jim@millikenproject.com

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


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Assumptions, Risks & Selective Routine

   
     You can’t leave the house without assuming that your neighbors won’t attack you, that your car will start without blowing up and that you can safely travel across town.
     Those are pretty safe assumptions for most of us in the United States and around the world, but not so everywhere. There are places where you can’t assume safety, and where deadly risk is ever-present.
     Conclusion: Assumptions and risks are situational.
     We can apply that to life: We assume the car will start . . . and then one day it doesn’t. We can assume the front steps are safe, until the day an invisible sheet of ice makes them life-changingly not. Maybe the usual is in place. Maybe not. It’s situational.
     When we’re project managers, we herd uncertainty for a living. We can pay a high price for mismanaging the job.
     The devilish thing about project management is its lurking unpredictability. There’s the nine-times-out-of-ten factor. So much of any project is composed of procedures we have tried and found to be true countless times. We can’t justify meticulously examining each of them each time we employ it.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Love That Failure

 
 Most information we see about project success and failure falls into one of two major topic areas.
     Numerous studies have revealed the bad decisions that led to famous historical disasters such as Robert Scott’s 1911 expedition, in which everybody died after reaching the South Pole (while Roald Amundsen had led a flawless round trip to the Pole a few weeks prior).
     And we’ve read about the project management mistakes that sank the mighty Titanic of the White Star Line in 1912. And why the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (“Galloping Gertie”) destroyed itself in 1940.
     Big-time and big-budget, all of them.
     And then there are statistics that tell us what percentage of present-day projects actually make their numbers on cost, schedule and requirements. Results vary, but not many are outstandingly good. 
     In either category, there isn’t much of use to us small-timers with nontechnical challenges in unsophisticated environments. So innumerable project managers wrestle alone with issues of limited resources, demanding sponsors, resistant stakeholders, shaky budgets, distracted team members -- often with utter lack of precedent.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

When All Else Fails, Read the Directions


     “When all else fails, read the directions.”
     The landlord was a rough-hewn sort, a small-town developer and semi-retired owner of a construction business, constantly battling with the authorities over his penchant for doing things his own way, regardless.
     His wry counsel about the directions, though, was spot on. In the midst of some routine difficulty, he made that remark as he went back to Square One.
     After a quick chuckle, we stop to appreciate the implications of such a crack. It reminds us how often we entangle ourselves in ever-widening, totally unnecessary complexity.
     Until comes the revelation: Oh! It wasn’t plugged in. No wonder it didn’t work. Why didn’t we check that to start with?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

When the Buck Never Stops

 
  “I never put anything in writing,” the boss said.
     That simple admission said volumes about his view of his job and his responsibility.
     He confided it as a revelation straight out of the secret handbook known only to the highest level of management and leadership.
     I saw it as something of the opposite: A refuge for weak people, a selfish risk avoidance strategy and a loophole to escape blame. Don’t believe everyone else in that organization didn’t know that about the top guy, even without sharing his secret.
     When the buck has no place to stop, a major group activity is to keep passing it on.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Managing the Project People Resource


    I watched as a group of managers regaled themselves with tales of the laziness and incompetence of their employes. Their own employes, their workforce.
     It reminded me of a supervisor of nine specialists who said the job would be perfect if only he didn’t have to put up with the people. He was topflight at the work himself, but he couldn’t turn out that quality at 10 times the quantity. He needed those people and they needed him, but he didn’t see it that way.
     Such attitudes are not at all rare, and that’s too bad. They devalue one of the most important underlying realities of management, especially project management: Nothing happens without the people.
     Software engineering guru Watts Humphrey wrote that the work of technical managers is 90 percent people and 10 percent technology – but they spend most of their time on the technical management. It’s a lot less hassle that way.
     It’s also far less effective. The truth is that the human resource is the catalytic factor – the dynamic resource that makes possible the productive employment of all the others. Your equipment, materials, facilities and your very processes don’t do a thing until activated by your people.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Belief, Focus, Creativity

     


      “I’m not creative.”
     “I don’t have musical talent.”
     “I’m always late.”
     “I can’t do math.”

     Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense and nonsense.
     You can generate brand-new ideas. You can play instruments, make pictures, discipline your schedule, manage intricate formulas. You just have to want to, enough so you’ll invest the time and attention you need to make it all happen.
     You can do what you put your mind to. You can’t do something you’ve decided not to try.
     That summarizes this business of talents and skills.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Project Never Mind

     The term would be “death penalty,” but TV editorialist Emily Litella would hear “deaf penalty.” She would rant on with increasing fury about it until the news anchor would correct her faulty perception.
     Instantly deflated but not at all contrite, Emily would smile sweetly and say, “Never mind.”
     It was a standard Gilda Radner schtick in the Saturday Night Live phony newscast, and it usually was pretty funny.
     Something similar frequently afflicts projects and other human activities, and it’s never funny – at least for the people it happens to.
     Mishearing what is said or misunderstanding what is meant can lead to costly mistakes and shattered relationships, especially when the environment is complex and pressured, and the stakes are high.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Projects & Other Problems

     We’re whitewater rafting on the Upper Penobscot. You are having the time of your life. I’m not.
     I don’t know how fast we’re moving as we nosedive five or six feet at a time, then slam headlong into 10-foot walls of water. But it’s pretty fast. Still, I have a fraction of a second before each collision to ask myself: “Are there really people who think this is fun?”

