Can our fears make us better Project Managers?

Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.
- Measure for Measure

My least favorite thing on the planet are horror movies.
I think the first time I saw a horror movie, I was about 12.  I won’t tell you what the movie was – but it involved the standard box set of horror movie cliches: a lot of blood, some undead, and of course the supernatural.  I learned that horror was never going to be my favorite film genre.

The truth is my imagination is far too good to let me leave a horror movie in the theatre or on my television screen.  It slips between my imagination and my reality and creates fear behind doors, curtains or poorly lit areas.

My imagination works overtime on projects as well – which can be good and bad.  According to author Karen Thompson Walker there might a use for my fears.
They might also help with risk management.  In a TED Talk she gave in June of 2012, she explained her unique way of thinking about fear.

I took away two key points from her talk:

  1. Our fears may be everyday clairvoyance
    Instead of rationalizing away all of the potential things we ‘fear’ might occur – we should use them.  Our fears, or risks, to use a more familiar term, might be helping us prepare ourselves for the ‘worst’.

    When we ask ourselves, what will happen next?  We could use the same question to help plan our projects, walking through our plan to review the risks.  What we fear may happen may help us devise a mitigation strategy to address them. 

  2. We shouldn’t let our fears drive us to make bad decisions.  
    The story Walker shares with us illustrates how fear can be our worst enemy when we let it overwhelm our thinking.  Fears should be considered and used to arm ourselves, rather than let them drive the decision-making.  In the end, we learn that what we avoid out of fear could be an opportunity.

I enjoyed the talk because it helped me consider another way to think about risk and fear: as tools to help me achieve my project objectives by uncovering the sinkholes along the way.  Have you used an unusual method to find new risks on new projects?  Leave a comment or send me a tweet.  My id is jgodfrey.

The Whys of Stakeholders

“As far as I can tell there are two inviolable truths about people and projects:
– There’s a reason behind everything that everyone does on, to, for with, or against a project.  No one does anything without a reason.  In a stakeholder’s mind, no matter what they are doing on, to, for, with or against a project, it makes complete sense to them.”
– Kenneth T. Hanley, Guerrilla Project Management

Staying in a constructive state of mind is critical to being effective as a project manager.  You want to be able to be

  • Creative
  • Open to new ideas
  • Free enough to address conflict instead of feeding it

I’m sure we all have days when stakeholder behavior might make that a bit challenging.  When you’re on the edge of slipping out of a constructive state, it can be helpful to have a gimmick or ‘circuit breaker’ to keep you focused.  A fellow PM has come up with a new way to use a familiar tool.

Instead of using the Fishbone Diagram to identify root causes of defects, Kenneth T. Hanley in his book Guerrilla Project Management, demonstrates a way to use the Fishbone diagram to help you understand the stakeholder.  Typically used in Six Sigma or Change Management efforts, the Fishbone or Ishikawa diagram, helps teams analyze the root cause of a product defects.  From Hanley’s point of view – it can also be useful in understanding internal and external stakeholders.

Starting with the situation, you should continue to ask why it is occurring until you have broken out the behavior to one or more root causes.  You may also see it referred to as the 5 Whys.  See Wikipedia for more details.

My only concern with using the Ishikawa diagram is that you might use the information to try to ‘fix the problem’ instead of trying to support your customer in achieving her goals. Similarly, If you’re seeing conflict with internal stakeholders, it’s important to stay out of troubleshooting mode and keep your focus on understanding why.  The point of all of the mental gymnastics is to put you into a more constructive and empowered state of mind so that you can be more effective. 

Keeping your cool is easier when you understand what concerns are driving the behavior.  I never thought of using the Ishikawa diagram to drill down into stakeholder behavior, but it looks like it might be a useful tool you can use to craft a creative response.

Let me know if you have used tools/ techniques from other areas of Quality/ Project Management in unusual ways.  Leave a comment or send me a tweet, my id is jgodfrey.

Back to the Essentials

Last week when I read The No. 1 Time Management Mistake Capable People Make I was excited for half a day.  

Greg McKeown suggests that instead of multi-tasking madly, we should focus on fewer things so that we can succeed. 

His argument is that we became successful in our jobs because we focused on a few things, not multiple priorities. To stay successful, we should pair back on the multi-tasking and center our focus on one thing / one task at a time.

His advice is simple:

  1. Write down 6 priorities
  2. Scratch off 5
  3. Focus on the one.  Stay with that until you have completed it.
  4. If you’re good, you may get to another item on your list. %)

I whipped out my yellow notepad and listed my top priorities.  I scratched off the lowest 5 listed and started to focus.

