Posts in ‘Project and Program Management’

Imperfection is a fact of life. How does a project manager address it? There is a Buddhist concept that just might help – Wabi-sabi. It is very common in Japanese design aesthetics. It is based on acceptance of transience and imperfection. Imagine a beautiful vase develops a crack. One could try and fix it and attempt to restore it to its original state. With wabi-sabi a more interesting approach can be taken.

Think of the crack being filled with gold. What impact would that have? Can you see how there would be the elements of the original design merging with the transformation that has taken place? In one way, there is a new vase. In another, the original is still there.

We can pull this over into personal development. We all have flaws. What would happen if we decided to do something with them, to transform them rather than trying to erase them? Character develops. This also applies to team building.

Leaving team members to resolve their conflicts can be a source of great, positive energy. There is a cost associated with it but the benefit is worth the price. What am I getting at? Think of two team members having conflict. One common way to “deal” with it is through avoidance, i.e., keep the team members apart. This is like putting a Band-Aid on the vase. It really doesn’t work and the environment worsens because the tail called avoidance starts wagging the dog called the project.

On the flip side, think of when people have stayed in the conflict and worked to understand themselves and develop a comprehensive work plan. Synergies appear. Are the team members perfect — no. Have they created a space where they can be more in touch with who they are and get more from the situation — yes!

There are some underpinnings to this process, the most important of which is the desire on each person’s part to explore and see if there is a way to work with others to create a more empathetic environment. It can be scary and, if there really is a crack that needs addressed, it probably should be. People do drop out of this process and suffering results. For those who stay with it, though, a door opens to greater growth and accomplishment. All that experience and wisdom is brought together in a new way to create a better team!

Success takes us to difficult places. Imagine getting the big promotion and finding the engineer from hell heading the department from which you need cooperation. A flood of feelings can surface – rage, fear, anxiety, going blank, etc. What to do?

First, let me say it is best to avoid trying to get the feeling to go away. Embrace it. Why is that? First of all, it will only intensify if you fight it. Second, in that intensity you can lose yourself and cause havoc to occur. Let’s explore.

The feeling can stem from a number of things. This blog is limited to one source, which has to do with an aspect of the weaker part of psyche. So why bother with this weak part? Shouldn’t one just add to strengths and push through? You can but there is an issue with this when taken to an extreme. A strength taken too far leads to weakness based on a one-dimensional approach to everything. Many people take this approach. Look at it realistically, though. You’ve probably worked with someone like this. Can you recall the feelings you had when around this person? Why should others feel any different about you if you try acting similarly?

If we get down to it, there is a big plus to addressing emotional intensity within oneself. It can work when dealing with others, as the following story will show.

The assignment was in Manhattan with an important client. After checking in at the hotel a phone call was placed to the client. None of my support materials had arrived. Panic!

Going to an office supply store the night manager of the printing department was given my copy of the materials. He promised I’d have copies by 7:30 AM the next day. I felt like a winner!

Arriving promptly the next morning at 7:30 there turned out to be no copies. The day manager became “testy,” to say the least.  Rage and panic surged within me. I started escalating with him and use my strength of pushing through in a focused, insistent way to get things done. Before going too far with that approach a question fell out of my mouth, “Does he do this to you often?” The manager stopped dead and asked, “Do what often?”

“You know, promise at night a job that has to be delivered on your shift and then he just goes home without logging the job or starting on it.” He was surprised and his emotions turned on a dime. “Yes, he does this to me all the time. Serving my customers means a lot to me and I am stuck with his messes!”

I asked, “What can we do? I need your help.”

He replied, “What do you need to get through to noon today?” Immediately I selected the bare bones that would get me by until noon and decided to throw myself on the mercy of the client by making the commitment in my mind we would complete the assignment but for just this morning the work would be rearranged a bit. I was able to get to the client’s on time, abridged material in hand, explain the situation and get down to work. The remainder of the print job was not only done by noon but they delivered it free of charge. The next morning I went back and thanked the day manager.

Acceptance

So what was this about? In a word, “Acceptance”. Acceptance of Powerlessness. The night manager had taken the day manager and myself hostage. The unfairness of life was squatting on our heads.

