Sunday, September 30, 2007

October 1, 2007 – Mediocrity: Caring Enough to Give Your 2nd Best

On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first successful powered airplane flight. It was quite an amazing accomplishment, but I don’t believe it would have been possible if they were working in today’s business world. The problem would have been the drive for perfection. It would have started something like this…

Orville: “Yes, sir, this is the design. The scope statement says you want us to build a self propelled machine that flies.”

Sponsor: “I see. But it only has two of those wing things. I was thinking it should have three. You know, one for a backup.”

Wilbur: “I suppose we could put a change request in for the third one.”

Finance Director: “We could actually save 25% by reducing it to one wing. With the cost overruns in the bike department it would really help increase our profits for the year.”

Orville: “The Functional Design clearly calls for two wings. All of the use case scenarios specify two.”

Marketing: “We could sell this easier if it was enclosed and had wider seats.”

Sponsor: “Yes! We should also place a phonograph on the back of each seat so people could listen to whatever they wanted to in flight. I saw it in a magazine once.”

Wilbur: “This was supposed to be the prototype.”

Upper Management: “Do whatever you have to do, but we told the stockholders it would be ready by the end of the year.”

The stakeholders have a grand vision of what the end product could be, but they need to get the thing off the ground first. Sometimes, aiming for great is overkill. But how do you know when it is ok to deliver something that isn’t perfect?

Meeting the Grade
There is a definite difference between grade and quality. Quality is a measure of how well a product meets its requirements. Grade is a category assigned to a product that has the same functionality but a different level of ability or requirement. Grade is the difference between a luxury vehicle and an economy car. Both are expected to get you from point A to point B and both will be tested for quality to ensure they meet their design specifications. A luxury car, however, is expected to be built better and have more features.

Anyone can snap a photograph but you wouldn’t turn your wedding memories over to your 13 year old nephew. By determining the expected grade of your product you can adjust the level of effort expended to meet that goal.

Setting the Priority
Along with any other critical success factors a choice must be made between three possibilities. Which one of the following is the most important to your project?

  1. Schedule
  2. Cost
  3. Scope
Don’t let anyone say all three or even pick two. One of them must be the most critical. If it was promised by the end of the year, you will be willing to pay more and limit the size. If certain features are key, then the schedule may have to slip and it may cost more. All the development decisions can then be made based on what is most important.

Consider the Cost of Perfection
Have you ever worked with someone who places a premium value in perfection? Pulling together a prototype takes as long as creating the full version. In the insurance business, getting a new product line to market ahead of your competitor is huge. Unfortunately you can’t sell it until your systems can handle it. With time to market as your driver, the cost of ergonomically designing the input screen looses value points.

Making it Mediocre
The architecture needs to be sound but not necessarily a work of art. Code doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to work and be maintainable. Produce a quality product, but save the bells and whistles for the next release. It is better to get it out and improve it over time than give up ground to your competitors.

In the final analysis, second best can actually land you in first place.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sept 24, 2007 – Starting Over

I survived the first week at my new job. Starting over can be exciting and a bit scary. Having survived nearly 15 years in the consulting industry, I am no stranger to rebooting my work experience. Actually, I even wrote an article for Computerworld about the topic (The New Guy's Guide to Building Trust).

Upon reviewing the list of 10 steps in the article, I think I’m off to a good start. I issued meeting minutes, started identifying preconceptions and even created an informative status report. With this new adventure I have discovered a couple of other steps to add to the newbie list.

Don’t Burn Bridges. It truly is a small world. I have run into several people from previous workplaces that have either worked with me or with someone who knows me. Fortunately I can work with almost anyone and know enough not to make enemies. Had I been a jerk to any of these people I would be paying for it now.

Don’t Jump the Gun. Like a runner, you need to be careful to not leave the starting block before the pistol is fired. Within the first day or so at a new client I began introducing myself to the extended team as the project manager. It soon became apparent that there were already two project managers on the effort and neither one of them knew I was coming. That was just a little awkward. Check with your management to make sure the announcement has been made before you step on anyone’s toes.

