Posts Tagged ‘project planning’

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.

Flexible Focus #64: The One Year Plan

by William Reed on August 4, 2011

The Mandala Chart can be used to help you focus on your priorities for the current year, regardless of how many months remain in it. Using a template adapted from the original developed by Matsumura Yasuo, the founder of the Mandala Chart method, you can get a picture of your status in the current month, where you want to be by December of the current year, draw an image representing the achievement of your goal, and write down specific steps you need to take to reach your goal. Moreover, you can do this for not just one, but for all 8 of the major fields of life, Health, Business, Finances, Home, Society, Personal, Study, and Leisure, all on a single sheet of paper.

The format for the template is shown in the illustration, but it should be copied and handwritten, preferably on B4 or A3 sized paper to give you room to write. The process is the same for each category. Write a brief description or list of points describing 1) Your current status, 2) Results by December, 3) A sketch or image for the end of the year, and 4) Steps you need to take to reach this

You may only need to do this once every quarter, but you should check your progress at the beginning of each month, and reflect on what you need to do to stay on track. This is far superior to a To Do List, because it takes into account the whole picture, the details, and how everything is connected.

Using a traditional linear To Do List puts you at risk of achieving one set of goals at the expense of another, succeeding in your job, only to ruin your health. Or you might set yourself an unrealistic task list, and end up giving up before you make progress on your truly significant goals. In other words, this format gives you perspective as well a focus, something not easy to achieve with traditional goal setting tools. You may also wish to set a theme for each of the 8 fields, a short phrase or key words which helps you focus on the big picture for that field.

Ideally you do this at the beginning of each year, but even if you start late in the calendar year you can still use it, though your focus may be on a more immediate set of objectives. It is still worthwhile, because it gives you practice in thinking in this way, and each year you will get better at it.

The image in Step 3 is quite important as well, because it gives you a visual anchor, a point of mental focus. It also breaks the monotony of pure text. When you create your One Year Template, be sure to leave enough room to list 5 to 8 phrases, as well as to illustrate your goal. You can write small, but you don’t want to feel cramped in when thinking about your future.

You might also score yourself in your current status on a scale of up to 100 points in each field, indicating where you stand over all, as well as where you need to focus your efforts and time. Once you complete the exercise, you will be ready to transfer your action steps to your Mandala Diary or Day Planner. This would also be a good place to store your One Year Plan, so that you can take it out and look at it from time to time.

Again the steps in filling out the template are:

  1. Take an assessment of your situation in the current month. Score yourself on a scale up to 100 points.
  2. Describe as specifically as you can what you would like your situation to be in December of the current year.
  3. Blend steps 1 and 2 into an image that represents achievement of your goal, and how you will feel.
  4. Write a specific action plan of what you need to do between now and then to make it happen.

Taking care of what is important in one area can make life easier in another. Likewise, neglecting one area can negatively affect another. When you experience this for yourself, you will better understand the principles in the Framework of Wisdom, such as the Principle of Interdependence, and other principles which we have covered in this series.

The more you appreciate how each area is connected, the better you will understand how success in one area can positively affect the others. This will alter your thinking, and improve your action steps to keep everything in balance. Taking action steps in one area which simultaneously contribute to other areas in your life is working smarter, rather than harder.

For most people it isn’t easy to get perspective on life. Nor is it easy to set goals, create a specific action plan, and stay motivated to take the action steps required. However, all of this becomes easier once you get it on paper, where you can see the big picture, focus on the details, and appreciate how each part is connected. The One Year Plan is one of many templates available for the Mandala Chart, and it is one of the best ways to make sure that you are attending to everything that is important, without losing sight of the whole.

5 Steps to Sound Growth for Small Businesses

by Matthew Carmen on July 4, 2011

Over the last several months, I have mostly written about the financial, strategic and operational needs of mid-sized and large companies.  What about small business?  Companies with, say, 10-150 employees…what in these areas can best serve them?  Of course there are the obvious: the ability to track expenditures, report on company spend, rudimentary budgeting, payroll, etc. Certainly these are very important, but really, the owners and stakeholders of the small business should be able to handle this on their own – or with minimal help.   The most important need for small business owners is to work with someone well-versed in things financial, who can offer a growing business the ability to formulate strategy and then develop sound finance processes, procedures and who can offer the right tools to turn strategy into practice.  In this way, the finance person participates in the growth of the business and helps take the company to the next level.

This resource discussed above is the hardest to articulate to small business clients.  They usually want someone to tell them how much they are spending, on what, and how they can spend less on the same services.  These are important questions, but somewhat short-sighted.  What the client should be asking, (and I like to ask questions to get them thinking this way) is:  How can I get my company to the next level?  The proverbial next level of course means something different for each company: it may be $10 million in sales for one, higher margins for another, or opening up new markets for another still. Regardless, I’ve found that there are 5 key steps that must take place in order to reach ‘next level’ status:

