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Sunday, May 30, 2010

To-may-to? To-mah-to?

You say to-may-to. I say to-mah-to. So what?

Well, different pronunciations are symptoms of different routes through life, each with its own history, values, practices . . . and language and interpretations. In the course of human events, few factors are more important than communication, and few are less well-understood.

For this very reason, thousands of failures are launched every day in the conference rooms of this country. Well-intentioned people try to function without common definitions. They are project managers, team members and other stakeholders trapped in a culture that dooms a majority of projects to failure, not infrequently total failure.

Overblown, you say? No, this is not simply a point of irritation for lingo freaks. It matters, a lot, to us all. Take, for example, the word “done.” Left to my own devices, I’ll make sure my part of the project is complete, finished according to my understanding of what should be included.

Yet, it may be lacking elements – perhaps important ones – required for subsequent project activities. The shortfalls may show up immediately, or it may be several steps down the road before they erupt. They can, and often do, cause severe schedule and cost problems as somebody else gets hit with an unexpected variance. Their assumptions didn’t match mine, and neither of us knew.

This problem is so pervasive that it is a fundamental piece of the general expectation that projects will never truly meet expectations regarding cost, schedule and quality. This assumption says something about attitudes toward communication, and therein lies a crucial issue for the project manager.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Stress, My Friend & Foe

If you’re a project manager, and you’re not tense, you’re not paying attention. Tension, stress, whatever you call it, is a defining worklife trait of effective project managers. You have to be a bit tight to do this job properly. But not too tight.

The shorthand of the workplace too often gets this wrong, equating tension/stress with unhappiness and poor health, period. That oversimplifies and trivializes this most valuable of conditions.

The pursuit of happiness is a stressful business, especially if you take it seriously. You’re chasing something you want but don’t have. The more valuable it is and the more you want it, the more stressful the process becomes. Pretty much by definition, the good project manager really, really wants the desired outcome.

It’s the level of determination, twinned up with the risk, uncertainty and dependencies, that make for the stress.

It’s no wonder, then, that project management draws the kind of people who enjoy challenge, problem solving and dealing with the unexpected under time pressure. And it’s no surprise that they live lives in which the tension can become suffocating.

Here’s why. Whether they admit it or not, project managers take pride in the role of go-to person, courageous decision maker, hard worker, totally dependable leader, manager and teammate.

People frequently find themselves in this work by natural selection rather than conscious choice, at least at the beginning. Early on, they seem to be more willing to take on the tough jobs. They take responsibility for learning how to do what no one else steps forward to tackle.

Over time, they build the reputation – in their own minds as well as among their superiors and peers – as people you can turn to. The workstyle traits that distinguish them become more pronounced as their distinctiveness becomes more sharply defined.

This good thing can become too much, and the invigorating stress, remaining too high for too long, becomes destructive. Wisdom must discipline commitment at some point, or such people can work themselves into burnout or worse.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Project Manager's Art

How do you get people to do what you want them to do?

This eternal question of human relations has special resonance in the world of Project Management. Sometimes nobody wants to do what needs to be done -- perhaps even the Project Manager who is supposed to be its leader.

Considering the nature of Projects, this disability is understandable. But it's not acceptable. Dealing with it should be up front and on top of the Project Manager's priorities. It often isn't.

Consider the nature of Projects. They are temporary intrusions into the regular order of business. Sometimes they are massive. Always they require individuals to engage in unfamiliar tasks and/or to work with unfamiliar people. This uncomfortable new workload can be in addition to their accustomed activities, perhaps with no reduction in pre-existing expectations. You're supposed to kind of work this new thing in.

Surrounding it all is an aura of uncertainty, since Projects are -- by nature -- risky. No one, including the leadership, is quite sure how to handle this. That's why it's a project -- a complex, multidisciplinary effort to produce an innovation. The quality of the outcome is expected to be high. Oh, and you must use a minimum of resources, including funds and people, and meet a tough deadline.

There are many characterizations of what typically happens in such situations, some of them quite flip. Generally, the point being made is that there's no way this thing will get done anywhere near the deadline. Nor will it have a prayer of meeting budget. And quality? You're lucky if your result has 50 percent of the features or functions you set out to produce.

Well, what happens when things work, despite the odds? While successful Projects are in the minority, there are some. What makes the difference?

Project Management has been described as an art and a science. That's not just an airy remark. It is central to understanding how the Project Manager is to be effective.