as well as frequent jump-starts for numerous dependent stakeholders. If the project manager is not driving forward with vigor and confidence, everyone else loses headway. The drag increases exponentially and can become irreversible very quickly.
So the project manager must have and display fire and determination, as well as focus and mental engagement. The project manager’s behavior must reassure and inspire others. He/she must be tuned to the needs and momentum of all those others who operate at lesser speeds on lower levels.
That central role demands steady direction and guidance. Impulse is out. But the need for self-motivation is not. And, in fact, for the project manager the need is greater – often much greater – than that of other project stakeholders.
But we’re not superhuman. Just do it! won’t do, so we must look elsewhere for self-motivation.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

They're Not Listening to You

The project manager has been at this a long time, and he’s been frustrated for much of that time.

“I get to the end of my rope about once a week,” he said, “I go in there and tell my manager how screwed up things are and what needs to be done to make it all work. And you know what happens? Absolutely nothing!”

Meanwhile, at the other end of this relationship, things are fine. It all depends upon your perspective.

“Joe is a really good project manager,” his manager tells me. “But he’s kind of a worrier. He comes in here every once in a while with a list of problems. I let him unload for a while – then he goes back and finds ways to get the job done.”

So one sees a system that doesn’t work, while the other sees a cyclical ritual that is just a factor in a passable way of life.

This kind of relationship is not sustainable. When there are systemic problems, continued indifference at the management level results in progressive unhappiness at the working leadership level. It wears people down. If there is not a sudden explosion at some point, there is an erosion of productivity and/or eventual burnout.

The syndrome has countless scenarios in the workplace. It is pervasive. You wonder if any organization actually has clear understandings between the people who do the job and the people who manage the process and own the resources.

This is, of course, the famous “communication problem.” It comes up in conversation and complaint really, really often. There is reason for the impression that not only is it everywhere most of the time, but there’s really nothing to be done about it.

Well, the main reason nothing gets done is that no one does anything. We don't resolve basic communication disconnects because the real issue gets too little thought on all sides. More specific to project management: They’re not listening to you because you’re not talking to them. You’re talking to yourself. They just happen to be on the scene, providing an occasion but not a partner for the verbalization.

If something effective is ever to be done about this failing, let’s start with the project manager.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Leadership: Do You Want to Work That Hard?

We talk of leadership in glowing scenes of roaring crowds. Huge ones. Rippling banners and uplifting trumpets. Adulation. No rejection. No resistance. No nasty sniping.

That’s why we see so little of it.

If you’re actually going to do leadership, be ready. Leadership, real leadership, is mostly grubby, grinding, endlessly demanding of time, patience and effort. Then, in the midst of long stretches of unnoticed, unrewarded labor, unexpectedly there arises the moment at which great success is achieved . . . or great disgrace is earned.

Basically, your extraordinary personal investment is taken for granted.

You can’t be sufficiently disciplined, adequately tolerant, to invest all that time in supporting, guiding, educating, persuading . . . it takes to build a strong constituency of appreciative followers. You can’t – at the same time -- be sufficiently gifted and smart enough, properly alert and sensitive enough, politically attuned at the necessary level, to know when your moment has come.

Unless you’re a leader.

If you love authority, you’re out. They'll hate you. If you enjoy the limelight, you’re a performer, a lightweight. They may love to watch you, but they won’t follow you. If you declare yourself a leader, you’re a joke. It’s not up to you. If you expect appreciation, you’re really missing the point. When and if appreciation comes you didn’t anticipate it, because it never was part of your motivation.

You lead because you outwork expectations, beginning in the most mundane ways. Wherever your project, your organization, your people are, that’s where you are. You attend an awful lot of meetings. You tell people, early on and all along, what they need to know. You have, and you demonstrate, respect. You ask real questions, and you really listen when people talk. You reward significant input, and you ignore distraction and misdirection.

Man, does all this take time. Most of that time is low-octane investment of your presence and attention. It is draining. You don’t need to have all the answers, but you need to be a steadying, reinforcing backbone of the process. Alert, believing and always on message.

You need to do your homework, answer the questions and dissolve the objections. You must offer ideas and solutions – while empowering people to think and act in ways that get them to consciously engage their own initiative.

Oh, and this job requires what Peter Drucker called “the ‘C’ word – courage.” No really meaningful decision, he said, is easy. When it truly matters, there is going to be pain and a price is to be paid, no matter which way you go. People are going to be hurt. They're going to be angry. At you.

Probably no one will blame you if you dodge the firestorm.

But, if you do, they will never ever think of you as a leader.

OK, so you buy all that, and you’re ready to be a leader. How do you do it?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Derelict Projects

The mythology of the sea is ripe with mysterious and scary stuff. Why was the Mary Celeste discovered cruising along, relatively undamaged but totally without captain and crew? Is the Flying Dutchman really still fulfilling his vow to battle Antarctic gales in a ghost ship until doomsday?

The Mary Celeste case was examined by a court of inquiry at Gibraltar, but the provable facts were too skimpy to settle it, and the rich flow of supposition and speculation has kept the story rolling vigorously since the 1870s. No, there was not a half-eaten meal on the table, nor was there a cat asleep on a berth when the ship was boarded.

The Flying Dutchman tale is even more fun, since no one is quite sure what, if any, actual event in the 1600s seeded the endless versions of the cursed shipmaster’s challenge to God (or maybe the Devil) that condemned him to suffer the worst of every subsequent storm off the tip of Africa. To this day, or at least to the last reported sighting of the ghost ship in 1959.

For sure, there really were, and are, derelicts – abandoned ships and boats – in the modern world, plenty of them. Mysterious disappearances from vessels, too. In April 2007, a good-sized vessel was discovered off Australia with its engines running, an open laptop computer on board and – yes – food on the table. There was no sign of the three men who were supposed to be there.

For the big-tragedy-oriented, the Bermuda Triangle provides updated mythology that includes the unexplained vanishing of jet planes as well as ships. Scary.

There is a bottomless human appetite for mystery, and we have no problem finding it in the most unromantic places. Project Management, for instance.

Derelict projects loom in the workplace, drifting aimlessly, sometimes for years, their hopeless crew members staring out at the passing world from haunted eyes. Actual disappearance of projects occurs, too, but ghostly reappearances are thankfully rare.

The word “abandonment” shows up often in definitions of “derelict,” and there’s a lot of that in the world of projects.