The freedom to act came through the acceptance of the powerlessness and shifting on the spot to empathy with the day manager and answering the question, “What can we do with what we have?”

Those intense feelings that were starting to surge were about not having control. They had a message within them. They were life knocking on the door going, “Hello, time to go a little deeper to get a little stronger!”

I learned a great deal about letting go of emotionality in that split second when the question came out.

The Soul of a Project #19: Faith in a Vacuum

by Gary Monti on June 26, 2012

“If I only knew it would work!” How often do you say that? After all, a great deal of stress would be relieved if you could say for sure the plan would be successful. Unfortunately, you can’t. That is why your leadership position has vulnerability associated with it. It can be crazy making. At the same time commitments are being made everything that could happen, both right and wrong, is swimming in your head. To make matters worse, there can be the sense of isolation where “project manager” is a politically correct way of saying “official scapegoat.”

What to do? The answer is straightforward, stay with the belief everything is simple once you find the right vantage point. Sounds nice but how can you avoid having it be another pious platitude that sounds Pollyannaish?

The answer lies in remembering the same vacuum that promotes a sense of isolation is also a place where you can get power.

What the heck does that mean? What throws a project off balance is greed, fear, or indifference. For example, the boss that wants unlimited overtime is showing greed. The employee who is concerned they will be ground into dust with the overtime can become afraid. The constant deprioritizing of a project shows indifference. In those situations a vacuum is present, a vacuum that lacks a connected set of principles. The project and maybe the organization fragment. People start spinning aimlessly.

What you can do is be the one person who works the principles that apply believing the most that can be accomplished will occur by sticking to those principles. You become a dampening agent, a shock absorber who helps the situation settle down and become productive. People are attracted to those who help heal such situation.

Notice I said, “the most that can be accomplished.” This means as you progress in practicing what you believe you will attract stakeholders. The question is at that point, “How much power do these stakeholders have?” That power base sets the limits of what can be accomplished.

The attraction of others is cemented in showing empathy. See if you can find something specific with which you can work with each stakeholder. For example, with the boss insisting on excessive overtime talk about the possibility of a major catastrophe occurring and she’ll look bad. For the employee who is afraid ask them to stick with laying out their work and realistically state what they can accomplish in the time available. For the manager who de-prioritizes the project state what they won’t get by failing to staff/fund the project.

To the extent you can get realistic stakeholders and team members on board the odds of success go up.

While we think of success in terms of achieving project goals it can also include the cancellation of the project. The fact it doesn’t align with corporate goals or distracts resources from more critical activities can come to the surface and a healthy decision can be made. This can be a difficult decision especially if people are highly invested in the project.

Remember, you may feel isolated but being empathetic and sticking to what works brings about the connections needed.

The Soul of a Project #18: Beware The Full Moon!

by Gary Monti on June 6, 2012

A strange beast shows up when the full moon rises on a project. It’s the full moon that appears when fundamental changes brought about by the project are free to take shape. The beast seems vaguely familiar while frightening and surprising at the same time. Actually, more than one appears. They are very common. I am talking about the organizational werewolves.

The full moon rises when the impediment to success or progress is removed. It’s right when the project is ready to go into full stride and grow. One of the most common impediments is the Manager From Hell (MFH). The team and supportive stakeholders grumble about the MFH, wondering how (s)he got power since they only seem to hurt situations. While moaning and groaning about the MFH the gossip mill generates enough power to light a small city. Productivity drops. Everyone dreams of a day when this person is GONE!

When that day finally arrives there is a collective sigh of relief. But something odd happens that night. The next day strange creatures show up aggressive behavior, both passive and active, arising at the tactical level.

Where did these creatures come from? Simple…THE TEAM…and stakeholder population!

So what is this all about? Let me explain. When working on projects that bring about substantial change a warning is given at the kick-off meeting and goes something like this:

As we progress impediments to progress will be found. Some will be technical and some may be individuals. A word of caution, “Avoid demonizing the person!” To the extent you’ve been working with and adapting to their behavior you have enmeshed and have issues of your own to address. When impediments are removed do not relax. That is the starting point NOT the finish line! Everyone will be challenged to take responsibility for themselves and see what behaviors of their own need to be changed.

