Guiding Quote

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Einstein

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Project Managers and Cognitive Intelligence.

There’s a new book out called Fast Thinking and Slow Thinking by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner for Economics. It deals with new knowledge on how humans think. Fast thinking is the way in which we reach quick and dirty decisions, whilst slow thinking occurs when we weigh evidence and reach a rational decision. Quick and dirty thinking is of the flight or fight variety. While the slow one is of the valuation of different courses of action by weighing all the options. They both have different purposes and can be considered as instinctive versus deliberate actions.

Issues only arise when the methods, particularly the fast thinking, are used inappropriately. A snap judgment on which investment strategy you should pursue on your retirement plan is probably not a recommended method. Weighing all your options when suddenly faced with a rattlesnake also might not be sensible.

The problem we face is that deliberative thinking is hard work, literally, for the brain. It takes focus and it requires the full use of our frontal lobe – the frontal lobe doesn’t do multitasking. So in order to reduce the cognitive workload the brain is pre-conditioned to try out the quick and dirty methods first, they do allow multitasking. It looks for rules of thumb or previous experiences, close or otherwise, to help it come up with a decision. It takes a real effort for us to overcome this tendency to jump to conclusions. The English language is full of sayings that warn us of the dangers of hasty decisions: Look before you leap, Can’t judge a book by its cover, Marry in haste, repent at leisure, Count to ten before answering, etc.

This knowledge is important for everyone, not just project managers, because if you know how the brain really works then you can both adjust you own thought processes and also assess other peoples. In fact in a political sense you can try and trigger a fast response and thereby lead your opponent into error. So paraphrase the Sun Tzu saying: ‘know your opponents thinking process know your own and you’ll be successful.’

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Project Team Types - The fire fighter

These are the warriors of the project world, the crisis management specialists; the people who enjoy eighteen hour days and working all night to meet a deadline. There are times when you need these folk. However you don’t need them all the time.

One of the problems with firefighters is that they see all situations as fires. When your only tool is a fire hose then all events are a conflagration. In some cases they are so addicted, yes, addicted, to living in crisis mode that they deliberately go there. They let the project slip so that extreme measures are needed. 

They are like, fortunately rare, actual firefighters who resort to arson in order to get the adrenaline buzz. In addition they glory in working extreme hours and look down on those who plan their work more prudently. There gung ho attitude can lead to project team burn out well before you’ve reached any critical stage on the project. They can also burn through your project's budget if overtime is charged or uses consultants. This attitude is especially prevalent in software project teams.

Handing this behavior is the project manager’s responsibility. It’s your budget and you have to manage it. So restrict over working from the start of the project. Limit their hours and if need be send them home at a reasonable hour.

I was working on a major project with a large insurance company when I noticed that one of my staff was signing on at midnight on a Saturday night! So on Monday morning I asked her what was going on. I got her answer, which was actually reasonable, and then gently informed her that she should curtail it. I was going to need her when the new system came on line and an exhausted programmer was no good to me, she’d create more bugs than she was fixing.

Fire fighters are also judgmental. They judge everyone by the hours they work rather than the value they provide. If you let their opinions color the perception of team members you run the risk of alienating and losing good people. On a project I had a couple of fire-fighters who viewed another programmer as a slacker. Well I had him transferred to work for me at another location and I found out he did great work without the need to be one short step for hysterics every time we had a small hitch. Worked wonders for my budget and stress levels.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

