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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Email: Blessing and Curse

          Email is one of the most burdensome marvels we’ve ever had in the workplace.
          It’s hard to remember what business communication was like before email swept our world 10 or 15 years ago. It’s so easy now, and because it’s so easy it has choked the channels.
          The downside comes because “easy” does not mean “better.” In fact it almost always means “worse.” Easy means less demanding for the originator . . . and a transfer of demand to the receiver. Not a good idea, when the whole transaction was not the receiver’s idea to start with.
          Studies of email volume relegate a large portion to the category of useless, another sizable bunch to the seductive group of interesting but also useless, the lesser number that you’ll save for later today and the small minority that call for immediate action.

          Think about investing a modest amount of attention in managing this.
          Stand back for a moment from your daily flood of email messages. It’s a glut. Look at all those things. How do they contribute to the productivity of your day? Do you have something of a choking feeling when you open your inbox and feel obligated to sort through?
          Don’t have the feeling, and don’t sort through. You’re better off being something between the grim reaper and the thoughtful scholar.
You act on autopilot because you’ve got a process based on a plan. You deal with email as a tool of your profession, and you don’t confuse idle curiosity with professional time investment.
The first priority is hot items. What needs action . . . now? Do it.

Now you shift to proactive mode. You become the party of the first part. You send the email messages you need to send, initiating various matters of concern. Then you move away from email, on to your next job priority.
Sometime around the middle of your workday, you visit your email again. You repeat the morning’s routine.
Then, as there’s a bit less urgency now, you do some brushcutting. You ride the delete key, killing every item whose author, subject line or first lines show no sign of value. If the writer made no effort to engage your attention, the message deserves the same on your part.
It’s useful to remind yourself that email is so easy to write and send that it too frequently is sloppy, a vehicle of low-value communication. If the sender really meant it, you’ll hear from that person again.

The flip side of this issue is what it tells you about how to behave as an email originator.
When thoughtful people pop online with a few minutes to check in between other demands of the job, what do they look for? It’s not the subject line (although effective emailers learn to tune those precious few words carefully).
No, more than that, you look for the sender. There are people in your worklife who matter to you, a lot. Their names pop out at you from the inbox when their messages are in there. For whatever reason, their messages are automatically top priority in your work.
The most important senders, normally, are those who never email you unless there’s a reason that both of you consider important. You want to be that high-priority person, in the inboxes of all the people with whom you have email relationships.

So you never send trivial emails. You don’t use email when another communication method is more appropriate. You never include a recipient who does not have a direct, immediate, valuable reason to get this information from you now, in this way. Your email partners know that, and respond accordingly.
          You can do things with this workplace communication vehicle that are amazingly useful. You also can be astonishingly self-destructive. Achieving the one and not the other requires just a little professional thought.
          Take your pick.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


I know who “they” are. So do you. We all do. They did this. They won't let us do that.
          They are “them.” The overpowering, unresponsive blank wall utterly insensitive to our struggle to function, to get redress, to express ourselves. They do brutal things without a second thought, and have no interest at all in recognizing our worth . . . or even our humanity.
But have you ever had the uncomfortable sensation of discovering that YOU are “they?” No one ever calls you that to your face, but sometimes you find out from a third party that some person or persons referred to you that way. Maybe you hear that there were nods of approval among people you thought believed in you.
Something you did or said was seen as the brainless/heartless kind of thing that the system/bureaucracy/dictatorship routinely does. Not a good thing.
Hey, I’m not “they.” These folks know me. They know I’m not like that. It’s a shock to discover that they don’t.

          Being one of “they/them” is part of the job definition for managers. For project managers, it frequently has the additional burden of the conviction on the part of your “team members” that you are ignorant or unskilled in their areas of specialty.
          Why should they take you seriously? What of value could they possibly look for that you could provide? What could convince them that they need you? They’ve seen a lot of people like you, and those people have been more of an obstacle, an annoyance, a butt of jokes – than a person to look up to for guidance, support and leadership.
          In years of talking with people and working with people in project management, I have run into this fundamental stopper all too often.

          Interestingly, both sides, in effect, agree. The working end of the spectrum uses the concept and – routinely – the term “they.” The other end, more often than not, tends to act out the attitude. The senior partners focus their concern on outcomes rather than the real human beings who bring the outcomes about.
          The bosses too often have their own “they.” That “they” is the faceless mass of opposing working staff people who don’t understand the important needs of the organization, cannot be trusted to do their work faithfully and are basically incompetent – often laughably so. 
          And don’t you believe that both “theys” don’t know how they are caricatured by the other side. They know very well. For sure, it doesn’t make for vigorous teamwork in the workplace.

          So here you are, a project manager. Instantly, upon your designation to lead this challenging effort, you are draped in the mantle. You are “they.”
          What do you do?
          You manage. The true believers of the cliché have rarely seen a real manager in the astounding process of good management. They have been conditioned to see overstressed, underempowered bureaucrats desperately flailing to survive.
          Show ‘em. Manage. Do your homework. Get the information. Create the fundamentals, Build the relationships. Challenge power to do its share. Identify the problems. Emplace the solutions. Most of all, build the relationships.
          Invite people into an exciting adventure in which their investment of commitment will be rewarded with honor and attention. Open opportunity for their knowledge and hard work to produce meaningful results.
          Do your job.
          Then, in a remarkably satisfying way, there is no “they.”
          No more “theys.” Just “US.” 


Saturday, April 7, 2012

It's the Politics, Stupid

          All the best project managers I have known are superb politicians.

          Politicians? Politics? Yuck! We hate politics!
          No, we don’t. We don’t hate politics. We hate sleazy politics, and because of that we avoid politics, and because of that we’ll never be very good at project management.
We don’t understand that ALL human relationships are run by politics, and the best relationships are managed by topflight politicians.
Great marriages, for instance, succeed so well because the couple has mastered, not only continuing true love, but the negotiated matters of effective partnership in managing children, solving finances and taking out the garbage.
          Marriage is a project, the most profoundly important project most of us ever get to star in. It has all the elements – complexity, dependencies, uncertainty, risk, diverse participants, resource management, disruptive variances and limitations on individual freedom of action. Etc.
          The people who find themselves in these grand experiments never understand all that until they’re committed, responsible . . . and stuck. Not in a bad way, you understand, but very openly stuck.

          Our current public politics, narrowly defined, are at first look an example of disgracefully bad project management. The major matters at the national and state levels are neglected, distorted or subverted in favor of what appear to be narrow and destructive ends.
          This public politics business actually is a side issue in the context of our discussion, but two quick observations could be useful.
One is that some mayors and other local leaders are doing yeoman work in finding ways to do the best possible in their grim realities while the more-insulated big players hurl their thunder, mess with vital resources and screw the end user. The hometown heroes are managing their projects, not bewailing their situations.
The other point for thought is that the bitter collisions in the public arenas of Washington and state capitals actually are political projects in process. Like sausage in mid-manufacture, the making of public-policy outcomes is nothing for the faint of heart to witness close up.
Each of the parties in contention has its eye on a goal, and has chosen a set of actions to achieve that goal. Elections are the close of project phases, as are the terms of administrations, but the final outcome of those collected projects won’t be achieved (or known) in our lifetimes.
In short, what goes on in politics as customarily defined does indeed illuminate aspects of our projects, but does not define our management of them.

The truth is that project management requires its practitioners to practice politics to succeed. Gather your information, organize your people, plan your process, prepare for your unpleasant surprises, convince your stakeholders, persuade your end users and go for it.
Project management. It’s the politics. OK, you’re not stupid. You knew that.