The reasons generally are neither romantic nor mysterious.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Project Communication: When It Ain't Broke, It Can Fix Whatever Is

We talk about communication all the time, but we rarely communicate about it.

Communication. It’s one of those everyday pervasive things we notice only when it trips us up – and even then we pause only long enough to cuss a bit. Then we move on, busily sowing new communication pratfalls pretty much like the last one.

Wait a minute! Back there, I said we talk but don’t communicate. What does that mean? We’re seeming to claim that talking is not the same as communicating.

Good question. Now we can get into the subject in a meaningful way, and examine how it lurks in just about every problem among people. And therefore in every solution. Especially in project management.

Communication does indeed occur when we talk, but the talking itself isn’t the whole thing, and often isn’t even the main thing. Other factors can be better carriers of useful information between the conversational parties than the words are. It’s a lot harder to understand and be understood when, for example, you can’t see the person(s) you’re talking to. It’s even harder when you can’t hear or be heard, such as when the exchange is through writing rather than speech.

Whatever the situation or vehicle, it’s difficult to communicate meaningfully when the subject matter is complex, dynamic and unfamiliar – say, when you’re managing a serious project. Doing it remotely, and/or across cultures, multiplies the barriers. And it’s infinitely worse when there is ignorance, misunderstanding, hostility or conflict. Open, latent or disguised.

Just sticking with regular project management, among culturally homogeneous, co-located people, you have to conclude that most projects don’t meet reasonable expectations for schedule, cost and outcome. Ideal project outcomes are just not that frequent, because ideal project situations are just not that frequent.

Why is it so tough to manage projects to happy endings? Not surprisingly, my endless string of project manager surveys about the worst project failings nearly always places communication right up in the top three, often first. The other top flaws are essentially caused by or are dependent upon communication.

When communication fails, everything fails. When something else goes wrong, communication always is essential to the repair. How?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Project Management and the Pursuit of Assurance

“Will this make me less risk-averse?”

The question, in a roomful of managers, startled me. I was a newly minted trainer, and we were gathered for a project management workshop. I hadn’t quite thought of the matter in terms of overcoming the jitters – but my views have radically changed since that long-ago day.

My previous experience with projects had been informal – in fact, I had never heard of something identifiable as “Project Management” until I got into consulting.

When, as a manager in the news business, I was responsible for getting something done, I rolled up my sleeves and went into combat mode. People knew that the poor devil stuck with the effort – special edition, process change, behind-the-news series, whatever – was in for a tough time.

They also knew that that person was going to disrupt their busy lives with demands for additional effort, generally unpaid and unrewarded. The thing rarely went well. Besides the reluctance of project “team” members and others whose help the leader needed, there were all the uncertainties of the work itself. The likelihood was that this was going to take a lot more time, blood, sweat, etc., than predicted. In all likelihood, more than it was worth.

So, with perfect logic, everyone stayed as far away as possible as long as possible. “Leadership” basically involved tracking people down and strongarming them for the desired output. All of this caused serious damage to relationships and left institutional scars that ensured a lousy start for any future initiative. It produced consistently poor results.

The essential problem with that familiar approach is its failure to properly engage and manage the one factor that makes all the difference: People. In the best of projects and the worst of projects, people are the most volatile variable. When this part is right, amazing things become possible. When it's not right, nothing will work.

And, in a typical organization, experience has inoculated potential participants against enthusiasm for participation.

When the manager mentioned above raised the unexpected question, it wasn’t just risk she was thinking of. She really was referring to the array of negatives, certainly including risk, that often surround the management of projects. Every one of them is based on – or heavily influenced by – people, their intentions, behavior and relationships.

This poor functioning of the human factor makes sound project management nigh impossible in many organizations, but it doesn’t have to be that way. For one thing, project managers have to stop supporting the negatives that bedevil them. WHAT?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

When Is It a Project?

If you’re human, you’ve done it. You’ve slipped sideways into a project without realizing it, and your routine practices didn’t work. This can be messy and difficult.

Some people you know have been doing it all their lives. Some never catch on – even when they are acutely aware that things just aren’t working right. They assume that’s the way the world is and nothing can be done about it.

Well, when IS it a project? And what CAN be done about it?

The answer to the first question is not as simple as it might seem, and the implications are extremely important. Project management calls for relatively time-consuming and uncomfortable actions up front. You have to get key stakeholders to sit still for the necessary research, decision-making, planning, communication and commitment. That’s a challenge.

When you’re looking for ways to identify when you’re into a project, you’re not going to get a lot of help from the scripture of the industry. Here are some examples:

The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (the PMBOK Guide of the Project Management Institute) – “A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.”

Harold Kerzner’s Project Management -- “A project can be considered to be any series of activities and tasks that:
Have a specific objective to be completed within certain specifications
Have defined start and end dates
Have funding limits (if applicable)
Consume human and nonhuman resources (i.e., money, people,
equipment)
Are multifunctional (i.e., cut across several functional lines).”

Garold Oberlender’s Project Management for Engineering and Construction
“A project is an endeavor that is undertaken to produce the results that are expected from the requesting party. . . . A project consists of three components: scope, budget and schedule.”

All three are correct, as are many of the various other definitions of “project” out there in the field. But many people who wake up in project situations could use some finer tuning. How do I know whether what I’m doing, or what I’m facing, is a project? What do I do about it?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Making It in Project Management

How do you find a job as a project manager?
Here’s a simple how-to system:
1. Get a job.
2. Act like a project manager.

See? Nothing to it.

Well, actually the process does require more than just showing up and appointing yourself. But prospective project managers must understand that this is an environment unlike education, accounting, bartending or any other relatively defined field of endeavor.

My experience is that true project managers do not always come clearly labeled, and some people who do carry the title aren’t really doing the full project manager job. In fact, the job title has always been inadequate in specifying just exactly what the holder was doing.

The information technology and construction industries have, for decades, listed “project manager” as a distinct position. The jobs often are defined so narrowly, though, that their occupants really don’t manage projects. In fact, they sometimes don’t manage anything of consequence at all – they simply tend technical slices of predetermined processes. Necessary work, sometimes quite important work, but not project management.

Other people identified as project managers do indeed handle key responsibilities in originating and conducting significant project work. You just never know until you look into it.

In the current world, organizational decision-makers are becoming more aware of project management as a way to handle complexity, rapid change, growing risk and all the consequences of globalization. Conventional management is neither agile enough nor comprehensive enough for the job.

