Posts Tagged ‘project manager’

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!

Large, complex projects can be a lot like war. They are started in the name of situations or principles that get run over, ignored, or destroyed completely. World War II was started to preserve the sovereign independence of Poland, which ended up under the boot of Stalin by wars end.

In terms of organizational fatigue, the historian Thucydides in his “History of the Peloponnesian War” provides insight into the interplay between power, justice, and personal damage. From a complex project perspective, it is about what occurs when we set in motion something much larger than ourselves with many strange attractors, forces that can have dramatic effects.

The Melian dialogue is a great example. It covers the extermination of the entire adult male population of a minor island in the Aegean Sea, Melos. Because of Athens’s paranoid fear Melos’s continued neutrality in the war might be viewed as a sign of weakness on Athens’s part, Athens brought pressure to bear for Melos to join Athens against Sparta.

For perspective, think of how a senior manager can come down disproportionately on an individual or small group when the project is experiencing difficulties that are much larger than the people being victimized. This can be a particular expression of organizational fatigue. Thucydides asked, “How can this happen?” His answer comprises one main point: context over character.

The Fog of Projects

Projects get started for the best of reasons. They can lose their way, though, and people start doing crazy things because the control or perception of control is at risk of being lost. The emotionality of the situation sweeps over good people and in the name of repairing the situation draconian measures may be used.

When emotionality sets in character gets thrown out the window.

This is what happened in the Melian extermination. The fog created by over-thinking the situation sent the Athenians into a death spiral that lead to the massacre being the only thing  a just and powerful person could do. The Athenians lost their way. They abandoned their character, got caught up in the moment, and behaved insanely. The weight of the entire war was brought to bear on a tiny population in the belief relief would be achieved and the Athenians would move on towards victory over the Spartans.

Before brushing this aside as something that could easily be avoided take a look at a rather simple example that shows how easily the craziness can set in. Look at the project of laying a roof. One of the most important jobs is drawing a chalk line. This must be done if the roof is to be true. That chalk line is a metaphor for character, strategy and discipline. It keeps things on track.

An easy mistake a newbie can make is skipping the chalk line. After all the shingles are cut square so as long as one shingle is aligned with the previous one, things will be okay.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, without a chalk line (character, discipline, and strategy) one can feel fine laying the shingles until stepping back and seeing they are uneven are at risk for leaking when it rains. This realization might not occur until many shingles have been nailed in place. At that point craziness can set in. Why? The answer, as a question, is simple, “Who wants to rip out what’s been installed and redo the work?” The urge sets in to look at the immediate misalignment among the few shingles right in front of the installer and try to fudge a solution that will get things back on track. It is so easy to want to yell at the installer when the manager in charge is the one at fault. It is the manager’s job to make sure the chalk lines are set correctly to guide the work.

The thoughts of running over budget, not getting the job done by the end of the day, the customer yelling at the manager, etc., can be overwhelming. It can lead to the decision to punish, a common characteristic of organizational fatigue.

Project Reality Check #15: The Requirements Game

by Gary Monti on March 29, 2011

Nailing down requirements is the number one complaint of project managers. Addressing this requires two skills: political adroitness and finding a balance point between exploring solutions and exploiting what is known and available. I’d like to share some from a workshop I provide on decision-making in uncertainty.

Political Adroitness

A mantra regarding project requirements goes something like this,

“Requirements are stated needs, expectations are unstated needs. Clients tend to judge based on expectations.”

For example, a common retail experience is a customer picking a $20 pan from a display that includes $200 triple-clad pans. The expectation frequently is quality-by-association. As you might guess, the customer ends up disappointed because food cooks unevenly, burns, and sticks to the pan. They return to the store angry that misrepresentation occurred and they want their money back, at a minimum, or demand the $200 pan at no extra charge, at the extreme.

When something similar occurs on a project the best way to deal with it is by leaning into the situation as quickly as possible. The longer the expectation is held, the greater potential for damage in the relationship. Do this is by offering possible “straw” scopes. These are scopes that fit within the time and money parameters established and meant as much for example as anything else. This can take several iterations.

Initially, the goal is getting the client to see the expectations just don’t match the time, money, and resource limits established. In other words, see if they will shift their view and do it in such a way the relationship stays intact. When acceptance of the need to shift sets in, then drive towards THE scope that appears to work.

The reason “appears” is used is simple. The scope has yet to be drilled down to clear requirements that can be turned into specifications. Which leads to another aspect of political adroitness – working with the team.

The team needs to be involved in creating the scoping alternatives because they are the ones ultimately shouldering the responsibility. As you might have already guessed, having a good working relationship with team leads and subject matter experts is critical. If these relationships are absent team members can simply say the requirements aren’t clear, take a passive-aggressive position, and leave the project manager hanging.

The Explore/Exploit Balance

In complexity theory the above falls under the “explore/exploit balance.” This is where the risk comes into play. Typically, there is insufficient time to explore all options. On the flip side, the team may run into conflict and severe limitations if they dive in based on using what has worked in the past. The solution is best when the customer, project manager, and the team all share the risk. In other words a balance is needed; one that is optimal and spreads the benefits equally with the difficulties.

