jim@millikenproject.com

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


Friday, December 28, 2012

Conflict, My Friend

           Embrace conflict. Encourage conflict. Demand conflict.

          Wait a minute. That whole idea is absurd. Conflict is at the least a distraction, and at worst severely destructive, in projects and in the everyday workplace.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Screwing Up Is Quicker

          There’s a story about an efficiency study done in a newspaper office. An expert stood behind a sportswriter with a clipboard as the guy was on the phone. The sportswriter finished the call, rattled off a report and was about to shoot it into production.
          “Wait a minute,” the efficiency man interrupted. “How long did that take?”
          The answer: “Ten years and ten minutes.”

           Screwing up and earning success have this in common: They both take time. The difference is that one takes very little time, while the other can take a lot.

  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Science, Math & Delusion

           We’ve got to do something about education in this country. We hear this all around us, and we agree with it.
          We are desperately in need of a system that prepares us and those who depend upon us to succeed in life. We need to earn a living, we need to pay the bills, we must have a system we can depend upon, and we want to contribute as citizens to ensure that our society prospers.
              It’s an increasingly challenging world. We don’t think our current education system is doing what it will take to prepare us for such a place.
          In this dialogue, there is one real danger: We seem to be focusing on half the solution.

Americans are falling behind in the competition to prepare for the challenges of today and the world to come. Agreed. Look at the rankings of educational achievement around the world.
            Still, the accepted wisdom is misguided in its prescriptions about what to do. The broadly accepted mantra is “STEM” – Science, technology, engineering and math.  If only we align our schools to provide expertise in those areas, all will be well. That is what we hear.
            If engineering, technology, mathematics and scientific specialties were to become the defining drives in the American culture, would our economy and our way of life regain its strength and vitality?
            No.

             . . . Unless the curricula for education in those subjects were broadened to include adequate preparation in communication, collaboration and creativity. Human beings do not function as technocratic machines. You can’t load them up with information and expect a consistent high volume of quality output.
             Nor are people stand-alone entities. Can you think of any circumstance in which a person can function without input and output connections and support systems involving other people? Who can work without talking, listening, negotiating, exchanging?
             And it’s not simply “business” activity narrowly defined. We need other people socially and psychologically. We encourage and uplift each other, share and inspire on a far broader spectrum than the simple sharing of information, requests and responses.

That’s not all. Scientific education, essential as it is, depends heavily upon the other areas of knowledge. Why do people erupt with originality, engage with energy, join in collaborative effort, dream dreams, solve problems?
            Because they are exposed to ideas, and practiced in skills, that have nothing to do with science and technology. They might be inspired by history: Abraham Lincoln or Harry Truman; literature: Mark Twain or Leo Tolstoy; business: Peter Drucker or Tom Peters.

In short, the dynamic drive of human behavior includes the ability to understand, skills at talking and listening, the creative and logical power of problem-solving. We act on human emotion, and we respond extremely powerfully to our interactions with those around us.
             People who are good at describing, explaining, responding, convincing are those who – however they accomplish it – in the end are those who control the outcome.
             Importantly, all the specific and technical knowledge we are warning about is NOT to be dismissed. It is vital. The error is in identifying it as the ultimate essential ingredient in a comprehensive education.

So: What should we do about education in this country? How are we to assure ourselves of a secure future?
            We need to establish and carefully maintain a society in which adults and the young receive the information that equips them to function in society. That requires an educational system fully prepared to produce fully competent citizens.
             Learn. Apply. Collaborate. Empower. That creates the acronym LACE. A nice bloom on top of STEM.

         

Friday, November 23, 2012

Expert Is as Expert Does

     It's one of those eternal amazements, a question that keeps popping up even as we're neck-deep in the answer. Maybe too deep to see it.
     The question is whether you must have functional competence in a specialty in order to manage projects in that area. This is the well-known "subject-matter expertise," which is possessed by subject-matter experts, or SMEs. Can a non-SME manage a technical project, or a construction project, or a whatever project?
     More over-simply, the choice is seen as between management skill and subject-matter skill. Which is better?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

There Is No Cliff. It's Worse.

          The beauty of the “fiscal cliff” concept is that it is so vivid; it’s evocative and it’s easy to say. We see it and we feel it. The term already has matured to cliché status, but everybody instantly knows what it means. It no longer shocks, but it still works.
          OMG, we’ve got to face this Armageddon. We’ve got to accept unprecedented horror. All of it. Right away.

          Well, almost none of that is so. Undergo a brutal yank of the mind and pause suspended – a la Wile E. Coyote – above the abyss. Then retreat shamefacedly to solid ground.
There is no cliff. Nothing so dramatic. No helpless free-fall to disaster. We’re not going to get out of it that easily. Sorry.
Instead, we’ve all – all of us -- got a painful challenge, personal as well as political. Far from a helpless tumble utterly beyond our power, we face an arduous upslope we must climb. A grinding, demanding effort.  

The party’s over.
Truth is, many of us have been living well beyond our means – as families and as a nation – for years, maybe decades. Cruising effortlessly down the credit-card/easy-mortgage highway, enjoying plentiful incentives to grab and spend. Our governments have been right there in the trough with us. Rosy billows of the good life without end, and few ripples of warning.

It’s gone. Now it’s time to pay for it all. Stripped of the false prosperity we so thoughtlessly slurped for so long, we must grimly soldier through a gritty, humiliating process.
We each have to find a solid place to set our feet as we deal with the debt, reduce the budget and find ways to bring in a few more bucks. You and me and the U.S. of A.

          Disabuse yourself of the luxury of worrying about the “fiscal cliff.” We are not going to be the victims of a national meltdown out of our control. No time to wring our hands about falling or failing. We’re going to lose some goodies we considered necessities, and we’re going to be paying some bills we thought would never come.
Not just as individuals and as members of families. We also are citizens of this country. Welcome to democracy. We’ve all talked a lot about the precious gifts it gives us. Our rights as voters and taxpayers.
Now we’re getting a lesson in the investments -- disciplined, individual, communal, patriotic – investments it demands of us to make all that other stuff possible.

