Friday, February 27, 2009

What happens if the Dog Catches the Car?

This is a copy of the blog post I did for the Silicon Valley "Art of Project Management" Blog.

dog-chasing-carI grew up in a rural area.  Rural enough that dogs chased cars.  Extraordinarily enough, the dogs never caught the cars.  In fact, they never got close.  It was good sport.  The dog felt very fulfilled, barked aggressively and made sure to never come close to catching the car.  As best as I can recall, the car was never affected by the ordeal.

How many of us catch the whiff of opportunity, chase after a new opportunity without stopping to consider the ramifications if we get it?  I know I've cursed my luck for not getting a position, and jealously watch someone else get sucked down a drain.  The ironic thing is how often the first person to win a great opportunity flame out.  Either because the lacked the skills or because expectations got so carried away, no one could hope to succeed.  That's the dog who caught the car.

So the next time you see that great opportunity and begin bargining your life away, think about whether it's worth the tradeoffs necessary.  Think about whether you have the skills and abilities to make the choice pay off.  Think about whether you want to be the dog that catches the car.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Project Management and the Prisoner's Dilemma

This is a copy of the blog post I did for the Silicon Valley "Art of Project Management" Blog.

prisonersdilemmaHave you ever been on a project or program where all the PMs knew that their project was in trouble, but they were waiting for someone else to admit their problems first?  It happens often enough, as soon as one PM admits that they have a problem, everyone else discovers problems too.

The Prisoner's Dilemma

From the PM's position, it's a version of the Prisoner's Dilemma.  In the Prisoner's Dilemma, two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full twenty-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only one-year in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation.

How should the prisoners act?

The Project Manager's Dilemma

So you're managing a project, doing your best, but you made a mistake and need more time with a critical resource.  The problem is, there is another project that need this same person.  

You are putting together your status report.  You know the economy's bad and the rumors are all over.  The company's going to have cuts and people are going to get laid off.  

  • If you confess your need for the resource and the other PM doesn't confess, your project will get the resource and safely go on. 
  • If you confess your need and other PM also confesses their need, there's going to be an evaluation and both projects will lose people and be put at risk.
  • If you don't confess and the other PM does, he will get the resource and succeed and you and your team will be fired.
  • If neither of you confess and wrangles on quietly for the resource, both projects will probably be late, but they will succeed.  There might be some people cut, but both PMs will keep their job.

What are you going to do?

Are You the One-Eyed Man in the Land of the Blind or The Blind Leading the Blind?

This is a copy of the blog post I did for the Silicon Valley "Art of Project Management" Blog.

Have you ever asked yourself this question?  I have.  There were times I thought I was sure I knew what our team had to do and how to get there.  Then there were other times when we were making progress against our plan, but the project wasn't progressing.   I've most often encountered this when business people overseeing the project become frustrated with the lack of tangible benefits.

The One-Eyed Man in the Land of the Blind

Working on projects, this is the best feeling in the world.  Once you get the taste of this feeling, you're hooked on project work for life.  The mystical experience of talking with people prior to a release or implementation, knowing that you are going to provide capabilities that people cannot imagine.  

You talk to them, explain how they will know things they cannot find out today.  Then one day, there's a demo where the abstract idea becomes a visible reality.  Something they couldn't imagine becomes something they can't live without.  

A couple months after the release and people are not able to imagine how they did their jobs before.  It's almost as empowering as learning to read.  [Editor: and that wasn't so long ago for you, was it?]

The Blind Leading the Blind

Then there is the other scenario, where one side is "showing" progress while teams are frantically trying to figure something out.  Sort of like a magician draws your attention to one spot, while the real work is going on somewhere else.  I've often thought learning magic tricks would be excellent training for Project Managers.  The trick of disappearing from certain meetings or being in two places at the same time.  Either one would make project life much better.

So for what you're doing right now, are you the one-eyed man in the land of the blind or the blind leading the blind?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Are You a Seeker or a Dwarf?