When that perception results in action, the organization consults some source in the project management profession to obtain a job description that more than likely demands extensive, specific experience in the work. Then they may add their own wish list and create a fictional silver bullet of a position.

Where does this leave the person who is looking to have a project management career, and is wondering where to start?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Same Old Wheel

History is the how-to manual for the future – but only if it lasts that long.

People are studying project success rates all the time, and they find that well over half of all projects fail to some significant degree, even when the standards of measurement are relatively forgiving.

Why are things this way? Well, there are the people, generally very good people. Then there’s the process, often not a very good process.

First, the people. Project managers, when they’re successful, are action people. They typically are not contemplative types. They thrive on engaging the multiple simultaneous challenges of complex innovation. Their days are consumed by the trials, errors and revisions that keep projects moving through the fog of uncertainty. If something works, great. If it doesn’t, let’s move right on and try something else.

This is the way to go, as far as it goes. When it doesn’t go far enough, the project manager’s workstyle, combined with other typical factors, does not encourage a cult of preparation and documentation. If they’re not careful, project managers are tempted to shortcut planning and tracking.

That can limit the formal planning/operating process to combining adoption of some old paperwork with finger-crossing for what’s new this time. There is no history. Individual memories tend to be selective and incomplete, and of course the memories leave when their owners do. The institution doesn’t develop and retain knowledge for use the next time.

When that happens, it results from a false choice: Either we get going and tackle this challenge, or we sit around and waste time attempting to plan the unplannable.

Don’t be tempted. Professional project management methodology, thoughtfully employed, works. It engages the unfamiliarity, the complexity and the risks – while actually taking less time and hassle.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Why Should I?

It’s easy to get people to do what they want to do. The problem for project managers is that most people don’t want to do this. They aren’t particularly motivated to throw themselves enthusiastically into project work.

They have their reasons. Projects very often are extra work. The team members’ regular bosses have their own concerns. Functional managers can be quite unwilling to adjust team members’ regular workloads in favor of time to work on outside projects. The managers can flat-out demand that close-to-home priorities come first.

The reluctance also can originate with the designated team member him/herself. If you’re a committed worker, you don’t want to take time away from what you’re already devoted to. If you’re not a committed worker, you don’t want to take on more unwanted duties of any kind.

There are other factors. The project usually has unfamiliar activities and personnel. It’s uncertain, risky, time-consuming. You don’t like to be subject to the decisions of someone you don’t know – and who isn’t really your boss, anyway.

The very dedication of the project manager, when it exists, can be off-putting. Dedicated people can be really annoying to associates who aren’t. Doesn’t this guy/woman realize I don’t share the conviction that nothing in the world is as important as this thing?

If the project manager is not dedicated, or is a bumbler, disorganized, a poor communicator, impatient, uncaring . . . Well, you get the picture.

All of the above is no revelation to veteran project managers. Project leadership is openly built on the ghastly principle of responsibility without authority. The stage is set.

The situation is so daunting, in fact, that stakeholders and spectators often operate on the assumption that every project will wind up ‘way over budget, off schedule and under quality standards. That’s just the way it is.

When the project manager agrees with them, a disappointingly frequent occurrence, you’ve got a guaranteed dog of a project and a dispirited troupe of reluctant participants. You’ve got an organization resigned to mediocrity or worse in its attempts to innovate.

And, most seriously, you have a burned-out project manager who tried the “champion” role – pulling the project through by superhuman effort – or a cynical project manager – telling the world that you can’t expect anything different from a loser organization like this.

Refocusing this picture is not impossible, but it’s not simple. It means the project manager must refuse to share in a cardinal failure of our workplace culture.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Greatest Flaw

The seemingly endless catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is an excellent example of really terrible project management. From every angle, this is a colossal botch by some of the smartest and most powerful people in the world. That starts with British Petroleum (BP), which reportedly used at every turn the most primitive form of risk management – squeeze your eyes tight shut and cross your fingers.

As it drove its drill through four miles of seabed, starting under a mile of water, the huge, worldwide oil company used up-to-the-minute techniques and technology. Yet, for the prevention and mitigation of possible problems, it stuck with decades-old practices developed for shallow water, consistently choosing the least-costly protective measures. In essence, BP appears to have acted on the assumption that nothing could possibly go wrong, and the federal regulators seemed to agree.

From reports about what went on before and during the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, it begins to appear that a disaster was inevitable.

In the ensuing weeks, we’ve been treated to a series of incredibly ineffective efforts to stop the underwater gusher. Shortly thereafter, we began to witness the resultant chaos in trying to contain and clean up the millions of gallons of crude oil. The fishing and tourism industries, vital to the populations that rim the Gulf, are for now as dead as the beslimed sea creatures plucked from the gunk.

Regarding the cleanup, The New York Times reported last week: “From the beginning, the effort has been bedeviled by a lack of preparation, organization, urgency and clear lines of authority among federal, state and local officials and BP.”

That description is a near-complete listing of the classic ailments of failed projects, including the most damaging flaw of all.

David Brooks, estimable columnist for The Times, concludes a commentary on the situation with this prescription: “We have vested too much authority in national officials who are really smart, but who are really distant. We should be leaving more power with local officials, who may not be as expert, but who have the advantage of being there on the ground.”

Wrong.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Jangling the Triangle

Nothing jangles the Triangle of Truth like the black magic wand of risk. For a terrifying example, consider the ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.
Drilling for oil in unprecedented circumstances is, of course, a project. The level of innovation and uncertainty in any project determines how much risk is involved, and therefore how the Triangle is to be constructed.
Drilling for oil a mile down in an extremely complex and fragile environment is a hugely risky project. It calls for strategic designs and tactical decisions soundly based in comprehensive assessment, analysis and planning with forethought.
Consider the Triangle of Truth (in more august quarters, referred to as “The Treble Constraint”).
The corners of the Triangle represent the three slippery assets at the foundation of the project manager’s job: Time, cost and quality. Projects are projects because they are uncertain, and the three corners are floating constructs required to make any action planning possible.
Amid uncertainty, we want to take time for baby steps, cautiously edging into the unknown. Can’t do much of that, though, because now you’re bulging out the cost corner. After while, certain desired outcomes can begin to look impossible because you’re running out of time and money – and maybe because they turn out to be just plain impossible.
So the triangle is dynamic, constantly tending to lurch out of control. At its center is the project manager, the busy string-puller who must keep the three corners in balance. The project manager works to manufacture certitude out of material that is largely speculative.
The multiple investors, participants and beneficiaries of the project must be empowered to act decisively and efficiently. You, as project manager, persuade them to do so, without let-up, through the life of the project. You start with forecasts and commitments that coalesce into a plan, then you execute, correct and accomplish. And negotiate.
Success at this enterprise demands proof that those making commitments can do so in confidence that the risks have been identified and accounted for.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

To-may-to? To-mah-to?