O-O-D-A - Step 2 Orientate Part 3 Past Experiences

We are all molded and guided by both our own and our mentors experiences. They provide a ready reference to us when we need to make a decision. The experience of others can be a short cut to gaining knowledge and maybe wisdom. As the German statesman Bismarck said, ‘Fools say they learn from their mistakes, I prefer to learn from the mistake of others’; and George Santayana counseled ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. Therefore derived experience can be a great guide.
Provided, that is, it relates to the current situation. Lessons learned are very valuable as long as they do not lead us to ‘fight the last war’. Also there is a great danger that the lessons we draw from history are the incorrect ones. History is written by the victors and their viewpoint will color the analysis and flavor the conclusions.
Ask the question: ‘Who really won WWII?’ and you’d get different answers depending on who you asked, and also when you asked them. If the question was posed immediately after the end of the conflict then the British would say we did, and the American and Russian would say likewise. Ask in the fifties, at the height of the Cold War and Russian efforts would be downplayed. Ask now, sixty or more years later and you’ll get a more balanced view.
So knowing your opponents past experiences can help you decide how she might respond in a given situation. Also, if you make the situation resemble, in part, that which they have dealt with in the past then they can be fooled.
In commerce lessons learned are incorporated within a company’s business model. If your business model becomes outdated then you are in big trouble. Look at the consumer PC market: Initially the business model of Compaq and IBM was to use distribution channels – dealers and retailers – to put their products in front of the consumer via stores. This meant that they had to forecast the type and specifications of machines that the consumer would want. If they got it wrong then they had unsold machine and eventually obsolete stock.
Then along came Dell and Gateway and they started to build machines directly to a specific customer’s order. They didn’t have to build the machines to a forecast and therefore could adapt quickly to consumer needs and reduce uncompetitive and obsolete inventory. Now they still had to forecast the component parts, but that is a lot easier than forecasting finished goods.
Both Compaq and IBM tried to combat the market change created by the new business model, but their efforts never really worked. They became prisoners to their past experiences and cultural traditions.
Lessons learned, or conventional wisdom to give it another title, can also be a trap for an industry, as well as a company. In the 60’s and 70’s the conventional wisdom was that in order for a television manufacturer to succeed in Europe they need an extensive distributor base that would provide access to a comprehensive appliance repair organization. This view had been created as the industry tried to handle the quality problems that beset early valve based TV’s. The cost of building such a network was deemed to be an almost insurmountable barrier to market entry for new entrants into the business.
However, a combination of quality driven Japanese manufacturers and the replacement of valves by less fragile transistors destroyed the barrier in less than a decade. In fact the barrier to entry turned swiftly from an advantage to a major detriment as this network became a major financial millstone for the European manufacturers. In this case lessons learned mired the industry in a complacent mind set.
Your business model can be a strength, or a weakness, depending upon whether or not other people can respond to it.
In the realm of project management we have the lessons learned from running software development projects. If your cultural tradition is one of using the waterfall approach then your lessons learned will lead you to conclude that what is need are more detailed product requirements, the more detailed the better! Every analysis of both successful and unsuccessful projects will point to the need for better requirements documentation.
However other people have looked at the long list of failed projects and come to another conclusion. For them the problem was that the time taken to create detailed, but never quite accurate enough, requirements was time wasted in a fast changing environment. By the time you had hammered out detailed requirements, the market had changed; particularly in web development. So they resuscitated iterative development methods, of which Agile and Extreme Programming (XP) are the more famous, and deployed them as a more flexible alternative.
So, same issues, but different lessons learned, leading to diametrically opposed solutions.
Past experiences are not only critical in assessing the current situation; they also condition how we respond because they form the basis for our education and training. What we need to know is determined for us by our predecessors in our profession or trade. Old knowledge is either enhanced with new developments or it is discarded as being obsolete. No matter what field we work in our range of knowledge is constrained by the lessons our predecessors learned, or did not learn.
An example of where valuable lessons learned were prematurely ejected occurred in the air war over Vietnam. US Air Force doctrine had determined that dog fighting was a thing of the past. All a pilot had to do was aim his missiles at an opponent many miles away, fire, and then go home. So new pilots were not trained in the art of dog fighting, a skill that US pilots had excelled at in both WW2 and Korea. Well it didn’t work. The missiles were unreliable and the rules of engagement further negated their effectiveness. So the US had to re-learn the skills of dog fighting all over again.
Past experiences have a duality to their value; they can offer sage advice, or completely mislead you: Guide you or mire you. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Clients and Customer Types - My Way!

Every project has a client or a customer. It’s been carried out to meet someone’s need. It can be a commercial customer or another department in the same organization. Each client is different but a lot fall into dysfunctional groupings.

The first grouping I classify as the My Way mind set.

Most project teams are experienced at what they do; typically they’ve done similar work many times before. So, they have a proven method and working practices. Typically the client has not done this stuff before or, if they have, not often. So, they have no proven methods etc.

Most clients recognize this and accept that you are the experts and follow your leadership. However, there is always a group of people, usually in the bigger corporations, who don’t just think they know better, they are convinced that they know better. They are: the anointed, the chosen, the select, born to rule and guide. So throw away your proven project methods and now start to do it our way. The unproven way!

There’s an old military saying that “plans don’t survive the first contact with the enemy”, well there’s an equivalent saying in project management, to the effect that “implementation plans don’t survive the first contact with the client”. On Day One of your project your client will want to change the approach, the forms, the time recording system and on it will go. How you handle this will determine how badly you will fail. For even with your methods you know that failure is an option, change the methods and the risk of failure increases.

