jim@millikenproject.com

207-808-8878 Our book "Life is a Project: How are you managing?" is available!


Friday, April 30, 2021

Grammar Abuse, Grammar Addiction

     "I'm silently correcting your grammar."

     That's what it says on my new coffee cup, and that’s what I do. Can’t help it. I'm commenting (to myself) about the stylistic quality of what I'm hearing in this conversation we're having. I'm commenting in detail, all in my head.
 

     An obsession with the rules of language arose in me early, and has sent down deep roots over the ensuing decades.

     I'm the son of an editor. I wrote well from an early age. I was successively an English major, a newspaper editor and a management/writing instructor. I designed and delivered a daylong training session for working professionals called “A Grammar Refresher.”

     You don’t easily get over such a history.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Holding My Chin and Shutting My Mouth

     Holding my chin while I’m trying to think deeply may not be necessary, but it seems to help. 

     When I’m trying to listen, on the other hand, shutting my mouth is more than helpful. It’s absolutely essential. So is clearing my mind, and so is focusing my attention – sort of like deep thinking. All that is a lot of work, so we don’t experience a great deal of it around us.

     Here is how it works: When I am in conversation and, shutting my mouth, put my hand to my chin, I am signaling my partner in that situation that I am thinking (maybe deeply) and focusing my attention.

     If, at the same time, I continue looking at the other person, they will tend to conclude that I am taking them seriously and paying attention to what they’re saying.

     It worked both ways. What I did maintained my own attention as it encouraged the other person to continue in the expectation that they would be listened to.

     The deeper, lasting effect was to strengthen the relationship between us.

      Professional salespeople know that such relationships create success in the moment and build for a mutually productive future.

     There’s more to it than that, of course. You can’t just stare at someone in an attempt to develop that relationship. You have to say something. When I do, especiallly if I respond substantively to what the person said, I complete what has been a moment of effective listening.

    The benefit comes in what you say, and how and when. And, most importantly, why.

     Idle, unfocused chatter wastes precious opportunity, and in fact diminishes it. Even informal exchanges with a spouse convey meaning, so they should have intention. This may come off as ridiculous and utterly inappropriate, but it’s not.

     I’m thinking of a conversation I had once with a couple who had been married for many years. I was shocked at the way the woman treated her husband. He didn’t say much, just a few mild remarks. Yet, each time he opened his mouth, his wife ferociously ragged his every comment. This in front on me, a stranger. He did not react at all.

     I’ve never again seen so negative a relationship, nor one so unbalanced.

     I’ve thought about that incident a number of times over the intervening years  -- and I’ve paid attention to the behavior of couples.

     It’s not unusual for one person to make an idle remark to or about the other person in a critical or insensitive way.

     Comments like that usually draw a sharp rebuke, which then occasions a testy exchange – hopefully brief – or a dismissal. One gets the impression that this has happened before. Rarely is there anything like a retraction or apology.

     You can assume some angry words are exchanged later when the couple is alone.

     Sometimes, if I know the people well enough, I tell them the story about the long-married couple and their fractured relationship. I gently suggest some attention be paid to devoting more time and more words to the love that underlies their being together.

     I believe that, if someone doesn’t wake up and correct such corrosive behavior, any couple can descend to a level where respect is stripped away, followed by loss of love.  

      That lesson, handled carefully, can be reinterpreted to apply to any relationship between people, including that in our business lives.

     If we forgo demonstrations of respect toward the people we work with, the minor frictions and collisions of our days can become the dominant elements in our attitudes.

     There will be more complaints and accusations, and fewer positive comments and honestly open-ended questions.

     What we say and do will sour what we think, and our thoughts will influence our attitudes and the signals that manage our relationships.

     Attitudes and relationships develop and change over time, of course, and our own changes often are not at all obvious to us. The incoming signals often can tell us what we’re doing to our relationships.

     This is where we need to work on our awareness. The behavior and expressions of our associates are continuously signaling us. People will not always tell us what they’re thinking, even when we ask.  

      We need to put chin in hand, shut up and do some real thinking about what we’re seeing and hearing. And what we’re doing.  

    

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Essential Contrarian

      If you don’t have a contrarian in your group, go find one.

     Contrarians are those people who  doubt everything, question beyond reason, keep pushing for more explanation. They stretch out discussion when you just want to get some damn thing done.

     The contrary spectrum runs from skepticism to all-out opposition. Wherever the bothersome person is on the spectrum, responding with anger or dismissal – which is really tempting – is the wrong way to go. And don’t ignore it – some staff members will be listening, and you should be, too.

     Contrarians aren’t always just plain negative, but sometimes they really are. When that is so, they need to go find work elsewhere.

      Mature managers know how to handle the entire range. They understand the importance of listening before acting, seeking to understand what drives a person’s beliefs. Sometimes complainers benefit from explanation, sometimes they just need a respectful listener.

     Once the heat of a complaint is dissipated, the manager can gain useful knowledge. The good listener benefits from detecting and employing any useful insights. Contrarians often expose undetected kernels of truth.

     On another front, managers don’t have to be inhumanly calm all the time. Flashes of irritation in certain situations can strengthen relationships and improve performance.

     In general, though, your job as a manager is to keep your eye on the, ball maintaining momentum toward clear purpose.

