Posts Tagged ‘projects’

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

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.

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 #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.

A new series “The Soul of a Project” begins with this blog – “The Paradox of Communications”. This is something near and dear to me since it is one of the cornerstones of my consulting practice. The common ground with previous blogs is getting the job done.  There is another component as well, one about which I have strong feelings. It centers on the phrase, “soft side of management” and similar statements.

Frankly, I rankle at that phrase, since it has at times been associated with “easy,” or “superfluous,” and, for those of us with testosterone coursing through our veins, it can be considered “a woman thing.” To borrow from Charlie Brown, “Arrrrrrgh!”

It would be greatly appreciated if anyone who actually validated those assumptions to speak out and comment accordingly. Experience has taught that sustained, constructive relationships takes work, a lot of which centers around communications. For that matter, brief, non-repeating communications requires a lot of work. Ever have to deal with a retail clerk who didn’t understand your needs?

The challenge with good communications is reflected in the paradoxes present:

  • Leaders are disciplined and absorb great deals of information, building a mental structure from which they work. The irony, though, is the connection is made with the stakeholder population by speaking from the gut.
  • The spoken word and text are serial in nature. However, good communicators work multiple channels simultaneously.
  • Even when communications is tightly restricted, e.g., Morse code, which is just dots and dashes, those receiving could identity the sender and their mood.
  • Good communicators survive fact-checks. Good communication, though, is more than listing facts.
  • Listening is different than being a human tape recorder. We phase in and out of conversations. Regardless, good communications that are highly accurate occur all the time.
  • Perfect documentation is a goal to strive for, one that can never be achieved. Yet, good teams stay connected and solve problems even when working at a distance.

This is a good place to stop and ask the questions, “When you are effectively communicating do you know what is going on? If so, do you know what that comprises? And, just how do you know? What evidence is there?”

Asked another way, “What does the flow look like when communications are going well?” Give it some thought. I’ll see you next week!

Resilience Engineering #29: Keep Your Wits About You

by Gary Monti on January 10, 2012

Keep your wits in chaotic situations. Success depends upon it. The irony is, keeping one’s wits is grounded in simplicity. It is challenging and can take all you have. It is a daily, constant activity.

Avoid confusing simplicity with a naive belief everything will work out somehow. Rather, it is about letting go of the urge to react when forces are demanding that you do. It is about keeping eyes and ears open and just seeing what is. This simplicity is a reflection of an on-going process rather than a goal. It has to be a process because of the fluidity of the situation. There is a constant shifting. Customers change their mind. Lead engineers quit. Technologies change. The list goes on.

A Three-part Approach

There are three aspects to being a simple leader:

  1. Practicing discipline;
  2. Maintaining awareness;
  3. Developing an understanding of the situation.

Practice discipline.  Do what is right.

Now, this isn’t a moralistic sense of right. It is more about congruence among all the principles that apply and choosing behaviors based on alignment with those principles. To use something I’ve mentioned in previous blogs:

If everything were okay, what would I do?

Know what principles apply to each profession on the project. Work within acceptable variances determined by the relationships between principles. For example, sales should be aware of engineering limitations when negotiating options with customers. In turn, the engineers should be aware of how much flexibility they can maintain in order to support sales and accept some level or risk.

Maintain awareness. Stop. Breathe. Look.

Risk letting go of thinking about consequences, especially the ones that have personal impact. Clarity will surface. The picture may be pretty and then again it may not. The point is you’ll have a clear picture! From there you can move on to the next step.

Develop an understanding of the situation. Think.

By having a clear picture you can now think in a realistic manner. What does this mean? It means moving around in the space created by the first two steps mentioned above. Thinking grounded in this behavior leads to an understanding of the situation. The ability to see how things really are and what they could be surfaces. An understanding develops as to what it takes to get the job done.

The boundary between flexing and breaking comes into sharper focus. Change orders developed based on this approach are usually right on the mark. You will see when to dive into the details and when to pull back and let the team work it out. You’ll also see when scope needs to be cut or time added.

Being simple is part of the secret of being a good leader – something required in complex situations where managing is insufficient.