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Monday, December 28, 2015

Delegation, the Missing Essential

     Try this little experiment:
     Pick one of your most intelligent, trustworthy, responsive associates. Time yourself at five minutes in describing some function of yours that the person has never done or seen. Keep it verbal. Explain freely in response to the person’s questions but take no more than five minutes.
     Make it something of moderate complexity.
     Then remain silent and uninvolved as the person carries out the function. Neither person speaks and there is no other kind of communication. Do not set a hard-and-fast time limit for this phase.
     Take notes on what happens, especially at points where the person forgets or ignores your instructions, or adds/changes parts of the process.
     At a suitable point, stop the experiment and discuss with the other person what happened, and why. Perhaps the instruction was at fault, leaving out elements that were so second-nature to you that you never thought to include them. Ones your partner had no way to know exist.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

There Is No Perfect Process. Why? People.

     There is no limit to the varieties of Project Management methodologies out there, but they all share a couple of characteristics: Assurance in the presentation that this is the approach that accounts for everything, and that it works.
     Some of the books and programs also tell you further that this is the only design that really works. And there are some that ascribe inherent flaws to competing formulations, thereby highlighting the claimed superiority of their own.
     None of this is true.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Attitude Is Intentional

     Attitude. It’s what makes the difference.
     Skill can take you a good ways, at times. So can persistence. And assistance from powerful friends. Sometimes far enough, but nothing is assured.
     And there’s confidence.
     Confidence is the expectation of a positive outcome in whatever you’re doing. It is the driver of a winning attitude.
     Attitude and confidence. Confidence and attitude. No question, expectation of success can fuel a winning attitude. If you are sure you’re going to make it, then you act that way – and you succeed, often.
     But what happens when you don’t feel all that confident? When you’re missing that surge of confidence to drive you over the finish line, can you do it on attitude?
     You bet you can, and the people who live and work that way are the ones we admire the most. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015


     “Every person in this room is in sales,” he said.
     This charismatic guy stood in front, facing a dozen-plus of us middle managers in a smallish organization, a daily newspaper operation.
     He came and stood behind me. He put his hands on my shoulders.
     “Jim, here, shows a lot of promise for sales leadership. He should work at it.”
     What? I tell myself. Hey, man – I’m an editor. I don’t do sales. I do news.
     This sales leadership thing was an alien concept. To all of us.
     Still, the presenter kept at it for two or three 11-hour days. There was no noticeable effect on me – or the guys from production, accounting and other functions who weren’t out there selling ads, subscriptions or news dealerships.
     Not then.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Where Projects Leave the Tracks

    I wonder what the boss was thinking during those first few sessions.
    We were exploring Project Management in response to someone’s concern about the prospects for this fine old company. Its products were large, complex and individually crafted by skilled workers who had been at it for a long time. This was a high-end operation, much admired for quality.
     Its process was very customer-driven, characterized by uncontrolled scope, nonexistent budgeting and loose scheduling. The entire workforce devoted itself to one beautifully crafted product at a time.
     This was very expensive, and otherwise not well suited to a world of rising costs, increasing competition and a marketplace tossed by ever-changing global competition.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

It All Takes Time

      “I didn’t have time.”
     Not true. I did have time. I just spent it on something else.
     During every 24-hour cycle, I have 1,440 minutes at my disposal. That is 86,400 seconds, and I am doing something during every second of every minute of every hour. There’s plenty of time. What am I doing with it?
     Each action I take during the 24 hours has a relationship to what I would like in my life. That suggests a scale of importance for my activities.
     When I spend some thought on understanding and specifying those activities, I can establish priorities for them – high priorities for the important ones, lower priorities down the scale for the others.
     The secret to personal productivity is in how I establish and manage the priorities. When I do it right, I plan my days to give the high priorities more time and attention; lower priorities should take a back seat. And then, ideally, I stick to the plan.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Writing Is a Powerful Tool. Treat It as One.