This is a copy of the blog post I did for the Silicon Valley "Art of Project Management" Blog.

dwarfWhen Project Managers and others work on projects, they often consider themselves enlightened seekers.  People seeking new and better ways to do things.  They are often frustrated by those not eagerly embracing the changes.  Let's call them dwarfs; people who are not on a journey, but who have the knowledge and almost magical power to make a project succeed or fail.  Dwarfs are often more critical to the success of the project than the seeker or anyone else might expect.  I contend that to succeed, you have to be both.  Sometimes you need seekers and sometimes you need dwarfs.

Now, this is not the terminology of PMI or Lean or Agile or PRINCE2.  It is older wisdom, articulated by the first Project Management advisors, the Brothers Grimm in 1819.  In The Water of Life, they articulated how to achieve project success under the most trying of circumstances.  

A Brief Retelling of The Water of Life

The king (CEO) was troubled.  A great malaise gripped the land and infected him.  New directions and ideas were needed, but who could help?  He called his three princes (favorite PMs) together to look for solutions.  The kingdom's future depended upon the success of the undertaking.  The company needed The Water of Life to survive.

The first prince stepped forward with a plan that could be implemented quickly.  It would be costly, but he was bringing in the best and brightest to assist on the new strategy.  He had detailed project schedules, maps to success and visionary PowerPoints.  The king was hesitant, but blessed the undertaking and sent him forth.

The prince and his beautifully dressed and highly compensated, expert consultants set out, executing his plan "Seeking The Water of Life".  As they set off, they came upon a dwarf who asked what the commotion was all about?  The prince responded that they were on a mission to save the land, to seek the Water of Life.  You are either with us or against us.  The dwarf mumbled something about daily requirements, but the seekers were so enthralled with visions of The Water of Life, that they couldn't waste their time.  There were no tasks for taking on the dwarf's daily dawdle.  So they hurried off, seeking The Water of Life.

The dwarf, frustrated at their not understanding the importance of his daily dawdle watched them ride into blind canyon.  This canyon had enticing valleys, but while the valleys looked promising and the road out of the canyon closed in behind them.  Trapped, with the canyon walls closing in around them, the seekers couldn't even get cell phone reception, as the mountains blocked the signals and they were never heard from again.

The second son had used the time while his older brother was away to plot his own path to the kingship and had put together his plan for saving the kingdom.  This he presented to the king.  The prince's arguments were good and he promised to be agile and communicate constantly to the king.  

He was given a smaller budget and tighter deadlines as he set off to seek The Water of Life.  Due to his constant communications with his customer's, who were paying for his endeavor, he barely noticed the dwarf as he rushed past.  The dwarf called out, but watched him continuously communicate himself into the quicksand.  Hopelessly trapped and sinking, the prince yelled frantically at the dwarf, but the dwarf, turning back to his daily dawdle, chuckled as the high and mighty sunk beneath him.

The third son, who hadn't prepared plans because he was busy with the details of running the kingdom, came forward and said he would seek The Water of Life.  The king was skeptical.  There was no vision. There were no schedules.  There was no map to the water.  The son resonded that no one knew where The Water of Life was, so how could they map a path there?  

The third son set out and when he came upon the dwarf, the dwarf asked where he was going.  The son said he was seeking The Water of Life and would welcome any help the dwarf could give.  The dwarf, touched that someone recognized and took the time to listen to him, replied that he knew where the water of life flowed.  The prince asked if he could help him get there?  Yes, responded the dwarf.  The journey is long, but as you have taken the time to ask and listen to me, I will help you get the Water of Life.  And with the dwarf's help, the son set out on a different path.  One no one else would have taken, seeking the water of life.

I urge you to read the der Brüder Grimm for the details of how the journey turned out.   There are riches, beautiful princesses and all the rewards a seeker could hope for.  But before you go, please think about when you are a seeker and when you are a dwarf?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Credit Crisis Explained

I love this explaination.  Intuitive, understandable and accurate even at the level it's presented it.  Less is more.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Three Degrees of Separation

Pawel Brodzinski opened an interesting discussion about why executive management seems to be disconnected.  I responded with my previous post and both Pawel and Josh responded.  My perspective of why executive management seems detached is different from theirs, because I believe we approach the whole topic from different philosophical perspectives.  In my last post, I outlined management from the ground up.  This time I'll set my contextual perspective and then describe management from the top down.