  1. Decide what the next level is, specifically.  What is the direction in which your company wants to go?  There will be some type of desired growth, what is it?  Does this growth match the company’s mission and values?  Formulating your goal is most important; if the goal is unclear, there is no way that a strategy can help achieve that goal.  Sure, some goals are reached anyhow simply by dumb luck, but as you probably guessed, it is not a scalable process.
  2. Develop a strategy to reach a clear goal.  This takes true leadership from within.  Once a goal is formulated, a well-thought-out strategy or detailed plan is needed to get there.  What will it cost to reach our goal? What skills are required (marketing, product development, operations, etc)?  How much time with this endeavor take?  Once these large questions are answered, a program or project management team should be able to take over and develop a detailed plan of action.
  3. Plan of action. The program team in a small company (usually 1 or 2 people) will need to develop the timeline for the actions that need to take place, and who will actually perform the work.  This program team may be made up of internal employees or outside contractors/consultants.  There are many tools which help in this area as well, including Microsoft Project and others, that can help organize tasks and timing.  Once a plan is developed and approved, the real work starts.
  4. Communication:  The plan and assignment of roles must be clearly communicated to the entire organization.  This serves multiple purposes: it lets those that will be involved understand their roles and what their expectations are, and it also lets those not involved know what the future state of the organization will look like. Finally, it lets management know how they should start planning for future roles in a fashion that will evolve along with company goals.  Expectations of everyone will change during this process, typically for the better.
  5. Reporting and Tracking:  This step entails reporting on the progress of the strategic implementation.  The best tools for this are a balanced scorecard and separate financial reports.  A balanced scorecard will track the inner workings of the strategic implementation – what is going on at the operational, leadership and learning levels, how the organization is changing and ensuring it is on track to meet goals on time.  The financial reporting piece will let leadership know if they are spending what was approved and in the right areas.  Analysis of both these reporting mechanisms will allow for operational changes as the external environment changes (competition, products, legal, etc.)

The process is finished once the project goals are met.  (Have the new systems been put into production, etc.?) Now the claims made by the new strategy need to be monitored closely, and the results examined likewise.  Is there progress being made towards our goal?  If yes, is this progress happening as planned? Faster? Slower? Perhaps the new systems now in place allow for amending goals upward, or results in better returns on investment. If so, what a great problem to have, right?  Continued reporting and vision are also required – and once new goals are established, the process should ideally begin anew.

So you see, the finance person at a small company must wear many more hats than his/her counterpart in larger organizations.  In the scenarios above, there is a good chance that the finance person will also serve as the program manager for the strategic implementation, or at least play a key roll in that implementation.  The risks are often greater for a small company, but the rewards for the company can be greater as well – and isn’t that what owning a business is all about?

No prizes for guessing what this post is about! Yes, it’s about Planning … relentlessly. One of the most common mistakes that I have made in my past projects (and thankfully! learnt from them) is to mistake planning as a one-time activity. If that isn’t scary enough, here’s something else – I have seen many a projects actually not having a project plan. Now, I am not a subscriber of having a pretty Microsoft Project Plan for a 2 day engagement, but would you really want to build a bridge or a building that’s probably going to take more than a year & millions of dollars to build, without a plan? No, really, would you? That is not to say that it does not happen. I have seen projects whose estimated costs could easily be more than $1M, not having a project plan because of one or more of the following reasons:

  1. We are not ready to put a plan together.
  2. Why do I need a plan?
  3. I have my tasks list in the excel spreadsheet and everything’s fine.
  4. Sure. I’ve got the plan done – look at my task list.
  5. Putting a plan together is a waste of time.
  6. It’s fairly straightforward. We don’t need a plan.

Then, there is the mythical plan that contains just a list of tasks with no indication of who is doing the task (Resources – in Project Management speak) or for that matter how much work is involved (Effort – in Project Management speak) in getting the task done.

Why Plan at all?

Unless it’s a 2 day engagement where before you create a plan, the work is done – Create a plan. Here’s why:

  1. Clearly set Expectations: More likely (than not), the customer and the stakeholders would be interested in knowing what, when and how things will be delivered. The plan is the source of this information.
  2. Clearly measure Progress: What doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get improved – is very true. A plan is what you use to measure progress against and chart alternate paths to ensure/restore productivity.
  3. Clear Recovery planning: Things usually seem to start off well. There’s plenty of excitement about the new project, lots of positivity and a lot of time to do what you got to do. Then you hit a snag and things start to fall apart… it’s hard to predict by how much and what it will take to recover, without a plan.
  4. Clearly specify Effort: Everyone is working too hard. Things seem to be getting done. But wait! Even with all the work and effort, we don’t see any results. What’s going on? Well, sure you’re going at a 100 miles/hour, the problem is … in the wrong direction.
  5. Clearly specify Roles & Responsibilities: “What do you mean I have not done it? No one told me I was going to do it. I thought s/he was going to do that.” There are no clear roles and responsibilities.
  6. Clear Schedules: This one’s my favorite. “I will get it done ASAP”. What the heck does ASAP mean, anyway? The beauty about the “ASAP” conversation is this. You talk to the folks who’ve had this conversation AFTER the fact, and ask them “So, when will this get done?”. The answer is each person’s interpretation of ASAP… which is usually, never one date. A plan helps take out the ASAP out of your plan.

Remember the first post about Kickass Kickoffs? The central theme was CLARITY. A plan does that. It gives clarity – to setting expectations (Once things are clear, you don’t get asked the same questions again, and again, and again – huge time saver and one of the tricks for PMs to avoid working overtime), measuring progress, ensuring fast recoveries (when things go wrong – and they do, all the time), avoiding “I didn’t know I was going to do it” type of questions.

Why Plan Relentlessly?

Let’s move on to the RPG part.

Planning, like measuring progress, is a relentless activity, until work gets done. Why? Because of our friend, “Change”!  which is the biggest constant. Yep, Mr. Change keeps messing with the plan, every month, every week, sometimes every day.

The Project Manager rues this. The Project Leader anticipates this.

The Project Manager wastes time thinking of the “Why it happened”? The Project Leader accepts it “As-is” quickly and goes “What next”?

The Project Manager goes in his shell. The Project Leader gets on with his RPG!

The Project Manager runs to the sidelines. The Project Leader grounds himself in the Baselines.

Get the drift? Well, either you do OR the drift gets you!

Next one up in the series – Courage and Stupidity!