            There were these six guys, submarine diesel mechanics in the U.S. Navy. Their early careers had not involved writing, and that was fine with them, because they weren’t very good at it. One of them misspelled the same word six different ways in the same document. 
      Now they needed to write. Fighting vessels were periodically refitted at their naval shipyard, and the mechanics had to write reports on their examination of the engines. I was a writing coach working with them.
       The reports had to be clear, accurate and complete. People’s lives depended on those engines.
       The Navy mechanics’ problem differed only in degree from that of many fully functioning, intelligent, articulate adults, including project managers and team members. Many people don’t like to write. Many simply avoid writing. Why?
       There are various reasons. Sometimes it is the narrow inflexibility of writing as compared to personal conversation. Sometimes it is the one-way nature of the form, making true exchange clumsy and inadequate.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Mean It? Then Write It.

     I once had a boss – a general manager – who said, “I never put anything in writing.”
     It was a point of pride for him; he spoke in a tone that suggested we owed high respect to his executive wisdom.
     It also was an index comment to his management philosophy. He was implying that real leaders get things done only through in-person communication. If you were to succeed in that workplace, the way to go would be your direct, personal contact with the boss. 
     As a subordinate of his, I found it disturbing.
     In the abstract, there is something to be said for his point of view. The written word can be rigidly limiting, particularly when it is used to communicate directives and executive opinion. Writing is a one-way medium, both in assertion and in response.  It can easily be misunderstood.
     In the world of nuts-and-bolts management, there are other reasons why my old boss would avoid putting anything in writing.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Team Is Work. Real Team? Real Work.

You’re responsible for accomplishing some result that requires the efforts of a number of people.

That establishes several specifics. First, as the leader and focus of this activity, you will organize and manage the work of different people to achieve a single end.

Then, there will have to be communication in various forms through multiple channels. And your responsibility will have to be subdivided. You retain it overall, but share it and delegate it in the process.

You must satisfy the expectations of those you answer to, and you must have productive response from those who answer to you.

All that being so, you are the director of multiple layers of teamwork. All of your constituencies share a fundamental definition, but each of them is distinctly different in how it works. You are in the catbird seat at every stage in every function.

None of this is easy, which is why we see so little really effective teamwork in these situations. When it’s a true project, all the challenges are hyped by some level of complexity, risk and uncertainty – but the essentials exist in any group effort to do something.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Planners, Doers & Project Managers

     Two people are brainstorming one April day about how to make money over the upcoming summer.
     “Hey,” says one. “Why don’t we build and market a house? We can make a bundle. Sure, we don’t know anything about construction and selling houses – but we have lots of management expertise. We can hire people to do all the other stuff.”
     If they go ahead with this idea, what could go wrong? Plenty, of course.
     When I’ve asked project managers to come up with specific errors the two could make, they have little trouble building a hefty list in a very few minutes. They’ve certainly seen enough of it.
     There can be errors in judgment: Whom to consult for subject-matter expertise, whom to hire as contractors, where to build, the type and size of the residence. They could get in trouble with financing, and with managing the budget. They could run into environmental or materials problems. They could fail to monitor the process properly.
      Ask the same people to produce a list of things the pair could do right, and you get different views of mostly the same topics.
      Then comes the crunch: How do they categorize the items on the lists? Those practices, both errors and effective activities -- are they management? Or are they planning? Individual skills? Teamwork? Or are they in some other skill area?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Bad Meetings Don't Kill Projects . . . They're Just There for the Wakes

     I ran nothing but lousy meetings before I got into project management, and quite a few after I should have known better.
     Meetings too often are where good ideas go to die, or get loaded down with impediments. That’s a shame, because good meetings provide value that is so essential to organizations.
     Human beings cannot collaborate without meetings, gatherings with a purpose. Meetings work best face to face. When that is not possible, there is some value in virtual gatherings such as teleconferencing and online sharing.
     Meetings do not work well when they are poorly planned and poorly managed, which is most of the time. Serious organizational meeting malfunction is more prevalent than it should be – more prevalent, in my experience, than good meetings are.
     Actually, while awful meetings are so obviously a waste of time, money and talent, they are more symptom than cause. As projects go awry, poor meeting management is always in the mix somewhere.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Project Management: Words Matter

