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August 2010 Archives

The Power of Ownership

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Ownership of even a part of a project is a powerful thing. Ownership is tangible and allows for acknowledgment, achievement and recognition. Once a part of a project is owned, it can also be reported on and tracked, making it visible to other project stakeholders and team members.

No matter what goes on in the organization, a task that is owned is a task that will have more chances of completion, with pride and focus on outstanding performance. As such, the task tends to be delivered on time, within scope and budget.

Micromanagement does not have to exist when ownership is present and the team agrees to the game plan. Instead, there is clear and visible status reporting with team members eager to present their progress -- good or bad. This transparency allows the team to focus on the right solution and approach, with a clearer view of the roadblocks and their resolution.

Defenses tend to come down as we focus on delivery: doing what we are expected to do and doing what we know we can and should do to deliver quality results. When ownership is truly present, team members exchange workable ideas in a productive discourse. We're open to see our own blind spots, areas that we naturally overlook or don't think to question.

And when the realization of the specific blind spot is a reality, it creates a clearing for something new. 

There's an App for That

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For most of human history, skills have been passed from master to apprentice on an "as needed" basis. As the apprentice encountered a problem, the master would demonstrate the solution and the apprentice learned.

Early academic institutions operated along similar lines. It's only in the last century that learning has moved to a "book-and-exam" model. But many researchers have questioned the effectiveness of this method of learning for skills that involve contextual variability. Instead, they advocate developing communities of practice, mentoring and other options to replicate the master and apprentice approach.

The problem with these approaches is timing: Can the master be available when needed by the apprentice? Most of the time, it seems the answer is no!

Project management involves a very high level of contextual variability, particularly in the area of interpersonal relationships, motivation and leadership -- the so-called soft skills. Learning these skills in the "school of hard knocks" is not fun and has significant costs for the inexperienced project manager and organizations that rely on them.

Advances in modern technology may offer a solution. Intelligent agents can already deliver context-sensitive information based on what an application has learned about you.

Looking forward a year or two, it's not difficult to envisage applications on your iPad or smartphone that can understand the knowledge you're likely to need for each task or meeting. It could make the one or two relevant items in the organization's knowledge management system available to you as needed -- plus, of course, the relevant project information. If the context is not clear, advanced links could even find a "knowledge master" who's immediately available for additional advice.
The smart systems then learn from your interaction and update the corporate knowledge banks. Add the ability for you and your colleagues to then input lessons learned and you have the basis for a true learning organization.

Many of the elements are already in place. The question is, are we, as a profession ready to make effective use of the potential? 

Sell Yourself

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As circumstances change, career expectations change. In boom times, you think about self-fulfillment. In lean times, you think about survival.

In either case, your best strategy is to create demand for your skills as a project manager. You have to make potential stakeholders aware of who you are and what you can do to help make their projects a success. It makes no difference if you're in a corporate culture or working independently. The very nature of the project business is such that even before you start a project, you know that it will end. Staying alive as a project manager means being known to the people who can keep you alive.

As a result, you're constantly selling yourself and your ability to help people with their projects. You can't help them if they don't know you, so you have to take steps to make yourself known. It's not enough for people just to know you, however; they also have to like you. Common sense says people buy from people they like. You're selling. They're buying.
You have to network in such a way as to not only be known by others, but also to be liked by them. And one of the best ways to win people over is to ask them sincere questions. Not only does it endear you to people, but it also helps you discover their needs and what you can do to help their projects succeed.

Get Over Your Fear and Acknowledge Your Boss

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Senior managers rank among the most under-acknowledged people in the workplace.

Part of it comes down to harried, stressed out, schedule-conscious project managers not being overly concerned with delivering the praise that does pop up in their brains from time to time. And we also wonder if that praise will be taken the wrong way. Will managers think we're just trying to get on their good side?

But once they're encouraged to acknowledge upward, people can't seem to wait to take action. In one virtual course I led, a project manager texted "I'll be right back. I have to go acknowledge my boss!"

Ten minutes later he was back. "I did it!!!" he texted, and you could feel his pride. We all felt proud of him, too, and shared his three-exclamation-mark excitement.

I was pleased to hear a similar story in a different course:
Some time ago, I had told my boss privately, but I had not told anyone publicly (so as not to embarrass him too much) that he was my hero -- that he had saved me from an almost intolerable situation and allowed me to retain my dignity. I'd always felt that he acknowledged me, but was especially honored as a result of the appointment to my current position.

"What he hasn't known, but will now," I told our class, with my boss sitting right there, "is that because of this, I say thank you to him every day that I've worked here, since November 2008, through my password, which is a combination of a 'thank you' to him and his name." - Jyll D. Townes, deputy commissioner for regional affairs, New York State Division of Human Rights
When Jyll told this story, her boss -- and everyone else in the room -- just lit up! It was so refreshing and wonderful to see. He was totally surprised and moved. She took the risk of acknowledging upward in a public setting and reaped the reward.

