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Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Ultimate Project Manager Habit

     “You can’t start a successful project without a charter.”
     Ask five project managers whether they agree with that statement.
     Then ask them what a project charter contains and entails.
     Hey, ask those project managers if they’ve ever seen such a document.
     Even if they all work for the same organization, you’re very likely to get as many as five separate answers to most of the three questions – if not all of them.
     A project charter:
     Is it a detailed specification of desired actions/outcomes/constraints determined at high management levels and issued to the project manager?
     Is it the foundational description of the key project elements developed by the actual leaders of the project?
     Is it an expression of mutual agreement among all key stakeholding decision-makers, after negotiation of their interests and commitments?
     If there isn’t something called a “charter,” what do the project managers base their project planning and execution on? What do they call it? What does it do?
     

     Whatever the various answers, you can expect each of them to be expressed with absolute assurance. This is the way it is. Period.
     Each respondent is certain he/she alone has it right. As these disconnected concepts are carried into project execution, they account for a large share of what goes wrong with projects.
     We define our Project Management activities by the terms we have picked up along the way, and we conduct our projects the way we were taught. Mostly, what we do conforms quite closely with the way we were introduced to it. We resist or reject doing things in other ways.
     Habits of the mind. Project definitions make an excellent example. If our launch document is called a “Project Charter,” and it includes key internal activities, plus a budget and a schedule, we adopt it and swear by it.
     It doesn’t work, but project charters never have. We’re used to that, and we have habituated a management mode that pretends to honor the charter while we generally do things the way we always have.
     That’s not really project management, but what are you supposed to do? The charter is our directive from management, and who’s going to fight with them? When the holes open up, we improvise and do the best we can.
     We always wind up over budget, late on schedule and short on results – but that’s the way it is. Everybody expects it.
     Projects never come in on plan. Never have and never will.

     We love our habits. That’s a problem as we seek to become good project managers.
     Why? Because project management is counter-intuitive, if you consider intuition to be our “logical” way of thinking, initiating and responding amid the swirling demands and possibilities of our daily lives.
     Projects are not business as usual, and we are imprisoned by the habits we have invested in for our lifetimes. If we make a habit of expecting project shortfalls, you know what? That's what we'll produce.
     We can’t function without our automated behaviors, aka habits. Which shoe did you put on first this morning? What did you do, minute by minute, in the first hour of the day? For that matter, how did you make the myriad decisions that got you, safely, into the car, across town, into the workplace, through the day?
     Can you even remember doing those things? How much conscious thought did each of those moments demand of you, vs. the first time you did them . . . some of them many decades ago?
     For that matter, how do you know where you live? How come you seem to get there, unerringly, every day from wherever you have been?
     Habit, that’s how. Once you learned something, or figured it out, you could file it away under “Automated Behavior” in your mental toolbox and forget about it.
     Habits make it possible for us to function. If you had to focus specifically on each specific step in tying your shoes, or driving your car, or shopping for groceries – you’d never get through your day.

     That’s why Project Management is so hard.
     It requires you to surface many, many personal behaviors you haven’t had to think about in years . . . and consciously reset them. Consciously, mindfully focus on them time after time, until this constant specific  attention becomes as automated as walking through your home has always been.
     Project Management has a lot in common with everyday functional management, but – significantly – not everything. This can be a serious problem.
     You, the project manager, can slip productively into functional management behavior for parts of your work.
     Then you discover that you’re suddenly at a precipice where the unique character of this situation makes the next “regular” step disastrously inappropriate. Yes, the module is the right structure, but the  instrumentation can’t fit or function without nonexistent modifications we never knew we’d need.
     Good thing you noticed it before you unconsciously took that routine action. Hmm. Ought to make a habit of noticing such things – in time if not ahead of time.
     That alertness for the unexpected, or anticipation of it, is, as a matter of fact, a basic skill of the competent project manager. The best of us shift smoothly into that gear in the midst of the multiple simultaneous dynamics of a real project.
     These heroes of ours are keeping in touch with the doers of action items, foreseeing and blocking the emergence of problems, exchanging current information with all the key project stakeholders, managing team relationships, ensuring effective correction of variances . . .

     They have internalized as regular behavior the ability to keep tabs on all that, while making decisions – good decisions – promptly, and detecting and meeting the needs of team members, sponsors and deliverable users. This is the ultimate Project Manager Habit.
     And, not at all incidentally, its practitioners have perfected the vital tools of communication. One important activity you will see the top project managers invariably engage in is fully clarifying assumptions, definitions and intentions. Right up front.
     What is meant, included and intended in the terms we use? Do we all agree on the words, the meanings and the implications? Do we address differences as they surface, and make sure everybody knows, understands and agrees?
     Openly and comprehensively accounting for communication realities is among the most valuable of project manager habits.
     Call that thing a “Project Charter,” a “Project Overview” or a “Crate of Oranges.” Doesn’t matter. Just so we all know exactly what it is.

SEE ALSO: Project Communication: When It Ain't Broke, It Can Fix Whatever Is
     http://jimmillikenproject.blogspot.com/2010/08/project-communication-when-it-aint.html
      




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