jim@millikenproject.com

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


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Sounds Good. Doesn't Work.

     Things were well beyond just tense. There had been at least one fistfight out on the floor. Something had to be done.
     So the boss called in a consultant to conduct a workshop on conflict management.
The following events illustrate how true facts can be irrelevant. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

When to Quit

     We’ve talked and thought – a lot -- about what makes a good project manager. It’s all in what that person does, and I’m now down to three Ps in describing it: preparation, persistence and perspective.

     Preparation. How many project problems, hassles and stunning bad surprises can be traced back to sloppy and/or incomplete work at the outset?

     Do we, are we allowed to, invest adequate attention up front in gathering, organizing and analyzing enough information so we are confident we have the right problem definition, a sound situation analysis and a clear purpose statement?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

You Radiate Leadership . . . or Not

When you walk in, what do they think?
When you call the meeting to order, what do they expect?
When you give assignments, what goes through their minds?
When you ask for ideas, or volunteers – how do they respond?

We frequently talk about communication, and we’re actually doing communication whenever we’re in any kind of contact with other people. Too bad we do too little thinking about communication.

For project managers, this set of behaviors is the catalyst for everything. Without effective communication, your expertise, research and preparation are wasted. Your talent goes to work for you when it demonstrates itself in providing value, and not before. You build a team or gain stakeholder collaboration by what you say and do, and how you say and do it. Most of the time, though, we are too busy, too distracted. Communication is a time-management issue. When we allow our tasks to occupy our thoughts, they dominate our manner.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Teamwork Myth

     Let’s all applaud the corporate “leadership team.” There they stand on the stage at the annual stockholders’ meeting. Sharp-looking (almost all) men, accomplished, highly paid, tough, smart . . . and back at the shop knifing each other between the shoulder blades at every opportunity.
     Okay, you don’t think they’re really a team.
     How about this: The United States creates a Department of Homeland Security to coordinate the anti-terrorism work of the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency and all those other intelligence organizations – national, state and local – including the CIA.  Teamwork intention on a grand, and very noticeable, scale.
     The CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) itself had been formed decades before to overcome the very obvious and costly dis-collaboration among our spycatchers. It quickly became only one more part of the problem. “Central Intelligence Agency” – get it? Get everybody together? When?

     Homeland Security pretty much seems to follow the same pattern.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Career Move: Talk to the Boss

     It was still summer, but for some reason the department secretary asked our city editor whether he was planning to attend the boss’s annual staff cocktail party, generally held in the early fall.
     “No. I’m busy that day,” the guy said.
     “But you don’t even know when it will be,” the secretary protested.
     “I know,” he answered. “I’m still busy that day.”

     The boss – specifically, the top editor of our medium-sized daily – was not a bad person. Kind of distant, though, and committed to a somewhat alien set of standards. I bumped into him once at a big university while I was there on a recruiting trip for reporters and interns.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Are People Around? It's Culture Change, Then

   It was an architect who demonstrated for me the magical power of competent culture change. The newspaper I worked for had decided to install a new technology process that would radically change everything in our department, including the physical layout.  
     The architect was experienced, so I have no doubt he knew pretty much exactly what would have to happen to the walls, doorways, furniture and all when this new process was brought in.    
     Possibly, he knew there could be unique factors in our operation that needed to be accounted for as the place was reconfigured, but he’d done a lot of newspapers and ours probably differed in no significant way.
     Still, he went around, clipboard in hand, to every one of us, and all those people in the departments that interfaced with us. He patiently probed, listened and took notes.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Projects: What Do You Mean, SUCCESS?

     I had this informal document that tracked a software project from first requirements, resource allotments and schedule to final conclusion, triumphantly scored at the end as a success. The lead author and project manager provided it, assuring me of its authenticity. I think she wanted to make a point.
     The document was an amazing string of email messages, periodic exchanges among the remotely-located team members over an eight-month period.
     With an apparent straight face and an utter lack of adherence to reality, the compiled emails reported “progress” as a two-month plan incrementally expanded to seven months, the team handled 130+ out-of-scope tasks and the invested person-hours went who-knows-where.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Project Management -- Trust but Verify

One of the most startling things about Project Management is that it demands complete honesty and sensitive diplomacy – both at the same time, and from the same person: The Project Manager.

