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Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Relentless Manager

 “News is what I say it is.”
     That was my editor friend Brad, demonstrating the plain-talk part of his straight-up style of management.
     It was a while ago, when the news industry was in one of its periodic fits of self-examination, ignited by public outcry over some now-forgotten issue of what’s news and what isn’t.
     Uncertainty about that definition troubled Brad not at all. He devoted no time to such matters.
     The point of this reminiscence is to introduce Brad as  a model of leadership clarity. You didn’t always agree with Brad or like his way of doing business, but you always  knew where he stood.
     “This is going to be the worst three months of your life,” he’d tell a newly hired staff member. “But if you make it, you’ll know the job.” That was intended to tell you to take the 90-day probation period seriously – as Brad himself surely did.

Friday, December 22, 2017

How to Choose Failure

   When is failure a choice?
     Quite often, as a matter of fact. It’s a major default option when success is not consciously chosen. Take a good look at projects of your experience.
     We choose success when we specify a clear outcome, make it a firm intention, talk about what it means – then support it with practical planning and execution.
     Choosing failure is an easy slide in the other direction. We may not realize we are guaranteeing some measure of failure when we decide or agree to accomplish something . . . and then don’t immediately press the “Start” button.

     When we really mean it, we act in two stages right after we decide:

First, establishing the project outcome and basic agreements with key                     

Then, executing with solid organization and relationship building,

     You start with the finish, invoking the second of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People:

“Begin with the end in mind.”

         Regarding execution, management guru Peter Drucker said:
“Unless a decision has degenerated into work, it is not a decision; it   
       is at best a good intention.”

Monday, November 27, 2017

Failure Is Quick & Easy

      If it wasn’t the fastest-ever project failure, it had to rank right up there. The project manager appointed two people to get started on the design of a software program, then immediately left on vacation.
     Needless to say, there wasn’t much progress while the project manager was away.     The designers spent a lot of time fixing problems that were interesting and in the neighborhood, without really getting much done on the software design itself.
     The IT people were grateful for the extra help, but the project mostly wandered aimlessly away from the original short-term intent..
     After the project manager returned, the carelessness of the launch was reflected in a continuing lack of focus. The project wasn’t very large, but the eventual cost and finish date were way out of line.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Walk, Talk, Sit, Meet . . . Matter

Whenever I feel afraid
I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune
So no one will suspect
   I'm afraid. . .
                           -- Anna (from The King and I)
      I set out one evening at a brisk pace, warming up for a jog. I didn’t get far before my next-door neighbor called out from her front porch, where she was sitting with her husband.
     “What are you going to do?” she asked.
     “I’m going for a run,” I answered. She laughed, so I went over to see what this was about.
     “We thought you were going over there to calm things down,” she told me.
     I listened for a moment, and realized what she was talking about. A couple down the street was having a loud argument, well-peppered with vulgarities, and was sharing it via the open windows.

     This was a private neighborhood and I was the association president. There was reason for my neighbor’s curiosity – she thought I was out to exercise whatever authority I might have to restore peace, or at least quiet.
     That had not been my intent before I knew of the disruption, nor was it after she clued me in.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Shoot for the Moon

Project Management the Right (Hard) Way

     On May 25, 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of putting a man on the moon within the decade. How the hell were we going to do that? Neither Kennedy nor anyone else could really answer that question.
     For Kennedy, the how-to was not as important as the why. The Soviet Union was showing us up in the space race – and therefore in the struggle for military supremacy. We all saw it as an issue of national survival, beyond the obvious matter of national pride.
     This unprecedented monster of a project was driven by that very pressing need. We would find a way. Actually, we would find countless new ways to accomplish things never before attempted, or even seriously considered.
     Eight years and 56 days later – on July 20, 1969 – Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module onto that dusty lunar surface. Between the two events, there was an immense expenditure of funds and effort, fueled by relentless inventions to do what had never been done before.
     The commitment never wavered, although Kennedy himself was assassinated two years after his announcement.

Monday, September 4, 2017

There ARE No "Soft" Skills

     Have you ever fired someone?
     How did it go? Looking forward to doing it again soon?
     Well, it’s a “soft” skill. Must be easy, right?
      I never found it so. However much the person deserved to be terminated, it was a painful thing to do.
     In some cases, I felt I had a tougher time with it than the dismissee did. That was when the news came unexpectedly to that person (Oh, you thought I didn’t mean all that corrective counseling? All those warnings?).
      The person could rise self-righteously on a gusher of anger and defensiveness, at least temporarily. You can bet that pretty much all his/her associates would tut-tut sympathetically, including those who had been hounding the boss for months to do the deed.

     Not the same situation for the manager. If you were doing your job right, you had been patient and tolerant, but firm. You made sure the requirements were clear. You responded appropriately to variances and transgressions.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Sunday, August 20, 2017

What Do You Mean, Communication?


