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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Can't You See I'm Busy Drowning Here?

An eternal truth of human behavior is that if people can do something, they will do that something – even if it frustrates a larger purpose. Generally, the something is perceived to have a quick value or provide an immediate satisfaction.

A current much-discussed example is that of “distracted driving,” in which one pursues a cellphone conversation or text-messages while driving a car.

You know, you’re on the razor edge of death and/or destruction as you propel a couple of tons of inanimate matter at maybe a mile a minute within inches of vehicles coming toward you at similar speed. And what if a kid runs in front of you, or a barrel falls off a truck, or a sinkhole just opened up, or you hit black ice or . . . .

Well, you get the picture. Driving an automobile is a full-time job. Conducting a conversation, even by telephone and even if you limit gestures, eye movements and all the other usual accompaniments, cannot by any stretch be considered a good idea while you’re driving.

But people do it.

This syndrome of can do/therefore will do can become a way of life in this gizmo-driven age. It doesn’t just involve cutting-edge technology, either. Do you know the average American home has the television turned on seven hours a day? Or it did before everybody split up with their phones of iPods to text, watch stuff, listen via earphone or play video games.

 And you know, a day fully occupied by such choices concludes with a net gain of not much, and a net debit of one more day subtracted from the limited store you started life with. And then you’re old, and then you’re dead. No wonder we have trouble getting things done.

Actually, this not limited to that fabled contrast between the industrious ant and the good-time-charley grasshopper. Serious people frequently express frustration with the reality that their days are crammed and their wish lists overflow, but real progress is agonizingly rare.

I’m fingering the can do/will do way of life for this. We think with our fingers, not our minds. My time gets occupied by the attractive tools of entertaining distraction and/or easy but low-value output. I may lose – or never develop – the ability to identify and employ the priorities that will get me where I want to go.

So what to do?

First of all, we need to be clear with ourselves that the unplanned life is managed by random circumstance, “going with the flow,” and by the decisions of other people who move into the empty spaces in our thought processes. Something as simple as the failure to control your email practices can lose you hours a day.

Nothing is going to improve unless and until you are fed up enough that you’re ready to actually do something. Crystallizing that motivation is Job One. Have a good talk with yourself about it.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Our way of doing things is precious to us. We treasure it, love it. It’s familiar and comforting. The outsider, observing the overbusy person determinedly flailing in circles in a whirlpool, feels compelled to toss a life ring.

“Get that thing away from me,” the doomed paddler sputters. “Can’t you see I’m busy drowning here?” 

Monday, February 22, 2010

When You Really Decide to Change

We walk backwards into the future. It is nigh impossible to shake the supposition that today will be pretty much like yesterday, and tomorrow will be more of the same.

This comforting cocoon stifles growth and muffles our perception of opportunity as well as our awareness of danger. It disguises the long-term erosion of our prospects because there rarely is any particular pain or undue discomfort.

To carry further the Personal Productivity idea introduced yesterday, try this three-step process:

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Deciding to Change

The Personal Productivity Improvement process that is going to succeed must have the beauty of laying out a low-demand approach that can produce major change over time.

I had an invigorating discussion on the Project Management applications of this concept Thursday night with the participants in a program of the Maine chapter of the Project Management Institute. I asked the 30 or so people present to choose (with Lego blocks as ballots) the most important factors among 10 that pertain to management of a typical project.

The election outcome, largely tracking with my experience in this exercise over the years, put Communication, Planning/Task Definition, Teamwork and Goal Coordination among Stakeholders at the top of the list.

And those are pretty much what people have no time for in real-world Projects. They feel they just have to get going, and have no time for Communication, Planning, etc. Their sense of urgency creates a pressure for action without forethought. And this bad habit persists, however many times Projects stumble and fall because of poor decisions about priorities.

Same with life in general. We roll along in unthinking acceptance of the idea that there’s no other way to live. On the contrary, a couple of relatively simple decisions, faithfully executed, can have a marvelous effect in helping you find out what you’ve REALLY decided to do with yourself.

Tune in tomorrow. There’s a practical payoff in it for you.