     We’ve all had a lot of fun considering whether Project Management is an art or a science. Or both. Or a business. A profession? Maybe it’s just a craft, or a trade. Or have we just gussied up plain garden-variety management to get attention?
     Well, words matter. So do vague and generalized perceptions.
     The current popularity of project management in the business community is a boon to those of us working in the field.
     The opportunity door has swung wide open because many executives and managers have come to believe that bringing in a project manager is the solution to functional and process tangles in their organizations.
     The boon part can deflate instantly, though, when the enthusiastic prospects hear about the specifics. Clear words dissipate illusions. Too often, project management runs sharp treads right across favorite habits and processes. One in particular, the perceived inviolability of executive/management authority, can take a serious hit.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

A Shining Project

Project management has certain characteristics when it is done well. Its best expression is in situations of extreme difficulty and daunting, complex human challenge.

Presented here is an editorial from the Portland (Maine) Press Herald that details extraordinary leadership by a middle school principal in achieving remarkable success in such a situation. The article misses not a single point of excellence in project management.

My thanks to Greg Kesich, Press Herald editorial page editor, for granting permission to reprint his piece.

There are a lot of fads and buzz words in education reform, but not many clear successes. One shining exception has been Portland’s King Middle School.

Located near some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, serving hundreds of English language learners and with more than half the student body qualifying for free or subsidized lunches, King has all the elements that are often used to explain low performance. But in spite of all that, it has been a nationally recognized success.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

How You Get to Trust

     “You’ve got to trust me on this one.” Confident voice, arm around the shoulders, the whole scene just like in the movies, until the response: “No, I don’t. No way I have to trust you.”
     That flat-out vote of no confidence did not come in a movie – it was a real-life business moment.
     The key word was “trust,” and that was the issue. Trust requires the surrender of your independent judgment to someone else. You’re a fool if you give very much of it without really believing you should. That’s why we rarely place total trust in another person.
     How much trust do you think we exercise every day, and in whom? We do it frequently, but usually in small doses. You couldn’t get through an intersection controlled by a three-phase traffic light if you didn’t think the cross-street drivers would really stop.
     Sometimes they don’t, so we enter intersections with caution. We limit our trust.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Creativity on Demand

      We don’t have to wait for that cartoonish light bulb to pop up. We have a switch. We can turn on our creativity. Maybe not instantly, but pretty reliably.
     How can we do that?
     First of all, we have to crack our devotion to the familiar and the routine. That’s the hard part. The unspecified assumptions that direct our regular behavior do not often trigger original ideas. If something unheard-of arises spontaneously, it usually is smothered or brushed aside. Maybe we’re on autopilot.
     The door to creative thinking opens when we accept the need to practice awareness more effectively. That means paying conscious attention to conversations, developments, suggestions and even our own occasional idle thoughts. We’re busy, though, and we can’t spend too much time chasing off-the-subject possibilities.

     Still, new challenges demand new thinking, and projects are projects because they are out of the ordinary.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Too Confident?

     “He has too much confidence,” the woman said.
     This was after a guy had dominated a discussion, declaiming at length and raising his voice to talk over the other participants. He even bulldozed those who were trying to agree with him. He brooked no contributions.
     We see a parallel in actual behavior. There are people who always have to be the boss, the decider, the center of attention. Some of them fail repeatedly. To them, being Number One is much more important than doing something well.
     Most of them have difficulty working with others, especially when they have management or leadership responsibilities. People go along with them, but without energy, enthusiasm or imagination. It’s not fun working with such people. It’s a morale killer, making for mediocre performance.
     There is a real question as to whether people who love authority should ever be allowed to have any. To them, power over others becomes a possession to enjoy, not a responsibility to manage. They see themselves as smarter and better because of being the boss.
     Are all those examples of too much confidence?
     No. Any one of many personal and attitudinal faults can lead to such behavior, but too much confidence is rarely one of them.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

