jim@millikenproject.com

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


Friday, December 26, 2014

Factoids, Junk Food of the Mind

     Seventy-eight point three percent (78.3%) of statistics are made up on the spot.
     How do I know that? I don’t. I just made it up. It’s a factoid – something that looks like a fact. You can’t call me wrong, because you don’t know, either.
     That doesn’t mean you have to believe me, but maybe you will.
     Numbers can be powerful convincers. They are so definite, so specific. They can be extremely reassuring or terribly frightening. Either way, they don’t taste so bad, and they go down easy. Just  if you don’t examine them too closely. Like junk food.
     That’s why we need to be careful around numbers – when we use them ourselves and when we read or hear them from others.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Project Attitude

     "You've got an attitude."
     Wait! Wait! Don’t get angry!  I don’t mean to insult you – I’m just describing you. Me, too, as a matter of fact.
     In the United States, we’ve come to interpret that word “attitude” in many contexts as meaning “BAD attitude.” And “bad” is not good.
     So we have an attitude about “attitude.” I have no doubt other cultures have theirs, too.

     The point of that little semantic jaunt is to encourage all of us to be aware of our attitudes. Let’s think about how they work and what they do for us and against us. And, of course, what we should do about all that. If indeed we can do anything about subsurface mechanisms such as these.
     When the slang dictionary says you have an attitude, it means you’re resentful and hostile. That’s the definition addressed in the opening lines above.

Friday, December 12, 2014

How You Get What You Deserve

     The two of us were standing at the bar this one time during a rare event at which we worker bees could socialize with our superiors.
     “So,” my manager asked me, “where do you want to go in this business? What job would you like to have?”
     I, a beginner, had no idea. I gave some generic reply, because I had never thought of anything like that. Didn’t think about it after that exchange, either.
     Until two or three years later when that manager was promoted. I put in for the job, and as far as I knew I was the only person in the place who did.
     Then weeks passed, and I heard nothing.
     I had a pretty good relationship with another senior manager, and I thought he might be in on the decision. Eventually, I asked him what was going on, and got a painfully noncommittal response.
     After a long hiatus, they brought in someone from the outside to fill the position.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

How to Get the Boss to Behave

     The boss thought he had fired me, but I got his boss to cram me back down his throat.
     It took a year, but he (the firing guy) got me in the end.
     I brought it on myself. I tried it again -- using the “nuclear alternative” of going over my manager’s head – for a second time.
     Take my advice: Don’t do that. It doesn’t work.
     This second round, the manager lined up the political ducks, they stepped aside . . . and my nine-year career in my first real job was over.
     You’d think I would have learned a real lesson, but I didn’t. Until 30+ years later.
     In Scene II, older but not yet wiser, I have taken a radical turn in my life. I am not a newspaper editor/manager any more. Now I’m a consultant/trainer.
     I’m doing role play with employees of a high-tech company, and we’re working on managing conflict situations. As we’re looking for subject matter, my ancient confrontation pops to mind, and I offer it.
     I describe the scene, with the egotistical senior editor posing behind a large desk and the infuriated young city editor (me) leaning in from the other side. At the back of the office, three compliant older editors are lined up to serve as a silent chorus to witness, disapprovingly, the fate of an insubordinate employee.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Procrastination

     My sister gave me a thin, flat wooden disk about four inches in diameter.
     On it was printed a circular inscription: “ROUND TUIT. You said you would do (whatever) when you got around to it. You wanted to get a Round Tuit.  This is A Round Tuit.  Now you have one. So, go do it.”
     Kind of an antic way to address this most pervasive, maybe most self-punishing, of our unloved habits as human beings.
     Procrastination.
     This is “I was too busy.” I put it off. I never got to it. I haven’t gotten to it yet. I’m working on it (No, I’m not). I’ll get back to you. And so on.
     Well, who doesn’t live this way? Do you feel that you’re fully up to speed on all your intentions for today? For this week? This month? Your life?
     No? Me, neither. I'm working on it.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Botched Project: Borders Books & Music

