Posts Tagged ‘Project Management’

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.

Is the lifeblood of your project sucked dry by project vampires? You know the type, e.g., belligerent bosses, unreasonable customers, passive-aggressive subject matter experts (SMEs). This is a challenge that a good leader must learn how to handle if any success is to be gained.  There are three solutions for dealing with them. Before getting to those, though, a little background will help. It boils down to one word, “Powerlessness.” You might be wondering, “How does that relate to leadership?” The answer is simple and is based on another word, “Humility.”

Humility is simply knowing where the boundaries are. In this case it means knowing what one can (power) and cannot (powerlessness) do. It is essential in avoiding over-reaching as well as making sure one is reaching as far as possible.

One of the single biggest mistakes Project Managers can make is lacking awareness of where that boundary lies. There is a wimpiness associated with not reaching as far as possible and hubris with reaching too far. The process of seeking that boundary and skirting it can be a source of torture for a Project Manager. So what to do?

Frankly, this is where I meditate. Taking time each day to sit with the torture created by not knowing where the boundary lies. When ego dissolves the line appears. On or around that line the three options sit:

  1. Power-based behavior. Look to see which resources have yet to be explored that will stop the vampire, e.g., disciplinary activities for SMEs under-performing, gaining support from powerful stakeholders who can help reel in the unreasonable customer;
  2. Powerless-based behaviors (1). Here is were I made up a term call, “The vampiric calculation.” It’s quite simple. The rate at which new energy is created is compared to the rate at which it is being sucked out of the team and myself. I consciously bring this up with the team and we look to see how much we can accomplish skirting the line between power and powerlessness;
  3. Powerless-based behaviors (2). This is the really tough one. It’s when exhaustion sets in after manically trying to please the vampire. Working with the team and after all efforts to turn things around have been made we calculate how, exactly we will abandon ship so to speak to keep our sanity. This doesn’t mean responsibilities are abandoned. Rather, it means we pull together to keep each other’s spirits up as the torture from the vampire continues.  Gallows humor is one of the most common forms of pulling together. Being careful is critical. The humor can morph into cynicism very quickly, which increases the rate at which energy is drained.

A better way is finding activities to stay intact. Personally, meditation, exercise, cooking for friends and family along with an occasional Lagavulin scotch and a good cigar help me quite a bit. You probably have your own list. Put it to use. It helps stay in touch with the real powers and supports a realistic attitude displayed by a student I once had. His boss was calling him in for the umpteenth time to chew him out. The student accepted his boss could do this but also skirted the boundary mentioned. He did this by saying, “Could you speed this up. I have to get back to the team, there’s work to do.”

By taking care of oneself and being free of preoccupation something close to a miracle just might occur. A path may start showing that relates to item “1.” mentioned above.  I want to avoid being Pollyannaish.  That path may or may not be there. The only way to see it, though, is to decide what you’ll do in the presence of  a vampire rather than passively let things happen.

Ever feel lied to? Is it hard to put your finger on what, exactly, is wrong with what is being said or done? It can feel like you are trapped inside an Escher drawing. What to do?

My suggestion is, “Go with it!” If that is what is happening, then call it what it is. Let the team members and stakeholders know (in a calm voice, of course) that their closed arguments just don’t add up. And just how is this done without sounding like a loon yourself? Once again, it is one of those “reads easy, does hard” situations.

Let go of focusing on the outside world. Go within…and drag all that insanity with you. Let people talk. Listen. Absorb without judgment. The tools needed to spot inconsistency are already in your toolbox. Stop thinking and, as Obi Wan told Luke, “use the force.” This force is there all the time. It is called integrity.

I’ve had more than one CEO (but not many), as well as other stakeholders and team members, lie to me on a consistent basis. If challenged, they would say they were simply testing me, wanting to see if I knew my stuff. Which is fine if it stopped there. The problem is when they saw my ignorance or naiveté as a license to stay with the distortion and go on with whatever their (hidden) agenda was.

This may sound a bit paranoid. It isn’t. We all actually do it to some extent. That “extent” is determined by how much we lust after or want to avoid something. Ever fudge 15 minutes on billable hours? For guys, what do you say in response to, “Honey, do I look fat in this dress?”

Those situations to which I am referring to here, though, are the systematic ones. The situations where there is a conscious effort to paint a complete picture that is closed in scope but relies on fabrications. When this occurs the details fail to match up. And this is where the solution lies!

