Sunday, November 25, 2007

November 26, 2007 – How to survive an Audit

Truth in reporting is vital to building trust and successfully managing people and projects, but sometimes it is better to keep your mouth shut. Too much information can lead to problems. One of my former co-worker never had the filter between his thoughts and his lips installed. Case in point: Needing to take Friday off, he asked his manager for the time off. That part was great. However, when asked what he had planned, he should have just said he needed to run some errands. Unfortunately he proceeded to tell of his DUI conviction and that he was going to an alcohol awareness weekend as part of his sentencing.

Having survived many project audits and then being both a Project Officer and Quality Assurance Auditor for several years I can assure you that a project audit is not the place to offer more information than requested. Here are 6 tips on how to survive an audit.

  1. Determine the audit type. There is a big difference between an project health check and a regulatory audit. The purpose of a health check is to understand the state of the project to help increase the probability of success. A regulatory audit is to verify compliance with regulations or standards. You can use a health check audit to bring visibility to issues and risks facing the project so management can supply the necessary resources to address them. Regulatory audits, on the other hand, are there to find problems. Unless there are serious or illegal problems with your project, you may want to down play the issues for a regulatory audit.
  2. Understand your Auditor. The audit groups I have worked with all had the interest of you, your project and the company in mind, not their own agendas. Some auditors feel they have to find something wrong in order to justify their existence. Understanding the type of auditor you are dealing with will help shape the way you answer questions.
  3. Get the list. Understand the standard you are being held to. Since audits rely heavily on question lists, get the list ahead of time. Make adjustments to your management and documentation styles to be able to answer "yes" to any of the questions. If one of the questions is "Are regular meetings held that review status, financials and issues?" then make sure your minutes have those points listed.
  4. Avoid the search. Based on the list of questions, have evidence that shows compliance readily available. If they want meeting minutes, have a folder full of them. When they are looking for approvals, have copies, emails or other artifacts compiled to present. If they have to dig, you may spend even more time answering misdirected questions.
  5. Only answer the question. You have the right to remain silent. You many want to use that right, especially for regulatory audits. Just like my buddy the drinker, giving too much information can cause problems. Even if what you say isn’t a problem, additional data can cloud things or look as if there are issues. Again, if there are serious or legal items at stake, don’t hide them but don’t air your dirty laundry, either.
  6. Less than 100% is good. Odds are you will miss something on you audit and that’s okay. The key is to develop an action plan based on the short comings and get any audit issues resolved before the next one.

As long as you know the expectations, audits results shouldn’t be a surprise to you. By following these steps you may, however, surprise you auditor.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

November 19, 2007 – Automotive Sponsor Problems

It is never good when your mechanic calls and asks, "How attached are you to this vehicle?" Friday was not one of my better days from that perspective. I drive a ten-year old Plymouth Neon and normally it gets me where I need to be. Sure it leaks oil and steering fluid but the AM radio still works and three of the four door locks are still automatic. But Friday it decided to die on the way to work.

The mechanic said it would take about $900 to get it back up and running. Then there was the list of things that "need" to be done totaling another $1000. I just checked and my car is only worth about $2500. I felt like the sponsor of a project that has gone bad. Actually there were three things that drove that feeling home.

Return on Investment. The mechanic was the first to bring it up with his opening question about my love for the Neon. He could tell the cost of fixing it wasn’t going to be cheap. Prior to undertaking a project, a company needs to understand the ROI, both the costs and the returns. The projected costs are more than the expenses to complete the project. Don’t forget to include training, maintenance, licensing and other life cycle pieces.

These costs should be balanced by the expected returns from the endeavor. Savings are usual the first thing considered. How many people will I replace? How much time and money will it save. Add to these benefits forecasted increases in projected sales because staff can spend less time fiddling with the system and more time with customers. Consider that the new online experience may lead to more purchases. Customer satisfaction may net more repeat business. Think through the project purpose and project the positive results of success.

Lack of Information. Friday morning I certainly didn’t have enough information to decide whether or not to give up on my car. I needed a multiple choice question and was handed only a true / false option. How much was my car actually worth? What would it cost to get an comparable vehicle? Was it worth more as scrap metal? What could I really afford? Would there be additional expenses I didn’t anticipate? If I bought a different car, would it have more problems than this one?

When deviating from or adding to the project scope, a Change Request documents the final decision, but the discussion starts by answering questions. Sponsors expect project manager to supply them with the information to answer those questions. Why wasn’t it in scope to begin with? What are the consequences of not doing it? How much is it going to cost? What other options are there? If the answers aren’t readily available, you may need to request funding to research and find them.

Risk Management. Among the "other" items my car needs are new front brakes, brake fluid flushed and replaced, and my back breaks aligned. Total cost an additional $450. The risk of not fixing them is obvious. If you can’t stop your car, something else will have to. Whatever you use to stop it (another car, a brick wall, etc.) will probably cost more than $450. As with any risk I could Avoid, Transfer, Mitigate or Accept it. Buying a new car would avoid the problem. Making sure my collision insurance is up to date would transfer the risk. Getting the brakes fixed would mitigate the issue. I opted to accept the risk and postpone the brake fix to a future phase of the project. You may want to stay off Beach Boulevard for the next week or so.