Trust me, no one remembers this. Such a focus is placed on the MFHs people lose sight of their own shortcomings. When this occurs with senior managers the project is in danger. The infrastructure issues that need repaired or built for the first time, in order for the project to succeed, are considered superfluous. It is assumed everyone will do just fine with the project automatically proceeding towards success. It is a simplistic, dangerous view. Think of Yugoslavia after Tito’s death. Freedom! Or at least that is what everyone thought. A new age dawned but it definitely wasn’t what everyone expected. Instead, the slow descent into hell that made international news occurred.

What this all boils down to is taking leadership of one’s own responsibilities and examine where your own performance has slacked off because of the MFH. Where have you given yourself a get-out-of-jail-free card because the environment is harsh? It is time to turn those cards back in, return to the principles that matter, and work in a disciplined way. Build. Get the job done!

Being a manager, especially a project manager, can be very challenging. Staying on task and keeping the employees and team members connected as a cohesive group can pull you in many directions at once. Last week we looked at change management and what it takes to “stand your ground” from the employee’s perspective. What about from the manager’s perspective? Let’s take a look at what one might see when consulting in such situations:

  • Initially there is the belief that the consulting firm will get the team’s to stay on task and GET SOMETHING DONE!
  • As work progresses managers see the team is “getting the message” and understanding more of the business side of the situation.
  • The vocabulary introduced regarding change-, process-, and project management helps bridge the gap between managers and team members. An easing of tensions occurs.
  • After a while, though, impatience can set in because, after all, the goal of the change is to get more work done and there is all this talk, talk, talk going on. (At this point a subtle reminder that this mess took years to develop and won’t unwind overnight helps keep the client on track as to the true cost of change.)

As with employees, this is where confronting managers is critical. They need to be pushed on an uncomfortable truth – when they look at the employees they are looking at an active mirror, which reflects the quality of their leadership and management style.

So what does “stand your ground” mean as a manager? THIS is a very tough question to answer.  It comprises several elements:

  • Vulnerability
  • Determination
  • Openness
  • Discretion
  • Humility
  • Standing up for the team
  • Discipline

Vulnerability. The first element is a willingness to be vulnerable on a routine basis. Let me explain. When a team member makes a mistake and catches it this entire process may occur in isolation. The subject matter expert (SME) can be sitting at their desk and the entire process might take place in total silence. For the manager the situation can be quite different. A directive is given which is erroneous.

The entire team, if not the organization and customer, get to see the mistake and the manager may face a credibility issue right along with the technical aspects of the mistake.

Determination. This trait goes hand-in-hand with being vulnerable. Nietzsche’s famous quotation, “That which does not destroy me makes me stronger,” applies.

Openness. Teams work best when there are no surprises. When they are trusted with project information it not only shows respect it challenges them to take on their responsibility directly and work as a team member.

Discretion. This looks to fly in the face of the previous character trait, openness. I must admit the boundary between the two can shift on an almost daily basis. Deciding what to say or not say can be quite challenging. Typically, this is a non-issue. Team members can read body language, sniff the wind, compare notes, and deduce a range of options as to what is going on. Leave them to their own devices. Simply say what you feel is appropriate for the project.

Humility. When it comes to standing one’s ground this is the most challenging for a manager. The Roman philosopher, Epictetus, wrote in the 50 A.D., “The challenge with being adult is having more responsibility than authority to execute.” This is where knowing what you can and can’t do comes into play. Referring back to the employee’s position in the previous blog, you, as a manager, may have to stand your ground with your boss.

There needs to be a willingness to push through the unfairness of life.

Being humble also means staying away from aggression, i.e., avoid abusing the power of the position. It may feel nice to have someone have a report on your desk at 8 AM, Monday morning, but think about the impact on morale and what you are saying about yourself before taking that action.

Standing Up for the Team. In terms of building morale and taking a leadership position this is a critical trait. Combined with vulnerability and determination, taking a bullet…errr…standing up for the team means having the courage to stand up for the appropriate principles in a given situation. Times like this are where the issue of whether or not you have gainful employment may flash before your mind’s eye. This isn’t about false bravado or wanting to be seen as a hero. It is simply about standing up for what is right in a given situation.