Know the Currents. On a camping trip to Martha’s Vineyard as a teenager we visited a beach with a riptide, a dangerous current that runs parallel to the beach. As you swim, you may think you are heading straight out from shore when in reality the current has pushed you 100 yards away. The best example of this in business came from an advertisement friend of mine.

While working a deal at a new client, one of the female executives asked if his company had done the ads for product X. In fact they had actually won awards for those ads and proudly said so. The executive said, “Those are the most sexist, degrading ads I have seen and there is no way we will be doing business with the company that created them.”

Deliver Value Quickly. On your first day start thinking about your status report. What are you going to put on it at the end of the week? Whoever hired you took a chance. They will be looking to see how soon you can be productive and contributing to the team. Identify some things you can accomplish during the first week to show an early personal Return on Investment. One of the new PMO objectives is to create project development standards and templates. I was able to report deliver of several draft templates on Friday’s status.

It may seem daunting to start over again, but soon those feelings will disappear as you pick up your new challenge.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sept 17, 2007 – Project Management Warnings Part 3

Alright, we get it. Project management is dangerous work and should be handled with caution. But sometimes it isn’t the project that is the problem, it’s the people. Some stakeholders and resources can cause more problems than any technical issues you will ever encounter. For that reason I suggest that they should be required to wear their own signs. Here are some you might need to hand out during your next meeting.

1. May cause irritation. I had a manager once that was mildly irritating. The technical team knew what we were doing and handled pretty much everything. He basically attended the client meetings and took all the credit. On the extremely irritating side is the stakeholder that decides to bring down your project. Both mild and extreme cases can be handled with patience. If he is irritating to you, he is probably irritating to others. Don’t try to bring him down yourself. Once he irritates the wrong person his days will be shortened. The odd thing is they always seem surprised with it hits.

2. Avoid contact with eyes. Once she has your attention you are likely tied up for an hour before she lets you go. Sometimes it is work related but other times it is just empty chatter. In the old days you needed an accomplice that could call you to break up the conversation. With the advent of the cell phone’s vibrate feature you can now fake a call at any time. If you as the project manager are the primary target of these conversations it may be that she is attempting to garner points toward promotion. On the other hand, if she is killing productivity on the project by talking with others all the time you may need to check her schedule and make sure she has plenty to do. If she isn’t getting her work done there are other consequences for that.

3. Beware of Dog. This is your basic “doesn’t play well with others” individual. He may be the best technical resource you have, but if he can’t work with anyone he is useless. Before you write him off completely, try:
· Interrogation. Find out what the real issues are and see if they can be resolved. Start with a simple conversation, “Hey, noticed you being a jerk the other day and just wanted to know what your basic problem was.” Ok, you may need to drop the jerk part…and then reword the rest of it, too.
· Intervention. Identify and document specific instances of bad behavior. Prior to the next blow up, walk through the reported problems with him and lay out the expectations going forward. Depending on the seriousness of the problems you may need to get HR involved.
· Isolation. If you don’t have a location to keep him away from others, try telecommuting.

There are plenty of other signs that could be awarded. If these three triggered some in your mind, drop me a comment and share your experience. I may need to run another edition at a later date.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sept 10, 2007 – Project Management Warnings Part 2

Last week we established that project management should come with big yellow caution signs. The work place is a dangerous road trip and we need to look out for each other. Here is another batch of signs to keep us moving in the right direction.