It could have been worse, though. Had the car continued to run it would have completely overheated and destroyed the engine. I wouldn’t have had any choices at that point and my next blog would have been about purchasing a new car. Don’t hide project problems from your sponsor until things overheat and there are not choice left.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

November 11, 2007 – Humility Helps

One of the ugliest things to hear about yourself is, "he thinks more highly of himself than he ought to." I heard someone once ask, "Aren’t you as impressed with him as he is with himself?" Brutal. I once worked with a guy that really thought he was something. When he finally left he let everyone know how lucky the new company was going to be to get him. We felt luckier ourselves.

I’ve been fortunate with my career and have done some interesting things, but people I know are constantly surprising me with what they have done. This happened twice yesterday. At breakfast one of my buddies told me about the success he has had with his writing. One of his recent submissions topped the charts at over 1000 hits. For the past four years I’ve known him as the "go to" man with tax questions who leads the discussion in our Bible class.

Then at lunch I was bowled over by another friend of mine. He usually speaks softly and carries a hammer. He volunteers his general contractor expertise working at our church to build the big backdrops for the stage. I found out that thirty-plus years ago he was a rock star with a seven year Capitol Records contract.

Whenever my pride starts to get the best of me, I need to remember these four concepts.

Pride goes before destruction. This is often true in sports. The team that is supposed to dominate ends up limping off the field in defeat. At work it happens when you think you have everything under control because of your great team building abilities, interpersonal skills and general greatness. It blinds you to how your attitude is impacting the team until they start leaving to get away from your ego. No team? No success.

Respect is earned. If you have to tell people how great you are, you probably aren’t. One of the hard parts of starting in a new place is building back your reputation. Until people see for themselves that you know your stuff, they aren’t going to listen.

Past glory doesn’t guaranty current success. Every situation is different. Every team is unique. Every environment has its own challenges. Because I have managed a multi million dollar project for one client doesn’t mean the $100,000 one is going to be flawless. You need to make it happen, not stand around telling people how great you were.

Picture a real hero. November 11, 1918 brought an end to World War I. People around the word and throughout history have fought and died to keep others safe and free. They continue to do so today. Locally, police and fire fighters put their lives in danger to protect us and our property. Place your accomplishments into that perspective. I spent over a year creating inventory applications for a greeting card company.

When you humbly consider others greater than yourself, you have a chance to truly lead your team successfully.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

November 5, 2007 – Dealing with a Newbie, Part 2

Last week we looked at how to deal with a pretty standard newbie just trying to fit in, establish himself and be productive. But what happens when you get a problem newbie? Some are just killing time while collecting a pay check but others may actually be gunning for you and your job. Either one is a pain to deal with. Here are some suggestions for training your newbie to get his act together and recognize you as the manager.

Formally assign work. Come right out and say it. Don’t suggest or hint that you want something done, assign it to him. Show him where it is in the schedule with his name on it. Give him a task list. Find something that works, but make sure you set the expectation that he is responsible for accomplishing certain items. Formally assigning and receiving of tasks is an acknowledgement that you are the manager.

Agree on target dates. Work with him to identify completion dates for the tasks assigned that he can agree to and the project can live with. Giving him a say in the due dates transfers ownership to him. At least subconsciously he will know a measurement has been established and he will be held to it.

Hold status meetings.
If you are not already have weekly status meetings with the team, start them. Have everyone give a synopsis of their accomplishments for the week. The peer pressure of hearing his teammates’ achievements may inspire him. Also, meet informally one on one with him to check on progress.

Give him praise. When he does a good job, recognize it. The act of receiving the recognition builds on the manager / team member relationship. Be sincere with your praise and don’t go overboard. For the non-productive newbie this can spark further good work. If you feel he is attempting to outshine you, don’t try to extinguish his flame. Give him the recognition he deserves.

Accept mistakes. When he misses targets or makes a mistake, don't ridicule or yell at him. Recognize that he messed up and say something like, "that's ok, I'm sure you will do better next time." For honest mistakes this approach should make him try harder next time where yelling might reinforce failure. If he is deliberately messing up, you now have specific, documented instances of poor performance where expected work, based on agreed timeframes, is not being completed.

Report the facts. There are several resource reporting processes in most companies. For functional organizations (project team borrowed from different groups) the newbie’s reporting manager will want specifics. Many companies have a 90 day review process for new hires that may lend to an easy out. Your management may sense tension or the newbie may actually be going directly to your boss to stirring up trouble. Keep report the facts. Either the newbie is accomplishing his assignments or things are slipping. Feed your manager specific expected accomplishments ahead of time (i.e. "Based on newbie’s estimates the following tickets should be completed by Friday. I've asked them to..."). Then follow up with the results.

The idea is to train the newbie to recognize you as the manager and become productive without resorting to outright warfare. He will either fall in line and start acting like you are in charge or it will frustrate him to the point that his actions will be too visible to hide. By keeping management informed on a regular basis it will be difficult for him to paint a different picture of what is going on. From there disciplinary action can be taken.

There are many other aspects to handling difficult resources and we’ve barely scratched the surface on the topic. Here are two more notes to keep in mind. (1) You may have actually hired a genius that deserves to move up the ranks. Hopefully he can do it without being a jerk. Your approach can help mold his progress and may determine your future employment. (2) Jerks have a way of eventually ticking off the wrong person. If he is trampling people to gain control, chances are you aren’t the only one noticing.