More Certain, Less Project

Clean mind, clean body – take your pick.
                                                                Lou Gottlieb
                                                                The Limeliters

Did you ever have to make up your mind
-- take up with one, and leave the other behind?
                                                                John Sebastian
                                                                The Lovin’ Spoonful

 Whenever you see a successful business,
someone once made a courageous decision.
                                                                Peter Drucker
                                                             Management Guru

     Gottlieb was funny. The Spoonful was empathetic. Drucker was knowledgeable and dead serious. All three provide windows into the human need for certitude, which is a burden – often a barrier – to successful project management. 
     Good project managers not only live well with ambiguity, they thrive on it. The more rewarding the potential payoff for a project, the more uncertainty and risk there is likely to be. Therefore, the greater is the need for correct decision making.
     And there’s the rub. If the information were available for a sure decision, you wouldn’t need all those project management skills we work so hard to develop. But those skills don’t provide certitude. The project manager doesn’t, either, but he/she provides a decision anyway.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Project Communication: Not Quick, Not Easy

     “The communication is terrible around here.”
     Of course it is. Communication is terrible everywhere.
     Communication is the lifeblood of collaborative human behavior, especially in the pressurized environment of a good-sized project. True projects are innovative, meaning they’re intended to create something that hasn’t existed before, at least with those particular people in that place.
     So there is uncertainty, and there are gaps in information and there is risk. Often, you are dependent upon people you don’t know well and usually have no real control over. Time and resources are tight, and persons of importance can have demanding expectations.
     Yet, despite all that, nothing will happen unless those involved get active and make it happen. Not so easy.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Projects, Processes & Professionalism

     I’ve been at this project management stuff for less than 30 years, so I probably don’t qualify as an expert. Still, I have built up a few working hypotheses and dark suspicions:
     1. Most people who hold the title “project manager” are not real project managers, and most activities called “projects” are not real projects.
    2.  Nearly all people who manage real projects do not carry the title “project manager,” and many of them – maybe most – don’t even know they’re managing projects.
    3.  Most appointments of true project managers do not result from job postings, which is a good thing because most job postings essentially say “Superman Wanted,” and have very little to do with what the job is really about.
    4. The most fundamental trait of real project managers (designated or not) is that they can’t bring themselves to turn their backs on problems, no matter how hairy and scary the problems might be.
     5. Projects, real projects, require original thinking, flexible leadership, courage, persistence, integrity and strong skills of communication, collaboration and persuasion. And other strengths.
     6. There is one important skill set that most good project managers are lousy at.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Negotiating Oranges & Project Stakes

     Oranges used to be really big in the negotiation industry.
     One practice case opened with the story of a dozen oranges – unlike any others in the world – that possessed powerful medicinal properties.
     A group of scientists needed the oranges to save an entire village from certain death. A competing group had to have those oranges if it was to create a vaccine that would save future generations from great suffering. Both groups insisted they needed all the fruit.
     A simpler case involved a brother and sister disputing possession of a single orange. The essential nature of the situation was the same as that of the scientists. However, in the siblings’ case, the Dad stepped in to deal with the problem (not satisfactorily).
     I use a similar approach in negotiation training for project managers. No fruit, but I mix in a marriage, employment security, a failing project and the survival of an entire company. Positions that are apparently irreconcilable must be brought into agreement in a role-play exercise to which we commit about half an hour.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Putdowns, Insults, Attacks . . . and You