    The sign on the back of the truck says, “Safety Is My Goal.”
     No it isn’t. Safety is not the goal – of the driver, the owner or the truck, whichever one “my” refers to.
     A goal is the ultimate outcome sought by any activity. The driver’s goal is to get paid. His employer’s goal is to make a profit. The truck has no say.
     This is an example of hyping an otherwise worthy consideration into something it’s not. It’s an effort doomed to failure.
     While every following driver could have understood what was meant by the sign on the truck, many of them might be negatively impressed.
     Couldn’t the company’s leadership, and/or its marketing people, have come up with something true and interesting, rather than an obviously insincere cliché?

Thursday, July 27, 2017

'You're Not a Manager'

     My old friend Tom was once appointed acting general manager of a division of his company. The president told him he was the only candidate for the permanent appointment, and the job was his to lose.
     He lost it.
     So Tom went back to his previous job as a department head, realizing he’d missed some important elements in the opportunity but unsure as to quite what they were.  
     He left the company a few months later when the new guy turned out to be a terrible boss – ignorant, interfering and autocratic. Most of the other department heads were gone before Tom.
     It took a while longer, but the new general manager was flat-out fired.

     You don’t get to go back, though. Tom apparently wasn’t considered again; they never contacted him, and someone else was appointed.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Devil in Project Management

           Project . . . Process . . . Problem

     How did you learn Project Management?
     More properly, how did you “learn” Project Management?
     Or look at it this way: How have you learned whatever you’ve learned so far about Project Management?
     I’m working on my own grasp of this immense and fascinating field, but it’s only been 31 years. I make no claim to  knowing it all.
     I’ve listened to people who provide very useful knowledge about specific skill sets or defined processes within Project Management – risk management, estimating, Agile. I’m appreciative of their expertise. I use it with good results.
     I’ve heard others who seem to believe – maybe even say – that they have the one true view or system. They do not.

Monday, July 3, 2017

You, Your Multiple Tasks & the Rest of Your Life

This project requires climbing the mountain of my own resistance.
     “I’m very sorry,” the man said. “I just didn’t have time to do it.”
    Not so. He had time to accomplish whatever it was. He just did something else with the time, something quite likely less important than the thing he didn’t get done. He’s probably not really sorry, either – that’s just the customary formula we use when we’ve slipped yet another expectation.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Good Finish Needs Strong Start

House built on a rock foundation,
                                                 It will stand, O yes!
                                                                                        Hosanna – Harry Belafonte

     Married 60 years? Wow! What’s the secret?
     “We agreed at the very beginning,” the husband said. “I’ll make all the major decisions  and she’ll make all the minor decisions. And, so far, nothing major has come up.” In 60 years.
     See? It’s all a matter of definition.
     You can visualize a marriage in which the parties have such a gentle, pleasant way of describing how they manage their relationship. It might not make sense for you or me, but it works for them. That description results from the decades-long negotiations that built and maintained the marriage. They can call it anything they want.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Art of Little Decisions

I understand about indecision
But I don’t care if I get behind . . .
All I want is to have my peace of mind.

                                                         --Peace of Mind, Boston

         The song by the group Boston is devoted to cool-it advice for folks clawing their way up the corporate ladder. For me, though, the lines about indecision never fail to trigger a personal rerun of emotional horror.     
     It’s about my introduction to the news editor job on a newspaper many decades ago. I got behind every day, and I cared a lot. I nearly died of indecision.
     The daily workload would escalate over three or four hours from an utterly empty beginning and nothing to work with . . . to an onslaught of stuff from the wire, the local area and the region. Demands would pile up, alarmingly, every day.
     Managing the rush called for detailed, rapid and overlapping decisions about editing, content, placement, priorities, and who knows what else. I wanted to make good decisions, but I didn’t know how. I would keep setting items aside, hoping for some moment at which all would become clear.
     It never did, of course.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

How to Get Taken Seriously

     Warren G. Harding looked like a leader. He was handsome and dignified, never hard to get along with. He moved with little effort through the ranks of Ohio politics, became a compromise candidate for president.
     He was elected in a landslide on his promise to return the country to normalcy after the hardships of World War I. He died in office after three mediocre years and often is classed among the worst presidents in history.
     Numerous scandals erupted because of Harding’s inability to evaluate his appointees.
     Stephen Hawking is an entirely different story. He looks like a very sick man, which he is – severely limited physically by ALS, able to communicate only by computerized means.
     And Stephen Hawking is deep into the most fundamental questions of our physical world. He is a cosmologist, and yet has the celebrity of a rock star. He works brilliantly in studying and writing about the universe – gravity, black holes, why the theory of General Relativity must be unified with Quantum Theory.
     And people hang on his every word.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Too Much of a Good Thing . . . Not a Good Thing

     I have revered my long-ago friend Dick as the best salesman of my experience, and he was. Dick never lost his enthusiasm and he never gave up.
     But Dick had a serious flaw: He never gave up . . . when he should have.
     My most illustrative Dick story is about a string of fatally over-optimistic decisions he once made.
     He had bought a house, mortgaging it through a bank that was persuaded by some flexible assertions related to current vs. potential income. When the inevitable came about, Dick and his wife were out of a home, but still had some ready cash.
     Dick immediately started up two sales-oriented businesses with the money. Then he met a guy who was running a no-hope race in a presidential primary. Dick leaped on this “opportunity” and became the full-time campaign manager for the “candidate.”
     The two infant businesses dried up and blew away. As did the candidacy. And the boodle of money.   