This refers, of course, to Project Management properly executed, not the inexact and ineffective performance we often see around us in the name of our distinctive art/science.

First, the complete honesty part. What is the most common flaw of damaged projects? Failure of clear understanding, agreement and follow-through on the responsibilities of the various stakeholders. This cripples projects. If they are to succeed, everyone involved must be clear on what is expected, and on commitments as well as on intended payoffs.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

How to Argue

You never know whether your opinion is right until you get into an argument about it. And, if you don’t argue properly, you may never know.

People talk a lot of foolishness about arguing. Some say it’s a bad thing and should be avoided. They believe it accomplishes nothing except to hurt people, damage relationships and harden attitudes. Others say it’s a lost art because of “political correctness.” They are convinced that people tiptoe around each other, letting good ideas as well as error and misinformation slide by because they don’t want conflict.

So here’s a question for you: How much progress is possible without disagreement?

Competition is disagreement. Coke vs. Pepsi. The two flavors have competed for about a century, and their respective proponents have been known to disagree – sometimes vociferously – about their relative merits.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Life Is a Project: How Are You Managing?

Think of a typical day at work. Have you ever tracked your hour-by-hour activities (forget minute-by-minute – that’s too fragmented)?

Did any random occurrence that day advance your progress toward where you want to be in life? Did some person do that for you?

How about your own conscious actions? Did you do work, or conduct conversations, or make decisions, that put you further ahead in life?

How about your days away from the job? Where do they go?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Don't Just Meet

Meetings often are the tragedies of organizations. Many meetings suffocate initiative, disrupt productivity and poison attitudes.

This is tragic because good meetings are the jewels of organizations. Done right, meetings multiply the value of the knowledge, talent and skill collected in that place at that time. They produce remarkable payoffs for the organization, and heighten the participants’ productivity and enthusiasm. The immediate benefit contributes to continuous improvement.

If only the group would occasionally have a meeting about meetings, its native good sense could very well dissolve this epidemic of bad meetings, because the antidotes are relatively simple and sensible.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Motivation: The Mule's Tale

There is this mule, see. Stubborn, lazy, selfish. Totally complacent and absorbed with comfort. Devoid of ambition.

One thing, though. When the muleskinner cracks the whip, the mule hops to, gets moving, gets on the ball. It’s magical.

The muleskinner has never actually skinned the mule – or even whacked it much – but you’d never know that. The mule can be the very model of productive effort, but only when the muleskinner gets serious with him/her. The muleskinner issues very clear and specific commands . .  . and never, ever backs off or compromises.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Biggest, Sneakiest Project Risk

The accomplished engineer made no bones about it. “When I ask someone to do something,” he told a roomful of us, “I always do it myself as well, to make sure it gets done right.”

Got that? After delegating an assignment to someone, he would secretly duplicate the entire task himself because he trusted no one else to handle it properly. This was the triumph of personal perfectionism over everything we’ve all been saying about teamwork, delegation, personal productivity, staff development, supervisory responsibility. This was the ultimate failure of trust.

It’s an exaggerated example, but don’t kid yourself: It represents the major weakness of most projects. There is an implicit, general limit on expectations arising from our experience with our colleagues and managers. People often just don’t actually do what they say they’re going to do, and we adjust our estimates accordingly.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Not an Entrepreneur

I’m not a real entrepreneur. I don’t gamble, either. Or race cars, or climb mountains. I don’t need the thrill.

Yet, there have been times in my worklife that I refer to as “combat,” not because of conflict. Instead, it was the life-or-death level of emotional involvement required by the circumstances, to the near-exclusion of other concerns – sometimes for periods of several years running.

I don’t work that hard for that long any more. That’s another reason I’m not primarily an entrepreneur.

While we’re on the subject, here is Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “Man in the Arena” passage:

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Good Leader? Why?

Here’s the shortest leadership survey you’ll ever take:

    1. Did you stick with a person who got you to do something you didn’t want to do?

    2. If so, why?

If the answer to Question 1 was “Yes,” the person is a leader. If the thing was a good thing, the person is a good leader, in both senses of the word.

Question 2 is a different matter. You didn’t want to do it, but you did. This person got you to act against your preference. And you didn’t regret it later, at least not enough to turn away from the person. There’s a lot going on here.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

'I Hate Mistakes'

People who hate mistakes are dangerous people.