Time's up. Blaming is a wasteful indulgence.  This year, we’ve had a very long and very thorough debate, however rancorous and massively stained with shameless cash and breathtaking untruth. We’ve had an election. We now know the situation, and we can see the bones of the future. 
Congress created the fiscal cliff last year in the fond hope that it could thereby avoid the tough decisions by setting up a surrogate decision-maker and establishing a stern consequence for further cowardice.
The flammable tax & spending spud was handed off to a commission tasked with producing a Solomonic solution. The commission was going to take care of it all. It was evenly populated with people whose attitudes were identical to those of the appointers. Then, incredibly, the commission arrived at an identical paralysis. Aw, jeez. 
So that same Congress now faces that same choice: Fix it, you people elected to not do nothing. 

Or not. The Congress that legislated the tough medicine can modify the doses, or water them down. Or do whatever. No matter to us. We as individual citizens and debtors can't afford any more temporizing and self-delusion. If it doesn't get fixed now, it will get worse . . . and be a nastier fix later.
We down here have run out of time. It's all ours. Buckle down, hitch up our drawers, cut the crap and pay the piper. 
We – you and I – are at a moment of great personal challenge, immense opportunity. It's our future. Let's act as if we're going to live in it. Let’s get at it. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Never Overcompromise

          Treat compromise very carefully. It won’t take you anywhere worth going to.
          We’re hearing the word “compromise” everywhere. It has the glow of a Holy Grail: If only the parties had compromised in Washington, we wouldn't all have gone helplessly off the fiscal cliff (which actually turned out to be more a very costly and uncomfortable downslope).
Discount for the moment the reality that the fiscal cliff is an illusion, an inspired political confection that generates sufficient heat to fuel an urgent . . . ultimately meaningless . . . debate.  It does not connect to reality.
No question there’s a problem in Washington, but no matter what they do or don’t do about it, there will be no precipitous plunge into the national financial ruin implied by the concept. There will be plenty of time to avoid an actual crisis. And plenty of options. Plenty of incentives. For one thing, the increased taxes won't be due until April 1214. For another, the elections blew away some expectations.
This does NOT mean there aren’t important decisions to be made. There are, and they are difficult ones. Check with your local economist or other knowledgeable realist. Or a noninvolved politician.
Suffice it to say that the matter of the fiscal cliff is a fine example of the cloudiness that often obscures our route to common cause amid differing – conflicting – demands.  

Compromise won’t solve that situation. Nor is it of much use in our own daily and periodic situations. This is especially true because the word “compromise” as we hear it around us usually is inaccurate in describing whatever it is the speaker means.
We toss the word around in everyday discussion and express it in considering serious problems. We don’t want disagreement, we say – we want compromise.
We ought to stop using it that way, especially in important matters, personal and political. Compromise doesn't produce solutions. It is a way to ease a confrontation without solving the problem.
You don’t want a compromise. You want a solution. You don’t want to compromise, you want to collaborate. Or, if you don’t want to actually work together, you at least want to get somewhere.
Don’t compromise, then. Half a loaf doesn’t satisfy. You just got some of what you want or need, but the matter remains unresolved. There is more to be done. Progress is not yet possible.

“No compromise!”
That's worse. It means disastrous suicide when it declares rigid adherence to one's starting point, unyielding resistance to any negotiation with those of differing views. That's not what we want, and that is not what is being advocated here.
An uncompromising attitude arises from a narrow definition of one’s constituency as a warring faction whose position cannot sustain the slightest softening. It is blind to the inescapable reality that we’re all in this together. Sooner or later, my brother’s situation merges with mine.
If this strategy prevails, it doesn't mean victory. Even if you win a fight to the finish, it's not a victory with value. You have created a whole class of people who have ample motivation to withhold, subvert and lie in wait for openings to counterattack. Short-term triumph ensures longterm failure.
In fact, in negotiating differences, you should not start with a concrete end point at all. To be successful, you don’t set out to compromise, you set out to accomplish something that has worth. Compromise can't do that.

Compromise is too narrow. As a process, it starts with a belief that your goal is to achieve a specific, predetermined outcome. It’s a zero-sum game in which the other party is a competitor, sometimes an antagonist. The more you get, the less he/she gets. If you can’t get it all, you give up as little as you have to.
This assures a limited outcome, at best, and often results in a souring of relationships that is costly to everybody for a long time. It’s really dumb
The better word is “solution.” It requires an entirely different way of addressing situations. Its process is collaborative, open-ended and creative. It’s what the Harvard Negotiating Program calls “issues bargaining,” as contrasted with the “positional bargaining” of the compromise approach. 
What does everybody want? What does everybody need? 
You don’t define a specific result based on the known available resources. You commit to understanding and achieving what you really want and need. You don’t know exactly how to get there, and you don’t specify in advance what it looks like. You do your homework, but you leave the matter open.
Then you devote yourself to an honest, open and patient effort to gain a similar understanding of what it's all about for the other party or parties. Together with them, you seek out and use whatever is available to work toward a mutually useful result.        
This is respectful, creative collaboration. It takes work, it takes preparation, it takes communication skills of a high order. It takes professionalism. It takes time. Inevitably, it is  successful. 

It is not compromise. Never compromise. Instead, solve.



Saturday, October 20, 2012

Charisma, or Whatever

          We owe the concept of sincerity a debt of gratitude for the grim humor it has inspired.
          Here’s a sample:
“It is dangerous to be sincere unless you also are stupid.”
That was among George Bernard Shaw’s Maxims for Revolutionists, back in 1903. Didn’t realize they were quite that vinegary back then, did we?
          And my favorite:
          “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
The genius this time was Jean Giraudoux, a gifted French variant of Shaw who also seems a bit more cynical than we might have expected, this time in the 1930s.

          Check out your own vision of the sincere person. While you chuckle at the cynical side, you do know some decent people who are like this: Serious, humble, humorless, mildly simplistic? Or believable, trustworthy, admirable, perhaps awesome?
You look down on them or you look up to them, but you trust them. You know sincerity when you see it. Or do you?
That summons up the vision of the con man. Or woman. “Con” is short for “confidence.” These are people whose manner and apparent professional success and personal history inspire confidence in their listeners, a mistaken conviction that they should be trusted. You give them a lot of money, or you commit to them in some other serious way.
And you lose everything. Whether they skip town or go to jail, you’re out whatever you invested. And you’ve suffered permanent scars. If sincerity couldn’t be faked, this wouldn’t happen – but it does happen. A lot.

