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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.

     In your area of responsibility, you are in charge of several or many busily perceiving minds, including your own.
     You get the best of everything from people who are happy, engaged, confident. They devote themselves to quality work, they collaborate, they make each other better.
     When some or all of them are worried, distracted, scared, resentful . . . there is a significant decline in the entire group culture and effectiveness.

     Back on the river: When I have a problem with the situation and you don’t, you do anyway. You need me to be alert, active and paddling madly. I am none of those things if I’m busy focusing on my fear of a watery death.
     From my experience in the working world, I have come to believe that the uncertain and potentially calamitous nature of projects arouses a similar level of panic in some people. The general workplace atmosphere can have the same effect.
     So dealing with the challenge of problem aversion is a core demand on managers, and most particularly project managers.
     What do you do about it?
      How do you handle reluctant and ineffective “team members” at the very times you really need assertive and energetic doers? How do you overcome problem aversion?
     Yell at them, why don’t you, and see how that works. We’ve all done that, hopefully only in our early careers. We know it’s worse than a waste of time.
     It further disables the troubled person, and is destructive in our broader relationships with team members and other stakeholders who witness our behavior.
     So what do you do?
     Like just about every other management challenge, you must start the counter actions at the beginning. Or the pre-beginning, depending upon how you view the startup of a project or a relationship.
     Here’s how it works:

1.      Define and describe the situation. Any project – or any launch into a new job, a new relationship, a new anything – has the same essential characteristics. Most simply, its structure is a current situation or existing reality, a desire to change it in some way, and a process to go from one to the other. We define that process as “problem solving,” whether to fix, create or improve something.

2.     Describe the specific, concrete outcome that your project or your hire is to achieve. Why, exactly, are you doing it? This step is especially important when you’re working with one or more other parties.

3.     Be clear and detailed about the actions and investments it will take to build toward the outcome.

4.     Determine and establish the relationships that are required – with people and    
organizations that have the resources and intent to fulfill the requirements you now have defined.

5.     Recruit the team members and other direct collaborators you need. Be hard and  
fast in defining responsibilities, and press senior stakeholders to assign the people who can do the work and handle the duties.

6.     Negotiate action-based assignments for all, including senior stakeholders outside
your authority, and supervisory duties for those who will assist you in managing the process

7.     Coordinate a delegated project planning process conducted by the people who will be
driving the project/activity at the working level.

8.     Launch without delay. Correct variances, however small, swiftly.

9.     Tend the process. Persist.

     This is the job description for a competent manager. This is a person who knows what to do when she/he doesn’t know what to do. Someone who has a problem-solving methodology down cold, and can use it effectively -- no matter what.
     Someone who has been down the river a few times, and has studied and practiced how to do it well. Nobody is competent the first time. They depend upon the incredible tricks performed by whoever it is standing up there, with the long oar, in the back of the raft.
     The manager. 


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