Guiding Quote

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

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Project Managers and Boss Types- No Bad News Bears

This group could be considered by some to be a sub set of the No Surprises managers. They aren’t!  They are a separate and dangerous group in their own right. They are dangerous because they refuse to face reality until it brings the world crashing down around their ears. They are the Marie Antoinette’s and the Russian Romanovs of the management world. They want to maintain their illusions for as long as possible. Pricking this group’s bubble can be very hard.

I once witnessed the senior IT executive of a client insist that we adhere to a software implementation schedule even though his senior staff and the business unit management had told him that it was not feasible. He point blank refused to accept the reality of the situation!

How did we convince him otherwise? We went around him, using the business unit managers to warn their superiors of the dire consequences of his actions. We used corporate politics to deflate his bubble. Politics is seen has a dirty word by many project managers. But to paraphrase Clausewitz; “project management is nothing but the continuation of politics by other means”. You may think that is a provocative statement, but trust me it holds true. All project management is politics. If you don’t come to realize that then you’ll have short and painful career as a project manager.

Another example was the CIO of a large perfume company who, in the face of a run away budget, just placed the supplier invoices in his desk draw. Only when the supplier pressed for payment would he pass them on for payment. That way he hoped to buy time. He didn’t, he was eventually found out by his bosses and fired.

The key point about managing bad news bears is to make sure you are not closely allied to them, whether they are bosses or clients. Make sure you build alliances with the other key players in the organization. Do a stakeholder analysis and make sure you are on good terms with all of them. Bad news types always get their comeuppance; just make sure they don’t take you down with them.

If you are Machiavellian then working for a Bad news Bear can work out to your advantage. If you know he’s going to fail then by showing competency and transparency to other stakeholders you can position yourself to be his replacement. Don’t show disloyalty, nobody likes a snake in the grass, but facts are facts. So tell them the facts and let the cards fall where they may.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Project Managers and Consultants - Wallet Share

This is a management speak for how much of your project budget will be consumed by the consultants. In a broader context it also applies to your company’s budget. You will find that consultants are always trying to get more of your budget. They always have a resource that can help, a new tool that would help you greatly, and a new process analysis method. They are always selling. Many consultants are not only measured on their utilization rate but also on how much additional revenue they are able to generate. They’re like a camel; once their nose is in the tent the rest of the beast is going to follow.

One consultant I know started off an engagement with a $50,000 assessment project and grew it into a $20,000,000 a year engagement. Some camel!

Now this behavior is normal and should be treated as business as usual. Were it gets to be problematic for a project manager is when there is more than one consultancy firm involved, either in the project or in your company. For now you have to handle the political maneuvering between those companies for a share of your company’s wallet.  That infighting will be time consuming, because each firm will have their champions in the company and you’ll be dealing with sales pitches from them and the firms. Also the firms may not share information too readily because they are worried that that will put them at a disadvantage. Don’t down play their anxieties they can be real. The guy who turned a short assessment project into a multi-dollar, multi-year deal did it by replacing an existing consultancy firm. They will circle each other like dogs around a juice bone.

You’ll have to manage these competing firms and their interactions with your project. You’ll have to keep abreast of which of them has the ear of key executives in the company and also what skills they have. In management terms this is the equivalent of managing relationships between the countries in the Balkans. It will be an ongoing struggle.

The key point is not to become the champion of either one. Be seen as an objective person who evaluates them on their performance and skills. If they see you as favoring one over the other the disadvantaged one will move heaven and earth to undermine you. Trust me you don’t want to be in that situation.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

O-O-D-A Loop Step 3 - Decide

Decision is just what it means. You look at your options and you select the one that you believe is the best one. A simple step, but it’s surprising how hard this can be for some people and organizations. In fact in some organizations executives never take a decision! Instead they just issue guidance and let the masses sort it out for themselves. The benefit of the non-decision is the non-accountability that it implies; a sort of no fault policy: ‘I never made a decision so I can’t be blamed for anything’.

