Monday, August 27, 2007

August 27, 2007 – Balancing Your Budget by Taking a Vacation

A word to the wise…do not go tent camping at Perris Lake, CA in August. You know you are in the wrong place when the locals say you are lucky the temperature dropped…to 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 Celsius). As soon as the sun rises over the hills it immediately jumps to 85F (29C). As you can imagine, ground baked at those temperatures for extended periods of time tend to be hard. Not the best of sleeping conditions. There is a saying that goes “that which does not kill you makes you stronger.” In reality, it should probably say, “that which does not kill you makes you wish you were dead.” Fortunately this week we are headed to Palm Springs to stay at a resort with air conditioning and a big swimming pool.

It’s an odd segue but I was speaking with a Project Manager about taking vacation the other day. His small, four month project was running several thousand dollars over budget. I suggested that at his bill rate a couple of vacation days might bring the costs back into alignment. Here are a couple of other items that may help balance your budget.

Resource Rotation. Examine your resource allocations. Do you have senior people doing simple tasks or junior individuals struggling to perform in difficult areas? By moving less expensive resources to handle the simple things you can shave that added expense from the project. Conversely, where your junior team is struggling in deep waters, an expert may be able to blow through the issues in half the time, actually saving funds in the long term. Don’t get trapped in the mindset that cheaper is better. Each situation needs to be examined to determine the best option.

Of course this only works if you are tracking the true cost of your resources. I am surprised at how many companies do not distinguish between resources when counting the cost. Some only use the number of hours or a flat, blended rate to determine the cost. Using that method means your best players costs the same amount as your third string team. No one would consider fielding a professional sports team like that so why do we manage our teams that way?

Find Filler. Look to pull work from the future to fill in blank spots now. One project I managed involved testing multiple systems. Originally they were scheduled to be done sequentially but delays in the earlier ones were impacting the schedule. By pulling the analysis from future systems and performing it early we were able to fill in the gaps and keep the project from running long and over budget.

Consolidate Testing. Before I go any further, let me first say that I am not suggesting you cut corners for testing. What I am advocating is the consolidation of testing across multiple, interrelated projects and between common end users. Integrating the testing for projects that share resources (i.e. databases, common feeds, etc.) can save funds by using the same testing environments and testers. An added bonus is the assurance that the systems will function well together. Any problems caused by their interaction can be resolved prior to going to production.

Time Out for Training. Take advantage of projected down times to schedule training for your team. This is actually a multi-prong attack. First, the budget for training usually comes from outside of the project so the cost of those individuals can be offloaded during a time when their services aren’t vital. Second, if the training is specific to an upcoming aspect of the project your resources will be better equipped to perform, potentially increasing their productivity. Finally, investing in your team shows your commitment to them and will help keep them from seeking employment elsewhere.

Bottom line, if you need a vacation, tell your manager you are willing to take one for the team. Once he understands how it can help the budget he might just join you.

Monday, August 13, 2007

August 13, 2007 – Fortune Cookie Management

Not far from work is a Chinese buffet that we frequent to celebrate birthdays and any other excuse we can fine. It is called the World Buffet and in order to maintain truth in advertising they throw in French fries, pizza and Hawaiian chicken to give it a more global menu. You can still tell it is a Chinese restaurant, though, because they hand out fortune cookies with the bill.

While listening to everyone read their fortune recently it struck me that these pearls of wisdom applied amazingly well to project management. Here are some from our last visit.

They’ll definitely remember all your efforts. This is more than hopeful wishing. A month or more after turning over a project to another manager they encountered a problem. Evidently the infrastructure partner was claiming that we hadn’t informed them of certain responsibilities. I was able to retrieve emails and minutes showing the discussions and decisions. Keeping records paid off.

On another occasion it took nearly three months before I got the call. Phase 2 of a project was getting ready to go through a Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) audit. The effort had changed hands twice since I left and the new project manager couldn’t find the evidence for the review. I had to think my way back through the SharePoint site layout to talk her to the location. Organizing the approvals and forms before handing over the reins saved her sanity.

Care and attention to the key relationships in your life will pay off. Stakeholder management immediately came to mind when I heard this gem. Understanding their influence levels, expectations, pressures and needs is priceless. You can’t solve needs or reset bad expectations you don’t know about. You will fail to interpret warning signs without comprehending the stakeholders’ points of view.

This fortune also made me think of resource relationships. I’ve seen key resources threaten to leave because they aren’t getting properly care. It really doesn’t take much. One individual is having trouble with immigration paperwork. His frustration is compounded because he can’t get an update on the status. A simple email or phone call to him would clear the air and keep him satisfied.