     Of course there are such people. You’re one of them, and I’m of the opposite persuasion. Two people; same time, same place, same circumstance. I have a problem and you don’t.
     Or do you?
     Problems aren’t quite optional, but they most definitely are subjective. What’s happening in the external reality isn’t a problem. The existence and extent of any problem are determined by how that occurrence is perceived, and how the perceiver responds emotionally.
     In short, it’s all in your mind. And mine. For managers, that’s the nut of the challenge.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Personal Productivity

Tom, Discipline and the Rest of Us

 
     Tom played clarinet in the marching band, skirmished regularly – and competently – in pickup basketball games and enjoyed active friendships with a variety of fellow students at Holy Cross.
     He also studied three hours a night, every night, and was assigned to the elite section of his class. He was a math major at a level where they were generating concepts so original that they had to invent their own names for the stuff.
    He did everything with assured confidence.
    Tom was the first member of our college class to marry, which he did a few days before graduation.  
     He went on to earn a doctorate and spent a long career teaching university-level math. He wrote textbooks that were popular enough over the years to keep him busy producing revisions.
     And he fathered children who grew into successful adulthood.
     I had the mixed fortune of rooming with Tom for our last two years at Holy Cross. Occasionally I would try to match Tom’s disciplined evening study hours. Invariably, after a day or two, though, I would revert to my accustomed life of bull sessions and coffee breaks leavened by modest doses of class prep.
     I gained a lot personally from the college experience and did well enough academically. Tom did somewhat better: He was the summa cum laude in a class of 500.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Failure, Success & New Year's Resolutions


     “I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life.
     “And that is why I succeed.”                                                     – Michael Jordan

     When a person catalogues his/her screw-ups as specifically as Michael Jordan did, you’re generally looking at a case of really low self-esteem. “Oh, what a loser I am. Just look at my record.”
     Well, that’s hardly Michael Jordan. His record also includes leadership of six NBA Championship teams, each time earning the honor of Most Valuable Player. He also was the league’s MVP five times. He is a Hall of Famer. And don’t believe he doesn’t remember all that, too.
     Jordan had talent aplenty, but so do the most spectacular washouts you’ve ever seen or heard of. The difference is that Jordan never took failure as the final answer, and he acted from conviction that persistence in doing the hard work would pay off.

Friday, June 24, 2016

How to Argue -- Properly

     This very intense, very intelligent guy startled me by saying something I never had heard before.
     He interrupted a vigorous argument with me by saying. “You know, Jim, I see your point now. I agree with you. You’re right.”
     I was beyond surprised. Why did he do that?
     I’ve thought about that conversation often, and it has changed my basic thinking about why and how to disagree. I now see that the man understood argument in its finest sense, as an opportunity to jointly seek truth and value.
     At first look, this idea may seem ridiculous. But if you put aside conventional thinking, it changes the entire perspective.    
      Some people set out to win all their arguments. Some never win any. Many, perhaps most, rarely argue at all.
     Thoughtful people disagree with all of them. They know that all three types – those who dominate, those who lose the battles and those who avoid engagement entirely – are missing important opportunities. None of the three really know how to reap the benefits of constructive interaction amid differences. They misunderstand what argument can be and what it can do.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Project Outcome Slicing


The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret
of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks
into small manageable tasks, then starting on the first one.”
                                                     -- Mark Twain

     Good for you, Mark. The essence of process management is identifying the pieces, putting them in order and getting under way. So simple and logical to talk about . . . but often so hard to do. Or not the right thing to do first. Here’s why.
     Small, simple things generally are not intimidating, and they’re easier to take care of than large, tangled things. So we do lots of small, simple things – sometimes even when we really should be taking on the big, scary challenge instead.
     But there is a way to tame heavyweight challenges, and Mark Twain has put his finger on it . . . but a little lightly.
     You can waste a lot of time and effort, in little doses, by doing small things and hoping they’ll eventually accumulate into solutions for the big things. They won’t. Hoping, like wishing, is a favored preoccupation of those who don’t get much of anywhere.
     Mark Twain may well be the greatest American writer of all time, but he did not rank as high in process management. His formula gives us the how of success, but it omits the what. Without clarity about the desired outcome, an efficient production process can hustle you all the more quickly to failure.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Doers & Managers

