jim@millikenproject.com

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


Monday, December 26, 2011

Move Me if You Can

How do you motivate people? For project managers this is a big deal – getting people to do stuff is among the top challenges.
And then how do you get them to stick with it, over time? Through thick and thin? Take responsibility? Act autonomously, but know the limits?
Much of the typical project management experience is chasing people, hounding them to meet deadlines and quality standards. Or even getting them to show up, sometimes.
How much more quickly projects could be accomplished, at higher quality, with so much less hassle, if only more people would devote themselves to getting the work done. And if they would communicate more effectively and collaborate more enthusiastically.
So, how do you get people to do that? Well, you don’t, actually. Motivation is a do-it-yourself phenomenon. People motivate themselves. If they don’t, it doesn’t happen.

That does NOT mean project managers need be helpless victims in these relationships, although too many act that way.
It DOES mean that the project manager must be assertive in his/her relationships with project team members and other project stakeholders. He/she must address the issue of motivation at the source.
Why do people do what they do? Because they want to. The project manager’s first goal, in terms of chronology, is to ensure that the project has key participants who are convinced that they will derive personal value from contributing to project success.
That includes the project sponsor and the organizational decision-makers who make final decisions and who will control the flow of resources into the project. It extends to the senior project team members who will make up the nucleus of the effort.
Those key participants must really want the project to succeed, must intend that the project will succeed, must be ready to invest whatever it will take to make the project succeed.
Many project managers snort in derision at such an idea. When do you ever get to handpick the people, much less have anything to say about their attitudes?

The answer for the project manager starts with a broadening of the job description – just what the project manager sees as her/his role. There’s a lot more to the project management process than leading the plan process, communicating among the stakeholders, coordinating project activities and correcting variances – not that any of that is inconsequential; not at all.
As a matter of general practice, the snorting project managers simply take what they’re given and trudge off into the project, prepared to fulfill the general expectation. Off on one more grinding effort to produce a not-very-satisfactory outcome.
Well, they have failed to do a very important part of the job. Project managers should take a more assertive grip on personnel, right at the beginning. There are two main ways to do this: You either get people who already are motivated, or you find ways to help them become so.
We ought to talk about that sometime soon. The why and the how.
See Why Should I?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Well, It Hit the Fan. Now What?


Something unsavory hits the fan. Who ya gonna call?
After you clean it up, who ya gonna blame?
Then, what are you going to do?
Why do things go wrong?
Things go wrong because the process didn’t work the way it was supposed to. Maybe it was the wrong process. Maybe it used to be the right process, but now it doesn’t work any more. Maybe it never really worked, and a final, fatal straw fluttered down onto the overload.
Or did someone miss a step, or botch the execution, or not know the right process?
Whatever happened, it has someone’s fingerprints on it. The one constant in every human activity is that it’s human – it has people in it. Some person designed the process. Someone oversees the process. Other humans employ the process and/or are affected by it.
If the process fixes itself, then it’s a self-correcting process, and humans designed it to be so. Most processes can’t do that, and human intervention is necessary.
When the process goes awry, someone did something that disrupted it. And it’s people who then must repair the damage, fix the problem and do something about why it happened.
So the operative factor always is the human being. How effectively do we prepare people to invent, conduct, fix and modify their processes?

This is a precautionary thought about the current emphasis on STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
There is absolutely no question that high competency in the skills of those categories is essential to the furtherance of our wellbeing, as individuals and as a society. No argument there.
Yet, every manager knows how reliance on those competencies alone will not consistently achieve success. When the credentials and the quantifiable assets of education and experience are all in place, there still are shortfalls and breakdowns, plenty of them.
Too many inadequate processes never change. Too many problems continue, or recur. There’s too much disharmony. Too much disengagement. Too much waste of potential. Too little constructive enthusiasm.
There are reasons for that problem with the fan. Just because the causes aren’t discussed doesn’t mean they aren’t obvious. What would it be like to do something about them?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Put Me in, Coach: Role vs. Soul

The typical project manager has the soul of a high-performance player, and that’s a problem. The job calls for someone entirely different.

The solo champion is disciplined, self-demanding and unshakably focused on the task at hand. The champ is fiercely competitive and supremely self-reliant. Those characteristics are widely admired, and rightly so.