So, how to manage this situation? Trust me no one wants a major row on day one of the project, no one. The first criteria and the most important, is that someone in your organization needs to grow a set of testicles, figuratively speaking for our female readers. You have to show early on that you are not going to be shoved around by the client. The customer is not always right. Being a customer does not endow people with the gift of infallibility. Wisdom is not doled out with every purchase order that is issued.

Secondly you need to look at what they are asking for and select those issues that cost you nothing but will give them a warm and fuzzy feeling. So, changing a reporting form to meet their internal needs is OK. You can use it during your project review meetings. Allowing them to dictate the sequence in which you implement or build you solution is not.

I once worked for a software company and when we where installing a solution the customer wanted the system implemented in a non-logical manner. We tried educating him and his staff, for it was a he, it’s nearly always an he, to no avail. Then our management, salesmen to a man, caved in. Their testicles miraculously shrank over night. Needless to say two months later, the penny drops with the client, but we have lost time and the client and salesmen have forgotten why it happened. It’s a sad fact of life but the My Way people have short memories. They will never acknowledge that their meddling caused problems.

So, to repeat, give them some simple cosmetic changes to allow them a trophy or two, but refuse to change your method. You might think that this is a drastic step, but the alternative is sure failure. Once the termites get into your method and start chewing, you’re going down and your project will be a failure.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O-O-D-A Loop - The Orientate Step Part 2 - Cultural Traditions

We are all impacted by the culture we both come from and exist in. In which country and in what class we were raised in has a major impact on our responses to certain situations. We are all influenced by our history. Englishmen view the world in a different way than Frenchmen. Similarly where we work and to what we aspire also have key impacts on our actions.

Cultural traditions can provide both strengths, and weaknesses. They are a strength when they provide unspoken bonds to others of the same heritage and guidance in how to respond in given circumstances. They are a weakness in that they make us predictable. Traditions not only bind us; they can also blind us. They can limit our options and restrict our flexibility.

During WWII the Japanese tradition of Bushido initially led them to victory after victory, but, as the Allies held them and then started to reverse their conquests, it became a major handicap as futile suicidal mass charges led to a senseless waste of life. Further it led to the horrific treatment of prisoners of war. These were not isolated incidents that can occur in any conflict, they were a systemic process arising from their cultural heritage.

Similarly racist attitudes on the part of the British and Americans led them to underestimate the fighting qualities of Asians in general and the Japanese in particular: A bloody lesson that the western powers had to re-learn, over, and over again, in both Korea and Vietnam.

In business it applied to many manufacturing industry sectors. The prime example is the motor cycling sector. In the fifties western manufacturers, Triumph, BSA, Vincent, Ariel, Indian ruled the roost. They viewed Japanese manufacturers as mere copycat companies. Sir Bernard Docker, the chairman of BSA, then the largest British manufacturer, preferred to invest company money in government bonds rather than in modernizing his factories and products. Why? Because he was a financier and believed he could only get the return he need from bonds. The rest, as they say, is history. Now it’s Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki that rule the roost. The British and American cultural tradition blinded them to the threat, and they never found away to combat it.

The concept of total quality and manufacturing practices developed by Japanese industry is another clear example of cultural heritage. American and British companies traditionally under valued the training of their workers. It was seen as a temporary need at best, and an unnecessary cost in general. So training employees in statistical process control and other tools was deemed as ‘nice to have’, but not really essential. In many cases they wouldn’t even try to train them on new manufacturing equipment.

Two examples will suffice. In the early 80’s a trade delegation from Britain visited Japan and were given an extensive tour of the latest factories and demonstrations of the most effective techniques. Nothing was hidden, their hosts were only too proud to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise. At the end of the trip a reception was held at the British Embassy in Tokyo. During the festivities a group of British delegates took a Japanese expert to one side and asked him directly, ‘Why are you showing us all your secrets?” His answer was direct and revealing, ‘Because you will not use it!’ And in the main he was right. It took decades for British industry to loosen it cultural traditions about employee training and empowerment. And they still haven’t really shed them.

The other example concerns the different attitudes to training exhibited between British and German companies when training shop floor workers on new equipment. The British attitude was to make the training as brief as possible in order to keep costs to a minimum. The German approach was to give as comprehensive training as was available. Why was that? The answer was, ‘Because anyone can purchase this equipment, the advantage goes to those who can use it best!’

So, cultural traditions and mind sets are as important in business as in other walks of life. Understand and explore both your opponents and your own. Look for blind spots and then exploit or minimize them.