     My boss physically pushed me out of the way in his hurry to intervene.
     The copier wasn’t working for me as he passed by, so he was going to make my copy himself. When he couldn’t do it either, he walked off.
     So, not only did he involve himself – uninvited – in a task he didn’t know how to do, he also demeaned a staff member (me), and himself. Sort of a cartoon illustration of how not to manage.
     Actually, operating a complex and unfamiliar piece of equipment wasn’t a specialty of mine. Never had been and still isn’t. The one at hand that morning required simple code information I had no reason to know or use when the proper staff people were around.
     That wasn’t the only time I stepped out of my role and didn’t do well in a matter involving that same boss. In the second situation, he threatened to take over the function personally. Utterly inappropriate to his station in the organization.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Question of Change

     You wonder what the boss was thinking during those few sessions.
     His very old high-end manufacturing company was trying to face up to reality. Its traditional artisan approach was superb in producing quality. As a modern business, though, it was too slow, too limited and too expensive for its present and especially for the future it wanted to have.
     While the company’s reputation was sky-high, its prospects were not good. The market was narrow and changing; costs were rising rapidly; the product was large, complex and very specialized.
     Time to rethink. So, bring on the consultant.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

So it's a big deal . . . Is it a project?

     This was going to be a big deal. I knew that.
     What I didn’t know was that it was a project.
     I didn’t even know, actually, the meaning of “project,” what a project is.
     If you ever had mentioned the word to me, all I could have summoned up would have been a memory of my mother telling me about the Saturday morning cellar cleanup: “Don’t make a federal project out of it.”
     Mom was expressing a culturally current joke reference that influenced my automatic reaction to the idea of a project. In that conception, a project was an unnecessarily complicated and time-consuming ritual intended to draw things out and waste time instead of just getting the job done.
     Just get it done!
     Do it. Roll up your sleeves and get to work. Don’t sit around theorizing and “planning.” Act. Do. Produce.
     Today, many years and countless iterations later, it is a little bit of a surprise to stop and realize that things haven’t changed all that much. Many, maybe most, organizations of all kinds are committed to action. Period.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Whatever It Takes

   
  How to Get Commitment

     Whatever it takes.
     That’s the slogan for commitment. You agree to take on something really tough, and you’re asked, “How are you going to pull that off? What are you going to do?”
     When your answer is, “Whatever it takes,” and you mean it – you’re committing. If you are going to keep that commitment, you go out and work at it, relentlessly, persistently, imaginatively. You’re really committed.
     When you have a team of people who have bought into such an attitude, there’s no way you won’t succeed. You may not accomplish exactly what you set out to do. If the challenge is really all that tough, you almost certainly will not pull off the entire original intent.
     You will, though, produce a solid result that probably will get the job done, or enough of it.  Forget the image of perfection. You’ve succeeded.
     How do you do that? It’s plenty hard, in the first place, to get yourself to stick with it, to take the plunge and fail, then pick yourself up and tangle with it again. And fall and get up and re-engage. To keep studying the matter in the midst of the struggle, continuing to invent and employ new strategies with vigor and discipline.
     It’s a lot harder, and much more complicated, to get a whole group of people to do it. On the rare occasions when you see that done well, you know it. We honor that as “leadership."

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Inquiring Project Manager


     One skill unerringly points to the competent manager: The question habit.
     Good managers ask a lot of questions. Besides the need to know what’s going on and why, they must be able to negotiate well – something that calls for a really well developed sense of questioning.
     Whenever I can, I squeeze a negotiating piece into management training, especially project management training. They’re negotiating all the time.
     Good negotiators do a lot of careful preparation, but they are fully aware that they can never know enough to completely understand the values – and therefore the motivations – of their counterpart(s) on the other side of the table.
     So their presentation of incentives in bargaining is preceded by, and continually enriched by, a search for additional information. The Holy Grail is finding the route to a mutually beneficial outcome.
     Real negotiators are never looking to beat anybody. They want happy campers all around when it’s over. They recognize that there will be a future.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

When Management Is Excellent

     All the marvelous skills of the topflight manager teeter delicately on one old-fashioned essential. That's the skill we’re tired of talking about because it depresses us. It never ceases to demand attention when we really would like to focus on much more worthy matters.
     When we neglect it, though, the punishment is swift and cruel. It will put our most treasured desires out of our reach, if it doesn’t damage or destroy them.
     This harsh taskmaster: Time management.
     We think of time management as a nutsy/boltsy thing, and it is. It’s also, though, the gatekeeper through which everything must pass. Even, or especially, our most important things.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Corey Booker: 'DO Something!'



     The young Corey Booker had a Yale law degree and a lot of spunk, but he eventually ran out of gas as his fellow city councilors squashed anything he tried to do.