Pay attention to those details without getting swamped by them. The way to do that is by watching behaviors and seeing in what direction outcomes go based on believing what is told. See where that trail of bread crumbs leads. When you get that picture, go back and look at the details again.

Again, trust your judgment. Once you can draw a bead on some of the inconsistencies, i.e., articulate them, keep up the process. The details, upon which you need to focus, validate, look to see if they exist, are mutually inconsistent, etc., will become apparent. It’s as if they begin to phosphoresce.

As you confront (in a respectful, business-like manner) the situation there will be a natural repeating of the illusion. You’ll be asked to stare more closely at it, as with Enron when reporters where getting close to the truth. You might even be told you just don’t get it, that you need to mature and get up to speed in order to see the truth. It can be especially tempting when the person creating the illusion has power.

The fact is, if you work to stay with the inner truth there will be a calm out of which grows the ability to sum (no matter how many thousands or millions of dollars have been spent) the situation in 3 words, “It’s an illusion.” At that point, you can do the best project management possible.

The Soul of a Project #8: The Project Shaman

by Gary Monti on March 27, 2012

Is five o’clock, Friday, the best time for your project? Ever wonder why you became a project manager? Does it all feel like it’s crashing down around you? If so, you are in good company. George Lucas had similar feelings regarding R2-D2 and other production problems when shooting the first Star Wars (now episode four: A New Hope).

When it comes to dealing with difficult situations Lucas has some very good advice, “It helps to be nuts.” There is a lot of truth in that statement. I’d like to believe, thought, there is something deeper implied in that humor. It has to do with shamans and how they helped tribal chiefs find their way in guiding the tribe. Shamans were usually a little bit nutty, almost schizophrenic, and often would live beyond the edge of the village. There was a reason for this.

The chief guided tribes on a routine basis, making sure the rules were followed and adjudicating accordingly when there were disputes. But what about when the rules didn’t work? What about when a decision was needed as to whether or not the tribe should stay where it is or move to a strange, new land?

This is where the shaman came into play. The shaman was unencumbered by the body politic of the tribe and its rules. He was free to look within and without as far as his minds eye could see. There is a trivialized phrase that apes what the shaman would do, “think outside the box.” The shaman would go further and wonder, “Why bother with the box? What about a sphere? What about nothing at all?” You get the picture.

So the question is, “Would your project benefit by you taking a shaman’s approach?” Is there a different way you could see the situation that would bring about improvement? Here’s an example. I had a client whose customer was driving him nuts. E-mail after e-mail was sent every day questioning the progress of the project. My client was going crazy and falling into an ever-increasing reactive state.

A simple question flipped the situation into a new universe, “Do you know your customer?” he proceeded to spew a great deal of what was already known, e.g., how difficult he was, how his demands were unrealistic, etc., etc. The question was then modified a bit, “Do you know your customer personally?” That brought a blank stare.

It was the pursuit of doing something about that blank stare that turned things around.  A slow but concerted effort to find out more about the customer revealed he liked custom cars and fishing – the same hobbies as my client! You can probably guess the rest from here. My client got permission to fly to his customer’s for an extended weekend. They went to a custom car show as well as fly-fishing over a 4-day period. The flurry of e-mails stopped and they got down to business and were able to focus on completion of the project.

So, is there a shaman within you? Can you color outside the lines and view the world from a different perspective? Would doing so possibly show where a door exists through which you’ll find a solution to your project’s problems? Give it a shot. Go ahead and dream!

The Soul of a Project #7: Revenue and Trust

by Gary Monti on March 20, 2012

Increasing revenue can create quite a challenge. Doing more of the same is not necessarily the formula that works. Over the years I’ve come to see there are revenue plateaus companies hit. No matter how they try they can’t break through these sales barriers. So what is going on? One element that shows up 99 times out of 100 is trust. Or, should I say lack of trust.

The typical approach prior to engaging me is trying to “put a tire pump” on what’s worked in the past – more of the same. This lead to exhausted, frustrated employees and executives who feel let down. The approach seems so simple – just do more of what we’ve always done. What could be simpler? Plenty.

During root cause analysis what typically surfaces as the culprit is lack of trust. Senior managers want more of what benefits the company but they don’t want to let go of the reins of power. You might be asking, “What does that have to do with increasing sales?” The short answer is, “The people need to be empowered.”

