Posts Tagged ‘priorities’

Resilience Engineering #16: Hammering out a Schedule

by Gary Monti on October 4, 2011

Nailing down a schedule is one of the biggest project challenges there is. Even when you get it right things can happen in the environment that destabilize scheduling efforts. In a previous blog, Resilience Engineering #12: Party Time, the FRAM (Functional Resonance Accident Model) model was introduced as a way to provide rich contextual information for task definition and establishing a link between tasks. The phrase, “hammering out a schedule,” aptly implies the effort it takes to get one’s project house in order and determine who will do what and when.

Presently I am working with a client who wants a scheduling system. Before that can be done there is a lot of political house cleaning needed, which is the current focus of work. The hook being used to get them to stop gossiping and put that time and energy into work is shown in the diagram below.

What we have here is a FRAM diagram. The goal is to show the dynamics at play and how they can be mapped out for a given situation. Each hexagon is a function. The attributes for each function are:

  • I (Input). Raw material or the output of a previous task needed to execute the activity.
  • O (Output). The measurable deliverable from the activity.
  • P (Preconditions). Environmental and contextual considerations which are needed for success to occur, e.g., “clear requirements,” is a precondition for “task generation” to be effective.
  • R (Resources). Classic project management resources, e.g., people, tools, etc.
  • T (Time). This can be either classic duration, e.g., two effort hours, or calendar time, e.g., one evening.
  • C (Control). The parameters for setting acceptance criteria as well as process requirements that insure an adequate job is done.

The focus with the client is on the variable “preconditions.” It is an eye-opening exercise when looked at from the perspective of where the organization needs to be in order to support execution of a task.

The short version of this is 4-5 months of organizational work is needed before credible scheduling of the first task can begin. This is a group of engineers, technicians, accountants, sales people, and management having to do the touchy-feely work needed to communicate clearly and simply with committed support and follow-up.

Instead of “Hammering Out A Schedule,” it might have been better to title this “Hammering Out A Company.” Just to get to where a single task can be scheduled with high reliability it will be performed adequately within time and budget constraints almost the entire company is being profiled psychologically. Why? They can’t talk. They are technical experts. They can yell, they can be passive aggressive, they can be fearful, they can be greedy but they are very unskilled at understanding each other and are afraid of being honest and trusting.

We are making progress. It is stressful. They are uncomfortable. They are looking at those dark places from which strange noises emanate (better know as bitching and gossiping) and deciding what to do. All this before a single task can be scheduled with confidence.

Hammering out a schedule is hard work but well worth the effort. They are starting to see the benefits of putting energies into getting things done as a team rather than pointing fingers.

The court is out as to whether or not success will occur. This work reaches all the way into the Board Room. If they make it, though, they’ll be able to schedule a task and rely on the forecast. They’ll be able to go home and say, “I DID something constructive today and it feels good.”

Flexible Focus #44: Lessons in Life Balance

by William Reed on March 10, 2011

The common word for it is Work-Life Balance, the challenge and stress of giving proper attention and time to both work and family. Part of the challenge is that every individual’s situation is unique. No one pattern fits all.

Sometimes the stress is generated not so much by the situation, as by the person’s thoughts and attitudes in responding to it. Particularly stressful is the effort to do give equal attention or equal time to everything. This cannot be done, though you can work yourself into a frenzy trying.

The juggling pattern

In a previous article in this series we looked at the question, Are Goals Traps or Opportunities? That article looked at four approaches to goals: distracted pursuit, single-minded focus, stepladder thinking, and flexible focus. When you attempt to juggle the elements with anything other than flexible focus, you tend to drop all of the balls.

Juggling is an excellent metaphor for Life Balance, as taught by Michael J. Gelb in his book, More Balls than Hands: Juggling Your Way to Success by Learning to Love Your Mistakes. A good juggler can easily juggle 3 balls with two hands, and a professional can juggle 4 or even 5 balls. However, in life we must juggle far more factors than this, in eight fields of life: health, business, finances, home, society, personal, study, and leisure. This is our challenge.

And yet think about how many things are juggled already in perfect balance without any effort or interference on our part! Your breathing, blood circulation, digestion, sleeping cycles, a vast number of habits and actions we perform without conscious thought or effort. And in the greater scheme of things, the coming and going of the seasons and cycles of nature, the movement of the sun, the moon, and the stars, all of these things are juggled by forces beyond our imagination or control. There is peace of mind in appreciating the process.

A better understanding of balance

A simplistic view of balance is that of equal weights on a scale, like the scales of Lady Justice, dating from ancient Greek and Roman times. While this may be the goal of common law, it is precisely the effort to make everything equal which confounds us in the process of Life Balance. The process is far too dynamic to be able to measure in this way.

Nor is it a matter of trying to please everybody, or do everything. In Japanese, the word happō bijin (八方美人) refers to a person who smiles equally insincerely to everybody. Politicians sometimes fall into this trap, promising all things to all people, and delivering on none.

