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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

All Productivity Is Personal

Effective Project Management can make perfect sense on paper. Logic, clarity and predictability are like that. Even risk can be identified and managed with reasonable certitude when you theoretically control the circumstances. Then you insert the human factor, and . . . .

Ah, the human factor. Sounds so manageable when you say it that way – sort of a verbal cardboard cutout with depersonalization of “human” and the emphasis on “factor.” As a matter of brutal fact, too many managers follow the Paul Simon dictum, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

Truth is, people even at their best are the least predictable of the resources available to the manager. Someone who is a star performer today can be a flat tire in the operation tomorrow, depending upon utterly unpredictable personal, family, health, financial, mood influences.

When that happens, there can be radical effects on results. The resources of cost (salary), time (work schedule), materials, equipment, facilities and everything else remain completely unchanged. The bad effect occurs solely because the human being has performed differently. That catalytic resource – the person – gives dynamic meaning to all those other resources, and is the dominant determinant of the outcome.

As in everything else, what is true in ordinary organized human activity is more so in Project Management, because a Project is organized human activity in a pressure cooker. You don’t have the luxury of seemingly plentiful time. Your resources are sparingly, perhaps grudgingly, often inadequately doled out from stores originally anticipated elsewhere.

Most importantly, your people are loaned from permanent organizational functions whose managers are not above tugging them back to serve contrary priorities.

In short, management of this human being thing makes or breaks the Project Manager. And the most serious challenge in doing so is bounded by the end of his/her nose.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Ancient History of the Boss

Hundreds of tough-looking men stand around in a clearing in the North Woods, obviously waiting for something. Then a smallish guy walks into the clearing, goes up to the biggest, meanest-looking of the men and knocks him flat with a single punch.
The onlookers nod approvingly to one another, and a murmur goes through the crowd: “Must be the new boss.”

Would that establishing authority and leadership were so simple today! Well, it’s not. Many members of any Project Team can have sophisticated skills utterly different from those of the Project Manager. In fact, the very defining work of the Project can be common to Team members, but not the Project Manager. Such professionals can be difficult to lead – but Project success is impossible without accomplishing that.

It can be done. A veteran worker in a skilled trade, now in training to add Project Manager expertise, recalled his puzzlement a few years earlier when a Project Manager was added to an organization in which this senior contributor typically had a leading role.

He ignored the Project Manager for the next two or three Projects, then somehow was convinced to make use of the man’s knowledge and experience. His eyes were quickly opened, and that is why he decided to get Project Management training himself.

It is unfortunate that, in many organizations, such moments of revelation never occur. The Project Manager operates as digger-in-chief in a pick-and-shovel environment characterized more by devotion to good old-fashioned hard work than better up-to-date smart work.

While nothing is simple in love and war, life and Project Management, there is a relatively straightforward solution for the Project Manager.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Down from the Mighty White Horse

The starving settlers on the frontier deployed scouts in a desperate search for food. Back came the report: “The bad news is that all there is to eat out there is buffalo chips. The good news is, we have a five-year supply.”

Meanwhile, back in today’s world: No matter who blew it – or failed to do it – it’s all your fault. You’re the project manager. And you have to fix it. That's the bad news. Now let’s get on to the good news.

It’s true that the world is not yet at the point where little boys and girls aspire to be Project Managers. Cops, firemen, astronauts, sports stars, adventure heroes and all-purpose celebrities continue to dominate the career dream scene – for now.

But we’re getting there. More and more, employers are demonstrating at least a general understanding that Project Management training is worth demanding in new hires. Many specify in job postings that applicants hold the certification as Project Management Professional (PMP).

In response, more working adults are seeking Project Management training and certification, and more students are taking courses in the subject. Project Management no longer is as mythological as the tales of the Lone Ranger.

All this good news shouldn’t mask the fact that Project Management is difficult work.

For one thing, it is frequently mischaracterized as an information technology specialty, so business-process challenges are assigned to IT specialists who have no idea how to manage any of it outside its technical component. More broadly, functional managers sometimes see the new Project Manager as the convenient repository for any problem they don’t want to deal with.

And, sadly, the whole thing is the Project Manager’s fault.

Monday, April 12, 2010

One Sick Project

A junior manager of a healthcare organization came across a no-brainer solution to a serious problem, and therein lies a depressing story. This is an illustration of the failure of goal coordination that fosters extensive effort -- extensive, fruitless effort.

In the healthcare facility, there traditionally has been a high rate of back and neck injury among staff members who have to lift and turn bedridden patients. Most of the patients are incapable of helping in the effort, and some are quite hefty. The patient also can suffer injury because of the clumsiness inevitable when two or more people are moving an inert body.

The junior manager attended a conference at which she learned about equipment that will do the heavy lifting while the attendants carry out simple, easy tasks and guide the process.

She put together a project proposal for installing the equipment in various patient care units of the facility, emphasizing the benefits to the workers’ health and the organization’s management of its costs. There also, not incidentally, would be the contribution to the comfort and welfare of the patients.

The decision to propose a change instantly transformed the junior manager into a project manager, which she didn’t realize. While she was somewhat familiar with project management, this was the first time a sizeable project had arisen in her worklife. Unfortunately, the project warning bell didn’t sound in the back of her mind.

In due course, senior management approved the plan, which was to begin with a pilot implementation in one department that had volunteered to go first. The equipment was installed, information was provided to senior professionals in the department, explanatory signs were made and posted.

It’s all been downhill since.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Fatal Assumption

You can trigger a lively discussion any time you’d like by inviting a group of Project Managers to list the most pervasive, frequent and damaging problems at fault when Projects aren’t going well.

Everybody you ask has been most often or most recently burned by one or more of the worst difficulties that engulf a busy, complex, multidependent innovation, especially one that inconveniences or irritates a lot of people.

People have little trouble identifying the problems they’re wrestling with. Ask, though, about the most dangerous assumption a project manager can make, and there tends to be a thoughtful (puzzled?) pause. Action-oriented, go-to, problem-solving overachievers don’t spend a lot of reflective time on such matters. Nor analytical time, either. But those assumptions underlie most, if not all, of the decisions that respond to the perceived problems.

That’s why so many Project Managers spend endless hours in exhausting, low-return, repetitious effort that diverts them from more important concerns.

Assumptions are NOT inconsequential. Assumptions are those “truths,” often unexamined, that control our actions and the priority judgments that drive our actions. The Project Manager entering into a new Project carries with him/her a variety of expectations about the work, the situation, the process, the problems and the people.

Those are assumptions. And one of them is the most dangerous of all. And too often it seems to be the most common.