Step away from the power position for one day. This is a tough one for me. When I attend a meeting I am impressed if there is an agenda and the facilitator effectively directs discussion so we finish on time or even early. If a meeting is spiraling out of control I have to fight the urge to assume ownership.

In the same vein, for your team to grow and mature you can’t assume ownership of their work. When the coding is not getting done, it isn’t your job to step in and write code for them. You may need to negotiate more of their time, find help, apply forceful encouragement, remove barriers or a number of other things, but they are supposed to be the programmers, not you. Stealing that power from them leaves them without a purpose and it leaves you doing everything.

You’ll meet your big cheese today. Okay, this one didn’t make any sense to me.

If it seems the fates are against you today, they probably are. Sometimes it may just be better to go home and try again the next day.

On the back of many fortune cookies are words to help you learn Chinese. I’ve often wondered how many cookies you had to eat to become fluent. The Chinese on this particular paper slip says, “yao xe waon” which translates to “Hopeful.” That seemed appropriate for a project manager that all the fates are against.

By the way, your lucky numbers are 4, 18, 37, 14, 28 and 7.

Monday, August 6, 2007

August 6, 2007 – Time to take it Easy

Here in the sunny southern California my daughters have passed the mid point of their summer holidays. July and August seem to fly by faster than any other months of the year. Last summer I missed most of that time because I was working out of town, flying back and forth just to spend the weekend at home. That summer window of opportunity of spontaneous fun freedom slipped by with me out of town.

I have been working with a team to create a chapter for the second edition of the PMI Standard for Program Management. The father of one of the women on the team is suffering from dementia. His once brilliant mind is failing and the time to spend with her once strong and encouraging dad is slipping away.

The collapse of a major bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota ended the lives of people who thought they were just running to or from work.

What’s my point? It is two fold. First, make sure you take time for yourself. Second, make sure your team does, too.

Be Good to Yourself
Those 60-80 hour weeks, 52 weeks a year are going to kill you eventually but they are taking you away from enjoying your life now. I’m not suggesting you quit your job and convince your family to join a circus. However, if your family calls you “Uncle Daddy” because they see their Canadian cousins more often than they see you there might be a problem.

Recognizing that my travel was detrimental to my family life, I opted to pull back from an exciting PM role to take one closer to home that lacked the challenge.

Delegation is another great way to drop a few hours from your schedule. Find items from your to do list that you really don’t have to do and share the effort with your team. One quick hit for this is team meeting minutes. If everyone on the team takes a turn publishing the minutes you shave at least a half hour from your schedule each week.

Sometimes cutting back isn’t possible. In order to add a little balance to the family / work equation, I do bring work home. I know, it sounds counter productive, but it works. I’m home, usually in time to have dinner with my family and spend a couple hours with them. Once the kids head to bed I pull out the work and put in another couple of hours. It is a great time to do minutes or review documentation. Fortunately I can operate on a limited amount of sleep for several days in a row.

Take Care of Your Team
Burn out is a real possibility for your resources, especially if they try to drive themselves as hard as you do yourself. Here are a couple of items to keep in mind that may help maintain some sanity in the work place.

1. Set realistic dates. Nothing kills the enthusiasm in a team faster than working from behind right from the beginning. It’s acceptable to agree to aggressive dates, but build in a little reality, too.
2. Don’t overdue the overtime. Scheduling everyone to work overtime from the start of the project in order to meet the deadlines will not work. Overtime only works for limited time frames and then only when the team sees the purpose and benefit of doing it. Get their buy in before assigning it. You may be better off obtaining more resources and dividing the work up further.
3. Understand timing on family events. Encourage your team to honor their family commitments. Ask when the big soccer game is or the piano recital and make sure they can make it. It will build your referent authority (see Referent Authority entry) and keep them safe at home.
4. Encourage time off. Many people I work with seem unable to use their vacation time. They keep busy through the year and never get around to it. The theory behind taking time off is to come back refocused. Another great idea is compensation (“comp”) time. When your team has to work the weekend to implement a system give them the opportunity to take that time off just before or just after the event. It is better not to let the time stack up unused because it becomes a pain to track and if the situation changes (ex. project ends) they might loose out on it.
5. Be flexible with time management. Most projects have deadlines, not office hours. If you can be flexible in the work hours your team may be more productive. Granted, there needs to be overlapping time to handle interfaces and discussions, but a flex-schedule adds to the well-being of your resources.
6. Recognize the extra effort. Don’t take the overtime and hard work for granted. Reward the team from time to time. Suggestions include restaurant gift cards or movie passes. Pick things that encourage them to connect with others outside of work and gain a little balance. I know it is appreciated because when it happens for me my wife usually says, “It’s about time they did something for you.”

If you have other ways you use to keep yourself and your team sane drop me a comment and share it with all of us.