They rarely come right out and say they hate mistakes, but the markers for the attitude are obvious anyway. If you’re a manager, you can’t afford to ignore them.

When mistakes happen – as they inevitably do – the most devoted mistake-haters tend to react ferociously. Not only do they strongly, instantly distance themselves from any association with the problem, but they come down hard on the designated perp. That person can expect blunt and unforgiving condemnation.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

How to Handle Conflict


Conflict in the workplace is a very personal thing, and it can be frightening, paralyzing. We live comfortably with differences, and we can handle disagreement. Conflict, though, is a dread.

When belligerence erupts in my face, directed very personally at me – with no doubt that I am the one deserving of condemnation, contempt and insult – I burn with humiliation.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Project Politician


The project manager is the designated expediter of unrealistic expectations. That calls for superb political skills, and an extra gear for creativity.

If this thing is a real project, the stakeholders with the hammer – the ones high in the sponsoring organization – are sure there’s a pot of gold somewhere in that fog of uncertainty, and they’re often impatient for the project manager to deliver it to them.

They are both the investors and the customers of the project. You can’t expect them to pour unlimited resources into the effort, and it’s not their job to figure out how to get the desired result. But they sure do want that payoff.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Conflict

The very idea of conflict is awful. It causes discomfort, sometimes pretty intense discomfort.

 If I give in to a contentious person, or back off because I don’t want to get into an argument, I feel like dirt afterward – the doormat syndrome. Anyone who witnessed the attack and defeat/retreat may well sympathize, but they often lose respect for me anyway.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Second-Best Motivator

 Other than one’s own self, there is no workplace motivator more powerful than good management.

Good people love to work for good managers, and their work shows it. Not-so-good people may or may not go for good management, but it is their best hope of support for improvement.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

What They Don't Tell You about Stakeholders


I’d love to meet some of Andy Crowe’s Alpha Project Managers, the ones who perform so superbly at this most difficult of professions.

Can they really be so calmly proficient? Are they really so good at command and control over all those battering and befuddling problems that entangle most of their peers? Are they superior beings?

Andy’s organization, Velociteach, published the Alpha study of 876 project managers and their associates. The subjects provided input and information that turned up the 18 project managers who were highlighted in the Alpha Project Managers book. It is spot-on for what it does, but there’s an underlying reality that it touches upon only peripherally.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Inoculating against Interruptions

Maybe it’s really an interruption, and maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s your job.

Maybe much or most of what you do every day could be considered interruptions. The general nature of it might be unplanned, but it’s not unintentional. Your job is the way it is because people – including you – decided to make it that way.

That doesn’t mean you sat down and created a helter-skelter strategy for your work. Strategy usually isn’t done that way, however much we may try. Our habitual performance in the workplace is, for each of us, the product of countless decisions about what to do in response to competing priorities.


Friday, February 22, 2013

Interruptions & Disruptions

Visualize this: You’re finally into some complicated and challenging thing, and you’re making headway. Then a co-worker heaves into your cube, urgent with deadline-induced desperation. You care about the person, and you have the necessary answer.

The rescue may take just a few minutes, but you can almost physically feel the momentum being sucked out of your workday. When you wheel around to resume the more-important work, you face more than just reconnecting with the loose pieces. You have to reset this matter as a priority, and you have to patch a hole in your confidence. Can I EVER get anything done?


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When Conflict Strikes

Who likes conflict, enjoys conflict?

We all know people who relish it, or seem to. Most of us don’t want anything to do with it. We dread it.

We fear even the possibility of conflict, and typically make every effort to avoid it. If there is some possibility it will occur, we depart the scene. We recoil when it erupts, flee it when we can.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Everything's a Problem

To a practical optimist, everything’s a problem. That’s why that kind of working optimist is so good at solving them.

Wait a minute, wait a minute. Problems are bad, not good. Problems mean things aren’t working, and there’s cost and damage. If you see everything as a problem, you’re a pessimist, not an optimist. Right?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Congress, the Project


          The United States Congress has a problem. Its approval rating in the polls is about 9 percent. The nation’s citizens are mostly contemptuous of how the senators and representatives conduct their business.

          So. Big problem for you if you’re one of the 535 senators and representatives, right?

No.