Correspondingly, the employees try to work the same old work patterns. They shy away from the seeking the increase in responsibility that goes with the freedom to explore and grow the company. They might get slapped down. They want assurances.

In the end it boils down to one word – trust. How does that figure in to expanding an organization? What is happening is a change is needed for the growth to occur. Some of the old rules need to be retired and new ones need to be brought in. This creates a huge amount of stress. Managers fear for their jobs (of which there are fewer and fewer as one climbs the organization) as do the team members (who might have to leave the company if failure occurs).

This fear comes about mainly because people have to go to places within themselves of which they are afraid. In interviewing them the response I get goes something like this, “The skills I have honed are working fine – thank you very much! Go get the other guy to improve his work habits and turn more power over to me. Get out of my office. I have work to do. How much are we paying you to do this?”

If this attitude fails to change the revenues will stay the same or fall back to lower levels. This falling back throws gas on the fire and the tension gets even greater. The confusion also increases because efforts to grow have only made things worse!

What to do? The answer is quite simple but very hard to do: each person has to take charge of leadership in his own life and have the courage to negotiate new connections with those around him. There is a lot of inward activity. The key to success is going deep within and bringing to the forefront aspects of oneself that are a challenge to deal with. When the courage to do that is present and action is taken suddenly the ability to work with others associated with changing and growing seems possible. It is quite rewarding but I have to admit, it is scary and it is hard.

Wish there were more creativity, flexibility, and discipline on your project? Take a page from modern art and improvisational jazz (improv). Improvisational jazz may sound undisciplined. Criticisms can be similar to those leveled against modern art, ” My five year-old can paint like that!”

Taking a page from modern art, Picasso was in reality thinking very deeply trying to determine, among other things, how much he could subtract from the visual image and be left with the essence of what he was seeing (“Bull”).

Similarly, improv can be very deep. One thing it tries to accomplish is playing with the rules to see where things go. (The soloist in a band could switch from Inuit pentatonic scale to Egyptian heptatonic to see if the other players can keep up.) Well, if one is going to play with the rules they’d better have a good idea what they are! Discipline is important.

By manipulating the rules a whole new frame of mind can be created, one that takes people to new places.  Think of Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” with the melting watches.

So what would happen if we combined the two frames of mind? How could this be applied to projects? When stymied the team might breakout from being stuck and frustrated. What would happen if they stripped the project to its essence?

What does the customer need vs. want? How do the components relate? What are the rules? Can we play with them and create a project model that simultaneously covers the breadth of customer needs while integrating the components in a meaningful way?

Think of the creation of the iPad (upon which this blog is being created at 22,000 feet). Remember the early comments that there was no market for it? It is just another gadget with no serious application. It’s too small to be a computer and too large to be a phone.

Working this way is risky. But what if the team broke out to design and implement what would definitely meet the customer’s needs and maybe even more? Could they have a sense of pride, of accomplishment, of being leaders in their specialty? Think about it.

The Soul of a Project #5: Are You a Project Luddite?

by Gary Monti on February 26, 2012

Jack Black in “School of Rock” presented a rather sophomoric but passionate statement regarding, “Sticking it to the Man.” His character, Dewey Finn, decries the loss of soul and individual creativity induced by a regimented atmosphere designed to supposedly create opportunities for getting ahead. Well, he’s not really that angelic since it is a cover for his self-promoting, irresponsible ways…initially.  Finn does eventually get swept up in the idea and experiences self-discovery and a personal transformation which benefits the school community.

How this rings true in projects plays out in answering question, “Does the individual get driven over in the name of success?”

Magical Thinking

In over 25 years of teaching project management there is fairy tale attitude that surfaces on an almost constant basis, magical thinking. It typically comes from the business unit and goes something like this, “Since we’ve spent all this money on project management training we can promise the customer whatever it takes to close the deal and the PMs will have to make it work. We don’t have to be disciplined. We just have to paint the big picture and then pressure the PMs to ‘make it so.’ “ There’s a harsher word for this magical thinking, it’s called “abuse.”

Project Luddites

Recoil to this attitude was violently expressed two hundred years again in England by the Luddites. The Luddite movement is mistakenly viewed as being anti-technology. That couldn’t be farther from the truth! A lot of the Luddites were quite sophisticated technologically. What they were against was the dumbing-down of jobs and the trivialization of the employee through the division of labor and the physically- and mentally numbing consequences of pushing for production while simultaneously removing any signs of unique, individual performance.