You say to-may-to. I say to-mah-to. So what?

Well, different pronunciations are symptoms of different routes through life, each with its own history, values, practices . . . and language and interpretations. In the course of human events, few factors are more important than communication, and few are less well-understood.

For this very reason, thousands of failures are launched every day in the conference rooms of this country. Well-intentioned people try to function without common definitions. They are project managers, team members and other stakeholders trapped in a culture that dooms a majority of projects to failure, not infrequently total failure.

Overblown, you say? No, this is not simply a point of irritation for lingo freaks. It matters, a lot, to us all. Take, for example, the word “done.” Left to my own devices, I’ll make sure my part of the project is complete, finished according to my understanding of what should be included.

Yet, it may be lacking elements – perhaps important ones – required for subsequent project activities. The shortfalls may show up immediately, or it may be several steps down the road before they erupt. They can, and often do, cause severe schedule and cost problems as somebody else gets hit with an unexpected variance. Their assumptions didn’t match mine, and neither of us knew.

This problem is so pervasive that it is a fundamental piece of the general expectation that projects will never truly meet expectations regarding cost, schedule and quality. This assumption says something about attitudes toward communication, and therein lies a crucial issue for the project manager.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Stress, My Friend & Foe

If you’re a project manager, and you’re not tense, you’re not paying attention. Tension, stress, whatever you call it, is a defining worklife trait of effective project managers. You have to be a bit tight to do this job properly. But not too tight.

The shorthand of the workplace too often gets this wrong, equating tension/stress with unhappiness and poor health, period. That oversimplifies and trivializes this most valuable of conditions.

The pursuit of happiness is a stressful business, especially if you take it seriously. You’re chasing something you want but don’t have. The more valuable it is and the more you want it, the more stressful the process becomes. Pretty much by definition, the good project manager really, really wants the desired outcome.

It’s the level of determination, twinned up with the risk, uncertainty and dependencies, that make for the stress.

It’s no wonder, then, that project management draws the kind of people who enjoy challenge, problem solving and dealing with the unexpected under time pressure. And it’s no surprise that they live lives in which the tension can become suffocating.

Here’s why. Whether they admit it or not, project managers take pride in the role of go-to person, courageous decision maker, hard worker, totally dependable leader, manager and teammate.

People frequently find themselves in this work by natural selection rather than conscious choice, at least at the beginning. Early on, they seem to be more willing to take on the tough jobs. They take responsibility for learning how to do what no one else steps forward to tackle.

Over time, they build the reputation – in their own minds as well as among their superiors and peers – as people you can turn to. The workstyle traits that distinguish them become more pronounced as their distinctiveness becomes more sharply defined.

This good thing can become too much, and the invigorating stress, remaining too high for too long, becomes destructive. Wisdom must discipline commitment at some point, or such people can work themselves into burnout or worse.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Project Manager's Art

How do you get people to do what you want them to do?

This eternal question of human relations has special resonance in the world of Project Management. Sometimes nobody wants to do what needs to be done -- perhaps even the Project Manager who is supposed to be its leader.

Considering the nature of Projects, this disability is understandable. But it's not acceptable. Dealing with it should be up front and on top of the Project Manager's priorities. It often isn't.

Consider the nature of Projects. They are temporary intrusions into the regular order of business. Sometimes they are massive. Always they require individuals to engage in unfamiliar tasks and/or to work with unfamiliar people. This uncomfortable new workload can be in addition to their accustomed activities, perhaps with no reduction in pre-existing expectations. You're supposed to kind of work this new thing in.

Surrounding it all is an aura of uncertainty, since Projects are -- by nature -- risky. No one, including the leadership, is quite sure how to handle this. That's why it's a project -- a complex, multidisciplinary effort to produce an innovation. The quality of the outcome is expected to be high. Oh, and you must use a minimum of resources, including funds and people, and meet a tough deadline.

There are many characterizations of what typically happens in such situations, some of them quite flip. Generally, the point being made is that there's no way this thing will get done anywhere near the deadline. Nor will it have a prayer of meeting budget. And quality? You're lucky if your result has 50 percent of the features or functions you set out to produce.

Well, what happens when things work, despite the odds? While successful Projects are in the minority, there are some. What makes the difference?

Project Management has been described as an art and a science. That's not just an airy remark. It is central to understanding how the Project Manager is to be effective.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

All Productivity Is Personal

Effective Project Management can make perfect sense on paper. Logic, clarity and predictability are like that. Even risk can be identified and managed with reasonable certitude when you theoretically control the circumstances. Then you insert the human factor, and . . . .

Ah, the human factor. Sounds so manageable when you say it that way – sort of a verbal cardboard cutout with depersonalization of “human” and the emphasis on “factor.” As a matter of brutal fact, too many managers follow the Paul Simon dictum, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

Truth is, people even at their best are the least predictable of the resources available to the manager. Someone who is a star performer today can be a flat tire in the operation tomorrow, depending upon utterly unpredictable personal, family, health, financial, mood influences.

When that happens, there can be radical effects on results. The resources of cost (salary), time (work schedule), materials, equipment, facilities and everything else remain completely unchanged. The bad effect occurs solely because the human being has performed differently. That catalytic resource – the person – gives dynamic meaning to all those other resources, and is the dominant determinant of the outcome.

As in everything else, what is true in ordinary organized human activity is more so in Project Management, because a Project is organized human activity in a pressure cooker. You don’t have the luxury of seemingly plentiful time. Your resources are sparingly, perhaps grudgingly, often inadequately doled out from stores originally anticipated elsewhere.

Most importantly, your people are loaned from permanent organizational functions whose managers are not above tugging them back to serve contrary priorities.

In short, management of this human being thing makes or breaks the Project Manager. And the most serious challenge in doing so is bounded by the end of his/her nose.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Ancient History of the Boss

Hundreds of tough-looking men stand around in a clearing in the North Woods, obviously waiting for something. Then a smallish guy walks into the clearing, goes up to the biggest, meanest-looking of the men and knocks him flat with a single punch.
The onlookers nod approvingly to one another, and a murmur goes through the crowd: “Must be the new boss.”