They just aren’t good for the project manager.

The role of the project manager is defined in countless variations, but the best descriptions call for finely-tuned skills in persuasion, collaboration and delegation.

We all have known managers, in projects and in other circumstances, who were disciplined, demanding, etc., and they often were good managers. They were respected, perhaps feared, and you didn’t want to cross them.

But few of them could successfully delegate, and their style was not what you’d call collaborative. They really didn’t have the ability to lead groups of mutually supportive professionals operating autonomously.

Taskmasters don’t inspire initiative, or creative problem-solving. They tend to be more critical than helpful. They are better at nailing mistakes than helping with solutions or improving the skills of their team members.

There’s another, perhaps more frequent, issue with the people who are asked to manage projects. This is when the appointee is chosen because he/she is really good at the specialty involved, or is a good worker, period.

What’s the problem with that?

Well, the problem is that no one checked to see whether the person can manage. The distinction between doing and supervising was not drawn. Doing something well is radically different from overseeing other people who are doing that thing.

Subject matter expertise is vital to the individual contributor. For the manager, it is a nice thing to have, but it’s far less important than the person’s grasp of the unique skills of management. The frequent assumption that one equals the other is the bane of the workplace.

But project management most often has another burden, one that burns out project managers and crashes projects.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Punch in the Nose & Other Good Communication

Talking about “communication” is not good communication. What is good communication? A punch in the nose, that’s what. A punch in the nose is good communication.
If you are repulsed by such a concept, then that also is good communication. Repulsion is an unambiguous response. I made my point.
Let’s do a little defining here. Defining is good communication. It is, in fact, at the heart of good communication, along with a few other practices we are about to explore.
Communication is defined as establishing some kind of understanding, and good communication is defined as establishing mutual understanding with the greatest possible clarity in the shortest possible time. Can’t beat a punch in the nose for that. It establishes clear proof of bad intent in seconds.
If you accept the definition, you cannot quarrel with the example. If, on the other hand, you live by a broader and more decorated concept of good communication, you’ll object.

And that’s the first half of the major problem in most relationships, most organizations and most projects. We start from different assumptions about what is being said, demonstrated or otherwise indicated.
Our individually distinct upbringings, educations, experiences and attitudes inevitably give us varied understandings about even the most common words, phrases and other communication tools.
That’s the innocent half of the problem.
The other half, the working half, is the one that directly causes widespread grief in our relationships. It is the sad fact that we don’t clear up these different understandings before we start acting on the decisions we make based on them.
We rarely bother to find out what someone else really means. We think we already know. Well, we don’t know.
Why should we know what the other person means? We don’t know what WE OURSELVES mean. We just assume we’re right about whatever it is, and fault other parties for believing and acting differently.
This general misapprehension often turns into mistrust. In more active cases, it culminates in a punch in the nose, that climactic and crystal-clear act of communication. Generally, it hardens and deepens the misunderstandings that led to it in the first place.
While miscommunication is everywhere and its causes and nature are complicated, its cure is not all that frequent. But it's relatively attainable.


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Busting the Ghost in Our Days

Too busy.
Too much to do.
Too little time.
Workload overload.
“Hey, how ya doin’?”
“Busy . . . You?”
“Yeah, busy. Too busy.”

What’s this “busy” that everybody is? Is it work, real work? Is it important work? Worthwhile work? Is it the right work?

Ask yourself what was the most important thing you accomplished last month. Or last week. Or yesterday. What made it the most important?

Equally serious questions: What was the second-most-important thing you did yesterday? How long did it take? And the third? How long did it take, and why did it take that long?

In fact, what exactly did you do all day? And what about the stuff you didn’t do, maybe didn’t get to, that you had planned to work on?

Who has time to think about all that, much less figure out answers? Anyway, we may have no idea where to start.

And therein lies the problem: We don’t have time to manage our time.

Well, why is that?

As with any chicken-egg situation, this one just plain discourages examination. It frustrates decision.

That doesn’t mean we just become unaware of the issue. It hangs around. It is a ghostly presence in our days – this feeling of dissatisfaction with our own behavior because we can’t seem to get ourselves to accomplish what we want.

