Two Project Managers that Care

This week I’ve gotten inspiration from two project managers.  Both are long time associates.  One I’m working with now, and one is working on a project nearby.  Both are making big successes out of difficult projects by expertly applying project management tools and processes.   When I ask them about what’s making their projects successful, both go immediately to the processes and tools.  Clarifying scope, managing change, detailed and continuously evolving estimation, managing issues and risks, team building and role definition, and communicating relentlessly form the fabric of their project management uniforms.

I’m pondering whether “the other side of risk” is at work on their projects in some way.  I notice that the people on their teams and the supporting organizational units get on board and work collaboratively with their projects.  Is this because of a compelling project charter or a complete and logical work breakdown structure?  In part, yes.  But more questions get me to a deeper understanding of their success and closer to the other side of risk.

The other side of risk philosophy asserts that:

  • Application of tools is balanced with an understanding of and focus on the people involved and their individual and organizational aspirations.
  • The most insight on what can go right comes from visualizing perfect project outcomes in business results, organizational growth, and individual growth.
  • The journey taken by people on the project can contribute as much to positive project outcomes as the scope delivered.

I think that both of my friends apply these practices unconsciously or as a matter of personal values as a part of each tool or practice that they employ.  As I think about their answers, the common thread seems to be that they care.  They don’t apply project management as a detached overlay to the people and business undergoing the change.  They bring each practice to bear because they care about their teams and their mission and the people who are depending on them. 

Photo from John Flinchbaugh on Flicker

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Managing Risk Can Be Risky

Last week the message was “lean into risk.”  To get into a project we have to overcome fears – emotional risks.  But, managing emotional risks can be risky.

Emotional risks are fears we feel like fear of failure, embarrassment, loss of status, or more tangible impacts that may not be quantifiable but are scary.  As project managers, we know that part of our job is to make quantifiable business risks explicit and understand how they affect the work to be done on the project.  I asserted that the emotional risks are also important as those fears affect our team and stakeholders behavior on the project.  If we better understand them and can get them safely into the open, we can do things that mitigate the emotional risks and help people engage in the project.

I got a comment – I love comments – from Mike Murphy on Linked In.  Thanks, Mike! Mike described his experience in organization cultures where leaders emotionally resisted managing business risks.  Responsible project managers trying to identify and mitigate business risks can be greeted with rejection. Continue reading

Flying First Class

I’m sitting with the management team of a growing organization that seems to have money for projects when others’ don’t.  They have money for more projects than they are ready for.  Every department of this organization is doing some sort of project.  They all need more help from their shared services than they can get.  Every project is important.  Every project is behind schedule.  Some look to me like failing projects.  I want to say “maybe you should focus on fewer projects.”  No one is ready for that feedback yet.  I need to say it in a way that makes a difference.

Projects are a vehicle to get us from where we are to where we want to go.  I like this metaphor.  Whether the vehicle is a car or a plane, many of the characteristics about travel apply to projects.  Where do we want to go, what should the trip be like, how much stuff can we take with us, who’s driving (are they qualified), what will traffic be like, are we flying first class or coach, do we need trip insurance, or are we driving under the influence?  All these questions, with a little imagination, apply to projects we do at work.

My client organization, it seems, wants all its projects to fly first class; but there are no first class seats on the plane.  In order to jam everyone on the same flight, big seats, free drinks, and legroom lose out to tight quarters and not enough diet soda and cookies to go around.  I ask the managers around the table “Do you want your projects to fly first class or coach?”  Continue reading

It Is About You

Getting and giving feedback is an essential part of finding what can go right on a project.  It requires openness, self-confidence, and humility.  When giving feedback, it has to be about helping others, not about you.  When receiving feedback, it is about you.  You have to let it be about you.  Accept it, understand it, and use it.  It reveals how your project is going, how you are contributing, and what can go better.

But giving and getting feedback isn’t easy.  Done poorly, it can make things worse.  People have to be open to it before it’s given.  You have to be open to it if it is going to make a difference to you.

I posted Dan Rockwell’s Leadership Freak blog post just before this one from me.  Dan has a way of bringing out my ideas.  He submits that achieving excellence in leadership depends on our ability to successfully give and receive feedback.  He offers some good suggestions on how to trade feedback without having one party to it feel subservient to the other.  It’s a good point.  How do you set the right attitude when sitting down with a person or team to trade feedback?  35 years ago, in a big lecture hall at Maxwell AFB with about 800 other young Air Force officers at Squadron Officers School, I learned about Johari’s Window, and have used it to encourage feedback ever since.

Johari’s Window was created in 1955 by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham as part of an exercise that helps people in a group understand how they see themselves vs. how others see them.  It looks like this:

Thanks to Don Clark at http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/index.html for this picture. Continue reading

Benefits Realization

We do projects to meet needs.  In “Don’t Give Me What I Asked For, Give Me What I Need” (July 3, 2012) I described an example of how a client can ask for something specific, but not have a good understanding of how that will meet their underlying needs.  I think that happens a lot:

  • I need a break, let’s go on a trip (will that meet our need to relax?)
  • This house is just too small, let’s buy a bigger one (will that make us more comfortable?)
  • I can’t get the information I need to control costs, we need a new system (will the new system control costs?)