To recap, it isn’t enough to simply say the client should be realistic and not expect a $20 pan to perform like a $200 one. The PM and team need to push as far as they can working with the client in developing a realistic solution – one that will save reputations, relationships, and pocket books as well as produce the desired deliverable.

“Hangman” is a game having a lot in common with project management. The goals are identical, i.e., figure out what the stakeholder(s) in control wants/means without them telling the project manager (PM) directly. The noose of the triple constraint tightens as the PM and team try to decipher just what is needed and they miss the mark.

There IS a substantial difference between Hangman and managing a project. In Hangman determining the word or phrase (scope) the controlling player has in mind is all that is required. With a project there is a chance for triple jeopardy since the PM and team must not only get the scope correct, they must also make sure there are sufficient resources left in terms of time and money to actually implement the scope. There is a way to not only survive but also succeed in such situations.

Terminology – Constraints vs. Principles

The first thing needed is a distinction between what is desired and what actually works. The term itself, “triple constraint,” implies boundaries of some sort. There is value in taking this term apart.

Rather than say, “The triple constraint means scope, time, and budget” stakeholders would be better served by stating, “There is a scope constraint, a time constraint, and a budget constraint placed on the project.” Why? Simple. Scope, time and budget refer to three of the nine principle sets in project management with the other six being communications, human resources, procurement, quality, risk, and integration.

“Principles” means there is a balanced interplay among all the variables and stakeholders in the project. Constraint means an arbitrary limit being placed on the project. It is called arbitrary because it is made in isolation with the responsibility for integrating being passed along illegitimately to others usually down the power chain.

That sounds like a pretty strong use of “illegitimately.” However, it does apply since the responsibility for a constraint stays with the person who makes it especially if he is the power broker.

Wishes and Business Cases

A constraint, then, is essentially a wish to make something so. What works better is examining what is realistic based on the business case. That business case needs to be grounded in reality. For example, if the project is to open a low-risk savings account then having a “budget” constraint of 1-3% interest rate is reasonable. On the flip side, if I am demanding 12% return with the same low risk then I am working from a wish list. The demand will be illegitimate if a PM in charge of investing the money is punished for failing to find a secure 12% savings account. It gets even worse if the wish of having the high return investment includes being able to withdraw any time without penalty (schedule constraint).

Stated more positively:

When needs are derived from realistic business cases rather than wishes, a bridge can be built between the business case and associated project principles comprising scope, time, and budget.

Going back to the previous blog, Rainmaker, building that bridge requires incorporation of other principle sets. In the next blog we will explore those principles with the goal being generation of a balanced relationship with realistic boundaries between scope, time, and budget. It involves the creation of something far more elegant than a triple constraint.

Project management – planning or marketing?

by Guy Ralfe on July 10, 2009

Project Narrative

Project management is conjured up as this all conquering planning, scheduling and task orientated activity; but is it really?

Projects are usually constituted when management becomes aware of a threat or an opportunity in their existing operations, which results in some change needed to the operational status quo. Projects by nature (see the earlier post byHimanshu Jhamb on ‘What a project is not‘) imply an uncharted future. This is where the project manager’s role is seen as producing the “plan” of how to get from the current state, to the future desired state at closure.

Projects are filled with uncertainty, risks and unforeseen challenges – would you willingly give up your day job to partake in something labeled “Trip leaving from here and may get there”? This is not usually the kind of offer career conscious people step forward and volunteer for. This is why most projects have resources assigned not accepted to the project.

Speakers and writers on project management are constantly on about making sure you have the right resources on your project – so shouldn’t we produce a powerful and enticing story about why a project exists. With a powerful story an identity for the project is produced that will have people drawn to the project rather than running for cover.

With a desirable proposition, your project story, you now have an offer in the market and you can select the resources you want from those that want to participate. Ever noticed how towards the end of a successful project there are a lot more volunteers than when you started?

So what makes a story powerful? Here are 5 questions to help your thinking:

1. What is the project about?: How the project offer “appears” to a person’s senses, psychology or context. People need to be told what the project is, otherwise they will make up their own interpretation of what it is, which may or may not be the one that was intended.

2. How the project offer affect the concerns and situations? If people cannot connect the project offer with their concerns, they would not understand the need for it. The need has to be established in a story to them that factors in their concerns. For example, people do not think that a threat to an organization actually could be a direct threat to them until they see the direct consequences to their concerns (like a wake-up call).

3. How the project offer is useful or applicable to the story of their future they live in?: People are always in stories of their future. This includes their ambition, commitments, strategy, concerns, situation and capability, to name a few. People will not only think about what a project can do for them but also whether it is consistent with wh

at they are after or not.

4. How important and worthwhile a project offer is? People answer this question by judging if the project offering helps them avoid unfavorable situations in their future and exploit current opportunities.

5. What is the ultimate objective of the project?: People often focus on the disruption and cannot imagine the beautiful and colorful future. A story of the ultimate objective is like letting them smell the flowers before they are actually there

Produce that colorful project story and market your project so that people can’t resist, and want to participate.