However, in most organizations a decision has to be made once the output from the Orientate stage has been created. And each organization will have its own method of reaching that decision. So the first thing is to know how your organization and your opponents make their minds up. In Toyota they seek to establish a consensus on major decisions. That can be time consuming, but in some business situations it can, in the long term, be quicker because everyone supports the decision and will act in unison to implement it. In other organizations decisions are taken quickly, almost hastily, because they believe speed is of the essence. But then the foot dragging by those opposed to the decision occurs and the time saved by making a quick choice is lost in the subsequent debates over the implications of the decision. So know the decision processes that you and your opponent will have to follow.

A word of caution, remember that sometimes the best decision might be to take no action. We have, certainly in the West, a natural pre-disposition, almost part of our genetic heritage, towards action: ‘We need to do something? What can we do? Why aren’t they doing something?” common questions about issues that we hear all too frequently.  But we also have sayings such as: “Do no harm!’ If it’s not broke then don’t fix it!” So if the analysis says ‘take no action’ then that is a valid outcome. Letting your opponent make the wrong decision is just as potent a move as you taking the right decision.

The key concept to grasp is that a considered decision to do nothing is not the same as not taking a decision, although the apparent outcome maybe the same. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Client and Customer Types - The Gate Keeper

The Gate Keeper is, in my opinion, the most destructive of all client types and one of the hardest to combat. She sets herself up as the sole channel of information between you and the client. And if she’s not the sole channel, she’s the main channel. Spotting them is not hard; basically they are the only person from the client you get to see on a regular basis. Everything has to flow through them, they must schedule every meeting, they must attend every meeting, and all your reports go to them before they are distributed within the client.

They are destructive because they slow everything down; they kill the spirit of partnership that is essential for a successful project. They are like a parasitic weed that turns a flowing river into a stagnant bayou. You can tell I don’t like them, been there, had the failure, got the gray hairs to prove it.

The first thing to address when faced with a gatekeeper is to establish why are they a gatekeeper? Is it because the client wants an at arms length relationship? Is it because they, the gatekeeper, want to increase their power? Is there a psychological, another of those dreaded ‘P’ words, reason behind this person’s need to control their environment? So, you need to establish what it is that is driving this person to this behavior. What is their motivation? What makes them tick? Only when you have discovered this can you work out how to handle them.

If they are insecure then you need to find out what is making them so and seek to re-assure them that this project will make them more secure.

If they are gatekeepers because of their managements wish to keep you at a distance then you need to address the reasons why they want to have that sort of relationship. It’s not a good sign that they would want this sort of relationship. It implies that either they don’t trust you or that this endeavor is not important to them. Partnership is usually critical to project success, so if they don’t want to partner then they are not concerned about the outcome; in this context their actions imply their intentions. Words are cheap: actions are the true measure.

If they are gatekeepers for personal power reasons then you have to find ways around them and/or co-opt them to your team.

A key method to circumvent these people is to establish early on a direct one on one contact between your subject matter experts and theirs. Ensure that you talk with the thought leaders at the clients on a regular basis with or without out the gatekeeper. Start off with open communications and keep them open, trust me once they get closed down, or never even opened up, you are in trouble. As with all things in life start off as you mean to go on. Just refuse to be shut down.

If you take over a project with a well established gate keeper it will be hard. But the chances are that you’ve been tasked as the replacement because the project is in trouble and the gatekeeper is one of the causes. Again the only way forward is to attempt to develop other channels of communication. One way is to request a full project review with the entire client team. Use that venue to establish contact and then keep it open. You don’t have to assault the position of the gatekeeper directly, that probably will be counter productive. In many cases the gatekeeper is well liked in their organization. You have to step lightly with these people.