     Look at Borders Books & Music. Actually, you can’t look at it. It’s gone, as of September 2011. Defunct, at the age of 40.
     Tom and Louis Borders probably didn’t consider themselves project managers, but their clear vision and consistent follow-through produced a hugely successful commercial project. For a while.
     The two University of Michigan students started in 1971 with a few used books in an upstairs room or two in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Their concept was an engaging one, and shortly they opened a real store. Phase One of the project.
     Were you ever in a Borders store back in the ‘70s, ‘80s – even into the ‘90s? It was a booklover’s dream. Books, thousands of them. Endless shelves of books – fresh books, old books, every possible kind of book. Soft chairs to sit in and soft-selling staff people who knew books, loved books, could talk about books.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

'Soft' Skills Are the Hard Part

      This guy had something of a problem. He wandered through the crowded social event, approaching women with an intense stare, mumbling something and scaring the hell out of them. They all reacted in ways that drove him off, but he stayed on the hunt.    
     No one knew what to do. People went over to the organization’s president, urging/demanding that he do something. He would say, “Yeah, I’m going right over there.” But he didn’t move.
     Someone else, realizing nothing was going to happen unless someone did something, did something. He went up to the problem person, spoke quietly to him and took him gently, firmly by the elbow. There was no resistance as he guided the fellow out the door and drove him home.  

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Politics Projects . . . & Vice Versa

     Hey, project manager!
     There is a lot of attention in these weeks of October to the battles for election to public office in the USA, in its national entities and its constituent states. Much political persuasion is presented to us in various channels of information and entertainment.
     And also misinformation, disinformation, distortion and just straight-out lies.
     Those are all work packages.
     The good, the valuable and important, the interesting, the useful . . . and the damaging and disgusting. They are organized into projects with much the same characteristics as those you’re leading.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

'Teamwork' Loses Yet Another One

     Heard a radio interview the other morning with a former member of the federal Secret Service, the agency with the sunglass/earpiece guys you see glaring around suspiciously whenever the president is out there among us regular people.
     Well, turns out these agents are the ones who forgot to lock the front door of the White House, or even be there to greet the knife-carrying intruder who jumped the fence, crossed the front lawn, opened the door and ran around inside for a while before some off-duty agent put the nab on him.
     These agents also are the ones in the news with the hotel hallway pass-outs and loud/public arguments with women demanding payment for services rendered overnight.
     How times have changed. There used to be a different image imprinted on the public perception. We saw these grim, expressionless guys as superheroes, right there to fend off potential attackers of the President of the United States and other precious assets. We trusted them.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Agile: The End of that Oldtime Project Management? Again? Nope. Again.

     Remember TQM?
     I do. Total Quality Management rose 20 years ago and fell a short time later. It was considered by some in the project management field, at the beginning, as the state-of-the-art successor to our ancient craft.
     TQM was the new wonder. Project Management, as we knew it, was out.
     I didn’t see it that way. I pegged TQM as embroidery on the working jeans of project management – a nice enhancement, but you still had to have the jeans.
     TQM was a perfectly respectable system, initially devised to improve management of quality in manufacturing processes. W. Edwards Deming developed the modern form in Japan after World War II, where he went as a representative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program helped Japan recover from the devastation of the war.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Managing Bad News


     I had botched it – badly. Unmistakably.
     An assignment had gone well, and it was obvious that organization could use further help.
     In an excess of enthusiasm, I immediately drew up and dispatched a proposal seeking the additional work. So far so good. Professional follow-up selling, right?
    Then came the dawn.
    This wasn’t my client.  It was my client’s client, and it was a big, important one for her. Not only had I overstepped a sacred boundary, but it was in a particularly delicate matter.
     The client’s decision-maker was a prickly and headstrong person, and my patroness had carefully cultivated the relationship. If he wasn’t offended by this aggressive sales pitch of mine, she certainly would be. My client had trusted in my professionalism, and I had blown it.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Argument Builds Relationships

     This guy startled me.
     We had disagreed, and then I described in greater detail what I meant. He listened. Then he said, “You’re right. Now I see your point, and I agree.” I was really nonplussed. That had never happened to me before.
     I came from a large, very verbal family, and one thing we never did was give in on an argument. If the words didn’t work, even in waves of escalated volume and intensity, we tended to get physical. Growing into the larger world, and learning to keep it strictly verbal, I discovered that most people are not accustomed to debate as sport, or even as instructive.