Charisma operates in the same arena of human relationships, but it easily trumps sincerity. You can know someone is unreliable, or even a phony – but if he/she creates that irresistible attraction, you don’t care. You want to be around the person.
There may be a biological component in the phenomenon along with the psychological, and we guess this particular characteristic isn’t an acquired thing. If you have it, you didn’t earn it. If you don’t have it, you just plain don’t.
The question is irrelevant to the rest of us. We want to please whoever it is who emanates the magic pheromone. Remember the unquestioned leaders of the high school “cliques.”?

Believe it or not, this is a problem for the favored one. As a matter of fact, it may be hard for the charismatic person to remain sincere and empathetic over time, however much so that person might have been to start with. When you have charisma, you face a sea of adoring faces wherever you turn. It’s hard to concentrate on doing things well when doing things well patently matters not a fig to everyone around you. They just want to be in your presence.
This precious gift, which I think is random and not even genetic, provides a huge opportunity for leadership. Our personal experience proves this out. Many of the people we admire and have been willing to follow arouse personal affection in us that causes us to want to do what those people want.
Some of them have turned out to justify our commitment. They produced outstanding successes. Others haven’t, and we may or not blame them for the shortfall. But we probably recall them with some affection no matter what.

Anyone required to lead needs to understand this matter.
If you are gifted with the indefinable attraction that gathers people to you, weigh your responsibility carefully. Do your homework. Know how easily you can become a fondly-remembered failure. Fight arrogance.
Before you become really successful, you’ll have to become good. Many of you do. Takes work, and you commit to it. What wonders you can achieve!
The rest of us, the vast majority nakedly dependent upon our ordinary personalities and our efforts, should waste no time envying the lucky ones. They have their own burdens to bear, and while they are working their way through that we can surge into leadership. We do so as we look to our homework, devote ourselves to the tasks at hand and persistently turn out permanent, tangible results.
In the end, the common currency of leadership is trust, that belief you inspire in people that you will indeed get them where they want to go, if they will give you what you ask of them.
You’ve got to be as convincing as the con man and the honest charismatic, but as hardworking as it takes. There is nothing more powerful than an earned history to inspire sustained confidence and longtime  followership.
On a level playing field, confident competence has the hammer, however it came about. Can’t be more sincere than that.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Project Managers

          How do I get to be a project manager? That question is more pervasive now as the profession becomes better known and the treasured “PMP” adorns ever-more job postings.

          One sure way to determine the route to a project management career is to take a look at who’s there already. Who are the project managers? How did they get where they are?
          As a consultant and trainer in project management, I’ve worked with hundreds of project managers. My project management workshops at the University of Southern Maine and elsewhere are designed for working people at all levels of responsibility and experience, but the vast majority are veterans of years in their fields.

          What are those fields? Here is an unscientific sampling from the past few months:
          Hospitals and healthcare organizations (nurses, administrators, IT managers, analysts and programmers). Banks, large and small. High-tech and communications manufacturing and service. L.L. Bean employees (numerous) in marketing and production as well as IT.
          Human resources, state and local government, insurance (numerous), social service, healthcare products manufacturing (numerous), construction, operations management, education management and administration, utilities, nonprofit, funding, student exchange, publishing, quality assurance, payroll administration.
          The old standard that project management was just for information technology and construction is no longer true, if it ever was. Two of the dozens of recent workshop participants were in construction, and no more than eight or 10 were in IT.
          Over the past few years, there has been a noticeable influx of experienced people who have been laid off, sometimes because their jobs have been eliminated, processes have changed or their companies have run into trouble. These “in-transition” professionals want to be equipped for the new jobs of today and tomorrow.
         
          In short, project managers are everywhere. Typically, these folks have been doing projects informally – sometimes very big and complex projects. They and their managers realize it’s time they stopped re-inventing the wheel and got some systematic understanding on how to do this work more effectively.
          They rarely have actually been called “project manager,” but the growing awareness of the profession out in the world has encouraged their organizations to get serious about doing the work properly. Therefore, the training. Pulling off projects is not easy, and saving time and money has value – as does reducing the wear and tear on valuable employees.

          While the fields represented by the participants are endless in variety, there is a broad sharing of characteristics among the people themselves.
          They are the go-to people in their workplaces. They’re problem solvers, and patient – they don’t give up. They feel responsible, often too responsible, for getting things done. They have trouble delegating, because they have found few people as conscientious as they are. They have high standards of quality, also frequently unrealistically high.
          They are the ones managers and co-workers turn to when something unfamiliar, complicated and difficult is to be done. Everyone is very happy to have them around.
          Sadly, they are very vulnerable to burnout, that condition of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that robs its victims of quality of life both at work and in their private lives.
          They can, of course, learn the new skills of managing their performance at a high level, so can live happily ever after. Andy Crowe describes such people in his excellent study “Alpha Project Managers: What the Top 2% Know that Everyone Else Does Not.”

          Who are the project managers?” They’re the ones who get things done. The title comes later.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Productivity: The Cliff


          I have this vision of the elite employee, the perfect co-worker – always prepared, totally dependable,right there to lend a hand . . . and headed straight for a cliff.
          This person is committed to the organization, loyal to employer and colleagues, devoted to excellence, unerringly competent, eager to take on any and all problems.
          The cliff part comes in because this wonder-worker is incapable of saying “No.” He/she can’t refuse to help, is unable to resist jumping in when something needs to be done. The person is a perfectionist.
          There is a huge, enthusiastic market for such people. Their managers and fellow employees love them. Ol’ Joe just never says “No.” Long hours, working nights at home, coming in on weekends.

While it lasts. No one can keep that up forever. There’s no end and no limit. Sooner or later, Joe runs down or runs out.
If you’re not Joe, you know him from your workplace. If you are Joe, don’t try to tough it out. Can’t be done. You’re going to have to make some changes.
First of all, vow to retain the habits of focus and discipline that got you here. They will serve you well no matter what you do in life. You need to adjust your activities, not your attitudes.
Secondly, devote some time to an accounting, an analysis of how you spend your days. What are you doing, and how long does it take? Why are you doing these things? Each of them?
Don’t have time to do this examination? That, my friend, is a strong sign that you’re closer to the cliff than you thought. However uncomfortable it makes you, step back and take stock.
There are simple tracking formats that take little time – although they do reveal the frightening volume of work you are asking yourself to handle.
Third, take a good look at your relationships. What goes on between you and other people? Who does what for whom? Are there sensible ways to re-order responsibilities? Should you work on your communication and negotiation skills?