The best work is done in climates where everyone is grounded in their appropriate principle set and “standing up for the team” (from CEO to the newest SME) is encouraged. It shows everyone you are top-drawer material. It attracts excellence like flowers attract bees.

Discipline. Discipline is the linchpin. There is a spiritual toughness required that isn’t tough. That sounds oxymoronic but it isn’t. It goes back to:

If everything were okay I’d see _______________ .”

Step back, get a cup of coffee, be quiet, do what ever it takes to find that spot where you can finish that sentence for every component of the project. Do the variance analysis between what you would see if everything were okay and what actually is. Promote work that closes the gap. Be fearless (as in “without fear”) about it.

In closing there are two concluding statements:

  1. Notice how much longer this blog is than the previous one addressing employees standing their ground. That is why there should be more zeroes in your paycheck. It is very demanding being a leader/manager, and;
  2. The very same sentence, If everything were okay I’d see _______________ ,” applies to both team members and the manager. When everyone on the team comes together to get to a communal answer to this sentence that is when the team has nailed it! As a manager you can take a quite pride in facilitating “stand your ground” for the benefit of the client, organization, the team, and yourself.

The Soul of a Project #16: Stand Your Ground

by Gary Monti on May 22, 2012

That phrase, “Stand your ground,” has been big in the news lately. Let’s take a look at it from a professional position. A little background first will help. Consulting can create a love-hate relationship with clients – both management and employees. In fact, that is the norm and it should be unless working with an abbey of Zen Buddhists.

One scenario goes something like this:

  • At first the employees are hesitant, wondering how long the engagement will last and if it will have any effect. They are skeptical, believing senior management comprises “breathe-holders” who will wait until I leave and then go back to their old ways;
  • As progress is being made delineating what is going well and what is going poorly the tone of the conversation in the gossip mill changes. Employees are seeing more clearly what their situation is and appreciate being able to succinctly state such. A hope beings to rise;
  • After a while, though, a skepticism surfaces (the roots of which we’ll look shortly) and the challenges begin, “When are you going to get senior management to change?” Increased pressure is placed on me, the consultant, to get THEM, senior managers, to conform to what is right in the situation. In other words, the employees want a short cut. What is going on is they want the change but are afraid to put skin in the game. Instead of the consultant being a conduit for their voice in the situation, they want the consultant to lead the charge in their battle for sanity.

“This is when confronting the employees is critical. They need to be pushed on an uncomfortable truth – they have to stand their ground regarding the reality of the situation.”

I will eventually be gone. They need to decide what they will do as a unit to help improve the situation in a sustainable manner.

So, what does this “stand your ground” mean? First, let me say, it is anything but aggressive. That goes nowhere. (Well, actually it does – downhill.) It is about standards and ethics. It is about what it takes to get the job done right the first time and respectfully serve the client and one’s company. What does that mean?

We all work to some set of principles with some choosing the light side and others choosing the dark side. Sticking with the “light side” approach, standing your ground means stating the real limits of the situation without emotionality. Each profession on a project has guidelines by which it works. These are anything but arbitrary. The guidelines were created because they work.

Let’s move away from the theory and look at an example, a very common example. As a question it can be stated as, “What does ‘done’ mean?” This can get very dicey. If a manager sees a quarterly bonus looming on the horizon how much will he push the team to declare the project “done” knowing that the team’s future is being mortgaged and the client will not be happy when they find out work performed is less than what the spirit of the situation (or the contract) call for?

When a project manager or team member stands their ground they bring up the shortsightedness of the approach in a business-like manner. In other words, stick with behaviors and consequences.

When the project starts working outside the principle sets important for success; disaster is sitting there licking its chops just waiting to munch on the project.

This confrontation process is anything but easy. It is essential, though. Employees are hired for some form of expertise. It has real limits since an employee is not a CEO.  So, my advice is speak your truth clearly, taking it to the point of putting it in writing, and do it respectfully rather than with your jaw sticking out daring the boss to take a swing. Leave out references to the senior manager’s bonus. That is speculation and gets to attacking character. Just state the truth of the situation. Answer the question:

If everything were okay I’d see _______________ .”

