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It’s a Plan NOT a Guarantee

“What is the point of all of these estimates and plans if you cannot promise me with 100% certainty that the project will complete by December 15th?” project-sponsorThis question came from the project sponsor. The team had just completed presenting their plan to him. He seemed happy enough, that is until he asked the question, “So you’re willing to guarantee me 100% that we will meet our target date of December 15?” As the project manager, Shane wanted to tell him yes. Of course he wanted to please his project sponsor and of course he was committed to meeting the date. But a 100% guarantee? Not with the type of risks he and his team had identified. Shane knew that to just say yes without emphasizing the risks to the schedule and budget would be wrong. Almost like a form of false advertising. Other project managers might have just gone ahead and said yes and engaged in that false advertising. But Shane had seen that backfire for others in the past. He knew that he would rather risk some annoyance upfront then to be accused of lying or making false promises later. He had also experienced the anger and disappointment that can come with issuing careless guarantees. Just last year he had a first hand encounter with false promises during a remodel to his house. It all could have been avoided if his contractor had presented a more truthful scenario. Instead Shane had been provided the most optimistic case, with no mention of risks or most-likely estimates. Carefully, Shane replied, "This is our plan for meeting the December 15th target date. We have every intention of hitting that date. The risks that we have shared with you represent some of the challenges, which would prevent us from meeting this date. The opportunities, which we have shared with you, if properly recognized can make it much more likely that we will hit the date. As the project progresses we will know. I will continually confirm our progress with you and continually assess our plan. I will include you in strategy discussions and you will not be blindsided." His sponsor stared at him for hours. Not really. His sponsor stared at him for about a minute. To Shane it felt like hours. Then his sponsor leaned back in his chair and said to him, “I don’t like it. I don’t like the idea that we could miss our date. But I do like the idea that you have a plan and that you know the challenges we face. And I especially like it that you told me the truth. I know there are no guarantees, and now I know you are the right person to run this project.”  
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KNOW the Rules, THEN Say NO to the Rules

Know the rules, then say no to the rulesHow do you teach people when it is acceptable to break or bend the rules? I will be the first to tell you; “If you ignore a best practice and your project does not go well, you need to go back and pay attention to the best practice.” I also know that those of you who experience success don’t always play by the book. You understand the rules and what the rules should represent. You know that navigating the rules and breaking the rules when necessary is an art, it is not a science. Try as I might to explain this to people, the truth is I can’t really teach you when to break the rules. Learning when to break the rules is not a function of intellect. It is a function of wisdom. Wisdom comes from experience and from how you learn from that experience. Consider the following stories. These stories come from Barry Schwartz and his discussion on our need for practical wisdom. (See: http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_our_loss_of_wisdom) The job description for a hospital janitor is very detailed. There are many tasks. The tasks are probably what you would expect, sweeping floors, cleaning bathrooms, emptying trash, restocking shelves, dusting, the list goes on and on. All of the tasks described are for work that does not involve interaction with other people. It is as if the janitors could work completely alone. And yet there is an element of the job that involves people and how to deal with those people. It also involves breaking the rules. Consider these scenarios: A janitor cleans the floor of a comatose patient two times. He does this because the patient’s father did not see him clean the floor the first time and the father is angry because he believes his son’s room is not being kept clean. Another janitor skips vacuuming the visitor’s lounge. She does this because it is occupied by the family of a patient. This family has been in the lounge all night, waiting to hear about their loved one. She does not vacuum because they are all now finally sleeping. There is no part of the job description for the hospital janitor that discusses or teaches how to balance the work of cleaning against the art of compassion for hospital patients and guests. Some of the janitors would absolutely NOT clean the floor a second time to make an angry father feel better and many janitors absolutely WOULD vacuum around the sleeping family. The wise janitors understand when to follow their job description to the letter and when the rules just don’t make sense. Notice that the decision to break the rules stemmed from an understanding of the rules. It also stems from a respect for those rules. Neither of these janitors broke the rules because they thought the rules were unfair or because they were trying to be rebellious. They made a decision that was grounded in wisdom and compassion. Let’s bring this back to project management. There was once a new program manager who inherited a program that was already down a path and already at risk of being late. A team of experienced project management consultants were brought in to help the program manager assess the true nature of the program and to assess whether or not the tight deadline was achievable. As part of this effort the deliverables created by the project teams were reviewed. In every case it was found that all of the teams had scope documents, but NONE of the teams had project charters. One of the most experienced consultants pulled the program manager aside and told her that she had to place the program on hold so that all of the project charters could be written, reviewed and approved. It was a best practice to have a project charter. The program manager knew that this consultant had far more experience than she had. She knew this consultant was really smart. She understood the importance of following the best practice. She also knew that placing the program on hold to create documentation that should have been created at the beginning was NOT a viable option. Drawing upon her knowledge of the best practices, the current situation on the program, and her knowledge of company culture, so told the consultant no. No the program would not be placed on hold; she would take the risk and continue. This turned out to be a wise decision. You were not born wise, either you allow yourself to become wise as you learn and grow or you do not.  
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Do YOU Create Failure, By Failing to Be Creative?

Do you Create Failure, by failing to be creative?