Finally, set up more productive ways to use your time. Make collaboration just as important as individual effort.
For example, if you don’t have time to train others in activities you could delegate, look for what you can do less of – or stop doing.
Of course, no one else can do things as well as you can – but the hard truth is that many of them really don’t need to be done that well. Your devotion to perfection wastes time. Learn and live a more advanced workstyle. Think relationships and results, not familiar old processes.
This is called mastering multiple projects, priorities and demands. It helps you become a teamwork devotee more than a task doer. You train yourself to derive deep satisfaction from collegial rather than individual results. It is a more ordered, less driven way of working.
You don’t go over a cliff. And there’s a bonus: You get a life. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Magic Isn't. Politics Is.

     We all thought getting folks to do some challenging thing was  impossible, but someone pulled it off anyway. That wasn't magic. It wasn't just luck, either, although luck always is a component of success. It was politics.
     Politics, like project management, often is described as a variable blend of science and art. There's a reason for that common description, because the two professions are essentially identical.
     Politics, when it works, is the process of assembling and advancing reasons for disparate parties to act in each other's behalf to achieve an outcome that is valued by all. Usually, a person or a number of people explore and communicate interests among the various parties, searching for patches of common ground that encourage movement away from adverse positions.
     Opposing actors begin to see advantage in such movement, and they develop a willingness to sacrifice some less-desired benefits in the interest of gaining others of greater value. They re-examine convictions and suppositions in search of bargaining chips. As open discussion progresses, they improve their understanding of other positions, and see previously unnoticed value in offerings from different protagonists.
      There is nothing simple about such negotiations, particularly since all the parties typically have connections and obligations to other interests not at the table.
     Leading the effort takes sensitivity and tolerance, and an alert sense of real and potential motivations. It takes talent, skill and vision to negotiate the pitfalls, and to take advantage of the unobtrusive or unexpected opportunities that arise. You have to b both patient and intimately involved.
   
     All of that applies to the reality of projects, properly understood. You cannot simplify the management burden  to make it less daunting and more controllable. If you try to do that, you must then create some shrug-off to account for the resultant diminished results. You know. Projects never meet requirements, come in on budget, hit the schedule.
     It would be much like politicians blaming the opposition for intransigence when in truth they themselves failed to show leadership in convincing their constituents of hard truths and dealing honestly with their opponents.
     Project managers can't limit their work to operating the technology, reporting the processes and inventing the excuses. They must commit to hard outcomes and influence human behavior, often in circumstances of great difficulty and resistance.
     That's politics.
     The science of project management is visible on the surface, captured in the documentation and managed through organized, disciplined performance. It is PMI's 42 processes as outlined in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. It is an absolutely essential base for good project management -- and it can be manipulated as the refuge of mediocre managers. It is nowhere near all there is to this business, and it is an easy cop-out to pretend that it is.
     The art of politics, and of project management, is the nuanced work that goes on in convincing people -- including those who are powerful, convinced and antagonistic -- to see payoffs in doing what they originally may have had no intention of doing. It is the patient development of trust and candor through countless conversations and decisions, making collaboration possible. It combines empathy with decisiveness, example with engagement.
     It is your in-process assistance to people and guidance of ongoing events.
     This latter skill set is painfully learned and not always appreciated. It is at the core of quality project management. When you hate politics, you're thinking of the lazy, mean-spirited or dishonest corruption of a marvelous set of skills.
     When politics is done well, the results can seem magical. Close examination reveals that it's not magical at all -- just marvelous and admirable.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Project Politics: Good Thing. Bad Name.


          Politics has a bad name – so bad even politicians sneer at it. Pretty much every other day, some leader of a national party dismisses the opposing position in the healthcare debate as “politics.”  Bad stuff, he/she is saying. Dishonest and exploitive.
          It’s almost astounding to realize that politics once was considered a noble calling. Nowadays, the polls rate this – dare we call it a “profession?” – incredibly low in public esteem. Somewhere in that six-mile-deep Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean. Lower than whale droppings. It gets no respect. None.
          So you’re up against it when you remind everyone that politics is an essential function of civilization, to say nothing of democracy. It is equally at the core of project management. It is the art and science of accomplishing a mutually-valued outcome among disparate parties.
          The unsatisfactory alternatives are dictatorship, war or surrender to unsolved problems.

          Project managers actually have a much more favorable reputation than politicians – or should that be “a much-less-unfavorable” reputation? (Did you hear the one about the cannibals who lived happily within a large organization until they were exposed? One of them carelessly ate a janitor instead of the customary project manager. The janitor was missed instantly.)
          In fact, politics, like project management, can be practiced very well or very poorly. Or somewhere in the vast range of quality between the extremes.
          Similarly, the issues of either profession can be vitally important. Healthcare, so obscured by irrelevant and inane argument, really matters. People are dying because they can’t afford care, and people are going broke trying to pay for it. The country can’t continue to afford the way we’re going
This has been on the national agenda, in one form or another, since at least the days of President Theodore Roosevelt. We should all get our heads together and do something about it. You don’t have to take one position or another to think that would be an important thing to do.

It’s a project. A project within the humongous, revolutionary project that is the United States of America. And don’t believe there isn’t plenty of risk in them both, particularly the survival of the way of life we enjoy in this country.
At the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin referred to the newly-formed entity as “a republic, if you can keep it.” He was not at all alone among the founding members in understanding this thing needed careful tending. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
It would have been too clumsy for Franklin to have said, “It’s a project, if you can manage it.” Or Jefferson to have warned, “Constant risk management is the price of democracy.”
The entire enterprise, at the time of that years-long “project charter” negotiation, was politics of the highest order. Washington despaired of getting the battling factions to agree on anything – but he kept it together through determination, persuasion and leadership. He was the ultimate political project manager, and without him the whole thing would have come apart.