Would that establishing authority and leadership were so simple today! Well, it’s not. Many members of any Project Team can have sophisticated skills utterly different from those of the Project Manager. In fact, the very defining work of the Project can be common to Team members, but not the Project Manager. Such professionals can be difficult to lead – but Project success is impossible without accomplishing that.

It can be done. A veteran worker in a skilled trade, now in training to add Project Manager expertise, recalled his puzzlement a few years earlier when a Project Manager was added to an organization in which this senior contributor typically had a leading role.

He ignored the Project Manager for the next two or three Projects, then somehow was convinced to make use of the man’s knowledge and experience. His eyes were quickly opened, and that is why he decided to get Project Management training himself.

It is unfortunate that, in many organizations, such moments of revelation never occur. The Project Manager operates as digger-in-chief in a pick-and-shovel environment characterized more by devotion to good old-fashioned hard work than better up-to-date smart work.

While nothing is simple in love and war, life and Project Management, there is a relatively straightforward solution for the Project Manager.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Down from the Mighty White Horse

The starving settlers on the frontier deployed scouts in a desperate search for food. Back came the report: “The bad news is that all there is to eat out there is buffalo chips. The good news is, we have a five-year supply.”

Meanwhile, back in today’s world: No matter who blew it – or failed to do it – it’s all your fault. You’re the project manager. And you have to fix it. That's the bad news. Now let’s get on to the good news.

It’s true that the world is not yet at the point where little boys and girls aspire to be Project Managers. Cops, firemen, astronauts, sports stars, adventure heroes and all-purpose celebrities continue to dominate the career dream scene – for now.

But we’re getting there. More and more, employers are demonstrating at least a general understanding that Project Management training is worth demanding in new hires. Many specify in job postings that applicants hold the certification as Project Management Professional (PMP).

In response, more working adults are seeking Project Management training and certification, and more students are taking courses in the subject. Project Management no longer is as mythological as the tales of the Lone Ranger.

All this good news shouldn’t mask the fact that Project Management is difficult work.

For one thing, it is frequently mischaracterized as an information technology specialty, so business-process challenges are assigned to IT specialists who have no idea how to manage any of it outside its technical component. More broadly, functional managers sometimes see the new Project Manager as the convenient repository for any problem they don’t want to deal with.

And, sadly, the whole thing is the Project Manager’s fault.

Monday, April 12, 2010

One Sick Project

A junior manager of a healthcare organization came across a no-brainer solution to a serious problem, and therein lies a depressing story. This is an illustration of the failure of goal coordination that fosters extensive effort -- extensive, fruitless effort.

In the healthcare facility, there traditionally has been a high rate of back and neck injury among staff members who have to lift and turn bedridden patients. Most of the patients are incapable of helping in the effort, and some are quite hefty. The patient also can suffer injury because of the clumsiness inevitable when two or more people are moving an inert body.

The junior manager attended a conference at which she learned about equipment that will do the heavy lifting while the attendants carry out simple, easy tasks and guide the process.

She put together a project proposal for installing the equipment in various patient care units of the facility, emphasizing the benefits to the workers’ health and the organization’s management of its costs. There also, not incidentally, would be the contribution to the comfort and welfare of the patients.

The decision to propose a change instantly transformed the junior manager into a project manager, which she didn’t realize. While she was somewhat familiar with project management, this was the first time a sizeable project had arisen in her worklife. Unfortunately, the project warning bell didn’t sound in the back of her mind.

In due course, senior management approved the plan, which was to begin with a pilot implementation in one department that had volunteered to go first. The equipment was installed, information was provided to senior professionals in the department, explanatory signs were made and posted.

It’s all been downhill since.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Fatal Assumption

You can trigger a lively discussion any time you’d like by inviting a group of Project Managers to list the most pervasive, frequent and damaging problems at fault when Projects aren’t going well.

Everybody you ask has been most often or most recently burned by one or more of the worst difficulties that engulf a busy, complex, multidependent innovation, especially one that inconveniences or irritates a lot of people.

People have little trouble identifying the problems they’re wrestling with. Ask, though, about the most dangerous assumption a project manager can make, and there tends to be a thoughtful (puzzled?) pause. Action-oriented, go-to, problem-solving overachievers don’t spend a lot of reflective time on such matters. Nor analytical time, either. But those assumptions underlie most, if not all, of the decisions that respond to the perceived problems.

That’s why so many Project Managers spend endless hours in exhausting, low-return, repetitious effort that diverts them from more important concerns.

Assumptions are NOT inconsequential. Assumptions are those “truths,” often unexamined, that control our actions and the priority judgments that drive our actions. The Project Manager entering into a new Project carries with him/her a variety of expectations about the work, the situation, the process, the problems and the people.

Those are assumptions. And one of them is the most dangerous of all. And too often it seems to be the most common.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Project Management on Autopilot

Which shoelace did you tie first this morning? How did you decide? Do you even remember doing it? Well, if they’re tied, someone did it.

That tiny task, and up to 90 percent of your other daily actions, generally are automated. They are filed in the orderly progression of your habit pattern, so familiar that you don’t even think about them. That’s how we get through our days. Imagine what your life would be like if each morning you had to decide how to get out of bed, which tooth to brush first, how to use the stairs, etc.

The vast, overwhelming mass of what you know, what you have experienced, how you do things, is tucked neatly into your subconscious. That frees your conscious mind to focus on what is new and challenging. When you were very young, learning to tie your shoes was among those challenges. I don’t know about you, but it was immensely frustrating for me until I worked away at it long enough to get the hang of it. It’s rarely a problem now.

An interesting phenomenon pops up sometimes in this habituated behavior matter. If the accustomed sequence is interrupted in some way, odd outcomes can result. You’re bringing in the groceries, and you pause along the way to turn on the washing machine. That’s how the car keys can wind up in the laundry basket instead of on the hook by the door.

The next day, ready to rush off to work, you’re startled and much annoyed that the keys aren’t where they’re supposed to be. You have to become a detective and trace your own activities of the previous day, which can be hard to do because you weren’t paying attention at the time – didn’t have to.

Plusses & Minuses for the Project Manager

This familiar human reality, living on autopilot, has important implications for managing the mindset of the project manager as both a benefit and a problem.

The competent project manager may have some kind of involvement in a number of different projects at the same time. In each, he/she must be a master technician in defining and guiding process, a persuasive leader in keeping disparate stakeholders focused and motivated, and a creative solver of fast-moving problems and risks.