Friday, August 29, 2014

People, Process, Resistance, Management

     The manager said to me, wistfully, "If it weren't for the people, this job would be perfect." He was responsible for the work of nine people.
     The problem was, of course, that the people WERE the job. The process he was conducting did not exist without the nine people. The manager was superb as an individual user of the system, but not as a leader of the people.
     This made for a tough place to work. A perfectionist in charge of people whose presence, in his mind, messed up his beloved process.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Big Project: My Career

     The nurse was showing the newborn to the daddy. “It’s a manager!” she was saying, much as we would announce, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!”
     It was a cartoon I saw a long time ago, but the effect lingers in the mind. We operate too often on the apparent assumption that our work performance and professional position are not really up to us.
    Whatever came with us at birth, or has been given to us since by the wisdom and goodwill of others, is what we have for a job, seems like. We credit happenstance or lucky chance more than our own conscious effort.
     I’ve known a few people who didn’t buy that concept. All of them have been admirable . . . and successful.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How We Delegate

     The boss sent me to a car dealership to collect an overdue debt.
     You know, of course, that you are not in the presence of na├»vete when you’re at the car showroom. In this case, it also was not helpful that my purpose was to get the manager to part with cash for a service whose value had long since faded into a bygone time. The guy owed us for newspaper advertising we had published much earlier.
     Needless to say, I came back emptyhanded. “Well,” said the boss, “Did you ask them for use of a car, then?”

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Don't Delegate? Can't Manage

“If you want something done right, do it yourself.”
     True or false?

     That depends. If you’re a champion individual contributor, it’s true as can be. If you’re trying to be a good manager, it’s profoundly false.
     It depends upon your definitions, too. What is the “something” in the saying, and what is meant by “done right.”?
     If you’re charged with performing a task yourself, then the measurement of successful completion of it arises from how well you performed the actions that produced the desired result. If you carried the work out in an excellent fashion, you’re a champ.
     If, on the other hand, you are responsible for having the task done and are given personnel to do that sort of thing, you’re failing to do your job if you do the work yourself. The fact that you might have done it superbly is irrelevant. It wasn’t your job to do the work – it was your job to see that someone else did it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Project Planning? Fiction

     The guy at the neighborhood meeting was livid.
     “Just do what you said you were going to do!” he shouted at the developer. His two dozen or so neighbors all sounded their “Yeah!” They were fed up.
     They had bought their lots and contracted for homes to be built in this planned development sited on a big vacant field in the city. They were promised features including a pleasant pond surrounded by their nice little residences.
     Development had gone slowly. Most of the additional homes went up. The muddy track became a quarter-mile roadway, paved, center circle and all.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Stuart Smalley, Dilbert & the Project Manager

     “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it people LIKE me!”
     That’s the mantra “Stuart Smalley” used to intone while staring at himself in a mirror on Saturday Night Live.
     I loved the Al Franken parody, although it mocked a behavior management process I have worked with since I became a personal productivity consultant in the late 1980s. I felt the same about Scott Adams’ skewering of managers and project management in the Dilbert comic.
     In both cases, the genius of the satirists may have popularized their mockery to greater public effect than all the training, speaking and authoring of mere mortals who take those subjects seriously.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Projects that Sneak Up on You

Jim the Newsman
     Back when I was a newspaper editor, I got into a monumental special edition, our self-congratulatory recognition of the paper’s 150th anniversary. It made a lot of money, but our management of it failed to match the grand expectations in other respects.
     The organization mostly treated the matter as a replication of what we all did every day, only bigger and with a more extended schedule. We news folks figured there had to be loose bits of time in our schedules, and story ideas and photo subjects lying around. No big deal, just somewhat burdensome.
     We did it one step at a time. There was no master plan, and there was zero meaningful consultation among the major stakeholders. We made no attempt to do anything other than leave it to each department: Gear up for a big effort. That’s the only way we knew how to do it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tesla, Musk & Projects without Precedent

      Elon Musk is something else – sort of a Paul Bunyan of project managers. You can read it all on Wikipedia.
     We’ve heard about dreamers, daredevils, winners and those incredibly focused people who get serious at a young age and achieve great things.
     Musk is all that. The work breakdown structure of his career includes work packages that have made him a multimillionaire while he tackles very big challenges. He continually diversifies and multiplies success.
     As a South African kid, he taught himself computer code and made $500 at the age of 12 selling a video game. He came to the U.S., did PayPal and made a bundle when Amazon bought it.
     He took Space X in seven years from nothing to the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon space freight vehicle. The Falcon9/Dragon combo was the first commercial space vehicle to dock with the International Space Station. He is visionary, a technical wizard and no slouch at sales and marketing, in-person and online.
 

