Jun 262014

Yesterday was one of those days, a blue Monday in the middle of the week. One of those days where everything seems set against you and your purpose.

It’s interesting that these kind of days always seem more likely when one isn’t quite so happy with the way things are.

Coming off a bit of a grumpy day after closing down the MX-5 opportunity disaster [and to be honest, berating myself a little for my weakness and inconsistencies] yesterday just flowed on from there.

The factory in China is the bane of my existence at the moment. They debate every little request, usually with ‘No’. It’s super-frustrating trying to meet a customer project specification with a crowd like that who doesn’t even address the project specification but just forge ahead with their standard concept.

Anyhow, that’s par for the course as a PM, so no real complaints other than I’m tired and want to try something different down in Glencairn. Biggest challenge is, and remains, the wonderful back-office staff and unfathomable procedures, processes, forms and ‘rules’. On top of all the other frustrations, when someone cannot give me a good reason or cannot explain what a piece of data required is for other than ‘That’s the form, that’s what is required, I don’t no why” then I find it hard not to show my frustration.

The point of all this whining ?

I’ll tell you why. Because I care! I care to be seen as a competent professional. That’s what I do and to a certain extent, it reflects on my abilities when I cannot focus the team all in the same direction. I don’t buy into the CMA management approach, a woolly masses “as long as it’s someone else’s fault” approach. I’m invested in the job while I’m here and take it’s success seriously [probably too seriously if I’m honest with myself]

I suppose the other thing that grates, a lifelong ‘wound‘ that gets prodded with regularity, is the fact that no-one listens. I hate that, especially when their stance has no logic behind it [and let’s be honest, “because it’s always been done this way” is just plain stupid, like a parent telling their child ‘because I told you so‘].

After a stint away from this specific corporate, I certainly was under no illusions that things would be different in the back-office on my return. What I do find strange in myself is that the frustration levels seem similar to those when I left. This is surprising. The role I left behind, a middle management position, had a direct requirement to address the engineering and project management efficiencies and as a result it was difficult to take the ‘not listening‘ to heart. Returning as a bottom-feeder, there is no such requirement, no reason for me to feel it my responsibility to identify and correct broken and inefficient processes. And yet, there it is, the same feeling of frustration?

Life is too short for this. I’ve made my choices and I’m satisfied with where my career job is and will be. It’s not always like this and as life progresses, this kind of knee-jerk response becomes less and less frequent, an aberration in what is normally a fairly relaxed, stress free life. The challenge is to withstand the constant barrage of this for another 5-10 years and then, let’s be honest, the new life will have different challenges.

As in all things, living on the edge is fine in short bursts, but when it’s done continuously, living with no buffer, no breathing space any small thing can turn into a major life-threatening crisis. The buffer in this case is a Cape Town break. The decision to not do the China trip is taken, no matter the consequences. Time to forge ahead and take a couple of days to recharge that buffer.

Mar 072012

The goal has been, and always will be, to efficiently keep track of to-do items, minimise paper usage, minimise electronic devices. To this end I still am resisting the ‘fad’ of iPads and iPhones. Not that I’m against the technology, but because I don’t think they will significantly enhance my daily life. I don’t want to carry a PC as well as an iPad as well as a graphics tablet as well as …….blah, blah, blah.

So, for me, I work with 3 main tools – PC [Outlook and OneNote], Bamboo tablet and A5 paper notes [digitised to PC]. Simpler than that I don’t want to go. More complex than that I don’t want to go.


Jul 062011

Over the last few years I have become involved in projects, mostly in the construction industry, where it appears that the overriding culture is to pay lip-service to scheduling. There appears to be an inability, or unwillingness, to grasp the necessity of clear, detailed scheduling.

I call this ‘Dust Cloud Project Management’. Picture the cartoon scene. The main characters are involved in a massive skirmish. The main portion of the cartoon shows a huge dust cloud of activity, arms, feet, fists and faces all sticking out through the dust at random angles, all that is visible of the furious activity going on behind the scenes.

Why is it that these industries hold the belief that furious activity, no matter whether properly coordinated or not, is the key to successfully completing the project on time? In this project culture the prime schedule determinator is a date, set in stone by some executive, but without the necessary underlying detail to actually know whether it is an achievable stretch-target or whether it is a fairytale. The project management method is then to ensure that all team members and subcontractors merely work furiously, all the time. Heaven forbid if you’re not projecting panic and action, no matter whether it’s effective or not. Just look busy and make sure you can always blame your ‘delays’ on someone else! And the crisis management!! Let’s not even go there.

The result is a stressful project work environment that almost always runs over the date line drawn in the sand at the start, with corresponding cost overruns to boot.

Bringing structure and logic into this culture is a huge challenge but it’s important not to let proven methodologies slide because of the pressure.