      In most of the places where I worked back in the day, we didn’t have that kind of management. There was a consistent effort to suppress disagreement, sometimes simply by enforcing the boss-is-always-right syndrome; sometimes through a lazy need to just get on with it, smothering all that bother of doing it right. 

 

    Groupthink can be a pleasant way to operate if nothing needs to change much. Of course, It doesn’t contribute much to growth and improvement.

     A companion syndrome is conformity, voluntary or enforced.

     I once worked at a daily newspaper where the senior editors tried to smooth any raised hackles with a favorite maxim: “We’re all ladies and gentlemen here.” At a daily newspaper! (Well, not a very good one.)

     Enthusiastic newsgathering pushes up against, and often over, the outside boundary of politesse. “Our job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

     Actually, neither promoting the status quo nor inciting confrontation/conflict is essential in the character of successful news organizations. They happen when any medium of information is characterized by integrity, curiosity and candor, a pursuit bound to support healthy communities and, on occasion, ignite friction and irritation.

     While we want it to be that way, although we won’t always  like its outcomes.   

     Groupthink tends to favor the easier route, while the contrarian makes sure the uncomfortable possibility isn’t suppressed simply because it is uncomfortable.

     When a groupthink process is launched by a snap  decision-maker, it can be dangerous.

     Thinking is work, and bringing a group to a decision can be uncomfortable. So, when the snap-thinker volunteers to take care of something, we all happily concur. We stop thinking and jump in the back to ride along and let the  volunteer do the driving.

     That is not quality decision-making. It breezes right past the questions and possibilities whose application would have made a stronger process. Or maybe headed off a bad outcome.

      The important lesson to be drawn here is one every good manager has learned, often from painful experience: Stop, look and listen. Never make a decision without ensuring that you have done your due diligence. It is not at all unusual for a modest amount of probing to turn up important new facts, pro or con.

     None of us is immune to annoyance when one of our assumptions is diminished or dismissed, perhaps without much respect. Mature acceptance at such times is a necessary piece of the manager’s toolkit.

     You must at times cause the commotion yourself. As you create or sponsor innovation, you’ll be supporting contrarians or creating the discomfort yourself. 

     Good for you, because one of the most shameful failures of bad management is the avoidance of a good idea because it could “cause trouble.”

     A meaningful advance for your organization will disrupt accustomed functions, inject change in roles and processes. You can’t expect everyone to be enthusiastic about that, and people issues often are the manager’s most difficult challenges in introducing change.

     Groupthink is not always your friend when changes are being laid on a group.

     In fact, carefully preparing, introducing and conducting a big change is itself a large project. The change is distinct in performance while intimately connected with the organizational function.

     Change managers often have overlooked that reality because of haste and/or poor judgment. Sometimes their focus on some new process and its perceived benefits blinds them to the possibility of problems.

     That’s where the contrarian is most valuable: Pressing you to stop, look and listen.

         

 

 

    

 

Monday, April 1, 2019

Succeeding When You Don't Know What to Do

     Unknown unknowns are in the very center of Project Management. 
     Project management is the process of making something new. When you do that, you may be just assembling familiar pieces in familiar ways. That’s the simplest activity on the arc that graduates through levels of familiarity (process management, really) into areas of creativity at increasing levels of risk.
     Risk is the possibility that what you attempt won’t work, and failure can sometimes carry a high price. So project work often is launched and conducted tentatively. The sponsoring organization bases its approach on wishing and hoping more than on managing, particularly managing risk.
     Timidity puts real project success out of reach, and many organizations assume that’s the way it has to be.
     Successful organizations, on the other hand, accept a certain level of failure. They learn from their failures, and apply the learning to a broad pattern of success. Their failure is a purposeful, controlled component of their success. They know they can’t grow without it.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Real Leaders, for Good or Ill

   

     I saw this college classmate, Dick, every day back then, but he was not a close buddy. Dick was a member of the football team who rarely got into a game. Academically, he won no honors, as far as I know. He held no important positions. He was not prominent in any way.
     Yet, I’ll never forget him. All these decades later, the message of his example remains strong in my mind. The message: Integrity matters.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Communicate Like a Manager


    
     Don was a substantial person, in body and in manner. He was sure and solid.
     Burt was knowledgeable and precise. He always was on time, always accurate.
     Cove was commanding and demanding. You knew he was in charge, and he brooked no disrespect.
     Dick was reliable and supportive, respectful of people’s ideas.
     If you were going to assemble a pretty good manager, you could do worse than start by combining those four guys. Putting them all together would have been impossible, of course, not least because none of them would have put up with the others for very long. Independent judgment was a common characteristic of their management style.
     Each of them had his limitations, too.
     Don didn’t communicate well. Burt couldn’t manage larger issues. Cove was thin-skinned and prickly. Dick was poor at strategic thinking.
   

Monday, November 19, 2018

Bungling the Branding

    

   What you call something matters. It can matter a lot.
      “We don’t have time to help you build your monument to yourself,” they told the project manager.
     “Monument to yourself” is a brand, and not a good one. A brand establishes an identity; attitudes and assumptions gather around it. Organizations spend a lot of time, thought, money and effort to establish and maintain their brands.
     The “monument” brand is an example of what happens when you don’t make the effort. It influenced the attitude of the news staff of a small daily newspaper. Their managing editor had been tasked with managing the newsroom’s work on a special edition.
     Since the edition was his ego trip, they reasoned, why should they extend extra effort to accomplish it?