Do a variance analysis between what is and what should be based on the principles involved and run it up the chain of command.

Now, before you go off thinking organizational difficulties are only the responsibility of the employees and they should be falling on their swords every time a paper clip is misplaced, keep in mind next week we’ll look at this from senior management’s position and the real limits of what can be accomplished

Everything is simple but one has to learn to deal with complexity: that is an apparent paradox that may have struck you as you read this and previous entries in this and other blog series. So where does the truth lie? The answer might be found in a word: Universe.

The first thing to notice is the word itself is universe, not duoverse, or trioverse. The implication with “uni” is the existence of one underlying set of principles, matter, you name it. The second part “verse” comes from the Latin word “versare” meaning to stir or churn. This gets to the diversity on your project, the mix of personalities, technologies, business models, and life in general.

So where does this leave you? How is the craziness of your project addressed so that the goal is reached within the triple constraint? Here is a possible solution:

Imagine your project’s universe is a bazaar with all the different vendors, people, attitudes, etc. Step back and look at it from a distance and ask yourself, “What do I see?” Then ask yourself, “How does the bazaar thrive and stay alive?” Then ask, “How do I weave through all the diversity on my project to achieve the goal with the given constraints?”

This can be daunting with all the different vendors and individuals with whom you have to deal. But let’s turn back to the first part of the word universe, “uni-.” Underneath all the apparent chaos and confusion the bazaar continues. It is this underneath part that holds the key to finding simplicity. People are people, business is business, technology is technology, and the bazaar is the bazaar. If you can put together a team that masters the core principles within those arenas a picture will start unfolding. It will be a clear picture. It will be a fluid picture. The bazaar called, “my project,” will stop being a noisy, chaotic, headache-producing mess and will become a kaleidoscope of all the variability present within the one set of rules underpinning the situation. The motives of others will become clearer along with the capabilities and limits within the technologies and business case. The extent to which a path exists will show itself.

So, how does one see their universe? How does one get to that point, that place where things can be seen as they are along with the reality of whether or not their is a path to success? The answer was given in the last blog. Be still and finish THE sentence…

Ever have to deal with politics? You know, those situations that can pull on you, the team, and the project. It can be crazy-making.

What to do? If you’ve been reading this series you can guess the answer. Keep it simple. The next question is, “How?” Let’s take a look. But, before giving the solution, going through what didn’t work can help show the value of what does.

  • Over-studying the situation. This involves going deeper and deeper into the details trying to find the solution.
  • Over-thinking. Here the catch is over-analysis, believing that rummaging through all the connections possible will lead to the solution.
  • Over-talking. Talking to everyone and replaying the events can create a sense of satisfaction at first but when there is no progress a numbness can set in.
  • Over-responsibility. Belief that more and more responsibility will lead to power to get things done.

What works requires filling in the blank on the following sentence:

“If everything were okay I’d see ____________ .”

The thing to do is sit with it. Do nothing and just sit with it. Let go of analyzing and the next step will show itself. It doesn’t matter what stage of the project you are in, if you know what you are doing your instincts will lead in the right direction.

In closing it is worth pointing out that doing this takes practice. Be patient, though, and it will come.

Developing an understanding of the project terrain and all its complexities can be daunting. This is especially true as a consultant since value needs to be shown for each hour spent. There is a trade-off needed between understanding EVERYTHING, making decisions, and moving on in order to be efficient. What to do? The answer is, “Keep it simple.” So how does one go about doing that?

The way that works for me is determining what principles are at work and trusting they will guide me. So what does that mean? The 9 areas of project management as espoused by PMI® can help. I use them all the time for troubled projects. Just ask, “Is there clarity regarding:

  • Scope
  • Time
  • Budget
  • Communications
  • Human Resources
  • Procurement
  • Quality
  • Risk
  • Integration”

Simple “yes” or “no” answers suffice. Then ask, “Are these 9 components interlocked in an interdependent way?”

Where you see “no” for either question points to the path that needs to be followed in getting to the crux of the matter. For me, this is where meditation comes into play. By letting go and allowing the two above-mentioned questions dance before my minds eye the fulcrum question in the situation will show itself. This leads to another fulcrum question…and another…and another until a clear picture is generated of what is going on which leads to determining what is needed to improve the situation. By the way, “fulcrum question” refers to pivotal questions that show whether or not principles are at play, if they are the right ones, and if they are interlocked.

