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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Well, It Hit the Fan. Now What?

Something unsavory hits the fan. Who ya gonna call?
After you clean it up, who ya gonna blame?
Then, what are you going to do?
Why do things go wrong?
Things go wrong because the process didn’t work the way it was supposed to. Maybe it was the wrong process. Maybe it used to be the right process, but now it doesn’t work any more. Maybe it never really worked, and a final, fatal straw fluttered down onto the overload.
Or did someone miss a step, or botch the execution, or not know the right process?
Whatever happened, it has someone’s fingerprints on it. The one constant in every human activity is that it’s human – it has people in it. Some person designed the process. Someone oversees the process. Other humans employ the process and/or are affected by it.
If the process fixes itself, then it’s a self-correcting process, and humans designed it to be so. Most processes can’t do that, and human intervention is necessary.
When the process goes awry, someone did something that disrupted it. And it’s people who then must repair the damage, fix the problem and do something about why it happened.
So the operative factor always is the human being. How effectively do we prepare people to invent, conduct, fix and modify their processes?

This is a precautionary thought about the current emphasis on STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
There is absolutely no question that high competency in the skills of those categories is essential to the furtherance of our wellbeing, as individuals and as a society. No argument there.
Yet, every manager knows how reliance on those competencies alone will not consistently achieve success. When the credentials and the quantifiable assets of education and experience are all in place, there still are shortfalls and breakdowns, plenty of them.
Too many inadequate processes never change. Too many problems continue, or recur. There’s too much disharmony. Too much disengagement. Too much waste of potential. Too little constructive enthusiasm.
There are reasons for that problem with the fan. Just because the causes aren’t discussed doesn’t mean they aren’t obvious. What would it be like to do something about them?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Put Me in, Coach: Role vs. Soul

The typical project manager has the soul of a high-performance player, and that’s a problem. The job calls for someone entirely different.

The solo champion is disciplined, self-demanding and unshakably focused on the task at hand. The champ is fiercely competitive and supremely self-reliant. Those characteristics are widely admired, and rightly so.

They just aren’t good for the project manager.

The role of the project manager is defined in countless variations, but the best descriptions call for finely-tuned skills in persuasion, collaboration and delegation.

We all have known managers, in projects and in other circumstances, who were disciplined, demanding, etc., and they often were good managers. They were respected, perhaps feared, and you didn’t want to cross them.

But few of them could successfully delegate, and their style was not what you’d call collaborative. They really didn’t have the ability to lead groups of mutually supportive professionals operating autonomously.

Taskmasters don’t inspire initiative, or creative problem-solving. They tend to be more critical than helpful. They are better at nailing mistakes than helping with solutions or improving the skills of their team members.

There’s another, perhaps more frequent, issue with the people who are asked to manage projects. This is when the appointee is chosen because he/she is really good at the specialty involved, or is a good worker, period.

What’s the problem with that?

Well, the problem is that no one checked to see whether the person can manage. The distinction between doing and supervising was not drawn. Doing something well is radically different from overseeing other people who are doing that thing.

Subject matter expertise is vital to the individual contributor. For the manager, it is a nice thing to have, but it’s far less important than the person’s grasp of the unique skills of management. The frequent assumption that one equals the other is the bane of the workplace.

But project management most often has another burden, one that burns out project managers and crashes projects.