It may seem paradoxical, but running on autopilot is one of two key skills that project managers must work to perfect. What can be automated must be automated. Behaviors and actions that are always there, or happening continually, must not occupy more than an absolute minimum of the project manager’s time and attention.

One example is establishing the leadership role. A cardinal goal of the successful project manager is to earn a special place in the minds of team members and other stakeholders. You want them to so respect you that they accept the high priority you place upon the success of the project, and they invest significant effort in meeting your expectations.

The good leader has studied other good leaders to determine what they do to get this kind of support – active listening certainly is important. So is doing one’s homework consistently. So is practicing the behaviors that demonstrate confidence, caring, decisiveness. Having studied those behaviors, this good leader has practiced them so they have become second nature.

Catch the Slipping Autopilot

Importantly, the leader also has automated an inner alert signal to warn when something in this part of the work has gone off course, and must be brought into the conscious mind for direct examination and correction.

That’s because the autopilot is perfectly capable of slipping, slightly or seriously. Running to catch the train, you can discover that your shoe laces were tied too hurriedly, and you’ll be down to a pair of socks if you don’t stop and – consciously – tighten things up.

Carelessness in monitoring one’s habitual behavior can cause damage when wandering isn’t caught in time. The project manager can blunder into a problem by missing the signals that what had appeared to be routine – such as a conversation with an important stakeholder – suddenly turns out ugly.

This facility in understanding what is new and risky in a project, and acting accordingly, is the second major skill set of the competent project manager. Across the board, the project manager needs to carefully sort out what is routine and must be made very efficient – and what is new/unique and must be subjected to careful individual handling.

There certainly is plenty of unique/risky content from the very beginning in a decent-sized project, and there also are plentiful opportunities for autopilot slippage.

The streamlining of the repetitive and the continuous leaves maximum possible time for the creative: Not only fixing variances, but also building relationships, planning ahead, anticipating problems and demands, influencing decisions and events – all those things that require close and thoughtful examination, preparation and execution.

The lifelong commitment of the effective project manager is the tuning of the two processes. And, after all, you may some day need to start from scratch. Someone may buy you shoes with Velcro fastenings.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Failing Cult of the Champion

Among the most thrilling events in the annual NCAA basketball tournament is the  inevitable emergence of unexpectedly heroic effort that threatens or even overturns high-seeded teams. Someone bursts into inspired play beyond all personal precedent, and energized teammates join in to perform equally over their heads and overwhelm the less-dynamic favorites.

Presumptive national champion Kansas University was shocked by Northern Iowa (Northern WHO?) in the 2010 tournament. The hero was Ali Farokhmanesh, who played like a demonic genius in the game, polishing off the 69-67 upset with a three-pointer and a couple of free throws in the final seconds.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Rising from the Black Hole of Being Promoted

For most people, it takes three months to three years or more to recover from the disastrous effects of receiving a promotion to management. Some never fully come back from it. And their organizations share the ill effects for the same period, however long that lasts – including forever.

I would say the syndrome is broadly general about promotion, but it certainly fits most appointments to the project manager role, especially for people who have not managed before.

Consider: You get good at what you do, so good that people look up to you, admire you, compliment you, want you on their teams. Then the moment comes when you are asked to share your excellence by becoming the leader/supervisor/manager of other people doing the same work, and possibly some doing other stuff.

Celebration all around! You and your family and friends rejoice at this recognition of your hard work and signal achievement. Your co-workers are happy for you. Your bosses delight at the prospect of having someone of your quality join their ranks. What a moment!

This is when the virtual black hole appears on the near horizon, looming as evil as those real ones we envision in the (hopefully distant) universe, swallowing all nearby matter with implacable and irresistible force.

The concept creates a powerful metaphor in the working world for the movement of the superb individual contributor into the world of management. In job and career terms, this moment of promotion (or appointment to lead a project) is the place where you pass through a black hole into a universe where everything is upside down.

Things They Don't Teach You

Several zillion books have been written with titles starting “The Things They Don’t Teach You at (pick your prestigious institution of higher business learning).” Those authors are all on the right track, of course. Life as it is lived has a tough time in the classroom – I know I’m working at it.

Here, our area of interest is the lot of project managers, and the matter is never more serious than when the promising young management talent is tossed unprepared into the bramble patch of your typical project.

     One important exception: In my lifetime, I have occasionally encountered people whose organizations thoughtfully and competently designate the gifted go-getters for training and mentoring in advance of movement into responsible positions. Fervent congratulations to them. I repeat, this is an exception.

For the vast majority of newly minted project managers, introduction to the realities of supervision and leadership can be shocking. They have become accustomed to their own competence, consistently performing excellently in the skills they have devoted themselves to learning.

Now you, the brand-new project manager, find that demands in bewildering variety are streaming at you, with no time to think, study, plan, practice, consult. Now you’re “the boss.” People want decisions, and it is not unusual that they demand action they know is impossible – but that’s YOUR problem. The challenges sometimes seem couched in attack strategies, promoting one side at the expense of another.

And you don’t know the answers. Your experience did not equip you to handle the exceptions to expectations, the collisions between people’s needs and organizational components, the baffling puzzles that demand instant decision.

Snap decision. That is the area most stressful for the tenderfoot in the land of the land mines. Unfamiliar situations with complex issues and threatening constituents are thrust at you in a context that plainly makes them your problem. Right now.

Perhaps the most devastating feeling of the rookie project manager is the growing suspicion you develop that some of your former co-workers who wouldn’t dream of taking on this job are gleefully yanking at the rug under you. If you’re not careful, you can become over-sensitive, making things infinitely worse. You need to stay above it.

In this career phase, the young person develops survival skills – or else. These survival skills are the practices that get you through the crisis, maybe through the day, and allow you to live and fight again. Maybe you pick up some useful tactics, and maybe you don’t.
 
This process does NOT equip you to manage well, most definitely in the project arena. You do not rise from the black hole simply by keeping it from swallowing you, however vital that is at the time.

Developing good project management skills, growing professionally to achieve excellence, requires shedding the defensive armor of the survival period while distilling the lessons learned from it.   Survival skills are not project management skills. Survivors are not particularly good managers of teams, and rarely are leaders.

That takes conscious effort and quite a bit of time. Knowledgeable mentors are invaluable, but far too few. The good project managers are those who have found ways to work their way out of the hole.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Surly Silence as Communication?