One approach is to attempt to speed up the project, the gate keeper is usually the brake on progress, and offer to help with this by being on site more often. It is far easier to make contacts when you are on site than if your only there for periodic meetings. A lot can be established over a working lunch.

Another strategy is know as “getting rid of the grit in the machine”, in other words getting the gatekeeper moved. This can be a risky move for obvious reasons.

There are two ways to address this. One is to use your contacts within the client’s organization to either moderate behavior or move the person to another position. The suggestion would appear to have originated from within the customer’s management team so your hands will be clean if it is not successful. The second approach is to get a senior management meeting in which you demand the gatekeeper’s removal. This is a high risk play, for if it fails then the future will be bleak. Chances are that you’ll have to be moved off the project.

Sun Tzu said “He who knows how to use the direct and indirect approaches will win. Such is the art of maneuvering.”  Overcome any distaste you might feel over the use of the word maneuver. For, rest assured, other people will be maneuvering around or against you. So follow the old edict “do unto others before they do unto you”.

In general the indirect approach is the preferred one. For even if you are successful in getting the gate keeper removed by a direct request members of the client’s team will recognize this and you may only be storing up trouble for the future.

Just one word of caution, make absolutely sure your management team understand what your doing. The gatekeeper will complain about your activities, but if your management understands why you’re doing it then you should be fine.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Project Manager Types - My Plan, My Crutch

Every project manager knows that they need a good robust project plan; that the plan needs to account for all activities. That is a given. However, there is a variant of project manager who is so besotted with their plan that they spend days tailoring it, tweaking it, polishing it, they’d feed it if they could! At the first excuse they are back in their cubicle working on the plan.

The problem is that these project managers hide behind their plan, or more precisely, they hide behind working on their plan. Team members rarely see them; the client meets them only when formally requested; they can be categorized as the project manager as a hermit. When given the choice of socializing with the client or working on the plan they choose the later. The result is that we have a pristine plan and a poor customer relationship.

One indication of this tendency is when you see them amending their project plan to account for the 15 minute daily team meeting! Attention! Uberplanner alert!

I once had to do a quality audit on a project and twelve months after the project start the project manager was still fiddling with the plan, it was still at the draft stage. Half of his team had only met him once. Needless to say I had to rate the project as troubled and request senior management involvement and a replacement of the project manager.

If you are dealing with this type of project manager you have to try and get them out of their cubicle. Organize meetings with the client and invite them, schedule more face to face meetings, only request status reports at the phase level, and get the plan finalized! 

Remember that "perfect is the enemy of the good".

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

O-O-D-A Loop: Step 2 Orientate- Clarity vs Truth

   When you are analyzing a situation be aware of the hidden conflict between clarity and truth. It’s hidden because we can confuse a clear picture with a true picture. Well that might work in photography but in human relationships clarity involves simplification and that involves removing some of the complexity in order to explain what is happening. The problem is that sometimes we take away elements that are essential to the truth. Without them our clear picture is a false one.

   This conflict creates practical problems with models, be they business, scientific, economic, or political. The more you simplify in order to understand, or to better explain, the less realistic they become. 

   For example take the various economic models or theories that failed in the recent financial crisis. All of them had been simplified by removing from consideration the very factors that caused the meltdown. No where in those models was there any mention of what will happen if no one will buy the stock that people are desperately trying to sell: No matter what the price was! They all had the assumption that for every seller there would at some price be a buyer. Liquidity was assumed, it was a given. But in reality there have been many instances in the past 20 years were, because of the flood of sellers, there were not enough buyers. But the theory wouldn’t work without the liquidity assumption so the clarity of the model was achieved by removing inconvenient factors. They opted for clarity instead of truth.

   The problem was that people who came to rely on the model did so ignorant of the unreality of its assumptions. No one really knows how close the economic system came to collapse after the Lehman Brothers collapse, but those discarded elements of reality would have been one of its principal causes had it occurred.