Project Success

Being a project Luddite makes you invaluable. If you become one, team members and stakeholders will find you invaluable. As stated in previous blogs, you will be giving them one of life’s most precious gifts. You will see them! Yes, there are curmudgeons and people suffering from antisocial personality disorder. But, yes, they tend to be few and far between with most people wanting to have a sense of place and being recognized.

What usually differs is the style in which people prefer being seen. Some just want an environment where they can express themselves quietly through the creative process of their work. Public displays of appreciation make them very uncomfortable even angry. Others want to have more of an employee-of-the-month-parking-spot approach where having their recognition be public is important.

Said another way, find a person’s sense of flow and lean into it. Imagine what it would be like if the project stopped being work and became a way to connect with oneself and those associated with the project. Think of how far you could go with an entire team of people feeling that way. So, stop reading, be a Luddite, and go connect!

The Soul of a Project #4: Project and Poetry

by Gary Monti on February 16, 2012

How do you “grab” team members’ attention? What gets them going to the point they maintain a positive, aggressive sense of completing the project even when there are difficulties that seem insurmountable. Simple, use poetry.

For technical fields dominated by men this may seem counter-intuitive, almost strange. There is a legitimate magic (for want of a better word) to being poetic. Now, before you go off thinking this is about picnics in the spring, puppies, and flowers spend a minute here and see if what follows makes sense.

More and more about less and less

Prose says more and more about less and less. Think of how many pounds of paper reports could be printed or the number of hard drive gigabytes used tracking project information. Is this the soul of the project? No more than pathology reports are the soul of the patient. Yes, it is good information but, no, it fails to grasp the essence of the person.

Prose and detailed reports are outside facing. To grab team members’ attention communications need to be inward facing. Now that sure sounds like a paradox! It isn’t. And this is where poetry comes in.

Less and less about more and more

When we strike a cord with someone the musical metaphor is very apt. The listener resonates with what is being said! There is a harmonizing with what excites, angers, scares, etc., the listener. This inward response leads to listener to feel they are being seen. What is on the inside connects with the outside.

The poetic aspect is the ability to choose a sentence, phrase, or word that nails the situation. Think of someone saying “Beuller” repeatedly with a deadpan tone. If that doesn’t bring a grin to your face I don’t know what would. It ties in to the entire angst of trying to make it through high school while keeping your sanity…something that happens to be quite similar to making it through some projects. That one word is poetic. There are other such examples such as Quisling for someone who flatters those with power so they can get a piece for themselves and abusively dominate those under them.

In the book, Mythical Man Month, by Fred Brooks, there is the classic poetic admonition regarding crashing schedules, “Avoid thinking that if one woman can have a baby in 9 months that 9 women can have a baby in one month.” There is nothing to add to that! It defines the possible insanity of crashing exquisitely.

So where does this leave the reader? If you need to connect with the team find your poetry and share it. Think of what you resonate with and see if it can be distilled to a common experience, a word or phrase, some visual, etc. and put it out there for the team. With that at the core you can then spin all the necessary prose. With everyone getting a good read on the patient…er…project, the reports find their place and add to the teams’ ability to gauge what the next best move should be.

The Soul of a Project #3: Truth vs. Propaganda

by Gary Monti on February 8, 2012

“Truth is the first casualty of war,” is attributed to Senator Hiram Johnson, R-California, 1918. This can occur on projects as well.  What can really muddy the waters is the confusion between facts and truth. Think of all the political hacks on cable news shows.

Facts vs. Truth

Facts stand alone. If it is 75° F outside that reality is what it is. It is free of dependence on anyone’s frame-of-mind.

Truth on the other hand is different because it is, to some extent, dependent upon one’s frame of mind. In fact, the definitions for “truth” range from “consistency with facts,” to “being true to a set of beliefs.” That latter definition is what muddies the waters. In other words, it gets personal.

Frankly, I’ll support someone who conforms to the facts and has a personal belief system that is disciplined, humble, and compassionate. When that person speaks from the gut I resonate like a tuning fork. I might lead, I might follow. Frankly I don’t care because that person seems trustworthy so I’ll risk they’ll negotiate in good faith.

On the flip side, when propaganda is being used, “run!” is the word that comes to mind. That person’s truth is scary! This is especially true when beliefs I hold to be true are being hijacked and parroted to promote the other person’s agenda potentially at the expense of others, the team, and myself. I can get so caught up in hearing what I want to hear that the ability to see the propagandist is lost.