Monday, June 9, 2014

PMP: The Eye of the Beholder

. . . Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man
That he didn't, didn't already have. . . .
                                           --America

     Among the many charms of the wonderful 1939 movie, “The Wizard of Oz” is the salvation scene for the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow.
     The three characters bemoan their perceived lacks through much of the story: courage for the lion, a heart for the woodsman and a brain for the scarecrow.
     Near the end of the tale, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz eventually solves the problems in a most magical way. He ceremoniously bestows a medal on the lion, a fake heart on the tin man and a diploma on the Scarecrow.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Eric Shinseki, Project Manager

     Eric Shinseki, a truly noble soldier and leader, became Secretary of Veterans Affairs for the United States in 2009.
     He was handed a project of immense scope and intractability. It was bulging with problems and pulsating with explosive risk. The VA mess went back decades, and that was well known. The agency also had been honored for the quality of care that it often provided for at least most of the people who made it into the VA facilities.
     But hundreds of thousands of additional candidates for VA care were produced by the wars of our last two decades, and Vietnam veterans are into their care-intensive age. Studies and commissions have shown that the VA is buried under demands it simply cannot meet.
     Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, including in his promised programs the solution to the VA mess. Eric Shinseki was qualified as a superb executive. He had risen to the very top of the military hierarchy of the United States, serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He had demonstrated great courage in opposing the Bush administration’s Iraq War, a stand that cost him his career.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pal, Parent, Partner, Project Manager

      A few months into my first real job, Anna Marie and I tied the knot. Because of my zero seniority, the system grudgingly allowed a long weekend off to honor the occasion.
    Then, two days before the wedding, my boss the managing editor had an epiphany right there in the middle of the newsroom. He announced that such an important occasion certainly called for more than an extra day off or two. On the spot, I was granted a full week for a honeymoon . . . too late to do much planning for use of the generous gift.
     A little later, a similar act of largesse marked the birth of our first child: I got a raise. Nothing to do with the value of my work. Just the man showing kindness to the kid who now would need a few more bucks.
     It may or may not come as a surprise, but a somewhat bumpy tenure at that place ended very badly for me after a few years.
     That manager was acting on a philosophy that was flawed and destructive. Days off and pay increases are not acts of generosity.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Project: Rating Managers

     The best manager I ever had came in at 33 on a 60-point scale of excellence. Twenty others straggled down from there.
     But then, this evaluation was done many years ago, shortly after I went into consulting. I was in recovery from a quarter-century-plus career as an editor and manager in the newspaper business. In the words of wise man Bob Dylan, “Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.”
     During those decades in the managerial trenches, it had never occurred to me to analyze just what I was supposed to do and how I was faring in doing it. I, along with everybody else, was just slugging away in a task-driven struggle to get things done – hoping that sometimes, somehow, quality would transpire.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Project Management Certainty

      It seems pretty unfair, when you think about it. Project Management demands certainty, but it doesn’t give you any.  You have to bring your own.
     My earliest experiences with project managers in a large corporation, decades ago, included listening to a raft of complaints about this. Those project managers often were the target of what really were attempted cons, by their own managers.
     Boss: “When will the project be finished?”
     Project Manager: “It’s ‘way too early to tell. We have to get a lot of quotes and estimates before we have any idea of how long it will take.”
     Boss: “Well, how about just a rough idea? I won’t hold you to it.”
     Baloney. If the project manager should mistakenly breathe anything, however circumscribed and conditional, that could be interpreted as a number or a date, it instantly became carved in granite.
     At least, that’s how the story went, and I have heard it countless times. Still do, now and then.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Leadership Is Customized

     “You’re being unfair. You let her do X or Y, but you won’t let me do it.”    
     That particular personnel problem confronted me early in my first managerial job, as a daily newspaper city editor. A basically fairminded person, at least in my own opinion, I was buffaloed.
     It took a while (never mind how long) for me to understand how to deal with the issue. Fairness is essential to effective leadership, but, it turns out, fairness to people does not mean identical treatment.
     Over the years, I have added to my management consulting the concept of customization of leadership. The good leader accounts for all the circumstances in relationships. Fundamental circumstances are the ability and commitment of the particular staff member.
     Back in the day, my leadership behavior would be to issue instructions (relative to my opinion of the ability of the staff member involved). Sometimes that would be quite a brief conversation. That’s it. I’d just wait for what might happen.
    

