Sunday, June 29, 2008

June 30, 2008 – Muskrats in Your Levee

Last week the Mississippi River broke through the levees holding it back despite the efforts of hundreds of people fortifying it with sandbags. What caused the problem? Muskrats. Their burrows in the grounds along the river weakened it to the point that a breach was formed, flooding miles of farm land.

As managers we strive to make sure the project stays within the course set by the river banks established in the Charter and Scope Statement. Usually we are successful in keeping things flowing smoothly but occasionally problems poke enough holes in to create havoc. Here are five muskrats to watch out for on your project.

  1. Slipping timelines. At first they seem harmless: a task runs long but it’s finished the next week. Unfortunately that pushes the next task back 3 days to when Bill is on vacation, costing you another week. Tracking the project at the task level allows you to see potential slips and make adjustments quickly. Most projects can survive by tracking weekly but more agile methods require checkpoints daily to make sure people are working on and completing the right things, right now.
  2. Competing projects. As resources are stretched further, many people are required to work on multiple projects simultaneously. When things heat up on one project, the other projects suffer. Keep tabs on how many projects your team members are working and coordinate with the other managers to make it work.
  3. Negative Rumors. Perceived pending bad news can demoralize a team, kill productivity and, if unattended, cause people to seek employment elsewhere. Rumors can actually cause more damage than the reality they represent. Work quickly to kill false rumors. If there is truth to the rumor, get it out in the open and show how your are dealing with the problem.
  4. Miscommunications. Sometimes the simplest statements can be taken extremely wrong. The pastor of our church was interrupted once by someone coughing in the audience. He said, “Can one of the ushers please help that man out?” Immediately a couple of ushers descended on him and started dragging him away. “No! No!” the pastor corrected quickly, “I meant give him a cup of water or something!” In this situation everyone spoke English and still messed up a simple thing. Given the global world we live in and the complexity of the solutions we develop, it is no wonder our projects have communication problems. When you think you have over communicated what you need, you probably need to repeat yourself.
  5. Unresponsive Stakeholders. Silence from your sponsor, end users and other key stakeholders is not good. If you are inviting them to meetings and asking for input but getting nothing back, find out why. It could be simply that people are on vacation or otherwise occupied, but you need to understand why and get it fixed. The problem with assuming that silence means consent is that when they finally do speak up it may be to say everything is wrong. Keep the time between feedback opportunities frequent and follow up when you don’t hear from them.

Each of these things may seem harmless at the time, but when the project is flooding the banks any one of them can cause the levee to break.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

June 23, 2008 - 10 Ways to Avoid Falkirk

The Falkirk battle scene in the movie Braveheart has William Wallace engaging the English army. At a crucial point in the fight, the Scottish nobles that were supposed to be his allies betrayed him and withdrew from the field, leaving him to be defeated. Knowing who your allies are is important. Knowing you can trust them is vital.

This goes both ways. You need to know your team is behind you but they need to know you have them covered, too. Failing to protect them, you can imagine how quickly they would hunt you down and dispose of you, much like William Wallace did to his enemies.

Keep yourself and your team from being destroyed with these 10 points.

Be aware of conflicts and issues within the team. Not all disagreements are unhealthy, but when it becomes a conflict it needs to be aired and dealt with quickly.

Recognize a challenge from outside. Some people are able to couch their attacks in a manner that hides their intent. It starts out supportively with “Your team does have an aggressive timeline and seems to be over allocated.” Then it turns to “Obviously they can’t estimate properly and are incompetent in other areas as well.”

Address the attack. If a member of your team comes under fire during a meeting it is your job to set the record straight. You don’t have to defend the guilty, but you can keep them from being executed on the spot. Let the attacker and anyone he has told know that the issue is being handled and, if appropriate, how.

Verify the facts before laying blame. Nothing kills credibility with your team faster than assuming they are guilty. A manager I once knew failed to find the truth before assuming his new team was in the wrong. It took him nearly three months to realize his mistake. He never regained the confidence of his team.

