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

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.