We all know we’re supposed to be doing something about it, but we don’t. Why?

Two main reasons:

First, we don’t really know how, even if we think we do.

Second, we don’t really want to do it, even if we think we do.

So that’s where you start: Finding motivation and getting practical.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Case of Implementation

An exercise in introducing
Project Management into an organization


YOU
You are Phil Campbell. You were hired three months ago into a newly-created position, Project Manager, by this industrial materials supply company. You’ve worked for several other organizations over your 10 years of employment, and this is the job you consider your first real career-builder.
You’ve held various jobs in recent years as a lead worker and supervisor in retailing and construction. You originally got interested in Project Management because of a presentation at your Young Leaders Society meeting. Since then, you’ve taken a couple of Project Management courses and have become a regular attendee at programs of the Project Management Institute chapter.

The HIRE
You weren’t really in the job market, but they announced at a PMI meeting that Accurate Materials Company was looking to hire a project manager, and it sounded interesting.
Until then, you hadn’t really thought of yourself as a project manager, but the information you’ve been learning at PMI has made it clear to you that project management is what you’ve been doing for years. It hasn’t been all that high-level and sophisticated, but you’ve found that adapting project management practices on the job really does make things work better.
You also hadn’t realized how interested you had become in project management. When you heard about this opening, you were quite intrigued by the idea of actually going into a job with the title and status of “Project Manager.” It crystallized in your mind as something much more meaningful than just another job.
So you sent in your resume – and got the call. The interview was unlike any you’d had before. It became apparent that Dan and Simon, the two executives who met with you, did not know a lot about project management. They liked what they heard, though. They exchanged glances and nodded in satisfaction several times as they listened to your comments and answers.
Accurate Materials had some ideas about expanding its lines of business into product innovation and development, rather than remaining a distributor of basic goods from bulk suppliers and original equipment manufacturers.
Dan and Simon knew some of the specifics about what they wanted to develop, but acknowledged that they had no idea how to organize and execute innovative processes. They had heard enough about project management to identify it as the way to do the organizing and executing.
They were impressed with how well you fit their job description. The offer, with a nice bump from your previous salary, came quite soon.
It's been an interesting 90 days.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Up & Down the Pyramid


You haven’t had your coffee yet today, and you just spilled a full cup in your lap. How do you feel?
Or something important has just gone all to hell on the job, and it’s your fault. How do you feel about that? Say it wasn’t your fault, but you’re being blamed anyway. How’s your mood now?
Now, look the other way. You stubbornly stuck to your guns in a long, difficult effort. Everyone else said it would never work. In the end, you pulled it off – and now they all think you’re awesome. If you don’t feel on top of the world, there’s something wrong with you.
Either way, bummer or winner, we’re supposed to suppress our emotions: Never let them see you sweat . . . and it’s very bad form to celebrate yourself.
There are two important things, one good and one bad, going on in such situations.
One is how we build and improve our image and our relationships. Our behavior is one of our most important tools in successful workplace collaboration. No question that dignified response to all kinds of situations is important in earning respect.
The other vital element is what goes on inside our heads. We err seriously when we too rigorously enforce this restraint within the privacy of our own internal “conversations.”
Don’t kid yourself – the stream of self-talk is constant and powerful. It’s voluminous, estimated to flow in our minds at four times the speed of a typical conversation. Most of us don’t do it aloud – at least most of the time – but it is real and extremely important in determining our behavior.
When that self-talk includes too many admonitions to ourselves to bottle up our reactions, it is a mistake.
In short, we’re plenty emotional, but we don’t like to admit it. We don’t even acknowledge it, and that damages our ability to manage.
Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid has been a cliché for decades, but don’t forget that clichés thrive for a reason: They provide instantly-understood definition and meaning. Maslow deserves better, and taking a serious look at the idea in our daily performance can be pretty instructive.
Project management, especially: Risk, uncertainty, complexity, dependency. That’s the environment for the project manager, and it’s guaranteed to keep the emotions at a boil.
Picture the project manager, eternally sliding or slipping down the pyramid. Maybe lurching or pitching down, depending upon how abrupt and impactful the event is.
Trudging or scrambling up the pyramid.
Maslow has a lot to say to you, project manager.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Fear, Avoidance & the Nonsecret of Success

