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Top Management Resource - 2012

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The Brick Wall of Bureaucracy

“Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.” – Laurence J Peter

There are plenty of good reasons to have established procedures. Don’t you want procedures to ensure safety and security? Don’t you want a paper trail when money is involved? Of course you expect project managers to follow a clearly defined methodology.

Do you ever suspect that some people use the rules as an excuse to avoid work? Of course they do!

“Sorry, we can’t do that, we do everything here by the book.”

But we have always done it this way.”

Those are both phrases that can make your blood run cold. Or at least give you a raging headache. Ouch, you just slammed into the brick wall of bureaucracy.

Brick wall of Bureaucracy

Some people use rules and procedures to shelter themselves from work. They truly do not care how much difficulty they send your way. They claim to be efficient (because they are following the pre-established rules), but they are not effective. And making you jump through hoops to follow obscure organizational guidelines is fun,  for them.

The truth is that these individuals really use bureaucracy to mask laziness, apathy and fear of change. How can you fight back?

Never attack the system and definitely do not put the person on the defensive. Research is your new best friend. Why? Because you are probably not going to be able to dismantle the process and you will not be granted permission to follow your own approach. Observe the behavior of the person so that you learn how they use the process as a roadblock. Learn the process. If it is documented carry it around with you. As soon as your favorite obstacle starts quoting the rules, sit with them and have them flip to the page and section they are referencing. You want to be able to use the process too, so that you are already prepared with the correct response. If they say, “Sorry but you have to submit that form in triplicate”; counter with “And here are my three copies, thank you for your assistance.”

If research is your new best friend, then documentation is definitely a member of your inner circle.

Why? Someone who uses bureaucracy to avoid effort may be inconsistent in their interpretation of the rules. So keep track of how you are asked to follow the process. Also make sure you follow the process in place for documentation. Often the first roadblock with any bureaucrat is the documentation itself.

“I would love to help you, but you just do not have the appropriate documentation.” Your response, “Oh yes, I do and here it is, thank you for your assistance.”

If you suspect that this person is playing it fast and loose with the rules, get help. Collaborate with peers and even senior associates. It doesn’t hurt to get a second opinion.

Never let them get you flustered. It just isn’t worth it. Relax and work within the system.






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Use Lessons Learned to Improve, NOT to Rewrite History

“If past history were all there was to the game, the richest people would be librarians.” – Warren Buffet

History Provides Lessons Learned

It was the beginning of the semester and our professor was explaining the requirements for our class paper. He was on a bit of a tear, addressing one of his favorite (or least favorite) pet peeves:

“…And do NOT write me a paper that discusses how everything today would be different if the Germans had won WWII. You cannot know what would have happened because it did NOT happen. You cannot support such a paper with valid facts and proven academic resources. Do you know why you cannot support such a paper? Because there are no credible academic sources for you to use, that paper is a work of fiction. Please write that paper in your creative writing class.”

As you can see this was a non-negotiable item for him. While his aim was to teach us how to write an academic quality paper about history, he also was making an important point about life: You cannot go back and change your past. You cannot unsay things that were said or undo actions that were taken. Spending time on what could have happened, or what would have happened is not very useful. Not in our personal lives and not in our professional lives.

In our projects, we want to collect lessons learned and we want to review lessons learned from past projects. The purpose is not to dwell on what happened and how it could have been different. The purpose is to apply those lessons learned to our current and future projects so that we can improve our ability to deliver.   Even if you look at a lesson from a previous project, and even if the project had been executed differently, if that specific lesson learned had been known in advance, there is no guarantee that the project would have ended differently. There are many variables that contribute to project success.

The same can be said of our interactions with our project stakeholders and other colleagues and our friends and family. We want to learn from those interactions and grow. It makes no sense to keep replaying a difficult conversation over and over again in your head. Process what happened. Take note of some ideas of how to interact in future and similar difficult conversations. Then let it go and move on. Next time make use of your lessons learned, collect new lessons and just keep going.

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YOU Did Help Sally and Annette

Last time you looked at a scenario between two colleagues, Sally and Annette. Sally was definitely having an issue with Annette’s communication style. We are not sure what Annette thought. (Catch up with their story here:

A call went out asking, can you help Sally? What advice would you give her? And you responded. And the resounding advice was…. There was no one clear opinion. About three different themes emerged. Let’s look at those themes right now.

  • Sally is passive-aggressive and perhaps beyond help:

communication style“…She is not only passive-aggressive, she is rigid and sure her way is the best and correct. She does not play well with others. By the middle of this brainstorming, Annette was reading Sally like a book… Annette handled the whole ordeal like a pro. She compromised without any apparent issues! …”

  • Sally and Annette can best work together by representing different personality types:

“…I think Sally should approach Annette to ask her to plan events in the future with all the personality types played out and acknowledged. If you can get Annette to play all the types, she’ll start to see where they are coming from, and maybe even be curious to ask Sally to describe to her (Annette) what it is like to be one of the other types. It will increase her emotional intelligence at the same time as encouraging her to use her (apparently) big imagination, and it will support the company use of the personality types… WIN WIN WIN!”

  • Sally needs to talk to Annette and establish some clear boundaries:

“Sally needs to re-evaluate the event and collect the lessons learned. Then to clarify these points for Annette that to consider in future events. Also She needs to establish ground rules for the relation between them, telling Annette to avoid ordering her in future and to allow discussion between them instead.”


“Sally needs to firm up on her approach. Her answers although not being harsh, also does not address the problem at hand, she needed to put her concerns through firmly.Annette is the typical bully in the office, who loves the attention and the power of being in charge, so let her be in charge, however make sure when the discussion is going south, you become assertive in what you believe… Do not accept a brush off as an answer, ask for a resolution, in that way you are asking the so called leader to make a decision, and ask for reasons for the decision he or she is taking to the point at hand. Always remember some people do not hear you when you sound as if you making a comment on what was asked or said.”