Everybody talks about communication, and everybody does something about it – but frequently not very well.

This is a crucial matter for project managers, because the essence of the job is to get diverse people you don’t know well to commit personally to doing stuff they’re not certain of when they have plenty of other work to do, and to trust other people in unfamiliar situations. There are too many complexities and relationships for the project manager to directly supervise each moment of each one.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How to Rescue Yourself


Sergei is deep in it. Over deadline. Over budget. Overworked. This is a troubled project.

Sergei is the project manager. His project, implementing a new order entry system for a printing company, is not going well. He was asked to take over the project because it’s a key part of the company’s strategy, but had fallen seriously behind.

There was no time to lose, so Sergei hit the ground running. As far as he was concerned, the time for rational planning was long past.

The team includes members from sales, accounting, inventory management, IT and the general manager’s office, all of them overloaded with work. There are eight people, including Sergei, who is an assistant foreman in the warehouse.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Can't You See I'm Busy Drowning Here?

An eternal truth of human behavior is that if people can do something, they will do that something – even if it frustrates a larger purpose. Generally, the something is perceived to have a quick value or provide an immediate satisfaction.

A current much-discussed example is that of “distracted driving,” in which one pursues a cellphone conversation or text-messages while driving a car.

You know, you’re on the razor edge of death and/or destruction as you propel a couple of tons of inanimate matter at maybe a mile a minute within inches of vehicles coming toward you at similar speed. And what if a kid runs in front of you, or a barrel falls off a truck, or a sinkhole just opened up, or you hit black ice or . . . .

Well, you get the picture. Driving an automobile is a full-time job. Conducting a conversation, even by telephone and even if you limit gestures, eye movements and all the other usual accompaniments, cannot by any stretch be considered a good idea while you’re driving.

But people do it.

This syndrome of can do/therefore will do can become a way of life in this gizmo-driven age. It doesn’t just involve cutting-edge technology, either. Do you know the average American home has the television turned on seven hours a day? Or it did before everybody split up with their phones of iPods to text, watch stuff, listen via earphone or play video games.

 And you know, a day fully occupied by such choices concludes with a net gain of not much, and a net debit of one more day subtracted from the limited store you started life with. And then you’re old, and then you’re dead. No wonder we have trouble getting things done.

Actually, this not limited to that fabled contrast between the industrious ant and the good-time-charley grasshopper. Serious people frequently express frustration with the reality that their days are crammed and their wish lists overflow, but real progress is agonizingly rare.

I’m fingering the can do/will do way of life for this. We think with our fingers, not our minds. My time gets occupied by the attractive tools of entertaining distraction and/or easy but low-value output. I may lose – or never develop – the ability to identify and employ the priorities that will get me where I want to go.

So what to do?

First of all, we need to be clear with ourselves that the unplanned life is managed by random circumstance, “going with the flow,” and by the decisions of other people who move into the empty spaces in our thought processes. Something as simple as the failure to control your email practices can lose you hours a day.

Nothing is going to improve unless and until you are fed up enough that you’re ready to actually do something. Crystallizing that motivation is Job One. Have a good talk with yourself about it.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Our way of doing things is precious to us. We treasure it, love it. It’s familiar and comforting. The outsider, observing the overbusy person determinedly flailing in circles in a whirlpool, feels compelled to toss a life ring.

“Get that thing away from me,” the doomed paddler sputters. “Can’t you see I’m busy drowning here?” 

Monday, February 22, 2010

When You Really Decide to Change

We walk backwards into the future. It is nigh impossible to shake the supposition that today will be pretty much like yesterday, and tomorrow will be more of the same.

This comforting cocoon stifles growth and muffles our perception of opportunity as well as our awareness of danger. It disguises the long-term erosion of our prospects because there rarely is any particular pain or undue discomfort.

To carry further the Personal Productivity idea introduced yesterday, try this three-step process:

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Deciding to Change

The Personal Productivity Improvement process that is going to succeed must have the beauty of laying out a low-demand approach that can produce major change over time.

I had an invigorating discussion on the Project Management applications of this concept Thursday night with the participants in a program of the Maine chapter of the Project Management Institute. I asked the 30 or so people present to choose (with Lego blocks as ballots) the most important factors among 10 that pertain to management of a typical project.

The election outcome, largely tracking with my experience in this exercise over the years, put Communication, Planning/Task Definition, Teamwork and Goal Coordination among Stakeholders at the top of the list.

And those are pretty much what people have no time for in real-world Projects. They feel they just have to get going, and have no time for Communication, Planning, etc. Their sense of urgency creates a pressure for action without forethought. And this bad habit persists, however many times Projects stumble and fall because of poor decisions about priorities.

Same with life in general. We roll along in unthinking acceptance of the idea that there’s no other way to live. On the contrary, a couple of relatively simple decisions, faithfully executed, can have a marvelous effect in helping you find out what you’ve REALLY decided to do with yourself.

Tune in tomorrow. There’s a practical payoff in it for you.

For a fuller version of this post, click here.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Washington & Lincoln, Project Managers

I have long felt that project management someday will save the universe. This weekend, I have realized that it was crucial to the foundation and preservation of the United States of America. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were among the greatest project managers in human history.

Think about it: A project manager must lead disparate stakeholders through complexity, uncertainty, difficulty and risk to achieve a high-value outcome that looked impossible at the outset. Project managers need to be competent at managing the unmanageable and inspiring the unleadable.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Heft Project Strategy

Have you read the much-discussed proposed health care reform plan, all 2,700 pages of it?

Neither have I. I’m not sure when it will work its way up the priority list, particularly since it may change, maybe change a lot, and maybe get killed off entirely.

But it doesn’t seem necessary to have read it at all to have a very strong opinion, pro or con, and voluminous reasons for or against. House Majority Leader John Boehner, for one, seems so awed by the simple heft of the document that he shows up on TV several times a day to gesture at an impressive stack of paper purporting to be the very reform plan, obviously unabridged. Never touches it or refers to its contents. I guess anything that long must be bad.

Did Anyone Actually Read the Plan?

That does raise a question, though: What do we send these people to Washington for if they can’t – or won’t – read? If John doesn’t have time to get through it all himself, how about those smart and expensive staffs of his (he has several)? Couldn’t each of those . . . dozens? hundreds? . . . of people knock off a few hundred pages and give John a book report on it?