In our infinitely smaller way, we project managers need a sufficiency of the same characteristics to do our job. It’s not all Gantt charts and work package specifications, however necessary they are.
You don’t have to call it politics if that offends you, but you’d better practice it that way if you’re going to hold your stakeholders together and navigate the political challenges of your projects.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Confidence


          Confidence is optional.
          You’re confident when you are absolutely sure that what you’re doing will work. That’s true of all of us. When we’ve worked out all the kinks and gotten the routine down, we have no doubt that whatever it is will come out exactly as we intended.
          The trick is to have that conviction when none of those factors are present. How can I be sure I’m going to succeed when there are all kinds of problems I don’t know how to solve, when I’ve never done this before – or worse, when I’ve tried it a couple of times and failed?
          Just to add to the description: What if everyone tells me it won’t work, can’t work, will never work?

          What kind of fool just sails ahead, serene in the certainty of success, when everything points to failure? We’ve seen people do that, and suffer painfully public pratfalls.
          Maybe, once in a great while, we’ve seen such carefree people succeed without suffering any apparent pain. Not often, and we might have suspected that they were just as surprised as anyone. Was that confident competence . . . or just dumb luck?
            More directly important to us project managers are those who sweat and claw and fight, staggering and persisting their way to success, no matter what. These are people who get knocked back and knocked down, and just keep coming.
          Is this noble commitment or foolish stubbornness? Who cares? It works.

          People who do this can pay a heavy price, in the exhaustion of their personal stock of emotion, mental balance and even physical strength and endurance. They may not sleep well, eat properly or exercise enough. Their health can suffer significantly. This is not really a good way of life.
          Equally important can be the toll on their relationships, personal and professional.
When you work long hours and focus your attention on overcoming difficult workplace challenges, you don’t have a lot of time for the wife or husband and kids. Or much else for yourself as a person. Where does this go?
Similarly, when you’re stressed and overworked on the job, you simply can’t devote the proper time and attention to listening, explaining and collaborating. Things go downhill.
You can make it in such demanding circumstances, but you tend to become more driven than confident. There’s a difference, and it’s a very obvious one. Not good.

True confidence, on the other hand, is made up of competence in performance combined with contentment in attitude. I believe it is a state that can be consciously sought and gradually built – both the external skills/practices and the internal attitudes/feelings.
          Amazing discoveries can result from the candid and thoughtful consideration of one’s own habits and assumptions. You might find that the barriers are only in your mind, and the possibilities are breathtakingly at hand.
          You thought you just couldn’t deal with conflict. You might discover that you can focus on mutual rewards without distraction from  overblown and uncontrolled emotion. Not only can you arrive at an adult agreement, but you can win the admiration of combatants and onlookers. It depends upon movements of the mind that are fully within your control.

          And you can be persistent in follow-through where you never have been before. You slow it down. You apply your mind, judgment and experience instead of allowing your feelings and unthinking reactions to divert you.
You focus your thinking on the logical steps along the way, making it specific and do-able in your mind, instead of thinking about all the reasons why it’s a pain and/or all the things you’d rather be doing instead.
You can purposefully design and implement a program of logic to command your behavior in situations of demand and stress. You can train patience into your previously impulsive behavior.
You can install a little red light in your mind to warn you when anxiety or fear is rising, so you can immediately kick in your personal problem-management process. It works.       

          So confidence indeed is optional. It takes some work. But the payoff can be lifelong, and incredibly worthwhile.

         
          

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Precious Resource

      Management 101 defines the manager’s job with stark simplicity: to get the highest possible value in the shortest possible time at the lowest possible cost . . . for the longest possible period of time.
Nothing to it. Just get out your calculator and organize an efficient investment of resources, then implement, monitor, adjust.
If it were that simple, of course, there would be no need for expensive managers. Just resources, planners and monitors. Here’s how it would work:
At its simplest, the list of resources is a short one:

                  TIME

                  MONEY

                  PEOPLE

                  EVERYTHING ELSE (Facilities, materials, etc.)

Time is the most rigid of the resources.
Everybody has the same amount of it. It just ticks away, one second at a time, sixty seconds per minute, sixty minutes per hour.
Einstein theorized that time becomes flexible as one nears the speed of light, but since few of us work at that rate, Einsteinian time is not an issue.
In reality, time is a great tool for measuring the investment of the other resources against results, and that’s it. It is a tool for making value decisions, but otherwise contributes nothing. A deadline’s value is in what a person or group can accomplish by a given moment. The people action is what’s important.

Money is the universal resource.
Everything can be converted into a cost. If you have enough money, you can buy whatever you can absorb of any other resource.
The People resource, for example, can be calculated in terms of “fully loaded labor cost.” That means a person’s salary and fringes plus the person’s proportionate share of cost of the organization’s common amenities: the building, insurance, air conditioning, marketing, etc.
If everyone in a company were of exactly the same value to the organization, you could divide its total cost of operation for a week by the number of employes. That would tell you how much each employe was costing the company, and therefore how much value that worker should provide for the company to break even on employing that person.
Things aren’t that simple in the workplace, but you get the idea. Money makes everything else possible, but has no intrinsic value of its own.

Let’s skip to Everything Else.
Here you can have construction materials, computer databases, office furniture, whatever. None of it does anything but sit there (costing money and probably deteriorating) without the wise use of it by human beings.
Information can be vitally important, in a Project or other activity, but only if it is known, understood and properly employed by people.
The “everything else” category is the one that, in general, can be replaced or substituted for by other resources. For example, if you have enough time you can swing an old-fashioned hammer instead of using an air-operated nailer. If you have enough money you can buy more raw materials.