What metaphors then can help us gain a better understanding of balance, one which is both beautiful and practical? The core metaphor for the Mandala Chart is the zoom lens of flexible focus, through which you can see the big picture, the small detail, and the connections all at once. Through the articles in this series, hopefully by now you have had plenty of practice in flexible focus.

Another metaphor which illustrates the process in an appealing manner is that in the art of Alexander Calder (1989~1976), inventor of the mobile and a pioneer in the art of moving sculpture. It is best if you can see a Calder mobile up close, but there are plenty of Calder art images online to give you the idea. In addition to being asymmetrical and 3-dimensional, they are in constant motion.

Each element able to move, to stir, to oscillate, to come and go in its relationships with the other elements in its universe. It must not be just a fleeting moment but a physical bond between the varying events in life.

~Alexander Calder

It would be hard to find a better poetic description of flexible focus.

Soft focus and a calm center

At the end of the day, what really makes for Life Balance is not how you juggle the parts, but whether or not you maintain a calm center. It is in the central frame of the Mandala Chart, the seat of meditation, where you free yourself from the distraction of forces pulling from the outside, yet maintain your awareness and control. You can see it in the eyes of a Buddha statue, soft focus which is all seeing.

In addition to meditation, you can cultivate flexible focus by calm and deep breathing, such as done in the slow movements of Tai Chi Chuan. A compelling image used in this art is that the number of breaths you draw in your lifetime is fixed. Hence calm and deep breathing leads to long life, while quick and shallow breaths can shorten your life. So what is your hurry?

A recent article in NYT  talked about how kids are wired for distraction by always being online . Every Gadget they use is connected to the internet and the kids are always distracted.  Thinking about this, I thought it is not just the kids even we grown-ups do this.

The next time you see someone with an iphone, you can see every few minutes, he checks his email or something on the iphone. Yes, these gadgets are distractions, but there is a deep underlying problem than this.

Each one of us wants distractions and these tools are just another avenue for our distractions.  We want distractions because we want to escape from things which are bothering us like laundry, doing the vacuum, taking the kids out, unfinished work at office etc.  We all know that the easiest way is to go head-on with what is bothering us and resolve it, but the great majority of us flee and engage ourselves in distractions. So, how do we fix this?

Next time, you feel anxious and want to go for a distraction, notice it and then take on positive distractions like watching a movie or a funny video and once done, sit quietly with a paper and pen (ok, iphone is fine, too) and write down what bothers you. Most of the time, it is just some unfinished tasks,  Next to the task write down what will be the next clear step you will take to resolve this. Resolve to look at it on a certain day. When that day comes, look at your list and take action. That’s it.  You can do this mentally too but writing down seems to be effective, since when the bothering thought comes to your mind, you can remind yourself that you have already written it down and will take action on the appointed day.

Choose to face the problem and use the time previously used for distractions for more enjoyable tasks.

Important or Urgent First

by Guy Ralfe on January 6, 2010

The following quote was shared with me this week:

One of the problems of government is to separate the urgent from the important and make sure you’re dealing with the important and don’t let the urgent drive out the important.”

by Henry Kissinger

Substitute ‘government’ with ‘management’ or ‘life’ and you have one of the challenges businesses and individuals face on a daily basis. I performed a quick search on ‘Important vs Urgent’ and there is no shortage of writings on this topic, although most reference Steven Covey’s book Seven Secrets of Highly Effective People. One of the secrets is “First Things First” which Covey then dedicated an entire book on the topic alone due to its significance called, First Things First.

Basically the teaching is that because we as humans are so emotionally driven in our approach to the world, we tend to prioritize the items that we like and avoid those that  make our hearts sink. Covey advocates that tasks should be evaluated on two independent dimensions of “Importance” and “Urgency” to help us identify the type of tasks and deal with them appropriately. The evaluation against these dimensions is relative to you the individual or organization you represents objectives.

This categorization produces 4 groups of tasks.

  1. Important and Urgent – Important to the individual or organization and with a date constraint. These task are generally highly prioritized and completed.
  2. Important and Not Urgent – Important to the individual or organization but no date constraint. Often described as the “nice to haves” – Like reading that book, starting a diet or for the organization would be great if we had that report automated. These tasks often get procrastinated, consume bandwidth and cause frustration. Decide to do these or quit them entirely.
  3. Not Important and Urgent – Unimportant to the individual/organization but will be important to others. These can often be difficult to identify, particularly that they are unimportant to you and that is the measure. These tasks you need to quit firmly or you will be consumed by the demands of others… the demands of others is endless! Quit these quickly and as many as possible.
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent – Pure time wasters! This is playing solitaire on the computer or business activities that just consume time and effort for no return. Stop doing these tasks and suddenly you will have added time and resource to deal with the more difficult tasks.

Once you have been able to categorize the tasks you know which you need to quit, and which you will easily perform and the outliers. Start with the outliers, but remember to reward yourself as you complete a number of the outlier tasks with an easy task or two as that will help maintain your mood.

Another quote by a Chinese writer and educator Lin Yutang expresses this well:

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is a nobler art of leaving things undone… The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of nonessentials.