Sunday, April 27, 2008

April 28, 2008 – Them’s Fightin’ Words!

Choosing the wrong words can start a fight. I vividly remember conducting a PMO status meeting with upper management in which I nearly started a brawl without meaning to. While reporting the results of a recent project audit, I made the observation that very few resources were completing their weekly status reports. I surmised that management was setting a poor example by not producing their status reports. Unfortunately I said it out loud, immediately creating a hostile environment for myself.

Here are five lessons to learn from this:

  1. Watch what you say. Obviously the filter between my brain and mouth was not functioning during that meeting. Check your filter before you let something slip. Report the information concisely and clearly. You can present analysis and reasoning, but leave out the commentary.
  2. Consider how you say it. Only 7% of face to face communication is the words you say. Tone and visual cues (body language, gestures, eye contact, etc.) make up the other 93%.
  3. Recognize a challenge. Sometimes people deliberately try to draw you into a fight. They know the buttons to push and they start poking them. It may seem like an innocent question or a simple statement but it is intent is to challenge your authority and put you on the defensive: "Our projects have not been completing on time. Is it the role of the PMO to audit them and ensure they are successful?" It may even come across as a show of support or sympathy: "The PMO is obviously too understaffed to be effective in this environment." Be aware of who is saying what and think through why they may be saying it.
  4. Don’t take the bait. There are some things that are worth fighting over, but not everything. Just because someone is looking for a battle doesn’t mean you have to take it. This doesn’t mean to run from a direct challenge but don’t jump at every offense. Choose the time and place for your battles.
  5. Respond appropriately. The greatest life management book ever written says, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." Think it through and determine what is being challenged and then choose a response like one of the following:
  • Call them on it. A direct challenge in a group setting requires a response. One tactic is to look them straight in the eye and ask, "Are you challenging my authority on this?" Generally people back down at this point. If not, you may have to pick another response.
  • Ignore it. You can ignore a question or comment that is intended as an attack. Don’t ever try to answer question like, "Are you still beating your wife?" It may be prudent to ignore a slight at the time and address it in private later. Sometimes the offense is unintentional and it won’t happen again, but if it continues you will need to deal with it.
  • Apologize. This is especially effective if they are reacting to a perceived threat by you. Believe me, during that status meeting I apologized quickly. True as it was, I needed them on my side to be effective.
  • Just the Facts. People can get defensive but they can’t really argue with facts. Make sure you have them right and then present them as evidence to support your case.
  • Humor. Making light of a comment acknowledges it and defuses it. Don’t mistake ridicule for humor, however. Making fun of the person will just tick them off and escalate the fight.
  • Delay. Retreat is not giving in, it is allowing both of you time to cool off and try again later.
  • Defend yourself. When push comes to shove, sometimes you have to push back.

It is easy to throw out fighting words. Dealing with them takes maturity and forethought.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Volunteering: Good for Credibility, Bad for Blogging

Volunteering has been on my mind lately. This is partly because I am now a member of the Board of Directors for the Orange County Chapter of the Project Management Institute ( Volunteering is a great way to:

  • Get involved
  • Meet people who share similar interests
  • Establish credibility
  • Network
  • Have fun while doing it.

It is also the reason I didn't get around to writing a entry this week.

Until next time...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

April 14, 2008 – Surviving the Project Review Firing Squad

Companies have this crazy idea that they want their projects to be successful. To ensure this they modernized the firing squad and changed the name to “Project Review Meeting.” A recurring meeting is scheduled where the project managers stand up and give an account of their progress. Guns loaded, management fires questions at them, trying to find holes in their stories.

Here are 5 ways to help you dodge the bullets and come through the firing squad in one piece.

1. Update your data. Old data results in upper management making poor decisions. Giving an accurate picture of your project includes maintaining the schedule, updating risks and issues and revising the change requests.

One of the biggest side benefits of having a regularly scheduled Project Review Meeting is that it forces the project manager to refresh their data. There were several times when my Risk Assessment sat neglected until days before the meeting. It forced me to revisit the risks and take action.

Always being the one apologizing for having outdated information does little for your reputation as a strong project manager.

2. Produce the documents. Whether you are physically printing them or displaying them electronically, having the documents ready on time is important. If the meeting owner prints or displays documents from a central repository, get it in on time.

3. Say something worth hearing. When I was about ten I had reconstructive surgery on my eardrum. For weeks afterward my mother would drive me 30 miles to the doctor where we would sit for 20 minutes. Once in his office he would say, “Looking good. Come back in another week.” It didn’t take long for my mother to tire of that trip and start demanding more information.

At a minimum tell them what was accomplished for the previous period, what is coming up and how it is tracking. For tracking include a light version of Earned Value: are you ahead/behind schedule; over/under budget and by how much? Include issues or risks with which management can assist.

4. Show facts to substantiate statements. Percentages are great…if they mean anything. One PM always included the statement that her project was 64% complete. She never really explained what that percent meant or what she was measuring. They may have spent 64% of the funds or they could have had 18 weeks left of their year long project. The percentage alone was useless. Put it in context and have the figures available to back it up. You don’t have to walk through the numbers, just make them available.

5. Practice your presentation. Listening to someone fumble through a status report is painful. Watching them flip from slide to slide trying to piece together a full sentence only serves to communicate a lack of respect for the audience. The only thing worse is being the one giving the presentation. I know. I have attempted it.

In the end, the real reason for the Project Review Meeting is for management to gain a comfort level that you are in control of your project. You can keep their confidence in you high if your data is up to date, your documents are in order and you present your status coherently. Then they can save their bullets for someone else.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

April 7, 2008 – Scope Creep in Tent City

The city of Ontario, California had a problem: a large number of homeless people. To address this, the council decided to create “Tent City” using the land around the airport. They supplied tents, water and toilets. Government agencies supplied other goods and services. Everyone felt good about themselves and life was looking grand.

Unfortunately, this solution just created a bigger problem: more homeless people. The total number of residents quickly rose to over 400. People from out of state were showing up to take advantage of the generosity. With the situation officially out of control, the city gave notice to everyone and brought in bulldozers to level the area. The new plan is to place a fence around the area and issue 90 day registration tickets to set a limit of 170 residents.

I see three warnings for project managers from this well intentioned public image problem.

First, even the best intentioned additions to your project need to be planned, estimated and agreed to. We all want to exceed our client’s expectations. The temptation is strong to add things to the project and eat the cost. After all, it’s a simple change and we are a bit ahead of schedule anyway.

The problem is that little things add up. Even if you are giving it away, use a change management process to assess and communicate the impact to the project in time, cost, resources, etc. Once the value is understood you can give it away. If you hide the value it will be appear as if it was in scope already and not really an addition. It becomes just one more homeless person entering Tent City.

Second, consider the risks involved in the actions you take. Tent City seemed like a good idea at the time but it exploded into something ugly. The council thought far enough in advance to provide facilities and fresh water but failed to mitigate the influx of non-Ontario residents. Get your team to perform a Risk Assessment early and often. You should set aside time as a team to brainstorm potential risks minimally monthly and whenever something significant changes (see topic: Risky Business).

Finally, sometimes you have to admit your mistake and bring in the bulldozers. Had the city of Ontario continued to ignore the problem eventually someone would have died. In addition to the tragedy of loosing a human life, it would likely result in lawsuits and even more bad press. If additions to your project are bringing down the property value, it may be time to plow it under and put a fence up to control the scope.