     They had had enough of his in-your-face campaign against the poverty, corruption and general disaster of New Jersey’s Newark. He had confronted his fellow politicians too vigorously and too often.

     So, depressed and emotionally shot, visiting one of the city’s worst drug-dealing areas, he ran into a woman from the area who had been an active opponent in many public forums.

     She, seeing his dispirited state, gave him a reassuring hug. I can’t remember the story well enough to say whether he asked for her advice, or if she just volunteered it:

     “DO something!”

Friday, February 19, 2016

Project Manager . . . Really?


     Most of the project managers I have met aren’t sure they are project managers. They don’t need to wonder. They indeed are project managers.
     This matter comes up often as people consider the prospect of qualifying to take the certification examination for Project Management Professional: “I’ve never been a project manager. I can’t meet the experience requirement.”
     Baloney. These are people who have been initiating and carrying out project work, sometimes for years. Sure, no one ever gave them the title “Project Manager,” and the problems they solved and the new things they created were not labeled “Project.”
     Yet, the results they achieved – often high-quality results – distinguished them as very competent project managers.
     This is not just in the context of the PMP test. It is everywhere in the working world. There are people doing solid-to-superb project management who don’t know they should call it for what it is.

Friday, February 12, 2016

How to Avoid Avoidance

     “I never listen to the readers. All they ever do is (complain).”
     I heard that comment from an editor back when I was in the news business; it’s been a handy start to conversations about customer service ever since.
     In a broader context, it shines the light on a deadlier failure, that of management, in the corrosive practice of ignoring/avoiding problems.

     I got the “benefit” of a double whammy in this regard once. I was working for a man who insisted on keeping decision-making in his own hands, which made his say-so a requirement for any staff response to whatever might come up.
    One morning he didn’t even pause as I attempted to get an answer to a rather minor matter that, if neglected, was capable of disproportionately messing up our day. “I’m going to a meeting,” he said as he walked away.
     He brushed aside both my interruption and the original issue. Any old decision probably would have made it go away; instead, the staff was tangled up for a couple of hours.

     How much of that “management” does it take to destroy productivity and drive away quality employes? And the editor who ignored his readers? The damage from stonewalling your end users that way can be unknowable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be considerable.
     You can understand how that sort of thing comes about. It’s no fun when things are painfully not the way they’re supposed to be. Avoiding the discomfort is a perfectly human reaction.
     But it’s not management.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Me and My Personality

Is personality unchanged and unchangeable?
 
“I Yam What I Yam.” -- Popeye

     “He wanted me to change my personality.”
     That’s what the young woman told staff members after a counseling session. It was the first and last conversation in what had been projected as a series of talks to help her learn management.
     I had been asked to speak with her because, as newly appointed editor of a small weekly newspaper, she had inaugurated her “reign” by summoning the staff members, one by one, to appear before her and her second-in-command to explain why they should keep their jobs.
     Some of those people had been reporting that town for years. They had been fellow staff members with her in her brief history at the paper. They knew her.
     They would have considered this spectacle hilarious if their personal livelihoods hadn’t been at stake. 
     In this particular example, the central figure came from a prominent family that had just sold the paper to a regional organization.  

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Project Manager: Confident in the Dark

Invention demands structure

    When in doubt, hesitate.
     That’s a perfectly human reaction, and it makes sense. If you don’t know what to do, why in the world do anything? You could make a real mess of things.
     Project managers, by that thinking, are irrational. They actively, directly engage risk. They know what to do when they don’t know what to do. It is the highest level of their calling.
     Indecision is not allowed. They have no time to hesitate, and making a mess is most certainly not an option.
     So project managers must act decisively amid uncertainty, and that’s what they do. By no means is this foolhardy. The veteran project manager has met myriad problems and complexities, has been knocked down innumerable times and has found a way up. This person is a storehouse of solutions, human as well as operational.
     Some people are going to scoff at such a conception, with good reason. They don’t need to have anything like that level of high competence – their projects don’t demand it.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

How to Live with the Rules

     I quit my bank of 20 years last summer. Back in the Nineties, it had been a homegrown institution – friendly, flexible and helpful. In its 2015 incarnation, it was expensive, rigid and harsh.
     The local founder died a few years after I signed up, and the bank was bought by one of those big-and-getting-bigger regional players. Such folks often don’t have time or patience for friendly, flexible and helpful.
     There are Rules, you know. Services used to be free, and there might be an informative or explanatory phone call as there were changes. Now, an unwanted and unhelpful monthly “account analysis” costs eight dollars. These are things you learn about as new charges pile up on the statement.
     If you slip, however inadvertently, the predator pounces.
     My final straw, a couple of years after it became apparent the relationship was over, came with hundreds of dollars in penalties. I mistakenly paid an insurance bill twice: once by paper check and once by phone. When I found out, I stopped payment on the check. 
    Then the fun began. Before it was over, penalties totaled several hundred dollars.