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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.

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