Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Adapting for Team Success

I really love dog agility. Working with Bailey, my Sheltie, to navigate a challenging course is exhilarating but it also provides me with many management lessons. Today’s lesson turned out to be working with team members.

In my agility class there are six people and a total of eight dogs (some lucky people get to run more than one dog). Although we each run the same course, to be effective, we must manage our dogs differently. Some dogs run like the wind. They are very driven and need no help to enthusiastically attack the course. However, they do need help in getting to the right obstacles and moving as efficiently as possible over those obstacles. For these trainers distance skills are important as well as being able to time small movements of hands and feet in one direction or another to cue the dog for a turn. I call these types of dogs Ferraris because of their speed and precision.

Other dogs are slower and more deliberate. Owners can easily keep pace with the dog but since agility is judged by clearing obstacles in a given time, these owners must be with their dog to pump up enthusiasm as dog traverses the course using the least amount of steps possible. Here we are talking the family cars of the canine world.

While the handler might have personal preferences about running a course, the best handlers run the dogs in ways that maximizes each dog’s strengths whether that is speed, attention to obstacles, or steadiness. In my experience, good project managers have to do that as well.

Project managers cannot lead everyone in the same way in every situation and expect great results. Some project team members may be free spirits that like to run like the wind. With clear directions and cues, they are very content to run the course of the project without the manager being right there. Yet the project manager needs to pay attention and provide good cues for course corrections. Some people are more comfortable with more feedback and a closer contact with the manager. They may need more reinforcement to go along with directions. In either case, it is up to the manager to adapt his/her approach to meet the needs of project team members.

Dogs and humans like to be successful. With attention and adaptation, we can ensure that our team members run the best course for success.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Lessons from History

While there are many good books on project management and leadership, some of the best books come in the form of biographies and for me biographies on Abraham Lincoln. The more I read about Lincoln, the more I learn about his tremendous project management and leadership capabilities.

Lincoln was not incredibly organized as we would think a project manager should be. He wrote notes to himself on all sorts of paper and envelopes. I am not sure he could create a schedule and he often told jokes and stories that seemingly took his meetings off track and made them run over the scheduled time. His personal secretaries were constantly frazzled trying to keep him where he needed to be going. So how does this make Lincoln a fantastic project manager?

Among many things here are what I consider to be some of Lincoln’s successful project management characteristics:

· He clearly understood his strengths and limitations – Lincoln hired strong, competent secretaries to help him stay organized. Lincoln also appointed men to his cabinet, former rivals that had the best skills for the job at hand, despite party differences and even their attitude or opinion of Lincoln himself.
· Lincoln always played to the strength on his “project team”, the cabinet, and allowed his team to shore his weaknesses – One such example was Edward Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War. Stanton was all business and brusque. He did not chit-chat and was not what one would consider a “people person”. Stanton had little time for Lincoln’s joke and storytelling. Yet these traits along with his persistence allowed Stanton to help Lincoln make very difficult decisions about commanders and battles that inevitably gave the Union victory in the war.
· Lincoln was a perpetual learner – When Lincoln became president, he knew very little about the military and warfare, yet this was the job he was called to do. Lincoln spent hours reading about military strategy and diving into great battles of history. This information along with his ability to listen transformed him into one of the most competent Commanders and Chief the nation has ever known.
· Lincoln earned the trust and respect of others with his integrity – when Lincoln first took office, he was thought of as a “backwoods” politician. Many people had little or no regard for his skills. Yet very early in Lincoln’s relationship with people, he did instill a sense of trust and honesty that made his word and promises very powerful. It was this honesty that gave Lincoln the time to prove his worth in terms of actions and deeds.

I doubt there are many in history that could duplicate the talents of Lincoln, but as project managers there is quite a bit we can learn and emulate in terms of self-knowledge, teamwork, and creation of trust.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Is Your Project Budget like Selling a Car?

Have you ever had the experience of buying a car from a dealership? Remember negotiating the price of a car? The salesperson would provide an offer. You’d counteroffer. The salesperson would counter-counter offer until you provided your “final offer”. The salesperson would shake his head and tell you “I am going to have to talk to my sales manager”. The salesperson would come back and say “we just can’t do it. Here is our final, final offer.” Yet if you started to get up to walk out, inevitably and miraculously, there was room to negotiate. Most project managers would never dream of using a car sales strategy in determining a project cost, yet we often do things just as damaging to trust and credibility. Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say you provide your sponsor with a cost estimate for the project and without any discussion, the sponsor tells you to cut that estimate by a third. What does it say if you came back to the sponsor with a revised estimate but no changes to the work or quality of the project? I would think that either you are a poor estimator or you had put a lot of pad in the original estimate. Neither assumption would increase my assessment of your competence or credibility.
Some of the most difficult conversations project managers have with their stakeholders concerns money. With hard economic times, organizations want the most bang for the buck including investments made in projects and of course as overachieving individuals we want to deliver. Yet real project success is more than making a stakeholder happy with “a good cost number”. Long-term success means delivering that project with the quality, timeliness and the cost our stakeholders expect.