I’ve found that my clients are better off if they stay focused on the outcomes or benefits they want when they make an investment in a change.  But, this is hard to do.  We quickly jump from the need to the solution.  The need and the solution can become disconnected.  How can we keep them together?  Is there a way to create a map between where we are now and realizing the benefits we need?  There is. Continue reading

Death March

Early in my project management career, I had the good fortune to work with Julie.  Julie is a few years older than I am and had been a project manager in IT quite a bit longer than I had.  She was tough.  Her blue eyes would lock with yours and look straight into your soul.  When our group did the Myers-Briggs personality tests, my introverted patient architect type personality contrasted with her extroverted world domination leader type.  Julie would talk about big projects she had led.  Her favorite term was “death march.”  “That one was a death march!” she would say with wistful gleam in her eye like you get when you remember your trip to Hawaii – paradise lost.

I’m thinking that Julie wasn’t the only person I’ve known who, admired or feared or pitied by their colleagues and clients, has sacrificed greatly, sometimes unacceptably, to achieve their mission.  There was Tom the budget officer at my first assignment in the Air Force many years ago. I naively admired Tom’s dedication to building the best possible base budget and keeping it up to date (in the days before computer screens) by constantly working late and weekends.  I asked my friend Dave, a somewhat wiser and more experienced Lieutenant than I, how Tom did it.  “Well, he really doesn’t like his wife much, so he’d rather be here” Dave replied.  And there was Harvey, the Pepsi addicted computer programmer for the first system I was ever asked to manage.  Harvey’s company provided the software and system support to our business.  When my boss, another tough guy, wanted something done, he’d yell at me: “Get Harvey Pepsi to do it!” knowing that Harvey lived to code and wouldn’t sleep until the job was done if given free rein to make a change to the system.   I always hated to ask.  I wanted Harvey to have a better life.  Harvey seemed to like his life the way it was.

What do we want our projects to be like?  Is the best project a death march characterized by spouse avoiding hours and caffeine infused diets?  Well, not for me, anyway.  But, don’t we all experience these projects in our careers?  Continue reading

Split Personality

I’m a project management consultant.  Does that make me more a project manager than a consultant, or more a consultant than a project manager?  Or, am I equally both?  Aargh, I’m so confused!  One day I’m like “Let’s get to the bottom of this problem and get it solved!” and the next day it’s “How do you think things are going, what has been or could be better?”  My personality is split!  Help me work this out – I need someone to listen while I rant about which one I am or need to be and why.

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Windsurfing

The Mt Baker Project Management Institute chapter asked me to present on The Other Side of Risk.  That was great for me for two reasons – a good reason to visit our grandkids near Bellingham (home of the Mt Baker chapter), and a push for me to continue to clarify what I mean by The Other Side of Risk.  I have my new blog and a good gut feel for what I’m trying to say, but how to clearly present it in 50 minutes to a group of peers?  Was I ready for that?  I liked how the presentation turned out on paper, but in the end, I didn’t find out what my peers thought.   On the other hand, it turned out to be a valuable and rewarding journey.

Wisely, the Mt Baker chapter cancelled its meeting.  The northwest finally unveiled summer in all its glory last week.  Sunshine, breezy, and 80 degrees won out over a room with no windows, rubber chicken, and a novice guest speaker.  Risk mitigation triggered on Saturday and I got an email from the Chapter about the meeting cancellation.  That was OK because Marcia and I had a great drive and I had a captive audience to rehearse my talk.  Continue reading

Day Camp Dead

“I’m Day Camp born

And Day Camp bred

And when I die I’ll be day camp dead!

So, Rah Rah for Day Camp

Rah Rah for Day Camp

Rah Rah for Day Camp

Ray Rah Ray!”

YMCA Day Camp 1950s-70s, Author Unknown

This was the anthem for the West Des Moines YMCA Shady Creek Day Camp (Iowa) during my years connected to them.  Going to camps – day camp and residence camp – have had a big influence on my life, and probably on my work over the last 40 years.  They were fun.  They built my confidence.  They made me less of an introvert.  They taught me leadership.  They created an affinity between me and an amazing, beautiful woman who married me 39 years ago (and catches errors in my blog posts).  They taught me that we are at our best when, regardless of how hard something is to do, we try to make it fun and focus on what can go right.  Continue reading

Don’t Give Me What I Asked For, Give Me What I Need!

If I advocate for finding what can go right with your project, and I help you manage the project, I should start with getting a clear understanding of the outcome you expect.  What is the best possible outcome from the time and money and effort you will expend on your project?  Why are you doing it, really?  What will be different, in the best possible way, when you are done?  What do you want the journey from here to there to be like?

Notice, I used the word “outcome,” not “scope.”  I think “outcome” goes beyond “scope.”  Continue reading