Jun 032011

There is a thought-train in the minimalist movement: Consciously question “Can I live without this <TV, pair of shoes, cell-phone, etc ……..>. It’s not a pre-requisite that you only have <one pair of shoes>, but it’s more a conscious thought process of evaluating whether things are really necessary.

I think a similar thought process can be quite valuable in the project context. The project framework of Scope, Budget, Time and Quality provides the project ‘value system’ against which one evaluates the question ‘Is this really necessary?’ Other ways of framing this are: ‘Is the solution fit for purpose, simple, solid and reliable?’ or ‘Are the actions I’m taking as a PM effective?’ or ‘Where should I focus my time and effort?’ for example.

The larger and more complex a project becomes the easier it is to be overwhelmed by busyness and to-do lists. By asking the question ‘Is this the most efffective <solution/action/way to spend my time> etc ?’ you improve your chances of working on the 20% of tasks that really make a difference to your project and it’s stakeholders.

May 192011

Being busy – it’s a double-edged sword. Not being busy can lead to boredom and frustration. Having too much work on the other hand can seem like the better option, but it’s dangerous. I’m not talking about foolish-type ‘busyness’. I’m talking about having more than enough important work that needs doing, resulting in one being full-on busy, all day, every day. It’s dangerous, bad, because it doesn’t make it easy to continue the important work of finding a way to creative, innovative lifestyle-work outside the corporate [or even within the corporate if that is the goal]. One so easily gets sucked into it, that the pains and evils of the environment are temporarily forgotten and the discomfort of previous circumstances is dimmed, pushed into the background as if, subconsciously, the pain of the past has been resolved. But it hasn’t been resolved at all. It’s lurking there, just waiting to resurface when you least want it.

So the only lasting solution is to fight the urge to commit all to the current workload. Make sure you set time aside, every day, but at a minimum every week, to focus on learning and development activities. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the current project crises are only temporary, that you’ll focus on growth and development once you’re over the present challenges. Tomorrow will have further challenges. It’s an immutable law of the universe: ‘Your In-Box will never be empty no matter how hard you try’.

Your life and your sanity depend on this! Neglect at your peril.

May 182011

Strange title I know but I’ll explain…..

A lot of my online reading lately has been focussed on innovation, on entrepreneurial small business, start-ups and the like and one of the topics of discussion I’ve stumbled across it the concept of the ‘Lifestyle Business’. No, it’s not a store selling hiking and camping gear! The term loosely refers to a business where the primary objective is not to grow at all costs but to sustain a certain level of income or growth or size in order to provide quality of life, quality of product/service  or something similar.

Shock Horror! That’s heresy of the first order in the mainstream corporate world. But I am very glad to discover that it’s not only myself who thinks that way.

If you translate this into the world of projects it ties in very nicely with the Lazy PM train of thought. It’s not always about doing more, climbing higher, appearing successful in the world’s eyes. It’s really about knowing how much is enough, what is sustainable and finding a balance to ones life that allows time for all the important things, project management and otherwise.

May 032011

I’m onboard Strider, a Searunner 31 trimaran, somewhere just downstream of 2cnd weir on the Vaal. We’re hard aground, stuck firmly on the keel and rudder in the mud, the result of an over-eager attempt to fly the Code-0 in narrow, unknown waters without a working depth-sounder.

The water is freezing and the wind bitingly cold as we row out the kedge anchor. We spend the next 45 minutes winching, cussing and moving only slightly closer to the deeper water off the starboard beam. It’s not working. So we do what we should have done from the start – into the freezing, muddy water and we help her free by pushing. 30 seconds later we’re floating free!

It’s the same in life and on our projects sometimes. We get stuck on something – whether a problem that needs solving or the routine of life in general – and spin opur wheels trying to get moving again. Often the overall problem seems daunting, too big to solve, so we go into a tailspin, putting in the effort but not moving forward, avoiding the hard work we know is needed to make a breakthrough.

So, yes. It’s not the worst possible thing that can happen to you, being stuck. The worst possible thing that can happen to you is that you don’t realise you’re stuck, you don’t realise that what you’re doing is not effective, you don’t do the hard work you know is needed. So, even if you’re not 100% sure of what to do next, do something different. Do the hard, intelligent work needed; make a start and take small, positive action in a different direction. Do the work and you’ll be surprised at how soon you become unstuck.

Mar 102011

I’ve often liked the idea: “If it looks like I have nothing to do then I’m doing an extremely good job as a project manager”. To me this means I’ve got life under control, all the plates are spinning and life is good. This may come as a surprise though. After all, the corporate world of customer facing projects is driven by productivity right? If you’re not rushing to another meeting, to busy even to exchange pleasantries as you storm down the corridor, you’re wasting time, squandering a limited resource, failing in what’s expected of you. Could it be that by doing less, but by doing that less better, you end up with a better quality product or service?