  • Toxic Fumes. Status reports can be deadly if inhaled carelessly. First, never take at face value your team members’ status reports. You should expect a written report but it should be the opening statement in a conversation, not the sum total. Dig in and find out what they aren’t telling you. Second, get rid of the percentages unless you have metrics to back them up. How many tasks are currently 90% done on your project? How many weeks have they been “almost finished?” Instead, ask for specific completion dates and number of hours remaining. Finally, make sure your project status report is a fair and truthful representation of the current situation.
  • Maximum pressure 40 hpw. As I was getting out of my car Friday night I heard a hissing sound. I watched helplessly as my front tire slowly exhaled the last of its air. It no longer had a problem with too much pressure. Keep an eye on your team members, though, to make sure the pressure won’t leave them flat. Don’t set them up for failure by over allocating them. Forty hours per week should be the norm, not the exception. If overtime is necessary, keep it is in short durations at a time and ensure they are compensated accordingly. Grant compensation time for weekend implementations.
  • Dry clean only. Some of your cloths need special treatment. So do your resources. If you treat them right your team won’t wrinkle, shrink or fade. In general, people like to work where they are productive, provided for and appreciated. They like to be listened to and taken seriously. Take the time to understand how they prefer to be appreciated. Some want public recognition while others prefer quiet thanks.
  • Door must remain unlocked. Restaurants and stores sport this signs on side doors. The obvious reason is for easy exit in case of a fire or other disaster. There are 2 reasons to keep your door open and unlocked at work. The first is to allow your team to approach you at any time. An open door policy helps develop a connection with the team, both personally and job related. The second reason is to avoid misconduct or even the appearance of it. If you are meeting with an individual of the opposite gender, keep it visible. At the least you will avoid gossip and, at the worst, a harassment charge.
  • Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. At the beginning of a project everything appears achievable. You look out across the huge gap of time… 6 months… and think it is an eternity. In reality the end of the project is a lot closer than you think. One project I specked out was only 10 weeks in duration. It hardly seemed to start when we were in testing with only 2 weeks until implementation. Before you commit to a timeline, sketch it out with a realistic project schedule and review it with your team.

Unfortunately, potential problems with your project don’t come with warning labels. Perhaps these few reminders will help keep you on your toes without stepping in anything.

Monday, September 3, 2007

September 3, 2007 – Project Management Warnings Part 1

From where I was sitting by the pool in Palm Springs, California last week I could see the warning sign posted above the hot tub. As I read the words of caution I substituted the words “project management” for “spa.” Surprisingly, some of them actually made a lot of sense. Take the following two examples:

“For health and safety reasons, no children under the age of fourteen (14) years shall be permitted in project management without a parent or guardian present at all times.”

“Prolonged exposure to project management may result in nausea, dizziness, or fainting.”

Project management isn’t for the faint of heart and should be approached with caution. For safety reasons I think it is important to post big yellow caution signs. If you are thinking about dipping your toes into the PM swimming pool, take the following warnings into consideration:

  • No diving. Before jumping head long into the role of project manager you should check the water. First, hidden rocks can break your neck. Project management is a no man’s land, stuck between those that do the work and upper management. The hard objects hide on both sides. Second, don’t get in over your head. A wise manager once steered me away from a project for political reasons. The time line for the project was too short for the given scope but upper management had promised it would be completed in time for a very visible annual meeting.
  • Stay with your buddy. At summer camp we used the buddy system at the beach. No one swam alone. When the lifeguards blew their whistles you had to the count of five to get to your buddy or you had to sit on the beach. Get yourself a mentor for a buddy. Have them critique your status reports before you send them out and ask the hard questions before your management does.
  • Harmful or fatal if swallowed. Projects, like pools, have strong chemicals at work. One way to keep from being poisoned is to not believe everything you hear. Everyone has their own unique agenda and it will take time to figure out what each one is. Bill always pads his assessment to make himself look and Elaine under estimates to tell you what you want to hear. Your management will set dates and budgets to tie in with her bonuses. Sam bad mouths everyone. Learn to question estimates and assumptions, ignore gossip and push back when tasked with the impossible.
  • Do not swim during a thunder storm. A consultant friend of mine recently left a job because a manager took out his frustration on him with a yelling tirade. The company had purchased a software package and assumed it would do everything the sales team said it would. When the consultant explained the reality of the situation the discussion turned ugly. I am a firm believer that when I fail or my team messes up I need to take the heat, but to get blasted by someone for their own mistake is another thing. Frankly, anyone who resorts to yelling has issues.

    Project management isn’t a day at the pool but it doesn’t have to be shark infested waters, either. Swim with caution and don’t forget the sun block.