To be bipartisan about this, where do the Democrats get off investing what must have been a lot of time and money in something that obviously is going nowhere? The paper it’s printed on, alone, must have added substantially to the national debt.

There has been much argument about provisions that are said to be in the bill, but, so far, no one has confessed to actually looking at it. Maybe Olympia Snowe has.

Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast, suggested on NPR the other day that we deal with the heft challenge by sending all those newly unemployed newspaper editors to Washington to edit the damn thing down.

My purpose in raising this matter is neither to pick sides nor to tag along with the professional Congress bashers. I’ve never done the Congress put-down, because I respect the institution and empathize as much as I can with the difficult work done there, not just on this important and frustrating subject. I do admit I’m a little shaken by the events of the past year, though.

As for the newspaper editors, they’re a hardy lot and I believe they can take care of themselves without lining up at the public trough.

The MAD Point of View

For me, this is a Project Management matter. I press unstintingly for minimum adequate documentation (MAD) in Projects.

The term codifies the truth that sound Projects must have permanent written records of all important issues, decisions and intentions. That’s the adequate documentation part. But effective Project Teams can’t spend all their time developing, distributing and preserving paperwork (or cyberwork, if that’s what you call it when it’s in the guts of computers). So the documentation must be minimal in its consumption of time and space.

From the MAD point of view, the 2,700 pages may be a monumental example of bureaucratic obfuscation. Or possibly the creation of a clever bipartisan plot, a weighty but meaningless straw man for the protagonists to whack around without anyone getting hurt, because no one will ever know what – if anything – is in it.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a real Project would have been conducted under cover of something entirely different. Ever wonder what the REAL Project Plan was for the Big Dig?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sit in the Garbage and Sing

We conduct a lifelong duel with reality. We prefer living by illusion, but unadorned facts keep disrupting the serenity of our self-deception.

Psychologists long have reported the multiple "personas" of people. There's the person we think we are presenting to the world, an often-splendid creation whose construction and maintenance can occupy an inordinate amount of our time and attention.

Then there's the second person, the one people actually see. Not the same as the first, perhaps hugely not so. The third persona lives inside our lives with us, the one we think we are. Last is the person we really are, which we hide as much as we can, even -- especially? -- from ourselves. Some theories have a lot more personas, often more entertaining than this group, but four is enough for us for now.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Hardest Thing You'll Ever Do

The hardest thing you'll ever do is try to change your own behavior.

We are trapped in our own preferences, whether we originally got them voluntarily or because a parent, teacher, boss or role model installed them. We may think we hate our smoking habit, or our weight, or our shyness, or our tendency to alienate people by our thoughtless conversation. But we don't hate those behaviors. We hate the fact that we love them.

How's that for a love-hate relationship? We do them because they provide the comfort of familiarity, and because it's easier to punish ourselves on occasion than it is to undertake the perceived burden of changing what we do. And we don't know how to do it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Project U.S.A.

It's been a year since the presidential campaign, an exhaustingly difficult and risky project, was successfully concluded by Barack Obama. He was elected on a wave of optimism and expectation.

Now, just past the first anniversary of that big win, the mighty wave has ebbed. In fact, the follow-on project that is actual service in office is getting bashed around in some very nasty rapids.

What happened? Shouldn't the historic level of Obama/Democratic victory have guaranteed a lengthy period of broad support for the policies that would implement the campaign promises? Why are Democrats now desperately scrambling to the right, or to the door? Why does it feel as if the public has turned against the administration it boosted so improbably to power so recently? Was the triumph empty?

Monday, January 18, 2010

You Don't Get What You Deserve . . .

You don't get what you deserve -- you get what you negotiate.

That's an axiom of professional negotiators, and it's true in spades for project managers. The art/science of project management is overstuffed with formulas for just about everything, but none of it works without the wise management of the relationships among the stakeholders.

Any relationship is a constant two-way stream of requests, promises and value exchanges, large and small. With projects, it is vital that, from the very beginning, all the stakeholders are clear on what this is all about, including what their contributions are to be.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Out of the Alley, Under the Streetlight

There's that insightful old story about the tipsy gentleman crawling around the roadway under a streetlight on a dark night. A friend comes along and, quite naturally, inquires as to what's going on.

"I'm looking for my wallet," says the guy on all fours.

"Oh, you lost it here in the street?" the friend asks.

"No," says the searcher. "I lost it back there in the alley, but it's too dark to look for it there, so I'm looking out here."

Feel free to chuckle, if you think that's a funny little story. Then do yourself a favor and think about the reality all around you, in which multitudes persist in doing what's easy rather than what will work.

A prime field is that of decision-making. Most of us have familiar thinking tracks and favorite solutions. When a situation arises that needs to be examined and resolved, we tend -- if we're not careful -- to follow familiar routes of diagnosis and treatment. We may do this even when the problem is only faintly related to what we have experienced before.

We cling to the "tried and true," which often is really neither tried nor true, never actually having been tested and confirmed. Doesn't matter. We need comfort when something causes us to be uneasy. We may repeatedly apply the unsuccessful process, growing more desperate with each failure, despite its predictability.

In short, the pursuit of comfort can trump the achievement of success if the decision-making process is not constructed thoughtfully and followed with discipline. Identifying what you don't know about this matter, and searching diligently for the necessary information, makes all the difference in the world of competent problem-solving.

A little practice, built intelligently from ongoing experience, remarkably raises the learning curve in competent decision-making. Life is neither a dark alley nor a well-lit street. It's having a good flashlight and knowing how to use it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Worth of a Bureaucracy

Organizations inevitably do what organizations do. When that's good, it can be very, very good. The lights stay on, paychecks arrive on time, good works get done.

When organizational behavior is not good, you can wind up with an unobstructed terrorist boarding a flight to Detroit, no matter how many protective measures are supposedly in place.

This is not to jump in on either side of the current discussion of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed bombing attempt, but to take the occasion to comment on organizational reality.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Politics & the PMBOK Guide

Project Management is politics. Whether done well or poorly, the art and science of the possible is the key practice of the person (Project Manager) who leads a complex, multiparty innovation.

Seeing the job this way provides the appropriate lens for the great majority of people I work with every year, but the general philosophy of our culture equips us all poorly to focus the lens correctly.

For one thing, in this polarized age you're a weenie if you don't batter any opposing party with supercharged overreactions to meaningless differences. For another, we prefer tidy quantifications to accurate qualifications -- meaning we are conditioned to reduce complexity to two-dimensional formulas without regard to how accurate or useful it is to do so.