Which one is the BEST answer? Without knowing more of the details it is hard to say. What has definitely emerged is the diversity of our own community and the experiences we have had. In turn these experiences shape our opinions and ultimately our advice. Where one sees a bully in Annette, another sees a passive-aggressive colleague in Sally. Some of us represent Sally; some of us represent Annette, some of us are not at all like either of them. It is a good reminder for each of us to try and avoid assumptions about the behaviors of others, to allow for different ways of being and to continue to strive toward clear communications.

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Can YOU Help Sally and Annette?

Once upon a time, Sally and Annettein a land not very far away, there were two colleagues who had a communication issue. Let’s call them Sally and Annette. Sally definitely had an issue. She was really not certain if Annette would agree that there was an issue. But Sally knew that if she felt that there was an issue, there was an issueAfter thinking about it for quite a bit (obsessing over it, really). Sally wondered if their challenges came from a combination of personality type, communication style and conflict resolution styles. Sally knew she was introverted, and that she tended to think quite a bit before she spoke and that in conflict she preferred to collaborate. Annette had a tendency to blurt things out and to take a very controlling approach to situations and communications.

Their difference in approaches surfaced while planning a team-building event. When they sat down to plan the event, Annette announced, “Well of course we are going to make this a themed costume party event.” Sally had no such plans and actually hated the idea. Still, she wanted to be open and perhaps a themed costume party would be fun for the team. Annette continued with, “And anyone without a costume cannot attend. YOU should help me write guidelines so that everyone knows the difference between a good costume and a bad one.” Sally could not believe her ears and although she could along with a themed costume party as a team-building event, she could not get on board with being the ‘costume police’.

Sally looked at Annette and said, “I am NOT going to write costume guidelines. Let’s keep it open so that everyone feels like they can attend. EVEN the people who might not want to wear costumes.” Sally said this in a calm and matter of fact manner, but inwardly Sally was annoyed. And that was the problem that Sally was experiencing. Sally found that frequently when Sally responded to Annette she disliked feeling like she was arguing or even defending herself. Annette seemed to accept this answer and moved on to planning the event. Annette had no idea that Sally was annoyed.

“We need to have contests and games and everyone needs to be assigned roles for how to participate during the contests and the games. Nobody gets to sit by the sidelines.” Proclaimed Annette. Sally began to wonder if she could skip the event. Sally knew that she would rather cheer others on from the sidelines than be forced to play musical chairs or some other party game.

“During the event I think YOU should walk around and make sure people participate, I will give everyone directions on how to play the games.” This was Annette’s next order. Sally looked at Annette and said, “You know this is supposed to be a party and celebration, not another project. Why don’t we let people enter contests if they wish or cheer from the sidelines if they prefer?” Annette responded with, “You can’t do that, you have to tell people what to do if you want them to have a good time.”

“Well the demands you are making on our team members make me want to call in sick the day of the event. “ Replied Sally. Annette ignored her and continued on with the planning. The conversation continued in the same way, Annette issuing commands and Sally deflecting many of them in order to avoid feeling like she was being ordered around and in order to create a more balanced team-building event.

When it was over Sally felt a huge sense of relief. She had survived! Yet, when it was over Annette turned to Sally and said, “Let’s work together on the next event, I really think we make a terrific team.” Sally did not even know what to say.

Can you help Sally? What advice do you have for her? Please post your advice as a comment below.

Looking forward to your wise advice!

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Tell Your Team Members What YOU Want

“It is the oddest thing. They are such a nice group of people. Each one of them comes highly recommended and yet nothing seems to be happening.” Joe, the project sponsor explained to Mary Carol. He went on to explain, “I thought that this was such an easy effort that this team could really just self-manage. But now I see that perhaps I need you to work some of that project management magic.”

mind readerInwardly Mary Carol suppressed a sigh. Silently she thought, “You mean you thought you could just try to run a project with no organization and no direction and prove that project management is unnecessary.”  This was not the first time she had been brought in to work with a team who was supposed to be self-managing.

Initially she shadowed Joe as he met with the team. She had to agree that they were a nice group of people.  Joe spoke to them about how important they were to the company and how what they were working on was invaluable to their customers. They seemed to be enthusiastic. It was during the second meeting that Mary Carol made an important observation. Joe, never specifically described exactly what it was the team was supposed to produce. He also did not say when it should be completed or which customer group would use it.

After the second meeting, Mary Carol asked Joe if she could try something during the next meeting. She asked him if she could interview him about this new product. He told her that he had been discussing it with them for weeks now and that they should know all about it. Still she persisted. And with an eye roll and an exasperated sigh, he said, “Fine, let’s try it your way, YOU’RE the big project management expert.”

Prior to the meeting Mary Carol spoke to each team member. She asked each of them to come up with their own list of questions about the project. She asked the analyst to be prepared to take notes, with an eye for turning those notes into an initial scope statement. At the start of the meeting, Joe turned to the group and told them that he apologized for wasting their time, but Mary Carol needed to ask him some questions. Mary Carol started and then turned the questioning over to the team. Each person in the room had an opportunity to ask his or her questions. When the meeting was over, the analyst had quite a bit of data to use to create a scope statement. Joe was shocked. He looked at the group and said, “Why didn’t any of you ask me these questions before?” First there was silence, and then one brave team member replied, “Because we did not even understand why we were having these meetings. We thought you were sharing future product development with us, not trying to kick off a project.”

Your team members cannot read your mind, so tell them what you expect from them.

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