   Einstein said, “Simplify but do not make simple”: A key motto as you analyze and synthesize. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Project Managers and Bosses: No Surprises

Most managers hate surprises. They crave certainty and surprises take them away from the primary goal of dancing attendance on their bosses.
However, life is full of surprises. That’s what creates variety and anxiety. We are all in favor of the first and hate the second.
So, how do we manage this situation? The main method is through risk identification and planning. Basically you list everything that can occur on your project and detail them to your boss. So, if they occur you can claim foresight and tell your boss it’s not a surprise, just a foreseen issue that you have to address.
Now you can have surprises on a project that cannot be foreseen. Life will throw you the odd curve ball. I remember watching a television program on the building of a new bridge across the Mississippi River; it was to replace an existing bridge that had reached the end of it usefulness. Towards the end of the project they had to pour the concrete for the road deck and, because of the heat, they had to have completed pouring it by 10 am. So, they had the concrete trucks ready to roll at 4 am and they had to cross the old bridge to get to access the opposite side of the new bridge. Everything was going to plan until a patient from a nearby mental hospital climbed up on the old bridge super structure and threatened to throw himself off it! Now we have pandemonium. The state police close down the bridge, the concrete trucks are snarled in the traffic jam, the time is passing, the temperature is rising and we have a surprise on our hands. The outcome was that the pour had to be delayed, the trucks had to return whence they’d come and they had to redo the exercise all over again the next day. (By the way the mental patient didn’t jump.)

More recently we have had the tsunami in Japan. Which, with the associated nuclear problem, resulted in a massive dislocation of the component supply chain for many multinational companies. A real black swan event, possible, but not probable.

So, shit happens and you can’t always anticipate it. But you can anticipate most of it. That’s what you have to assess and detail to your boss in advance. If he knows about it in advance then it’s not a surprise.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

O-O-D-A Loop: Step 2 Orientate, Part 4 - Analysis and Synthesis

This is the element that creates the options from which we will select our decision. Now remember all these elements can be occurring in a short span of time and maybe happen simultaneously. In the case of a fighter pilot it is a short period of time, they basically are conducting most of this subconsciously. In the case of a business strategist the time span is longer. But analysis and synthesis is what takes place when new information from the observe phase meets the other elements.  It is where we filter the mass of information into useable amounts, process these amounts, answer the ‘So what now’ question and create our options. At the basic genetic level its “Do we fight or do we flee?’; at the past experience level ‘It’s have we faced this situation before?’, ‘What did we do?’, ‘Did it work?’. 

Synthesis involves problem solving and creating solutions; techniques from creative designing methodologies, like Triz, and from problem resolving methodologies, like evaporating clouds from the Theory of Constraints (TOC), can help: But there are many, many, others.

The danger is that there is always a reason why you need to do more analysis, why you need better options. This is where ‘analysis paralysis’ occurs. This is when the good strategist mires her opponent by getting them to analyze ever changing information and situations. This is where fear of failure can wreak havoc in a leader’s mind. The ‘What if this is not the best choice?’ question can stall many a response in a fluid situation.  This is where you want your opponent to permanently dwell, while you linger only long enough to make a sound judgment.

My advice, when in this position, particularly when acting against a more nimble competitor, is to remember the adage, ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’. There is no such thing as the perfect solution, but there are usually plenty of good enough options that, if selected promptly, will suffice.  Usually the people casting around for a perfect decision are frightened of making any decision.

There’s an old joke about two men, one an engineer and the other a mathematician, who are placed in a long room with two attractive and scantily clad ladies at the opposite end of the room. The two men are instructed that they can only move towards the girls by taking a step that is not greater than one half of the remaining distance between them and the girls.

The mathematician sat down and worked out the problem. He cried out. “But it can’t be done, we’ll never get there.”
The engineer replied, briefly disengaging himself from the arms of his girl, “You’re right, but near enough, is good enough!”

I told you it was an old joke, not necessarily a good one.