An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail. – Edwin Land Jake watched his teammates go back and forth over how to solve their latest challenge with the new system. He was fairly confident that he had an approach that would work. He felt conflicted. Part of him wanted to bring up his approach and talk it through with the team. The right people were sitting together to help him try to walk through his concept. The other part of him was hesitant. He knew his idea was unconventional. It did not violate any rules or regulations. It was simply different. The proverbial ‘out of the box’ thinking. Just last week one of his teammates had suggested a creative approach to a problem and before anyone else could comment on it, she had been silenced by their project manager who looked at her and in a very condescending tone of voice said, “That idea is pure fantasy.” Jake did not feel like being on the receiving end of a similar comment. Jake waited for the meeting to end. Then he contacted a few of his teammates and asked them to join him for lunch. He warned them that it would be a working lunch and that he wanted to share an idea with them. At the local sandwich shop Jake shared his idea and asked them to help him think it through. None of them asked him why he did not bring up the idea in the meeting. In fact, after deciding that his idea would most likely work, the conversation turned toward how they could get the project manager to pay attention without shooting the idea down because it was new and different and creative. They almost gave up. Eventually they came up with a plan to test the idea and hold a demonstration of exactly how it would work. Look at all of the extra time and energy that Jake and his teammates spent. It would have been more efficient if Jake had felt that it was OK to express creative ideas in front of his project manager. The right people were together in the meeting in order to brainstorm and discuss his idea. His idea could have prompted others in the room to add to it or to come up with other creative alternatives. Some of those ideas would absolutely not go anywhere beyond the conference room. But a few of those ideas would have led to better and more efficient solutions. Of course the good news is that Jake found a way to move forward with his idea. We will never know how many other good ideas simply died because of a project manager who did not appreciate or encourage creativity.  
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What’s in YOUR 90%?

communication-Project-managersA Project Manager spends 90% of his or her time communicating.
Really? Yes really! But if I spend all day talking on the phone and sending texts and emails and attending meetings when I am supposed to get my other work completed?? THAT is a question that many students ask me when this topic comes up. Smart question. I am glad they ask because:
  1. It makes me feel better because I used to have that exact same question too
  2. It opens the door to a very important discussion (which is MUCH more important than making me feel better).
The deliverables that you create as a project manager are meant to help bring the project to a successful completion. The deliverables that you create are meant to make it more likely that you and the team will meet your project objectives. Have you ever tried to meet a goal without a clear definition of that goal? It is pretty frustrating isn’t it? Enter your project management deliverables as a form of project communication. Each deliverable that you create throughout the project is actually a form of project communication. Let’s step through this together. Let’s assume you start with a project charter.  That charter serves as an announcement about the project. Hopefully your charter describes the project, discusses what is known about the scope, the schedule, the budget, the risks, the assumptions and constraints and also your authority as the project manager. Announcement, describes, discusses – these words indicate a communication is taking place. Your charter is approved – excellent! Perhaps you create some initial roles and responsibilities documentation. The purpose is to share information about who is on the team and why. Share information – sounds like project communication to me. Of course you want to go on and define your scope so that your sponsor and other stakeholders have a full understanding of what you and the team are creating as part of this project and equally as important what you are NOT creating as part of this project. Perhaps after the scope is presented for review and approval you create a WBS or work breakdown structure. Your WBS will show how the scope translates into the creation of deliverables and those deliverables are made up of achievable work. Your WBS shows that. You take that and create a schedule and budget, now with all of these deliverables in hand you are telling the world (OK, your world of stakeholders); what is happening, when it is happening, who will do it and how much it is going to cost. Presenting scope, translating scope in work, telling the world what is happening and when? Aha, communications in project management yet again. Let’s stop here. You can apply this type of thinking to each of the project deliverables that you and your team members create. The fact that we have not gone through and discussed every project deliverable possible does not mean that they are NOT forms of project communications too, it is simply that at this point you are either with me and onboard or you have moved on. (I sure hope you are still with me!) If the project management deliverables you are creating cannot be used as project communications, please revisit your approach. Please do think of each and every project management deliverable that you create as an opportunity to communicate. An opportunity to remind, clarify, confirm and inform others all about your project, the importance of your project, the strategic reason for your project, what will happen, when it will happen, who will do it and how we will know. Before you know it when you encounter this statistic: “A Project Manager spends 90% of his or her time communicating.” You will say, “Hmmm that seems kind of low to me.”  
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Do YOU Tell Stories?

storytellingAre you a storyteller? Before you protest and assure me that you do not tell lies, consider the question. I asked - are you a storyteller? Not are you a liar? Some people equate storytelling with telling lies. That is not where I am going with this. I want to know if you can tell a good story. I want you to be able to tell a good story. A good story might accomplish any or all of these:
  • Defines a vision
  • Teaches a lesson
  • Motivates
  • Fosters understanding or empathy
That is why I want you to tell stories. A good story starts with some new situation or new information. Typically the protagonist(s) face a challenge. Sometimes the challenge is of their own making or stems from some unresolved issue in their past. In order to overcome this challenge our protagonist(s) must push themselves or dig deep and master some skill or knowledge that he or she has never mastered before. A happy ending means that our protagonist either rises to the occasion or becomes an ever better person due to his or her failure. An unhappy ending occurs when he or she does not meet the challenge and does not become a better person because of it. As a leader you tell stories. Maybe every story is not an award winning drama, but the stories that your team remembers grab their attention and keep their attention. The stories that your team remembers stay with them because they relate to or emphasize with a character in the story. Something like this: “Do any of you know Danny? I bet some of you do. Danny works in our customer service center. If you have ever called in early, it was probably Danny who took your call. He always opens up the office. Well two days ago Danny opened the door and was knocked over by a flood of water. He said he practically body surfed it out to the parking lot. He’s Ok. But as you might have guessed, the office is not. Danny and his team are doing their best to work remotely and our customers are being fairly understanding. Of course we want to help and if Danny can body surf a wave to the parking lot, we can put in extra time to help him and his team have the equipment in place to do their work.” It takes practice. You will know when a story is good when you hear your team members retelling it later or when it comes back to you from another source or even better when your story fosters a change in the behavior in some or all of your team members. Happy Story Telling!  
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