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Leader, Doer -- Take Your Pick

     I heard an experienced project manager talk about how to build a solid project plan:
     “You’ve got to get down to the working surface, and build your estimates on actual facts, history and judgment. Otherwise, your plan is going to have big holes in it.”
     Totally right on the substance. Excellent project management . . . so far. Project estimates must arise from actual facts and relevant experience – to the extent possible.
     Whose facts? What experience? This is where the speaker’s narrative took a turn that seriously undercut the value of his advice. He described the many hours he had spent in researching and preparing estimates for one project.
     He applied his own personal experience? He invested his own time to produce detailed estimates?
     The context was that of a complex, good-sized challenge with a number of team members and stakeholders.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

DIY Job Satisfaction

Calm, empathetic and endlessly patient
    You can have a lot of fun when your job is to make something or do something all by yourself, or maybe with a competent, compatible partner. If it’s not just you, it’s just the two of you.
     Either way, you get to put your hands, and your attention, right on the work. You earn the joy of personal accomplishment; you can contribute mightily to the quality of your own result. It’s right out there, with no mistake – you’re the one who did it.
     It’s hard to duplicate the level of satisfaction you feel. But that’s not all.
     When you make it your business to turn out quality results, other people notice. You earn admiration, and you build an enviable reputation.
     In management, not so much. When you’re a manager, you operate in a different universe. Management’s job is to equip and help the people who make things and do things.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Failure Is Optional

     Don was the very model of a salesman – the most thorough practitioner of positive thinking I have ever met. “Misery is optional,” he’d intone.
     When someone did something really mean, Don never criticized, really. He’d ascribe it to attitude. He’d shake his head and say, “Some people just don’t want to be happy.”
     Don wasn’t much into blaming, either. When he failed to make a sale, he sometimes apologized to the person who had turned him down: “I apologize for my failure to show you how this (product/service) would make your life so much better.” Or words to that effect.
     He was a true believer. Once, when he was doing the rounds with a new salesman, it came up to noon . . . and the guy wanted to interrupt for lunch. Don was dumbfounded.
     But the most important enduring memory I have of Don is about failure. He refused to believe in it. When someone turned Don down, however firmly, he never considered that the final word. In his mind, he just hadn’t succeeded yet. Had the rest of his life to get there.
     This doesn’t mean he would hound and harass people until they gave in and bought or agreed, or did whatever it was Don was after. It meant he would keep his eye, and his mind, open for opportunities to offer new incentives to the prospect.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Creativity: Outsmarting Geometry

     Phil used to drive Sister Joachim nuts in sophomore geometry class. There we were, the rest of us, straining our brains – and patience – to do the QED thing. Not Phil.
     Phil would almost instantly come up with the correct answer, totally without the correct process. Some kind of genius was Phil, and utterly lacking in any ability to explain how he did it.
     Sister would get quite annoyed, but the great thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome would have been pleased. Phil was proving them right. They dismissed the possibility that humans could work out solutions to puzzles.
     People simply were God’s conduit, they believed, so people did not create art or anything else. They discovered.
     I never explored the concept of divine inspiration with Phil. He became a cop, and I marveled one time at the stark simplicity and effectiveness of a police maneuver he described. It was how to gain control over an unruly citizen, however big and mean the person might be.
     While no witness to the move would be able to detect what the officer was doing, there would be instant submission by the troublemaker.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Listen Up

     If you think you’re not a good listener, you’re probably wrong.
     Listening researcher Kevin Murphy asserted that in his book “Effective Listening: Hearing What People Say and Making It Work for You.”
     Murphy questioned a sample of 20 top managers, “all business leaders whom I had known to be truly tuned to their employees’ needs and goals“.
     “Are you a good listener?” was Murphy’s question. What was the result?
     “More than 75 percent of the good listeners I surveyed answered no. Why? Because the better you listen, the more you learn about how little you know.”
     So the good listeners were harder on themselves than the independent experts were. Unhappily, the opposite also is true. In general, studies show that most people think they’re good listeners – and most people are wrong.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Team Is Work

     “What is a team, and why do we need to know what it is?”
     That’s a standard discussion point for any meaningful consideration of basic Project Management. After all, Project Management is all about people working together to accomplish something new. The “working together” part is teamwork.
     Actually, the basic question often doesn’t come up at all, because we believe everyone knows what a team is, and how it is vital to the effective management of projects. So we launch our projects assuming we’ll be a team and it will work.
     Well, do we really know what a team is or how it should work? Or what it could accomplish? Or how short most of our group activity falls from gaining the benefits of this invaluable concept?
     Most of all, we don’t realize how studiously we avoid developing teamwork and how seriously that mistake damages our potential for project success.
     We may not connect project shortfalls with inadequate teamwork. We sort of assume projects, by their nature, never get close to 100 percent – that’s just the way it is.