     Here they are at the old boys’ class reunion, sharing memories of those long-ago highs and lows in the classroom, the dorm, the gym and the dining hall.
     Sure enough, it happens, one of them tells a story, and the guy across the picnic table from him stands up and says, “That’s a really old joke.” The guy walks off a few feet and stands impatiently, waiting for his buddies to leave.
     The insulted person sits there looking at the insulter. “You haven’t changed a bit,” he says, silently to himself. What does he do now?
     We all dream of coming up with the perfect response for these moments. Actually, any response at all is just one option.
     If the targeted person says aloud what’s on his mind – “You haven’t changed a bit” – he is acting on the fight option, albeit at the lower-octane range of that approach. He is fighting fire with fire; not taking the putdown lying down.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

'Don't Argue with Me'

     “Don’t argue with me – I have debated before the American Bar Association.”
     That is one of the more efficient discussion killers I have collected in a lifelong study of human conversation. If the remark doesn’t instantly freeze the other party, it sets an agenda for a losing exchange. You are put down and set up in one neat pre-emptive strike.
     Are you going to now argue about whether you’re arguing, or debate debating with a master debater?
     You got into the conversation originally to explore differences and seek understanding. It hadn’t occurred to you that it was a competition. If that’s what it is going to be, you’ll need to reorder your entire frame of mind. Probably need to do some research, too.
     That is, of course, if you buy the choice you have been so smoothly locked into. If you don’t buy it, how would you rate your chances of resetting the basis for why we’re talking?  
     Perhaps the politic thing to do is just just acquiesce and withdraw.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Can a Project Last 40 Years?

     Can a project last 40 years?
     My first response? Of course not.
     Why, then, did I post a commentary on the 40-year history of Borders Books & Music last November 8, and entitle it “Botched Project: Borders Book & Music”? I even noted in the same post that the business had been founded in 1971.
     Since the piece appeared, there have been more than 900 views of it, and countless comments about it on the various discussion boards. Just one writer, though, raised a point (for which I am grateful to him, Steve S), that is deserving of thought by all of us:

     This is not a project, because it was not intended as a temporary endeavor. This is a case study of a business. It did not have consistent objectives over the years, or a fixed timeline (due date) for completion. I wouldn't call it scope creep either, but more of a business going through expansion and retraction as it changed its mission and strategies.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Management by Just Showing Up

     “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”
     That was Woody Allen, demonstrating in just a few words how deeply meaningful a comedic quickie can be.

     “I don’t know anything about music. In my line, you don’t have to.”
     That was Elvis Presley, displaying wisdom we might not have expected from a guy who swiveled his hips like that.

     "There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all."
     And Peter Drucker had a way of blowing up our comfortable suppositions in ways we can't disagree with.

     If all of us project managers were to follow those dictates, we’d be much better prepared to do our jobs well.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

When Projects Derail

     Do 30 percent of projects really fall short of requirements? Or is it 40 percent, 50? 60? Are the projects running over budget . . . ‘way over? Missing deliverable dates . . . by a lot?
     The reports often are more anecdotal than scientific, for good reason: How can you accurately measure what never was reliably established to start with?
     This is not necessarily about requirements and estimates, which often are precise and properly done. They are the source of comparisons between what was intended and what actually was accomplished, but they may well not be the cause of the overruns and shortfalls.
     A frequent reality of project execution is that the ground under those requirements and estimates is shifty and unreliable.
     Life in such a world can be frustrating for the project manager.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Nothing Soft about Project Skills

    We call them “hard” skills because they have recognizable shape and the appearance of substance.
     By the hard skills standard, thirty years on the job earns you a presumption of competence at whatever the specialty is. BA, MBA, PCE, PMP, licenses and certificates. They all open gates because we take them as proof the holder is good at stuff.
     Now we can place that person, and make assumptions about how much he or she matters.
     While the tangible proofs of professional ability often are the objects of intense personal pride, they also have the aura of objectivity as you present yourself to the world. They are the currency of value in the competency marketplace.
     But “soft” skills, conversely, are private and local, not easy to specify on the resume: “Excellent communicator – strong team worker – known as problem solver. . . .”
     You talking about yourself? Yuck. Doesn’t work, not at all.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Brian Williams, Brady/Belichick & Their Bosses

     It’s hard to be a fan of an executive in the same way we look at top performers like Brian Williams, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

     But once in a while an instructive juxtaposition of events illustrates for us some important issues of high-level leadership.

