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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Project Management on Autopilot

Which shoelace did you tie first this morning? How did you decide? Do you even remember doing it? Well, if they’re tied, someone did it.

That tiny task, and up to 90 percent of your other daily actions, generally are automated. They are filed in the orderly progression of your habit pattern, so familiar that you don’t even think about them. That’s how we get through our days. Imagine what your life would be like if each morning you had to decide how to get out of bed, which tooth to brush first, how to use the stairs, etc.

The vast, overwhelming mass of what you know, what you have experienced, how you do things, is tucked neatly into your subconscious. That frees your conscious mind to focus on what is new and challenging. When you were very young, learning to tie your shoes was among those challenges. I don’t know about you, but it was immensely frustrating for me until I worked away at it long enough to get the hang of it. It’s rarely a problem now.

An interesting phenomenon pops up sometimes in this habituated behavior matter. If the accustomed sequence is interrupted in some way, odd outcomes can result. You’re bringing in the groceries, and you pause along the way to turn on the washing machine. That’s how the car keys can wind up in the laundry basket instead of on the hook by the door.

The next day, ready to rush off to work, you’re startled and much annoyed that the keys aren’t where they’re supposed to be. You have to become a detective and trace your own activities of the previous day, which can be hard to do because you weren’t paying attention at the time – didn’t have to.

Plusses & Minuses for the Project Manager

This familiar human reality, living on autopilot, has important implications for managing the mindset of the project manager as both a benefit and a problem.

The competent project manager may have some kind of involvement in a number of different projects at the same time. In each, he/she must be a master technician in defining and guiding process, a persuasive leader in keeping disparate stakeholders focused and motivated, and a creative solver of fast-moving problems and risks.

It may seem paradoxical, but running on autopilot is one of two key skills that project managers must work to perfect. What can be automated must be automated. Behaviors and actions that are always there, or happening continually, must not occupy more than an absolute minimum of the project manager’s time and attention.

One example is establishing the leadership role. A cardinal goal of the successful project manager is to earn a special place in the minds of team members and other stakeholders. You want them to so respect you that they accept the high priority you place upon the success of the project, and they invest significant effort in meeting your expectations.

The good leader has studied other good leaders to determine what they do to get this kind of support – active listening certainly is important. So is doing one’s homework consistently. So is practicing the behaviors that demonstrate confidence, caring, decisiveness. Having studied those behaviors, this good leader has practiced them so they have become second nature.

Catch the Slipping Autopilot

Importantly, the leader also has automated an inner alert signal to warn when something in this part of the work has gone off course, and must be brought into the conscious mind for direct examination and correction.

That’s because the autopilot is perfectly capable of slipping, slightly or seriously. Running to catch the train, you can discover that your shoe laces were tied too hurriedly, and you’ll be down to a pair of socks if you don’t stop and – consciously – tighten things up.

Carelessness in monitoring one’s habitual behavior can cause damage when wandering isn’t caught in time. The project manager can blunder into a problem by missing the signals that what had appeared to be routine – such as a conversation with an important stakeholder – suddenly turns out ugly.

This facility in understanding what is new and risky in a project, and acting accordingly, is the second major skill set of the competent project manager. Across the board, the project manager needs to carefully sort out what is routine and must be made very efficient – and what is new/unique and must be subjected to careful individual handling.

There certainly is plenty of unique/risky content from the very beginning in a decent-sized project, and there also are plentiful opportunities for autopilot slippage.

The streamlining of the repetitive and the continuous leaves maximum possible time for the creative: Not only fixing variances, but also building relationships, planning ahead, anticipating problems and demands, influencing decisions and events – all those things that require close and thoughtful examination, preparation and execution.

The lifelong commitment of the effective project manager is the tuning of the two processes. And, after all, you may some day need to start from scratch. Someone may buy you shoes with Velcro fastenings.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Failing Cult of the Champion

Among the most thrilling events in the annual NCAA basketball tournament is the  inevitable emergence of unexpectedly heroic effort that threatens or even overturns high-seeded teams. Someone bursts into inspired play beyond all personal precedent, and energized teammates join in to perform equally over their heads and overwhelm the less-dynamic favorites.

Presumptive national champion Kansas University was shocked by Northern Iowa (Northern WHO?) in the 2010 tournament. The hero was Ali Farokhmanesh, who played like a demonic genius in the game, polishing off the 69-67 upset with a three-pointer and a couple of free throws in the final seconds.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Rising from the Black Hole of Being Promoted

For most people, it takes three months to three years or more to recover from the disastrous effects of receiving a promotion to management. Some never fully come back from it. And their organizations share the ill effects for the same period, however long that lasts – including forever.