For example, whenever talking with a particular senior manager I’d leave his office with an unsettled feeling. (This is where faith comes into play.) I’d have the urge to dissect what he said but when I indulged that urge I only got more confused and frustrated. By letting go and asking, “What principles are relevant to his situation?” and trusting what my gut said the fulcrum question(s) surfaced. Sometimes it would feel like someone else was creating it because it arose from my gut rather than my brain.

It is very much like the old detective series, “Columbo,” in that repeated asking about the 9 areas of project management surfaced the dodginess he was using to manipulate situations.

This practice of having faith in the principles leads to another valuable behavior – becoming aware of whom to talk with next. With the questionable manager it might have been a peer or subordinate or even an outside customer.

The point of all this is to trust the principles you believe are relevant. If you are mistaken it will surface soon enough and a change in the principle set can be made. Practicing this simple faith while not necessarily knowing everything will guide you to the right questions, conclusions and options both as to determining what is going on and possible options for improving the situation.

Alcoholism and substance abuse are quite damaging. Once, I was brought up short dealing with associated issues.

An employee suffered from alcoholism. The signs were there: irritability, other employees having to cover for his erratic performance, etc. Dealing with the issue ended up creating a personal nightmare that taught a lesson that was very well learned.

My partner and I talked and decided to break protocol and bring him in for a discussion since the employee, I’ll call “John,” was a team lead and we lacked a backup in his position. (We broke protocol by bypassing the manager to whom John reported –a telling first sign.) John was contrite. But that wasn’t the problem. I and my partner were; but here, I am going to keep the focus on myself. The desire to be “the understanding boss” swept over me. At the time, it felt adult, the right thing to do. What wasn’t so obvious was wanting to be seen as “the understanding boss.” In short, the situation ended up being a focus on me rather than on the team lead position needing responsible performance. Consequently, I felt all warm inside having shown magnanimous behavior from my ownership position.

What is needed in such situations is analysis of what is required for the position to succeed and then determining if the right person is occupying.  Sounds simple. It isn’t…unless a different focus is established. That focus is one of humility.

In retrospect, I believe John picked up on how the ownership position was abandoned for the sake of personal gratification. It created a blind spot within which John quickly ran to and stood. He promised to rehabilitate, do better, blah, blah, blah. What ended up happening was quite the opposite. Later we found out he had gone back to work and became worse. People couldn’t stand working with him. He let people know he had talked with the owners and we were okay with him and his performance.

This all came to the surface only when we saw costs go up and performance drop off in John’s area. This is when the reality hit – the hammer was dropped squarely on my head. Having used John and the situation for personal aggrandizement the company was hurt. The lesson was learned. Branded into my prefrontal cortex was:

“Before others can be evaluated, I must evaluate myself.”

Looking squarely at the situation the action plan showed itself quickly:

  • Admit to my mistakes
  • Decide what served the organization and employees best
  • Confront John
  • Accept that he will feel being treated unfairly

John was called in and the above bullet points were covered. It was difficult and felt good all at the same time. By sticking to the principles relevant to the situation things became simple.

John’s alcoholism came to the surface and he engaged in a series of manipulative behaviors that kept the focus on my partner and I and avoided any ownership of responsibility on his part. When pressed for what he owned, free and clear of anyone to blame, he only got frustrated and angry. The decision to terminate him became easy when he responded to us saying the situation had only gotten worse, “Well, you are the one’s who gave me the extra room.” (If only all dealings with substance abuse were this direct.)

At that point the principles pushed my ego aside and spoke, “John, the position requires X performance. You are consistently choosing Y. We need to respect your desire to do something different and need to let you pursue that path.”

My pulse was at 72. Humility. It works.

Over the years, remembering this situation has helped immensely and a lesson has been learned worth passing along. When dealing with someone I deem difficult and either fly into confusion/anger or feel euphoric with my decisions around him or her, the first, best question to ask is, “Where am I bullsh_ting myself?” My path is inside that question.