Why Businesses Came into Existence
My outlook on business derives from why businesses first appeared and why they were structured the way they were.  The modern corporation came started in Britain in the early seventeenth century, when wealthy, land owning nobleman  realized that if they gave up a portion of their capital and entrusted it to an organized group of intelligent, motivated and hungry workers, they could make themselves much wealthier. However, to make sure that these workers didn't run off with their money, they set up structures and oversight and put two or three of their own people, the executives, in charge of running their businesses.  

The CEO, CFO and Chief Legal Council could be put in and with little background experience in the particulars of the business, they could ensure capital was effectively deployed, dividends were paid.  They did not have to know the working details in order to effectively manage it.  

Few businesses had over 500 people and with three people, the business structures were created so that skills and goals could be organized into departments to make the work most effective.  The people in those departments (operations, sales, accounting etc.) needed to know the details of their area, but those people could be promoted from within the ranks.

So Why Do You Say Executives Are Different? (Degree of Separation One)
An executive's responsibility is to people outside the business.  Whether it's Board Meetings, sitting on Boards of other companies to create synergies, conducting financial analyst conference calls, meeting with bankers or participating in closing large sales; their focus is external to the business.  When they allocate their time, depending upon the type of business, 30 to 60% of their time is devoted to people external to the business.  

The Importance of Structures (Degree of Separation Two)
This is as it should be.  Within departments, there are managers, usually several layers of them.  One problem with setting up structures is that if you don't respect the structure, you render it useless.  As an executive, if you say something to someone at a lower level in the business that contradicts what their manager has told them, you have rendered the structure ineffective.  

The difficulty for an executive is that they don't know what mid level managers have said.  They can't check with them every time someone asks them a question.  So what are they going to do?  Either, they limit access to pleasantries in the hallway and large company events or they find themselves pulled into the quicksand of internal management that they are paying mid-level managers to do.  Additionally, they then cannot focus 30 to 60% of their time to parties external to the business that need attention if the business is going to continue to grow.

Where They Come From (Degree of Separation Three)
It's a taboo subject, but there are classes in the US.  Historically, less than 20% of the population went to university.  A university degree from an elite institution was a clear socioeconomic indicator.  Even though the number of people going to university has increased tremendously, your college degree still largely determines who you'll work with, who your friends will be and the jobs you'll take.

If you graduate from Yale or Harvard or Princeton or Stanford, you'll enter the business world in a way and level that will determine much of your future career.  If you graduate from a state university, that will also determine the way, level and expectations people will hold of you.

Very few people start in the proverbial mail room and work their way up to executive.  I'm not saying that it never happens, but it is pointed out as news when it happens specifically because it is so uncommon.

Those are three degrees of separation that make executives seem distant.  They have different responsibilities, different structural concerns and different background and expectations.  

This is why I think inquiries into alignment are so interesting.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Are Corporate Executives Clueless?

Pawel Brodzinski brings up some excellent points in his blog about why top management often seems disconnected from what's happening in their businesses.  While he might be right that they are disconnected, I don't believe they are as disconnected as some think and that there are good reasons they never seem to be available.

In my experience, executives have very time constrained schedules and rarely ever know more about the details of what is happening than the people working for them. This is not a cut on executives, it is reality. Let me explain why I say this.

When an someone comes into a company, they are brought in to do a particular thing. Maybe it's technical, maybe its not, but at some level, junior employees are brought in to lay bricks. Determining who's productive and who's not is as easy as counting the number of bricks they lay.

Our brick layer is productive and get's promoted. He's now managing 10 brick layers. It's still very easy to determine if he's productive. But now, let's promote him one more time. He's now managing 10 people who are in turn managing 10 other people. You can see it's a little more difficult to judge productivity, but his job is still focused around laying bricks. He is in middle management and is still responsible to know about brick laying. But let's promote him one more time.