     This week NBC news anchor Brian Williams is on a very hot seat as NBC investigates allegations that Williams falsely lionized himself in his reports on events during his visits to battlefronts. There is a chorus of demands that he resign.

     Williams anchors the NBC Nightly News, the top-rated evening news program on American television.

     Last week, it was Brady and Belichick of the New England Patriots being boiled in widespread condemnation, accused as cheaters seeking unfair advantage in alleged deflation of footballs. Even Brady’s idol, San Francisco Hall of Famer Joe Montana, jumped on.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Project Lessons Not Learned

     “Milliken left a lot of files. I threw them all out.”
     The speaker was my successor as president of a regional newspaper editor’s association. He was chatting with another person as they walked out of a meeting room, unaware that I was standing nearby.
     I had kept a number of neatly labeled folders, notes of the planning and conduct of projects and activities during my year in the position. The files included a number of possibilities that hadn’t come through in my term, but offered promise for follow-up.
     There were notes on our attempts to recruit major national figures as speakers for our events. Members show up, and participate more enthusiastically, when there is some star power on the programs. It’s worth pursuing big names if you want a dynamic group.
     A couple of prominent people had been favorably disposed, as a matter of fact, but couldn’t make it at that time. Now they would never hear from our organization again, and the spadework was wasted.
     There were other names in those files, phone numbers and notes about member recruitment, development activities and other matters involving potential growth of the organization.
     All of it wound up in the trash at the new president’s place of business.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Project Document Magic

     Bought a car once from one of the best salesmen I ever met.
     First, he asked questions about our wants, needs, preferences and financial range. He listened attentively, and asked meaningful follow-ups.
     We looked at cars and discussed them. We decided to talk at greater length about one model, and sat down to do so.
     Before long, the salesman was asking us questions about ourselves, and writing down some of the answers.

     At the time, I happened to be teaching “Personal Selling” to university students, and I found myself admiring this entire performance in the new-car showroom.
     Among the challenges in sales is winning the trust of your prospect. Another is disciplining yourself to delicately tend this new relationship, enhancing the trust while eliciting details about what could convince this person to buy . . . or not.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


     The campaign was very persistent. This ambitious entrepreneur wanted my signature on a contract tying me to his consulting company for X number of years.
     He kept after me. I kept resisting, refusing to do it.
     In the climactic conversation on the topic, he offered me three incentives to sign. The only one I now remember was the first, tickets to a boxing match. Turning that down was not a problem, since I’m not a boxing fan. The other two were no more attractive.
     No deal. We concluded that intense exchange when he finally said, “Man! Are you difficult to deal with!”
     There was a point there, although he had it aimed in the wrong direction. It indeed is difficult to persuade a person . . . when you’re clueless as to what motivates that person.
     It is a fact that you can’t motivate anyone other than yourself. People motivate themselves. I am moved to action because I expect the action to provide for me something I value.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Ultimate Project Manager Habit

     “You can’t start a successful project without a charter.”
     Ask five project managers whether they agree with that statement.
     Then ask them what a project charter contains and entails.
     Hey, ask those project managers if they’ve ever seen such a document.
     Even if they all work for the same organization, you’re very likely to get as many as five separate answers to most of the three questions – if not all of them.
     A project charter:
     Is it a detailed specification of desired actions/outcomes/constraints determined at high management levels and issued to the project manager?
     Is it the foundational description of the key project elements developed by the actual leaders of the project?
     Is it an expression of mutual agreement among all key stakeholding decision-makers, after negotiation of their interests and commitments?
     If there isn’t something called a “charter,” what do the project managers base their project planning and execution on? What do they call it? What does it do?