The People resource is the central and most meaningful of the resources. Without it, the other resources have no meaning. They don’t do anything.
Under weak management, the people involved in getting things done are seen as the “adapter” in the scheme of things When you run out of time, make people donate time by working extra hours. Withhold overtime, and you save money, too.
If the Project suddenly hits an unexpected problem or picks up some added requirements, you can’t afford to bust the budget or miss the deadline – so you push the people harder.
In a properly planned Project or other activity, the human resource is not an adapter. The people who staff the Project have been carefully “estimated” to fit the requirements by devoting reasonable time to the effort. The result has been defined, and all the resources – including the human one – have been organized to get it done. Again in simple terms, the overall “investment” can be represented in a formula:

      Time + $$$ + Everything Else x Human Effort = Outcome

                                          T + $ + E x H = O

Time is added, along with Money and Everything Else. The role of Human Effort is that of a catalytic multiplier employing the other resources to achieve the planned Outcome.
If something happens, say the deadline is suddenly moved up to hit a window of opportunity in the marketplace, something has been subtracted from the T.
Logic – or good management – says O will be proportionately reduced, unless a sufficient increase is made in one of the other elements on the lefthand side of the equation.
Instead, what frequently happens is a greater burden is placed on the less-measurable human resource. Can’t you hear it now? “Let’s just take a few of these people sitting around drinking coffee and get another few minutes of work a day out of each of them.” Bingo! Problem solved.
You do that a few times – and it can work over the short term if the people care about the organization and believe in the Project – and you wear the human resource down. Its productivity declines. People get tired and uninspired. You miss the deadline (time), run over budget (money) and still have a poorer result (Outcome).

 So the substitution of human effort for other resources is of very limited value, and in fact usually is negative.
And, of course, if the enthusiasm was not there to begin with, there was not even a short-term gain.
However, the biggest price paid for such mismanagement is the effect it has on the people. They learn to distrust managers and their plans. They learn to protect themselves. They play the game as survivors, placing no value on courage, commitment or extra effort. You won’t get them back.
In short, you have blown the most precious resource. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Email: Blessing and Curse



          Email is one of the most burdensome marvels we’ve ever had in the workplace.
          It’s hard to remember what business communication was like before email swept our world 10 or 15 years ago. It’s so easy now, and because it’s so easy it has choked the channels.
          The downside comes because “easy” does not mean “better.” In fact it almost always means “worse.” Easy means less demanding for the originator . . . and a transfer of demand to the receiver. Not a good idea, when the whole transaction was not the receiver’s idea to start with.
          Studies of email volume relegate a large portion to the category of useless, another sizable bunch to the seductive group of interesting but also useless, the lesser number that you’ll save for later today and the small minority that call for immediate action.

          Think about investing a modest amount of attention in managing this.
          Stand back for a moment from your daily flood of email messages. It’s a glut. Look at all those things. How do they contribute to the productivity of your day? Do you have something of a choking feeling when you open your inbox and feel obligated to sort through?
          Don’t.
          Don’t have the feeling, and don’t sort through. You’re better off being something between the grim reaper and the thoughtful scholar.
You act on autopilot because you’ve got a process based on a plan. You deal with email as a tool of your profession, and you don’t confuse idle curiosity with professional time investment.
The first priority is hot items. What needs action . . . now? Do it.

Now you shift to proactive mode. You become the party of the first part. You send the email messages you need to send, initiating various matters of concern. Then you move away from email, on to your next job priority.
Sometime around the middle of your workday, you visit your email again. You repeat the morning’s routine.
Then, as there’s a bit less urgency now, you do some brushcutting. You ride the delete key, killing every item whose author, subject line or first lines show no sign of value. If the writer made no effort to engage your attention, the message deserves the same on your part.
It’s useful to remind yourself that email is so easy to write and send that it too frequently is sloppy, a vehicle of low-value communication. If the sender really meant it, you’ll hear from that person again.

The flip side of this issue is what it tells you about how to behave as an email originator.
When thoughtful people pop online with a few minutes to check in between other demands of the job, what do they look for? It’s not the subject line (although effective emailers learn to tune those precious few words carefully).
No, more than that, you look for the sender. There are people in your worklife who matter to you, a lot. Their names pop out at you from the inbox when their messages are in there. For whatever reason, their messages are automatically top priority in your work.
Why?
The most important senders, normally, are those who never email you unless there’s a reason that both of you consider important. You want to be that high-priority person, in the inboxes of all the people with whom you have email relationships.

So you never send trivial emails. You don’t use email when another communication method is more appropriate. You never include a recipient who does not have a direct, immediate, valuable reason to get this information from you now, in this way. Your email partners know that, and respond accordingly.
          You can do things with this workplace communication vehicle that are amazingly useful. You also can be astonishingly self-destructive. Achieving the one and not the other requires just a little professional thought.
          Take your pick.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Them

          They.
I know who “they” are. So do you. We all do. They did this. They won't let us do that.
          They are “them.” The overpowering, unresponsive blank wall utterly insensitive to our struggle to function, to get redress, to express ourselves. They do brutal things without a second thought, and have no interest at all in recognizing our worth . . . or even our humanity.
But have you ever had the uncomfortable sensation of discovering that YOU are “they?” No one ever calls you that to your face, but sometimes you find out from a third party that some person or persons referred to you that way. Maybe you hear that there were nods of approval among people you thought believed in you.
Something you did or said was seen as the brainless/heartless kind of thing that the system/bureaucracy/dictatorship routinely does. Not a good thing.
Hey, I’m not “they.” These folks know me. They know I’m not like that. It’s a shock to discover that they don’t.

          Being one of “they/them” is part of the job definition for managers. For project managers, it frequently has the additional burden of the conviction on the part of your “team members” that you are ignorant or unskilled in their areas of specialty.
          Why should they take you seriously? What of value could they possibly look for that you could provide? What could convince them that they need you? They’ve seen a lot of people like you, and those people have been more of an obstacle, an annoyance, a butt of jokes – than a person to look up to for guidance, support and leadership.
          In years of talking with people and working with people in project management, I have run into this fundamental stopper all too often.

          Interestingly, both sides, in effect, agree. The working end of the spectrum uses the concept and – routinely – the term “they.” The other end, more often than not, tends to act out the attitude. The senior partners focus their concern on outcomes rather than the real human beings who bring the outcomes about.
          The bosses too often have their own “they.” That “they” is the faceless mass of opposing working staff people who don’t understand the important needs of the organization, cannot be trusted to do their work faithfully and are basically incompetent – often laughably so. 
          And don’t you believe that both “theys” don’t know how they are caricatured by the other side. They know very well. For sure, it doesn’t make for vigorous teamwork in the workplace.