In the background my email starting to bing like popcorn.  One here, one there.  I ignored the noise and kept soldiering on my Communication Plan.  Today – the Communication Plan was my One Priority.

My phone started playing my ring tone.  I let it go to voice mail.

And throughout it my email continued to bing.

I relented and glanced at an email that demanded an urgent response.  And then I saw another…

After a couple of hours I noticed two things:

  1. Staying with one task until I finish it is impossible in my job.  I juggle multiple projects and each has its own cycle, issues and fires that need to be fought as if it were the only thing on my plate or one of my stakeholders is going to start screaming. And I’m not even taking the meetings into account.
  2. Attempting to focus on my one thing was helpful, because it gave me something to anchor my day around.  Before my staking my day around the One Priority, I would bounce from one thing to another and I’d feel scattered and worn out at 5pm.  At least with my One Priority, I have a tether that pulls me back to center so that I complete that task by the end of the day.

So while I cannot live with just one priority throughout the day, I can live with a modified priority list.  Using the One Priority as an anchor, I am able to get through my day with some level of clarity and I close on one thing for that day.

This may be my own form of minimalism or I could be kidding myself.  How do you juggle multiple priorities?  Leave a comment, send me a tweet, my id is jgodfrey.

Project Managers: Your Health trumps Project Health

Last week I realized something important.

I take better care of my car than I do of my body.

I was sitting in the dealership, answering questions about the state of my car and whether I needed the 15,000 service tune up when I realized:

  1. My car Genevieve gets an oil change every 3 months or every 5,000 miles
  2. I hadn’t exercised in months

This along with the nagging headache that I’d been wrestling to the mat with Tylenol was finally loud enough to make me see that I needed to do something about my health.

I wonder whether that’s the case with a lot of PMs?  We seem to be very focused on meeting deadlines and delivering projects.

How many of us are actually checking up on what we’re eating and how we’re taking care of ourselves?

If you feel this is a lecture, please click on, it really is a lecture to myself.

Project Managers have a lot thrown at them.  Your success is sometimes measured by your ability to adjust to the changes that are thrown at you.  Having to cope with a change in direction or a change in resources can be difficult to manage if you’re also struggling with poor health.  When you don’t feel good it can be difficult if not impossible to give your best.

If you don’t hear from anyone else, please read it here.

  • Keep an eye on the time
    Eight – Ten hour days may be the norm, but try to leave the office at 5 when you can.  And don’t forget PDO – even taking a day off here an there can give you more of a boost than you think.  I’m bad at this.  I start working and forget what time it is.
  • Yearly checkups – Enough said.  I hate going to the doctor, but if you take your car, you should take yourself.
  • Exercise
    I absolutely hate exercise.  No matter what it is: aerobics, bicycling, walking, lifting weights.  If I can last one minute, I will get past the ugh I hate exercise phase of the workout.  If I can last for 10 minutes, I’ll catch my second wind.  So this is the part that will be challenging for me. Exercise

Let me know how you’ve managed to keep self-care as part of your priorities.  Leave me a comment or send me a tweet.  My id is jgodfrey.

Lessons Learned from Japanese: For Project Management

KanjiI am a linguaphile.  

Not one of those people who spend hours pouring over grammar books or looking up obscure words.  My grammar has always been shaky and my interest in obscure words is almost nil.

I’m the kind of linguaphile that spends time immersed in other languages.  My current language of choice is Japanese.  

Before you start asking what in the world this has to do with Project Management – I have news for you – there is a connection.  Some of the habits I’ve used to learn Japanese seem to be just as useful in becoming more effective while managing your projects.  Habits I’ve used to stay engaged, improve and to avoid misunderstanding in learning Japanese I’ve also applied on my projects.

Lesson One: Be Quick to Change Your Approach
When I started to immerse myself in Japanese, I went whole hog: All Japanese All the Time  with no let up.  I listened to music, movies,  television programs and anime.  Eventually, I asked Comcast to give me TV Japan and I left it on whenever I was at home.

What I learned is that you get really tired of the same thing all the time – so you have to be flexible.  When something is boring or it isn’t working, you need to switch up.  Be quick to change your approach.  If your tired of the news – try an anime – if you’re tired of anime – try youtube.

Similarly, Projects do not come off the assembly line for you to manage.  Some may be suited to a large phase gate implementation, others may require a more nimble approach.  Be quick to look at the project, the scope as defined or not defined and use the PMBOK tools and techniques that help you most effectively deliver what is being requested.  If your normal process doesn’t work as expected, be quick to look at why it’s not working and tweak it until it does.  Make sure you get buy off from the powers that be – whether that’s your Quality organization or your PMO.