The triad of quality (scope), time and cost is often called the project management triangle. Each side represents a constraint that defines/binds a project. Within a given level of technology, if quality or scope of a project is increased, for example, it will affect cost, time or both. Yet establishing project cost goes well beyond the mechanics of project management and a “triangle”. Establishing cost is another tool of communication and a pillar of trust. Why?

When there are issues concerning cost, there are usually unclear expectations or disagreements on the methods/processes that are driving the cost. If your stakeholder cannot appreciate how you are going to achieve project goals, odds are she won’t understand why it costs so much. Sometimes you and your stakeholders don’t have an understanding of the quality of the project. If I provide a project estimate to “build a Cadillac” but the customer is thinking “Focus”, there will be sticker shock. So while there is pressure to provide a number, I have found that asking a few questions concerning quality, process and time expectations open the doors to a better understanding of what the project should cost in terms of the Project Management Triangle.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Words and Actions

Today Bailey, my Sheltie, and I were at our agility training class navigating a difficult set of obstacle combinations. Bailey had a choice of two jumps and consistently took the wrong jump. I thought I was doing everything right in guiding Bailey. I kept telling her which jump to take but she just wasn’t getting it. Our instructor Liz stopped us and she asked me, “Do you know what you are telling Bailey to do?” She said “You say take this jump but your motions and body are telling Bailey to take the wrong jump.”

As I replayed our route, it hit me that I was saying one thing and with every other nonverbal queue I was telling her another. Liz then asked me to run the same route without saying a word but let my arm motions and body tell Bailey where to go. We ran the route perfectly.

I wonder how often in project management we send mixed signals to our project team. Our words say one thing but actions or nonverbal queues say another. Sometimes I think as managers we say too much instead of saying enough. A few well placed communications aligned with actions and nonverbal queues are more powerful than a bunch of words with mixed signals.
I am not advocating silence as a management tool but rather to improve the quality of our words by not wasting them and diluting them with mixed signals.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Value Vacuum

Has it been like pulling teeth to get project team members to come to meetings? Would it be easier scheduling time with the Queen of England than with your manager who has oversight on your project? The hard, but cold truth can be that your project is in a “value vacuum”. In other words, people find working on or supporting your project less valuable than whatever else they are doing.

Unfortunately in many organizations EVERYTHING is so valuable that everything is priority number one, but of course that is not possible. So in the absence of an orderly prioritization of activities, people are forced to prioritize on their own. This results in firefighting or in individuals choosing what to work on in the moment.

Yet if the value is high enough, it is amazing to see how supportive and engaged people can be. Value drives action and ultimately project success. Yet some think of value in terms of project value alone. Yet for value to be potent, it must be personal. What does the individual get from working on the project? To understand personal, here is an example. I love coffee and especially McDonald’s coffee with two creams. If I asked you to bring me a large McDonald’s coffee, how motivated are you to do this especially if you live in another part of the country? Yet, what if I were an eccentric billionaire (I am not) and I offered you a million dollars to bring me the coffee within 24 hours, would you find a way if you knew you’d be paid? How about if you had a big meeting at work tomorrow or you had to fly in from California? Would you still do what was needed to get the coffee to me in time? My guess is you would because the “value proposition” is strong enough.

While most project managers don’t have a million dollars to dangle over stakeholders, there are other things that increase the value proposition. Never underestimate the power of recognition. If stakeholders know their participation will result in project success and recognition, it can satisfy a number of personal goals including promotion or increased income. Sometimes projects offer training or expansion of knowledge. The key is to find the value proposition that works for the individual stakeholder and the best way to know is to ask. Can’t find a value proposition for the key stakeholders? Well maybe it is time to ask if the project is really worth doing at this time. After all with so much to do, maybe the most valuable thing to do is postpone or terminate the project.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Choosing Between Being Right and Success

Have you ever worked with someone that seemed to suck the life out of the air as he walked by? Maybe you have worked with someone with an ego so large you marveled how she could get her head through a door. In the Laws of Project Management, you are doomed to be stuck with someone who is as smooth as sandpaper and as subtle as a Three Stooges marathon. So what do you do?

You do have options. Maybe you will decide to engage in an eternal struggle with this individual throughout the life of the project so you can achieve martyrdom and sainthood. If you choose this route, you are taking the path of being right. While on this course, you will be given many opportunities to see the glaring flaws of your nemesis. You may have many conflicts and battles which you may or may not overcome after much blood letting and justifying of position. The project may fail, but that's okay because you are right.

Another path you might choose is the road called Project Success. On this road, instead of reaffirming how difficult the other individual might be you take another stance. You determine how you can work with this individual so the project can be successful, even if that means you give up being right and making the other person wrong. Ask yourself, "why is it important that this person is involved with my project"? Value is often more than the work a person provides. It could include expertise, knowledge and even political support. If you can see the value this person could add, then as the project manager, you will want to ensure that value is provided for the success of the project.

Sometimes people are not deliberately being difficult or uncooperative, they just don't see the value of working with you on the project. Remember if the value they receive from a successful project is greater than the value of aggravating you, you might have a much smoother ride than you have been experiencing.

So the bottom line comes down to what you want as a project manager. Do you want to be right or do you want the project to succeed? It is not always possible to have both, but I have found success is more satisfying than "being right".