You’ve seen them – the people who always seem to be rushing. They never seem to have time to relax, to have a deep, meaningful discussion about anything. They’re always rushing to the next meeting, task, appointment. It doesn’t matter what background or environment they come from. Just take a look at the freeway team in the mornings, or any time for that matter. Rush, Rush, Rush. Why? Do all the drivers you see on the motorway have such fulfilling lives and jobs that they desperately need to get there in such a hurry, at all costs, even at risk to life and limb?

In working with new Project Managers [PM’s] I often see them struggling to find their feet; desperately spinning their plates to run their projects, deal with difficult clients and situations, find time to update their project  plans and financial reporting, keep their teams on track. I see them concerned about “Are they doing the right thing?” There’s nothing wrong with this commitment and effort. It’s a good thing. The world doesn’t need people, even less Project Managers, who aren’t interesting in doing their best. But here’s the thing. Could one tone down the frantic action a little, create some space and time for personal thought, reflection and ineer peace while still meeting the expectations regarding one’s job and ones projects? How do you decide where to focus your energy and talents, what is the 20 in the 80/20 rule? How do you balance your desire to do a good job [a perfect job?] with the desire to also have a life outside your work and your projects?

There’s no denying that one benefits from a little bit of life under the belt before you actually begin develop a reliable ‘gut-feel’ for things but is there a way to speed up this experience thing? [That’s a little bit of the ‘I want it now’ attitude all too common in the world these days]. I look at my young PM peers and the way they approach their work. Its gratifying to see commitment, a willingness to do one’s best and yet sometimes I want to scream and say. “Stop, take it easy. It will all work itself out.”

I see a lot of myself in Jim [not his real name] when I was starting out in my PM career, as is he. Much of the same drive, perfectionism, ambition. It’s gratifying that he has chosen me as his mentor and he often taps on my door for a chat. Most times I know that deep down he is looking for the ‘one true answer’ to the problem, a quick fix for his dilemma. He denies that it’s that, but I know it is, I was there myself remember. “What’s the formula to fix this?” is the question. Also, I’ve got to the stage in my life where I know I don’t know everything and also am not afraid to tell him so. The best I can do is drag out past experiences of my own that somewhat relate to his challenges of the present. And you know what? It seems to help. I waffle endlessly. He returns again and again for more. That must be an indicator of something, a help for us both in some form or another. I get to exercise my mind, he get’s to see some options he may not have thought about.

So what are the important things? Is it possible to have a short checklist [because project managers love checklists right] that will clearly show the important 20? Here’s a stab in the dark:

  • The customer is No.1
      • Manage the client relationship at all costs. An unhappy client calling management will bring you stress, big time. It will cause you to be reactive, put you on the back foot and you’ll have to drop everything in a flurry of panic to sort out someone else’s priority at that moment. Sure, one can’t always foresee everything and there will be moments of true need where you should immediately stop what you’re doing and deal with the issues. But remember the thought; “Is someone dying?” Things are seldom as important as they are made out to be. Relax, breath, obtain all the facts and then act.
  • Risk Management
      • You don’t want to be paranoid or continually pessimistic, but think about what can go wrong and put plans in place to deal with it. Do some basic scenario planning, identify risk triggers. That way, when something happens to throw your life and your project off-track, you’ll have a plan which you can adapt and put into action right away.
  • Know your team.
      • In theory you should have hand-picked your own team but we all know that in real life you get what you’re given and you need to make it fly. Some team members can be left on their own. Others need to be micro-managed [unfortunately]. Know who is closest to the problem and take appropriate steps to support them in dealing with unexpected issues. Leaving inexperienced team members on their own for too long is a sure-fire way of picking up issues and crises down the line.
  • Know your internal stakeholders
      • Besides the client and the project team there will be certain individuals in your organisation who are interested in you project and what’s happening around it. Departmental managers have a need to know about key issues and staffing requirements. Finance, at certain key times, want updated project finances. Executive management may want regular communications sessions depending on the strategic importance of your project. There may be others interests, but identify the important ones, proactively prepare the data before it’s needed and you’ll give the perception of being in control, no matter what is happening at grass-roots level.

 So, my sincere hope is that you will look at me and think – why isn’t he stressed out? Why isn’t he rushing? Why isn’t he concerned with the size of his To-Do List? For me, this is a part of what makes me successful. Life is about more than just productivity. Focus on the really important stuff and you’ll have time to immerse yourself into meaningful growth and development activities. It’s not about looking or feeling busy. Consider the Effort vs Perfection Graph in everything you do. How much is enough? Every single thing doesn’t have to be perfect, it really only needs to be ‘Good Enough’. It’s not about filling every waking hour with buzz and activity. It is about doing an outstanding job on the few items that will really make a difference.

Good luck in your search to hone in on the important few!