Now our man is an executive. One of his departments lays bricks, but he's overseeing 5 other departments. One digs moats, another mines stones for the bricks, another ships the bricks, another handles the international taxes involved in importing bricks and exporting castles and then there's this other god awful depart that does something called IT.

Our executive might have experience in one area, brick laying, but he is responsible and really needs to focus his time and attention on the four other areas. And when people working for him come to him to make decision, they spend all their life in the details and give him a 5 minute summary from which he has to make decisions consequential to the business about an area where he's had 5 minutes of preparation. And there are 10 other things going on that he needs to prepare for.

Most executives would love nothing better than to be able to focus on things they know about and build deep relationships with people whose knowledge and dedication are crucial to the company. Unfortunately, that is not reality for executives in large companies that I've seen.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Do You Really Want to Insist on "The Best"

There is a myth that people always want "the best". I think the sales culture pushes this, because "the best" is usually the most costly, both in terms of dollars and personal energy.  

When I was still associated with the Military, there was a rule of thumb that 60% of the cost delivered the last 5% of performance. That's what the best costs you. The reality is that people generally want what's "good enough". Email, blogs, PHP, Visual Basic and duck tape are all examples of where "good enough" does just fine, thank you.  

I am a big fan of "good enough" for personal reasons. I am probably not "the best" lover, but fortunately I'm "good enough"...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Is Your Project like Afghanistan?

The US faces a problem in Afghanistan.  How to define victory?  If you increase spending and resouces, how do you measure their effectivness?  If you decide you want to end the engagement, how do you do get out?

Have you found yourself in this position on projects?  I have.  The project has totally lost sight of what success would be.  All sorts of interium measure are created to show "progress", but no one really knows to what.  Many of the people working on the project have no where to go if the project is cancelled, so their main goal is keeping the project going.  Going in the frantic circle of showing progress, the project becomes more and more of a death march with the progress made becoming smaller and smaller.  Interestingly, the gap between what is reported and what is reality often becomes larger and larger.  

Do you recognize this situation?

There are really only two questions:
  1. How do you end it?
  2. How do you keep yourself from ever getting in that position again?
How will it end?  The ending is painful.  People are going to have to find new positions, little corporate "white lies" have to be exposed, and if the project is large enough, some people probably leave the company.  It started so well and went so wrong.  I wish there were an easy way to do it, but there isn't.

How to keep yourself from getting into that position again?  There are two steps one can take.
  1. Set up SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievabe, Realistic and Timebased) deliverables. 
  2. Create contingency plans or exits at major deliverables.  If a project can't reach the deliverable, there is a known way it will end.
These are simple and doable.  Are there other ways people have found to avoid Afghanistan Projects?

Monday, February 2, 2009

What is Work? 3 Levels of Work

Physics defines:
Work = (Force or Energy) * (Distance)

In the work world, it means we must apply energy to something and move it in the direction the business needs it to go.  If we take the simple example of building a building, hopefully I can articulate my three levels clearly.

3 Levels of Work
  1. Work - This is energy applied to building the building.  For example: digging foundations, putting up girders, building walls etc.
  2. Support Work - This is energy applied to things which are necessary to build the building, but they do not infact help building the building.  For exmple: buying insurance, filing government paperwork, corporate negotiations, buying office supplies etc.
  3. Make Believe - This is energy applied to things that are not involved in building the building or in support of building the building.  People might make believe this is necessary to building buildings, but infact it is not necessary.  
How can you tell if what you're doing is work, support work or make believe?

Imagine there's a dail that measures how complete the building is.  Before the building starts and before anything happens, the dial is at zero.  When the building is completed and ready for people to walk in the door, the dial is at one hundred.  You measure the amount of work you actually do by how much you move that dial from zero to one hundred.

If, no matter how much energy you apply, you are not moving the dial or supporting someone moving the dial, then you are doing make believe.  

If the energy you apply moves the dial, then you are doing work.

If the energy you apply supports or enables someone to do work, then you are doing support work.

Are you moving the dial and working or supporting or are you make believing?