Dec 262016

South Africa at Christmas time is a dead-zone. Total shutdown. Zero interest. Things may revive during the first week of January but don’t count on it.

So what happens when the main pipe between the turbo and the intercooler gives out in the middle of the Karoo?

Getting a tow might not be impossible. Getting a replacement might take a bit of time.

Having a bit of ductape, a webbing strap and a little ingenuity…!? Well that will get you home 900km later.

Makeshift turbo repairs

Being self-sufficient isn’t always about the money. It’s about freedom. It’s about safety. It’s about personal satisfaction. It’s about keeping going when the rest of the woolly masses are either out of action, too expensive or incapable.

In the context of a roadside breakdown the world is pretty much organised to assist. For a fee. That same kind of breakdown at sea? Well you had better be able to fix it yourself or jury-rig a solution because nobody is coming to help you out there.

Not everything is fixable.

The more complex the systems the less likely it is that you will be able to fix them on your own. Tinkering and fixing also don’t just magically start the first time you have a breakdown. It’s a skill that requires nurturing, a muscle that must be exercised, a mental attitude that needs cultivation. As a result there is some value gained by living with your stuff, by getting to know it, by learning to fix it instead of scrapping it at the first sign of trouble.

Old cars are a pain. They break down. But after they breakdown in a certain fashion several times, as long as you have been paying attention, you learn how to fix them. Yes, perhaps it is easier to just buy a new one with a warrantee and a service plan. Perhaps. But that takes resources and time perhaps better spent on other endeavours?

The trick to all of this is having redundancy.

If the car breaks you want to have breathing space while you source the parts or find the most cost effective repair shop. A trusty motorcycle waiting in the wings allows mobility while all this is happening. Or a bicycle.

At sea, on the sailboat? Build redundancy into your systems. Keep everything as simple as possible. Know how to repair everything on board yourself. And I mean everything. Have a plan if the rudder breaks, if the hull springs a leak, if the mains’l tears straight through.

And in daily life, cultivate the ability to diagnose and repair by practice. Don’t delegate repairs to others by default and before you know how or what needs doing yourself. If you do that then at the very least you’ll know to keep the reapairman honest and above-board while forking over your hard-earned cash. Out at sea that habit just might save your life.

Take personal control of your finances, your tax returns, your life, everything you can. Reject the nanny-state and remain accountable to yourself. There’s power and freedom there.

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.


Jan 292012

A colleague dropped by my office for a visit the other day. I happened to be in the final stages of planning and locking down the baseline for a new project, so I didn’t really pay him much attention while he chatted [Yeah Right! – like you always give others your undivided attention!]. When I finally paused and explained to him what I was doing, he replied;

“What’s the use of planning! As soon as the plan is published it’s a work of fiction, totally unrelated to real life!”

Now there’s nothing quite like a statement of that nature to rub a project manager the wrong way. After all, at it’s core, it calls into disrepute the entire profession. Or does it? As with everything in life, there are many interpretations and perspectives. If you think about it, core to this perception is possibly the lack of a clear understanding of what a project manager actually does. Or at least what the good project managers are doing that is different to the mainstream.

At its core, project management may possibly best be described as “Getting things done” or better still “Coordinating team efforts and making sure things get done properly”. [There are obviously many more correct theoretical and institutional definitions that describe the full content of project management, but for the purposes of this discussion lets just say our definition here is sufficient]

“So what”, I hear you cry. “There are plenty of people in life who get things done by just climbing in and doing!” And this is true. You don’t have to be a certificated project manager to get things done. However, and I think this is key, many people don’t really have a handle on what a good project manager actually does in order to “Get things Done”.

Many people can climb in and achieve in a chaotic environment. The true game changers are those that take a bigger picture view and achieve in the chaos, all the while making improvements to process and tools so that next time the chaos is a little less and the quality of product and life is a little better, and the next better, and the next better …… ! This lessening of the chaos makes life better for the entire project team, improves quality of life, improves deliverables. The lone ranger is often seen as the hero, able to step into the chaos and fix [organisations with projects in trouble love them] but what are they doing to make life better for others? The real innovator, the real hero is the PM who can not only rescue the effort from the chaos, but is the one that improves life for the entire team the next time around as well.