I would say the syndrome is broadly general about promotion, but it certainly fits most appointments to the project manager role, especially for people who have not managed before.

Consider: You get good at what you do, so good that people look up to you, admire you, compliment you, want you on their teams. Then the moment comes when you are asked to share your excellence by becoming the leader/supervisor/manager of other people doing the same work, and possibly some doing other stuff.

Celebration all around! You and your family and friends rejoice at this recognition of your hard work and signal achievement. Your co-workers are happy for you. Your bosses delight at the prospect of having someone of your quality join their ranks. What a moment!

This is when the virtual black hole appears on the near horizon, looming as evil as those real ones we envision in the (hopefully distant) universe, swallowing all nearby matter with implacable and irresistible force.

The concept creates a powerful metaphor in the working world for the movement of the superb individual contributor into the world of management. In job and career terms, this moment of promotion (or appointment to lead a project) is the place where you pass through a black hole into a universe where everything is upside down.

Things They Don't Teach You

Several zillion books have been written with titles starting “The Things They Don’t Teach You at (pick your prestigious institution of higher business learning).” Those authors are all on the right track, of course. Life as it is lived has a tough time in the classroom – I know I’m working at it.

Here, our area of interest is the lot of project managers, and the matter is never more serious than when the promising young management talent is tossed unprepared into the bramble patch of your typical project.

     One important exception: In my lifetime, I have occasionally encountered people whose organizations thoughtfully and competently designate the gifted go-getters for training and mentoring in advance of movement into responsible positions. Fervent congratulations to them. I repeat, this is an exception.

For the vast majority of newly minted project managers, introduction to the realities of supervision and leadership can be shocking. They have become accustomed to their own competence, consistently performing excellently in the skills they have devoted themselves to learning.

Now you, the brand-new project manager, find that demands in bewildering variety are streaming at you, with no time to think, study, plan, practice, consult. Now you’re “the boss.” People want decisions, and it is not unusual that they demand action they know is impossible – but that’s YOUR problem. The challenges sometimes seem couched in attack strategies, promoting one side at the expense of another.

And you don’t know the answers. Your experience did not equip you to handle the exceptions to expectations, the collisions between people’s needs and organizational components, the baffling puzzles that demand instant decision.

Snap decision. That is the area most stressful for the tenderfoot in the land of the land mines. Unfamiliar situations with complex issues and threatening constituents are thrust at you in a context that plainly makes them your problem. Right now.

Perhaps the most devastating feeling of the rookie project manager is the growing suspicion you develop that some of your former co-workers who wouldn’t dream of taking on this job are gleefully yanking at the rug under you. If you’re not careful, you can become over-sensitive, making things infinitely worse. You need to stay above it.

In this career phase, the young person develops survival skills – or else. These survival skills are the practices that get you through the crisis, maybe through the day, and allow you to live and fight again. Maybe you pick up some useful tactics, and maybe you don’t.
This process does NOT equip you to manage well, most definitely in the project arena. You do not rise from the black hole simply by keeping it from swallowing you, however vital that is at the time.

Developing good project management skills, growing professionally to achieve excellence, requires shedding the defensive armor of the survival period while distilling the lessons learned from it.   Survival skills are not project management skills. Survivors are not particularly good managers of teams, and rarely are leaders.

That takes conscious effort and quite a bit of time. Knowledgeable mentors are invaluable, but far too few. The good project managers are those who have found ways to work their way out of the hole.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Surly Silence as Communication?

Everybody talks about communication, and everybody does something about it – but frequently not very well.

This is a crucial matter for project managers, because the essence of the job is to get diverse people you don’t know well to commit personally to doing stuff they’re not certain of when they have plenty of other work to do, and to trust other people in unfamiliar situations. There are too many complexities and relationships for the project manager to directly supervise each moment of each one.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How to Rescue Yourself

Sergei is deep in it. Over deadline. Over budget. Overworked. This is a troubled project.

Sergei is the project manager. His project, implementing a new order entry system for a printing company, is not going well. He was asked to take over the project because it’s a key part of the company’s strategy, but had fallen seriously behind.

There was no time to lose, so Sergei hit the ground running. As far as he was concerned, the time for rational planning was long past.

The team includes members from sales, accounting, inventory management, IT and the general manager’s office, all of them overloaded with work. There are eight people, including Sergei, who is an assistant foreman in the warehouse.