Eliminate flashpoints. If you have team members that can’t stand each other, don’t make them work together. One individual I worked with lacked any verbal filter and could be a little abrasive at times. Unfortunately he was heading up a task force that dealt directly with upper management. He said some things to the CIO that should have been left unsaid. Luckily the CIO was extremely patient and handled it well. That person didn’t stay the head of the group long afterward.

Have an open door policy. Give your team the opportunity to talk through problems and address things directly with you before they get explosive. My principal in high school had an open door policy and it probably saved me from being expelled. An idiot named Bubba moved in during my junior year. For no apparent reason he started spreading lies about my girlfriend. He deserved a thrashing, and I told the principal I was going to do it if he didn’t stop. Mr. Stockin was able to talk me down and save my academic career.

Escalate major issues to upper management. If there are problems that have further reaching impacts, senior management needs to know and be involved in resolving them.

Allow time for the situation to cool down. Like a cut, some things take time to heal. If you keep picking the scab the situation is going to scar.

Revisit the situation to ensure the coals aren’t smoldering. After the cooling down phase, loop back around and check with the involved parties to address any lingering problems.

Treat everyone with respect, even the difficult ones. I’ve been asked to be a reference for people I did not enjoy working with. Evidently they were clueless that I couldn’t stand working with them.


  • There several historical inaccuracies in the Braveheart movie. Falkirk may never have truly happened.
  • I generally hide the identity of my examples, but it felt good to finally take a swing at Bubba.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

June 16, 2008 - Along for the Ride

For Father’s Day yesterday, we went to Knott’s Berry Farm, technically the oldest theme park in the United States. Father’s Day has to be the best day to go to an amusement park because there were no lines.

While we were waiting to board one of the roller coasters I snapped a picture of the warning sign: “Many rides at Knott’s Berry Farm are dynamic and thrilling. There are inherent risks in riding any amusement ride. For your protection, each ride is rated for its special features, such as high speed drops, sharp turns or other dynamic forces. If you choose to ride, you accept all of these risks.”

Perhaps projects should have their own warning signs:

“Many of the projects at are dynamic and thrilling but you probably won’t be assigned any of those. Regardless, there are inherent risks in managing any project. For our amusement, each project is rated for its special features, such as highly frustrating directors, unproductive team members, over ambitious time lines, unrealistic expectations and only a vague sense of scope. Unfortunately, we will keep this knowledge from you.”

So by now your seatbelt is fastened, the lap bar is in place and the ride operator has pushed the final button. Your project is picking up speed as it heads for the first turn. Now what?

Open Your Eyes. Rides are better if you can actually see what is coming. Take a realistic look at your project.

  • Assess your team and determine what to expect from each individual. This includes knowledge, ability, availability, work ethic and attitude.
  • If already written, re-read the charter or statement of work to understand what bumps you are expected to hit.
  • If the charter or statement of work is not written, take the opportunity to write it, defining your scope and setting everyone’s expectations.

Secure Loose Articles. Straps on your glasses are a good idea. Get a good understanding of your budget, resource allocations, scope and any other aspect of your project that isn’t well defined. If you can’t explain it, you can’t manage it.

Focus on the Horizon. Some rides can make you sick to your stomach unless you focus at a fixed point and ignore the whirling objects all around you. Set you sites on the project scope and reign in the urge to go chasing extra items to add on.

Put Your Hands in the Air. Gripping tightly to the restraining bar does nothing to direct the ride or protect you. If you are strangling your team trying to force them to do things your way, loosen up a bit. Micromanaging the team isn’t going to keep it on track.

Scream. There are appropriate times for letting it out. Surprise, shock and horror occasionally pop up while managing projects. The tricky part is keeping it from becoming anger and dismay. Maybe screaming isn’t the most effective communication method. Lower your voice, but make sure people hear your concerns and address the issues.

Enjoy the Ride. Survival shouldn’t be the only goal. Having fun along the way is good for your team and for your blood pressure.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

June 9, 2008 – Project Success…at What Cost?