Sure, there are the plans, the checklists, the Gantt charts, the reports, the processes. These are vital if the business of running projects is to succeed in it’s goals of sustainable profits, quality products and services and repeat business from satisfied clients. The average PM fills these out religiously and rests on his laurels, adding “Project Manager” to his resume. The good PM realises that these are a very small part of his daily life. They help guide the action. They help to reduce the daily chaos that could be the project. They help to standardise reporting and future-proof the organisation against “Chaos Heroes”. The good PM constantly acts, communicates, questions, taking a wider focus on innovation and improvement, making sure that the environment in which his project runs is being analysed and improved upon and pushing the limits of client satisfaction. 

There is a hint of truth in the sentiment that life is too unpredictable for planning, but I can’t agree with it as an absolute. Yes, the plan may not ultimately be achieved in every minute detail, but without a plan, a roadmap if you will, there is no measure of whether effort expended is going in the right direction. A good PM will spend time on putting a realistic plan in place. Then he will use that plan as a guide, not as the absolute truth, adjusting course and re-planning if necessary to achieve an outcome acceptable to the key stakeholders involved in the project.

Looking for samples, tools and templates to assist in the running of your projects. Try: PM Docs

For formal PM methodologies and Definitions what better place to look than: PMI or APM

Nov 232011

If you’re a serial, hard-core career Project Manager, you will probably have a healthy regard, amongst other things, for correct process. After all, repeatable process is one of the things that helps the PM create order out of chaos, helps her get things done in an uncertain world. This respect for systems, process and doing things the “correct way” does however need to be balanced against “fit for purpose”.

Let me give you an example [which you may struggle to fully understand unless you’re a S’african or have some knowledge of our cooking practices.] I and my team are currently bumping up against a corporate policy scenario that is quite obviously not fit-for-purpose in the project execution realm. Imagine the scene. You’re in the African bush with all the magic and emotion it evokes. The sun is setting on a perfect day and as you sit by the fire, the calls of the hyena mingle with the soft and gentle sounds of the Nightjar. On the camp fire in front of you, nestled in the coals, is the largest potjie pot you ever saw. Big enough to cook the meal for the 20 or so guests expected for dinner. Now this is a BIG pot, make no mistake, but everything seems under control, the kitchen staff have done their work well and the wondrous fragrance of ox-tail stew is already beginning to permeate the air. Management have tasked you with vital role of making sure the stew gets stirred. Absolutely key to a good and successful outcome. There’s only one problem. Corporate policy dictates that only certain privileged roles in the organisation are allowed to have the 6-foot wooden spoon. Everyone knows that for a pot of this size you really need that specific spoon, but because of your position and rank in the team, you have only been given a teaspoon. [Don’t laugh – it happens, particularly in the IT context]

So, as PM and key team member – what do you do? Do you just resignedly accept your fate and try your best to stir the potjie with the tea-spoon, all the while falling back on the position of “it’s not my fault” and knowing the venture is doomed from the start, or do you flout convention and corporate norms, doing whatever it takes to get the right tool for the job in order to secure a better chance of success? I know what I would do …. !

Remember, procedure, systems, policies are useful and necessary but they have to serve the project. Don’t blindly follow because that’s “the way things are”. Make sure your systems, policies, processes and procedures are positively adding to the project effort. If not, be brave and find a better way!

To borrow the recent thoughts of Corbett Barr in his article “Question Everything“:

How did I end up here?

Why don’t I believe I can do it?

What limits am I putting on myself that I’m not even aware of?

What am I really capable of?

How can I change the world?

What’s holding me back?

What am I so afraid of?

Who says it has to be this way?

Who would join my cause?

Why hasn’t anyone tried it that way before?

What if I did it anyway?

Why can she do it, but I can’t?

What if I say no?

What if I say yes?

What’s the worst that could happen?

What am I waiting for?

Will I be happy in ten years if I don’t do this now?

Oct 072011

The recent resignation of one of my PM’s has again highlighted the value to a business of process and systems. Without the standardisation that these bring, the resulting shock to the organisation is greater than it needs to be. No process or system is perfect and the PM role typically allows for fairly wide freedom in day-to-day work, so no hand-over between PM’s is totally pain-free and seamless. But without systems this transition becomes even more painful.