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Little-Things Leadership

Leader? Me? You’ve got the wrong person, buddy. I don’t do leadership. That’s for that gifted, articulate person up there on the stage. I just do my part and leave the leadership to the leaders. . . .

Stop right there. You may already be providing leadership, or you may be just a couple of words away from doing so.
Here’s an example. This woman saw on Facebook that a person she had known years before was now a prominent psychologist.
The woman remembered what a fine young person the psychologist had been back then. Doing just a clerk’s job in a store, but always dependable, always pleasant, always volunteering to take care of this or that little thing, or to help out.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

First Project, First Success

     This was an orphan project, wandering aimlessly back and forth among four stakeholding corporate partners. It didn’t meet the budgetary threshold for the sponsoring organization’s formal project management, and it didn’t fall into any other practical slot.
     Still, it was important for other reasons, not least the company’s reputation with the other partners.
     A restless sales manager in that organization was just completing project management training he had undertaken to support a possible career change. Well, his boss said, how about seeing how you can do on this project?
     Here’s how it went, in his words:
 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Management by Problem

When one of us got into a messy situation on the job, the boss liked to show up and stand nearby, watching silently. An accusing presence behind your back, just what you needed.

When you finally got out of it, he would invite you to his office, where he would subject you to a long, slow recitation of the obvious – carefully avoiding any useful advice and most definitely not taking any managerial responsibility.

You’d think it might have dawned on him somewhere along the way that, if we were all that incompetent, there must have been a deep flaw in the hiring process. I never thought to ask him that, but I’m sure he would have instantly fingered the company salary policy and/or any number of causes other than his own ill will and incompetence.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Life? Projectize It

     “Well, if you’re such a great project manager, why did you let this happen?”
     Good question, and it is applicable across a very broad swath of our lives.
     Here’s the story:
     The builder had finally finished the new house, two months late and now just a week before Christmas.
     Moving in would take a couple of days of long hours. The owners, empty-nesters, were going well into the first night with the help of an adult daughter who had dropped by. Washing a few dozen windows and scraping off those super-sticky labels they leave on the glass.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Looks Like Management, Works Like Leadership

Have you ever had a great leader?

Neither have I. I’ve had a few effective managers, though, and that may be all we need to have. Or to be.

I’m sure there are people who have had great leaders, and have been part of great achievements as a result. Maybe we’ll hear from some of them. For myself, I’ve never experienced that, and no one I know has ever mentioned having done so.

We’ve been reading – and writing – a lot about leadership lately. A favorite discussion starter is the division between leadership and management. I’ve used it a lot, but now I’m thinking a little more deeply about it.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

You Can't Manage Time

You don’t manage time. You can’t. When you’re inattentive, it manages you.

How often do “to-do lists” produce very much actual doing? They frequently have the opposite effect, documenting our apparently weak will power and underlining our loserhood in personal productivity. The good intention goes on the list . . . and there it stays.

The paper evidence reinforces a general hopelessness that we relieve a bit by blaming it on impossible workloads, or maybe too-short days. But we know better, don’t we? It’s on us – personally.

Take it from me – I’m a poster child for fond hopes, often immortalized in writing on documents both formal and informal, typed and color-coded or just scribbled. Lists upon lists. Once, I think, I actually was able to honestly line out all the items on a day list, maybe a dozen of them. Once.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Project Management: Born Ignorant

Getting Competent Is Conscious

     It’s fun, and somewhat inspiring, to watch a baby progress from flops to the first real sequence of steps, thereby qualifying to be a toddler. It’s less fun to live in the same household with a person learning to play the violin.
     Both are learning processes. Walking may be close to a natural act for a human being, but playing the violin is not. In fact, almost everything we consciously do all day had to be learned, because we weren’t born knowing how to do it. Incompetence is our natural state.
     So we spend our entire lives learning stuff. It’s a lifelong project.