Truth vs. Propaganda

What makes propaganda so dangerous is its seductiveness. It goes something like this. If we just go along with a bending of the truth we can get something in return. Usually it is relief from a fear or getting something we’ve been after, some possession, recognition, money, sex, the list goes on-and-on. “Tow the company line” sums the situation well. Here’s an example.

Employees can invest highly in consultants brought in to bring about change. The employee believes something like this, “After they listen to me they’ll just HAVE get management to shape up and then my life will be okay.” Those employees will champion the consultant.

This is a form of self-propaganda. How do I know that? By watching employees being left flat when I tell them that for the change to take place they will have to individually, one-by-one, commit to the needed change. The propaganda was this, I would be both the shield and sword that will take on senior managers and get them to follow sound project management principles. Believing this to be true, the employee feels safe.

Now there is truth in this.  Consultants have an obligation to challenge variances from the principles appropriate for a situation regardless of the employee’s position – from Board member to janitor. However, this simply sets the stage by spooling up one frame-of-mind through the organization that fits the project’s needs. There is a second part to this, though. During the one-on-one’s each person must hold their ground in sticking with the planned improvements. THIS can be a very challenging task when the resistant person in the conversation is higher up in the food chain.

Propaganda can set in and emotionally dishonest arguments and judgments surface. Sticking with the example, the employee says, “The truth is, the consultant has failed.”  The unconscious reality (self-serving agenda) is the employee might be afraid for their job and doesn’t want to risk taking a leadership position in the conversation by disagreeing legitimately. Granted, this fear can be very real. However, the bending to the propaganda, whether one’s own or someone else’s, can leave lasting damage.

Socrates said it well. As he was quoted in Plato’s Phaedo:

“False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.”

Unfortunately, in the end Socrates was asked to drink the hemlock since he wouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid. It can be hard leading a project. Tread carefully.

The Soul of a Project #2: Speak from the Gut!

by Gary Monti on January 31, 2012

Good communicators survive fact-checks. Good communication, though, is more than listing facts. That was one of the bullet points from last week’s blog. Let’s peel back that opening sentence and see what lies underneath. It is critical for getting to the soul of the project.

There are three components associated with making a connection and communicating spontaneously:

  • Body language
  • Tone of voice
  • Verbal content

Believability has to do with listeners feeling all three components are interconnected and mutually supporting. It’s what is called speaking with integrity. Now, this isn’t moral integrity since a person committed to dark side behavior can show integrity. There is another component needed…being principle-based. We’ll save that for a later blog.

Getting back to the three components the question surfaces, “What does this have to do with the soul of a project?” The answer is, “Quite a bit!” It goes beyond knowing what to do. That portion, knowing, is wrapped up in the verbal content. To convey the project spirit and light a fire under people there is more that is needed. It is conviction. Conviction shows in the tone of voice and the body language. Combining these with verbal content we end up doing something referred to in everyday language as walking the walk.

It’s this walking the walk that comes across as speaking from the gut. The sponsor, PM, team lead, subject matter expert, functional support personnel, etc., all can take a leadership position by speaking from the gut.

The example that comes to mind is the commitment to the Apollo program. I’ve met more than one engineer who was fortunate enough to work on that program. They all say the same thing. The work had purpose. They felt significant.

There were conflicts to resolve and problems to solve. The point, though, is everyone had the same resolve, i.e., they wanted to support being part of getting the first man on the moon. Each, in their own way, spoke from the gut.

They dipped into the pool of uncertainty and pushed the limit of what they knew working to create something even better. They had passion. This passion is different than a blind fanaticism. It is more about being grounded in the present day project realities, determining the goals, assessing the gap, and working to achieve success.

When speaking from the gut a leader conveys this and both supports and inspires those around him to strive for the best. Emotions are allowed to flow. This is important. Why? Emotions show where we are with the situation, e.g., confident, afraid, bored, etc. When speaking from the gut the leader lets others see what is going on inside himself. He becomes the living embodiment of the project. His emotional state is a reflection of the project’s status. This is what brings about the connection. Others equally committed resonate with the leader.

Does this mean a leader is dramatic? Not necessarily. We each have our own styles. When speaking with integrity one is true to his style. That honesty encourages others to do the same rather than simply mimicking and being a ”yes” person. They end up working as a team.

A faith sets in that the project CAN be achieved.

Life is breathed into all the documentation. At that point, the project comes to life.