Lesson Two: Continue to reach out to learn from other books, classes, blogs, and/ or tweets
After you have learned the basics of a language, it’s hard to stay focused.  From your perspective, from day and day there may not seem to be any progress….or it is so subtle that it can tempt you to give up.

Keep yourself interested in the process even when you’re looking at a project that seems the same as the past five projects you’ve had by continuing to learn more around the project or environment. Read books, blogs, and follow other PMs that are encountering the same issues you are. Look for other ways to stay engaged.

Lesson Three: The same kanji can have completely different interpretations or meanings depending on the context.

Recently, I’ve started to immerse myself in Chinese with the goal of being able to read Japanese and Chinese literature and history.  Both languages use the same kanji, but a kanji in Chinese could have different syllables in Japanese.  And at times, it could have a completely different meaning.

Within your organization or team, you may be used to using a term over and over again.  But every culture is different.  When you talk to another team, they may be using a different set of assumptions about the same word you just used.  When you ‘close out a project’, what happens before you do ‘x’ and who owns what?  It is always good to define what you are talking about and what assumptions you have about owners and responsibilities.  During the conversation, it might seem over the top to push for specifics, but in the end, you may have avoided a misunderstanding that could have led to project failure.  

Have any of your hobbies helped you gain a greater understanding or fresh look at project management?  Leave a comment or send me a tweet, my id is jgodfrey.

Catching the Wind: Or why write meeting minutes?

Oaths are but words and words are but wind – Samuel Butler

There are moments during your day when could swear that you’ve already had this conversation before….
facilitated the same discussion before…
and made the same decision before.

You thought the team had moved on.

You might be in a situation where no one agreed with the thinking behind the original decision. On the other hand, it might be because no one else remembers reaching a decision.

There’s no record.  The words that were spoken into the air the previous day have blown away.  This can be frustrating if you are trying to move forward on a time-constrained decision.

If you close a key meeting out without sending out minutes all of your plans might go just as expected. On the other hand, someone could come back the next day and tell you that nothing was settled and the project team is in a ditch struggling to get out.

In general, the more important the meeting, the greater the need for meeting minutes.

If you find yourself in a Gate Review, a Go No Go Decision call or just a call where the team needs to reach a consensus in order to move forward, send out minutes.

Sending out meeting minutes gives the attendees several options:

  1. Agree – and the team can move forward
  2. Correct the minutes – and the team can discuss the difference in opinion
  3. Reject what was recorded altogether.  Oddly enough, this still leaves you ahead because you know you have a complete disconnect instead of a half-hearted mixup.

Sometimes minutes can just provide clarity to what at the time seemed an convoluted conversation.

So remember: The more significant the meeting – the greater the need to capture the outcome and send it to everyone who was invited.

This helps everyone who dialed in and those optional invitees who were triple-booked.

If I forget this rule of thumb, I generally regret it because I am forced to schedule the same group of people to join a conference bridge…
to have the same conversation they had a week or two weeks ago…
or having someone ask me about a decision that has just been made.

Sending out minutes is is not just good practice.  This will save you in meetings, queries and general aggravation.

Have you had any life lessons where you learned that capturing minutes would have been a good idea?  Leave a comment, send me a tweet, my id is jgodfrey.

Shisso: Where are we going in 2014?

On Feb 12, 2009, I started my blog with a post titled: “Under Construction”.  This is what I wrote:

To my under construction blog. My goal is to write about books, events and ideas that interest me about project management. Please excuse the mess while it is still under construction.

At the time, I had been laid off and was trying to stay motivated during my job hunt.  I started where I was and reviewed books and wrote about Project Management concepts.

With the start of new year and nearing the 5th year of the blog’s existence, it seemed like a good time to review my reason for blogging.  Why write a blog rather than a journal?  You can rant in a journal.  You can go on and on about personal issues that no one else cares about in a journal.  What’s the point of writing a blog?

After a day of turning this question over in my head, I realized that blogging kind of complimented my tweeting.  I tweet to remind myself of what I’ve learned.  Blogging is where I process my thoughts and where I learn.  For me, blogging forces me:

  • To get out of my small world to see how others are managing projects in the current business environment
  • To continue to reach out to others and learn from reading and dialogue
  • To continue to explore why I want to get better at this profession

Why should you read this blog?

  • Newbies to Project Management may find some useful information here about being a PM, how to get more PDUS, and how to survive your bad days
  • Experienced PMs may find a book that might expand your knowledge about Project Management and possibly a place to commiserate

What you won’t find here:

  • Rants about my projects
  • Stuff about current events – unless the current events are affected by Project Management

What I hope you’ll explore with me is what else there is to learn about Project Management, recommended books that will provide more insight and occasionally (project-related) links that may make you laugh.

I hope you’ll join me this year.

Happy New Year!