          So here you are, a project manager. Instantly, upon your designation to lead this challenging effort, you are draped in the mantle. You are “they.”
          What do you do?
          You manage. The true believers of the cliché have rarely seen a real manager in the astounding process of good management. They have been conditioned to see overstressed, underempowered bureaucrats desperately flailing to survive.
          Show ‘em. Manage. Do your homework. Get the information. Create the fundamentals, Build the relationships. Challenge power to do its share. Identify the problems. Emplace the solutions. Most of all, build the relationships.
          Invite people into an exciting adventure in which their investment of commitment will be rewarded with honor and attention. Open opportunity for their knowledge and hard work to produce meaningful results.
          Do your job.
          Then, in a remarkably satisfying way, there is no “they.”
          No more “theys.” Just “US.” 
  

         

Saturday, April 7, 2012

It's the Politics, Stupid

          All the best project managers I have known are superb politicians.

          Politicians? Politics? Yuck! We hate politics!
          No, we don’t. We don’t hate politics. We hate sleazy politics, and because of that we avoid politics, and because of that we’ll never be very good at project management.
We don’t understand that ALL human relationships are run by politics, and the best relationships are managed by topflight politicians.
Great marriages, for instance, succeed so well because the couple has mastered, not only continuing true love, but the negotiated matters of effective partnership in managing children, solving finances and taking out the garbage.
          Marriage is a project, the most profoundly important project most of us ever get to star in. It has all the elements – complexity, dependencies, uncertainty, risk, diverse participants, resource management, disruptive variances and limitations on individual freedom of action. Etc.
          The people who find themselves in these grand experiments never understand all that until they’re committed, responsible . . . and stuck. Not in a bad way, you understand, but very openly stuck.

          Our current public politics, narrowly defined, are at first look an example of disgracefully bad project management. The major matters at the national and state levels are neglected, distorted or subverted in favor of what appear to be narrow and destructive ends.
          This public politics business actually is a side issue in the context of our discussion, but two quick observations could be useful.
One is that some mayors and other local leaders are doing yeoman work in finding ways to do the best possible in their grim realities while the more-insulated big players hurl their thunder, mess with vital resources and screw the end user. The hometown heroes are managing their projects, not bewailing their situations.
The other point for thought is that the bitter collisions in the public arenas of Washington and state capitals actually are political projects in process. Like sausage in mid-manufacture, the making of public-policy outcomes is nothing for the faint of heart to witness close up.
Each of the parties in contention has its eye on a goal, and has chosen a set of actions to achieve that goal. Elections are the close of project phases, as are the terms of administrations, but the final outcome of those collected projects won’t be achieved (or known) in our lifetimes.
In short, what goes on in politics as customarily defined does indeed illuminate aspects of our projects, but does not define our management of them.

The truth is that project management requires its practitioners to practice politics to succeed. Gather your information, organize your people, plan your process, prepare for your unpleasant surprises, convince your stakeholders, persuade your end users and go for it.
Project management. It’s the politics. OK, you’re not stupid. You knew that.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Project Management, the Attitude

          What is “project management?” What is a “project manager?”
          Well, project management is managing projects, and project managers are the people who do it, right? What’s so complicated about that?
          Everything, that’s what.
          Start with “project.” Research reveals that many activities called by that name are not projects – they are repeatable, repeated processes that reward adherence to standardized actions. They are processes. The more rigidly you, the manager, enforce predetermined details, the better the result. You’re after maximum predictability and minimum variance.

          That’s not project management.
          Well, wait a minute. Many project management functions are processes. Within every project there are requirements, often covering substantial parts of the effort, that are true processes. They are precise, predetermined sequences of actions to reach known outcomes.
          That formula is comforting to many people, and  they simplify their lives by making project management itself into a process, which it isn’t. This is why there are so many arcane formulations in the field that keep people busy while utterly missing the real project management issues.

          An organized activity is a true project only when there also are complex parts you’ve never done before, some human and some procedural. Even the known sections can be severely impacted by the risks and uncertainties that accompany them.
          One of the failings that bedevil projects is a tendency to focus on the known parts to avoid the anxiety of dealing with the unknown ones. That slows, hampers, damages projects. Kills or substantially cuts back on many.
          So project management is controlling the multiple, continuously shifting pieces of a varied, undependable enterprise. It involves estimating and inventing, tracking and adjusting. It supremely demands the ability to delegate responsibility, inspire confidence and maintain compliance – in the midst of circumstances that can be very uncomfortable.
          Who wants to live that way? Volunteer project gladiators aren’t plentiful in most organizations.

          Those who lead this kind of work, and especially those who do it well, are even more rare.
          You’ve seen a few of them in your life. These are people who can thrive in the bramble patch, handling simultaneous bad moments with decisiveness, tolerance and imagination. They demonstrate unusual skill at planning ahead and anticipating problems, and yet are flexible and persistent when their careful preparations come apart.
          They devote themselves to the tedious gruntwork that underpins all good strategic and tactical planning. They find ways to get the organization to stick by them. They make middling people good and good people better. They take responsibility and solve problems. They themselves are never the problem.

Most of us can’t think that way, nor act that way. But we could. It’s what the good ones do. It doesn’t require unusual talent. It takes determination and it takes a bit of courage and a lot of persistence.
It short, all it takes is an attitude.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Getting People to Do Stuff


          It’s easy to get people to do what they want to do – if they can.
          That really simplifies the definition of the leadership role. You’ve narrowed it down to two objectives:
          First, get people to want to do whatever it is.
          Second, make it possible for them to do it.
          Simplifying the definition does not, of course, make the process easy. But it does make the way somewhat clearer.

          The fundamental challenge here is often expressed in the question: “How do I motivate people?”
          The quick answer is: “You don’t.”

That’s right. You can’t motivate people. You motivate yourself. I motivate myself. Each person moves himself/herself to act.
The leader, including the manager-as-leader, can make it attractive to do something, can clear the way to do that something, can assist those who are to do the something. You’re the catalyst, not the doer.
You manage the process and you sell it to the people. So many managers fail to articulate that role to themselves, don’t understand what it means. They work so hard, with so little to show for it. Well, don’t work like a dog, when you should be sly as a fox.