For a fuller version of this post, click here.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Washington & Lincoln, Project Managers

I have long felt that project management someday will save the universe. This weekend, I have realized that it was crucial to the foundation and preservation of the United States of America. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were among the greatest project managers in human history.

Think about it: A project manager must lead disparate stakeholders through complexity, uncertainty, difficulty and risk to achieve a high-value outcome that looked impossible at the outset. Project managers need to be competent at managing the unmanageable and inspiring the unleadable.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Heft Project Strategy

Have you read the much-discussed proposed health care reform plan, all 2,700 pages of it?

Neither have I. I’m not sure when it will work its way up the priority list, particularly since it may change, maybe change a lot, and maybe get killed off entirely.

But it doesn’t seem necessary to have read it at all to have a very strong opinion, pro or con, and voluminous reasons for or against. House Majority Leader John Boehner, for one, seems so awed by the simple heft of the document that he shows up on TV several times a day to gesture at an impressive stack of paper purporting to be the very reform plan, obviously unabridged. Never touches it or refers to its contents. I guess anything that long must be bad.

Did Anyone Actually Read the Plan?

That does raise a question, though: What do we send these people to Washington for if they can’t – or won’t – read? If John doesn’t have time to get through it all himself, how about those smart and expensive staffs of his (he has several)? Couldn’t each of those . . . dozens? hundreds? . . . of people knock off a few hundred pages and give John a book report on it?

To be bipartisan about this, where do the Democrats get off investing what must have been a lot of time and money in something that obviously is going nowhere? The paper it’s printed on, alone, must have added substantially to the national debt.

There has been much argument about provisions that are said to be in the bill, but, so far, no one has confessed to actually looking at it. Maybe Olympia Snowe has.

Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast, suggested on NPR the other day that we deal with the heft challenge by sending all those newly unemployed newspaper editors to Washington to edit the damn thing down.

My purpose in raising this matter is neither to pick sides nor to tag along with the professional Congress bashers. I’ve never done the Congress put-down, because I respect the institution and empathize as much as I can with the difficult work done there, not just on this important and frustrating subject. I do admit I’m a little shaken by the events of the past year, though.

As for the newspaper editors, they’re a hardy lot and I believe they can take care of themselves without lining up at the public trough.

The MAD Point of View

For me, this is a Project Management matter. I press unstintingly for minimum adequate documentation (MAD) in Projects.

The term codifies the truth that sound Projects must have permanent written records of all important issues, decisions and intentions. That’s the adequate documentation part. But effective Project Teams can’t spend all their time developing, distributing and preserving paperwork (or cyberwork, if that’s what you call it when it’s in the guts of computers). So the documentation must be minimal in its consumption of time and space.

From the MAD point of view, the 2,700 pages may be a monumental example of bureaucratic obfuscation. Or possibly the creation of a clever bipartisan plot, a weighty but meaningless straw man for the protagonists to whack around without anyone getting hurt, because no one will ever know what – if anything – is in it.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a real Project would have been conducted under cover of something entirely different. Ever wonder what the REAL Project Plan was for the Big Dig?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sit in the Garbage and Sing

We conduct a lifelong duel with reality. We prefer living by illusion, but unadorned facts keep disrupting the serenity of our self-deception.

Psychologists long have reported the multiple "personas" of people. There's the person we think we are presenting to the world, an often-splendid creation whose construction and maintenance can occupy an inordinate amount of our time and attention.

Then there's the second person, the one people actually see. Not the same as the first, perhaps hugely not so. The third persona lives inside our lives with us, the one we think we are. Last is the person we really are, which we hide as much as we can, even -- especially? -- from ourselves. Some theories have a lot more personas, often more entertaining than this group, but four is enough for us for now.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Hardest Thing You'll Ever Do

The hardest thing you'll ever do is try to change your own behavior.

We are trapped in our own preferences, whether we originally got them voluntarily or because a parent, teacher, boss or role model installed them. We may think we hate our smoking habit, or our weight, or our shyness, or our tendency to alienate people by our thoughtless conversation. But we don't hate those behaviors. We hate the fact that we love them.

How's that for a love-hate relationship? We do them because they provide the comfort of familiarity, and because it's easier to punish ourselves on occasion than it is to undertake the perceived burden of changing what we do. And we don't know how to do it.