Don't hold back appreciation because of a person's position or influence. Sometimes those in the highest positions need our acknowledgment the most. Theirs can be a lonely and stressful path. Letting them know they made or make a difference in the workplace and in our lives will go a long way.
Feel free to post an acknowledgment of your manager as a comment to this blog! 

The Synergy of a Well-Run Program

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In my last post, I used The Lord of the Rings to help explain the difference between a program and a project. And I also revealed the magical prize of a well-managed program: synergy.

Let's discuss an example in Taiwan: The country has been pursuing a series of e-government initiatives for some time, including an "e-Business" smart card.

Users insert the card into a reader, which then provides access to more than 30 different online government services. The options include business information, marketing and tax databases, tax return calculation, patent applications -- to name a few.

Business people no longer have to go to government offices, spend time telephoning officials or advisers, or print, collect or post physical documents.

The bottom-line savings are substantial. Over one year, a single business might save US$100. Multiply that by 5 million businesses, and the cost savings are around US$500 million. More importantly, it means businesses have access to information and their government whenever they want it.

This is the "synergy" I'm talking about.

But why does such an initiative have to be run as a program, instead of as multiple projects that need coordination?

In this case, more than 30 projects across different application areas are involved and they share a group of IT and telecom resources. With the need to exchange resources, and communicate both vertically and horizontally, a higher level of governance is needed.

Program managers and project managers have different focuses and see things differently. Program managers are primarily concerned with the coordination among projects, while project managers are primarily concerned with the management of their own projects. But working together, they can create that magical synergy.

I'm linking the procurement and human resources chapters of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) together for the simple reason that I have absolutely no idea why they're in there in the first place. I have never been in or encountered an organization of any size that lumps human resources and procurement departments under the head of project management.

I'm pretty sure this is because human resources and procurement should be understood as asset management, not project management. Asset and project management are completely different animals, with different objectives, tools and methods for attaining their respective goals.

Those differences were vividly illustrated for me when I was working on a software project for my organization's human resources department. I had loaded the schedule into a critical path network, pulled status and recalculated the projected end dates. When I was presenting the resulting Gantt chart to the human resources manager, I pointed out that one set of activities involving the software coders looked like it would be delayed, and, if it was, it would delay other key milestones.
"Tell everyone to come to work this weekend and maybe next," was his automatic reply. "Wait," I interjected. "These activities have nothing to do with your folks - it's the management information systems people who are involved here, and we don't even know what their difficulty is. It may not be fixable with more people working it." "No difference," he replied. "This project is so important that all of our assets must be performing optimally."

Of course, project management is not about the performance of assets. It's about attaining the scope that the customer is expecting, within the customer's parameters of cost and schedule.

I'm engaging in a little bit of hyperbole here, but most project managers don't concern themselves about whether they should have bought or rented a key piece of equipment. They care about whether or not the job gets done on time and within budget.

Procurement is in the same boat. Sure, it's important that the procurement professionals who work with you are very good at what they do. But they obtain assets and are similarly afflicted by the asset managers' mind set.

I just don't think we're kindred spirits. But, if there are any human resources or procurement heavy-hitters out there who think our managerial goals and techniques are completely compatible, I'd love to hear from you.

Put the Pen Down and Trust Your Team

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In one of my last posts, "How Much Proofreading Is Too Much?" I wrote about another hypothetical situation involving Sebastian and his habit of correcting everything written.

As a number of commentators correctly suggested, the appropriate quality for the documentation depends on its intended use. Certainly information sent outside the organization should be as close to perfect as possible and "two sets of eyes are better than one."

This wasn't the core issue, though. Sebastian is proofreading and correcting minutes, notes and other internal, short-lived documents to the same high standard.

The purpose of technical documentation within a project is to get ideas across in a way the concerned audience can understand. Sebastian's team may need training and support to create effective documentation, but striving toward perfection doesn't add value.

The key to solving this problem is helping Sebastian understand that continually criticizing people for not achieving perfection can be extremely debilitating and will reduce his team's effectiveness. This is not his intention, but is the perception of people who receive Sebastian's heavily corrected documents.

The ideal solution is to get Sebastian to understand how detrimental his behavior is. Achieving this may require people who Sebastian sees as experts and advisers to coach him to improve his team-management skills.

Alternatively, effectively "advising upwards" by focusing on Sebastian's real interests, such as product delivery, may be a solution. Neither of these options, however, is likely to provide a quick solution. Changing habitual behaviors can take years and requires the person making the change to want to change.

A more practical alternative may be to reframe the problem. Written communication is only one way of conveying information. Alternative approaches may include scheduling brief discussions to resolve issues, using web portals to make documents shared resources where everyone contributes or changing the media to something where grammatical structures are less important.

Unfortunately there are no easy answers to this problem. For those on the receiving end of Sebastian's corrections, recognize that a criticism of a document you have written is not a criticism of you and use the opportunity to improve. (You should see what the editors do to our posts...LOL)

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