          Most project managers work hard. Some of the best of us work too hard – especially considering the disappointment that all too frequently dogs our results.
          Give yourself a little private test, whether you carry the title “Project Manager,” or do projects without the portfolio, or just too often have to do stuff without enough time, information, competent personnel, etc.
Actually, we’re ALL project managers. Everybody is, at least part of the time.
This test requires that you do a quick – honest – review of your emotional state at work over the last few weeks. Zero in on the moments when the situation was not going particularly well. There may have been moments when you felt stress, panic, anger, frustration and/or the blues.
What was causing those reactions? Identify the moment, the feeling and the circumstances. This may not be easy, if poor performance and negative emotion have become so common in your life that they are virtually the standard state.
If necessary, just pick any old project or situation.
         What exactly was going on? Were results coming in as expected/predicted/promised? Were people doing what they were supposed to do, what they had promised they would do? Was stuff showing up on schedule? Were problems being addressed, meaningfully, in time to do so properly?
         How about ongoing support and response on the part of management?  
         If everything was going swimmingly, congratulations. If that was not the case, how did you feel about it?
         Stress, panic, anger, frustration, depression? OK, maybe just a modest level of pressure, fright and the general sense of just never getting things done? Do you feel this way often? Have you become resigned to poor performance? Have you, perhaps, even come to believe that that’s the way it is, and always will be?
Well, that’s not the way it should be. If that has become your way of life, you’re not in a good place. You don’t “fail” this test, but it does tell you something about your potential for effective management of projects.
The worst state is that of the project manager who accepts the false reality that their projects will never really work well, that organizations and individuals, however highly placed, simply cannot or will not consistently come through.
When that happens, the only sensible personal strategy is survival – keeping a watchful eye out for threats, staying away from hotspots, going with the flow – and managing to mediocrity. Not a noble occupation.
The solution is not particularly simple, nor is it easy. But it works.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Why & How to Go against Nature

When you really think about it, project management doesn’t make sense.
It attempts to introduce a strange mix of discomfort and disorder into a system whose purpose is to pursue adherence to repetitive predictability.
Start with the nature and make-up of organizations. You gather people and resources together to pursue an outcome – say, profit, or public notice or a worthy cause – that requires the focused dedication of this effort, talent and wealth. You devise and implement processes, and constantly tune them, to make your valued outcome happen.
If the processes you invent/import are to get you where you want to go, they must be good processes. Effective processes that do not waste resources and human input, that make good use of your investments. If the processes don’t work, the organization does not reach its goal. The resources and the human effort turn out to have been wasted.
As the leader of such an enterprise, your obligation is to assemble the kind of people who will respect the process, learn and improve the process, stick with the process to make it ever more effective. They become increasingly invested in the established process.
 
A process is a set of sequentially dependent steps that, properly carried out, lead efficiently to a predetermined outcome. The more trustworthy the steps are, and the more rigidly they are followed, the less variance there is in the process and the more assured is the desired outcome.
The people drawn to and chosen for this kind of work collaborate well in an orderly environment. They constitute the much-maligned “bureaucracy,” which is as necessary to civilization as roadways and waterworks. Good bureaucracy makes communal survival possible, and is generally taken for granted. Bad bureaucracy, usually a minority, gets all the mentions because of its encrusted maladjustments.
In sum, the smooth functioning of an organization requires that there be a minimum of disruption, while the very purpose of project management is to take away resources and familiar routines from the organization to do or install something that’s never been there before.
So, when we mount a project, no matter how valuable we expect the payoff to be, we’re going against the nature of the sponsoring organization. Should we take carefully planned special measures if we want this alien thing to make it? Well, yeah.
Do we? Well, most often, no.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Reality Fiction

There are six of them sitting in a conference room, tasked with preparing for a project. This thing is going to be complicated. And important parts of it are unfamiliar to them. They are meeting for the first time, and they’ve never worked together before.

Theoretically, they will collaborate to organize and execute this difficult innovation. They will recruit additional team members, arrange resource investments, guide the work process and resolve problems as they arise. They will take responsibility for their own parts, while supporting each other as necessary.