Great things can be accomplished if Scope, Budget and Duration are no object. Here are some historical examples:

Hoover Dam
Scope: Stop a river and produce 2080 megawatts of power.
Budget: $49M US cost (under budget)
Duration: < 5 years (2 years ahead of schedule)
Added Expense: 112 Deaths

Egyptian Pyramid
Scope: Started as a grave. Scope creep resulted in one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World with quite a bit of gold plating, literally.
Budget: Spare not Cost
Duration: 27 years each
Added Expense: Slave Labor

Great Wall of China
Scope: Stop the Xiongnu attacks with a really big wall (6400km / 4000miles long)
Budget: Unknown
Duration: Several Centuries
Added Expense: 2 to 3 million Chinese lives

Each of these was an amazing project and each came with a high price tag in human lives.

Unfortunately there are a fair number of companies that force their teams to nearly kill themselves for unrealistic timelines. A friend of mine told me of the unhealthy environment they had recently left. The pressure there was tremendous. Deadlines were strictly enforced, resulting in projects that came in on time. How? People were required to work as much as 80 hours a week and be on call when they weren’t physically there. This resulted in people quitting, massive amounts of sick time request, spouses threatening divorce and people being hauled off in ambulances.

What made this story ironic was the fact that the company was in the health care industry.

How can you avoid killing your team?

Involve them in the estimating process. It seems obvious, but the people that do a deed generally know what it takes to get it done. Your job is to question the numbers. First, make sure there are enough hours. Are their estimates only for development? Did they include requirements, design and testing? Next, get a second opinion. One method for this is Planning Poker (see entry on Agile Estimating Methods). Finally, work to eliminate padding. Create a contingency pool to apply where needed but estimate the pieces realistically.

Limit overtime. Your initial pass at the schedule should not include overtime. Then, if overtime can’t be avoided, set boundaries on the timeframe. People can survive a lot if there is an end in sight. Strive to keep the overtime sprints to 6 weeks in duration. Show the team the time line and ask for their commitment.

Compensate them. Even “exempt” employees (salaried / non-time and materials) can’t be expected to work tirelessly without receiving something. The promise of several days off following a sprint can keep the team pushing forward. This isn’t expected to be an hour per hour trade for the time they put in. After all, salaried employees are expected to put a bit more into their jobs when necessary.

Set realistic expectations. As the project manager it is your responsibility to set the expectations of upper management.

Schedule team outings. Get your team out of the office once in a while. Lunch can be a simple solution. On the flip side, a friend of mine is attempting to set up a cricket match here in the states.

Give family friendly rewards. Stressful environments wreak havoc on families. Token rewards such as movie tickets or gift cards can help ease some of that pressure. Acknowledgement of that fact can go a long way. Consider presenting awards directly to spouses to show you understand the strain they are under.

Watch for warning signs. Keep on eye out for people that are putting in too many hours. Encourage them to throttle down a little, especially if they are wearing the same cloths they had on yesterday.

Very few projects are worth killing your team over. Besides, the paperwork involved in having an ambulance on site is a real pain.

Monday, June 2, 2008

June 2, 2008 - Under Construction

I am in the middle of multiple construction projects. Last week it was the guest bathroom. A trip to IKEA netted a new vanity, sink, faucet, medicine cabinet and wall shelves. For good measure I purchased a new light. Because nothing is ever simple, I had to drywall part of the hole where the old medicine cabinet was and add a layer of paint to that wall. All things considered it turned out pretty well and cost me less than $350 US.

The next project is to repaint the dining room. One wall was bare wood so a coat of primer went on today. We'll probably go with a chair railing and a two tone wall above / below that.

One last thing I am playing at is reworking my home page ( I spent quite a bit of time on it this afternoon and failed to acheive what I had hoped to. In the process I upgraded to Microsoft Word 2007 and thought I would see what the publisher would allow me to do out of the box. From what I have seen it is impressive so far, but it didn't allow me to publish effectively.

I have been putting off creating a realistic home page and allowing my blog site to cover for me. Time to step it up a notch, as they say. Look for an upgrade within the week.

For those of you in the Orange County, California (US) area: On June 10 I will be speaking at the PMI-OC dinner meeting in Costa Mesa. The topic is Grabbing Authority. For more information or to register, visit