Back to the oversimplification, starting with the first objective. How do you arouse people’s desire to engage in the task at hand?
One way to do that actually  comes from how you solve the second: clearing away the obstacles to their participation.
Think back for a moment over your own experience in managing group efforts. When you had reluctance, resistance, avoidance on the part of your “team” members, what were their reasons for not getting on board?
          Too much to do already?
Well, help the person arrange a reduction in regular workload.
There’s no one else to do it? The manager is resisting?
Answer: Your manager has a problem. I’ll talk to your manager.
Oh, the manager won’t budge? OK, I’ll talk to the manager’s manager. I’ve already gotten full backing from the very top, so I will get you free to jump right in.
          If, indeed, the designated person cannot be properly cleared to participate in my project, then the organization will get me someone who can. Remember, I have the backing.
          Getting that backing – full, open delegation of real authority (or known access to authority) – is the absolutely essential first thing the project manager must obtain when he/she is appointed to carry out this organizational imperative. If you don’t have that power, hang it up. You’re done. Nothing is going to work.

          With that in place, your top priority is to arrange the environment for success across the entire range of project activity. Establishing a good process is a powerful incentive for good people to want to be part of this project.
          You seize the initiative. You don’t allow problems to invade your project, or grow in it. People of quality are energized when they see that kind of leadership.
          A second strength of the project manager is to build the individual and team spirit of success, the eagerness to engage and resolve difficult challenges in the company of true professionals. It is hard to overestimate how attractive it is for good people to be offered that opportunity.
          The project manager makes sure the right people are on the job, that they receive the right training, tools and processes to get the job done, that the right relationships are set up and nurtured, that the right things happen in meetings, in problem-solving and in celebration.
          Anyone who is not ignited with enthusiasm in such a circumstance doesn’t deserve to be part of it. And the wider organization will be bursting with eager candidates for the job.
Talk about motivation!

SEE ALSO:
How to Save Your Organization
http://jimmillikenproject.blogspot.com/2010/12/how-to-save-your-organization.html


Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Most Obvious Secret


          If you’ve got a job, someone is paying you. A purse-strings decision-maker thinks you provide value that is worth money.
          Duh. So what other thunderclap of wisdom is new?
          Well, there’s nothing new with thinking about the economics of personal employment. But it’s time to introduce some better thinking about it, in this tough and uncertain era. In fact, some of the oldest truths about the meaning of employment are among the least examined, and definitely the least accounted for.
          Here’s a recent illustration of what this is about:
          Supply Chain Management Review published a new study last month on which skills and competencies hiring managers are currently emphasizing in their job openings. The study focused on university preparation and was limited to the inventory management industry, but its results are thought-provoking in a much more general way.
          The survey asked hiring managers to evaluate applicants’ preparation in a number of appropriate skills. Are the candidates sufficiently prepared, or do they need to be better prepared?
          Glaringly high on the negative side are management skills and customer relationships. For management, the ratio was 44 percent in need of better preparation, 16 percent adequately prepared. For customer relationships, the numbers are 40 percent and 15 percent.
          So, by 3 to 1, the young people looking for employment in that sector are deficient in leadership and people skills.
          A lifetime of direct involvement in those areas tells me that picture is accurate across the entire working world.
          This is not to devalue subject-matter knowledge and technical skill. Those attributes must be present and productively engaged in any workforce. But this is not an either-or game. It’s a “both of ‘em” proposition.
          We all have experienced the frustration of working with, under or over people who had superb hard skills, but couldn’t listen, organize, decide, explain, etc. The job skills are present, but not productively engaged.
Shortfalls are just as damaging in the soft skills areas, but evaluating them is quite a bit more difficult. So is overcoming them. That’s why, in very many organizations, their absence is basically taken for granted.
You’ll notice, though, that people who make it their business to acquire and display excellence in management and people skills head the pack in getting hired and promoted. Organizations may not be good at equipping people with the full set of competencies, but most will pay for them when they’re available.
So it’s encouraging that the hiring managers in the Supply Chain Management report were even asked about management and relationships.
It’s discouraging to see how the results turned out, but there’s a real bright side. This is a major heads-up for career builders who are looking for that key advantage over the employment competition, either in the hiring line or on the job.
          Just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean everybody will jump on it. They sure haven’t so far.
          

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Authority, Responsibility, Management


           “I can’t do anything about that agency,” the government official said. “I don’t have authority over it.”
          The statement reflects a primitive, fundamentally flawed management philosophy, for a number of reasons.
          For one thing, it implies that one-way exercise of power is the only way government can function.
          For another, it denies the speaker’s responsibility for outcomes he/she can’t control.
          You can find the same kind of thinking in nongovernmental organizations.

          In the real world, though, it is delusional for anyone in a position of authority to believe you make things happen as a continuing practice by ordering them done.
Organizations headed by such people tend to be circuses of hypocrisy and just-pretend. They become progressively less functional as they lose good people and gain a culture of fictional behaviors.
No one has all the answers, and smart leaders know how to spread authority around in the right places, and how to empower people to use it with pride to multiply quality results.
Conversely, people willing to be treated as lackeys pretend respect and compliance while they play hidden games that hollow out the operation.
You don’t dare question a dictatorial boss, but you don’t waste time and energy actually trying to carry out all of his/her stupid directives, either. Such bosses often see what they want to see, while they punish and humiliate those who don’t stay in line.

          Bad bosses have bad bosses. When a power-obsessed incompetent is allowed to continue in place, it’s because someone agrees with the behavior, isn’t paying attention or is practicing avoidance or denial. The boss’s boss isn’t doing the job.
          That is as true in the private sector as it is in public service. If you are elected or appointed to a position of power, it is because you are expected to get certain things done. That’s the responsibility part.
          If you take your responsibility seriously, you equip yourself with the skills and practices you need to get the desired results or as close to those results as possible. So you build relationships, and you learn and respond to the motivations of other people in the environment.
You respect and understand how others see their authority and responsibility. You work creatively and persistently in the realm of the possible. You negotiate, giving and taking in at atmosphere of mutual dependency and respect.

          That sounds a lot like project management. While “government as business” is in many ways a failed concept, there is significant value in seeing project management as politics.
          The typical functional manager in business, industry or the nonprofit world generally has more formal authority than the typical political leader – and far more than the typical project manager.
          What is common to all management roles, though, is the responsibility to achieve results through obtaining the constructive involvement and contributions of other people. What you can’t order into place, you must nurture into being.
          Power needs responsibility.
          Responsibility demands collaboration.
          Collaboration must be earned.
          Authority is dependent upon competence.