Unfortunately, it often doesn’t work quite that way. Many people in such situations would consider such a theoretical construction to be a fiction. They face an entirely different reality.

Five of the project planners in the example count themselves lucky. The sixth has been designated as project manager. This provides something of an escape hatch for the others. They had plenty to do before the dreaded tap on the shoulder that put them in this room. Now begins the delicate ritual that will determine for each of them what this new assignment will do to an already impossible workload – if indeed it has an effect at all.

You know, maybe it will die off, yet another victim of benign neglect.

The project manager is the only person out there in the open, clearly tagged with responsibility for making it work. In many organizations much of the time, this is a pretty difficult spot to be in, because history indicates there will be a lot of work, a lot of hours and a lot of frustration.

Objective studies show a high rate of shortfall or failure in projects of all kinds. There are reasons for that. Some are organizational, some are personal and all frequently are deeply ingrained in the culture.

One contradiction at the root of the problem originates with the fiction, subscribed to by some senior managers, that plans would work if only those charged with managing a plan would stick with it. The contradiction is completed at the working level by the counter recognition that fiction is not reality, however sincerely it is believed.

Sometimes all involved know that this “planning” business is a charade in which the impossible is demanded, with the expectation that anything less won’t motivate anyone. The effect is, of course, the opposite.

If job security dictates that the project manager pretend the plan will actually work, so be it. March dutifully along for a while, maybe, but sooner rather than later you’ll have to do whatever it takes to salvage something from the doomed initiative.

Or maybe not. If a shortfall isn’t acceptable, or if even a poor substitute can’t be wrung out of the effort, it might just be declared dead, or allowed to quietly wither away.

And life goes on. One more proof that planning simply doesn’t work.

Well, this “reality” is the real fiction. Overcoming it can be done, often is done, but it’s not easy.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Assessing Teamwork


Teamwork? Hah!
Process? What process?
Collaboration? Show me.
This is not cynical. I do not dismiss the sincere cooperative efforts of countless people who work together in pursuit of common interests. Nor do I demean the behavior and motives of those who labor to lead, to coordinate their fellows and their staffers to make good things happen.
I’m just viewing the results, and commenting as a favorably disposed but objectively depressed observer of the scene. Things just don’t go well, mostly, in the collaborative activity of most of our organizations.
Experts in organizational behavior suggest sitting in the cafeteria or break room and just listening to the talk, if you want to know how well an organization is doing – or how it is likely to do. Or just stroll through the workplace with your eyes and ears open.
The chatter and the body language will tell you what’s going on. Are they complaining about unfair bosses, lazy co-workers, rude customers? Or does the conversation reflect pride, progress, engagement? Or do they never mention the work at all? Are people busy, vigorous, engaged? Or is there lethargy, resentment?
We often misunderstand the true nature of teamwork, organizational process and group collaboration. We refer to them as if they actually exist, in the sense of having independent existence. They don’t.
Think of this: Take a typical organization, of any size or process or project. Remove the people who now occupy and operate it. Immediately replace them with other people of equal background, training and talent. There will be an abrupt and radical change in what happens and what is produced. It's not the structure or the process. It's the people.
So we ought to blow up our easy acceptance of “teamwork” as it is commonly understood. Discard it. Trash it.
Why? Because it is a misleading and dangerous fiction. Teamwork, process and collaboration are effects of human activity, which itself arises from individual intent. People don’t merge their distinct individualities into some collective new superior creature when they become part of a group. They simply add a mutual dependency with other people in the interest of some common intent.
The common intent is not by itself the determinant of whether the new group succeeds or not. The actual individual efforts, driven and accumulated by the common intent, produce the outcome. If the intent inspires committed effort, success is possible. If a leader can ignite that inspiration, things happen.
So that’s why the participants’ unguarded conversation is a quick indicator of group strength. The talk tells you what people are thinking. Thinking is the engine of action.
Then the ultimate, unmistakable producer of group success is, of course, what the participants do. And THAT is where the manager’s attention must be focused.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Screwing Up to Succeed


There is the story of a bright young man who got himself an opportunity to manage a $10 million project for a large company. To his horror, the effort failed, totally.
The guy was summoned to the office of the top man, and entered the presence burning with awareness of a disaster he could blame on no one but himself.
“Well, young man, what do you have to say for yourself?” said the executive.
“I want to apologize, sir, from the bottom of my heart,” he answered. “I know I’m going to be fired, and I know I deserve it.”
“Fire you? Why should we fire you?” the old man demanded. “We just invested $10 million in your education!”
Screwing up is not hard to do. We’ve all done it. And you know what? We’re all going to do it again. Serially, Continually. We can’t avoid it. Individually and in our various collective relationships, we can expect it to happen, and happen a lot.
The wrong words pop out at the worst possible time. I forget a commitment that turns out to have been very important. I thoughtlessly take on something I can’t handle. As sure as tomorrow, I’ll pull off something embarrassing – soon.
When I do, I can go through any one or more of several responses. There’s the Saturday Night Live one: “I hate when that happens,” as if it were an uncontrollable event, certainly not occasioned by me. There’s Problem Solving 101: Can I blame someone? Good. Problem solved. There’s denial: “Problem? What problem?” And there’s always avoidance: Just exit the neighborhood, virtually if not physically, and wait for it all to go away.
So what was going on in that little story we opened with – a veteran executive dismissing an expensive failure as a simple educational investment? What was he thinking of? What was the justification? What can we take from the example?
We don’t know the context in which the young man’s project was conducted. We do know that the organization’s leader was not taken aback by what happened, and had reason to see it in a positive light. And he was looking to the future, a future he fully expected to be successful.
That implies a culture of effective problem solving and talent development. As one important part of it, we suspect the organization’s decision-makers knew precisely what had gone on, and what it meant.
We need to adapt that understanding to our own career management. We can start with a personal policy toward our own screw-ups. I am not going to engage in any of the ineffective failure-response attitudes noted above. Instead, I can confront the situation directly, openly, motivated only by an intent to determine exactly what happened and why. Then, I immediately turn to what I’m going to do the next time. Specifically.
This is a matter of courage and discipline, especially when I caused or contributed to the disappointing event – or when people intent on pinning it on me are busily at work.
One essential truth to keep forever in mind: There never is a worthwhile success that is not preceded by multiple failures. Success is earned, not awarded.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Easy Doesn't

If it’s easy, don’t do it. It’s not good.
That statement may be the rare oversimplification that is true more often than not. It certainly is true of Project Management. Whatever you do the easy way won’t get the job done.
The emperor of this land of failure is “It’s easier to do it myself.” Of course it’s easier to do it yourself. Any fool knows that. Just do it. You don’t need to take the time to describe and explain it to someone who doesn’t know what you’re talking about, and may show clear signs of not really caring to find out.
It’s easier to do it yourself than to think through ways to keep track of someone else doing it, and easier than taking the time to figure out what they’re doing wrong, and get them to see that, then get them to see how to avoid doing it wrong again as soon as you turn your back.
It’s easier to do it yourself than it is to wait and wonder when it will get done, or whether it’s even under way yet, and whether there will be unexpected and unnecessary barriers in the way of whoever else is trying to do it.
There’s little or no pride in seeing a final result that is only 70 percent as good as it could have been, or one that doesn’t have the proud polish of true professionalism.
There’s a little extra embarrassment when some other expert makes amused remarks to you about the work done under your supervision that isn’t up to the standard you used to set back when you were more on your game.
On a really personal level, results that are solely and fully your own are deeply satisfying. You might not have much time to relax and admire such a result, but it beats the dickens out of settling for knowing that some group product was brought to an acceptable (unexciting) conclusion under your direction.
There often isn’t much praise at such moments, and what there is doesn’t qualify as the gee-whiz variety. And it’s spread around – by you, if you’re smart enough to know how to earn the loyalty of your worker bees. In fact, some contributor may be singled out for a bit of glory that you know really belongs to you – but you’re the manager, so you have to witness some lesser achiever getting the plaudits that used to be yours, and by rights ought to be right now
Truly, any fool knows it’s easier to do it yourself. It's easier than managing.
The real fool, of course, is the one who actually DOES it himself/herself as a matter of practice. And don’t kid yourself. Most of us do, too often. Hard to believe? Not really.